I had the great pleasure of meeting Sir Salman Rushdie at the Four Seasons hotel in Houston on a bleak windy day in December 2010, under considerably more tranquil conditions than when he was last visiting Houston in September 2001 to promote his eerily prescient seventh novel, Fury. On that earlier stop, three hundred protesters had gathered outside the Alley Theatre where he was to read. A dozen years after Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous edict against Rushdie, passions still ran strong; the next day, the World Trade Center was brought down, and Rushdie was grounded in Houston for three days. This time around he was promoting his children’s book Luka and the Fire of Life, a follow-up to his first children’s fable twenty years ago, Haroun and the Sea of Stories; both books, though publicized for younger audiences, satisfy readers of every age, serving as sophisticated parables of individual freedom confronting repressive forces.
Rushdie was as intellectually imposing in person as I might have expected after having read his books, although I also sensed during our encounter a gentle irony in his attitude about the condition of writers and writing, a tender self-consciousness that went a long way toward undercutting his outsized reputation and celebrity. He tends to draw his interlocutor toward an abyss that doesn’t give way to easy answers, toward a dark, mysterious energy that one must accept as given while groping for uncertain boundaries and walls. I admired this aspect of his persona, the guarded unguardedness, and I’m not sure that I have encountered this degree of endearing self-protection in any other writer before. I wonder to what extent this element of his personality is a result of the turmoil caused by the bounty once placed on his head by the theocratic Iranian regime, and his consequent disappearance into a labyrinth of government protection for about a decade in the 1990s. Rushdie, pre–Satanic Verses and pre-fatwa, must have been a very different individual, if one is to go by the difference in his writing. I found Rushdie to be a perfect gentleman able to subject his own emotions and vulnerabilities to careful analysis—and in that sense he may well be the most worldly person I have ever met.
After writing an obscure and unsuccessful sci-fi fantasy, Grimus (1975)—a debut novel that scholars have mined anyway for clues to his later magical realism—Rushdie’s great breakthrough came in 1981 with Midnight’s Children. Indian writing in English up to that point hadn’t made a global splash: there had been quiet, understated scribes like R. K. Narayan, who had not made an attempt to capture modern India’s urban energies; other writers, often based in the West, had explored the Western experience of India (Anita Desai comes to mind), but there had never been an Indian writing such an ambitious book hoping to encompass so much of India’s energetic complexity. Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize and twelve years later was named the best Booker of the preceding twenty-five years. It is widely considered Rushdie’s most mature, most perfectly realized book by far, even though he published it at age thirty-four.
Midnight’s Children gave expression to an India whose many contradictions were just rising to the surface; its protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is born at the hour of midnight on 14 August 1947 (Rushdie’s year of birth as well), and anointed by the new Indian state as one of a group of 1,001 children to watch over the years. Thus marked by destiny, Saleem develops telepathic powers that enable him to communicate with the other 1,000 midnight’s children; over the next thirty years, his personal history is closely intertwined with the leading events in the life of the new state, culminating in Indira Gandhi’s 1975 imposition of emergency rule. Charting the decline from founding father Jawaharlal Nehru’s optimistic socialism to the corruption and tyranny attributed to Indira Gandhi, Midnight’s Children deploys in new ways certain tactics familiar from the magic realism of Günter Grass and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, collapsing the public and the private in a novel both authentic to history yet playing fast and loose with it. All of Rushdie’s future themes appear in Midnight’s Children in germinal form—the conflict between reason and faith, the degeneration of national life from optimism to cynicism, and the tensions arising from impure mixing of peoples and ideologies. Shame (1983), his next book, took aim at Pakistan, a country with which Rushdie has had considerably less pleasant associations. Rushdie was born in June 1947 in Bombay, sent to the British public school Rugby in 1961, and briefly lived in Karachi in the late 1960s. There he worked with Pakistan television on an adaptation of Edward Albee’s Zoo; he ran into trouble with the censors when they disallowed mention of pork even in a negative context. Disillusioned, Rushdie returned to England for good, working in an advertising agency while also slowly honing his novelistic craft. When Shame came out, the ruthless dictator Zia-ul-Haq (portrayed in the novel as Raza Haider) was very much in power, and memories of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the predecessor Zia had executed on trumped-up charges, were very much alive. Shame, one of the strongest literary works ever to depict Pakistan, is a shorter and slighter work than Midnight’s Children, yet in some ways just as unsettling as The Satanic Verses. Almost nothing positive is to be found in Rushdie’s depiction of Pakistan, a country then already in the throes of Islamic fundamentalism.
Irritating Indira Gandhi with his depiction of her in Midnight’s Children or General Zia in Shame was one thing, but Rushdie managed to inflame the entire world of Islam with his next novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). The vitriol wasn’t uniform, as moderate and secular Muslims were often in silent sympathy with Rushdie, but many governments found it useful to exploit the outrage to their benefit at a time of flagging enthusiasm for fundamentalism. This was particularly true of Iran, where Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, exhausted after a long war with Iraq, pounced on the novel to revive the theocracy’s own fortunes. Following riots in Islamabad, Pakistan, and other cities in the Arab and Muslim world, on 14 February 1989 Khomeini proclaimed a million-dollar bounty on Rushdie’s life, holding that it was obligatory for any Muslim anywhere to kill the author. Most who were offended by the book had never read the novel; even then–Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto said that she didn’t need to read the novel because she was a Muslim. The passages that caused the greatest offense involved the revelation to Prophet Muhammad of verses that were later abrogated, the so-called “satanic verses” made famous by Orientalist lore, which confirmed two of the obsolete deities, Lat and Uzza, whom Muhammad’s prophetic mission railed against. The novel has several important threads, including the parallel odysseys of Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, in whose persons Rushdie embodies the travails of migration to a racist, Thatcherite Britain; the section about Indian villagers walking a long distance behind Ayesha, a young girl, because of their blind faith in her religious vision; and the passages involving Muhammad, where he generally appears not as divinely inspired but as pragmatic businessman using “revelation” to confirm his own instincts. A scribe named Salman the Persian toys with the words of the divine revelation, wanting to see if Muhammad will catch on to his alterations, and is disappointed when for a long time Muhammad doesn’t notice. Another controversial passage involves a brothel named Hijab (literally, the covering) where Muhammad’s followers consort with prostitutes bearing the historical Muhammad’s wives’ names.
