This stained light, this night-bitten dawn
This is not the dawn we yearned for.
The ghosts of that night-bitten dawn still haunt the subcontinent, perhaps nowhere more so than in Kashmir. Now one of midnight’s children, Salman Rushdie, has ventured into this star-crossed minefield with a doomed love story that brings a fundamentalist terrorist from Kashmir to an ambassador’s doorstep in Los Angeles. Rushdie spoke about his ninth novel, Shalimar the Clown, for the New California Media radio show UpFront.
You have said about this book that the love story came first, not the terrorism. Can you explain?
What really came first was this image of this little group of people caught between in this mixture of love and death. This triangle—the dead man, his killer, the dead man’s illegitimate daughter, the product of the illicit union between the dead man and his killer’s wife. I learned to trust them and follow where they led. And where they led was to a very large canvas.
But had you always thought the book would somehow go to Kashmir?
I always thought Kashmir would be part of Shalimar’s back story but how much I would actually need to go into it and dramatize it, I didn’t know. But at a certain point I thought I was being chicken. The point of the story, the heart of the story, was Kashmir, and one can’t leave out the heart. At that point one takes a deep breath and goes for it.
Was it hard to write about Kashmir?
It’s a place I feel deep connection to. Partly because my family is mostly Kashmiri. But it’s also a place I have come to care about deeply. Yes, it’s always difficult to write tragedy. I would get up on certain days and wish I could change the story. Let these things not happen to people I care about. Yes, it was very painful.
When were you last there? 1986-87?
That was when I met a group of traveling players out of whom I developed the characters of this book. I went on a research trip to Kashmir while doing a documentary for British television and met this group of actors and they, in their Kashmiri way, were very welcoming and brought me back to their village.
I stood in this beautiful little woodland grove where they were teaching children the tricks of the trade—tightrope walking and conjuring. I thought there was something magical about this life. But this was by no means an idyll. They were in very dire economic straits. This folk theater which had survived hundreds of years was in dire danger of extinction because of television and Bollywood. I felt for them. But I couldn’t use them in the documentary in the end.
When you talked to them off camera they would tell you all kinds of stories, many of which were horrifying or shocking. But when you would turn on the machine they would say we are just fine, we are very happy. They were so worried about reprisals from one side or the other. In the end I had to leave the sequence out of the documentary. So I took them away with me, having not used their story. And all these years later I found a way to tell that story.
Were you already feeling the rumblings of jihad?
The insurgency in Kashmir began less than 18 months after that meeting. You could very much feel its presence there. There was this negative electricity in the air. The strange thing was when I would come back to Delhi and Bombay and talk to people, writers, media people, they resisted the information. When I said people are very unhappy with Indian authorities and the appeal of the radicals is growing, it’s the only time in my life people would accuse me of being a Muslim communalist.
As a writer, when you play God, do you have to stop in your tracks and think, should I make the adulterous wife the Hindu or the Muslim?
I should say in this book I really didn’t feel I was playing God. I felt like in a way I was a servant of the characters because they were so vivid. The Hindu-Muslim stuff just arose out of the way the characters came to me. I wasn’t imposing a scheme on them.
But did you feel a pressure to be fair—to unleash a plague on both their houses, whether it’s Pakistani-trained Islamic radicals or the Indian army?
No, that’s what I genuinely think. Islamic radicalism has been active in Kashmir for the last 20-25 years. The Indian army has been active there for the last 60 years. Part of the tragedy of Kashmir is they got screwed from both sides—first by the Indian army, and then the jihadis, and they got crushed in the middle.
When a plane flies into the World Trade Center and thousands die, or a hurricane levels New Orleans, people lose any sense of control of their destiny. But in this book Shalimar is so precisely trying to control his destiny, plotting a journey that leads him somewhat improbably from a village in Kashmir to the ambassador’s doorstep in LA.
The subject has a particular edge these days—the question of whether we have control over our fates or not—because of events like the 9/11 attacks.
But that subject has always been one of the great subjects of literature. That question—do we make our lives or do our lives make us—is something which novelists have always asked themselves.
Even in Midnight’s Children, Saleem asks himself that question and the novel asks us that question about him. He has this comic idea that the whole of history is his fault but it becomes clear to us he may, in fact, be a victim.
In this book the characters do struggle to be in charge of their fates. Shalimar becomes almost manically determined that his life will be the thing he has chosen for it to be. His unfaithful wife, Boonyi, seizes what she thought was an opportunity to reshape her life by decamping with the American ambassador, Max, from this tiny village of limited opportunity and so she can dance on a big stage.
Max has repeatedly reshaped his life. He was a Resistance hero, but at the end of World War II he feels very disillusioned with old Europe. He feels the collapse of France to the Hitler forces was a sign of the decadence of old Europe, that it didn’t have the moral strength to resist something like Nazism. So he chooses to reinvent himself as an American and becomes a well-known American diplomat. In a way, the choices he makes are in the end the things that cut him down.
Is the death of Max the end of a certain world order?
The death happens at the fall of the Soviet Union. Max has been one of the people who has built the post-war world. He is an economist, he is very involved at the Bretton Woods meeting which set up things like the World Bank. Max sees himself as an architect of the modern world and believes there is something noble about the world being built in the aftermath of Nazism.
One can argue about whether the World Bank and IMF brought into being a more just world. But he believes he has created institutions that will survive him and will serve the human race in good stead.
But what he is seeing as the Soviet Union collapses is a radical questioning of everything he brought into being. And he says to his daughter, just before he dies, that everything will be washed away. And he fears, as we all fear who grow old and are on the edge of death, that our lives will have been for nothing.
Another character says, “the milquetoasts of secular nationalism had had their day and become sidelined irrelevances.” Do you believe that after the fall of communism it’s now the turn of secular nationalism to fall?
