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‘World of Islam has to enter modern world’ — Salman Rushdie said during 2013 India visit

From recalling remarks of those who read 'The Satanic Verses' to thoughts on the future of the Islamic world, Salman Rushdie spoke on several topics in this interview with Shekhar Gupta.

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New Delhi: Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses drew death threats from Iranian leaders in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen Friday at a literary event in New York. A man went on stage and attacked the 75-year-old Indian-born British author as he was about to give a lecture.

This is the text of an NDTV Walk the Talk interview conducted by Shekhar Gupta in 2013, when Salman Rushdie was visiting Delhi.

Shekhar Gupta (SG): How wonderful to have you with us, Salman Rushdie, two feet away, not on a flickering screen.

Salman Rushdie (SR): Yes, this is really me.

SG: It has taken us some time getting you on the show, but good to see you in India, sort of often, because I think you threaten to bore us by coming here so often that it will cease to be news.

SR: That’s right, but this time, I hope the thing that will be news is something which I care about, which is the film of Midnight’s Children, which has been a long time coming. The book is already more than 30 years old and there have been attempts before to dramatise it, but which for one reason or another didn’t happen. In some ways, I think of it as a kind of karma because the kind of team we managed to get behind it this time was much superior to any of the people who have previously been interested in it.

SG: And also, a film is a good ploy to get people who are lazier about reading.

SR: I think if the film is well liked, it will take some people back towards the book. But I think you also have to think of a film as a thing of its own. In the end, if you are making a movie, you are trying to make a good movie. And I would say to Deepa (Mehta) that we should not think of it so much as an adaptation of the book as a relative of the book. It’s like the first cousin of the book, like there’s a strong family resemblance, but it’s not exactly the same thing. I think there’s that point always in an adaption.

SG: And has she answered that question well enough?

SR: Yes, I have to say I am very happy with the film. We were lucky in many ways. I mean, of course, Deepa is a wonderful director…first of all, she’s a wonderful director of actors and she is also a wonderful director of child actors.

SG: And she is tough enough to deal with celebrities like you.

SR: You know, she’s just as much a celebrity. What was good was that we are both very direct kind of people.

SG: But many lesser filmmakers would be intimidated by your reputation.

SR: It wasn’t to do with it. We just got on very well because both of us speak our minds, both of us are direct people. So that meant that we were, quite early, able to make an open working relationship. I mean I had admired her films before, I had actually interviewed her on television in America when she released Water.

SG: And what do you remember from that interview?

SR: I remember being struck by the film. But I remember how easy the conversation was between us. There was no awkwardness or stiffness which happens sometimes. And then, I was in Toronto because I had a book coming out and (I was) at her place for dinner. So we were talking about maybe doing something. And then, she suddenly said, who has the rights to Midnight’s Children? I said, as it happens, I have the rights and she said, can I do that? I said okay. That was the deal. I think it was instinct on her part and an instinctive reaction on my part. And then, we were both a little bit nervous when we settled down to work on it. But the first time we sat down to talk about it seriously in my study in New York, we had both made lists of images and scenes and things we thought should be in the film and so on. And what struck both of us was that the lists were almost identical. So then we thought that we were actually on the same page trying to make the same movie. From then on, our confidence grew in each other, we began to trust each other. There were times when I would say, look, this is something we have to have and she would give in. And sometimes, she would say, look, I don’t want to do that, I want to do it like this and you just have to trust me. And I would say, okay, we’ll try to do that.

SG: Until at the end she made you narrate.

SR: Which had never occurred to me.

SG: That was a googly.

SR: Yes, that was. Deepa is very determined. I was resistant to it. I thought, get an actor to do it, somebody who does this for a living. I mean, the rest of the film was so beautiful—the cinematography, the performances, etc—I didn’t want to be the amateur person spoiling it. So I was quite nervous about it but in the end, it seems to have worked out.

SG: Every reviewer would have said, because Salman Rushdie would not keep himself out of the film…

SR: Exactly. He wrecked the film. Well, I tried very hard to stay out of it. Even to the extent that there was one point where Deepa wanted me to play a small cameo in the movie and I said I shouldn’t do that because that would be distracting to the audience.

SG: So, it’s a kind of a sweet revenge. You know, if you can’t read my book, for whatever reason, I give you my film.

SR: Well, people can read Midnight’s Children. It has been here all this time. Actually, one of the things that was very important to me, when the book came out all those years ago, was the fact that people here liked it. I always thought that if people in India had not cared for it, then it doesn’t matter how many Booker prizes…

SG: If I could make a statement—if people in India and elsewhere had read The Satanic Verses, then this reaction would not have been justified.