In response to Khomeini’s fatwa, Rushdie protested that the offending passages about the satanic verses were part of a dream sequence, but this did nothing to quell the growing turbulence, and Rushdie was forced to go into hiding for the better part of the next decade, until the fatwa was at last informally removed in 1998. Rushdie waged a long struggle with the help of friends like journalist Christopher Hitchens to get Western governments on his side and to put pressure on Iran to back off. In the process, he became the biggest literary celebrity of modern times, defended and attacked by those who often hadn’t bothered to read him. He became a cause célèbre for free speech advocates, even as he came in for opprobrium by the partisans of multiculturalism who felt he had caused offense to religious sensibilities.
At the peak of the danger to his life, Rushdie wrote his first children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), which enacted a war between the partisans of silence, the Chupwalas, who live in perpetual dark, and the endlessly talkative Guppees, standing in for writers, artists, and assorted troublemakers. The Chupwala Cultmaster Khattam-Shud (translating as “The Definitive End” in Urdu) is clearly a surrogate for Khomeini. The boy Haroun administers a proper drubbing to his arch-nemesis and manages to recover, during the course of his adventure, the ability of his silenced father, Rashid Khalifa—the Shah of Blah, the Ocean of Notions—to tell stories. Clearly, this is a parable evoking the attempt to silence Rushdie.
His next major novel, dealing with contemporary India, was The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). The novel covers the fortunes of the da Gama–Zogoiby family from the late nineteenth century to the 1990s, as decline and degeneration set in over time. Here, Rushdie is dealing with a minority among minorities, as the Portuguese family is both target of and contributor to racial and religious persecution. The novel features Aurora Zogoiby, a prominent artist and one of Rushdie’s strongest female characters, and deals with then-prevalent Indian fears of the fundamentalist Shiv Sena and other Hindu extremist groups taking over the secular state. The Mumbai-based Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, faintly disguised in the novel as Raman “Mainduck” Fielding, had plenty of reason to take offense, and he did. The novel also deals with the corruption ensuing from India’s economic opening to the world in the early 1990s in a marked departure from Nehruvian autarkism, a major shift whose ramifications India is still confronting. A memorable character who brings India’s hyper-entrepreneurial energies into focus is Adam Braganza Zogoiby, the adopted son of Aurora’s husband, Abraham Zogoiby.
In his other novel of the decade, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), Rushdie imagines an alternative (Indian) history for rock-and-roll, turning the idea of influence on its head, as the novel’s Indian rock star, Ormus Cama, anticipates music later made popular by major Western stars like Elvis Presley and John Lennon. The novel presents an alternate history of the past half century, in this retelling of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth. The singer in Ormus’ band is his wife, the much-idolized celebrity Vina Apsara, who gets buried in an earthquake, prompting Cama to release his cycle of “quake songs.” The narrator is the couple’s friend, the famous photographer Umeed “Rai” Merchant, who is in love with Apsara himself. Published in the wake of Princess Diana’s death after being chased by the paparazzi, the novel bears traces of Rushdie’s own haunted celebrity under the fatwa, bringing forth the idea that there is no place left in the world to hide and that it’s a mistake to ascribe specific origins to intellectual and artistic ideas: the world is already too mongrelized to get away with that. The Ground Beneath Her Feet was more enamored of the world of popular culture than any of Rushdie’s previous novels, and this effect was all the more pronounced in Fury (2001), his first “American” novel. The protagonist, Malik Solanka, an immigrant from Britain, bears more than a passing resemblance to the author. Rushdie had just moved to America after expressing disgust with Britain’s provinciality, as does Solanka, a Cambridge academic and television star who makes and sells “philosophical dolls.” Solanka had found himself hovering with a knife over his sleeping wife and child in London, and during a rash of serial killings in New York, he wonders if he might not be the culprit.
In the past decade, Rushdie has published two important novels, beginning with Shalimar the Clown (2005), whose main character is diplomat Max Ophuls, a famous French Resistance fighter eventually assassinated in Los Angeles by his chauffeur, a young Kashmiri man named Shalimar; Ophuls is reaping the price for mistakes made during his stay in Kashmir decades ago. Ophuls’ daughter India—another of Rushdie’s strong females—ruminates that “Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else. Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another’s, were no longer our own, individual, discrete”—and this might well be the credo of the novel, and indeed of all of Rushdie’s oeuvre.
The Enchantress of Florence (2008), Rushdie’s last major novel to date, manages to combine Mughal emperor Akbar’s life with that of Machiavelli. Rushdie clearly implies that another sort of renaissance—Akbar was famously syncretic and tolerant—was in the offing in a different part of the world, even if it came to nothing in India. In his glorious capital city Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar spends his days and nights in ecstasy with his imaginary perfect lover, Jodha, but then he is visited by the Florentine Ago Vespucci, who claims to be his uncle, a descendant of the original Mughals. Indeed, there might be something to Vespucci’s story. Qara Köz, the enchantress of the title and a sister of the founder of the Mughal empire Babar, had apparently found her way to Florence, bewitching that city with her beauty. As with The Ground Beneath Her Feet, East and West interact in novel ways, and origins are muddled beyond salvage.
Finally, Rushdie comes full circle in some ways with Luka and the Fire of Life (2010), another children’s fable appealing to adult tastes and a sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Now it is the turn of Luka—Haroun’s younger brother—to undertake a perilous journey to the magic world to save his father, Rashid Khalifa, from the clutches of those who would silence the storyteller. As with the fight between the Chupwalas and the Guppees in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, at stake in Luka and the Fire of Life is “the Overthrow of the Dictatorship of the Aalim [orthodox scholars] by the Inhabitants of the Heart of the Magical World, and Its Replacement by a More Sensible Relationship with Time, Allowing for Dream-time, Lateness, Vagueness, Delays, Reluctances, and the Widespread Dislike of Growing Old,” as the rallying cry of the magical world has it.
