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Volume II, No. 1 (1990)
Excerpts from a Conversation with Salman Rushdie
Una Chaudhuri: chair of Drama department at the Ticsh School of the Arts, New York University and associate professor of English, New York University
The conversation from which the following excerpts are taken took place in London in 1983. I had written to Mr. Rushdie in the spring of that year, telling him that I was going to be spending the summer teaching in London (one of my courses, ironically enough, was on “The Literature of Empire”) and asking for an interview. I enclosed a copy of a review I had written of Midnight’s Children, which had initiated what was to become for me a deep personal and scholarly interest in Indian expatriate writing. Mr. Rushdie wrote back, inviting me to visit him when I got to London.
When we met, Shame was about to be published, and Mr. Rushdie’s troubles with politicians were still in the future. It was a time when he could still talk about what really matters: his story-telling, and the amazing, visionary world to which his writing returns us all, no matter where we started out from. This material is being published for the first time.
UNA CHAUDHURI: The idea, or perhaps I should say the desire, to write a novel about India since Independence is undoubtedly one that other Indian writers have had. How did you prepare yourself to write on the subject? Specifically, were there certain kinds of novels you think — perhaps with hindsight — particularly influenced you or even guided you in finding the form you needed for this difficult subject?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I think I relied mostly on memory. I spent a long time just kind of excavating my memory and the memories of other people. And when there were errors in the remembering, I found I quite liked that, because I didn’t want to write something that had journalistic truth but rather some- thing that had a kind of remembered truth. And of course memory does plan those tricks. For instance — this is something that Indian readers catch at once — at one point Ganesh is described as having sat at the feet of Valmiki and taking down the Ramayana, which of course he didn’t. There are a lot at mistakes like that: they are consciously introduced mistakes. The texture of the narrative is such that it almost depends upon being an error about history; otherwise it wouldn’t be an accurate piece of memory, because that’s what narrative is, it’s something remembered.
What novels did I read? I suppose the three that are quoted most often as lying behind Midnight’s Children are Tristram Shandy, The Tin Drum, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I admire all three of them and I hadn’t read any of them for years before I wrote the book. So in that sense I didn’t consciously look for models. The shape of the book more or less arose out of an attempt to control this huge flood of material. The first version of the book was almost twice the length and I felt I was being drowned by the stuff: I didn’t feel in control of it. The shape the book gradually adopted was the shape of the attempt to impose shape on what seemed formless, which is why the book sort of has the meat on the inside and the skeleton on the outside, because the skeleton was gradually imposed on the book.
As for other influences, well, there’s Joyce, for a start. And Swift, and Stern. I’m very keen on the eighteenth century in general, not just in literature. I think the eighteenth century was the great century. Well, take Fielding; the thing that’s very impressive about Tom Jones is the plot, that you have this enormous edifice which seems to be so freewheeling, rambling — and actually everything is there for a purpose. It’s the most extraordinary piece of organization which at the same time seems quite relaxed and not straitjacketed by its plot. I think that’s why the book is so wonderful. So, yes, I would have thought the eighteenth-century novel had something to do with mine. And Joyce, because Joyce shows you that you can do anything if you do it properly.
UC: Were there any sorts of novels that you knew you definitely did not want to write?
SR: Oh, yes. I’m not very inclined towards social realism. Not that I don’t like realism, but it seems to me that it’s a convention that has tried to impose itself as some kind of objective truth. Whereas it’s actually only as artificial as everything else. There’s an essay or a letter of Brecht’s — maybe it’s a letter he wrote to Walter Benjamin — where he says that the trouble is that people in literature discuss form as if it was only an aesthetic problem, whereas, he says, it’s a political problem, it’s a moral problem, it’s all sorts of things — certainly not just simply a matter of aesthetics. What he’s saying is that in order to describe reality you do not have to write realism, because realism is only one rule about reality: there are lots of others.
UC: Do you think it’s a particularly offensive or even dangerous rule, since it fails to acknowledge that it is merely a rule about reality and not reality itself?
