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‘Pakistan has not improved, but India has deteriorated’: writer Salman Rushdie

In a recent OP Jindal seminar at the Center for Contemporary South Asia, Brown University, US, Salman Rushdie participated in a panel on “Politics, Religion and Literature: India and Pakistan”. The literary discussion was steered by Gauri Viswanathan, professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University; religious discussion by Shahzad Bashir, professor of Islamic Humanities and History (Brown); and the political discussion by Ashutosh Varshney, professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences, and Political Science (Brown).

Edited excerpts:

Gauri Viswanathan (GV): I would like to focus on your more recent works, especially Quichotte (2019) and Two Years Eight months and Twenty-Eight Nights… (2015). Depiction of childhood continues to be prominent in your stories. Although your recent novels are set in the US, they have Indian-origin characters and the novels begin with childhood, which is generally set in the Indian subcontinent. Is it that through childhood, you are holding on to South Asia as a major subtext of your novels?

Salman Rushdie (SR): Yes, that is true. But it is also true that if you want to develop a character, it is important to know what kind of childhood the character has had.

My childhood, of course, was spent in Bombay. In Two Years, one of my Indian-origin central characters discovers that like many of us, he can’t go back home again – not because you can’t buy a plane ticket, but the world you came from has gone. The loss of home is not because you are not there, but because it is not there.

I have never yet managed to write a novel which did not have an Indian central character. I wanted to, but it does not seem to work out. I have now written a play which does not have an Indian central character. I have taken the liberty of writing a new Greek tragedy. It did feel very different.

At one level, my last three novels are quite American. I have lived in the US for more than 20 years and so it is reasonable that the books should also live here to some extent. But via their Indian-origin characters, these novels still have at their heart the subject of India — and in particular, the subject of Bombay. I know where I am from.

GV: Given your everlasting interest in fantasy and enchantment, also evident in your recent novels, what are your thoughts about the limitations of the realist novel? Is fantasy a medium of truth-telling for you?

SR: The realist tradition of novels came to its pinnacle in the 19th century – particularly in the works of Balzac and Stendhal. Writers and readers, then, shared a consensus on the nature of reality (though the consensus did exclude women, the non-white people, the working class). That consensus, however limited, has broken down. One man’s truth is another man’s fake news. As a writer, I have to recognise that realism isn’t reality any more. Writers have always had many ways of telling the truth. But I basically don’t see myself as a realist or a non-realist. The story dictates what instrument to use.

Shahzad Bashir (SB): Your essay “Is Nothing Sacred?”, written during the storm over Satanic Verses, asked whether literature should be considered sacred. You argued no. Literature should deal with the routine commerce of words and ideas. Sacredness would close that boundless flow. But you also argued that something however should indeed be preserved — and that is imagination. We don’t have to call it sacred. But imagination is important to a healthy society. And if literature comes to occupy that space, you said it was something worth fighting for. Would you still make that claim?

SR: I would agree on the whole, but I would put it differently. I wrote a short story published in The New Yorker. It is about an old man sitting in a piazza in Italy. That piazza is a sacred space. In a piazza, you can say anything. The important thing is not that you win the argument, but that argument goes on happening.

Natya Shastra, the ancient Hindu text about the performing arts, has a similar story about Indra defending the freedom of expression. Indra appoints a junior god to create a play that reenacts the story of the devas defeating the asuras. The asuras enter the auditorium, throw spells at the actors and try to paralyze them. Indra intervenes, expels the asuras, positions four senior gods in the four corners, and sits at the center. He says this is the sacred space — anything can be said and everything must be listened to. Centuries before any text in the west said it, this extraordinary defense of free expression is beautiful. Indra’s stage is the place of free discourse. It needs to be preserved.

SB: Let me now pose a question about the difference between literature and religious understanding. It can be said that the difference is not about the lack of imagination in one or the other, but it is actually a contestation about the place of imagination within human existence. Religious critique about literary sensibility is that it is neutered, has been taken away from investments in politics and the messy business of life – in order to create an artificial space where discussion happens. The literary critique of religious imagination is that it is claustrophobic, as it is already tied down to ontology, epistemology, cosmology. It is not free. If this reading is right, they are fighting over the same contested space. Does that diminish the difference between literary and religious imaginations?

SR: That is a great question. Like any atheist, I am obsessed with religion. To my mind, the difference between the secular and religious imaginations is the willingness to question first principles. The first principle of religion is: is there a God? As a writer, if you can’t ask that question, you are not free. The purpose of true imagination is always to question from first principle onwards. If you can only question the second principle, then you are truly limited. That is why the purely religious imagination is unappealing to me, for its does not ask the difficult question.

Salman Rushdie Salman Rushdie (third from left) at the Center for Contemporary South Asia, Brown University, with Gauri Viswanathan, Shahzad Bashir, and Ashutosh Varshney.