Rushdie’s collections of essays are a great help to any understanding of his evolving political and literary views. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981–1991 (1991), still holds interest, with lively, witty, indispensable commentaries like “Outside the Whale,” which refutes Orwell’s case for quietism in literature; “The New Empire within Britain,” which takes on racism in Thatcherite Britain; and variously expressed thoughts on Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq, Satyajit Ray, V. S. Naipaul, and other cultural and political icons, all of which illuminate Rushdie’s philosophy of the imaginative individual being allowed to create a hybrid existence. This is a very progressive Rushdie holding somewhat standard socialist views, derisive of England’s past and present imperialist adventures, and of the cultural apparatus—such as the eighties wave of Raj films and television shows—exploited to uphold imperialism. Another book from that era is Jaguar Smile (1987), where Rushdie recounts his brief visit to Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua and writes mostly favorably about the socialist Sandinista regime. Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992–2002 (2002), his most recent collection of essays, reveals the continuation of Rushdie’s defense of intellectual liberty, his full-throated brief for the relevance and importance of the novel (and of all forms of imagination), although a slightly more chastened and world-weary tone is perhaps inevitably in evidence.
Next for Rushdie is a much-anticipated memoir about his years in hiding, which will be released in the fall of 2012, as well as the movie version of Midnight’s Children, a project which has had to be shelved in the past and is at last scheduled for release in 2012.
In my conversation with Rushdie, I tried to focus on the arc of his career, connecting books from each stage of his career with the personal and political circumstances prevalent at the time.
Anis Shivani (AS): Let me start by asking you if it’s fair to group your work in three phases. I see Midnight’s Children, Shame, and Satanic Verses as one phase—we might call it India or Islam; The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and Fury, the second phase—globalization; and Shalimar the Clown and Enchantress of Florence offering the third phase, a broader sweep of the past—history. Is that a fair characterization?
Salman Rushdie (SR): No, honestly. Certainly, I didn’t think of them as being in those phases when I was writing them, but . . . why not?
AS: Well, do you see Shalimar and Enchantress as pointing in a new direction? Are you going to continue in that direction?
SR: Truthfully, I don’t know, because I never know what I’m going to do next. But certainly I thought that they were both very—well, for a start they’re both very researched books, which is relatively different for me. Even when I wrote Midnight’s Children and Shame, there was a certain amount of research required, but nothing like the amount of this. So there’s that kind of grounding in information in both those books, which was very helpful because it gave the fiction something to spring from. And I liked doing it. I thought they were books that had a strength and solidity which came out of my having done that work. And of course the new book Luka and the Fire of Life is the exact opposite, where you go into total make-believe. I like both those voices, and truthfully, since at the moment I’m not writing fiction, I’m trying to write this nonfiction memoir, I really can’t see beyond that. But I do feel very proud of Shalimar and Enchantress. I think they’re kind of grown-up books.
AS: I really enjoyed both of these. I thought they were some of your strongest works.
SR: Thank you. I think that, but I’m not the one who should say it. You should say it.
AS: So you don’t have a plan for—
SR: I never have a plan. In my life I sometimes thought I had a plan, and whatever I thought would happen was the opposite of what happened. I remember saying to a journalist at one point that I thought I might not write another book about India, and then the next book was entirely about India. So your imagination is not logical. And the thing that seizes you can be very unexpected. And so I’ve just long ago given up the idea of knowing what to do next. I have some ideas in my head, but what I’ve also learned from experience is that when you’re writing one book you always have in your head what you think are ideas for other books. But when you actually finish the book you’re writing, and you look at those ideas, very often they don’t seem interesting anymore. So I just don’t know, truthfully, but what I can say is that I felt very good about those two books and they did seem to me to represent, if you like, as I said, something mature, something grown-up in my writing that I liked.
AS: As far as Enchantress is concerned, what is it about Machiavelli that’s fascinated you for so long?
SR: Well, that he’s been so misrepresented by history. That his name became a byword for cynicism and amorality, whereas actually he’s the opposite. His philosophy was republican, democratic. He was extremely critical of the over-mighty princes of his age, and this little book he wrote, The Prince, seems to me to be profoundly cynical—I mean cynical in the sense of disenchanted. It’s a book written by a man who ’s just lost almost everything, and sees too clearly, sees how power behaves, and makes the mistake of writing it down but then gets blamed for supporting that idea. Machiavelli had no reason at all to like princes. He was tortured by them. So that book, it seems to me, has been misread and misrepresented. And as a result, this rather moral and extremely uncorrupt public servant and comic playwright and sophisticated philosopher has gotten represented as the byword of cynical realpolitik. And I always thought that just that gulf between the public image and the private man made him very interesting.
AS: Machiavelli would have been an ideal advisor to Emperor Akbar, the most celebrated Mughal of all, the most tolerant and secular-minded.
SR: Yes, that’s why at some point—because I had been interested in Akbar also from the time that I was very young, but it just never occurred to me that they belonged to the same book, and then at a certain point . . . actually I had to write an introduction to a new edition of the Baburnama and I was rereading it and it struck me that there was political thinking in that book, I mean Babar’s political thought, that I thought could be taken directly from the Prince, almost sentence for sentence, and that made me go back and look at Machiavelli again after a long time. And I thought how odd that the Mughals and this Florentine had so much in common.
AS: So there’s an interesting correspondence between the two, and that’s why you put them in the same book.
AS: I want to go to The Satanic Verses, which really interests me for its experimental structure. Was it the hardest book for you to write?
SR: In many ways, I think—certainly formally. It was the most difficult to get on top of because it’s formally very complicated, or complex anyway. And I wrestled with it—for a long time I couldn’t be certain in my head whether it was one book, whether maybe it should be three different books, or four different books. It took me a long time to understand how the different parts of it played off each other and connected to each other and so on, and no question about it, the hardest thing about writing that book was the form of it. The content of it, sure, it’s always difficult to tell the right story in the right way, but putting all those stories together . . .
AS: Which part came to you first?