SR: I think it’s just outmoded. And I think partly it was a convention formed to describe a reality that no longer exists because the world has changed. When we read nineteenth-century realists, they seem to be quite appropriate. They seem to be describing the world that they live in. When you use the same techniques about the twentieth century they seem not to be appropriate. The world has changed, so form must change. One of the lessons of the twentieth century, it seems to me, is that human beings are not discrete from each other. That’s what Freud started. We all know this and they, in the nineteenth century, didn’t know this. And so they could pretend, you know, that human beings were all apart from each other and interacted and then went their separate ways. We can’t write like that anymore. One of the images I find most satisfying in Midnight’s Children is the image of leaking, of people leaking into each other like flavors when you cook. There are all kinds of leakages in that book; one bit of story leaks into other stories. I think that was an attempt to go some way towards creating a post-Freudian form.
UC: I suppose another conviction we’ve lost that the nineteenth century held is that it is possible completely and thoroughly to know and present another human being.
SR: Yes. We have question marks now in place of certainties. Saleem claims, or pretends to, the role of omniscient narrator, but that is partly because he’s fallible, and partly because he’s mistaken about some things, including himself. He is obviously not omniscient.
Also, he’s very shifting, changing. Another idea that we have and that they didn’t have is that human personality can be many things, that people can shift enormously, that the way they behave in different circumstances with different people at different times in their lives can be hugely different. Saleem is several different characters, really, all of whom happened to be called one thing.
UC: One novel — a realistic novel — that occupies a special place in the background of all writing about India is Forster’s A Passage to India. When you talk of Saleem being many people, is it possible to see that as a modern, or post-modern, version of Forster’s central idea of there being not one but several Indias, all colliding with each other?
SR: I’ve recently re-read Passage to India. When I wrote Midnight’s Children I hardly remembered Passage, because it had been many years since I’d read it. What I remembered — and this was confirmed when I re-read the book recently — was that it was very good until the Indians were left on their own. And then it suddenly stopped being very good. The scenes at the club were wonderful and even the scenes where the Indians and the English characters are together seem to be okay. But every time it was the Indians on their own, it seemed to suddenly go dead and I didn’t believe the characters would speak or think like that. On re-reading it I still have that view. My only conscious echo of Passage to India was to have a Dr. Aziz as well.
Forster thinks of India as containing lots of different, separate cultures which collide. That wasn’t really what I thought. My view is that the tradition of India is a mixed tradition, and that it’s wrong to start seeing Indian tradition as being pure in any way, as many people try and do these days, to try and create a kind of pure Indian tradition — which in fact is a pure Hindu tradition — and to say that that is Indian culture and everything else is kind of alien graft. It seems to me to be first of all rubbish, and secondly, quite dangerous rubbish at a time when communal discords, which have never been far away, seem to be starting up again. To say that it is possible and even desirable to separate these cultures seems to me to be really quite a suspect thing to be saying.
UC: Do you mean that even the idea that India has three major world religions — Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity — is fallacious, because they’re not the same religions when they’re there as when they are elsewhere, that in India they’re more like each other than they are different from each other?
SR: They are of course different when they’re there, for they’re penetrated by each other. For instance, Kashmiri Muslims keep relics of the prophet; there’s no other Muslim on earth who keeps relics of the prophet.
UC: And you have the Blue Christ in Midnight’s Children, the Krishna-Christ.
SR: Yes, I’m fond of the Blue Jesus. I’m sure that there are Blue Christs in India. A great thing about that book is that the things that I thought were outrageous invention turn out to be quite true.
UC: Midnight’s Children is deeply concerned with history, yet it is a far cry from traditional historical novels of the sort, say, that Tolstoy wrote. What is the role or conception of history in your writing? Do you think of Midnight’s Children as a new kind of historical novel?
SR: No, I don’t think of it as a historical novel particularly. I sometimes think of it as a political novel, but that’s different. You see, my view was that a country which has so many people in it also has a very large number of versions of the truth in it. In a way it’s stupid to insist on any one of them because, well, why mine and not yours? So I thought the thing to do was to try and make a coherent version, a version which was at the same time coherent but also suspect, which is what a memoir would be.
My view about the book changed while I was writing it. When I started out, I thought I would be writing about history. I thought I would be doing the Proust act, you know, of bringing back the past as if it had not been away. I believed that the filter of memory would be removed, so one could get to what it was like if you didn’t have the distortions of the filter. And then I just became much more interested in the filter and thought why try and pretend there is something back there; this is what there is. So the book became, for me, a book about the nature of memory. History is used in that way. It’s used in that refracted, distorted way when some things become very big. For instance, a lot of people, particularly in England, particularly since the Gandhi movie opened, keep asking me why Gandhi’s not in the book. Well, he’s there when he dies, and he’s also there in the background of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, but he’s not particularly or centrally there, and I keep saying, this isn’t a history book. This is a book about one person’s passage through history.
