It seems outrageous to allege that a book of interviews with, and essays about, Salman Rushdie doesn’t have enough of Rushdie in it, but this is precisely the issue with Midnight’s Diaspora. This set of responses to Rushdie by a group of political scientists, anthropologists and literary critics—all career academics except for one, Shashi Tharoor—goes about its business, for the most part, in a language far too clotted and abstract to give any enjoyment to the lay reader. But even on its own terms, the scholarship on display in this book barely passes muster because it is either too narrow, tendentious, reductive, or peculiarly self-absorbed.
Midnight’s Diaspora begins with the transcripts of two plodding interviews with Rushdie held at an event in his honour at the University of Michigan in 2003. The subject of the first, conducted by political scientist Ashutosh Varshney, is “The Political Rushdie”; that of the second, pursued by the literary scholar Gauri Viswanathan, is “The Literary Rushdie”. One might ask, why this division of labour? The writer is, after all, one being, both literary and political at the same time.
Class act: Rushdie’s praised, not weighed. Gustau Nacarino / Reuters
The answer might be that both interviewers are playing to their respective strengths, the better to illuminate the literary and political facets of Rushdie’s oeuvre. But this is to presume that a person with a political background is incapable of a stimulating conversation on a general subject with Rushdie.
Despite this allotment of territory, the questions are mostly superficial, revealing a mental universe as cramped as Rushdie’s is capacious. Viswanathan declares in advance that hers “will be the great rambling interview— very much like the great rambling Indian novel”—a peculiarly grandiose remark that inspires more dread than excitement.
Varshney, in turn, asserts that Rushdie’s work is highly political: “He seems to be singularly incapable of telling a story without political sharpness, without political courage.” It follows, then, that we should not “entirely abandon Salman Rushdie to the literary scholars and critics”. But the limitations of Varshney’s perspective immediately become apparent when, in the first sentence of his essay about Rushdie’s novel Shame, he calls that book “a political commentary on Pakistan scripted as a novel”.
Isn’t it strange that a book which is first and foremost a novel should be called a “political commentary” that is also—as if incidentally—a novel? And shouldn’t we be suspicious when it is a political scientist making this peculiar claim? Unsurprisingly, Varshney’s engagement with Rushdie and Shame lasts for only a page. The rest of his essay is about the problems inherent in the political self-conception of Pakistan. It is a good essay, and there is much to be learnt from it about Pakistan.
Elsewhere, there is a ponderous defence of Rushdie’s critique of Islam in The Satanic Verses offered by Akeel Bilgrami. The paraphrase of Bilgrami’s idea—that we should defend Rushdie not merely on free-speech principles, but on the larger case that the novel is actually the ally of moderate Muslims against fundamentalist conceptions of their religion—is more interesting than its laboured execution.
Dutch academic Thomas Blom Hansen’s subject—the changing picture of Mumbai in Rushdie’s novels—seems promising to begin with. But even Hansen’s exploration quickly slides into the area of his own research, which is violence and Hindu nationalism as embodied by the Shiv Sena, and then further to even more arcane matters.
The suspicion that this book is basically a group exercise in self-advertisement under the bright flag of the Republic of Rushdie is confirmed by Shashi Tharoor’s essay on Rushdie and Indianness. Tharoor is a more stylish writer than the others in this book, but his prose always conveys the impression of someone standing in front of a mirror. He allows himself precisely one good, insightful paragraph about Rushdie before he wanders off into a consideration of the main emphasis of Rushdie’s work.
And what is that emphasis? “(A)s I have written in my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium,” declares Tharoor, “the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural.” “My India, like Salman Rushdie’s, has room enough for everyone,” declares Tharoor fatuously. The incredible thing is that readers should be expected to pay good money to find out this.
These “encounters” with Rushdie, in sum, are about as genuine as those of Mumbai’s cops with gangsters. If you have Rs399 to spare, spend it instead on Rushdie’s exuberant early career collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands, which will tell you far more about his work than this ugly and unnecessary volume will.
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