SR: I had the things that sort of became the dream sequences—I knew about those very early on and those were some of the earliest things I wrote. The story about the village that walks into the sea. And the whole Prophet story. And then the frame narration—I mean, I knew pieces of it, and that’s of course the biggest part of the book, but I had the idea of Gibreel, this actor, losing his faith and so on. But the thing that was the key to the book was coming up with the other character, the Chamcha character, and that came relatively late, actually, in the thinking about the book. But it was when I saw, when I understood who he was, that he became the character through whom I could enter the story. And then everything else fell into place around him.
AS: Well, Chamcha is the immigrant character—The Satanic Verses is your first truly global novel, I think—and you’re relating the form to these philosophical issues, to revelation, to how newness comes into being. And the thing about Chamcha is that if you’re an immigrant there’s always a devil and angel side to you; that’s how you’re going to reinvent yourself, they both have to be there. So did this double-sidedness of the immigrant help structure the rest of the book?
SR: Yes, it was supposed to be a novel about migration. And, yes, he became the figure through whom I could explore that. But I, in a way, deliberately made him in some ways opposite to myself, in the fact that he’s one of these people who is trying so hard to adopt the coloration of the new world that he rejects so much about the world he came from. And in that sense he’s very unlike the way I thought about myself. I thought that was for me more interesting, to go at it through a character who wasn’t like me, in some ways was a kind of antithesis. So it was then very confusing when somebody said that that character was based on me, because it was quite deliberately based on a kind of anti-me. But, yes, he was very helpful. As I said, everything else in the book falls into place around him.
AS: I was a bit surprised that you didn’t pick up the theme of migration or assimilation, particularly with regard to Britain, in the novels after The Satanic Verses. Did you think you ’d exhausted the theme? And especially the “City Visible but Unseen” section of the novel, where you enter deep into the heart of British racism, the underground world of immigrants confronted by prejudice and hostility and misunderstanding from all sides—that part I really admire, and I didn’t see you dealing with racism in that manner again.
SR: Well, partly because London changed, you know. That’s to say that that whole world of the eighties, of immigrants in London in the eighties—
AS: Thatcherism, racism, overt racism—
SR: Yes, it really changed. And if you look in later periods, that city is not so invisible. And there’s much more the presence of immigrant communities in mainstream life—
AS: It’s visible.
SR: It’s visible, and so it’s changed. And truthfully I had begun to be very optimistic about the English experiment, and then along came these terrorist acts, and that makes you have to rethink all that. But until those acts it seemed to me that the English, or the British, had actually managed to get something right about the way in which these new communities were becoming part of the mainstream. But I don’t know. Why not write about it again? I tried to write about another thing after that. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is not so much about migration as about rootlessness, which is a different phenomenon. I don’t know, I might do it again, it’s nothing set in stone.
AS: I think the closest thing to the migrants’ section in The Satanic Verses you followed up with is Fury perhaps, to the extent that it deals with a society torn about its attitude toward immigrants. But Fury is very different in tone; there isn’t that roiling misery of Thatcherite London in prosperous millennial New York.
SR: It’s a different thing, and then I wanted to write about Kashmir. As I say, it’s entirely possible that I would go back and write another novel about that theme, because I think the way in which writers’ work moves is not linear; it goes in these kinds of loops, and I can certainly think of myself as going back into that territory.
AS: You might be one of the few notable writers in the world who hasn’t directly addressed the new anxieties following 9/11. McEwan, Updike, and DeLillo, among others, have taken a shot at it. With Shalimar you’re talking about the global reach and consequences of terrorism, but as far as the treatment of migrants is concerned—
SR: In this country, you mean?
AS: In this country, or even in Britain. I know you worked in race relations in Britain in the seventies and eighties, and you’ve already said that you thought it was getting better but then it got worse. From my vantage point, it seems that Britain—and Europe in general—have managed to keep xenophobia and racism in greater check than has America. Perhaps because Britain has more precisely targeted the discrete population of dangerous extremists, rather than allowing the labeling of entire communities of people as mortal threats.
SR: You know, you can say that, but then the French situation is pretty bad. I don’t know, I think the time is one of great turmoil, and nobody quite knows how to handle it at all. Yeah, I don’t know, maybe I will write about it, I’m just saying the books you write are the books that come and capture you. Well, those two books that you liked were actually very demanding; they took years and years of research, so that’s what I was doing. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested in other things, just that I was doing those things.
AS: You ’d been thinking about the problem of Kashmir a long time, I ’d say even in the eighties, nineties—
SR: A long time, a long time—all my life really. My life really begins in Kashmir—my family originated in Kashmir—and the insurgency in Kashmir began in 1989, which is the same year as the attack on The Satanic Verses, so I was rather preoccupied with what was happening to me, but in another part in my head I was very interested in what was happening there, and I always knew I was going to have to look at that sometime, and then finally I found a way of doing it.
AS: I remember it so well: 1989, being in college, the cold war ending, and the two intifadas, in Palestine and Kashmir, starting at the same time too—perhaps not entirely coincidentally.
Let me shift directions here. I’m always fascinated by the female characters in your books. Is there an evolution there—Hind in The Satanic Verses, Aurora Zogoiby in The Moor’s Last Sigh, Vina Apsara in The Ground Beneath Her Feet? I like all of them, and I like Hind in particular—her brashness, her irreverence. But Aurora’s artistic strength and independence are appealing too. Does Aurora come closest to you?
SR: I don’t know, honestly. Truthfully, all I know is that female characters seem to always be at the center of my books. And whether there’s an evolution—it might be easier for you to see it than me, I should think. I don’t know, I just write about the women who show up. In some ways, in The Enchantress of Florence, I’m writing about a rather archaic idea of women—
AS: Of feminism—
SR: Yeah, because of course it’s pre-feminist. And it would be wrong to—the thing I didn’t want to do is to have twentieth-century and twenty-first century characters dressed up in sixteenth-century clothes. They have to be of their time and think in the way that they thought. And of course that’s a time when it was difficult to have any kind of real independence or agency as a woman. So I tried to find a way of writing a novel in which a woman could make choices. But those choices of course are pre-feminist; they depend on Qara Köz leaping into bed with one man after another in order to make the journey that she makes. And then the idea of witchcraft is interesting because in one sense it increased her power, but in another sense it increased the danger she was in. And so to see how somebody would negotiate that path between these two instabilities was interesting, but it’s certainly an old-fashioned way of looking at women. That’s what made it interesting, actually.
