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Author and critic Salman Rushdie spent a week at the University of Michigan in March in connection with the premier of the stage adaptation of his novel, Midnight‘s Children. In addition to the Royal Shakespeare Company‘s presentation of the play, events included an international symposium, public interviews, community readings to interpret the novel, a film series and town hall discussions with the cast. The interview that follows is an excerpted version of one conducted by Ashutosh Varshney, professor of political science and director of the Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS). The event was sponsored by CSAS, the International Institute and the University Musical Society.
Varshney: The II website, announcing the events of this week, opens with a quote from you: “What is freedom of expression? Well, without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” At least some liberal political theorists who are committed to free speech in principle might still make a distinction between the freedom to criticize and the freedom to offend. Do you find this analytic distinction relevant to the world of novelists and artists?
Rushdie : Well, I don‘t, but let me tell you why. First of all, I don‘t know what‘s going to offend people. I get offended all the time. Bad sentences offend me, to name only one thing. All sorts of people‘s political opinions offend me. So my view in general is that democracy is not a polite business. Democracy involves the clash of often violently differing opinions. And one man‘s ideology is another man‘s defense.
One of the strange things about free speech is if you live in a free society in which, broadly speaking, you have free speech, you don‘t think about it that often. Just like if there‘s enough air, you don‘t think about the air.
So, I got much more involved in the subject of free speech after somebody started to take mine away and it made me understand that the defense of the freedom of speech begins precisely at the point at which somebody says something that offends you.
Varshney: James Mill, while writing the History of British India, called Indians imbecile brutes who had no history of their own. Now if the powerful are making offensive claims like this, there has to be some way for society to deal with it.
Rushdie: The answer is to answer back. Those ideas are there in society, reprehensible and ugly as they may be. It seems to me much better to have them out in the open where you argue about them and demolish them, than to have them under the carpet. So, let it be out there. It‘s hideous stuff.
Varshney: Feminists needed some kind of protection before they could speak out freely about feminist issues. African Americans needed some kind of protection before they could speak out freely about demeaning images.
Rushdie: I was around when the women‘s movement got going. I don‘t remember anyone asking for legal protection, any of them. They had a lot to say and they said it.
Varshney: So, your point then is that those who are offended by that speech have to mobilize opinion or political support and hit back?
Rushdie: Yes. Hit back in the form of speech—or not even in the form of speech; there are all kinds of direct action that are legitimate—protest is legitimate. There were demonstrations against the Satanic Verses, which I guess they had a right to do. The mosques ran a fantastically efficient campaign of distributing Xeroxed pages with extracts of the book with odd sentences here and there. “Rushdie calls the Prophet‘s followers scum,” and “Rushdie calls the Prophet‘s wives whores,” etc. If you had read the Satanic Verses you would know that I don‘t do any of that. But that requires reading a very long novel, and most people don‘t.
Varshney: From your work, some people have inferred that your relationship with India is one of great fondness, but your relationship with Pakistan is shot through with considerable ambivalence. India animates your work much more than Pakistan does. In Midnight‘s Children Saleem Sinai loses his telegraphic powers when he goes from Pakistan to India. In Shame one gets the feeling that the sentence that Pakistan is a “failure of the dreaming mind” betrays your own position about the country. Are these inferences unjustified?
Rushdie: I think for somebody who grew up in Bombay in the 50s and 60s, it was a great place to grow up. But to go from there to Karachi (a relatively short distance in terms of miles), it felt like going to the moon. You were suddenly going to a world of incredible difference. It seemed life had much less possibility. India is, broadly speaking, a free society [unlike Pakistan]. The growth of Islamism [in Pakistan] has narrowed the society even more and has made it even more difficult.
[Pakistan] is also a country in which, unlike India, the institutions of a free society had never been allowed to take root. In India, the Emergency for two and a half years is the only time that India veered away from a universal adult suffrage democracy. The way it ended was Indira Gandhi, after that period of dictatorship, felt the need to legitimize it by calling an election which she firmly believed she would win. And instead, the India electorate did the extraordinary thing of just kicking her out, annihilating her position in parliament, rejecting it so violently I don‘t think anyone would dare to try such a thing in India again. Meanwhile in Pakistan, you had either a succession of military dictatorships or civilian governments of intense corruption backed by the army, which was always waiting in the wings to take over if the civilians went too far. That‘s the tragedy of Pakistan. When you get rid of a general, you get a civilian politician who is corrupt and feathering his nest, then you get another general, then you get another corrupt civilian politician, and then you get another general. It‘s a real catastrophe of a political system, so of course I don‘t like it as much as India.
Varshney : In commemoration of this premiere, we‘ve had many, many activities. And a scholar named Thomas Blom Henson who has done two books in Bombay and is a professor of social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, gave a talk entitled, “Reflections on Rushdie‘s Bombay.” He greatly admired you as a novelist, not surprising, but his basic argument was that your view of Bombay was rosy and romantic and starry-eyed.
Even while you were growing up in Bombay during 1947-62 or in 1963 when you left for Rugby England, Bombay had two sides: the lovely, multicultural, cosmopolitan world of the upper classes and, I think these are his words, the nasty Mafia-infested slums in plebian quarters in which the teeming millions lived.
That is the Bombay that you are presenting here—and you have every right to say that it is the Bombay that you know—it is the Bombay in which you grew up. But there was this Mafia, there was this crime-infested plebian part of Bombay which doesn‘t show up in your work until much later. How would you react to this—about two Bombays, even when you were growing up?
