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Salman Rushdie on Bombay, Rock N' Roll, and The Satanic Verses

Vijaya Nagarajan : You were born in Bombay and raised there until you were a "part" teenager, and then went to England. Would you say a little bit about what that Bombay of the 1950s was like?

Salman Rushdie : The Bombay of that period, of the fifties and the first half of the sixties, was a city going through a kind of golden age. There's a worrying sense that one has about the place that you're a child in, that maybe you're infusing it with a kind of retrospective golden glow of childhood. But I don't think I am, because people of an older generation than I—of my parents' generation and so on—all say this. It certainly felt like that, like a kind of enchanted zone, at the time. It was a wonderful, exciting, vibrant city to grow up in. And I fell in love with it then and forever.

When writers fall in love with cities—they often don't fall in love with cities, in general—they often fall in love with the city at a particular point in time. You can think of the German writer Günther Grass, of The Tin Drum . He's in love with Danzig, the pre-war Danzig, and he's not nearly so much in love with present day Gdansk. And Joyce's Dublin was a particular Dublin. He carried around a newspaper of June 16, 1904, and actually it's amazing how many bits of that newspaper are in Ulysses. Even down to the advertising: "What is life without plum trees? Potted meat? Incomplete."

So my city was Bombay, and one of the things that interests me now is that when you grow up in a city, you believe it to be eternal. You believe that the city was always there and always will be there. It seems to be a very solid thing. Whereas, in fact, now that I know more it's plain that the city that I grew up in was a very new city. Actually the neighborhoods where I grew up were in some cases only fifteen or twenty years old; they were really only just developed. Malabar Hill, Warden Road, Breach Candy, Mahalaxmi, these were very new parts of town. They aged rapidly because everything in India goes to hell very fast. So they looked kind of dreadful and ancient, but they were actually very new. Twenty years later, they were all knocked down again and the city was replaced by a kind of contemporary high-rise city that you would see if you now went to Bombay.

When I was growing up in Bombay, there wasn't a single skyscraper in town. In fact, I remember the first skyscraper being built on Malabar Hill; the people in the city used to contemptuously refer to it as Matchbox House because it looked like a giant matchbox standing on its side. We all told each other that it would never catch on. One of the many things about which we were wrong.

What I feel now about that city is that it was actually a demonstration of how transient things are, that the apparent solidity of the city was a complete illusion. It was very new and it didn't last long. I think that's true not only of the physical fabric of the city but also of the spirit of the city. One of the things that people in Bombay used to pride themselves on was a sort of openheartedness and tolerance. My parents, for instance, were not particularly practicing Muslims, but nevertheless Indian Muslims. My father's family was from Delhi, from old Delhi. That's where my parents first lived when they got married. They decided not to go to Pakistan because basically they wanted to stay in India, as did many Indian Muslims. Many Muslims in India made that decision; to this day there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan.

They decided they would move from Delhi because they were worried—quite rightly worried—about the smell of violence in the air. And they went to Bombay because they thought it would be safer.

VN: What year did they move?

SR: Forty-six. End of '46, beginning of '47. India became independent in August of '47 and Pakistan came into being and there was this appalling massacre of the riots. In Bombay, almost nothing happened. Not completely nothing, but almost nothing. Ever since then, until about twenty years ago, that was true: when there was communal trouble in the rest of India, there was very little in Bombay. It was a part of people's self-definition. They would say, "Oh, we don't do that stuff." Then, unfortunately, it became apparent that the place had changed, and that that kind of violence did come to Bombay.

Now it's a very different place because it's run by a Hindu Nationalist Party of very fanatical extremists; a kind of gangsterish party, the Shiv Sena. Minority groups are quite frightened in contemporary Bombay. Families take their names off the doors of their houses because they're alarmed; they're frightened, with good reason, about attacks.

So that Bombay, the tolerant, openhearted, secularized Bombay, has gone. And I think this [new] Bombay is still interesting, it's still a great capital, it's still a huge buzzing metropolis—it hasn't lost that. But it's lost some essential thing about its flavor, which is what I want to write about.

