Rushdie tackles improbable Mr Big

Bombay's Hindu overlord is a risky target for a writer to ridicule, reports Tim McGirk from New Delhi

FIRST THERE is the dog that Salman Rushdie must worry about, then the cartoonist. One of the novelist's ardent admirers, a New Delhi human rights lawyer, closed a copy of Rushdie's new book, The Moor's Last Sigh, and sighed himself. "Salman's incorrigible. As if he didn't have enough enemies already," the lawyer lamented.

Even with a death warrant issued by Iranian fundamentalists hanging over him, Rushdie cannot resist aiming the heat-seeking missile of his wit at other dangerous targets. In his latest novel, set in India, where Rushdie was born, he satirises its revered first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Rushdie also snipes at Bal Thackeray, a former cartoonist who mixes admiration for Hitler with extreme Hindu views, and is now Bombay's unofficial ruler, a whimsical and dangerous dictator.

Probably, if Thackeray were not himself the focus of Rushdie's ridicule, he would chuckle over the book. No friend of the Nehru/ Gandhi dynasty, which has ruled India's Congress (I) party for so long, Thackeray might enjoy another Rushdie creation, a grumpy bulldog named "Jawaharlal". The dog, "Jaw-Jaw" for short, barks a lot, but it is the pet's owner who causes most of the commotion. On his wedding night, Jawaharlal's owner leaves his bride a virgin, wriggles into her wedding gown and sails off into the moonlight of Cochin Bay with Prince Henry the Navigator, his gay lover.

Gossip sweeping New Delhi had it that Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv, read the first few chapters of Rushdie's novel and was so incensed by the dog Jawaharlal that she is demanding the book is banned across India by the Congress government. The Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, is smarting from the widow Gandhi's accusations that the government has not done enough to track her husband's assassins, and he might want to pacify her over Rushdie's novel. India was the first to ban The Satanic Verses for fear of offending its 120 million Muslims. Had India not done so, it is doubtful the ayatollahs in Iran would have bothered to read Rushdie and set assassins on his trail.

The real Bal Thackeray could easily have emerged from the pages of a Rushdie novel, a mercurial figure of half-menace, half-fun. Although Thackeray is a Maharati name, Rushdie plays upon the coincidence of his sharing the surname of the Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Rushdie mischievously switches English novelists, calling his Hindu nationalist - also an ex-cartoonist - Raman Fielding. Thackeray has officially re- named Bombay "Mumbai", after a Hindu mother-goddess, and Fielding's party is called "Mumbai's Axis".

The reedy Thackeray runs a Hindu extremist organisation called Shiv Sena, named after the army of a 17th-century Maharati warrior. These days, the former cartoonist has traded his pen for a long, silver sabre, which he brandishes at his political mass rallies. In alliance with the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Shiv Sena not only rules Bombay but the entire state of Maharashtra. Asked if he had yet read Rushdie's novel, Thackeray replied, "I haven't read any of his books. I don't want to read books and spoil my thinking." But the Shiv Sena culture minister, Pramod Nawalkar, is considering a ban on Rushdie's book throughout Maharashtra state, and the frightened distributors, Rupa, have already pulled The Moor's Last Sigh out of circulation in Bombay.

Thackeray could have been chief minister, but he chooses to run Maharashtra by "remote control" from his bungalow in a Bombay artists' colony, where he holds court in a throne-like armchair with a large picture of a snarling tiger behind him. When Shiv Sena started in 1966, according to Binu Ranadive, his former classmate, "Thackeray used to keep a portrait on his desk of Hitler. But he was finally persuaded to put it away."

Originally, Thackeray unleashed his army of Maharatis, the natives of Bombay, on the waves of migrants from southern India who arrived in the city seeking work. Shiv Sena's next victims were the Muslims. In the city's terrible January 1993 riots, Shiv Sena thugs rampaged through Muslim shanty towns, burning down huts and hacking to death those families who had escaped the flames. Shiv Sena reportedly had ties with many Bombay's underworld gangs, and Thackeray's followers were often accused of running extortion rackets.

Since coming to power five months ago, Shiv Sena and its BJP confederates may have altered Bombay's name, but life in Mumbai remains much the same. Shiv Sena and BJP have not proved to be the bogey-men that Muslims feared. They refrained from a pogrom against illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants who crowd Bombay's slums. Nor have they carried out a promised ban on the slaughter of cows, held sacred by Hindus, which could put thousands of Muslim butchers out of work.

One Bombay journalist, Nikhil Wagle, who was roughed up by Shiv Sena's thugs, said: "Basically, Thackeray is a coward. He never wants to take responsibility. If the government flops, then he can put the blame on others and still enjoy his enormous popular support."

The BJP, the leading national opposition party, is using its base in Maharashtra with the Shiv Sena as a launching pad for their campaign to topple the Congress government, racked by dissent, when general elections are held in six months. Pollsters are forecasting he could succeed.

Thackeray and the BJP have tapped growing Hindu xenophobia. When Maharashtra cancelled a pounds 2.5bn contract with a US multinational, Enron, to build a power plant, foreign investors may have lost some faith in India, but the move received wide popular support. After 40 years of a closed socialist economy, and centuries of British colonialism before that, many Indians still suspect the West.

In the novel, Rushdie's Hindu gang leader Fielding reproaches a journalist: "You call me narrow and parochial. Bigot and prude, you have also called me. But from my childhood time, intellectual horizons were broad and free. They were - let me so put it- picaresque." Picaresque is a word that suits Bal Thackeray's reign in Bombay perfectly.

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