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The immeasurable hurt of Salman Rushdie

He came, he spoke, he disappointed. "In Delhi, Rushdie Issues a Battle Cry" declares the headline in New York Times' India Ink blog rather grandly, but the only battle Salman seemed to be fighting on stage at the India Today conclave was against his myriad opponents.

Those hoping for a much-needed dose of Rushdie's trademark wisdom were treated instead to an extended exercise in settling scores. First came the long, and very personal diatribe aimed at Imran Khan – the man who refused to share the stage with him. Rushdie spent over a third of the speech deriding Khan as a liar, hypocrite, and an opportunist. But he drew the biggest laughs from his A-list audience for this ad hominem crack: "Back in the day when he was a playboy in London, the most common name for him in London circles was Im the Dim."

Others on his to-insult list – the Jaipur Litfest organisers, Chetan Bhagat, Arundhati Roy – got off relatively lightly with the exception of Rahul Gandhi, for whom he reserved this stinker: "Years and years of kneeling down in front of every mullah you could find and it didn't even work. It must feel sick."

Salman Rushdie may have been in the right, but he did not sound right. An artist's creation is his gift to the world and Salman Rushdie has been more than generous in his fiction and his erudite non-fiction. But that generosity was conspicuously absent in these attacks which came across as snide, overly personal, and at times, near-ugly. The Telegraph editorial rightly observed:

Over recent years, Rushdie's increasingly vitriolic persona has ironically come to share many of the same qualities as his detractors. Reuters

For writers or artists, having to assert their freedom of expression repeatedly and vengefully, instead of taking it for granted and getting on with what they do best, can become a terrible expense of spirit. Anger is not the ideal muse. So, the entertainment that Mr Rushdie provided his audiences on Saturday night in Delhi had an unsavoury quality to it that did not enhance his stature as a man of letters. This is the “immeasurable hurt” that the tediousness of the fatwa has caused his public life. It has locked him in endless combat with adversaries who seem to be ubiquitous, shadowy, yet all too real.

This has nothing to do with the unquestioned brilliance of his ideas and writing. But over recent years, Rushdie's increasingly vitriolic persona has ironically come to share many of the same qualities as his detractors. His well-earned sense of injustice has hardened into a permanent state of self-righteousness which often makes him every bit as thin-skinned and easily offended as his critics.

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It's all about the fatwa

In his speech, Rushdie made fun of Khan for demonising a book written 23 years ago, and rightly so. It is absurd for us to pretend that anyone seriously cares about a book that invited a death warrant from a now-dead mullah in the distant past. Yet Rushdie too cannot let go of the past - he carries the fatwa with him like an albatross around his neck.

In 2010, he was furious with comedian Jon Stewart for sharing the stage with Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam who had reportedly supported the fatwa back in the day. He told reporters, “I spoke to Jon Stewart about Yusuf Islam’s appearance. He said he was sorry it upset me, but really, it was plain that he was fine with it. Depressing.” The rally had little to do with free speech, literature or Islam but was a spoof rally promoting bipartisanship in Washington DC. And yet Rushdie subjected it to the fatwa litmus test.

Rushdie seems to carry around a hit list of everybody who did not support him during his greatest time of need. One such target is Germaine Greer who refused to sign the petition protesting the fatwa. In 2006, Greer supported the residents of London's Brick Lane protesting plans to shoot the movie adaptation of Monica Ali's eponymous book in their area. Rushdie inserted himself into the controversy with a scathing letter to the Guardian which denounced her stance as "philistine, sanctimonious, and disgraceful," adding more revealingly, "At the height of the assault against my novel The Satanic Verses, Germaine Greer stated 'I refuse to sign petitions for that book of his, which was about his own troubles'. She went on to describe me as 'a megalomaniac, an Englishman with dark skin'. Now it's Monica Ali's turn to be deracinated by Germaine."

Like that proverbial elephant, Rushdie never forgets or forgives. And even the most tangential connection to the fatwa sparks an immediate indignation. If the Satanic Verses haters need to move on, so does Rushdie.

 All about me

"Ideally, the writer should not be the subject, should be the observer not the observed. A writer should be the person discussing not the subject being discussed. But circumstances have once again dragged me on to this stage, or rather in Jaipur prevented me from taking it," said Rushdie at his speech.

And yet, more often than not, Rushdie is the one who has dragged himself into the spotlight – and not always for reasons related to his writing. His personal life is now played out in full view of the world, most recently in the form of a Twitter war with socialite Devorah Green. Where most celebrities would have wisely remained silent, he wrote a lengthy letter to the tabloid New York Post to rebut claims made by his ex-girlfriend, calling her "an accomplished liar," and "an unstable person who carries around a large, radioactive bucket of stress wherever she goes" – all this accompanied by extensive details of their relationship.

Popular reaction to this absurd over-reaction at the time was summed up by the pop culture blog Gawker, which observed: "Shouldn't spending a decade or so of your life under constant threat of assassination by a global band of violent fanatics who want to silence you teach you something about what matters in life, and what does not matter? Note to Salman Rushdie: Shit like this does not matter."

 Skin so thin

The problem with Rushdie is that everything's always personal. He may decry the "culture of offended-ness" that breeds censorship, but no one is more easily offended than Sir Salman when he gets a bad review, be it from a girlfriend or a book critic.

He actually goes after those who slam his books – and sometimes even those who don't, not exactly. When Times Literary Supplement critic Ruth Morse described his book, The Enchantress of Florence, as “a bravura performance, but one which is finally disappointing," Rushdie wrote a scathing letter denouncing her "ignorance," "prejudice," and "schoolgirl howlers."

This was kind indeed compared to the abuse heaped on John Updike who got it for panning Shalimar the Clown:

This fall, a feudlet broke out when Salman Rushdie, in an interview with The Guardian of London, spoke out against John Updike, who had panned his latest novel, ''Shalimar the Clown,'' in The New Yorker. ''Why, oh why, did Salman Rushdie, in his new novel ... call one of his major characters Maxmilian Ophuls?'' Updike had written, bemoaning the ''maddening exercise'' of separating the fictional Ophuls from the German actor and director. ''A name is just a name,'' Rushdie told The Guardian. '' 'Why oh why ...?' Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there's probably a male prostitute called 'John Updike.' '' Updike's latest novel, ''Terrorist,'' was ''beyond awful,'' Rushdie continued. ''He should stay in his parochial neighborhood and write about wife-swapping, because it's what he can do.''

On Saturday night, after ripping Imran Khan to shreds, Salman Rushdie chuckled, "This is what we call the exercise of the freedom of speech... It feels pretty good."

And so it may, Salman, but it also makes you look bad.

With inputs from Sandip Roy.

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