Salman Rushdie: ‘I have no further interest in non-fiction’
When I first met Salman Rushdie in early 1983, he had made a triumphant return to Bombay, as his hometown (and mine) was known then. We had driven down Marine Drive towards Warden Road, and pausing at Scandal Point, walking past Chimalkers and Reader’s Paradise, made our way to Westfield Estate, the inspiration for Saleem Sinai’s Methwold’s Estate in Midnight’s Children, his second novel, which had won the Booker Prize in 1981. The New York Times had gushed then, saying, “Midnight’s Children sounds like a continent finding its voice.” And that generation of Indians felt he had told our story in our language. We had reclaimed the language and its literature, and it was fine to speak in the mishmash sing-song bhelpuri of Hugme (Hindi-Urdu-Gujarati-Marathi-English). He had captured the zeitgeist of being a cosmopolitan Indian.
We next met in 1987 when he was in India, making a film (The Riddle Of Midnight) about the cohort of Indians who were born in 1947—the real midnight’s children—and with my colleague and friend Dina Vakil I went to meet him at his hotel (President, at Cuffe Parade). He had a beard, and he told us of a new novel he was working on—about angels and devils, where the main character is going insane and thinks he is the archangel. “It is about angels and devils and how it is very difficult to establish ideas of morality in a world which has become so uncertain that it has become difficult to even agree on what is happening. When one can’t agree on a description of reality, it is very hard to agree on whether that reality is good or evil, right or wrong…. Angels and devils are becoming confused ideas. One of the things that happens in the process is that what is supposed to be angelic quite often has disastrous results, and what is supposed to be demonic is quite often something with which one must have sympathy. It is supposed to be a portrait of, in part, an attempt to come to grips with that sense of a rumbling moral fabric, or at least, a need for the reconstruction of old simplicities,” he told us in the interview, published in the Indian Post, in 1987.
The Satanic Verses would come out a year later, and predictably, it was deeply misunderstood. As a consequence, the novel, which is one of the finest works on the hybridized identity that migration shapes, became a tool for fundamentalists to oppose and politicians to exploit. “Being God’s postman is no fun, yaar,” says the baffled, confused character in the book.
The fatwa followed. India banned the import of the novel, and as a correspondent at India Today magazine, I wrote the unsigned editorial comment condemning what was, in effect, a ban. And then, the years in hiding, a story Rushdie writes honestly from the distance that time offers, in Joseph Anton (2012), his memoir. In the years in between, he would return often to the theme of the clash between the certainties of faith and the questions that doubt raises; indeed, between speech and silence, in Haroun And The Sea Of Stories (when the people of Gup and Chup are in never-ending combat), published in 1990. He then went deep into our past to show examples of inclusiveness, from Moorish Spain in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) to Akbar’s India in The Enchantress Of Florence (2008). And he defied fundamentalists, not only by continuing to write, but also by stepping out of the prison that the fatwa imposed, and increasingly living a normal life.
I next interviewed him for the Far Eastern Economic Review, where he told me that magic realism is writing from a different perspective. The Enchantress Of Florence had just come out, and some purists were annoyed by his portrayal of Akbar, as if the novelist’s job is to write history. He said: “By now we should know that literature is always at an angle to reality. Herzog is not Saul Bellow; Marcel is not Proust; Stephen Dedalus is not (James) Joyce; and (Jonathan) Swift did not meet little people.” Back in 1983, Rushdie had told me that in fiction, a narrator need not be accurate; he could be unreliable and make things up.
A few years later, when he wrote the companion to Haroun, Luka And The Fire Of Light (2010), we met in London at his publisher’s office, where he spoke tenderly about the meaning of fatherhood, and how it should not surprise anyone if his fiction mirrors his outlook to life. In an interview I did for The Washington Post, he said: “A writer is a prisoner of his own imagination. My thoughts work in certain directions, because I am me. So it is natural that you will find in my books many of the same concerns that you find in everything else I have written. The art lies in how to make it fresh; how not to be rehearsing old arguments, and how to renew these concerns and themes, but in a different language.”
Over the years I have known him, I have seen the same wit and humour, the razor-sharp memory (he would make a fantastic partner in a pub quiz team), and unalloyed clarity about freedom and individual liberty. At a time when the multicultural industry insists upon political correctness and busybodies are looking for every opportunity to take offence, Rushdie has been a remarkably consistent champion of freedoms —not only of expression, but other individual liberties that the imams, priests, sadhus, and politicians of every hue want to curb. When I co-chaired the the writers’ association, English PEN’s writers at risk committee, we knew we could count on him to support writers in prison or under threat. It was hardly surprising, then, that he not only defended the PEN American Center’s award (in May) to the magazine Charlie Hebdo for freedom of expression and courage, but spoke out in defence of what the magazine did: speaking truth to power.
