Rushdie satire infuriates Hindu extremists

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The Independent Online

New Delhi

As if a death-threat from Iran were not worry enough, the fugitive writer Salman Rushdie now faces the ire of Hindu extremists in his native city of Bombay. His newest enemies are furious over Rushdie's new novel, The Moor's Last Sigh, in which he lampoons Bal Thackeray, Bombay's most powerful - and feared - politician.

Just released in Britain, thousands of copies of Rushdie's novel were shipped to India, but so far his distributors, Rupa, have been afraid to sell any in Bombay. "There's no threat so far," said a Rupa spokesman, "but we want to avoid a flare-up." The trouble may have already begun, however. Several spicy excerpts appeared in Indian newspapers, and Rushdie, who was born in Bombay, can count on at least one sale in his native city: to Mr Thackeray.

The chief of a militant Hindu organisation, Shiv Sena (Shiv's Army), Mr Thackeray is a dangerous foe. Not only does his party rule the state government of Maharashtra, of which Bombay is capital, but his militant followers have fought Muslims during Bombay's riots and thrashed journalists who dared to cross the movement.

One of Mr Thackeray's top aides, Pramod Nawalkar, now culture minister for Maharashtra, said, "We're trying to get Rushdie's book. If we find parts that are offending or insulting or any such thing, we will ban the book across Maharashtra."

In many ways, the city of Bombay is as much a presence in Rushdie's novel as the hero, Moraes Zogoiby, born into a family of wealthy spice merchants known for their peppery temperament. One can perhaps understand Rushdie's wanting to take a risk with Mr Thackeray, for no other modern city but Bombay, with its tropical seediness, could give rise to a cartoonist who transformed himself into a gang leader and then a Hindu demagogue.

Rushdie's caricature of Mr Thackeray is too finely drawn to be accidental.

Playing with the literary coincidence of the political strongman sharing a surname with the Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, Rushdie names his creation, Raman Fielding, after the earlier writer Henry Fielding.

The name of Raman Fielding's organisation - "Mumbai's Axis, the party of Hindu nationalists" - also strikes home. Mr Thackeray is responsible for changing the name of Bombay to the less colonial Mumbai. He is also widely misquoted as once having said he admired Hitler and the Axis powers. Fielding's party shares a remarkably similar line with Mr Thackeray's. Rushdie writes: "He was against 'immigrants' to the city, by which he meant all non-Maharathi speakers, including those who had been born there . . . He was . . . for 'direct action', by which he meant paramilitary action in support of his political aims."

In India's flag, Fielding was "in favour of the colour saffron (for Hindu) and against the colour green (for Islam)". At Strand bookshop, where Rushdie often browsed while a student at the nearby Cathedral School, the owner, Narayan Shanbaug complained: "The distributors got cold feet. They are anticipating violence. But I could have sold a few thousand copies before it was banned by government. That way at least some people in Bombay would have had a chance to read Salman. He's one of our boys, you know."