Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Salman Rushdie’s Portrayal of Indira Gandhi

Feroze and Indira Gandhi

In his book, Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie has used the imagery of a witch, who is known by the sobriquet “the Widow,” for characterizing Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Published in 1981, when she was the prime minister, the book contains several passages which berate her tyrannical policies during the 21-month period, from 1975 to 1977, when she imposed a state of emergency on India. 

As if depicting Mrs. Gandhi as a tyrannical witch was not enough, the early edition of Midnight’s Children contained (in Chapter 28) a sentence which heaped further indignity on her. Here’s the controversial sentence which makes the allusion that Mrs. Gandhi’s was cruel towards her husband Feroze Gandhi: “It has often been said that Mrs. Gandhi's younger son Sanjay accused his mother of being responsible, through her neglect, for his father's death; and that this gave him an unbreakable hold over her, so that she became incapable of denying him anything.”

There was nothing new that Rushdie was saying in this sentence. Most biographers of Indira Gandhi have said that her marriage with Feroze Gandhi was painful to both. They mostly lived apart. Feroze Gandhi died at the age of 52 in 1960.

Mrs. Gandhi was so pained by the sentence in Rushdie’s novel and by her portrayal as a tyrannical witch that she threatened to sue him and his publisher Jonathan Cape. According to the account that Rushdie has given in his Introduction to a new edition of Midnight’s Children, his lawyers told Mrs. Gandhi’s lawyers that they would retaliate by dragging her before a British court and creating a political scandal. The dispute was settled out of court when Rushdie agreed to remove the offending sentence from later editions of Midnight’s Children

Indira Gandhi’s unsavory portrayal in Midnight’s Children might have played a role in motivating her son Rajiv Gandhi, who became the prime minister after her assassination in 1984, to ban Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. According to news reports, Rajiv banned the book because Rafiq Zakaria, Syed Shahabuddin, and a few other Muslim leaders advised him that this book would hurt Muslim sentiments. But I believe that his decision to ban the book was motivated by his desire to punish Rushdie who had tarnished his mother’s reputation in Midnight’s Children.

Within ten days of its publication on 26 September 1988, Rajiv Gandhi banned The Satanic Verses from being sold in India—thus, India became the first country to ban this book. The Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a death-fatwa against Salman Rushdie more than four months after Rajiv Gandhi had banned The Satanic Verses.

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