The last interaction I had with Salman Rushdie was the night before his horrific stabbing. He had posted a serene photo of the full moon on Chautauqua Lake and I had admired it. Less than 12 hours later, as the awful news spread, it was like a body blow. I can’t think of another writer whose work has had such a visceral influence on me. I was 17 when Midnight’s Children opened up a world whose language shed the stilted straitjacket of so-called “proper English” and replaced it with the lush polyphony that captured the way South Asians live and speak, inhabiting multiple linguistic realms at once. This, coupled with his amazing ability to invent new words (a skill he had already perfected in his early advertising days in the UK), is what continues to marvel readers. Who else can come up with gems such as the character Insultana of Ott in Luka and The Fire of Life?
When Rushdie speaks of the early influences on his writing, he mentions the Thousand and One Nights and the animal tales of the Panchatantra and the epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, among others. Although fantasy and fantastical situations are a hallmark of his magic realist style, I believe the crux of his genius lies in how he uses these magnifications and distortions to reflect upon our essential human nature with all its flaws and foibles. There are obstacle courses in all of Rushdie’s novels, any number and permutations of internal and external dilemmas around which the story rushes, as though it were the rapids of the river—and this is what yields the rich palimpsest where you have the sediments of fantastical underpinnings above which the narrative momentum flows—interspersed with eddies and pools in which the inner workings of the character brew and ferment. It is also worth noting that though the milieu of his novels has shifted from India and Pakistan to the West, all the central characters in his works continue to be South Asian and in their various dis/locations are an important kaleidoscope of the immigrant experience.
“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.”—Salman Rushdie
What makes Rushdie one of the most important contemporary writers, however, is his stating that the writer has a responsibility to tackle the larger issues of the day. “It seems to me imperative that literature enter such arguments,” he wrote in an essay, “because what is being disputed is nothing less than what is the case, what is truth and what is untruth, and the battleground is our imagination. If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history’s great and most abject abdications.”
The world needs Salman Rushdie’s words to continue more than ever.
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Human Through Magic Realism")
(Views expressed are personal)
Sophia Naz is a bilingual poet, essayist, author, editor and translator