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Encore: Interview with Author Salman Rushdie

Aired May 10, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: By the time I tumbled into the war, it was all over.

MONITA RAJPAL, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voice-over): Set against the backdrop of India's tumultuous history, it's a story of two children switched at birth. Trading personal space, but sharing an entwined destiny. A fictional tale set in a real country wracked by conflict and corruption, dividing its population.

The book on which the film is based is "Midnight's Children" - Sir Salman Rushdie's first literary success, but not why he would become a household name.

On February 14, 1989, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa on the acclaimed author, giving license to Shia Muslims around the world to kill him. The charge? Blasphemy. Muslims worldwide erupted in a wave of protests, supporting the retaliatory move against Rushdie's book, "The Satanic Verses", parts of which Khomeini claimed were an insult to Islam.

It was a sentence that resulted in a decade in hiding for the author. And the injury and death of people associated with him and his book. Despite Iran's former prime minister ending the threat in 1998, some believe the hazard to Rushdie's life remains. Though this hasn't stopped him from receiving the highest of literary accolades and a knighthood from Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

This week, Sir Salman Rushdie shows us around his home town of Mumbai.

RAJPAL: So, would you say that you have good memories?

SIR SALMAN RUSHDIE, AUTHOR: Yes, I love this place.

RAJPAL (voice-over): And reveals why "Midnight's Children" is an ode to the city of his birth.


RAJPAL: Salman Rushdie, welcome to TALK ASIA. Thank you for your time. You and India have an interesting relationship. How would you describe it?

RUSHDIE: You know, it's difficult to say. It's just - it's been there all my life, you know? I mean, this is the place that shaped me, the country, this city. You know, this is where I was born and raised. And I think I've always - sort of at the bottom of everything else, I've always thought of myself as a Bombay boy. You know. So it's a very close relationship. Sometimes it's been a bumpy ride, but it's always close.

RAJPAL: "Midnight's Children" was written more than 30 years ago.


RAJPAL: So, 30 years after the book was written, how does it feel to see and hear the words that you adapted for the big screen, come alive?

RUSHDIE: Well, I mean, you know, I'm just - first of all, I think both of us -- Deepa Mehta and I - had a feeling of relief that it all came together. You know, because you never know. I mean, I think we all knew that we were very blessed with the group of people who came together, you know? We had an unusually beautiful cast - we had a really talented cast.

RAJPAL: The story involves the time of India and Pakistan at independence. And now, telling the story today, do you believe that the story is still relevant to be told today?

RUSHDIE: Well, you know, truthfully, I wasn't sure about that. Because there's a sense in which it's a period piece. But many people have come up to us and said, you know, "It feels completely like a description of today." You know, so maybe there are certain things that are constant. You know, certain things about the relationship between power and the lives of ordinary people. The way in which power behaves, you know, and impacts on the lives of ordinary people.

RAJPAL: Do you believe that, when you look around India now, that the country has taken full advantage of independence? I mean, when we look around and you see all the things that make it not work.

RUSHDIE: Yes, yes. You know, I remember the famous description of India by the former American ambassador here, John Kenneth Galbraith, when he described it as "functioning anarchy." You know, and that is one of the facts about this country - it shouldn't work. You know, but it somehow does.

RAJPAL: Organized chaos.

RUSHDIE: Organized - well, not even that organized, actually. Just chaotic chaos.


RUSHDIE: But it somehow holds together. And I mean, I think if you look at the fact that this is a poor country that's managed to remain a democracy for six-and-a-half decades, and you compare that to the surrounding countries - you know, you can see that it hasn't done so badly.

But, of course, it's a very flawed democracy. You know, and I think anybody who cares about this country is very aware of those flaws. In the last year, there's been a great debate in India about corruption.

RAJPAL: Is there a reluctance for people to bring those issues to light? To really talk about it? To really look at the criticism of society?

RUSHDIE: Well, there has been, but I think it's beginning to change, you know. And I think one of the things that happened after - as I say, in these last couple of years, the subject of corruption - there's been mass protests, and so on. And also, after this poor girl's rape and murder. Also, I think, there's a - that that sort of galvanized the youth, you know, here. And, in the end, that's where the change has to come from.

RAJPAL: When did you first learn the love of writing?

RUSHDIE: My mother would tell, really, family stories. And my father knew a lot of the classical tradition of - not just of this country, but of, you know, things like the Arabian Nights and so on. So the first time I heard many of these so-called wonder tales of the East, you know, were really in my father's tellings of them as bedtime stories, you know. So I got the bug early on.

RAJPAL: Were you ever afraid to show people your work - your writing - at the beginning?

