How Salman Rushdie crossed paths with Bal Thackeray

As Salman Rushdie recovers in a New York hospital from a terrorist attack, I cannot help but recall how he had introduced me to Bal Thackeray – without quite knowing me or him

How Salman Rushdie crossed paths with Bal Thackeray
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Sujata Anandan

As Salman Rushdie recovers in a New York hospital from a terrorist attack, I cannot help but recall how he had introduced me to Bal Thackeray – without quite knowing me or him.

I was almost a rookie in the 1980s when Rushdie published his book Satanic Verses. I was not much of a fan of his magic realism, so hadn't read any of his books except Midnight’s Children after it won the Booker prize. I was working for a news agency at the time in the era before mobile phones when the office line rang on my morning shift. My bureau chief was just walking in but by the time he got to his cabin, this ominous West Asian-accented voice told me they would be blowing up the British Airways, the British Embassy, author Dom Moraes, Gandhian Usha Mehta - and Bal Thackeray, for criticising the fatwa put out on Rushdie. They wanted India to ban Satanic Verses and stop Rushdie from coming to India.

At first I found that very funny and started to laugh on the phone. The man called off and even before I could recount the conversation fully to my Bureau chief, he called again. This time he sounded not just deadly cold but also somewhat angry.

“Don't take us lightly,” he said. “We are serious. We are depending upon you to communicate our statement to your government.”

My Bureau Chief meantime had sprinted to the parallel line as he saw my face go all funny and listened in to the last bit of the conversation.

Now who were ‘they’, ‘we’ or ‘us’? The man said they were the Hezbollah, a name neither I nor my Bureau chief had ever heard before. Even Hizbullah Mujahideen, the Kashmiri terrorist group, was not a household name then and I tended to think the call was a hoax by some prankster. But my bureau chief who had travelled the world thought the accent was authentic and told me we would never be able to forgive ourselves if we just sat doing nothing and these targets got blown up.

“Call the British Airways offices and the Deputy High Commission. Then call Bal Thackeray and the others. Recount to them exactly what that man said. Then call the police commissioner and tell him you have informed the others. We can then be sure we have done our job.”

I did exactly that. The British Airways and the Deputy High Commission immediately went on high alert. And Bal Thackeray? Well, he was vintage Bal Thackeray!

We had never met personally but when I told him I was a reporter at the agency and I had received such a call he roared down the phone, “My Shiv Sainiks will not allow this to happen. If a single hair on my head is touched, I tell you, Mumbai streets will be flooded with blood!”

We put that reaction into our story and my bureau chief suggested I go and see him as he had asked – he wanted to match a face to the name and wanted to see for himself if I was playing any mischief. That was the beginning of a long association with the Shiv Sena supremo that later got me a world famous reaction on the Babri Masjid demolition – Thackeray told me that evening on December 6, 1992 that if his Shiv Sainiks had demolished the mosque, he could only be proud of them.

He knew very well they had not. They had had a fight with BJP leaders for parking them in tents in Ayodhya and not good rooms and were on their way back to Mumbai via Howrah when the mosque was demolished. Thackeray knew this very well but he was not beyond deriving some political mileage if it benefitted his vote bank. I was still working for the same agency at the time and that reaction went round the world in a few seconds, later getting him a summons from the Lieberhans commission probing the demolition.

Now Thackeray really had no gumption – if he drew political mileage from something he had not done, he was as swift to shrug off responsibility if he thought any act would get him into trouble. So when I recalled Thackeray's comment in the newspaper I had joined after the agency, he demanded once again that I rush to Matoshree and see him forthwith.

He was in a mood to deny he had ever made that statement at all but when I reminded him he had made it to me and so there was no question of misquoting, he had the good grace to say, “Well, the BJP leaders did not have the guts to stand by their action. But I am afraid of nothing so when they pushed the blame on my Sainiks, I accepted it.”

But, of course, Thackeray was afraid of the judiciary and soon retracted the statement saying in public exactly what he had said about the cowardly BJP leadership and so escaped a rap on the knuckles from the courts.

But all that was much later. When the Salman Rushdie incident happened he wanted to know who had called me. By then even the Mumbai police had summoned me for an investigation. They too had never heard of the Hezbollah and thought I was making up the story. After multiple summons, my bureau chief decided to accompany me to one such summons and with more weight to his career, he had it out from them – the top cops were more mad that I had called all the targets personally and informed them and not kept it confidential.

They were under tremendous pressure from the government to safeguard Thackeray – the Congress was ruling Maharashtra and were well aware even a scratch to him would send Mumbai up in flames. And the then chief minister Sharad Pawar and Union home minister SB Chavan, who also hailed from Maharashtra and understood the dynamics of the state, wanted the cops to crack the identity of the terrorist organisation. By the time of my last summons my Bureau chief had authenticated to them the threat and the West Asian accent and they accepted I had not lied about the phone call. One cop told me in confidence the Hezbollah were a group of Islamic guards from West Asia but because the threat to Rushdie was from Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Thackeray was threatening to blow up all Irani restaurants in Mumbai, not realising these were really Parsis, and that had made their life more difficult.

Soon thereafter, I left to pursue a mid-career course for journalists in Paris and decided to get myself a copy of Satanic Verses as India, after all this tamasha, had decided to ban the book after all. A minor riot had already broken out at the Zakaria mosque near Crawford Market in Mumbai as police stopped protesters from approaching the British Council, leaving some dead, and even Kashmir then was going up in flames over the issue with Imam Bukhari of the Jama Masjid in New Delhi renewing the Ayatollah's threat to Rushdie – I personally thought the ban was justified.

But the few English book stores in Paris did not have the book. I had to wait for Christmas holidays to sail across to London and scour the book stores there until one in Piccadilly asked me, “Who is buying?”

I had to present them with my credentials before they asked me to return three days later. They had to get the book from their godmen and had hidden my copy under the till in a secret cavity and asked me not to unwrap it until I had got home.

Reading Satanic Verses in far away Paris, I still was not enamoured by the magic realism and not knowing Islam was not sure about Rushdie's offence to the Prophet. But I did recognise shades of the romance between a tall, angry young film star and a leading actress in two of the characters and also, of course, the cricket-loving Bal Thackeray - though Rushdie had disguised his physiognomy well enough. All I could think then was, “Thank God, Thackeray never got to read this, else Mumbai would really have gone up in flames!”

I sent the book back home in bits - first the jacket cover, then ripped off the hard cover and mailed the rest of the book in portions to my mother, afraid the Customs might seize it on my return and I could be in trouble.

I told the story to Salman Rushdie when I met him nearly a decade ago at the release of his book, Joseph Anton which is a memoir of his time in hiding during the Khomeini threat to him. He chose the pseudonym to honour his two favourite authors Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov and, as I was having my copy signed by him, I told him of the call I had received about blowing up various targets including Bal Thackeray and how I had smuggled Satanic Verses out of Paris.

I think he was not impressed. For he said “Really? You need not have gone to all that trouble. I picked up a copy at a book store outside the steps of the Jama Masjid in New Delhi. It was quite on open display.”

Well! “And after Imam Bukhari’s threat too!’’ was all I could say.

Rushdie smiled slightly and inclined his head. But perhaps in acknowledgement of the crossing of our paths even though we had never met before, he wished me all the best for the difficult book I was then writing on Bal Thackeray. It indeed did turn out well.

That Rushdie book launch in Mumbai was secret, by invitation to only a few who could be trusted to keep it confidential to avoid any complications. I wish New York had done the same. Perhaps this attack could have been prevented.

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