Salman Rushdie is the author of, amongst other titles for adults, the Booker Prize winner, Midnight’s Children . A subsequent novel, The Satanic Verses , was denounced by the Ayatollah Khomeini for blasphemy and a fatwa issued against its author. The Iranian state has only recently said that it will not do anything active to carry out the sentence of death resulting from the fatwa. In 1990 Rushdie wrote his first book for children, Haroun and the Sea of Stories , dedicated to his son, Zafar. It has just been reissued in a sumptuous new edition illustrated in colour and black and white by Paul Birkbeck. In this wide ranging interview for BfK , Salman Rushdie talks to writer and commentator Farrukh Dhondy about his writing for children, his views on other writers, how important India is to him and much besides …
FD There’s just been a new edition of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It’s not exclusively a children’s book, is it?
SR The book is clearly at one level about serious things – about language and silence. It’s about speech and the silencing of speech.
FD `From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen.’
SR Who is that, that’s a song, isn’t it?
FD Don’t you remember?
SR 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 a long time I didn’t find the language for it. The moment the book came to life was when I found the tone of voice. And obviously it has a serious dimension but I didn’t have any moralising intent in my head when writing it. It didn’t feel like a different process than I would use in any other kind of writing. There is, though, a slightly different kind of language effort.
FD It is very much in your style. Call it magic realism which is what it’s been labelled.
SR It starts from a more or less real place. Haroun’s family is naturalistic, Indian. Then it goes off into a fairy tale land, and that’s fine. After all the country is deliberately not called India or the city is deliberately not called Bombay. And Kashmir is the valley of K. Obviously it’s meant to be those places.
FD Before we talk about magic realism may I mention the illustrations in Haroun which are remarkable.
SR I think it’s a terrific job. I don’t know the illustrator. What happened was that five years ago on Jackanory on the BBC they read Haroun . And the illustrator, Paul, got in touch. He had done some simple drawings. He’d never done a children’s book before but I thought that they were pretty good. So I met him. He was rather embarrassed because he said when you’re drawing the stuff on TV it s very sketchy. You don’t put proper detail into it, it is just for the camera to move across. But he said that he felt he could do something much better than what he’d done for Jackanory. And he’d like to. He did some pictures which were wonderful. So that’s how the project began. So we owe it to the BBC.
FD And is the world he drew the one you envisaged as you were writing?
SR Not exactly.
FD Lewis Carroll did his own illustrations, didn’t he, before Tenniel. And of course Disney took over.
SR Yes. Lucky Lewis. But Paul’s pictures fit very well with the vision of my book. It’s not exactly the same. One of the things we did discuss a lot was the figure of the boy. Some of the earlier versions I thought were too fat or too this or that. They just didn’t feel right. Either the face was too long, or there was something wrong with his nose etc. Eventually he arrived at a boy we all liked. Haroun starts in a real place and Paul has caught that quite well. The pictures have roots in the real place but they are not limited by that.
FD The book was written for your son, Zafar, wasn’t it?
SR Yes. His middle name is Haroun and it’s always been a book very important to him and to us. He was its first reader and only audience. The only time I ever wrote a book for one person.
FD Did you speak it before you wrote it?
SR Not in exactly that version, but when he was much littler. When I wrote it he was about eleven. But when he was much smaller I would tell him what became Haroun as – not exactly a bedtime story – I would tell him stories in the bath. That’s where the germ of it originated – stories in the bath, trying to find stories relevant to a bath. But he loved it. He still does. I was writing it for him at two different ages. When it came out he read it as an eleven-year-old child and I hope that he would read it again and see other things, which he does now.
FD Kipling wrote stories which work on both levels, though he pitched the Just So Stories at his children…
SR Kipling was very smart. He also had a very childlike side to him so he could write very easily as a child man which he was. Just So Stories were for children but The Jungle Book was for every level …
FD It rips off the Ramayana. Salman, what about the multicultural intent of Haroun. This is the first time a very Western literary tradition has absorbed this territory.