UC: Would it be too extreme to suggest that it’s one person ‘s revenge on history?
SR: It didn’t feel like a revenge, no. It might be, but it wasn’t part of the project. I was thinking for a time about what it means to be an individual in India when there are seven hundred million of you. The conventional wisdom about that would probably be that it means less to be an individual when there are seven hundred million than it does when there are four or five. And I thought that may not be the case, it may be the opposite. So I decided to make a kind of comic inversion of it: instead of Saleem being a tiny grain on the beach he would actually be the speck of dust that contained the beach or the universe. The book grew out of that. And it is a fundamentally comic inversion because, of course, he doesn’t really contain the world, he only thinks he does.
UC: This conviction or suspicion Saleem has of his centrality in history, is there anything typically Indian about it? I’m thinking of claims by people like V. S. Naipaul and Sudhir Kakkar, the Indian psychoanalyst, who say that Indian thought and experience are characterized by self-centeredness, by an inability to separate the self from the world.
SR: I wasn’t aware of that. By and large, I’m not very keen on Naipaul’s analysis of Indians. I don’t think Indians are any more self-centered than Americans. At least, it’s never crossed my mind that they were. Saleem’s self-centeredness, almost solipsism, is, it seemed to me, comic in its intent rather than allegorical. In the beginning, it was a way of organizing the material, and because it was funny it was a more pleasant way of organizing the material than some heavier symbol. Also, it enabled me to discuss the relationship between the individual and history, between private lives and public affairs. Saleem believes that there is a relationship, Saleem has a thesis, as it were, and the book tests the thesis. It turns out to be a destruction-test, because by the end of the book, it is clear that the thesis doesn’t hold up: he’s not in charge. And he can’t stand it — at the moment at which he begins to be faced with the facts of life, he performs a series of retreats, whether into a kind of catatonic state, or into quiescence or acceptance, or finally, into the pickle factory.
UC: Did you find a great difference between the reactions of people of Saleem’s generation and those who are older or younger?
SR: Yes. The people who like the book most are young. That’s obviously a simplification, but it’s interesting that very large numbers of the people who came to meet me or hear my talks were very young. They were all Saleem’s generation or younger. And I like that. I felt that it was right that the people who were the essential subjects in the book had taken it for themselves and made it their own. Endless numbers of people, not just in Bombay, would come up to me and say, “You shouldn’t have written this book. We know all this stuff. We could have written this book.” And I thought that was an extraordinary thing for a writer to be told — much the biggest compliment anybody has ever paid me. The older generation, I suspect, were often shocked by it: how could I be so rude about Mrs. Gandhi, there are limits to these things, one should be more cautious, it’s bad manners, really.
But what’s clear is that the size of the reaction to the book is, in my knowledge of Indian literature, quite unparalleled. I’ve never seen that number of people turn up to see a writer. I’ve never seen it in England, much less in India. It was quite awe-inspiring. They booked these rooms for three hundred people and seven hundred people turned up and the organizers ran around panicking, having to set up sound relays on the lawns outside. It’s so clear that the book had meant something. People often ask if I think of writing mythic books. My answer has always been that you can’t sit down to write a myth. A myth is a collective act. The society does it. Society picks certain things out of experience and those are its myths. But you can’t sit down to write one. You can’t sit down to say “I will now express the collective experience of my generation.” You can’t do it. Maybe if you’re Kerouac you can. But most people who would sit down to do that would write something very bad. I sat down to write a personal book. If people have that response to it, then it’s a matter of great pride.
UC: Does it have any political significance? I’m thinking of, for instance, Indira Gandhi’s use of her name, equating it with India, and the personality cults that seem to distinguish modern Indian history.
