How Salman Rushdie helped introduce me to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray
When the celebrated author introduced me to Bal Thackeray without having known or met either of us, writes Sujata Anandan
As Salman Rushdie battles for life in a New York hospital after a knife attack on his person, I cannot help but recall how he had introduced me to Bal Thackeray – without quite knowing either of us.
I was a rookie working for a news agency when Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was published. 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.
My bureau chief was just walking into the office one morning when the office phone rang. I took the call. A heavily accented voice told me they would be blowing up the British Airways, the British Deputy High Commission, author Dom Moraes, Gandhian Usha Mehta and Bal Thackeray, who had criticised the fatwa put out on Rushdie. They wanted India to ban the Satanic Verses and stop Rushdie from visiting the country.
I somehow found it funny and started laughing on the phone. The man immediately disconnected the call. But even before I could recount the conversation fully to my Bureau Chief, he called again. This time he sounded cold and angry. “Don't take us lightly,” he said. “We are serious. We are depending upon you to communicate our decision to your government.”
The Bureau Chief meanwhile had sprinted to the parallel line and listened in to the last bit of the conversation. The man said they were the Hezbollah, a name neither I nor my Bureau Chief were quite familiar with. Even Hizbullah Mujahideen, the Kashmiri terrorist group, was not a household name then and I felt it was a hoax call by a prankster. But the Bureau Chief thought the accent was authentic and said we would never be able to forgive ourselves if we did nothing if the targets did get blown up.
“Call the British Airways offices and the British Deputy High Commission. Then call Bal Thackeray and 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,” he added.
The British Airways and the Deputy High Commission immediately went on high alert. And Bal Thackeray? We had never met personally till then. But when I told him about the call, he roared down the phone, “If a single hair on my head is touched, 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 demanded. He wanted to see for himself if I was playing any mischief. That was the beginning of a long association with the Shiv Sena supremo.
Even Mumbai police summoned me for the 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 the police. The top cops were mad that I had called all the intended victims personally and had not kept it confidential.
They were under tremendous pressure from the government to safeguard Bal Thackeray – the Congress government in Maharashtra was aware that even a scratch to Thackeray would send Mumbai up in flames. The then chief minister Sharad Pawar and Union home minister SB Chavan wanted the cops to crack the identity of the terrorist organisation.
Once it was established that I was not lying, a cop told me in confidence that while Hezbollah were a group of Islamic guards from West Asia, Thackeray was threatening to blow up all Irani restaurants in Mumbai because the fatwa against Rushdie had emanated from Iran. He did not realise that the Irani restaurants were run by the Parsis settled in India for long.
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 had banned the book. A minor riot had broken out at the Zakaria mosque near Crawford Market in Mumbai as police stopped protesters from approaching the British Council, and even Kashmir went up in flames over the issue. I personally thought the ban was justified.
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 hidden my copy in a secret cavity and asked me not to unwrap it until I had reached home.
Reading Satanic Verses in far-away Paris, I still was not enamoured by the magic realism and not knowing Islam enough, 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, then I ripped off the hard cover and mailed the rest of the book in instalments back home to my mother, afraid the Customs might seize it on my return and I could land in trouble.
I finally told the story to Salman Rushdie when I met him a decade or so ago at the release of his book, Joseph Anton, named after two of his favourite authors Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov; 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.
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.”
“And after Imam Bukhari’s threat too!’’ was all that I could exclaim.
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 keep it confidential to avoid complications. I wish New York had done the same. Perhaps this attack could have been prevented.
(An earlier version of this article was published on August 15, 2022)