VN: It's also true about the rest of India as well, this spread of violence. In southern India, which I'm more familiar with, in Tamil Nadu, there wasn't as much communal violence until recently. And you could feel the waves coming down, even in '93, '94.

SR: It's really true. Speaking as someone from north India, south India was always a revelation of tolerance. It really felt as if the problem of communal mistrust and hatred was a north Indian problem. I'm afraid this is maybe one of the problems of globalization; even internally in India, the kind of ills of one part of the country spread to another.

Rock 'n' Roll

VN: Rock and roll is a central thread in The Ground Beneath Her Feet [Rushdie's latest novel]. Was it important to you, growing up in Bombay?

SR: What is interesting about the pop music of the 50s is that it spread so far across the world at a time when it was much harder for things to spread across the world. Now it's no trick at all; you release something in one part of the world and everybody in the rest of the world knows about it five minutes later, but that wasn't so then. There wasn't any television and the radio didn't play Western music. I have to express my deep gratitude to what was then called Radio Ceylon. (Sri Lanka now.) It had a slightly more open attitude and did play Western music, so that's where I became familiar with all kinds of things that I could slightly regret, like the complete works of Ricky Nelson.

But rock and roll did arrive and it struck me that it must have been a phenomenon of extraordinary force to have managed to have spread around the world at a time when it was so difficult for that to happen.

VN: Did it feel foreign to you?

SR: No, the music really didn't feel foreign; what was extraordinary about it is how easily it belonged. And I'm really not fully sure why that should have been so.

There's the highbrow argument that would suggest that rock and roll came from Africa, so that it was in origin World Music anyway; it just went through a number of transformations and then came back around the world. No wonder everybody liked it. The reasons are probably simpler than that. It probably just has to do with what kind of rhythm gets your foot tapping, and with what makes young people's bodies want to move, you know, in certain ways. [Laughter] No. Not those ways! Dancing. I'm talking about dancing.

I suppose what's interesting about rock and roll is it was the first cultural phenomenon that was about young people, that was for young people and controlled by young people, made by young people. And your mother didn't like it. Certainly my mother didn't like it. She got used to it, though. I think she did; I think Elvis got to her eventually.

She initially started out to try to persuade me to listen to Pat Boone instead. This was doomed to failure. Actually, the only song of Pat Boone's that has stuck in my mind is a song called "There's a Gold Mine in the Sky," in which he sings to his mule. At the time, I naively thought singing to mules wasn't the point. However, it just shows how wrong you can be, and I just heard a couple of days ago the new Tom Waits album which is called Mule Variations , in which he sings brilliantly about mules. So, it goes to show that there's no such thing as a stupid subject. You can actually make wonderful writing, music, about anything. The problem was Pat Boone, not the mule.

VN: You have a CD coming out?

SR: It's not a CD, it's just one song. Yeah, the novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet —for people who haven't had a look at it—contains fragments, smatterings of fictional lyrics which allegedly are the songs sung by the band led by the characters Ormis and Vina. In many cases, they really are just fragments, phrases, and lines and so on, and they're just designed to make people feel that they might have some kind of sense of what the music sounds like. But there are a few that are more fully elaborated lyrics. There's a kind of Orpheus and Eurydice theme in this book. Vina dies in the first sentence of the book in an earthquake, so I'm not giving away any secrets. Anybody who gets as far as the first sentence will know this important plot development.

And then the book sort of circles around and tells her story and comes back. And when it comes back to this point, after her death, Ormis almost writes a song; a kind of lament, or eulogy. It's a sad love song and it's called "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," which is, after all, what has just opened and swallowed her. So, it's a sad love song for his lost wife.

This is a song that's been set to music by U2, whom I've known for, I don't know, eight years, and we've often muttered vaguely about collaborating. And then we find ourselves collaborating in this completely accidental way, which is that I sent them the book, really expecting nothing—I just sent them the book—and they rang up a few weeks later and said they'd written this music.

