Fictional Jab at Bombay Chief Brings Rushdie New Attention

Article excerpt

THE Strand bookstore, in downtown Bombay, prides itself on carrying the city's largest selection of English-language books. The cramped shop is stuffed with books from around the world, but one title is noticeably absent: Salman Rushdie's latest novel, "The Moor's Last Sigh."

"If it was available, I would have easily sold it," says Narayan Shambagh, the owner.

Afraid of offending local political leaders lampooned in the book, the Indian distributor of Rushdie's book has withheld it. In fact, the book is not available anywhere in Bombay, Rushdie's hometown, although the local government insists it has not banned it.

The controversy stems from Rushdie's depiction of a fictitious political leader who bears an uncanny resemblance to Bal Thackeray. Mr. Thackeray is leader of the far right-wing Shiv Sena party, which came to power earlier this year in the state of Maharashtra. The character, Raman Fielding, is portrayed as corrupt and self-serving.

"I find it objectionable, very humiliating..." says Promod Navalkar, the state minister of culture. "Character assassination of any political leader will not be tolerated," he says, but conceded that he has not actually read the book.

A spokesman for Rupa and Company, the Indian distributor, called the situation in Bombay "volatile" and said the company decided to "play it safe" and withhold the book.

"The Moor's Last Sigh" is still available in New Delhi and several other Indian cities, but last week customs officials in Delhi confiscated a shipment, leading to confusion over its status.

Federal officials insist the book is not banned but say customs officials are allowed to confiscate shipments while they determine if the book should be banned. Meanwhile, some bookstores in New Delhi say they have not been able to obtain fresh copies of the book.

Rushdie was born in Bombay and lived there until he was 14 years old, when he emigrated to Britain. However, India remains a fertile source of inspiration for him. "The Moor's Last Sigh," which chronicles several generations of an Indian family, is one of five books nominated for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. …