THE EMPIRE KNIGHTS BACK?: REFLECTIONS ON SALMAN RUSHDIE’S KNIGHTHOOD

On 16 June 2007, Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning monarch of Britain and
head of the Commonwealth, named the recipients of her 81st birthday
honours, and among them was – honoured for his ‘services to literature’ –
Salman Rushdie, born in Bombay to Indian parents, today a resident of New
York City and, by a twist of colonial history, a British citizen (see:
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Knighthood_for_Rushdie_another_NRI_in_CBE
_list/articleshow/2127693.cms).

As the Times of India pointed out, the monarch also honoured a clutch of
other non-resident Indians, but it is Rushdie’s that will prove the most
controversial. Officially, he is now Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie, a Knight
Bachelor, and his wife Padma is now Lady Rushdie.

Rushdie has had two waves of fame in his career, for two different novels
and for totally different reasons in each case. In 1981, in the literary
world, ‘Midnight’s Children’ catapulted him to prominence and instantly
became a canonic work, enshrined as such by both general readers and
postcolonial critics, of the wave of postcolonial literature that is often
placed under the heading ‘The Empire writes back’ (indeed, that very phrase
was coined by Rushdie himself). Seven years later, in the wider and
non-literary world, ‘The Satanic Verses’ brought him a very different kind
of fame, for the reasons that the whole world knows, or thinks it knows
(including that part of it that doesn’t read literature).

Unusually so for even a controversial writer, Rushdie is the subject of
polemic on both right and left. To some on the right, he is an ungrateful
troublemaker who, by attacking Margaret Thatcher or institutional racism in
Britain, has bitten the hand that fed him (notably with police protection).
To some on the left, he is, with his acerbic comments on issues such as
Islamic dress or press freedom in Denmark, a traitor to the new absolutes
of cultural relativism and ‘respect for religion’. To others still, he has
become an icon – if not THE icon – of secularism and free speech in the
contemporary world.

The knighthood seems to mark an outbreak of peace between Rushdie and the
British establishment, but some of those who admire ‘Midnight’s Children’
must surely be asking if it is really appropriate for a post-colonial,
post-imperial writer to accept accolades from that establishment. Rushdie’s
last novel, ‘Shalimar the Clown’, centred on Kashmir, which attacked, about
equally, authoritarian and dehumanising attitudes in India, Europe and the
US, certainly found him recovering the restless, radical edge that had been
lost in its immediate predecessors, but whither now for Sir Salman?

There is a significant, and perhaps disturbing, precedent in the annals of
British knighthood, and it concerns another major name in Indian
literature, indeed none other than Rabindranath Tagore. Rabindranath, whose
main language of expression was not even English but Bengali, is still the
only India-born and India-resident writer to have been awarded the Nobel,
well before the first flowering of Indian Writing in English and long
before postcolonial studies had (or could) be invented. A subject of the
British crown in India, Tagore too was knighted – in 1915, by King George
V. However, in 1919 he returned his knighthood in protest against colonial
repression in India. The Tagore precedent should surely remind us that a
British knighthood is not an innocent honour. Yes, the Queen’s decision
represents high official recognition for the merits of Indian Writing in
English. But will there be a price to pay, and have we seen the last twist
in the story?

One thing does appear certain: the British establishment, by honouring
Rushdie, has come down on the side of freedom of speech. We may, meanwhile,
expect harsh words on Rushdie and his knighthood in the next weeks from
that section of the British left which today all but rejects that freedom
as a tainted relic of ‘universalist Western values’. Amid all these
complexities, if there is anyone I am missing today to make sense of all
this it is the late Edward Said. No-one could doubt the anti-imperial and
postcolonial credentials of Said, the author of ‘Orientalism’, founder with
Daniel Barenboim of the transcultural East-West Divan Orchestra, and
arch-defender of the Palestinian cause. Said was, however, also an
arch-defender of Rushdie and an unshakeable believer in free speech and
secularism. If anyone’s remarks on Sir Salman would have been worth reading
it would have been his, but, alas, leukemia took him from us when he was
still in his prime. May some young and rising intellectual step into Edward
Said’s shoes and begin now on the task of understanding what exactly
imperial recognition of the postcolonial does and does not mean in our ever
more complex globalising world. Meanwhile, of course the world also awaits
Sir Salman’s own thoughts on the Empire that Knights Back.

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