We met in July in London to talk about his latest novel, Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights—a playful title that transforms the story of 1,001 nights into a cute mathematical symmetry. When I tried to point out that in a leap year his math would be off by a day, he said, “Of course I know that; this is a novel!” And so it is, an inventive Kathasaritsagara, stories within stories, a sweeping journey that takes us from Córdoba to Bandra, London and New York, weaving in lives that are incredible and yet entirely believable; where 1,001 descendants of a man and a jinn begin disturbing the universe, as those midnight’s children did once; and where past, present and future collapse in a saga that makes the extraordinary appear normal. It is a Salman Rushdie novel. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What took you back to Córdoba, and the territory of ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’?
I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about Ibn Rushd (one of the pioneering thinkers of Western secular thought who championed Aristotle and was known in the West as Averroes). It just seemed to me that that kind of conflict, which was not personal but philosophical, between him and (Islamic theologian Al-) Ghazali offers a way to orchestrate a lot of arguments happening now, and not only in the Muslim world. It is the argument between reason and unreason.
In my memoir I wrote about my father’s interest in Ibn Rushd and the connection with my family—the family name being invented in honour of Ibn Rushd. Then there are echoes, of exile, of books being burnt, and so on. So there was a fairly obvious point of connection there. Initially I thought it would just be an episode, and the idea that that argument, of reason and faith, would recur through the book was not part of the original design. It developed into an oblique commentary on what happened. Not all of it is made up by me. The idea that it somehow diminishes God if you believe in natural laws, that natural laws only exist at God’s will, comes from Ghazali, and Ibn Rushd challenges that.
When did you first go to Córdoba?
I was 20 when I went there first. I had gone with three college friends. We went straight down the middle, from Madrid, to Toledo, Seville, Córdoba, Granada, all the way to the sea. That was the first time I saw the Great Mosque, the Cathedral, the Alhambra—and so began a lifelong fascination with Arab Spain, but up to a point. Everyone says this about Moorish Spain (from the eighth century to 1492), that the period of Convivencia was peaceful and that the people lived together. It is true, but only up to a point. It was also through forced conversions. So it wasn’t as tolerant; it was not a paradise; it was not an idyll of tolerance. But it is true that the cultures influenced each other profoundly. It is one of the ironies of the thinking of Rushd that he ended up being more influential in the West and not in the Muslim world.
The novel is set in Córdoba of course, but also in London, New York and Bombay, although it is Bandra, not south Bombay. You also write about themes that have played an important part of your life. To what extent is this novel only a story, and to what extent is it a serious philosophical argument?
I don’t see these things as contradictions. To my mind, a good book offers a vision of the world. Here’s how I see it right now. This is a way of telling you what is going on through a story. I agree with (James) Joyce, who says that novels should not be didactic. He used a very interesting term: that literature should be static, not dynamic. It should simply be rather than push people in one direction. I hope that’s what the book is. It is; you can enjoy it as a story. One of the ways I disagree with Joyce is that he was interested in stories, but not a story; not in the narrative as the driving force in the text. Nothing happens in Dublin (in Ulysses)—a man walks around, the wife cheats him, he meets a man in a red-light district and they get drunk.
Somewhere in the modernist movement serious and pulp fiction differed. Pulp fiction was good at page-turners, but it was no good at language, characters or ideas. Serious fiction did all that, but it was not driven by a strong narrative. I always thought, from the beginning, that there was no need for such a division to exist. There is no reason why serious novels can’t be page-turners. See the great literature of the 18th century, (Charles) Dickens in the 19th century.
So with this book I was very interested in making a contemporary story whose origin is in very old stories. I did not want to do anything folkloristic like Harun-al Rashid in Baghdad; I wanted a book about now, but using my knowledge of and affection for the older form of storytelling.
And the novel is very much about the here and now, but as seen from the future.
Yes, that’s when the tone of the book began to work. This idea of looking back at the present from a thousand years from now—if we look back a thousand years, how much do we know about that time? Some of it is factual, some is from legends and much of it is half-known. So the past becomes an interesting mixture of facts and fiction. And I could do that to the present, by looking at it from the future.
So it is the unreliable narrator telling us: Don’t believe in everything that I say.
(Laughs) Yes. (Pauses). By training, I am a historian. When we write history, we also write about ourselves. What we see in the past is what concerns us in the present. Successive ages write about the past in different ways. So this novel about now, written from 3000 AD—it is also a novel about them (the people of the future), and it is also about what we might become. If so, what would we be interested in in the past?
And what do you see when you look back from 3000 AD? Is it bleak, showing a darker time?