Rushdie : There is no question that Bombay has become a much darker place from what it was in the 50s and 60s. Of course Bombay was always a city full of poor people and of course there were always slums and there was crime and some of that crime was organized crime. It has become much, much worse.
First of all, the gulf between wealth and poverty, which was always extreme in Bombay, has become even greater. Like many people, like the family of Saleem Sinai, from Midnight‘s Children, like my own family, many Muslims saw Bombay as a safe place during the partition massacres. The people of Bombay took great pride in that aspect of the city; that it was tolerant and cosmopolitan and had everybody‘s religious festivals. It was not problematic and you grew up in that atmosphere. Of course I came from a wealthy family and in that respect it was much easier in that part of society for it to be civilized like that.
Whether that‘s romanticizing or not I do not know. What I do know is that a lot of people I remember, people from my parent‘s generation and writers from that time refer to that period in the history of Bombay as a kind of special period. The atmosphere of the city was different. And many people would tell you, including me, that after 1993, after the enormous terrorist explosions that burst across the city at the time and the arrival of Hindu Nationalist politics in Bombay, the city has changed in character.
Now you have a situation where Muslim families don‘t like to put their names on the front door of their houses and it has become a much scarier place. He‘s probably right to some extent that I focused in Midnight‘s Children on the lives of the relatively wealthy group of people. But again, the point to having the baby swap and the life of Shiva there in the background is that the darkness is there. And Shiva is clear, his life is a life that is spent amongst the gang and he describes himself as somebody who is fighting in the gangs, and that world is also there. It‘s at the edges of the little enclave in which Saleem lives his life, but it is not ignored. It is referred to explicitly. And the darkness of that world gradually seeps closer and closer to the center of the action as the novel darkens towards the end. If he finds it romantic, maybe it has tinges of romance. Yes, it does. But I don‘t think it ignores a reality that was there.
Varshney: Do you think that those novelists who are unmindful of politics, who simply wish to tell a simple, human story abdicate a novelist‘s intellectual and political responsibility?
Rushdie: Something worries me with those words. I don‘t like to use them, but I don‘t like to be prescriptive of how other writers approach their art. It seems to me, people will do what they like and that‘s their business. I don‘t like to say it‘s your responsibility or it‘s your duty. My feeling is that I‘ve always wanted to write a book that wasn‘t political. The one time I thought I had really done it was the Satanic Verses. I thought this was a very personal book about migration and trying to write about the thing that happened in my life, which is to come from over there and end up over here and the consequences of that.
I thought that Midnight‘s Children dealt with India and its political situation, and Shame dealt with Pakistan and in a way it grew out of the political crisis there. [ Satanic Verses] talks about something much less structured by historical events and much more about interior change and metamorphosis. It‘s a novel about metamorphosis—the characters physically metamorphose. I thought it was my least political novel, and I guess I was wrong. I still think it‘s not a political novel; it‘s a novel about the changes that happen to individuals and communities under migration, and that‘s what I thought I was writing about. And it‘s a novel about London in the 1980s.
Varshney: A lot of what I have read by you is full of references to Bollywood and India‘s popular culture and the great, centuries-long tradition of classical music or classical dances, but it does not appear to get much attention. Is your preference for pop culture, for Bollywood, a political one in that it allows you to sketch characters and write stories that can reach large audiences?
Rushdie: Well, first of all, no, it‘s not a political decision particularly. It‘s not really a literary decision because I never expected to have a large audience. It really was one of the great surprises of my life. When Midnight‘s Children came out, of course I was hoping that it would be well-received and that people would think it was a good book and so on, and I was delighted when they did. What I didn‘t expect was this global best seller. And it never occurred to me that this was an option for this strange, gigantic novel that had no western characters in it, apart from one or two minor ones, and no parts for Tom Cruise.
And until then the only novels about India that had any currency globally had been novels about the western experience in India. That western experience of the East was, broadly speaking, what seemed to be the only way of making the East accessible or interesting to a global audience. And here was a novel about Indian experiences in India. And nobody had ever shown any signs of being interested in that outside India before.
The reason I took [Bollywood] seriously is that it seems there is a way in which you could compare the strategy of the Bombay movies to the strategy of the Elizabethan theater. You could actually compare Bollywood to Shakespeare. Look at Hamlet. You have four or five different kinds of stories shuffled together with only the genius of Shakespeare to hold it together. And I think one of the great freedoms that Shakespeare gave to writers in English is to tell you that a story doesn‘t have to be one thing…it can be five things, as long as you know how to tell it.
And the Bombay film does exactly that—it has every kind of story in each movie. So, every movie is in part a melodrama, in part a comedy, in part a musical, in part a love story. And that‘s something that the relationship of what I‘ve done to the Bombay cinema is about—to try and tell many different kinds of stories.
I like the idea that in Indian music, unlike the western classical tradition, the performer is also the creator of the work. Indian classical music is like jazz. That is to say that a raga exists as a structure, but the space for improvisation and individuality inside the raga is very great. So that removal of the distinction between creation and performance that happens in jazz also happens in Indian classical music. And I respond very strongly to that.
There have been people who have not liked my books that have said that they are too much of a performance and I tend to take it as a compliment, precisely because of that. There are moments in all books, and this doesn‘t happen very often to a writer, when a thing just happens like a riff of music. You go down a certain path because it just opens up before you and you go down it to see where it is going, exactly as a musician will go down a certain improvisation. At the end of it you decide if you‘re going to keep it or not, in the case of a book. You can‘t keep all those things otherwise the book goes off on tangents all the time and it makes it a mess. But it‘s wonderful to have that possibility in a book to allow something to just take hold of the text and to be able to improvise and to flow into it.