Schoolchildren fighting is not normally a preoccupation of great literature. But in this, as in so much else, Salman Rushdie took the rules of writing novels and turned them inside out. In Midnight’s Children, one of the finest scenes involves the narrator Saleem Sinai, not quite ten years old, showing off on a bicycle, borrowed from his sister, by riding around Evie Burns, an American with braces and freckles. “Willya get outa my way for Petesake? I wanna see that,” she yells. What she wants to see are Marathi marchers seeking a separate state. She pushes the back of his cycle hard and soon Saleem is “hurtling down the slope … past Band Box laundry, past Noor Ville and Laxmi Vilas, AAAA and down into the mouth of the march, heads feet bodies, the waves of the march parting as I arrive, crashing into history on a young girl’s bike.”
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The marchers for the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti are amused by the intrusion of the young sahib. Having held on to his handle-bars, they ask if he can speak Marathi. Saleem says he cannot. They then ask him to speak in Gujarati. He responds with a silly rhyme he has overheard when a schoolmate was bullying Gujarati schoolmates: “Soo che? Saru che! Danda le ke maru che!”
Minutes later the procession of Marathi speakers collides with the procession of the Maha Gujarat at Kemp’s Corner. “Under the posters of the Air India rajah and the Kolynos Kid, the two parties fell upon one another … and to the tune of my little rhyme, the first of the language riots got underway, fifteen killed, over three hundred wounded,” observes Saleem, putting himself at the centre of the violence that resulted in the partition of Bombay state in 1960 along linguistic lines.
One of the ironies of reading Rushdie is that in India, the past is never actually consigned to history. Just a couple of weeks before Rushdie was stabbed repeatedly by Hadi Matar in upstate New York, the emotive identity issue resurfaced again in Mumbai. “I tell people here that if Gujaratis and Rajasthanis are removed from Maharashtra, you will be left with no money and Mumbai will not be a financial capital,” Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari said before apologising a few days later.
The shock of the brutal stabbing of Rushdie in mid-August prompted me to return to his books. I was struck by how relevant they seemed decades after they were written—and how prophetic. As Vladimir Nabokov observed, “one cannot read a book; one can only reread it.” Amid calls that he be given the Nobel Prize for Literature on one side of the argument and on the other that the attack on him be understood in the context of the West’s war crimes in the Middle East, rereading Rushdie has been calming and clarifying.
Rereading Rushdie is also a reminder that he has been the most notable absentee from the list of Nobel laureates for literature in the past couple of decades. One is left to speculate that the reason holding back the Nobel committee from celebrating a writer so wedded to the big themes of our times—migration, nationalism, loss of faith and rising fundamentalism—who has also written modern-day epics about India, was a fear of offending those who believe he denigrated Islam. To award the Nobel Prize to him now, as New Yorker editor David Remnick and others suggest, would be an act of atonement. But, it would also, at one level, be redundant precisely because the political correctness that appears to guide the committee in recent years has devalued the prize.
For many of us Rushdie fans, the validation is not the Nobel, but that he was awarded the Booker of Bookers in 1994, cementing his place as among the greatest of novelists. As an Indian returning to Rushdie’s books, what is immediately clear is that few authors have written with such a three-dimensional sense of place about the country they emigrated from as Rushdie has done. The Bombay of his childhood is recreated in Midnight’s Children in freeze frame after freeze frame of the 1950s and 1960s. The mercantile and movie town personality of Bombay is captured again and again in subsequent novels. Advertisements from yesteryear return like flashbacks in the Bombay sections of The Satanic Verses, which are much richer in detail than the scene-setting when the novel plays out in London. Heated arguments over corpses in an Assam pogrom break out in a boozy Bombay dhaba, while a couple of pages later, Saladin Chamcha in bed with Zeeny Vakil, is asked about his life in London with his wife. “So tell, na. How do you live, you and the mame,” Zeeny presses him, before dissolving into laughter when she learns he makes a living recreating accents for British TV.