It doesn’t have to be just about darkness. Think of Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, or Ted Hughes. Ted’s poetry about the natural world was celebratory; Walcott’s writing was celebratory, but there was disenchantment too. Seamus was in Ireland during a period of political upheaval, but it wasn’t in his nature as a poet to deal with that. It was a battle for him as an artist: how to confront what was happening in the country. And because of that, he could write well; he didn’t write only about the Troubles (as the Northern Ireland conflict is referred to in Britain). It was light as well as dark.
You have been asked if you would write ‘The Satanic Verses’ again. And you have responded that the question is irrelevant: You wrote the novel at a particular time; whether you would write it today, in the same form, is a speculative question. But in ‘Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights’, you do take on religious orthodoxies; your characters argue with orthodoxy, challenging it. To what extent did the politics of our time compel you to write this?
It isn’t just the politics; it is the conflict of thought. I care less and less about what happens in the news; more about the underlying clash of ideas. It is more in the nature of a writer, particularly an imaginative one, to engage in that way.
But you wrote columns for some time.
Yes, and I stopped writing columns because people saw me less as a fiction writer or imaginative artist and more as a political commentator. So I needed to pay attention to my day job. Writing a column each month, once a month, is not easy. I look at Tom Friedman (The New York Times columnist)—two opinions a week; I don’t know how to do that. I have real trouble doing it 12 times a year. I have said all that I have wanted to say. I’ve expressed all that. Let me do what I am better at.
What’s interesting is that as a writer, column-writing was the opposite of my normal process. This book took two-and-a-half to three years to write; some took much longer. Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, all took five years each. The Moor’s Last Sigh took four years. In contrast, column-writing has to be quick and can’t be done in advance. There is no point my writing a column even the day before because the news cycle works too fast; the next morning already 20 pieces are out, and there is nothing more to say. So I would wake up without knowing what to say and then have to decide what, if anything, I might have to say about and then write it by 5pm. And that I quite enjoyed; it was like learning a new discipline. But I stopped. And I’m glad I stopped; I feel much happier; that memoir (Joseph Anton) is also off my back. I don’t have to write books like that. It was an interesting story to tell, about my life, and I wanted to tell it, and felt I should tell it like a novel, and that was satisfying.
I have no further interest in non-fiction. The effect of writing it was to induce in me a great swing in the opposite extreme. I spent several years working as hard as I could to tell the truth. Now I want to make stuff up. It pushed me to the opposite end of the spectrum. And that opposite extreme was to write the most non-naturalistic, fabulated book, the wildest book.
And it was about ideas but it came out as stories.
Yes, now we are talking about ideas; but it came out as stories. I started with the image of a man detaching himself from the earth; it was the first thought I had. And initially I thought it would be just about him, because it was a perfectly strong governing metaphor.
The novel’s cover reminded me of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha (the two characters with whom ‘The Satanic Verses’ begins, as a plane explodes mid-air and the two descend to earth, as if it is a miracle).
(Smiles) This man who is detached from the earth is a major character in the novel, the way Dunia is the major female character. But the other, larger world accumulates around him. And I started off with that. What made me smile was that even if he is detached, he doesn’t float away; he is half an inch off the ground; and that idea is as dramatic as floating away. And then other stories followed.
When I wrote the first draft, Ibn Rushd was in exile in Lucerna, and Dunia becomes his mistress—initially, she wasn’t even supernatural. It was only gradually that she gets the larger dimension. It kept changing as I wrote it, and I had to rewrite it. That’s why it took so long.
Do you save parts from your drafts that you don’t use, and do they come back in your fiction?
Yes, in this novel there was a much older woman in the lower east side of Manhattan. She was a bag lady who stumbled into the story. She had more interesting stories than others and I wrote about her quite a lot. She had a back-story. But I felt she was in the wrong book, so her character had to go.
Then there was a time I wrote a short story which I didn’t think was successful in doing what I wanted it to do, so I put it away in a folder and forgot about it. Many years later, when I started writing Haroun, I remembered that story, which has the battle between Guppees and Chupwalas. I had read the travels of Ibn Battuta, and there were a couple of missing elements; he had stumbled upon a place where this battle takes place and the story was about that. I didn’t like what I had written then. It sounded precious. But many years later, it turned out to be just what I needed as the structure for Haroun.
With this novel, I started with Mr Geronimo (“Raphael Hieronymus Manezes of Bandra, Bombay, the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest, but also a descendant of Rushd and Dunia—(who) discovers that his feet no longer touch the ground”). I wanted to write about a love affair between him and Dunia—we love people because they’re echoes of people we have lost. All of us have lost love at some point in our lives, and wished we had not. In his case, his wife had died; but a loss could be through a break-up. When two people meet, each sees in the other an echo of the former love, that’s the origin of the new love.
So love is a big theme.
Yes; and I write about love and hate; not just about speech and silence. And it is not only romantic love; there are many kinds of love. The force that motivates Dunia is her love for her descendants—her generations, her brood which she wants to save and protect, and her father’s death, drive her to the war.