SR: I think those people who have actually read the book more or less don’t have the theatrics. I’ve had quite a few people who were involved in demonstrations and protests against the book back at that time come up to me and sort of apologise and say, I’ve read your book and actually like it. You know, strange things happen when you take the trouble to read.

SG: Many of us were so disappointed that the book was banned without anyone having read it. I think it was just a panic reaction with an election coming up.

SR: Fortunately, we live in an age now when you can’t ban books.

SG: Right, you just download them.

SR: Exactly. I think that’s one of the great benefits of this information age.

SG: So now that you’ve made a movie out of one, will you make a movie out of another one?

SR: I don’t think I will write the adaptation again. For me, it was a very interesting experience. I think if I was to do another movie, I would like to write the original screenplay for cinema. Adapting is a very difficult thing. I always thought Haroun and the Sea of Stories would make a good film. I always thought that The Enchantress of Florence would make a good film.

SG: Is it one of the biggest creative prizes for a writer to have a film made?

SR: No, it’s just the next project. As a writer, you go from project to project. You don’t give them rankings. It was interesting because it was something I’ve never done. I think one of the things you are always looking for, as an artist, is to find a challenge that you haven’t faced before.

SG: When you saw the first cut of the film, was there anything that surprised you? Nobody knows the story and the book more intimately than you.

SR: The first thing I did was to see the rushes and then, I saw all the footage. What struck me was that we were lucky in our lighting cameraman because the look of the film—the extraordinary beauty of the film—is quite something. Whether or not you like the story, you can’t deny that it looks very beautiful. And it also looks like we had a hundred million dollars to spend, which we did not. Giles Nuttgens, the cameraman, has such an extraordinary eye that he makes it look like it’s a huge budget movie. Also, Dilip Mehta’s production design was meticulous, his attempt to recreate the India, Pakistan and Bangladesh of that period, the 50s, 60s, 70s. It was sometimes shocking to me that he would create rooms which reminded me of the rooms that I had grown up in. And people carrying objects like cameras, which I remember my father carrying around.

SG: We’ve been unfair in depriving you of that connection with your past. We would have preferred to do this interview in Ballimaran today.

SR: My father’s family was an Old Delhi family. When my parents were married, that’s where they lived. My parents moved from Delhi to Bombay just about a year before I was born. I never actually lived in Old Delhi.

SG: And you speak so fondly of your father in your book.

SR: I am so pleased because I think it’s easy to see, especially if you read Midnight’s Children, that there were difficulties in my relationship with my father in real life. But there was also this other side which I finally got to talk about, which is how much I owed to him and how much of his idea, his way of seeing the world, became my way of seeing the world.

SG: Talk about two things he taught you.

SR: He taught me not to believe in religion. That was interesting and he was completely without religious beliefs. But he had enormous scholarly interest, particularly in the history of Islam. What else did he teach me? Scepticism. He was a considerable intellectual in many ways. And he was not unlike many desi parents. He could be a real slave driver.

SG: Almost a quarter century has gone since that tamasha started over The Satanic Verses. Tell me, Salman, the sole purpose of 99.99 per cent having become so angry about the book without having read a line.

SR: 99 per cent of whom? I think the book has a lot of admirers. It has a lot of Muslim readers.

SG: How then do you explain this phenomenon?

SR: Because an enormous campaign was run against it. If you spend 20 years abusing something from the pulpit of every mosque in the world, you are going to create a certain climate.

SG: I am talking about mythology. How do mythologies get created?

SR: One of the reason why writers and people in power so often have conflicts is that politicians also are trying to make up the world, trying to present versions of reality, which they want us to buy and quite often, those versions are ridiculously untrue. It is part of the nature of power to make up a world to suit itself. And that’s sadly what happened to me. One of the ironies of our age is that you find the writers of fiction, which is supposed to be untrue, often being obliged to be the truth-teller because the people who are supposed to be telling you what it is, are lying to you. It is the ancient conflict of art and power. I just got caught up in one of those conflicts.

SG: First of all, for India to be the first country to ban it was a shame. That was a time India made many mistakes.

SR: I agree. It was very disappointing to me. I am trying to move beyond it. Twenty-five years is a long time. And I think to be able to be here today in a sort of completely ordinary way, to have the movie opening, which all kinds of people were saying nobody would let it be seen, it will be banned because it’s Salman Rushdie or whatever…but none of that happened.

