On my periodic visits to England, I’m always impressed by the highbrow stuff Londoners read on the Underground—besides the ubiquitous newspapers, more often than not open at the crosswords, they can regularly be seen deeply absorbed in literary classics, fiction by Nobel Prize-winning writers from around the world, and dense works of politics and philosophy. I enjoy looking over people’s shoulders to see what they’re reading—surreptitiously, since the British seem to find it intrusive. If they’re reading a newspaper and sense that someone is reading over their shoulder they will bury their faces in the centerfold and draw the pages tightly on either side, like curtains.
Visiting England on the way home from a trip to India in the summer of 1998, I was intrigued to see adults on the Tube hunched over hefty hardcovers in discreet brown-paper wrappers similar to those we used to cover our school textbooks with in India. Of course I jumped to the conclusion that they must be concealing pornography, but I was quite wrong. In fact the contraband reading was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second in the new series that was taking the country by storm. (I suppose their guilty pleasure may have been akin to ours as children when, made aware by the school authorities that Enid Blyton, that earlier author of super-seductive, wildly unrealistic boarding-school fantasies, was not considered “good literature”, we were ashamed to admit openly that we enjoyed them nonetheless.) It turned out that in the early days of Harry Potter, the publisher issued an edition for adults who would have been embarrassed to be seen reading a children’s book. This was before the series went viral and became a global ambassador of Tony Blair’s New Britain.
The last time I had encountered the brown-paper wrapper was not in primary school but in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It was the Spring semester of 1989 and I was taking a course on modern fiction with Gauri Viswanathan, whose reading list included Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Rushdie’s latest novel, The Satanic Verses, which, since its UK publication in September 1988 had been banned in India and burned in Britain, was about to be published in the United States. We were all awaiting eagerly the brilliant writer’s campus visit on his American tour, when we heard the news—on Valentine’s Day, as it happened—that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for Rushdie’s execution as the blasphemous novel’s author and for the execution of anyone associated with the novel’s publication. As a person who has always revered books, a student of postcolonial literature, and a lover of Rushdie’s work, I was shocked and bitterly disappointed, and my fellow-students and I followed the rapidly-unfolding events closely in fascinated disbelief as Rushdie was forced into hiding (his campus visit cancelled, of course), American bookstore chains removed the novel from their shelves, and bookstores and publishers’ offices were firebombed.
I determined to read the novel as soon as I could and to write on it for my term paper in Modern Fiction. Since the hardcover edition was rather too expensive for me as an impoverished graduate student, I borrowed it from my parents, who bought every new novel by Rushdie as a matter of course, and read it from cover to cover, looking for the controversial passages more avidly than I had looked for the racy bits in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius on my parents’ bookshelves as a girl. Speaking for myself, I did not find the blasphemy that the violent reaction to the novel had led me to expect; instead, I found a profound exploration of how the experience of migration changes a person, and in particular, the experiences of South Asian immigrants and their children in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. I did write my paper, “Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses: Reality Flies in the Face of Belief,” but reading it turned out to be another matter.
Alarmed at the almost-daily evidence that the threats against the novel’s dissemination were in deadly earnest, my father warned me not to present papers on the novel at any academic conferences. When I protested in utter disbelief at such words coming from my liberal father, he reminded me that I was no longer just an individual, but had a family to consider, especially my small child. He further insisted that I allow him to wrap the offending novel in a brown-paper wrapper. I was outraged, but it was his book, and I acquiesced. Although I did present a paper on the novel at a conference some time later, I believe that our family copy still wears that badge of my shame.
I retell this shameful story now because, after having had to live ten years of his life in hiding, Salman Rushdie is again facing threats of violence for having written The Satanic Verses, and so are writers at the recent Jaipur Literary Festival who read from that novel, which is still banned in India after all these years. I have signed a petition calling upon the Prime Minister of India to reconsider the ban, and would encourage anyone who believes in democratic freedom of expression to do the same. I would also urge you to join and support organizations like English PEN, who are working to uphold the precious freedom to write and read. If those of us who do not face censorship directly do not speak up for those who do, and if we go a step further and pre-emptively censor ourselves, we become complicit in the censorship of others.
At convent school in India the nuns would wag their fingers at us and say, “Shame, shame! Have you no shame?” I have indeed, but in this case it comes not from having flouted the rules, from having enjoyed a banned book, but from having clothed that enjoyment furtively in a brown-paper wrapper.