AS: Do you intentionally portray women as stronger than perhaps they can be, given their social circumstances? The same with India in general: are you presenting India as more lively and exuberant than it is in order to make it almost self-fulfilling? Your books have had a tremendous impact, helping Indian multicultural tolerance become more of a reality, and the same might be said about your strong female characters.
SR: See, that’s not how I think, no. I don’t feel that I’m idealizing. I think that one of the reasons there are these almost annoyingly powerful women—
AS: Zeenat and Aurora—
SR: —it’s that I’ve known a lot of Indian and Pakistani women like that—
AS: You should mention Bengali women—
SR: Yeah, exactly, so it just comes out of the kind of women that I’ve known, who ’ve not been shrinking violets—they’ve been very assertive and forceful. I have three sisters, all of whom are like that. They’re not at all reticent or recessive; they’re very forward—pushing themselves forward. So it comes more naturally to me to write about characters of that sort. And as far as India is concerned, I don’t know. The stuff I’ve written about India has, I think, become progressively darker because the situation has become progressively less a thing that one can celebrate. I mean, Midnight’s Children is quite a celebratory work, but even that ends in a less optimistic key. And by the time we come to The Moor’s Last Sigh you’re seeing the change of Bombay into Mumbai and things like the rise of Shiv Sena and Hindu nationalism, and the book was an attempt in part to get to grips with that. And even the long India section in The Ground Beneath Her Feet is about corruption.
AS: It’s very elegiac—that section in Ground seems almost nostalgic, an attitude appearing for the first time in any of your books. I noticed that in the early India section, which is a stark contrast to the opening scenes of Midnight’s Children, even if the setting is superficially the same.
SR: Yes, that’s true, because it starts off talking about, if you like, a lost country and contrasting it with a very corrupt, degraded ethic of the country that exists now and that we probably see in the news every day. You know, these scandals recently going on in India, they’re all about a degraded ethic. They’re about a political and public class that appears to have no moral standards. And so I think my feelings about India have become—I mean I still love it, I still love to go there, I still feel a very deep sense of attachment and belonging, but I’m much more critical of it now. And I think if I write about it again I’m sure the writing will come across like that.
AS: With Moor, you were writing at the time when globalization was just taking off, and you lamented at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence, in 1997, the passing of secularism and the socialist economy that Nehru had founded. However, as far as your worst fears about fundamentalism taking over, they never came true.
AS: The same thing with economic globalization, which has provided a lot of benefit. If you were to write a book like Moor now, would it be very different? Because it did seem really dark in the early to mid-1990s.
SR: I think certainly the advance of the kind of Hindu nationalist politics of that period has been somewhat stemmed. You know, the BJP1 is out of power, the Shiv Sena2 is not what it was. Yeah, that’s a good thing, but sadly Congress is terrible. The Congress government is not something to be proud of. The only thing to be said about it is that it’s not the BJP. And while the Shiv Sena is not what it used to be, it’s still capable of cocking its little finger and getting books banned. And you’re right that economic liberalization is not entirely a negative force. There have been definite advances. But I continue to be worried—I think any society, Western or Eastern, which has such a colossal gulf between the haves and the have-nots has to face the fact that that is a source of instability. And always has been, historically, in any country. If you look at the Russian Revolution, what the hell was that about? It’s about the colossal gulf—
AS: And it’s happening here now—
SR: Well, it’s happening to an extent everywhere, but in India it’s very apparent that you have these super-billionaires, and more of them than ever before, and you do have an emergent affluent middle class in the way that you described before, so to an extent the money has spread downwards—
AS: There’s a real middle class, but—
SR: But there’s still maybe, certainly, 70 percent of the country that is close to destitute, and that’s a real problem, and whether that can be tackled or not, we’ll see.
AS: Your character Adam Zogoiby in The Moor’s Last Sigh was really frightening, with his callous yuppie indifference—and again, speaking of self-fulfilling and prescient, you were creating this type of new Indian character very early on, whereas it’s a prevalent figure now.
SR [laughs]: I must say I’m very pleased with him. His satellite-dish ears. [laughs]
AS: He has come true.
SR: He did come true.
AS: More than the Shiv Sena perhaps. In general, your dark view of India, corruption and so on—would you still more or less adhere to your views from fifteen years ago?
SR: No, but I think the perspective toward India has to contain both sides at the same time. It’s wrong to have only a dark view of India. That’s a falsification also. Just as it’s wrong to have an idealized view, it’s also wrong to have an absurdly pessimistic view. Oddly, India works; it’s not nonfunctioning.
AS: Rereading Midnight’s Children all these years later, I find it so optimistic and almost lighthearted, despite what you or your readers may have thought at the time. Shalimar is the other pole: it’s incredibly dark, perhaps the darkest book you’ve done.
SR: I think so, yes—maybe Shame and Shalimar are the two dark ones. Those two. I think that’s right. I think the situation in Kashmir is very dark, and the book arises out of that feeling. There doesn’t seem to be a good road out of the problem.
AS: Do you see a correspondence between Shalimar—the fundamentalism taking hold in villages in Kashmir—and Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, which also takes place in a small town in Eastern Anatolia rather than a major urban center, so that you have these incredible convolutions, steeped in the fog of uncertainty. In your books about the metropolis, such as The Moor’s Last Sigh, and perhaps even in Pamuk, as in The Museum of Innocence, the corruption is transparent and visible, and there’s a certainty about it. What about the setting, when you place fundamentalism in the villages?
SR: The truth about Kashmir is that it was never fundamentalist. The Islam of Kashmir was Sufi rather than Wahhabi or any of the other extreme groups like Deobandi and so forth. It wasn’t like that. And now what’s happened is that the pressure is being placed on village people. The pressure is not in Srinagar, the pressure is in these small villages where the jihadis arrive at night and make threats, and tell women that they have to be in purdah or else they’ll have their noses cut off. So you have on one hand a considerable resentment of the authoritarian Indian presence. And on the other hand a real fear of the jihadi presence. And there they are, caught between the two, and that’s what I wanted to try to portray.
