Sixty years is not a long time in the life of a nation or a culture, but it is time enough for a prolific writer to stamp his impress upon our imagination. Born on the same day as the Indian nation state, Salman Rushdie has done so forcefully, persistently and sometimes stridently, putting a subcontinent on the literary map drawn up by cartographers in the West. But like the country he seems to draw so much inspiration from, Rushdie’s writing and persona have undergone such endless transformation—it has been his curse to live in interesting times—that it is still necessary to return to his early work to understand the extent and limits of his literary achievement.
Some of that achievement has to do with how the anniversary of 15 August seems to call out—at least in the mind of metropolitan, English-speaking, elite India—a sprawling, energetic novel called Midnight’s Children, whose narrator and protagonist Saleem Sinai identifies himself with India. A midnight’s child like his author, Sinai perceives in his individual fate the destiny of a nation, creating a founding myth not only more powerful than that told in official histories, but more durable even than the creations of Saadat Hasan Manto or Bhisham Sahni.
There are a number of reasons for the importance Midnight’s Children seems to possess, and they are not exclusively literary ones.
Some of the significance of Rushdie’s novel comes from the way English displaces other languages, from the validation in the West that made this novel a global artefact even as it spoke of a national narrative. But there is also the fact that Manto or Sahni were writing in the heat of the moment, with the blood still fresh on the dagger cuts inflicted on Punjab and Bengal. Rushdie, in contrast, wrote Midnight’s Children in the 1970s. A Bombay boy dispatched to England by way of Pakistan, his novel was not just a reclamation of the past, but also an intervention in the present. He took those post-independence years that had produced the Bangladesh war and the Emergency, the blackmarketing schemes and the authoritarian laws, the revolt of the Indian elites and the turmoil of the masses, combined them with his endlessly chatty, big-nosed protagonist writing out his life in a pickle factory and produced what became a national allegory.
In this early stage of Rushdie’s career, continuing through the next novel, Shame, a travel book on the Sandinistas called The Jaguar’s Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, and an essay collection, Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie was one of the most impressive writers produced by the encounter between the West and the East. As far as Indians or Pakistanis (and, I suppose, Nicaraguans) were concerned, he would always be a figure on the outside, writing in the language of the West and unrooted in local traditions. But once this was acknowledged, it was also obvious that Rushdie was not insipidly cosmopolitan, flashing his badge of artistic autonomy to bypass the barricades of history. Instead, he was the living example of the idea that a writer could be engaged on many fronts, taking the fight to the enemy wherever he might be—inside Indira Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet, among the Contras funded by the US, or in the cabal put together by Margaret Thatcher.
The work that Rushdie produced later, beginning with The Satanic Verses, cannot be assessed on the same terms. In many ways, this is perfectly reasonable: writers evolve, and so does the world from which they draw their material. The bombing of the Air India plane Kanishka, the rise of Hindutva, the breakdown of the Indian state, Indian military repression in Kashmir, Islamic terror cells—all of these have found a place in Rushdie’s later works, but they sit uneasily alongside other elements that seem to come from claustrophobic bubbles of affluence in New York, London and Mumbai.
I have been harsh on this later Rushdie elsewhere, but I don’t wish to repeat myself. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that this later Rushdie has less to do with the man himself than a giant celebrity machine pursuing him around the world, spewing out badly composed photographs and paragraphs on the author as celebrity.
In other words, every age creates the Rushdie it wants. When India still belonged to the Third World, its elites included, Rushdie gave it the confidence it needed, speaking out against the racism and inequity entrenched in the West. But the world has changed and so, especially, has India, and now the celebrity machine looks to Rushdie for confirmation of the ways in which a certain kind of Indian can make it in the West. This machine, aggressive and brash, is impartial in its quest for success and fame: It takes in both Rushdie and his polar opposite, V.S. Naipaul, and the impression I get is that it is less interested in the work they have produced than their accoutrements and casual asides.
Yet the incessant chatter of the celebrity machine is only a cover, a white noise that seeks to drown the anxieties generated by our age. It wishes to assure us that we have arrived, although we don’t know where we are going. It drums out a beat of assertion and aggrandizement, even though what we need most is humility.
It asks us to focus on the celebrity, but it doesn’t show us how to engage with an author’s work. Against this, one can only assert the fragile act of reading, the need to return to the words on the page. Because if we go there, we will find Rushdie’s books, and we will find the other books with which his works carry out a conversation. Celebrities come and go too quickly, and nations move too slowly, but books keep pace with us. They give us the human measure we need, now more than ever.
Siddhartha Deb is the author of the novels, The Point of Return and Surface , published by Picador. He is working on a non-fiction book on India