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The opening paragraphs of Salman Rushdie’s essay Imaginary Homelands, a meditation of how migration can transform a writer, has one of the most moving descriptions of homesickness ever written. Rushdie describes standing outside his childhood home on Warden Road in what was then Bombay and soaking up the rich colours of the bougainvillea creepers and the pointy-hatted towers and gabled roofs of the house he grew up in. Despite the fact that he was returning after decades away, the Bombay phone directory still had his father’s name in it. This experience led him to write Midnight’s Children: “I felt as if I were being claimed, or informed that the facts of my faraway life were illusions: that this—this continuity—was the reality."

Much has been written about the technical virtuosity of Rushdie’s writing and of the range and richness of the influences on his writing, from Gunter Grass to the magical realists of Latin America. He reshaped magical realism and gave it a subcontinental swerve and liveliness; the dialogue in Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh is full of fun and teasing. And if the multiple narratives and interjections of his novels can be maddening for some, these aptly echo the rhythms of conversation in India. Less remarked upon is that his subcontinental novels are a love song to India. There is plenty of nostalgia too, but it is not the kind that Orhan Pamuk refers to when using the Turkish word ‘huzun’. Instead of that melancholy, there is mostly celebration.

In Midnight’s Children, the moment when the protagonist’s grandfather Aadam Aziz knocks his nose hard against the earth while praying and decides to become an atheist somehow also takes in the beauty of Kashmir valley. When Saleem Sinai loses control of his bicycle and careers into a march of angry protestors in Bombay demanding a separate state on linguistic grounds, in a novelist’s brilliant sleight of hand, it is the young boy who gives the Gujarati marchers their rallying cry.

This affection for the diversity of Bombay and India extends to Saleem Sinai’s classmates who are multicultural and multi religious, including a character based on an East European champion swimmer thrown in for good measure. This too is India—or India as it used to be. (Mahatma Gandhi’s occasionally bossy administrative assistant when he lived in South Africa was a dynamic Lithuanian woman, as Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India reminds us.) It is also apparent in The Moor’s Last Sigh, whose descriptions of Fort Cochin and its warren of streets and warehouses of spices facing the water are so memorable that I am unable to visit the Kochi Biennale without the alternative Rushdie visual tour of images from that book playing alongside the art on display. The Jewish synagogue in Kochi is not a remarkable monument unless you have read this book and contemplate the Chinese blue tiles on its floor through Rushdie’s eyes: As she cleans them, the caretaker hallucinates because of her sorrow and guilt that her son abandoned his faith and married a Catholic.

The loss of an anchor within us that often accompanies migration and the loss of religion are central themes of The Satanic Verses. Lost in the anger caused by its controversial dream sequences is that one of its central characters is a man broken by his loss of faith. Migration also extracts its toll. But there is also the magical—and no other word will do—reworking of a horrific terrorist attack on an Air India aeroplane where the characters fall to the earth reaffirming their Indianness by singing, of all things, Raj Kapoor’s Mera Joota Hai Japani. Again, Rushdie’s love of India shines through. Is that depiction of the aftermath of a plane blown apart insensitive, or is it an affirmation that there is life after life?

To make the case for freedom of expression in an India and a world where increasing numbers on social media and in government believe only in airing and listening to their own point of view is to voice a meaningless platitude even after last week’s horrific attack on Rushdie in the US. But the contrast between forceful denunciations of the attack from Washington DC, Paris and London and New Delhi’s lame comments on it has been puzzling. Then again, the Rajiv Gandhi government moved with Olympian speed to ban The Satanic Verses. By contrast, Rushdie’s friends in London were heroic at that time. His long-time agent Deborah Rogers, who had just endured an angry break-up with the novelist when he joined the mega literary agency of Andrew Wylie, put her country home near the Welsh border at his disposal. He moved in with a retinue of policemen a couple of days after a fatwa for his head was issued in February 1989 by the Iranian government.

I interviewed Rushdie in 2005, a few years after he came out of hiding. He beamed with delight when I remarked that no one captured the strength as well as withering wit of Indian women on the page as he did. After a three-hour lunch, he dropped me home, regaling me with stories of India’s bureaucratic ways, memorably likening it to what he called the “Sorry-No" Irani cafes of Mumbai.

Sadly, now as well as then, India’s response has been lame. We would do well to remember the UK Home Office’s decision after The Satanic Verses was published to disallow any further blasphemy prosecutions. It declared that governmental mechanisms are “inappropriate… for dealing with matters of faith and individual belief… the strength of their own belief is the best armour against mockers and blasphemers".

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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