AS: We were talking about 1989: the end of the cold war, the decline of the nation-state, the rise of globalization. You’ve advocated hybridity—or, to use the more familiar term, multiculturalism—for your whole career. And the paradox is that as the coherent nation-state has declined, hybridity has come to be associated with localism, local culture. It seems that with the passing of the coherent nation-state, tolerance has actually declined.
SR: Yes, that’s true.
AS: I don’t want to idealize the nation-state, because it can also be very racist and authoritarian. How do you see your advocacy of hybridity thirty-five years ago? Did you see this future for it?
SR: At the time, there was a kind of racist dialogue which tried to marginalize the non-majority population. And so I was trying to argue against that. And I think it was important to do that. I think what is now the case is that in this more fragmented society we now live in, what used to be easy to celebrate—which is a kind of multicultural richness—has become for many people frightening. And I think if you’re going to write about it, you have to face that, you have to face the fear; you can’t pretend that it’s not there, can’t just tell people that they shouldn’t have those fears, because you can tell people till you’re blue in the face that they shouldn’t have feelings, but if they have them they have them. So the question is how to look, honestly, at the dark side of plurality. And that’s something I have in mind, but I don’t know where to do that.
AS: Have you already done that, since 9/11, or not yet?
SR: Not fully, no. Not in fiction, anyway. To a certain extent in essays and nonfiction . . .
AS: You mean in Step Across This Line, and in other essays.
SR: Bits and pieces here and there. But I don’t think I’ve done it in a large, coherent way. And that may be—it’s part of the stuff that’s in my head, I don’t know how it will come out. But I think it’s definitely something you have to look at. On the other hand, if you’re someone like me, who ’s actually a product of this kind of international movement—and I mean I am, just as a person, the product of a kind of hybrid culture—I can’t reject it without rejecting myself. So I’m obliged by being the person that I am to speak up on behalf of that because otherwise I invalidate myself.
AS: That project may be in trouble in the West now, but the discourse is completely different than what it was, say, thirty years ago. It has entirely changed.
SR: It has. I think the problem with the multicultural project is that it began to slide toward a kind of relativistic idea. Cultural relativism is the death of multiculturalism. That’s the point at which you lose the ability to make moral judgments.
AS: I think that’s one reason why some politically correct people—critics, readers—have trouble with your books: you’re not a cultural relativist.
SR: No, I’m not. My view is that cultural relativism is a kind of moral death.
AS: It’s incredibly nihilistic.
SR: Yeah, because you have to be able to make moral choices and to say, this is right, that is wrong. And if you say, oh, it’s fine to have clitoridectomies because it’s their culture—
AS: Which is where multiculturalism has ended up—
SR: That’s where it goes. It’s okay to put women in burqas because that’s their culture.
AS: Do you think that outcome is inherent to the logic of multiculturalism?
SR: No, it’s not multiculturalism itself. Multiculturalism was only saying that you can no longer have a monoculture. That what has happened in our cities and our countries as a result of the mass migrations of the post–Second World War period is the destruction of the idea of a monoculture. There’s nowhere in the world now, not even in India—it’s not only the West, it’s the East, too—where there are monocultures. In the Arab world, in some of the Arab states now, the Indian population outnumbers the Arab population. So this is a global issue—that the nature of the culture has changed from being unified to being pluralistic. And therefore in many ways contradictory and difficult to reconcile into a simple shape. And multiculturalism said you just have to accept: that’s the reality of the world we now live in, and there are many things about it that can be seen as positive. But it’s not even particularly to celebrate or glorify multiculturalism, it’s just to recognize the reality that we live now in a multicultural world—and we do, in the same way that we live in a globalized world. The world is not going to de-globalize, and it’s not going to de-multiculturalize. So these are just the new facts. And I think if you take it that far, it’s more or less unarguable. But what happened—and it is a kind of liberal political correctness that set this off—was the slide from that toward this more relativistic idea, and that’s the point at which I part company with it. And where I think it becomes a problem and needs to be critiqued.
AS: I agree completely. To continue with the darker of your books, I really like the Max Ophuls section in Shalimar. That reminded me of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. Have you read that?
SR: I haven’t read that, but I like William and I like his books. And again we’re talking about research: having to go really deeply into the history of that period was a kind of liberation. It taught me things, showed me ways of telling the story that I would never have known if I hadn’t done the work. For example, when I was trying to think about how to get Ophuls out of Strasbourg in the middle part of Shalimar the Clown, I knew of course that there had been French underground groups to smuggle people across the country, and I was looking at those, but then I found out about this plane—you know, the Bugatti Racer, which I ’d never heard about, and it gave me a much more enjoyable way for him to escape.
AS: That section holds the book together for me.
SR: Good, thank you.
AS: The same with the Benengeli section of Moor: the new cage of globalization, the postmodern spectacle, and the touristic, which come back in Fury too.
SR: Well, thank you. I remember there’s a village in the South of Spain called Mijas, just inland from the Costa del Sol, which was Franco ’s favorite village; he used to go there for holidays. It’s very beautiful, but it’s become this kind of haven for ultra-right-wing expats, and I stumbled into it when I was much younger—in my twenties I found this place—and I just couldn’t believe the people who were gathered there. It was like a Buñuel movie: I found myself in a bar one night talking to a woman who was complaining about the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship and what a shame it was—she used to live in Portugal and the dictatorship fell and she had to leave. [laughs] And I thought this was just very strange because normally one thinks of migration as coming in at the bottom of the society, and the migrants having therefore views which are not those of the power elite but the opposite of that. But here was the migration of the power elite, and it created almost a kind of comic quality, a surreal quality.
AS: Buñuel makes for a very good comparison: The Exterminating Angel, I can see that.
SR: Exactly, so it was in that spirit that I tried to write that section.
AS: Continuing with notions of multiculturalism and political correctness, I don’t think a book like The Satanic Verses could be written or published today. What publisher would take it on, what writer would attempt it—can you imagine the reaction? In that sense, has censorship won?
SR: Well, it’s a bad moment, that’s for sure. It’s a bad moment. And the attack on The Satanic Verses is one of the reasons why it’s a bad moment. Because it frightened people. But it’s not only that. It’s also that publishers for economic reasons are very afraid of publishing work that is risky. Because of market reasons. The market has become so difficult that I think it’s much harder for adventurous, experimental work to find its way into print.