SR: It is impossible to overestimate the importance of names. I think they affect us much, much more profoundly than we think. You know, people become their names or change them if they seem not to fit. Why do you think it is that Hollywood made people change their names? It was in order to provide names to which the people could then fit. Norma Jean had to become Marilyn, you know, because people wouldn’t swoon over Norma Jean. So you see that naming has always been understood as being something absolutely crucial to perception. So that’s why I’m very interested in naming and I take enormous amounts of care about naming. It’s probably the thing I agonize over most. For instance, with the title of the book — when I started writing the book I didn’t really know what it was called. And I just put Saleem’s name on the front so that I had a name there. I knew it would never be called after him but, you know, you have to have something on the front page. Then, somewhere during the first draft, I became concerned that I didn’t know what this book was about. In a way, when you know the name, you know what the book is about. If you don’t know what the name of the book is, it’s a way of saying you don’t really know what your book is about. So I stopped writing and I started writing names and titles, book titles. I wrote down hundreds, pages and pages and pages, a whole week. I wrote book titles. Gradually, they started whittling down. I wouldn’t do it consciously. I would just write them down and the next day I would look at them and see which ones I still liked. Then I’d type those out again and as many more as I could think of. Gradually there were less and less. Eventually it came down to a piece of paper on which was written: Midnight’s Children, Children of Midnight I then wrote the two of them a hundred times each and decided I didn’t like Children of Midnight and I did like Midnight’s Children. So that was a week on the title.
UC: That’s fascinating. There’s a passage in Midnight’s Children where Saleem does a marvelous analysis of his name.
SR: Sinai had all that and I did construct the name for that reason. Again, partly autobiography, because Rushdie comes from Rushd, the other philosopher, rather than Sina, so from the start it was a kind of translation of my own surname. I wouldn’t have kept that unless it had all the other images of the desert and revelation and all that in it — and seeing the moon. I quite enjoyed that. It’s in a way a discovery that you’ve got the right name when suddenly you look at it and you find all the resonances in it that you want. A surprise, because you really haven’t consciously put all that in. Then you also know that your “tuning fork” is working properly. Because when it is, then everything you think of is right. Then you think of something out of nowhere, and it fits perfectly. I think this is kind of a commonplace about writers’ experiences when they’re going well. Literally everything they pick up seems to be connected — open a newspaper, they find something they want to put in a book. They pick a book off the shelf, they find a solution to the problem they’re thinking about. It’s a kind of magic that happens when it’s going properly: you create a kind of magnetic field and everything conforms to the shape of your magnetic field.
UC: The emotional structure of Midnight’s Children seems to be a progression from optimism and vitality to utter hopelessness. The dwindling numbers of the magical children, the breakdown of their confidence, the progressive loss or prostitution of their marvelous gifts — all this, read allegorically, points to a terribly despairing view of India. Is this your estimation of India today?
SR: No. Because, first of all, it’s not supposed to be a despairing view of India today but of that generation. In the book, the children are a kind of metaphor for potential destroyed, or hope betrayed, or whatever. And I think that’s kind of true about what has happened in India since 1947. But the book implies that there’s another generation on the way, you know. It’s not supposed to say this is the end of possibility. I don’t believe that. The new generation, Saleem’s “son,” is crafty. He listens. He’s not so quick to leap into speech. And he’s a bully also. Everybody does what he wants. I think that the book is not to be read as a kind of allegory of despair. You have to remember that it was written very largely during and immediately after the Emergency, which were not optimistic times. And so if it bears the mark of that, it’s not surprising.
UC: What sort of effect do you think the book has had — particularly on Indians — as well as other peoples’ perceptions of India?
SR: What one is in the business of doing is mapping. One of the paradoxes that the book deals with is that India may be an ancient civilization but it’s also a new country. One of the things you have to do with new countries is to draw maps of them. That’s one of the things that the book was an attempt to do. And that’s one of the things that writers can do for readers, provide them with imaginative maps. And then you can put yourself on the map. If the book is something that means something to you, then what you’re doing is seeming to describe the place you know in which you can see yourself. That book may have done that a bit.
UC: Would you talk about your new novel, Shame, a little bit?
SR: When I wrote Midnight’s Children, I thought that maybe that was all I had to write about as far as India was concerned. And after that I had to think about other things. Because it was an attempt to be a kind of total fiction, you know, and maybe at the end of a total fiction there’s not much left. So I really didn’t know what would be next. It took me a long time to recover from Midnight’s Children; there were about eight or nine months after finishing it when I wrote very little. And then I began to feel that there was unfinished business after all. And this book again took shape from various pieces. In one place was the Zia and Bhutto relationship. I thought the thing about Zia and Bhutto that was interesting was this business of how Zia was Bhutto’s protege and then became his executioner. And I thought that, leaving aside their personalities, that was a very strange relationship — for both men — for the executioner and the victim. It was like a Shakespearean relationship, a kind of high tragedy relationship, except that the characters involved are not high tragic characters. They’re gangsters, hoodlums, clowns. And so one can’t write high tragedy about them because they would be glorified and they don’t deserve it. What they deserve is black comedy, I thought. And so this is a black comedy which deals with that. I wasn’t particularly interested in making portraits of either Bhutto or Zia, but simply in taking that relationship and writing about it. The book takes place in a version of Pakistan. It’s not quite like Midnight’s Children, which existed very precisely in actual dates and actual events. This is a much more remade Pakistan in the sense that I don’t want to be bothered with whether Ayub was president or not president and I’ve got fictional political figures who fit into a kind of fictional political environment. That was one of the places it began. Another place was the title Shame. I wanted to talk about the importance of that as a kind of social concept, especially in the East.
