Forty years after the publication of “Midnight’s Children,” author Salman Rushdie said he believes the India he was brought up in “is crumbling.”
His acclaimed book, which won the Booker Prize, encompasses 30 years of India’s history, spanning independence from Britain in 1947 to the turbulent rule of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Saleem Sinai, the book’s protagonist, is born at midnight August 15, 1947, the same time India became independent from British rule. Rushdie said the child and the country were like twins born together and linked in some way. That’s when he realized he would have to tell both their stories.
“I just had to create this architecture in which the life of the family and the life of the child – the central character – were kind of mapped on to the existing history of India and Pakistan,” he said.
On the book’s publication anniversary, CNN spoke with the renowned writer about India’s political climate, the importance of free speech across the globe and his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement.
What’s changed since Rushdie’s childhood in India
Rushdie, who said it took almost five years to write “Midnight’s Children,” said both he and the book’s protagonist grew up in post-partition Bombay, which he calls “a beautiful city then and I think happier than it is now without really any measurable communal discord.”
Looking back, he said, he remembers “how little religion was a subject, it just really wasn’t a very big subject. And that, amongst my immediate friends, they were people of every religion and no religion, and they were Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, every kind of child.”
Celebrations in the city also crossed religious boundaries – for example, during the big annual Ganpati Festival, a Hindu celebration, everyone participated. It was the same story with festivals of other religions too, he said.
But now, much has changed.
“The non-sectarian atmosphere of my youth has very largely disappeared,” Rushdie said. “The country has a lot more trouble between the majority Hindu community and the minority communities. I would call it a sad time, because the India that people like me were brought up in and kind of bought into, which was the Nehru-Gandhi idea of the secular nation, that idea seems to be crumbling.”
If he had to write “Midnight’s Children” today, Rushdie said the situation in India would require writing a darker story.
“I hate to say it, but I think things are worse than they used to be,” he said.
Rushdie is a ‘great supporter’ of the Black Lives Matter movement
Rushdie, who has long been a supporter of racial justice and freedom of speech, said the racial reckoning in the United States following the death of George Floyd was inevitable.
“I’m a great supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “The trigger was the killing of George Floyd. But, the roots of it are in much older grievances. And, frankly, it’s about time people paid attention.”
He said the key issue is how minorities are sometimes treated in the US.
“The issue is how Black people are treated routinely by the state, and how imperiled Black lives continue to be,” he said. “And not just as we see, in recent days, not just Black lives, but now the attack on the Asian community is as dangerous.”
He believes most of the US supports the idea of diversity and would defend and uphold the rights of these racial ethnic minorities.
“But there’s no doubt that the temperature of this country has been raised in recent years, and that the dangers to people of ethnic minorities have increased,” he added. “And it’s one of the most worrying things.”
Another thing Rushdie said he is concerned about is that the US has “become more dangerous.”
“And the danger comes not from foreign terrorists, but from homegrown White terrorists,” he said. “And that’s the greatest danger facing this country now.”
Freedom of speech at risk in some countries, Rushdie said
Rushdie said he worries about how free speech is under attack in a handful of countries, including India.
“I do think that all around the world, authoritarian governments are clamping down on free expression,” he said. “I think to some degree, it’s happening in India as well.”
That’s why he said he’s been involved with PEN America, an organization that fights to protect free expression worldwide.
He said he wants “to fight for the principle of free speech, which is the rock on which free societies stand. Far from the world getting more accustomed to free speech, it seems free speech is more imperiled these days than it used to be.”
Now, as he reflects on the release of “Midnight’s Children,” Rushdie said he is grateful that the book has reached other generations.
“If your book can go on appealing to subsequent generations, then it has the chance of outliving you and that’s what one hopes for, for one’s work,” he said.