Homecoming to What?

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MASEEH RAHMAN New DelhiForced to live under a death sentence a decade ago, Salman Rushdie has gradually emerged from hiding. Over the past year or so, the expatriate writer has met openly with friends, given interviews and delivered lectures in New York and his adopted city of London. He posed for a portrait by his favorite Indian painter, Bhupen Khakhar, and even jived on a London stage with the rock group U2 to promote his latest novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, due out in April. In September the Iranian government seemed to back away from the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa against Rushdie, saying it would no longer encourage Muslim faithful to kill the author of The Satanic Verses, the satirical novel that supposedly blasphemed Islam and Prophet Muhammad.But one sign of forgiveness had eluded the 51-year-old Indian author: permission to visit his homeland. That gift finally came at the start of this month. A coveted five-year visa was stamped into his British passport by the Indian High Commission in London--just days before the 10th anniversary of the fatwa. It feels like another step back into the light, the novelist told the New York Times. I've got aunts and uncles and cousins and friends littered all over India.

Is it wise for Rushdie to go home again? His safety is far from assured. Whatever the attitude of the Iranian government, Islamic hard-liners in Tehran won't back off their threats against Rushdie's life. A powerful mullah-run foundation has raised the standing $2.5 million reward offered to his killer by an additional $300,000. And a journey to India, with its 120 million Muslims, could make him an easier target. Warned the English-language Tehran Times: Providence may have destined this shameless character to meet his nemesis where he was born.

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In many Muslim quarters of India, where The Satanic Verses remains banned, Rushdie is far from welcome. At Delhi's grand mosque, the Jama Masjid, deputy imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari calls upon the faithful to prepare for any sacrifice to stop Rushdie from making a public appearance in India. Outside the national parliament, legislator Khwaja Mohammed Khan declares: As a Muslim and as a member of parliament, I will say that if I get an opportunity I will shoot him. If I kill him, heaven is assured for me.

Rushdie's Indian friends and admirers are encouraging him to return, despite the danger. I just hope he comes here as quickly as possible, and that all of us take good care of him, says Bombay novelist Kiran Nagarkar. Painter Khakhar observes that it is quite essential for the expatriate author to visit his native country, and Rushdie himself has spoken of how his writing in exile explores imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. Other intellectuals, however, acknowledge the difficulties he will face. Rushdie's books are based on the postmodern premise that history and fiction are interchangeable, says poet and architect Masood Taj. This is incompatible with the Muslim world view.

Rushdie's passage back to India could have political as well as personal consequences. His visa came from a government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, widely perceived by India's Muslims and other minorities as pursuing a pro-majority Hindu agenda. Any trouble caused by Muslims during a Rushdie visit would only help the BJP consolidate its Hindu support. Unlike the fantastic journeys undertaken in his imaginary homelands, Rushdie's long-desired return to his roots may need to be a quiet, intensely private affair.

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