AS: The Satanic Verses was begging to be written. It was begging to be written through the ages. I see it as almost the anti-Qur’an. It’s so important.
SR: I’m very proud of it, and for a long time, if I said that, I was considered to be insulting somebody. But the fact is, I am very proud of it just as a work of art. I think it says things that need to be said.
AS: Dare I say that in your 1990 essay “In Good Faith”3 you redrew to some extent the lines you had broken between the sacred and the profane? Do you now regret doing that a bit? I think you were addressing a so-called “moderate” Muslim audience there.4
SR: Yes, I should perhaps go back and read it again. I don’t know. The point is that there is no point regretting your life. You have to go through your life as you go through it, and fight your battles on the day you’re fighting them. There’s no point fighting them ten years later, and at that point it seemed necessary to speak in that way. It wasn’t a moment to be combative, you know.
AS: People were actually getting killed.
SR: It was a very difficult situation, not just for me. Publishers, translators, booksellers, etc. It’s not an essay that in any way I think betrays my ideals, but it was deliberately trying to take the temperature down.
AS: It showed perhaps more humility.
SR: It was a very bad moment in my life. And I was trying to just calm things down. So it’s in that context.
AS: I think you said many years ago, maybe thirty years ago, that you wanted to turn away from the East and pick up the West because this is where you live. And I don’t see you doing that, although I did notice something new in Shalimar and Enchantress: there’s a new balance—Austria–Los Angeles in Shalimar, or Florence-Fatehpur in Enchantress . . .
SR: It’s not so much balance as . . . what I do think happened to my sense of what my subject is, is that I began to think the fact that I’ve had this experience of different worlds, East and West, allowed me to approach what I think is the big subject now—which is, how does the world connect, how does the world join up. We live in this very compressed world, this kind of butterfly-effect world, in which something happens in one part of the world and it immediately affect things across the planet, and so the question is how to write a literature which shows you those connections, and these books were attempts to say that. In Shalimar, here’s a murder on the streets of Los Angeles that can only be understood by understanding the history of the other side of the world. Or again in Enchantress, here are two different worlds, both at the peak of their civilization, and if you put them in dialogue with each other that’s when you understand them both. So I think the thing you see as a change is there, but what the change is, in my view, is my understanding that my life experience has given me the ability to look at the world as a whole. And to try and make interesting narrative connections which join up this bit to that bit, and to see what that tells us about both bits. But I actually do have things in my head that are completely Indian stories that I’m quite interested to go back and tell. Because one of the things that’s happening is that my hometown has been transformed. There’s just not that place anymore. The place that Suketu Mehta writes about in Maximum City is not the town I grew up in, and yet it is the town I grew up in. So I would really like to write another Bombay novel.
AS: Are you connected enough to India to be able to do that?
SR: I think so. I go there all the time. I go back at least once a year, and sometimes more. And to Bombay in particular. I still have enormous numbers of friends in Bombay and therefore ways of getting into what’s happening. I would be very surprised if I did not write such a novel.
AS: That would be very interesting, because we haven’t seen that from you yet.
SR: No, because The Moor’s Last Sigh is a halfway step. I always thought of Midnight’s Children as a book that arose out of my childhood experience of Bombay and India—
AS: Memory, not imagination—
SR: Yeah, and The Moor’s Last Sigh came out of a more adult connection to a somewhat transformed reality. That was 1995; we’re now fifteen years later, and the changes are even more dramatic, and I would like to revisit that again at some point.
AS: What about an entirely Western novel?
SR: That too. I can try. As I said, I don’t know, at the moment there’s no novel in me. Yes, I can see myself doing that.
AS: You know, when Fury came out in early 2001 it seemed furious, but when I reread it now, it seems pretty calm, given all that’s happened since then. Once again, you were two steps—or many steps—ahead of the future.
SR: This is my curse—
AS: You make it self-fulfilling, whatever you write—
SR: To be ahead of the curve.
AS: You seem to bring newness into the world.
SR: Well, that’s what I’m trying to do. And I agree about these books. At the time that Midnight’s Children came out, people criticized it for being too pessimistic, and now it seems comically optimistic.
AS: It almost has a comic feel all the way through.
SR: Right, and when Fury came out people felt that I had misjudged the situation. And now . . . one doesn’t want to feel vindicated by 9/11, but the world after 9/11, I think if you now look back at that novel, as a historical novel almost, I hope that people can see that it contains a kind of truth . . .
AS: In how it captured the moment that led to it, in the way that there was another moment of imperium just before World War I. Do you think Fury is the most underestimated of your books? I really liked it when I reread it.
SR: I think it is. I think it is. And I hope that gradually over time its reputation will change. I think it’s a novel about—you know, the point about a golden age is that at the time it seems eternal, but one of the things we know about these so-called golden ages wherever they occur is that they’re always very brief. And they’re almost always followed by a fall from the pinnacle. So I had that sense in New York at the time—
AS: That this wasn’t going to last—
SR: That this exuberant prosperity could not last. I mean, nobody could foresee exactly the drama with which it would end, in that apocalyptic moment, but the idea that this golden age couldn’t go on seemed obvious. And I think Fitzgerald felt that about the Jazz Age, and he’s also writing about this gilded moment, which is doomed. And he writes about his gilded people as doomed people. And I think he could see that. And when his books came out many people dismissed them as being gossipy and superficial. And now they’ve come to, of course, see it as almost poetry about that moment. I think Fury is a damn good book actually, and it was the worst received, I think, of my novels. And a certain amount of that I think was just territorial.
AS: Why is he coming into our territory, our turf, or whatever American critics felt.
AS: The book has all kinds of meanings I didn’t see ten years ago. And its critique of the American distractions of the years 1999–2000 is very funny.
SR: I think it stands up, and I think all you can do is hope that time will validate the work.
AS: Do you think that any realist fiction can capture today’s reality, whether it’s set in India, America, or wherever, or is that just not a worthwhile project anymore?