RUSHDIE: Yes. I mean, I had a very bumpy start. You know, the generation - and when I was living in England in the late '60s, early '70s - there was a very gifted generation that arose at that time. It wasn't like that with me. I mean, I had a very - it took me a while to find my way as a writer. Lots of false starts and sort of wrong directions and stillborn ideas and so on.

And "Midnight's Children" was really a kind of final throw of the dice, you know. It was sort of everything or bust. And, fortunately, it worked out. But, you know, it took me a very long time to write. Five years or so.

RAJPAL: How did you find your voice?

RUSHDIE: Well, in the end, there was just a moment when I - you see, when I started writing the book, it wasn't written in the first person. And then I just thought I would try allowing Saleem to tell the story. I well remember the day that I wrote what became the first paragraph of "Midnight's Children." And I thought, "Where did that come from?"

You know, because it was so obviously the best thing I'd ever written. You know, that had sort of a kind of energy - life and potential - that I'd never come anywhere close to. And so, I've always thought that that really was the moment when I learned how to be a writer - when I found his voice as a character so -

RAJPAL: Through him.

RUSHDIE: Yes. His voice as a character really gave me my voice as a writer.

RAJPAL: You were born two months before independence.

RUSHDIE: Yes, eight weeks to the day.

RAJPAL: How much of you is in "Midnight's Children"?

RUSHDIE: Well, I mean, it's my generation, for sure. You know, I mean - it's not just me, but it's the people I grew up with. And I think it's an interesting generation, because it's a transitional generation. You know, it's the moment at which empire ends and freedom begins. And, as we know, that's not like throwing a light switch. You know, the empire may end, but a lot of those colonial attitudes, you know, linger on. So, to write about that age of transition was one of the things I wanted to do. And yes, I mean, Saleem - I suppose he - I mean, he went to my school and he lived in my house. You know, to that extent, yes, he was obviously a version of me.


RAJPAL: What does being the target of a state-sponsored attack do to someone? How does that change you?

RUSHDIE: Well...




RUSHDIE: I have kept a journal throughout this time. And I have been wondering what to write next. I have a suspicion I have just been given my subject.


RAJPAL: What does being the target of a state-sponsored attack do to someone? How does that change you?

RUSHDIE: Well, you know, I mean, I think I'm probably still much the same person. You know, I think if you talk to people who knew me before and after, I think that they'd say that. But it did intensify my feelings about - you know, about liberty, about free expression, about those things. I mean, I think if you're lucky enough to live in countries in which you have those things, you know, you sort of don't have to make a big song and dance about it, because you've got it. You don't have to argue about free speech, free speech is what you have.


RUSHDIE: You know? But when somebody tries to remove it, you begin to understand how important it is to defend it. You know, so I think probably I've become more involved in those issues. You know, as a result.

RAJPAL: You still see protests - death threats - against those who do question -


RAJPAL: -- Islam. Whether you're a cartoonist, whether you're an author, whether you're a young girl wanting to have an education.


RAJPAL: Where do you believe this anger comes from?

RUSHDIE: Unfortunately, we live in an age of identity politics in which people have been encouraged to define themselves by what makes them angry. You know, I mean, I would say that the more healthy definition of the self is to define it in terms of the things you value and care about and love, you know.

But now, we seem to be - or many of us - seem to be defining ourselves by what we hate. You know, and that rage, as you say, becomes a badge of identity - becomes a kind of selfhood.

RAJPAL: Do you believe that you were seen as a pawn or a scapegoat to bigger events where, at the time, the Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to really put his own stamp on his own country and his own people?

RUSHDIE: Yes, yes.

RAJPAL: Also, at a time of increased influence of the West over Eastern culture and migration from the East to the West?

RUSHDIE: Yes. All those things. All those things, yes. I mean, migration, after all, is not only one of the big subjects of my literature, but actually rather big subjects of that book.


RUSHDIE: But I think also, there's a profound question about who - about whether we have control over the stories of our lives. You know, the so- called grand narratives. You know, and religion is one of those. Religion, family, nation - you know, these are the grand narratives. We all live with them and live inside them. And in an open society, we all get to argue constantly about those things. That became, I think, the underlying question of this. Was, "Do we have the right to argue about these things? To dissent? To satirize? To make fun? To tell the story in another way? To have a different view about the story?" Or is it going to just be laid down for us?

RAJPAL: So then, how do you feel when you're seeing, on television, or reading reports in the papers - stories, then, of, say the Arab Spring?


RAJPAL: Of young people, now, questioning and standing up. Giving their lives, even?


