On a visit to India to film a documentary on 40 years of independence,author Salman Rushdie found Maharashtra politician Chhagan Bhujbal a “walking political cartoon” and was amazed when he was denied permission to film a Sikh woman widowed in the 1984 riots.
Narrating the visit for the Channel 4 documentary titled ‘The Riddle of Midnight’,Rushdie writes in his memoir,’Joseph Anton’,released this week,that the only politician he interviewed at the time was Bhujbal,who was then a leader of the Shiv Sena.
The documentary was to “make a portrait of India at forty” through the eyes and in the voices of 40-year-old Indians; “not quite midnight’s children,but children of the year of freedom,at least”.
Rushdie had also turned 40 in 1987.
Narrated in the third person,Rushdie writes of the visit: “There was black comedy. The only politician he interviewed was Chhagan Bhujbal,the first mayor of Bombay to be a member of the Shiv Sena…. headed by a former political cartoonist,Bal Thackeray”.
He goes on: “Chhagan Bhujbal was a walking political cartoon. He allowed TV crew to accompany him to the annual Ganpati celebrations and film how that festival in honour of elephant-headed Ganesh,which was once a day of celebration for members of all religious backgrounds,had been reduced to a fist-thumping,neo-Nazi assertion of Hindu power”. Rushdie quotes Bhujbal as saying: “You can call us fascist… We are fascist. And you can call us racist. We are racist”.
Rushdie and his crew’s travels took them to Delhi,Kerala,Jammu and Kashmir,and Mumbai.
In Old Delhi,he met Imam Bukhari,who agreed to meet him “because ‘Salman Rushdie’ was a Muslim name”.
“After the Khomeini ‘fatwa’ this same Imam Bukhari denounced the author of The Satanic Verses from the pulpit of the Jama Masjid without knowing that they had once had a more or less cordial encounter”.
“But he made a mistake. He failed to remember the author’s name correctly and denounced ‘Salman Khurshid’ instead. Salman Khurshid was a prominent Muslim politician. This was embarrassing,both for the imam and for the ‘wrong Salman'”.
The ‘most eloquent witness’ Rushdie recalls interviewing was a Sikh woman whose family had been killed in the riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.
The woman said she did not want revenge,but justice.
Rushdie recalls that he was amazed when Indian authorities refused him permission to film her,but he managed to get her testimony on audiotape.
Her photo was shown in the finished film as part of a montage of widows.
“The Indian High Commission in London reacted by trying to force Channel 4 to cancel the screening of the documentary. But the screening went ahead as scheduled. It was astonishing that as an aspect of the cover-up of the ruling party’s involvement in the atrocities,during which many thousands of Sikhs died ¿ the Indian government had tried to suppress the testimony,not of a terrorist,but of a victim of terrorism; and laudable that the television network had had the courage and principle to reject their appeal”.
In the 633-page memoir,Rushdie mainly describes his life on the run after The Satanic Verses sparked protests world-wide and a ‘fatwa’ against him,but also writes feelingly about his deep engagement with India.