Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 1
To my mother
with my love
ESSAYS AND CRITICISM 1981-1991
Copyright © Salman Rushdie, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991
All rights reserved
Some of the selections in this book first appeared in London Review of Books, The Guardian, Index on Censorship, Observer, Granta, The Times, American Film, New Society, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, and Independent on Sunday.
‘ERRATA’: OR, UNRELIABLE NARRATION IN MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN
THE RIDDLE OF MIDNIGHT: INDIA, AUGUST 1987
THE ASSASSINATION OF INDIRA GANDHI
ZIA UL-HAQ. 17 AUGUST 1988
DAUGHTER OF THE EAST
‘COMMONWEALTH LITERATURE’ DOES NOT EXIST
OUTSIDE THE WHALE
THE LOCATION OF BRAZIL
THE NEW EMPIRE WITHIN BRITAIN
AN UNIMPORTANT FIRE
THE PAINTER AND THE PEST
A GENERAL ELECTION
ON PALESTINIAN IDENTITY: A CONVERSATION WITH EDWARD SAID
JOHN LE CARRÉ
AT THE ADELAIDE FESTIVAL
TRAVELLING WITH CHATWIN
MAURICE SENDAK AND WILHELM GRIMM
GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ
MARIO VARGAS LLOSA
THE LANGUAGE OF THE PACK
DEBRETT GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
E. L. DOCTOROW
MICHAEL HERR: AN INTERVIEW
ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
TRAVELS WITH A GOLDEN ASS
THE DIVINE SUPERMARKET
NAIPAUL AMONG THE BELIEVERS
‘IN GOD WE TRUST’
IN GOOD FAITH
IS NOTHING SACRED?
ONE THOUSAND DAYS IN A BALLOON
The essay from which this collection takes its title was my contribution to a seminar about Indian writing in English held in London during the Festival of India in 1982. In those days Indira Gandhi was back as India’s premier. In Pakistan, the Zia regime was consolidating its power in the aftermath of the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Britain was in the early throes of the Thatcher revolution, and in the United States, Ronald Reagan was still an unregenerate Cold Warrior. The structures of the world retained their uninspiringly familiar form.
The upheavals of 1989 and 1990 changed all that. Now that we’re contemplating a transformed international scene, with its new possibilities, uncertainties, intransigences and dangers, it seems not inappropriate to pull together our thoughts on the rapidly receding decade in which, as Gramsci would have said, the old was dying, and yet the new could not be born. ‘In this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms,’ Gramsci suggested. This book is an incomplete, personal view of the interregnum of the 1980s, not all of whose symptoms, it has to be said, were morbid.
In 1981 I had just published my second novel, and was enjoying the unique pleasure of having written, for the first time, a book that people liked. Before Midnight’s Children, I had had one novel rejected, abandoned two others, and published one, Grimus, which, to put it mildly, bombed. Now, after ten years of blunders, incompetence and commercials for cream cakes, hair colourants and the Daily Mirror, I could begin to live by my pen. It felt good.
Almost all the important ‘Indo-Anglian’ writers were at the London seminar: Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Anita Desai, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand among them. Of the big names, only R. K. Narayan was absent, though I’d been told earlier that he’d accepted the invitation. ‘Narayan is so courteous that he always accepts,’ somebody told me, ‘but he never shows up.’ It was exhilarating for me to meet and listen to these writers. But there were worrying moments, too; indications of some participants’ desire to describe Indian culture—which I had always thought of as a rich mixture of traditions—in exclusive, and excluding, Hindu terms.
One distinguished novelist began his contribution by reciting a Sanskrit sloka. Then, instead of translating the verse, he declared: ‘Every educated Indian will understand what I’ve just said.’ This was not simply a form of intellectual grandeur. In the room were Indian writers and scholars of every conceivable background—Christian, Parsi, Muslim, Sikh. None of us had been raised in a Sanskritic tradition. We were all reasonably ‘educated’, however; so what were we being told? Perhaps that we weren’t really ‘Indian’?
