January 26, 2020
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"There's Not Much Support From India"

The literary fugitive wants to visit the country of his birth and take in the smells, noise and atmosphere but is unwilling to do so, as he explains to Farrukh Dhondy.

"There's Not Much Support From India"
It was reported that you were on the Nobel Prize short-list. That must have been gratifying...
It happens every year and the media go crazy. They call your agent and ask where you will be at 12 o'clock. Just in case. Everyone is excited if they make it before someone else. It's of course incredibly flattering. Nine nominees, among them Norman Mailer and Gunter Grass. It's a hell of a list. I think Gunter Grass is a great writer, so I feel very happy that he got it.

You're a bit young for the Nobel, perhaps...
Yeah? Twelve or 13 books is not so few.

But don't you feel you've just begun?
I haven't finished. I feel very full of books at the moment.

The new edition of Haroun and the Sea of Stories: it's not exclusively a children's book, is it?
At one level, it's about serious things - about language and silence. About speech and the silencing of speech.

"From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen"...
Who's that; that's a song, isn't it?

Don't you remember?
Oh yes, it was Cat Stevens. A great and wise man. For me, the secret of the book was knowing precisely where to pitch the language. For long, I didn't find the language for it. The moment it came to life was when I found the tone of voice. It has a serious dimension but I didn't have any moralising intent. It didn't feel like a different process. There's, though, a slightly different kind of language effort.

It's in your style. Call it magic realism which is what it's been labelled...
It starts from a more or less real place. Haroun's family is naturalistic, Indian. Then I go off into a fairy tale land, and that's fine. The country is deliberately not called India, nor the city Bombay. Kashmir is the valley of K. It's meant to be those places.

Doesn't magic realism cause the writer to deviate from the task of bringing out the savagery, shame or danger in the places he or she is writing about?
Take Shame. It's savage.

But it still deals in a 'magic' way with a country and a milieu and events that are humanly degrading...
There are many ways of approaching it. What matters is the way of discussing evil or barbarity. Approaching it head-on is one. Haroun, for instance, is a fairy tale, but even in it there's a frightening aspect. Readers have found it frightening because of the 'Chupwalla' section, silencing stories, silencing testimony...

The book isn't escapist. It's about something real. The argument about realism and magic is conceived in the wrong terms. Realism in the novel has nothing to do with rules of naturalism. Realism is the author's intention to respond truthfully to the world he sees, and techniques are of secondary concern.

Has your writing about India and Pakistan stimulated a negative trend because it tempts writers into whimsical nonsense and meaningless word-play?
There's a desire in some quarters to put my writing down that way. At one time, less good versions of Midnight's Children were being produced by others.

You have to look at a writer's work over a long period. Amitav Ghosh with his first book may have owed something to my writing, but you can't say that about his non-fiction. His book about Egypt, In An Antique Land, I thought was a very fine book. Some of his journalism, for instance about Netaji's army, was very good. As there is this enormous amount of writing in English, a lot of it will be rubbish. But more writers mean there will be more good ones.

One needs critical writing to help make distinctions. Talking of which, did you see Pankaj Mishra's pieces on you in India and The New Statesman and the New York Review of Books?
No. I've never met him. I don't know him, but I've heard that he has this animus, and fair enough. There's always some young punk...

The fastest-gun-in-the-West syndrome...
Maybe. Here I am, sitting in the corner of the bar drinking my whisky when this kid comes to call me out. All I can say is I hope he's fast, because I'm still fast.

He raises some serious points...
Since I've not read the piece, you tell me what they are.

That the human condition in Rushdie always seems to be the Rushdie condition. And that 'exile' is a much more serious problem for the really dispossessed than the predicament your writer persona seems to feel...
Writers can only write from how they see the world. This is the world according to me. If he thinks it's inadequate, it's his privilege. But he has to show us why. We must wait for his books.

There's one threatened...
We wait with not much interest. I don't like it when people are rude to me, none does. I could live without his good opinions.

The prominent absentee from the Nobel shortlist, my nomination, would be...
Yes, I know. Naipaul. I may have some arguments with him but it doesn't affect my genuine appreciation of what he has written and what he is, which is a formidable voice in modern literature.

