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Salman Rushdie: Fighting to nail the truth

Salman Rushdie speaks about his new collection of non-fiction prose, the struggle for free speech, big tech, and his love of art

Salman Rushdie's new book 'Languages of Truth' is a collection of essays from 2003-20.
Salman Rushdie's new book 'Languages of Truth' is a collection of essays from 2003-20. (AFP)

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Besides the 14 novels, a collection of short stories, a memoir and a travelogue (not forgetting two plays, a screenplay and two anthologies he has edited), Salman Rushdie has written a formidable body of non-fiction. Comprising essays, criticism, reviews and profiles, these reflections are often provocative, always stimulating, unfailingly lively, and scholarly yet lucid.

In the first collection, Imaginary Homelands (1991), Rushdie revealed the voracious breadth of the themes that have engaged him throughout his writing life of more than four decades: This year is the 40th anniversary of his second novel, Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981, and in 2008, the honour of being the best among the Booker winners in the prize’s first 40 years.

In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie gave an early glimpse of what matters to him—argument, debate, engagement, conversation, ideas. Above all, books. “I grew up kissing books and bread…. It has always been a shock to me to meet people for whom books simply do not matter,” he wrote. The essays celebrated migration and hybridity, revealed scorn for imperial nostalgia, questioned the idea of home and identity, honoured the writers he admires, including Jorge Luis Borges, Günter Grass, Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, leading up to the controversies that surrounded The Satanic Verses (1988). That magnificent novel, about post-modernity and post-colonialism, ended up being famous for completely different reasons when the Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on him. His second collection, Step Across This Line (2002), showed us Rushdie’s foresight—as early as 1993, he could see the battle between light and darkness that would tear our worlds apart. With the Tanner Lecture at Yale in 2002 being the centrepiece, giving the book its title, he spoke of the importance of crossing boundaries in history and the arts.

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Now comes his new, third collection, Languages Of Truth, comprising his non-fiction from 2003-20. It is divided into four parts: reflections on interlinked stories and the power of the myth unveiling insights about our existence; essays on writers, including Philip Roth, and one analysing Shakespeare and Cervantes, who died the same year; a section on the cause for which he has always willingly stepped up to the plate—freedom of expression and the necessity of dissent (Rushdie has been a former president of the American chapter of the international writers’ association PEN and founded its World Voices Festival); and a celebration of art and artists, ranging from Amrita Sher-Gil and Bhupen Khakhar to Sebastião Salgado.

I interviewed Rushdie on email and asked him about the title. Languages Of Truth can mean that truth has many languages but it also implies that there is a singular truth. In a world where the idea of “truth” is contested, with half-truths, post-truths and “fake news” proliferating, is there a single truth?

“I am suggesting that truth has many ways of communicating itself to us. A poem can tell us truths that a newspaper can’t. Music communicates deep truths without words. (Vincent) Van Gogh’s painting of a starry night doesn’t look like the night sky we see with our eyes, and yet it’s a profoundly truthful vision of a starry night,” says Rushdie. “Truth, maybe, is like India—a land of many languages but a single, real place.”

But then, how do we distinguish “truth” from “facts”? In an interview I did with Rushdie in 1987, he told me it was becoming difficult even to agree on what had happened. Those words were prescient. Think of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the origin of the coronavirus and, at a more absurd level, who won the US presidential election in 2020. India believes in satyameva jayate—truth always wins. But can truth prevail in our contested time?

“It is, of course, correct to say that reality is highly contested these days,” Rushdie says. “In some places, there’s a battle between incompatible versions of the real, in others, a war between things that are incontrovertibly so (the US election was emphatically NOT stolen, Bill Gates is NOT implanting microchips in us through the covid vaccines) and the powerful liars who insist, for their own purposes, that those lies are true. It’s more important than ever that all of us—whether journalists or creative writers or ordinary citizens—understand that when lies win, we all lose. I don’t have an easy answer—just an awareness that this may be the great struggle of this time.”

Languages Of Truth: By Salman Rushdie, Hamish Hamilton, 416 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
Languages Of Truth: By Salman Rushdie, Hamish Hamilton, 416 pages, 799.