SR I didn’t think of it like that. I was writing a story that I could write. I didn’t sit down to write a multicultural book, except in the sense that I have multiple cultures inside me. So whatever comes out, comes out like that. Where I did think that aspect was important was when they did it at the National Theatre. It really was the first time there had been a production with that many Asian actors at the National level. And for many of them it was their first chance at being there. I thought it was great to offer them that chance and that it was a shame they hadn’t had it before. I thought it was striking how it brought a different audience to the theatre. The audience going into the Cottesloe was not your usual middle class British … it was people who had never come to the National Theatre. It was a huge Asian audience and of course the behaviour of the audience was different. They were behaving as one would hope, shouting things out.
FD And whistling?
SR There was a moment in the play towards the end where Haroun discovers that it’s his birthday. Someone in the audience shouts out ‘Happy Birthday!’ I loved that. When a book is published you don’t physically see the audience having that kind of reaction. But I suppose the same sort of thing happens with its readers.
FD You enjoyed writing for young ones?
SR The pleasure of writing for children is what you get back from kids. It’s very original and strange and unexpected. I get letters telling me how to write the sequel, what should be his next adventure. They tell me which characters they don’t like. What started to happen is that the book gets taught in class and then the whole class will write little pieces and the teacher will send me all of them. And the class will have their own go and say what their characters look like.
FD Do you write back?
SR Yes, I do. I get very, interesting letters. I got a letter from a girl in America. At the top of it she had printed in bold letters: ‘Please answer this letter urgently because when I grow up I expect to be either a novelist or a world leader.’ I thought to write back `Ten minutes and I shall be President.’
FD To get away from Haroun to your other books. Doesn’t the literary genre of magic realism cause the writer to deviate from the serious and necessary task of bringing out the savagery, shame, barbarity even danger in the countries and places he or she is writing about?
SR Take Shame. It’s a savage book.
FD Yes, but it still deals in a ‘magic’ way with a country and a milieu and events that are humanly degrading.
SR There are many ways of approaching this subject. I think it’s the way of discussing evil or barbarity that matters. Approaching it head-on is one way of doing it. Haroun, for instance, is a fairy tale, but even in Haroun there is a frightening aspect and people who have read it have found it frightening because of the whole ‘Chupwalla’ section, silencing stories, silencing testimony … The book may use the language of fairy tale but it’s not escapist. It’s about something real. This whole argument about realism and magic is conceived in the wrong terms. In my opinion, realism in the novel has nothing to do with the rules of naturalism. Realism is the intention of the author to respond truthfully to the world that he sees, and techniques are of secondary concern.
FD Do you think your writing about India and Pakistan has stimulated a writing or at least a publishing trend which is negative because it tempts writers into whimsical nonsense and meaningless word-play?
SR I know there is a desire in some quarters to put my writing down in that way. I know there was a moment when less good versions of Midnight’s Children were being produced by other people. You have to look at a writer’s work over a long period before you see what they are doing. Amitav Ghosh with his first book(i) may have owed something to my writing, but you couldn’t say that about his non-fiction. His book about Egypt, In an Antique Land, I thought was a very fine book. And some of the journalism he has published, for instance about Subhash Chandra Bose’s army(2) was very good indeed. As there is, this enormous amount of writing in English, a lot of it will be rubbish, but the fact that there are more writers will mean that will be more good ones.
FD One really needs critical writing to help make the distinctions. Talking of which did you see, Pankaj – Mishra’s pieces(3) on you in India and The New Statesman and The New York Review of Books ?
SR No. And I’ve never met him. I don’t know him, but I’ve heard for some time that he has this animus and fair enough. There’s always some young punk …
FD You think it’s the fastest-gun-in-the-West syndrome?
SR 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.
FD He raises some serious points.
SR Since I’ve not read the piece you’ll have to tell me what they are.
FD One is that the human condition in Rushdie always seems to he the Rushdie condition. And then again that ‘exile’ is a much more serious problem for the really dispossessed and displaced than the predicament that your writer persona seems to feel in your novels and essays.
SR Well. Writers can only write from how they see the world. This is the world according to me. If he thinks it’s inadequate or insufficient, that’s his privilege. But he has to show us why. We must wait for his books.
FD I think there is a book threatened(4),
SR We wait with not much interest. I don’t like it when people are rude to me, nobody likes it. I could live without Pankaj Mishra’s good opinions.
FD The prominent absentee from the recent Nobel Prize shortlist, my nomination, would be …
SR Yes I know, V S Naipaul. I may have this or that argument with Naipaul 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.