SR: Worthwhile only depends on the genius of the artist. I can see if there were a Balzac or a Zola, there’s no reason why not. I think the closest we have to that is Jonathan Franzen. But I have not myself found it interesting to go that way. I mean, some of these books . . . Shalimar is 95 percent realistic, with a little flavor, a little pixie dust dropped on it, and Fury is mostly a naturalistic novel but with a science fiction story within the story. So sometimes you resort to realism because it seems like the right instrument to use to tell the story you have to tell. I don’t have a kind of ideological position about it. My view is that I’ll use the instruments that help me make the music, and those can be different each time.
AS: Your language seemed less insistently exuberant in your last two novels than I’ve seen it before. Do you agree with that? Shalimar and Enchantress.
SR: Ah no, no, I think Shalimar is a very stripped-back novel, linguistically and otherwise; it’s a novel where I deliberately tried to strip everything down. But I think in Enchantress the language is very rich.
AS: Do you think your writing and politics have become more conservative since your move to America? I’m thinking of the essay collections—Imaginary Homelands in 1991 compared with Step Across This Line in 2002; or The Jaguar Smile, your 1987 travelogue of Nicaragua, generally defending Daniel Ortega’s socialist regime, compared to Fury, which decries the excesses of capitalism’s spectacles but in a gently mocking way.
SR: Conservative? I don’t know what that means anymore. I don’t think I’m part of the American conservative project at all. Because I detested the Bush administration. What I think is that there are many things that I care about which the Old Left, the liberal consensus, has got very wrong. And I think clearly in the area of religious intolerance, it seems to me as if there’s a section of the left which is so anxious to be anti–American foreign policy that it finds itself getting into bed with people it shouldn’t be in bed with, such as those who use religion in the Muslim world to oppress their own people. And if you object to that, then you’re called a neoconservative. But I don’t think that it should be only a conservative project to criticize and detest the radicalism of the Islamic world. That should be something that progressive voices should be doing. If you’re interested in liberty and human freedom, and expanding the possibility of human beings, then you should object to the politics that restricts those and not leave it to the conservatives to do it. This ought to be a progressive politics, and it seems very weird to me that somehow it isn’t. I don’t think I was ever left-wing in the way that someone like Christopher Hitchens was left-wing—I was never Trotskyist, never a member of a Communist groupuscule. I’ve always been somebody who values the idea of independent thought, and I just want to think things out and say what I think, and then people can decide whether that’s left or right, and I frankly don’t care. I’m just trying to understand the world I live in and respond to it as truthfully as I can. And I’m not an ideological person. I don’t have a left- or right-wing ideology. But I think I have, or I try to have, a clear eye. And I think what we want from our artists is that. You don’t want them to pick up flags and wave them around. I’m not particularly interested in writers whose politics show too clearly.
AS: That leads to bad fiction.
SR: Yeah, it does, but what you want is an independent mind, and of course that doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with that thinking. I think Christopher Hitchens is such a person, and I disagree with him two-thirds of the time.* Much of his politics was not mine the last ten years, and some of it is, but what I admire in him is clarity and independence.
AS: How about your fiction? Has that moved in a conservative, or shall we say apolitical, direction?
SR: No, it seems to me that Shalimar is probably the most political novel I’ve written since Shame. I think it’s a novel which was driven by a desire to face up to the facts not only about Kashmiri politics but about geopolitics. And Enchantress I think is also a novel about the nature of power. It may not be a novel about contemporary matters, but it’s a novel which tries to explore the nature and consequences of power. And whatever its answers, it takes up very great questions, such as whether it’s possible for a person to be powerful and good, something which Machiavelli believed was not possible and which Akbar believed was possible. So in the novel there is that attempt to stage that debate between these two different ideas of power and morality, and how they relate to each other. Also, I think you don’t always have to write about politics, for goodness’ sake. Literary life is a long life, and you can do things sometimes and not at other times.
AS: Right, such as when you followed up The Moor’s Last Sigh with The Ground Beneath Her Feet and entered the world of music rather than politics. Starting with Ground and continuing with Fury it seems to me you start talking about celebrity culture in a global age, and—unlike in some of your previous books—you’re implying that it’s nearly impossible to have authentic political movements in a culture of spectacle.
AS: You’re stepping away from the possibility of effective politics—maybe that’s a better way to put it than left-right, conservative-liberal—you’re stepping away from that optimistic belief in politics, because it’s become more mediated. Ideology gets co-opted by spectacle in both Ground and Fury.
SR: The point is to just look at the world as it is; it doesn’t matter what label you put on it. Look at the world as it is, and say something about it.
1. The Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s second largest political party after the Indian National Congress, established in 1980 in its current incarnation, and in power in India from 1998 to 2004; a Hindu nationalist party leaning strongly toward laissez-faire economic policies and strong national defense. Activists of the BJP were partially responsible for the 1992 razing of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram; this event led to major sectarian tension across India.
2. The Shiv Sena, or the Army of Shiva, is a nationalist party based in Maharashtra, and founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966. It played a prominent role in the Babri mosque violence in 1992 and ruled the country in coalition with the BJP in the 1998–2004 period. It advocates for the rights of Maharashtrians in Mumbai (the residents of the province) rather than outsiders to Maharashtra, and is often thought to be behind violence against Muslims. Rushdie satirized Thackeray as Raman “Mainduck” (frog) Fielding in The Moor’s Last Sigh.
3. Reprinted in Imaginary Homelands.
4. Upon rereading the essay for publication of this interview, I could find no evidence of my notion that Rushdie redrew the lines between the sacred and the profane, or took a step back from The Satanic Verses, as it were. The essay is a complex but unambiguous defense of the novel, pointing out his novelistic logic for each of the controversial incidents portrayed in The Satanic Verses; clearly stating that he is not a Muslim and therefore cannot be held to account for blasphemy; asserting that the responsibility for violence lies with those who perpetrate it; and mounting one of the most eloquent defenses of free speech I have read. I can only say that I must have been swayed by prevalent perceptions of the essay as somehow a bit of backtracking. So, my comment to Rushdie during the interview represents a case of misreading on my part.
*Editor’s note: Christopher Hitchens died 15 December 2011, after this interview was conducted.