Indeed, some have said women are not portrayed sympathetically in your writing, but Padma (in ‘Midnight’s Children’), Aurora Zogoiby (in ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’), India Ophuls or Boonyi Kaul (in ‘Shalimar The Clown’), Vina Apsara (in ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’), or Qara Koz (in ‘The Enchantress Of Florence’) are all strong women. And now there is Dunia.
Yes, thank you. The people who like the books like them for the same reason as the people who dislike them. Some readers are attracted to these characters; some people aren’t, and usually for the same reason.
You show Ibn Rushd falling in the arms of a jinn, an entity whose existence he should otherwise question—he is rational and doesn’t believe in the supernatural, after all. Is being inconsistent the hallmark of our lives?
The reason that I used the epigraph of the Goya etching of the Sleep Of Reason is that that’s what happens. Goya’s note is ambiguous. He says—if reason and imagination work together, you get wonders; when they do not work together, you have the emergence of monstrosity. So I wanted to make the book feel as if the conflict is not just binary opposition. It is not just between reason and unreason, nor just between rationalism and dreams. They are engaged with each other. So the man of reason is in love with the supernatural. With Ibn Rushd there is this other feature: He believed himself to be a believer. Others accused him of being a heretic, but he was a man of belief. He tried to reconcile reason and science with religion and faith. That’s the really interesting tussle inside him. So I wanted to say that these things—our waking and sleeping selves—are related; they are related to our waking lives. Delmore Schwartz (the American poet and writer) had said, in dreams begin responsibilities.
What comes first: the idea, the character, the plot? How do they come together and help create the shape?
It is different with every book. Initially, I had this image of a man separating from the earth. That was radical alienation because he is a man whose life was engaged with nurturing and nourishing the earth. And then being separated from the earth—that increases the poignancy. There are books—like Haroun—where I had the whole story at once. The real challenge is to find the right tone.
With Shalimar, it was with the murder that begins the story, leading to Kashmir and so on. I never know where it will begin. Something sticks in my head and worries away. At some point I ask myself: Why am I thinking about it every day? And that’s where the book begins. They fit together. This book—more than most—was a kind of journey of discovery. I found the book by doing the book. I read an interview with Jonathan Franzen recently, who has a book coming out (Franzen’s new novel, Purity, released on 1 September). Franzen said that to write a good book you have to fly by the seat of the pants. If you don’t wing it, it is not interesting, and it is not alive. It is extremely, incredibly real. This, coming from an old-fashioned realist. But that is the case—to say “I make it up” was quite surprising. I have become more willing to do that than I used to be, to see what happens. Start with something and see where it takes me. Earlier, I had to work out more clearly; work inside the framework and allow the shifts. But from The Satanic Verses onwards, I stopped working in a pre-thought-out way. I had already written 300 pages when I came across the scene with which The Satanic Verses begins. And then I thought, it belonged well at the beginning of the book, and so that reshaped the whole book.
That is a lot of rewriting.
Yes, an enormous amount of rewriting. And I thought—this is all right, to find things that you didn’t start out with because that is more interesting than what you did start out with. And ever since I’ve done that.
With this novel you are also writing about the darkness of our times. There is that old playfulness, but it is also bleak.
Did you think so? I thought this was my funniest book. You know, P.G. Wodehouse is just funny—he achieves what he wants to achieve by just being funny. To me, there is a serious tone. Where are we? When you write a fairy tale, a fable, when you do it, it is meaningless if it is only escapist. You can have some play and some fun, but if it is not about something real, it is worthless. I don’t subscribe to the fashionable literary theory that a text is separate from the world.
The point of writing a novel is to say something about the world. So the book is a report from consciousness from a particular moment of time. As you grow and age, and have things happen to you, the world also goes through a process of change. To find at any given moment that you are at a particular place in a larger story, that this is what I have to say about it now. Those kinds of reports are about one’s journey through life. This is what I am thinking now; this is how it is. I rather like that jinns don’t believe in religion either. Existence of fairyland doesn’t prove the existence of God; only of fairyland.
If jinns are not real, are they metaphysical?
I did a lot of reading on the literature of jinns—when you get into it, there are jinns who are disbelieving; others who are not. It is not a given that people from the magical world believe in the divine. The existence of a fairyland does not prove paradise. There’s a moment in Hamzanama where Hamza is asked to go to the land of fairies to fight a battle, and he has romance with a fairy princess; but there is no religion in it. It is just about another place, more fantastic than this one.
Two kinds of force in conflict: It is not religion and secularism; that is too pedestrian. But this: a whimsical, amoral, metamorphic, powerful force is coming at this world, and what do we do about it?
(Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights launches on 10 September.)
Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint and the monthly column Detours for Mint Lounge.