FD Absolutely. Despite the Theroux book(5).
SR Which is, I think, an own goal, Paul’s book. It’s got plenty of truth in it. 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 and then there are some books which I like less than others. That doesn’t mean I don’t think he is a great writer. And I think he doesn’t return the compliment, which is fine …
FD I don’t think he’s read the books so he can’t pass an opinion.
SR Yeah. That’s what I call bullshit. What I feel is really a shame is that Naipaul has lost interest in fiction. He is going down his own road. And he clearly writes that he finds it now to be a more interesting and important road than a novel. Which I feel is not right. I think from his own body of work, the work that will last is Biswas(6) and A 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. There is no narrative energy in the book at all. 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(7). It is 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 is done, but the effort is so great that it exhausts the writer and leaves no energy for actually narrating a story. That’s the problem. The book just sits there statically. Nothing happens.
FD There is a compelling section in it in which he describes finding his material.
SR The autobiographical stories, about him and his father – he has done that several times, they are everywhere. You can argue all this about him, but it doesn’t change the fact that he is a great writer. I would have liked to know him better, or to have been on better terms with him, but there it is. We disagree quite strongly about India. He decided to cheer up about India at the point at which the BJP(8) were emerging. That seemed the wrong moment to become 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 there. But that doesn’t mean I don’t read every word, he writes on the subject.
FD He is very clear about the effects that Muslim imperialism had on India and on the upper echelons of Hindu society.
SR Yeah, I know, but he comes across as a Hindu nationalist. And that’s worrying when we see what that actually means on the ground. When Naipaul writes articles which the BJP can use as recruiting material, that’s a problem.
FD Are you still living with a security guard?
SR 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.
FD And travelling to India?
SR Well, I’ve got the visa.
FD India is important to you.
SR I’d like to go back to see what happens. Yes, it is of course very important to me and to my writing. But, to put it plainly, I don’t think there is much support from India.
FD In what sense? The security?
SR There are plenty of people willing to facilitate a visit, that’s certainly true. Leaving aside the security side, I thought it was interesting that when it was first announced that I’d got a visa, there were threats emerging from Bukhari(9) and the Delhi Jamma Masjid(10)
FD Your visit will inevitably become a political football.
SR I don’t want to be a political football. And there’s no way I can go there quietly. Frankly I am not interested in going there to do lectures and readings, but there’s no way of going there and not being noticed. So in the end 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 and if Rushdie turns up again, it’s not such a big story.
FD What about Pakistan? You have family there.
SR I do have family there but if I don’t go to Pakistan it’s not going to bother me. But India …leaving aside the politics and all that, I am not sure that I-feel particularly supported or appreciated by the intellectual and literary community. So I think I will have a rather hard time, so I don’t want to go.
FD Why do you feel that way? Apart from the Mishra articles I haven’t seen anything that merits
SR Pankaj Mishra is a straw in that wind rather than in his own right. This is 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.
FD Is there an intellectual or literary community? Bit like the Pope’s harem, isn’t it?
SR Whatever it calls itself, 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.
FD Apart from this literary response, there’s the smells and noise and feel and air of Bombay …
SR 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 twelve years. I’m very interested to go back and I don’t know what it will be like …
(1) Circle of Reason is the title of Amitav Ghosh’s first novel.
(2) A Bengali nationalist leader of the early 20th century who fielded an Indian nationalist army in alliance with Hitler and the Japanese against the British during World War II.
(3) The author of Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, a travelogue of small town India.
(4) The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra (Picador).
(5) Sir Vidia’s Shadow by Paul Theroux.
(6) A House for Mr Biswas by V S Naipaul.
(7) The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Vintage).
(8) The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the leading party in the coalition that rules India today. It has a Hindu fundamentalist wing which is actively anti-Muslim and anti-Christian.
(9) The Imam of the Delhi mosque and the spiritual leader of millions of Indian Muslims.
(10) The main historic mosque of Delhi.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories illustrated by Paul Birkbeck is published by Viking (0 670 88658 0) at £14. 99.
Salman Rushdie’s books for adults include Grimus , Midnight’s Children , Shame, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Ground Beneath Her Feet.