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.

Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Sport
Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker during Hansen's final broadcast
Sport
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?