UC: Shame as opposed to guilt?
SR: Yes. It seemed, the more I looked at it, to orchestrate so much of the social and moral relations; it was a really central method of organizing experience. And so I began to explore that. The book is really a series of elaborations on the nature of shame, whether public or private. It could either be something you feel, or something you ought to feel, or something you feel because you ought to feel it, or you don’t feel and are told that you should feel. And then in the public sphere you have the same kind of axis between shame and shamelessness. The more I explored it, the more ramifications of it I found. And then I was interested in a kind of connection that I believed to exist between shame and violence. That people who feel, over a period of time, ashamed or are made to feel humiliated, which is one of the versions or variations of shame, will eventually become violent as a result, although they may not themselves be violent people. What I found that it does — shame — as an emotion or an idea is that it makes people violent who are quite frequently not. So what I decided to do was to say, Supposing there were a character who suffered excessively from emotional shame and as a result became capable of a violence that was much greater than her physical powers indicated. Where did it come from? The strength came from the shame and not from herself. And so she was capable of performing extraordinary feats of strength without knowing quite how she did it. And then what happens is that the violence takes over, because it becomes like a drug, like a habit, you know. It begins to take over until she becomes a kind of beast in the book. In fact, she’s the daughter of the general in the book, so that’s how it connects to that story.
About the structure of it, what was interesting was that I had this very macho plot which was all about ambition and conflict between these two men, and coups and executions and revenges and all that, but I found that when I was writing, this plot was writing itself by a process of great indirection; instead of taking it head on, I was approaching the story of these two men through all sorts of characters around them. And it so happened that most of these characters were females — mothers or wives or daughters. There was this kind of galaxy of female characters around both men who, really, were the people through whom the story was being seen. And that made it much more interesting to me. Because I could then also write about sexual as well as political suppression or oppression, and to discover — what is inevitably the case — that the two were the same thing. And the society which does that to women will allow some of the things to be done to itself as a whole.
That’s what the book is, really. I was also interested in the idea of writing a book which didn’t have a dominant center in the way that Midnight’s Children does.
In Shame there’s no narrator. It’s not narrated, except by me. There is an “I” figure in it which is me and occasionally says things. And even that isn’t quite me because novelists, being sneaky people, will fictionalize even the bit that looks like autobiography. One of the things that interested me was to occasionally slip out of fiction and to seem to be writing nonfiction — to put essay-type material into the book. And, as it were, to look at the theme both fictionally and nonfictionally at the same time and see if that produced fruitful results.
UC: One of the strange things about how personality cults dominate in politics is that they seem so antithetical to Indian tradition. In fact, I wonder if this was a point you were making in Midnight’s Children. One thing that makes the Widow really evil is that she sets herself up as a sole god, as a monotheist deity, and challenges, of course, the whole pantheon in doing that.
SR: Yes, there is a little bit when he’s [Saleem] in the Widow’s Hostel where he has a discussion about that. The trouble with Hindu philosophy and why it’s applicable to that is that although in theory there is this vast pantheon, they’re actually all one or two and all that. She is Devi, she is also Lakshmi, Parvati, Uma. She was the mother goddess. Bharat Mata, that’s who she wanted to be. So if she wants to be Mother India, then that includes everyone else; they’re all incarnations of her.
UC: Of course that’s also what Saleem wants to be.
SR: Well, I said somewhere in an interview, one of the first interviews that I ever gave about it, that the thing that struck me about writers and politicians is that they were natural rivals because they fight for the same territory, reality. To make it in their image, you know. Writers do it by sitting at the desk and scribbling and politicians do it for real. But that’s why they quarrel so bitterly. Because they’re doing the same thing.