It’s the least bad of the options. I am not an idealist. I don’t believe there is a perfect world around the corner if only we knew how to get there. I think you have to look at the best available choice, but look at it with open eyes.
What happened in Kashmir, which is the context in which the general speaks, is that the original nationalist movement in Kashmir was not jihadist. It was a genuinely nationalist movement—its slogan was, Kashmir for the Kashmiris.
But that essentially secular movement was hijacked by the radicals by techniques including murdering the moderates. To this day you find jihadist groups targeting moderate Kashmiri leaders for assassination in order to polarize the situation. Their cause is served by polarization. They don’t want the middle ground.
After the bombings in London, some people said that the British concept of multiculturalism has allowed London to become Londonistan, sheltering violent extremists.
That’s not the fault of multiculturalism. The mistake was a deliberate government policy to allow radical Islamic groups to come in and set up shop in London. The justification was twofold—one was, if you did, you would be able to monitor them, and the other was, if you gave them safe haven they would not attack their own safe haven. On July 7 both those arguments went out the window.
Were you surprised that some of the bombers were “British lads”?
I was surprised and not surprised. I remember calling my oldest son, who is 26, and saying, you know, these are going to be British bombers. I felt it in my skin. But it’s still horrifying that people blow up their own country and it shows a degree of alienation and disaffection that’s genuinely alarming.
What has happened in England makes us all have to question that subject of belonging, that subject of primary loyalty. The truth is, if these British-Muslim boys were to actually go and try and live for six weeks in some Arab country they would be absolutely miserable. There is a fiction here about Muslim unity. We see everyday in Iraq the nature of that fiction with the hostilities between Shias and Sunnis. This is, if you like, to use an old term, a false consciousness.
But when the Blair government says it’s against the law to incite hatred, are you not deporting and punishing people for what they are saying, not doing? It was you who once said, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
Tony Blair is for many of us one of the great disappointments of our lives. When New Labor came to power, I, like many others, hoped for good things from what seemed to be an idealistic, clean-handed government. Now I don’t trust Blair and his new laws further than I can throw them.
But I have to say, I would not grieve at all about the expulsion of some of those Londonistan figures. Taking off my liberal hat for a moment, to throw out some of these firebrand mullahs who have been working up kids like these kids who blew themselves up, frankly, I wouldn’t give a damn.
But there is a problem when you define offense so broadly that you can kick out anyone whose face you don’t like. And given the authoritarian nature of the government one has to be very, very worried.
What kind of reformation in Islam are you talking about in the face of this firebrand extremism?
In a way, maybe the use of the word reformation was wrong. That makes people think about Martin Luther. The Christian reformation was a Puritan movement and that would be a movement in the wrong direction.
I was talking about a reform movement. The purpose of that would be to reclaim Islam from the radicals. Islamic radicalism had much less power 30 years ago. Muslim culture was much more tolerant and open. I think back to my grandfather, who was an extremely devout Muslim and went on the Haj to Mecca, but nevertheless was extremely open-minded and tolerant. That’s why I dedicate the book to him. Even though he was devout and I am not religious, he was a kind of a model.
But can a call for reform have legitimacy coming from a writer whose work millions haven’t read but consider blasphemous?
You are right. There are many who will never listen to anything I say because it’s me saying it. That’s fair enough. I am not asking to lead anything. I am not asking to even be a part of anything.
What I am saying is, if something like this does not happen, the danger is that all Muslims will begin to seem as if they are complying with the activities of the radicals. If there isn’t a strong rejectionist voice, many people, particularly in the diaspora, where Muslims are in the minority, will readily come to think that if you are not rejecting the stuff, that’s what you secretly think. That would be catastrophic.
But standing up to extremism is hard. In 1990 you yourself published a statement of remorse.
There were enormous pressures on me, including government pressure to make some kind of gesture. But I regretted doing it. I felt the thing that gives me credibility is, I say exactly what I think. And if I compromise that, I lose myself and that’s what I felt briefly at that moment. So I tried rapidly to un-say it. But I think there are voices out there beginning to speak up.
What’s the best thing the West, America can do to facilitate this reform? Stay out of it?
The danger is to do deals with the bad guys. I think the problem is, the West, for its own economic purposes, makes agreements and thus shores up regimes that would more easily fall. We support regimes that in another part of the forest we condemn.
In the end I don’t want this to be a story of what the West is doing to the East. Because I found all my life as a writer it was too easy to make that statement. The more interesting thing to say is, suppose this is our own fault, supposing we are doing this to ourselves. The reason why I try to stress the need for changes inside the Muslim world is not that I don’t believe there is racism, of course there is racism, it’s not that I don’t believe there is oppression, of course there is oppression. What I am saying is that to take responsibility for your life is a better way to live than to assume you are an endless victim.
You say now you are more drawn to themes of “worlds in collision.”
When I wrote Midnight’s Children I didn’t think like this. I thought I was writing about India and Pakistan and that was more than enough. As the world has gone on in this last quarter century, my characters need a different kind of explanation. The world has shrunk, part of that is communication, part of that is mass migration, part of that is economic globalization, and yes, part of that is international terrorism. For a combination of all these reasons, our societies in different parts of the world bleed into each other, sometimes literally, to a much greater degree than was ever the case.
So my stories have turned into these strange stories where to understand one bit of the world you have to understand another bit of the world. In a way it goes against the grain of the novel. The novel has something provincial in its nature. The novel wants to be put in a certain small town with a couple of merchants and an unfaithful wife and tell the story. But now the world isn’t like that.
Before you go, I hear you know some really good fatwa jokes.
They are all really bad jokes. The best-known one is, what’s blond and has big breasts and lives in Tasmania? The answer is Salman Rushdie, which unfortunately is not the case. (Laughs)
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.