Srinagar, which Rushdie visited as a child, is similarly painted, as if in a series of murals, in Midnight’s Children and again in Shalimar the Clown. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, Fort Cochin’s atmospheric Mattancherry spice district almost steals the show in the early chapters. Estranged mother-in-law Epifania and daughter-in-law Belle abuse each other across dividers created by cardamom sacks. And could any Indian reading that book have done so without chuckling at Rushdie’s naming the “comptrollers” of the spice warehouses owned by the da Gama family—Mr Elaichipillai Kalonjee, Mr VS Mirchandalchini and Mr Karipattnam Tejpattam?
The word diaspora means ‘to scatter about’. While writing global bestsellers, Rushdie had scattered Indian stories ranging from the Nanavati scandal in 1959 when a naval officer in Bombay shot his wife’s lover to India’s wars with China and Pakistan in a novel of continental ambition. Hinglish and Indian slang have been mixed in—without the crutch of a glossary. Indeed, his books set in India are sprinkled with insider jokes that only his Indian readers would get. And, yet they have found a huge global audience: Decades ago, a teacher in a government school in New York told me she had suggested her class of seniors read Midnight’s Children as an introduction to post-independence India, which seemed apt rather than absurd.
But, for a writer who left India in his early teens to go to boarding school in England, Rushdie’s greater feat is to have recreated an India that has captured the imagination of so many Indians. Nandita Parshad, a development banker who has lived in London most of her career, recalls reading The Moor’s Last Sigh and “wondering how a man who left India as a child could still get India, and get under its skin, in the way he could.”
How did Rushdie do it? In his essay Imaginary Homelands, he wrote of returning to London after a low-budget trip to India in 1975 and spending many months before he started writing Midnight’s Children “trying simply to recall as much of the Bombay of the 1950s and 1960s as I could. I found myself remembering school scenes, and whole passages of Bombay dialogue verbatim, or so it seemed; I even remembered advertisements, film-posters, and a footbridge which bore, on one side, the legend ‘Esso puts a tiger in your tank’ and, on the other, the curiously contradictory admonition: ‘Drive like Hell and you will get there.’” Even by the standards of magical realism, what Rushdie achieved in this 3D form is very different from say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his fictional town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Rushdie’s novels transport us directly back to his beloved Warden Road and Malabar Hill in a way that makes the magic seem real, even for those of us who grew up elsewhere. Arriving for the first time to stay at a friend’s home on Warden Road a couple of decades ago, I was amused to find the name plate for the flat next door was Dubash: the epically untidy neighbours of Saleem and his family were also named Dubash.
The irony is that the one city Rushdie has never recreated in fiction with the same Bollywood Technicolour-meets-high art flourish is London, where he lived as a young and middle-aged man. He makes up for this in Joseph Anton, his unputdownable and often uncomfortably truthful memoir of the years he endured in hiding in London in the 1990s after the fatwa was issued. He captures the calm heroism and solid loyalty of friends such as novelists Ian McEwan and Martin Amis as well as that of the British security service. Ian McEwan recalled that over those years, his children thought it routine that hosting parties meant plainclothes security men sitting in a TV room in the house because they were always around when Rushdie was invited to dinner.
As a de facto biographer of India (and Pakistan), Rushdie’s greatest accomplishment is that he foresaw the dangers of Hindu and Islamic majoritarianism decades ago. Both Moraes Zogoiby and Saleem Sinai, the narrators of The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children, age at an accelerated pace: This is surely a metaphor for independent India, which at 75 seems older than its years in terms of environmental degradation, the apathy of its bureaucracy and its medieval-modern religious polarisation. Rushdie, however, would have had to be as clairvoyant as Saleem to have foreseen that the government of the country of his birth would turn its back on him repeatedly, racing to ban The Satanic Verses in 1988 before any other government did and thus fanning the flames of controversy. Taken together with New Delhi’s rather belated pro forma comments to the stabbing of one of the most celebrated Indian-born authors since independence, the two responses carry echoes of Midnight’s Children: The special talents of the 1001 children born close to midnight on August 15 are mostly ignored—or crushed by the Indian state. (Saleem and others have forced vasectomies before he is imprisoned during the Emergency.) “I am being buffeted right and left while rip tear crunch reaches its climax… Yes, they will trample me underfoot…it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes,” Rushdie wrote in the book’s last pages. In such a country, Saleem would have known that freedom of expression would be regarded as a dispensable luxury.
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