Absolutely. Despite the Theroux book...
If I have a dispute with Naipaul, it's about two things. It's a political dispute where I think we don't agree very often. Then there are some books that I like less than others. That does not mean I don't think he's a great writer. I think he doesn't return the compliment, which is fine...

I don't think he's read the books; so he can't pass an opinion...
Yeah. That's what I call bullshit.

What I feel is a shame is that Naipaul has lost interest in fiction. He's going down his own road. He clearly writes that he finds it to be a more interesting road than a novel. Which I feel isn't right. I think from his own body of work what will last are A House for Mr Biswas, Bend in the River and, to an extent, The Enigma of Arrival.

I reviewed that book and maybe that's what Naipaul has against me. It has no narrative energy. What remains with me about The Enigma Of Arrival is not having ground beneath your feet. Out of this response has come the title of my new novel. It's that the enigma of the immigrant literally having to describe the universe into being because it's not there for him till he does. In that sense of not being able to take the world for granted, but literally having to put the earth under your feet. What I admire in the book is the energy with which that's done, but the effort is so great that it exhausts the writer and leaves no energy for actually narrating a story. The book just sits there statically. Nothing happens.

There's a compelling section in which he describes finding his material...
The autobiographical stories, about him and his father - he has done that several times. You can argue all this about him, but it doesn't change the fact that he's a great writer. I'd have liked to have known him better, or to have been on better terms with him. But we disagree quite strongly about India. He cheered up about India when the bjp was emerging; that seemed the wrong moment to be optimistic about India.Just as some of the earlier pessimism seemed a little unearned. So, in a way I have the opposite trajectory in my analysis of what happened. But that doesn't mean I don't read every word he writes on the subject.

He's very clear about the effects Muslim imperialism had on India and the upper echelons of Hindu society...
Yeah, I know. But he comes across as a Hindu nationalist. That's worrying when we see what that means on the ground. When Naipaul writes articles which the BJP can use as recruiting material, it's a problem.

Are you still living with a security guard?
Yes, but there's virtually nothing that I can't do now. I've just got to give them notice. I can't spontaneously take a stroll. That's a small degree of inconvenience compared to what it was. The only problem is how long should it go on and who will make that decision and how can I believe them when they tell me, etc.

And travelling to India?
Well, I've got the visa.

India is important to you...
I'd like to go back to see what happens. It's very important to me and my writing. But, to put it plainly, I don't think there's much support from India.

In what sense? The security?
There are plenty of people willing to facilitate a visit. Leaving aside security, it was interesting that when my visa approval came, threats emerged from Bukhari and the Delhi Jama Masjid.

Your visit will inevitably become a political football...
I don't want to be one. There's no way I can go there quietly. I'm not interested in going there for lectures and readings, but there's no way of going there and not being noticed. I have to let the media have the story. There's no way of running away from them. So, I thought that the first time I'll go for a brief visit, let everyone have the story and leave. Then go later as if Rushdie turns up again and it's not such a big story.

What about visiting Pakistan?
I have family there but if I don't go, it won't bother me. But India... Leaving aside politics, I'm not sure I feel particularly supported or appreciated by the intellectual and literary community. I think I'll have a rather hard time, so I don't want to go.

Why? Apart from the Mishra articles...
He's a straw in that wind. It's a long and difficult conversation to have for a newspaper article, but I don't feel good about the way in which the literary and intellectual community in India has responded to me.

Is there one such community? Bit like the Pope's harem, isn't it?
Whatever calls itself that, then. The way it has responded to my writing and to me. I find myself increasingly just saying: "I do this. I think this. These are my thoughts." I genuinely do not think I'd have a pleasant return.

But the smells and noise and feel and air of Bombay...
That's what I would go back for. There's Delhi and lots of India to get to feel around me. I would love to do just that and maybe that would be enough. It's been a very long time. Almost 12 years. I'm very interested to go back and I don't know what it will be like...

Winner of the Booker of Bookers, the Bombay-born Salman Rushdie's latest book is The Ground Beneath Her Feet
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