VN: U2 were very supportive during the fatwa?

SR: They were. They're interested in free speech issues and so on, and they wanted to make that statement. So, when they were on their last but one big tour—the 1993 Europa Tour—they were at Wembley Stadium and I was going to go to the show and they said, Do you want to come up on stage? I said, What would I do? And they said, Oh, we'll think of something. So I said all right, and I was led backstage before the show and we worked out a little dialogue routine.

VN: There are several times in The Ground Beneath Her Feet when you actually change history. Lee Harvey Oswald's gun jams when he goes to shoot John F. Kennedy....

SR: What I really like is that this is a novel which, in many ways, tries to blur the edges between the fictional world and the real world.

It is a slightly variant or parallel version of the world, and I suppose the simplest way of explaining is to use the old phrase that the surrealists used to use, about making it strange. In the surrealist manifesto there's a...I don't remember the exact quote...but André Breton's idea was that the world is full of marvels, and that our habituation to it forms a kind of veil over our eyes and we can no longer see it as marvelous; we see it as familiar and customary. It was certainly a part of the surrealists' idea: to scratch away the veil of habituation in order to show the marvels of the world as they actually were. One of the primary techniques for that was the idea of making strange, to take the familiar and make it strange—and therefore, with any luck, make it fresh. I guess this is my way of doing something like that.

VN: Your work has a quality of fairytaleness and folk literature. I wondered if you could speak a little about oral and written literature in India and how your work fits into that.

SR: I've been very interested in two different things. One is the Western idea of the fable. The fable—which originally was a moral tale—the original fables all had a rather neat moral at the end, and that's quite dull. I mean, Aesop's fables are very, very boring, if anybody's ever read them. Because you can sort of see the punch line coming from the first line; he's like somebody who can't tell a joke who goes on and on telling jokes.

But, I thought, if you take away the easy motto at the end, then the form of the fable is wonderfully flexible. It hits a very beautiful note somewhere between the real and the unreal, and allows you to speak very directly but often in very strange ways. I like that.

On the Eastern side, I was very attracted by oral narration techniques. India is a country in which oral storytelling is still—particularly in south India—very much alive. I suppose this has something to do with low literacy levels and so on, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that people just enjoy stories and coming to listen to someone tell a story. So, quite large crowds will gather for hours and hours and hours to hear the great oral storytellers tell their stories. I've been to some of these events and they are extraordinary because of the way in which the oral story is told; it is not a linear narrative. Usually there is some mythological source material. One of the stories of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata will be the starting point. And there will be musicians on stage as well as the storyteller. They will punctuate and dramatize the storytelling with drum rolls and toots on the flutes and cymbal clashes, and so on.

VN: And there's always a comedian.

SR: Yes, there are people in funny trousers and Groucho Marx mustaches and so on.

But the interesting thing is that having started usually from this mythological source, as I say, the storyteller will take off in a million directions. He'll include contemporary satire. He'll include personal anecdote. He'll go off into comic fabulations. There will be seven or eight story lines going at once and he will weave them together and then stop and sing a song and then go back to them, et cetera. So it is this kind of extraordinary, intricate form. What interested me about it is that it seemed to break all the rules that one is told about narrative. What you're told about narrative is if you do that, people get confused and bored and they switch off. Whereas in fact, the old stories of ancient custom in India have been there for a long time, and if people get bored with an old storyteller, they get up and walk away.

VN: Or they fall asleep.

SR: Or they fall asleep or they throw things. And not all of the things are soft. Or edible.

So, what I mean to say is if the form takes this shape, this complicated games playing, riddling, juggling shape, it's because that's what works best. That's what people most enjoyed sitting and listening to: narrative as performance, narrative as games playing. Complicated looping, twirling, kind of pyrotechnic narrative is what kept these audiences sitting there, and had kept them sitting there for thousands and thousands of years.

I always felt that the moment at which I found the narrative voice for Midnight's Children was the moment at which I became a writer. Because I suddenly felt my sentences, my thoughts and my way of thinking, coming out onto the page. And that was partly inspired by trying to find a literary version of those oral narrative traditions.

