The Moor's Last Sigh | Critical Essay by John F. Burns

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
This section contains 966 words
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Critical Essay by John F. Burns

SOURCE: "Another Rushdie Novel, Another Bitter Epilogue," in The New York Times, December 2, 1995.

In the following essay, Burns describes reaction in India to The Moor's Last Sigh.

For Anuj Malhotra, a bookseller in this capital's affluent Khan Market district, the publication here this summer of Salman Rushdie's latest novel, The Moor's Last Sigh, promised to be the literary event of the year.

Mr. Rushdie has been a best seller in India, where he was born and lived until his family left Bombay for England 30 years ago. With his sales running into tens of thousands of copies, he has held his own with writers of more obviously popular genres like Jackie Collins, Barbara Taylor Bradford and India's own novelist of sex and romance, Shobha De.

Expectations were higher than ever for the new Rushdie book, which chronicles the history of an Indian family over several generations. Indian critics have seen it as Mr. Rushdie's attempt to capture the flavor of contemporary India from the distance imposed on him by his life in hiding since 1989, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran said he should be killed for blaspheming Islam in his novel Satanic Verses.

But four months after Mr. Malhotra received his first and only allotment of The Moor's Last Sigh and quickly sold out all 100 hardback copies, he is a frustrated man. Almost every day, customers come into the crammed Malhotra family store and ask quietly for the Rushdie novel. For each one, Mr. Malhotra has a shake of the head. "Nobody wants to get in bad with a political party," he told one recent inquirer.

The political party is the Shiv Sena, a Bombay-based Hindu nationalist group that proscribed the Rushdie book even before its Indian distributor could begin selling it in Bombay. While the book focuses on a century in the life of a Jewish-Christian family and moves through events that have scarred India's recent history, it includes a profoundly unflattering parody of the Shiv Sena leader. Balasaheb K. Thackeray.

Like Mr. Thackeray, a character in The Moor's Last Sigh named Raman Fielding is a former newspaper cartoonist turned Hindu nationalist leader. Like Mr. Thackeray, Mr. Fielding calls Bombay by an ancient Hindu village name, Mumbai. He leads a party named the Mumbai Axis, a reference to Mr. Thackeray's admiration for Hitler. Mr. Fielding relishes violence against Muslims; Mr. Thackeray has been accused of provoking riots that killed at least 1,200 Muslims three years ago.

Since elections this spring brought a coalition led by Shiv Sena to power in Maharashtra State, where Bombay is the capital, Mr. Thackeray has been the state's most powerful figure. But to keep the Rushdie book out of Maharashtra required only intimidation. While he professed not to have read the book, Mr. Thackeray, who is 68, said that Mr. Rushdie, whom he described as a man "with no homeland," had no business throwing brickbats from after.

"I do not like people living in foreign countries criticizing us," he said. Others were more blunt.

"Shiv Sena will not let the book exist," said Pramod Navalkar, the Maharashtra culture minister. "We can destroy the book all over India."

If Mr. Thackeray or his followers felt unease at their seeming inconsistency on the matter of Mr. Rushdie, they gave no sign of it. In 1989. Mr. Thackeray expressed outrage when India banned Satanic Verses, arguing that it was a free country and that Muslims should take their lumps like anybody else.

But what has stirred the greatest unease over The Moor's Last Sigh is not that Rupa & Sons, the Indian distributors, withdrew it from sale in Bombay. More shocking to many Indians was that the national Government of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao bowed to the Shiv Sena's pressures, banning further imports of the Rushdie novel after the initial consignment of 4,000 copies.

In September customs officials ordered Rupa's Calcutta headquarters "to desist from selling, distributing or parting" with the book while its suitability was reviewed by officials in New Delhi. A few days later, a bookshop in a remote town in Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Rao's home state, had its last copies of the Rushdie book seized. Weeks of appeals by Rupa to S. B. Chavan, the Home Minister, have brought no reply, and no indication that the Government intends to make a final decision. Now, the company has decided to petition the Supreme Court for a lifting of the ban.

Some critics have suggested that the Government's action had less to do with worries about Shiv Sena violence than with reaction within the governing Congress Party to another Rushdie parody, the appearance in the novel of a dog called Jawaharlal, after India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. To this, those with long memories have recalled that Nehru, when confronted with demands that the Government ban Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita in the 1950's, read the book, pronounced it obscene, but said he had no right to prevent others from reading it.

The Federation of Publishers and Booksellers' Associations of India will argue before the Supreme Court that the Rao Government is breaching constitutional guarantees of free speech and that, by bowing to the Shiv Sena, it is pandering to forces, that are tearing at the heart of India's democratic ideals.

In England, Mr. Rushdie has said that he intended The Moor's Last Sigh as an alarm call against trends within Indian society—primarily the rise of religious extremism—that "seem to be changing the country so fundamentally that one could say that the country that came into being in 1947 is being transformed into something else." As for those who have accused him of stirring troubles in the book that he does not have to live with himself his riposte has been succinct.

"If Mr. Bal Thackeray doesn't like it, well, I'm sorry, he'll have to lump it," he said.

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This section contains 966 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by John F. Burns