Ashutosh Varshney (AV): Politics runs through your novels. Midnight’s Children starts with India’s independence and ends with the Emergency. That Pakistan is an insufficiently imagined nation, a central image of Shame, your third novel, is a profoundly political idea. And here is what you wrote in 2000, when you visited India after a gap of 12-13 years, a separation forced by the fatwa against you.

“I have left India many times. The first time was when I was thirteen and a half, and went to boarding school in Rugby, England. Since then, my characters have frequently flown west from India and in novel after novel, their author’s imagination has returned to it. This perhaps is what it means to love a country. That its shape is also yours, the shape of the way you think, you feel, you dream. That you can never leave”. Comments?

SR: I think one of the secrets of a writer’s life is to know where you came from. I had a false start as a writer – with a fantasy novel that failed. I thought a lot about why. The answer to that was Midnight’s Children. I thought I should go back to India, for that is where I started.

I remember when I wrote The Moor’s Last Sigh, I was very worried. It was the first time I had written about India without going to India. Because of the fatwa, I had not been to India for six-seven years at that point. I never wanted my work to be seen as the work of an outsider. I wanted it to belong to the place it was about. Luckily, no one thought it did not belong.

My recent books have of course looked away from India, but I am back. I am now writing a book that is completely set in India. India never goes away.

AV: Other than Bombay, you have lived a lot of your life in London and now, for over 20 years, in New York. What role have London and New York played in your literary imagination?

SR: There is so much. Charles Dickens was very important to me. I actually think of Dickens as an Indian writer. That Dickensian city – big, rotting, corrupt place – is exactly like an Indian city now. In the same way, Jane Austen is a great Indian writer. Those brilliant oppressed women having to settle for husband-hunting when they were actually so much better than that transported them to India, and they fit right in.

Dickens has a panoramic gift. He can look at the whole of a society – a pickpocket here, an archbishop there. He can look at the bottom of society, at its very top, and brilliantly at the middle, the petit bourgeois world of shopkeepers etc. The whole of society is available to him. That breadth of vision is something to aspire to.

AV: I should have added another sentence to my question. Has it – living in London, living in New York – also informed your political, not simply literary, imagination?

SR: The First Amendment was one of the reasons I came to live in America. Different countries in the West have placed different kind of restrictions on freedom of expression. In England, the Race Relations Act makes it illegal to say racist things. I had no problems with that. Why not send racists to jail?

And then, you come to the US which allows the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to speak. The First Amendment in the US defines freedom very broadly. Since I don’t think bad ideas go away by being swept under the carpet, I came round to accepting the breadth of American definition, though I am aware of its limitations, too.

I have learned a lot from the West about these arguments about liberty. Sadly, in South Asia, there is very little interest in the subject of individual liberty. The importance of the group is seen as being supreme, and that of the individual as being of lesser significance.

AV: My last question is about Pakistan. Half of your family lived in Pakistan — perhaps still does. They left Bombay for Karachi. Pakistan is the centerpiece of your novel, Shame. Looking back over the period since 1981, when your novels acquired huge readership and Shame appeared in 1983, how have you — as a literary and/or political being – looked at Pakistan? Has that changed?

SR: You mention Shame. I should confess to a piece of family shame. I had an uncle by marriage, who was the founder and the first head of the ISI – notorious, the guardians of Osama bin Laden, the harbourers of the Taliban. My uncle was the basis for the character of General Zulfikar in Midnight’s Children. When the attacks on Satanic Verses began, he of course quickly distanced himself from me.

The idea that Pakistan was “insufficiently imagined” was, of course, earlier proven by the secession of Bangladesh. A country could not survive on the basis of a religious identity alone.

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I used to think that India had got things right to a degree that Pakistan had not. I find it hard to believe that any more – not because of the improvement of Pakistan but because of the deterioration of India. Pakistan still has the problems it always had – an apparently democratic structure which is actually a pawn for the military, where the religious groups also have far too much power.

Pakistan has now played a dangerous game by giving safe haven to the Taliban. Pakistan was afraid that it would have an India ally on its western frontier and India on the eastern frontier. Everything in Pakistan is determined by its obsession with India. But Pakistan is what the Taliban would really like to capture. Afghanistan has colossal problems. Pakistan, a bigger country, is worth more to the Taliban.

AV: And India is going the Pakistani way?

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SR: It ain’t quite there yet. The fact that India’s status as a democracy has been downgraded by various international bodies is tragic. India used to take enormous pride in being the world’s largest democracy. It is much easier for rich countries to be democratic. It is very hard for poor countries to maintain democratic freedoms. The fact that Mr. Modi has managed to sell to a lot of Indians the idea of Hindu majoritarian rule, which is anti-democratic, is truly tragic.

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