RAJPAL: To fight against tyranny - to fight against what has been laid out for them and said, "This is the way it's going to be."

RUSHDIE: Yes, you know, I mean I - you know, like many of us, I saw the Arab Spring as a moment of optimism.

RAJPAL: You see, it's interesting. Because in "Midnight's Children" you talk about the disease of optimism.

RUSHDIE: Yes. I mean, people, get over it.


RUSHDIE: Exactly. And I think that's sort of what's happened here. That, you know, we were all optimistic at this - as you say - this rising up of young people wanting a better life. And, you know, more liberty, and so on. And to be free of the old authoritarian leaders of those countries.

You know, instead, what happened is that their uprising got hijacked by much better-organized forces, like the Muslim Brotherhood and so on. And so, you know, the Arab Spring turns into a pretty unpleasant fall or winter, you know. But history takes a long time, sometimes. You know, I mean, things don't necessarily happen overnight and sometimes there are backslidings before things move forward again.

RAJPAL: I read that you don't like spy novels. And yet, "Joseph Anton" -

RUSHDIE: Yes, it sort of is. I mean, it's a spy novel in which everything's true.

RAJPAL: I was going to ask you, how different is "Joseph Anton" to Salman Rushdie?

RUSHDIE: Well, all the things are just the passage of time, you know. I mean, this is something that happened to me when I was in my early 40s. And here I am in my mid 60s. So there's just that, which is based - I was a much younger man.

And also, of course, I'm now much less burdened. I mean, that was a time of extraordinary stress and tension and danger and fear, worry. Not just for myself, but for my family and friends and publishers and translators and, you know, all these other people who are at risk.

RAJPAL: Some would say that those "bad years", as you describe it, is, perhaps, at the time, difficult to accept. But, as a writer, you could not get better material.

RUSHDIE: Well, I mean, I always knew that. I always knew that. At the time I thought, you know, "Good story." Which is one of the reasons I kept a journal all the way through. Which was -

RAJPAL: At what point did you recognize it and say, "Hey, good story"?

RUSHDIE: Straight away.

RAJPAL: Straight away?

RUSHDIE: Straight away. And I thought, you know, so much was happening at such speed that I thought, "No matter how good your memory is, you're not going to remember this." You know, so write it down. And that, also, was in a way, a sort of act of optimism. It was a way of thinking that there will be a day when I can look back at this and write about it.

You know, which for a long time was a kind of unjustified act of optimism. It didn't really - you know, if you had to bet, you wouldn't have bet on a happy outcome. You know, for a long time. But fortunately, I did get to that place. And then, yes, I mean, I think at the very least, what I got out of, you know, 12 years of very unpleasant life, was an interesting book.


RAJPAL: Where are we off to?

RUSHDIE: It's just sort of the neighborhood that I grew up in.

RAJPAL: It's interesting how much of the old architecture is still here.

RUSHDIE: Yes, this is the one part of the city which has managed to preserve some heritage, you know. Because there's so much Art Deco in South Bombay that - actually, when I grew up, I thought Art Deco was the local style of architecture. I thought that. When I went to the West and realized that this was a, you know, a Western style, I was really disappointed. I thought that was ours, you know? I didn't realize it was borrowed.


Where do you feel you belong?

RUSHDIE: You know, I've always felt this sense of belonging to cities more than countries, you know. And so, there are three cities in which I've basically spent my life. I think the thing about here is that the place where you were born and grew up always has a certain kind of a feeling of home.


RAJPAL (voice-over): Coming up, Sir Salman opens up about his childhood memories of Mumbai.

RAJPAL: This is where you lived then?

RUSHDIE: This is where I grew up, yes. That's where I grew up. And used to climb the trees in the garden.




RAJPAL: This is where you lived, then?

RUSHDIE: This is where I grew up. Yes. That's where I grew up. And used to climb the trees in the garden. See, that house has been modernized quite a lot. So it doesn't look quite like it used to look. But this - you see, this rather run-down one is - this is much more -

RAJPAL: This is what it would have looked like?

RUSHDIE: What it would have looked like, yes.

RAJPAL: So, would you say you have good memories?

RUSHDIE: Yes, I love this place.

RAJPAL: Growing up?

RUSHDIE: Yes, I loved growing up here. And I was absolutely furious with my parents when they sold the house. Actually, I'm still angry.

RAJPAL: How old were you when they sold it?

RUSHDIE: 16 or 17.

RAJPAL: Really?

RUSHDIE: I was at school in England.


RUSHDIE: And it had never occurred to me that I wouldn't come back and live here. My neighbors had members of every community.


