Rushdie's children

Print edition : July 13, 2007

Salman Rushdie has come down in popular imagination as a novelist, first and last, but he should be better known for his essays.

MODERN Indian literature in English was born in 1981 when Salman Rushdie published Midnight's Children.

With this novel, Rushdie established what has remained since the distinctive pattern for Indian writing in English: the family chronicle that is also the history of the nation, a distorted autobiography that embodies in an equ ally distorted form the political life of India. After all, all novels are autobiographical in a sense, but as Evelyn Waugh said, "as experience totally transformed". Here was experience that dealt with the language of modern India, its voice, psychological insight, imagination and talent that told us what we were all about.

Saleem Sinai, Rushdie's hero, born as the clock strikes the midnight hour that inaugurates India's independence, believes that he embodies in his own person the life of the new nation. Saleem's egomaniacal belief reflects Rushdie's recognition of the madness in his own enterprise, to contain within a single novel the lives of 600 million people. Saleem offers his own voice as representative of all India's citizens, a mad act of faith that sustains the huge and multitudinous fiction until, at last, he begins to crack under the pressure of trying to contain so much, and such diverse, experience. The novel ends as Saleem explodes into 600 million fragments, the number of the unimaginably vast population on behalf of whom he had attempted to speak. This was a necessary madness for India is, as Rushdie put it, "an imaginary country", a country that could never have existed "except by the effort of a phenomenal collective - except in a dream we all agreed to dream".

Rushdie's unique contribution lies in two ways, quite apart from the idea itself. First, he rescued Indian writing in English from the charge that it was "deracinated", as he put it in his Introduction to Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-1997, "to the point that their work lacked the spiritual dimension essential for a `true' understanding of the soul of India; for being insufficiently grounded in the ancient literary traditions of India; for being the literary equivalent of MTV culture, of globalising Coca-Colonisation... ". Second, which is a corollary to the first, Rushdie said: "Literature has little or nothing to do with a writer's home address," and that "you can't confine writers inside passports". By putting forward the case for the universality of all literature, "humanise it by getting out of narrow parochialism", he told Indian writers to come out of the closet and into the world.

We are all, Rushdie said, "frontier-crossing beings", much more so in the age of globalisation. His central theme, in fiction and non-fiction, has been "the idea of overcoming, or breaking down, the boundaries that hold us in and surpassing the limits of our own natures". A kind of psychological block needed to be "crossed in order to be transformed".

In short, to become human. Rushdie said this in a seminal essay on frontiers, "Step Across this Line", which is also the title for a collection of his essays, and one cannot help thinking that what inspired this essay, its meaning and significance, was Rushdie's incarceration under the fatwa after The Satanic Verses. Incidentally, the essay is as fundamental as Frederick Jackson Turner's The Frontier in American History or the Italian Claudio Magris' Wer steht der anderen Seite? (Who is on the Other Side?)

Literature for Rushdie is intrinsically a frontier and an expedition in search of new frontiers, to shift and define them. Every literary form and expression is a threshold, an area of countless different elements, tensions and movements, a shifting of semantic borders and grammatical structures; it is like a theatre in which the scenery and perspective of the real world is rearranged. Every writer for Rushdie is a frontiersman; it is along the frontier that he moves, as he does with values and meanings or denies them or proposes new ones. In an article in The New Yorker he said:

"The novel is a hybrid form; it is part social inquiry, part fantasy, part confessional; it crosses frontiers of knowledge as well as topographical boundaries."

That is why reading Rushdie's novels is not easy; it takes some time to get the metaphors and the meanings behind the meaning. For Rushdie, writing is working at the boundaries and at their point of drift, a moment of fading and dying. In many senses, Rushdie is a European (or a Ghalib at heart) because to him literature is nothing more than a philosophy expressed in images even if the philosophy sometimes seems to disappear into the images.

Rushdie has come down in popular imagination as a novelist, first and last, but he should be better known for his essays - incisive, committed and often very funny. These essays have been anthologised in Imaginary Homelands and Step Across this Line and fit in with Samuel Johnson's description as "a loose sally of the mind unhampered by preconceived notions of order and regularity".

