Long Before Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’, India Boiled Over Another ‘Blasphemous’ Book

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In December 1932, four young people came together in Lucknow to publish a slim book, a first-of-its-kind anthology in Urdu. Com­pr­ising nine short stories and a play, Ang­a­rey (meaning ‘live embers’) drew public anger verging on mass hysteria making the uproar over later banned books pale in comparison considering this was an age innocent of social media. The next three months saw a torrent of abuse and fatwas against the book and its authors—Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmad Ali, Mah­mudduzzar and the only woman in the group, Dr Rashid Jahan. The proprietor of Nizami Press, Malik Ali Javed, caved in after his press was raided under orders of the city magistrate. He confessed to his mistake in bringing out the book, apolog­ised in a written statement on February 27, 1933, for insulting the feelings of the Muslim community, and readily agreed to surrender the unsold copies of the book to the government.

The Government of the United Provi­nces banned it on March 15, 1933, under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. All but five copies were destroyed by the police. Of the five, three were placed in the custody of the Keeper of Records in Delhi (in what is now the National Arc­hives of India), and the remaining two were sent to London. Under the provis­ion of the Press Regulation Act, 1890 (Government of India), the British Museum obtained a copy on June 21, 1933. The copies that had been bought or read during its short-lived existence became the stuff of urban legends. I too have a ‘bastard’ copy of the original, though by now the book is freely available in Hindi and Urdu with not one but two excellent English translations as well.

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So, why was Angarey considered incendiary? Because it was thought to ridicule the Prophet and several rituals, customs and practices that were dear to the Muslims, and its overtly sexual references were considered obscene. Proscribed shortly after publication, it gave people no time to form an opinion on their own; most of those who most vociferously condemned the ‘blasphemous’, ‘atheistic’, ‘pornographic’ book or took part in festive book burnings or wrote to the government declaring their sentiments had been hurt had not read it. Clearly, public perception was so obviously banked against the book and its authors that the verdict was influenced by popular perception, rather than an informed reading. The voice of the ‘strident illiberals’ (an apt coinage attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru, though in another context) dro­w­ned out the saner voice of the liberal, secular Mus­lims who though a largely silent minority could not be ruled out as being of no consequence. That a ban fuelled paranoia and played into the hands of a relatively small section of hardliners was a truism that eluded the British government in India and continues to hold lessons for us today.

Angarey book cover
Angarey book cover

The case for banning Angarey was an unusually piquant one for the ‘other’ community; the Hindus could sit back and enjoy the drama, while for the Muslims it was a bitter pill to swallow at the hands of one’s own people. So far, attacks on religion had come from the ‘other’ community; it was rare for Muslims to criticise their own religious practices. In this, the contributors of Angarey were a novelty. The disbelief was closely followed by outrage: that four young Muslims, that too, from eminently res­pectable shareef families should be so misguided.

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Of the four contributors to Angarey, two came from upper-middle-class families and Mahmud­uzzafar and Sajjad Zaheer from highly privileged backgrounds. Their choice of subjects was, therefore, both interesting and instructive. All four were English-educated, bilingual, affluent, and deeply committed to bringing about an end to colonialism. Given their western-style education, their knowledge of English and Western literature, given also their fairly well-known ‘penchant for radical and avant-garde movements (literary and otherwise)’, they were seen as victims of the worst excesses of ‘westernisation’. Resolutions were passed against them in mosques, death threats were issued, while literary critics panned their book for its crudeness, immaturity, lack of literary finesse, and largely borrowed literary sensibility. Newspapers and journals published angry editorials and articles denouncing the book, calling it a ‘filthy pamphlet’.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is an innocent novel that is anything but naive. Its tale challenges the tolerance of both white and non-white segments of American society. The fact that it does so, highlights how words sampled out of context can diminish the narrative or even flip their purpose. Its theme of rape and use of profanity and racial profiling are questioned as well.

But what was Angarey all about? Each of the 10 pieces dealt with the lives of the most disenfranchised, disempowered, and downtrodden. When not shabby and poor, these lives were certainly marked by decay and disintegration, and in the case of women, marginalisation, and exclusion. This attempt at becoming the ‘other’, speaking in the voice of a completely alien, unrelated other, can be considered Angarey’s single most important contribution in strictly literary terms, for it opened the doors for many writers to speak in voices other than their own and yet sound convincing and real. Premchand had done this before the Angarey writers, but his characters, while no doubt poor and deprived, lacked this altogether new and earthy vigour.

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(L-R) Ahmad Ali; Dr Rashid Jahan; and Sajjad Zaheer
(L-R) Ahmad Ali; Dr Rashid Jahan; and Sajjad Zaheer

The overtly sexual references and the attacks on religion drew away from the real purpose of the book which was, namely, to introduce another sort of writing, one that was filled with graphic word pictures of a sick, ailing society. It was a self-conscious attempt to shock people out of their inertia, to show them how hypocrisy and sexual oppression had so crept into everyday life that it was accepted with blithe disregard for all norms of civilised society. This sort of writing, if allowed to grow unche­c­ked, would become subversive and that would not suit either the religious or the political powers-­that-be. It suited the colonial administration, therefore, to thwart, suppress and malign such writing by encouraging a religious colour to swamp its real intent. Unlike the later work produced by the progressive writers, here there was no optimism, no attempt at providing solutions or even advocating change. Angarey, then, was a dark, driven documentary of disquiet. Those who clamoured for banning such a book and those who capitulated were not interested in the impulses that drove the­se four young people. One set merely saw an affront to their religious identity; the other was solely int­e­rested in buying peace. Only a handful saw and app­reciated the intent behind the provocation.

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Postscript: Roughly 56 years later, Salman Rush­die’s The Satanic Verses was published by Viking Penguin on September 26, 1988, in London. Two days later, on September 28, it was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. On October 5, 1988, the Indian Government headed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi banned it under pressure from a han­dful of Muslim MPs. India was followed by South Africa banning the book on November 1, Egypt on November 21 (the country also banned Naguib Mah­fouz’s Children of Our Alley because of its allegorical insinuations about the Prophet and early Islam), Pakistan and Bangladesh by January 1989. On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa sentencing Rushdie to death along with ‘all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content’ prompting Rushdie to go into hiding with his infant son and wife. Riots broke out in India and Pakistan against the book; on February 24, 1989, at least 12 people were killed and 40 wou­n­ded when the police fired at Muslims rioting in Mum­bai against the novel.

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The comparison of the two books and the reasons for banning are illustrative of one singularly rema­r­kable thing about governments—be it colonial Eng­lish or native Indian. Knee-jerk reactions from a str­ident section have and continue to impact public perception causing the government to impose bans for—what it considers—the larger good of the community.

(Views expressed are personal)

Rakhshanda Jalil is a Delhi-based writer, translator and literary historian

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