Since 2015, Rushdie has been teaching writing at New York University. Many writers at the beginning of their careers are told to write what they know. One of the consequences of that advice, the Pakistani-British novelist Hanif Kureishi once told me, was that many of his writing students ended up penning versions of their autobiographies. While some may be exemplary, there are limits to an individual experience. As Rushdie notes in the opening essay, Wonder Tales: “Unless what you know is really interesting, don’t write about it. Write what you don’t know.” It doesn’t mean that writing needn’t be real. American writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald left home to find their voices in Europe, he points out.

How important is it for the writer to experience what he is writing about, and what role does imagination play?

“Many writers start off with some nugget of personal experience that drives them to write,” Rushdie says. “But in some cases that nugget isn’t particularly original; or else it is, but it’s quickly used up. What then? What I was proposing is that writers need to leave that ‘safe zone’ of the ‘given’ and try to find stories in the inexhaustible storehouse of narratives that the world offers us. And yes, by all means add your own imaginative flights to what you discover; but a writing life should be one in which you constantly broaden your horizons. Daniel Defoe wasn’t marooned on a desert island before he wrote Robinson Crusoe. He learnt what that might be like from someone who had been.”

Languages Of Truth begins with an encyclopaedic account of the power of myths—Greek, Roman, Norse, Persian and, indeed, Indian, drawing parallels across cultures and connecting the threads between them. Are we telling the same stories in different forms? “The stories we tell over and over are the ones springing from the roots of human nature—stories of love and hatred, war and peace, knowledge and ignorance, men and women, our differences and our similarities,” says Rushdie. “The ancient stories live on because they crystallise universal truths, which is why I have always found them useful.”

In 2012, Rushdie wrote his memoir, Joseph Anton. When we spoke around that time, he told me non-fiction did not interest him any more. Yet, through his lectures, essays and interventions, he has stayed engaged with the real, with that which is not fiction. Even his novels, testaments of the power of imagination, are firmly rooted in the present moment: Fury (2001), which sums up the zeitgeist of New York before 9/11, was in fact published days before the twin towers were attacked; The Golden House (2017) captured the anxious New York in the Trumpian age, just as Quichotte (2019) revealed an America riven by the opioid epidemic in the age of reality television. Does he think the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is no longer relevant?

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Fiction is and will always be my first love, Rushdie says, adding that “the boundary (between fiction and non-fiction) certainly exists, but like all frontiers it can shift this way and that. And as we know, many frontiers were arbitrarily drawn by colonisers and many of the world’s troubles have been the result. So frontiers are worth questioning, and maybe even transgressing. Boundaries are there to be broken.”

Writers who disregard boundaries, crossing them as though they don’t exist, often become targets. They are harassed, intimidated, jailed, tortured and sometimes killed. Rushdie has been an unequivocal champion of PEN, which celebrates its centenary this year, and which has been integral to defending the freedom to write and freedom to read (I chair PEN International’s writers in prison committee). I asked him about PEN’s continued relevance a hundred years on. With the culture of taking offence getting so widespread, is the argument for free expression a losing battle?

“As long as writers are persecuted, they will need defending, and sadly those persecutions are not becoming fewer,” he notes. “As long as writing is banned, we will need to fight for its liberation, and sadly those who want to ban things are becoming more numerous. And frankly we all need to stop being so thin-skinned. Free speech is not only for those who agree with us, or to whose opinions we are indifferent. Its essence is fearless disagreement.”

But those who hold power resent disagreement. Governments set rules about what can be said. While the internet offered hope of an unrestricted space, big tech has taken on the role of an enforcer even there, raising even more troubling questions. Should a company decide what can be said, or be trusted with safeguarding free speech? No, Rushdie says. “Personally I don’t feel that big tech is my arbiter. I proceed as I think best and that’s probably the best route for us all.” I point out misogyny, which has driven women away from social media. He does worry about such incivility: “All we can do is to stand up against the kind of harassment and violence you mention. It’s a battle we cannot afford to lose.” The answers aren’t easy.

I finally ask about art—a topic about which he writes with deep love. An important character in his 1995 novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, was an artist, Aurora Zogoiby, and the controversies her art created presaged the hounding of the late Maqbool Fida Husain in India. Artists have reciprocated Rushdie’s deep interest: London’s National Portrait Gallery has Bhupen Khakhar’s portrait of Rushdie, called The Moor (1995). Did he ever wish he were a painter?

“I wish I was,” he says. “And an actor, and a dancer, and an astronaut. But, alas, I am not.” Some pictures are worth a thousand words; Rushdie’s thousands of words paint a rich landscape that shows us what it is that makes us who we are.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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