The Satanic Verses

VN: I'm wondering then when you made the leap to The Satanic Verses . In between were all the other wonderful novels, too, but what was, in a sense, your own origin story of The Satanic Verses ?

SR: Midnight's Children had been, broadly speaking, about India, although some part of it was set in Pakistan. And after all those books, I thought, "Well, it's time that my writing did the thing that I did," which is to migrate. And so I began to design a novel of migration.

VN: That's really what it's about?

SR: Yeah, and I think that one of the problems about what happened is that people don't think of The Satanic Verses as what it actually is, because the so-called Islam stuff is actually a relatively secondary part of the book. The primary part of the book is what it's like to leave one culture and come to live in another one. It's also a novel about London, you know, and I get very frustrated because at the moment—Americans wouldn't know this—there's a kind of critical rhetoric in England about how nobody in England can write about contemporary England. And there are just all these Indian writers, winning all the prizes and so on while people are asking why can't anyone write about England any more, you know, what's wrong with us. I keep wanting to say to people that "I did, you know, I did that. You know there's this novel called The Satanic Verses that is all about London, London at the kind of high moment of Thatcherism. A very strange and rather unappetizing time in the history of the city."

I found myself amazingly, the other day, in Los Angeles staying at the same hotel as Margaret Thatcher.

VN: You also, I read in the paper, went to Hugh Hefner's.

SR: Oh yes. From the ridiculous to the sublime. Exactly. [Laughter] I thought, how could I pass up a chance to see the land of the bunny. It was a publishing party; this is what publishing parties are like.

VN: At least in L.A.

SR: Yeah. So I got a little glimpse of...of this and that. And I had my photograph taken with the Playmate of the Year, that was the high spot. She's called "Heather." She's a very nice girl. Reads a lot. Particularly eighteenth-century French fiction. Montaigne, you know. Anyway, she also had an improbable body. So, I mean really, what more could you ask for? As you can tell, I avoided meeting Margaret Thatcher, who's not like that at all. [Laughter]

I think one of the things that is problematic about all the trouble that surrounded The Satanic Verses is that it gave people a fairly false idea, first of all, about what kind of writing my writing was. It's not very often said that The Satanic Verses is funny. That's not the comment about it that first springs to most people's minds. And yet, you know, I think it is. Often, to myself—and now that we're alone, I can say this—I used to think the quarrel about that book has been a quarrel between people who have a sense of humor and people who don't. [Laughter and applause]

VN: I remember reading it and laughing out loud many times.

Fatwa

VN: In terms of the fatwa, what did that create in your life? I know it's been something that you've had to speak about a lot, but I know that everybody would be curious with your first encounter when you heard it. I mean, you must have just thought "This is unbelievable, how could this actually be happening," because historically, has it ever happened before?

SR: Not in the same way. Of course, plenty of writers have been persecuted, and you only have to look around the Middle East at the moment to see the great danger that writers are in, in countries not just like Iran, but Algeria, Egypt, everywhere. Seems to be kind of open season on writers and in many cases if you look at the attacks on those writers, the language used to attack them is more or less identical to the language used to attack The Satanic Verses . You know, blasphemy, heresy, insult, offense, all that. So either the best writers in the Muslim world are busily blaspheming and being heretics and insulting and offending people, or else there's something else going on. I would suggest the latter, that there's just an extraordinary attack on the intellectual life of these countries. The thing that was different in my case was the kind of extraterritorial aspect of trying to reach out into another country. That was my particular problem, but with that apart, it's really quite like a lot of things happening to other people. And I often tried to draw attention in these years to the plight of other writers in other countries.

VN: Before the fatwa?

SR: Before and after. But there's something about the kind of extraordinary—what Saul Bellow calls "event drama"—of this event. It was such an unusual and, if you like, dramatic, almost fictive, event, that people wanted to look at it as an event in isolation. And it was very difficult for people both, as it were, on my side and against.