RUSHDIE: You know, Jews, Farsis, Hindus, Muslims, Christians - we grew up, as kids, in that very mixed world, you know. And our view was just that we celebrate everybody's holidays, because that way, we got more holidays.

RAJPAL: Do you think that sentiment still is here?

RUSHDIE: I think there is - this used to be a city in which was pride in being free of sectarian politics. It's really one of the reasons why my parents came to live here. So they moved here just a year before partition - the year before I was born. And it's true. Almost nothing happened in Bombay.

And for a long time, it was like that. And then it changed. So yes, and then, you know, "Midnight's Children" is set here. You know, the fictionalized version of this space is where, certainly, all the childhood - a lot of the novel - rather more of the novel than of the film - has to do with childhood. You know, because it's for "Midnight's Children." They're children for a long time.

RAJPAL: Innocence and the loss of?

RUSHDIE: Yes. A lot of the story is about Saleem when he's nine, 10, 11, 12-years-old. And all of that takes place around here. Once upon a time, like when the book first came out and had its great success, there used to be "Midnight's Children" tours of the city.


RUSHDIE: Yes, you could get on a bus and they would take you around.


RAJPAL: How very LA.

RUSHDIE: Exactly, exactly. Homes of the stars and everything.


RAJPAL: How would you want to be remembered, in terms of the kind of books that you wrote?

RUSHDIE: Well, I think, you know - my friend, Martin Amis had a very nice phrase where he said that, "What you hope to leave behind you is a shelf of books." You know, you want to be able to say that from here to here, it's me. You know? And you don't know - it's impossible to say how posterity will deal with those books. You know, it may be that the books that were best liked in your lifetime are not the ones that are best liked 100 years later.

RAJPAL: Are there any works that have been published of yours that you think, "Wow, how did that happen? How did that get published?"

RUSHDIE: My first novel - the novel I wrote before "Midnight's Children" feels, to me, now, very - I mean, I get embarrassed when I see people reading it. You know, there are some people who, bizarrely, like it. Which I'm, you know, I'm happy for.


RUSHDIE: But I find that I had not found my voice in that book.

RAJPAL: How do you deal with that sense of vulnerability? Because you've put yourself out there.


RAJPAL: For people to judge.

RUSHDIE: You just have to. I mean, that's the game, you know. And I think - what I always think is that you sit at home, doing what feels like a private act. You know, I mean, when you sit - it could take years, you know, to write a book. And during that time, nobody in the world knows what you're up to.

And it feels like you're just doing this thing quietly, by yourself, you know. And it's nobody's business but your own. And that's, of course, a delusion. But it's a delusion that almost, I think, every writer falls into. That you're making something in private and then that thing that you made in private becomes a public act, you know. And it's always a bit of a shock.

But I'm lucky amongst writers in that I'm - first of all, I'm one of the writers who, from a very early age - I was 33 when "Midnight's Children" came out - I've been able to support myself through my writing. Most writers can't say that.

RAJPAL: Having sold the rights to "Midnight's Children" for the huge amount of $1 -


RAJPAL: What are you working on right now?

RUSHDIE: Well, you know, I'm just beginning to be in a place where I could start new work. You know, because the last four or five months have been very busy with the publication of the memoir all around the world. And then, you know, the launch of the movie all around the world. So it's been - I've been the servant of these two big pieces of work for a while.

But now - I mean, I do just have the inkling of a new novel which I'm pleased about. That, you know, I've always used for myself this metaphor that you feel that there's a fish on the line, you know. And you have to sort of slowly bring it in. And, at the moment, I'm not sure if it's a little fish or a big fish. But we'll see.

RAJPAL: Can you give us a hint on what it might be?



RUSHDIE: No. I think the only rule I've ever had is, "Don't talk about unfinished work." You know, finish the work, then talk about it.

RAJPAL: Finally, why did you sell the rights for just one dollar?

RUSHDIE: Oh, well, to be truthful, I did get some money later.


RUSHDIE: We were very clear that this could not be a studio project. And then it took us at least two years - maybe a bit more than two years - to get the budget, to get the cash. Because, remember, this was in a very bad time. It was just after the economic crash -


RUSHDIE: -- and so on. For independent cinema, it was a very bad time. So I knew that I couldn't get the film made if I said, you know, "Give me a million bucks." It just wasn't going to happen, you know? So it was better to say, you know, "Give me one." And let's have the money, make the film, and then, hopefully, we can all get paid something. Which we all did.

RAJPAL: All right, Mr. Rushdie, a pleasure.

RUSHDIE: Thank you.

RAJPAL: Thank you so much.

RUSHDIE: Right, right.