Millennium Post

‘Fatwa Rushdie’ and the photocopy machine

Like many in the university during the late 1990s and 2000s, I owned a copy of Salman ‘Fatwa’ Rushdie’s super-controversial banned novel The Satanic Verses [SV]. No, it wasn’t a spanking, shiny and scintillating copy straight from the printers of Penguin’s Viking press in London; it was a photocopy of a photocopy, and nobody seemed to have any idea, who, in fact, owned the original.

The story of my obtaining my [photo]copy of SV is perhaps the culmination of my literary bildungsroman. It was a rite of passage; a maturing of not just my reading habits, but of the slightly seditious but extremely pleasurable practices associated with curating a personal museum of cherished and rare books, a library of literary artifacts that had history and politics dripping from them like drops of warm blood from freshly wounded hearts.

In hindsight, it does seem sprinkled with grains of meaning, a lot more than I had attributed to it then. For the story brought together a banned book and the widespread culture of xeroxing chapters from books, articles from journals, handwritten notes, question banks, equation banks, and many more items that were integral and pretty much unique to the student/teacher life. The fact that a widely held practice, though perfectly legal, which has been now called into question, but has in fact been responsible in saving the discursive life of a banned book, forces us to cast a fresh glance at the idea of ‘copyright’, the contentious eye of the storm that has overwhelmed Delhi University, its students and Rameshwari Photocopy Services located in the premises of Delhi School of Economics.

I was a pernicious reader during my postgraduate years and was stealthily devouring the hardbacks on my elder brother’s bookshelves [that were rationed out to me as if we were still languishing in the licence raj]. One afternoon, when he was away taking ‘extra classes’ at the university North Campus, I spotted an innocuous looking photocopied book that had a light beige hardbound cover and a rust-coloured spine. To my huge surprise, it turned out to be a copy of SV!

Damn, I thought, he was hiding this exquisite treasure from me! I oscillated from applauding him for his heroics that he had amply demonstrated by possessing a copy of the book, to cussing him for being so stingy and secretive with his possessions. Now, it wasn’t enough to just read
in secret. I decided I must own a copy myself and read only that.

For a change, my brother did not chide me for this accidental discovery. He simply told me to return the copy unscathed once I have my own. But, he said, in order to have it in a true book form, and not as a bound case of photocopied sheets folded in the
middle, I must get two copies made, instead of one.

I confided in my wonderful friend and classmate DR, with whom I had shared a love of books, masala chai and the bread omelette doled out by the tiny shop on the terrace of the university’s Central Reference Library. With much exhilaration and anticipation, we decided to own a copy each, read the book together and exchange notes thereafter.

Of course, we read and reread the book, until we had dissected every sentence and heartily wrestled with the ‘two-backed beast’ ourselves.

Some years later, when I had the opportunity to travel to London to pursue my doctoral studies, I carried my copy of SV with me. The city became the mythical ‘Ellowen Deeowen’ that Rushdie had written about in SV – the megalopolis of hallucinatory histories and imperiled imaginations. Several times, when I would visit the Waterstones on Gower Street, in the University College London campus, I would be tempted to see if they had a real copy of SV with them. They often did. But I stuck to my old photocopied friend like a parent who sticks to an adopted child, despite the promise of a so-called real, and substitutes the flesh and blood counterpart with the time-tested bond of love with the former.

The point of my narrating this little anecdote from my personal history is to connect two apparently disconnected happenings that are currently hogging the media limelight. Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton – narrating his harrowing years of spending underground and taking on a new persona called Joseph Anton to escape being murdered by Ayatollah Khomeini’s henchmen – is out. Published by Random House, this memoir is perhaps more than Rushdie’s private catharsis and his attempt to exorcise the demon of the fatwa. It is also a recollection of his artistic tussle with ‘newness’, his aesthetic struggle with the history of Islam, representation and art, the genre of the ‘novel’ itself, and as he says in the book, the ‘connections’ between time and space, traversing and interlinking the past and the present, the east and the west. Moreover, it is his attempt to understand how the process of bold imagination is reduced from being a process to being an ‘act,’ so that it can be isolated, pinned down and labelled as one constituting blasphemy.

On several occasions, Rushdie lamented that SV was denied the ‘ordinary life of a book.’ While that is true, I would go on to say that it has had the extraordinary life of a forbidden book that has lived on underground, just like Rushdie himself. The fact is that my brother and I were just a few amongst many, many teachers and students who owned a photocopied version of SV. Since commercial importing of the book was banned by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989, several enthusiastic and intrepid teachers, students, researchers, readers, writers, artists, even bureaucrats and politicians, and several amongst them Muslims themselves, smuggled in copies that they bought abroad, especially in UK and USA. Others, territorially restricted but undaunted in spirit, circulated the book through backchannels of university photocopy shops.

SV has also had a fertile life of an over-prescribed academic textbook in most of the foreign universities that have courses and departments on South Asian literary, cultural, political and historical studies. One of the staple jokes at a seminar on postcolonial studies still happens to be to count the number of papers presented on SV and ‘the Rushdie Affair,’ as it is fondly called in the academic circles.

As I read about the latest strategy of the three academic publishing houses to squeeze in profit by banning the photocopied course packs that form the prescribed reading material of Delhi University postgraduate courses, I cannot but recoil in sheer disgust and recall the days when a photocopied book had an aura, not dissimilar to a second or third hand tattered copy of a rare book. Xeroxes were the lifeblood of the academic organism: photocopy shops were the connecting nodes that linked the great beyond of unbound knowledge with the cash-strapped students at a sprawling but poor university. Despite having limited resources and hardly any access to world-class journals that were at the frontiers of latest research, the students and teachers were united in their enthusiasm to bridge the gap as much as possible. They liked to believe that there were no shadow lines and barbwire barriers that separated them from the ocean of knowledge that lay beyond the university premises. The tale of SV’s survival underground is symptomatic of the uses of these practices of non-profit circulation. And not just SV, several other books and their photocopied counterparts have been handed down over the generations as family heirlooms. They are prized possessions. I still have photocopies of handwritten notes given to us by some of the most brilliant minds I had the good fortune to be taught by. They were all for academic piracy, but detested academic plagiarism, something the wolves leading the publishing industry today really need to think about. [IPA]
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