Describing not being able to visit India for over 12 years as a “long exile,” India-born writer Salman Rushdie says that being denied a visa and Indian embassies abroad keeping away from him was a “deep wound” inflicted on him by India.
Rushdie’s 1988 book, The Satanic Verses, was soon banned in India, where passions were aroused by the book and for years authorities denied him a visa to prevent any trouble.
Leaving India in 1987 after shooting a documentary, Rushdie writes in the third person in his newly-released memoir, Joseph Anton: He did not know it then, but this was the beginning of a long exile.
A British citizen, Rushdie adds: “After India became the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses it would also refuse to give him a travel visa... He would not be allowed to come back, to come home, for twelve and a half years.”
Describing the impact of the book’s ban and Iran’s fatwa to kill him, Rushdie writes that “the wounds inflicted by India were the deepest.” There was no question, he was told, of his being given a visa “to visit the country of his birth and deepest inspiration.”
Rushdie recalls being told that he was also not welcome at the Nehru Centre in London.
“He was not even welcome at the Indian cultural centre in London because, according to the centre’s director (and grandson of the Mahatma) Gopal Gandhi, his presence there would be seen as anti-Muslim and would prejudice the centre’s secular credentials,” he writes.
Rushdie recalls that in 1997, he was similarly asked to stay away from official celebrations of 50 years of India’s independence in New York. When Indian officials in New York were told that he was in town, Rushdie writes that “they backed away as if confronted by a rattlesnake.”
Rushdie was granted a visa in 1999, but did not travel following a furore when news of his impending visit reached India. In 2000, he travelled to New Delhi for an event where Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Book was to be announced (it went to renowned South African writer J M Coetzee).
Delighted to be in India after the “long exile”, Rushdie travelled to Solan to visit his ancestral house, and then to New Delhi where, after initial fears of trouble were belied, he was warmly welcomed and feted.
One reason for the change in 2000, he writes, was that his controversial book had become “old hat.”
“Oh, there’s a novelist in town for a dinner? What’s his name? Rushdie? So what? This was the view taken, almost without exception, by the Indian press...The script in people’s heads had been rewritten...What burst out in the city was not violence, but joy.”
Earlier this year, Rushdie pulled out of the Jaipur literary festival due to alleged threats to his life.