Yet despite their variety and looseness, there are two distinguishing marks to his essays: intimacy and informality as if he were the master of talking on paper - unconstrained, with independent tastes and a determination to remain close to the weave and texture of his own lived experience. Just about everything and anything comes out from under his belt: The Wizard of Oz, U2; India and Indian writing; the death of Princess Diana; football; tributes to some 20th century writers, including Angela Carter, Arthur Miller, Edward Said, J.M. Coetzee, Arundhati Roy; some off-the-cuff observations - you name it and it is there.

In the ultimate analysis, it is language and how it moves and gets moulded like putty or an extended conversation that wins out at the end of the day. So, here are some extracts where Rushdie uses allegory, symbolism and verbal ingenuity to depict both Western and Indian society.

From `Midnight's Children':

SALMAN RUSHDIE with his 1988 book 'The Satanic Verses' at the American Jewish Conference's 30th Annual Dinner, "Profiles in Courage: Voices of Muslim Reformers in the Modern World", in Beverly Hills, California, on September 17, 2006.-CHRIS PIZZELLO/REUTERS

"Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than facts."


"Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems - but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible."

From `Shame':

"We who have grown up on a diet of honour and shame can still grasp what must seem unthinkable to peoples living in the aftermath of the death of God and tragedy: that men will sacrifice their dearest love on the implacable altars of their pride... . Between shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn; meteorological conditions on both these poles are of the most extreme, ferocious type. Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence."

From "Outside the Whale", `Imaginary Homelands':

"In this world without quiet corners, there can be no easy escapes from history, hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss."

From `The Satanic Verses':

"Such is the miraculous nature of the future of exiles: what is first uttered in the impotence of an overheated apartment becomes the fate of nations."

*** "Where is no belief, there is no blasphemy." Quoted in `The Independent', 1989:

"A poet's work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep."

Quoted in `The Observer', 1989:

"Literature is the place I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart."


"Writers and politicians are natural rivals. Both groups try to make the world in their own images; they fight for the same territory."


"Doubt, it seems to me, is the central condition of a human being in the twentieth century."

From `The Independent on Sunday', 1990:

"Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one."

From "Is Nothing Sacred?", Herbert Read Lecture, 1990:

"The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas - uncertainty, progress, change - into crimes."


"Not even the visionary or mystical experience ever lasts for long. It is for art to capture that experience, to offer it to, in the case of literature, its readers; to be, for a secular, materialist culture, some sort of replacement for what the love of god offers in the world of faith."


"Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way. The reason for ensuring that that privileged arena is preserved is not that writers want the absolute freedom to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers and writers and citizens and generals and godmen, need that little, unimportant-looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but we do need to remember that it is necessary."

From `The Moor's Last Sigh':

"Mother India with her garishness and her inexhaustible motion, Mother India who loved and betrayed and ate and destroyed and again loved her children, and with whom the children's passionate conjoining and eternal quarrel stretched long beyond the grave; who stretched into great mountains like exclamations of the soul and along vast rivers full of mercy and disease, and across harsh drought-ridden plateaux on which men hacked with pickaxes at the dry infertile soil."


"Civilisation is the sleight of hand that conceals our natures from ourselves."


"In a time of constant transformation, beatitude is the joy that comes with belief, with certainty."

From "Imagine No Heaven", an article published in `The Guardian', October 1999:

"As human knowledge has grown, it has also become plain that every religious story ever told about how we got here is quite simply wrong. This, finally, is what all religions have in common. They didn't get it right. There was no celestial churning, no maker's dance, no vomiting of galaxies, no snake or kangaroo ancestors, no Valhalla, no Olympus, no six-day conjuring trick followed by a day of rest. Wrong, wrong, wrong."


"The real wars of religion are the wars religions unleash against ordinary citizens within their `sphere of influence'."


"To choose unbelief is to choose mind over dogma, to trust in our humanity instead of all these strange divinities."

Rushdie's range is wide and deep - not just in his novels, which deal not merely with human diversity and perversity but with deeper philosophical questions such as the continuity of life and the inevitability of death. Quite frankly, if his critics and their blind followers had read him, they would not have scoffed at the knighthood, which is small change for his contribution to literature.

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