The people who were against me wanted to say that I had done something uniquely terrible and it couldn't be compared to other things. And often the people who tried to defend me would say that this was a uniquely terrible attack and couldn't be compared to other attacks. In my view, both things were slightly wrong. I don't think I did anything uniquely terrible and I don't think that the attack, except for the extraterritorial dimension, was unique, because, as I say, it was aimed at many other writers in many similar ways.

Of course, it was a very bewildering and shocking event. I mean, I think if somebody's trying to kill you, it reveals to you a fairly simple thing, which is that you disagree.

But I think that beyond that, it became a very interesting experience because I had to learn to fight back, for a start. I was quite a political creature, as a writer interested in politics and interested in having my say about this or that matter. But that's a different matter entirely from being in the eye of the storm of a world political event. You have to learn how to conduct yourself in those circumstances, and you have to learn what is right action and wrong action and how to fight back. How to have your say when people are kind of howling against you.

I've learned more about politics than I ever expected to—and which I now would hope to be given an opportunity to forget, because political language, what you have to learn to speak to go lobbying, and governments and so on, is a very odd thing for a writer. The language that you try to develop as a writer is developed with great care of many years in order to try to tell more and more truth, really. The language you learn as a politician isn't quite like that. If you go into the corridors of power and start speaking the naked truth, you don't get what you want. People are shocked and slightly horrified, and so you have to learn to speak in certain locutions and snaky forms of speech.

So I had to learn a lot of this stuff. But mostly what I felt was all kinds of strange sad emotions to deal with feeling terribly misunderstood by many of the people who were against the novel—often without having read it, and often because of what they'd been told about it, which wasn't always accurate. The novel is actually in large part about the Asian community in London, and to see those people protesting against the novel was one of the most painful sights of my life. I took really no satisfaction from it at all.

Free speech is one thing, and it's a great issue and we should fight for it, but there's something awful about seeing the people you write about rejecting your work in that way. I won't deny that it was just a hideously unpleasant experience as a writer for me, and I'm not talking about threat and danger and so on. I think the worst damage that the fatwa did to me was what we were saying earlier: it gave people a very false sense of who I was and what my writing was like and what kind of reading experience it might be to open a book of mine. Attacks on my personality were also violent—and the great, famous thing about mud is that it sticks. Some of it did in some parts of the world, and I've been trying since to clean it off and to get people to see who's really here. One of the things I think is happening about The Satanic Verses is first of all that as a book, it does seem to have survived this experience...just as a text. I think there are many texts which, had they been attacked as violently as this, would have disintegrated, would have just ceased to exist in some way or no longer be possible to read.

And the fact that it hasn't crumbled in that way does make me feel that it may have some quality. It certainly has the quality of resilience. People are now beginning to read it in a different way, in an ordinary and literary way. That, of course, was one of the great reasons for fighting for its survival: to try to make sure that art outlasted scandal. And there would come a time, which I think is now more or less here, where people could read the book just as a book. They can like it or not like it, they can like it a little or a lot or dislike it a little or a lot, but on its own merits or demerits.

It was a very strange thing to me that at the height of the trouble, more or less the only language in which it was impossible to speak about The Satanic Verses was the ordinary language of literary discussion. What's the story? Who or what are the characters like? What are the themes? What is the symbolic structure? et cetera. Do you like it? Is it funny? Is it interesting or boring? Does it grip you? Is it difficult to read? All the things that readers normally talk about. That was the stuff that suddenly became completely uninteresting. Here was this colossal scandal about a book, and the only question no journalist would ever ask me was a literary question. You could talk about politics, you could talk about sociology, you could talk about theology, you could talk about all kinds of things. The only thing you couldn't talk about was books.

And now, finally...I remember that Martin Amis used a wonderful phrase at the time of the trouble beginning, when he said about me that he felt that I had vanished into the front page. I must say that is more or less exactly how it felt. And what I'm trying to do now is to reappear in the cultural section. [Laughter and applause]