SG: None of that will happen. Your first reviewer who reviewed your proof copy has now even blamed me for..

SR: Oh… it’s your fault?

SG: That I highlighted the reviewer or that I highlighted the Satanic Verses

SR: Usually, the default setting is… blame me.

SG: You are too big a guy to be blamed. Everyone wants to be a friend…


SR: One of the things people think is that Midnight’s Children is a novel about India; it’s also a novel about Pakistan and it’s also a novel about Bangladesh. It’s a novel which really tries to be about the birth of not just one nation, but actually the birth of three nations. So in that sense, it’s a broad-spectrum book.

SG: And three nations have fascinatingly all followed different routes to nation building.

SR: In 1947, you could have said that these three places were variations of the same place. And they felt like that. As a child, because half my family was in Pakistan, I would travel to Karachi, Islamabad or Rawalpindi and it didn’t feel so different. But now, these three countries, as you say, are very different from each other.

SG: The more remarkable thing recently has been the path that Bangladesh has taken. It’s remarkable for a country like Bangladesh to declare itself a secular republic, for the army to support the idea, for a government to change through elections.

SR: Very impressive.

SG: What happened with Pakistan? Why are they the angriest Muslims in the world? They are not Palestinians, they are not Iraqis, they are not even Afghans.

SR: I can’t answer that question because I have not been able to go there for 25 years.

SG: Not even when your mother passed away?

SR: Not even when my mother passed away, which was sad to say the least. But you know that these things change. I mean, if had you asked me this question, say, 15-20 years ago, I would have said the angriest Muslims are in Iran. So these things shift. I think a lot of it has to do with economic desperation. If you have a generation of young men who have no hope, that makes you angry. And religion can jump in and be a way of expressing that. I think a lot of it has to do with education.

SG: But does it also come from a confused reading of history? I mean, you combine so much history with your writing, so much fact with fiction.

SR: The way in which we are taught our past shapes the way in which we think about the future. That’s why you have to look at education, at textbooks, at the way religious instruction is given. If you are going to raise in your schools generations of children who are given wrong facts about their country’s past and they are taught about their religion and the rest of the world in ways which are very hostile, then you know that’s going to make trouble.

SG: And with faulty readings of history, you can create entire mythologies.

SR: Then it becomes the business of artists, theoretically whose job is to make things up, to try and tell the truth. There’s a moment in Midnight’s Children,talking about Bangladesh. We know there were atrocities committed by the Pakistan army in Bangladesh at the end of the war. And yet, for decades, Pakistanis would deny that that had happened. I remember because I was around. So the act of remembering and writing it down in a book becomes a political act when the official truth is denying that. That’s also true to a certain extent about the Emergency. You find that the truth of memory, the truth of your lived experience becomes at odds with the official truth.

SG: So what future do you see for the Islamic world? You said fundamentalism will eventually destroy itself. I read it in documents declassified by the Americans that in 1955 or 1956, when Eisenhower was very worried about communism, Nehru told him: Don’t worry, communism has the seeds of its own destruction. It was something for a sworn socialist to say. He has been proven right.

SR: Here’s a simple fact. The world of Islam has to enter the modern world. It has to learn how to live in the modern world. This world in which information is free, in which people do not live according to, let’s say, the cultural codes of Arabia in the 7th century. And you can see that there’s a great desire among the young people. At some point, in order to thrive, those countries have to modernise their ideas, their thinking, their institutions and they have to offer their people more liberty.

SG: But have you seen the subcontinent become more mature or less over the decades?

SR: I think Pakistan has become very far backward. As you were saying about Bangladesh, that’s a very encouraging development. India goes in both directions at the same time. There are things in India that have got much worse. Particularly in the area of free expression, they’ve gone much worse.

SG: At the same time, even I have some sympathy with the argument that the internet is being misused, particularly by the people who use it anonymously.

SR: I agree that it’s creating a generation of very rude people. I think the anonymity really helps with that. I am worried about that, I am worried about the fact that there’s so little sense of accountability. I am worried about that because I put my name on what I write.

SG: So Salman, what’s next for you? I believe you are coming back to writing fiction?

SR: I had this big year last year with two big projects coming up—this film and a memoir. So it’s time for new work, and I am just beginning to work on a new novel and I am slow, so it will take a while. I am developing a television series in America so let’s see if that happens.

SG: Whatever you do—I am sure you will keep doing new things—keep coming back to India.

SR: Thank you.

(Transcribed by Kshitij Bisen)

Also read: What a govt or nation can do is deep, compassionate listening: Thich Nhat Hanh said in 2005


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