Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Knighted and benighted

Good news for Indian writers (or shall I say writers of Indian origin?).

While novelist Salman Rushdie has been knighted in the UK, former Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran has won the £30,000 Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize for his book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

The Guardian describes the book as “a book chronicling the chaos and cronyism that characterised the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority's government of Iraq…the book says that more than $1.6bn (£800m) of Iraq's oil revenue was paid to the US vice-president Dick Cheney's old firm Halliburton; that the Baghdad stock exchange was put in the hands of a 24-year-old who had never worked in finance; and that the Iraqi capital's new traffic regulations were based on the laws of the state of Maryland, downloaded from the internet.”

Pretty interesting, isn't it? Can't wait to read it. After all, his journalism/writing has been put at par with that of Hersey and Capote by the judges. That's saying a lot.

I guess this win calls for a celebration as India has found another fine non-fiction writer after Suketu Mehta (Maximum City).

There have been rumours that Rajiv’s book may be turned into a film, to be directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93).

But Rajiv has denied the same in Feb 2007.

Update: Here's a write up by Rajiv on his winning the award.

Rushdie’s Knighthood, on the other hand, has drawn horror from Pakistan and Iran—but that’s not something unexpected, right?

Plainly speaking, the ‘poor’ novelist has suffered for 19 years, so why take away this little pleasure from him? After the fatwa, while he became a big-time celebrity, his creative powers have been negatively affected. He has missed so many Bookers and international Bookers and IMPACs. So, why deny him this moment of elation?

However, it would be interesting to note that awards and honours do not exist in a moral vacuum. For instance, poet Benjamin Zephaniah had turned down the OBE, refusing to join “the oppressor’s club.” Similarly, novelist Amitav Ghosh had turned down the Commonwealth Prize for somewhat similar reasons (and sorry for the digression but didn’t Rushdie write the powerful essay, Does Commonwealth Literature Exist?).

I know the OBE and the Commonwealth Prize are different animals but both owe their existence to the idea of colonialism (hence, post-colonial literarture?) and (the glorification of) imperialism.

In Sir Salman's Long Journey, Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches in the English faculty at Cambridge University and is the author of Literary Radicalism in India, makes a very important point about Rushdie's acceptance of this British honour:

To see the knighthood as "belated" endorsement by the British establishment is to miss the point entirely...

Sir Salman... is partly the creation of the fatwa that played its role in strengthening the self-fulfilling "clash of civilisations" that both Bush and Osama bin Laden find so handy. Driven underground and into despair by zealotry, Rushdie finally emerged blinking into New York sunshine shortly before the towers came tumbling down. Those formidable literary powers would now be deployed not against, but in the service of, an American regime that had declared its own fundamentalist monopoly on the meanings of "freedom" and "liberation". The Sir Salman recognised for his services to literature is certainly no neocon but is iconic of a more pernicous trend: liberal literati who have assented to the notion that humane values, tolerance and freedom are fundamentally western ideas that have to be defended as such.

Vociferously supporting the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on "humane" grounds, condemning criticism of the war on terror as "petulant anti-Americanism" and above all, aligning tyranny and violence solely with Islam, Rushdie has abdicated his own understanding of the novelist's task as "giving the lie to official facts". Now he recalls his own creation Baal, the talented poet who becomes a giggling hack coralled into attacking his ruler's enemies. Denuded of texture and complexity, it is no accident that this fiction since the early 90s has disappeared into a critical wasteland. The mutation of this relevant and stentorian writer into a pallid chorister is a tragic allegory of our benighted times, of the kind he once narrated so vividly.

Read the last line carefully. That says it all.

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