Rushdie’s Indianness love songs pulsate with passion

The opening paragraphs of Salman Rushdie’s essay Imaginary Homelands, a meditation on how migration can transform a writer, contain one of the most moving descriptions of homesickness ever written. Rushdie describes standing outside his childhood home on Warden Road in what was then Bombay and soaking up the rich colors of the bougainvillea creepers and the pointed hattowers and gabled roofs of the house he grew up in. Despite the fact that he returned after decades later, the Bombay telephone directory still contained his father’s name. This experience led him to write Midnight’s Children: “I felt as if I was being reclaimed, or told that the facts of my distant life were illusions: that this – this continuity – was reality.

Much has been written about the technical virtuosity of Rushdie’s writing and the range and richness of influences on his writing, from Gunter Grass to Latin American magic realists. He reshaped magical realism and gave it a sub-continental lurch and liveliness; the dialogue in Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh is full of fun and teasing. And if the multiple stories and interjections of his novels can panic some, they echo with accuracy the rhythms of conversation in India. What is less noticed is that his sub-continental novels are a love song for India. There’s also a lot of nostalgia, but it’s not the kind that Orhan Pamuk is referring to when he uses the Turkish word “huzun”. Instead of this melancholy, there is above all the party.

In Midnight’s Children, the moment the protagonist’s grandfather, Aadam Aziz, bangs his nose hard against the earth while praying and decides to become an atheist, somehow also embraces the beauty of the valley of Kashmir. When Saleem Sinai loses control of his bike and his career in a march of angry protesters in Bombay demanding a separate state on language grounds, in a novelist’s brilliant sleight of hand, it’s the young boy which gives Gujarati walkers their rallying cry.

This affection for the diversity of Bombay and India extends to Saleem Sinai’s classmates who are multicultural and multi-religious, including a character based on an Eastern European champion swimmer thrown in for good measure. . It is also India, or India as it was. (Mahatma Gandhi’s sometimes overbearing administrative assistant when he lived in South Africa was a dynamic Lithuanian woman, as Gandhi reminds us before Ramachandra Guha’s India). the waterfront spice warehouses are so memorable that I can’t visit the Kochi Biennale without Rushdie’s alternative visual tour of the images from this book playing alongside the art on display. The Jewish Synagogue in Kochi isn’t a remarkable landmark unless you’ve read this book and gazed at the blue Chinese tiles on its floor through Rushdie’s eyes: As she cleans them, the caretaker hallucinates because of her grief and guilt that her son had abandoned his faith and married a Catholic.

The loss of an anchor within us that often accompanies migration and the loss of religion are central themes of The Satanic Verses. Lost in anger over his controversial dream sequences, one of its central characters is a man broken by his loss of faith. Migration also extracts its toll. But there’s also the magical reworking – and no other word will suffice – of a gruesome terrorist attack on an Air India plane where the characters fall to the ground reaffirming their Indianness while singing, among other things, Mera Joota Hai Japani by Raj Kapoor. Again, Rushdie’s love for India shines through. Is this depiction of the aftermath of a destroyed plane insensitive, or is it an affirmation that there is life after life?

To argue for freedom of speech in an India and a world where a growing number of people on social media and in government believe only in broadcasting and listening to their own views is to express meaningless platitude even after last week’s horrific attack on Rushdie in the United States. But the contrast between the forceful denunciations of the attack from Washington DC, Paris and London and New Delhi’s lame comments about it is disconcerting. Again, the government of Rajiv Gandhi acted with Olympian speed to ban The Satanic Verses. By contrast, Rushdie’s friends in London were heroic at this time. His longtime agent Deborah Rogers, who had just gone through an angry split with the novelist when he joined Andrew Wylie’s mega literary agency, made his country home near the Welsh border available to him. He moved in with a retinue of policemen days after a fatwa for his head was issued in February 1989 by the Iranian government.

I interviewed Rushdie in 2005, a few years after he came out of hiding. He beamed with delight when I noticed that no one captured the strength and withered spirit of the Indian women on the page like he did. After a three-hour lunch, he dropped me off at home, regaling me with stories of India’s bureaucratic ways, memorably comparing it to what he called the Iranian “Sorry-No” cafes of mumbai.

Unfortunately, now as then, India’s response has been lame. We would do well to remember the decision of the UK Home Office after the publication of The Satanic Verses to bar any prosecution for blasphemy. He said government machinery is “unsuitable…to deal with matters of individual faith and belief…the strength of one’s own belief is the best armor against scoffers and blasphemers.”

Rahul Jacob is a columnist for the Mint and a former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times.

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