Later in the day, an eminent Indian academic delivered a paper on Indian culture that utterly ignored all minority communities. When questioned about this from the floor, the professor smiled benignly and allowed that of course India contained many diverse traditions—including Buddhists, Christians and ‘Mughals’. This characterization of Muslim culture was more than merely peculiar. It was a technique of alienation. For if Muslims were ‘Mughals’, then they were foreign invaders, and Indian Muslim culture was both imperialist and inauthentic. At the time we made light of the gibe, but it stayed with me, pricking at me like a thorn.
A decade later, India has arrived at a full-blown crisis of descriptions. Religious militancy threatens the foundations of the secular state. Many Indian intellectuals now appear to accept the Hindu nationalist definitions of the state; minority groups respond with growing extremisms of their own. It is perhaps significant that there is no commonly used Hindustani word for ‘secularism’; the importance of the secular ideal in India has simply been assumed, in a rather unexamined way. Now that communalist forces would appear to have all the momentum, secularism’s defenders are in alarming disarray. And yet, if the secularist principle were abandoned, India could simply explode. It is a paradoxical fact that secularism, which has been much under attack of late, outside India as well as inside it, is the only way of safeguarding the constitutional, civil, human and, yes, religious rights of minority groups. Does India still have the political will to insist on this safeguard? I hope so. We must all hope so. And we shall see.
The first three sections of this volume deal with subcontinental themes. Section one contains work roughly grouped around Midnight’s Children; section
The fourth section deals primarily with movies and television. I have tinkered only a little with the original form of these pieces, but I should say that, seven years on, I find ‘Outside the Whale’ a little unfair to George Orwell and to Henry Miller, too. I have not changed my mind about Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi, but it must be accepted that the film’s influence outside India was often very positive; radical and progressive groups and movements in South America, Eastern Europe and southern Africa, too, found it uplifting. The piece about Handsworth Songs stimulated a lively debate among black British film-makers, some of it supportive of my views, some of it critical, all of it fascinating and, I think, helpful. And one footnote to the piece about Satyajit Ray. When I met him, he was shooting scenes for The Home and the World in an old zamindar’s mansion in the depths of rural Bengal. He rightly thought it the perfect setting for his movie. I found that I needed it, too, and it became the model for the dreammansion, ‘Perownistan’, occupied by Mirza Saeed Akhtar and his wife in the ‘Titlipur’ sections of The Satanic Verses. (The giant banyan infested by butterflies wasn’t there, however. I saw that in southern India, not far from Mysore.)
Section five contains five pieces about the experience of migrants, primarily Indian migrants to Britain. Of these, ‘The New Empire Within Britain’ requires a few words of comment, because of its rather strange afterlife. It was originally written for the Opinions slot in the very early days of Channel 4. (It was the second programme in the series, following E. P. Thompson.) The many British blacks and Asians who phoned in or wrote agreed, virtually unanimously, that the lecture had done no more than tell the simple truth. To them, I had gone no further than the ABC of racial prejudice in Britain. There was also, unsurprisingly, a hostile response from some members of the white community, though they were outnumbered by other white Britons who had found the piece informative and useful. My purpose had been simple: to tell the white majority how life in Britain all too often felt to members of racial minority groups. (I’ve been in a minority group all my life—a member of an Indian Muslim family in Bombay, then of a ‘mohajir’—migrant—family in Pakistan, and now as a British Asian.) By articulating a grievance, I could help, or so I hoped, to build bridges of understanding.
I had thought of television programmes as evanescent, here-today-gone-tomorrow things. But we were at the beginning of the video boom, and to my surprise the tape of the broadcast circulated widely, through the Commission for Racial Equality and other organizations. This was satisfying, of course, but also a little worrying. I had written and spoken at a particular moment in the history of British race relations. Those relationships moved on, developed, changed. Some things (more black faces in television programmes and in the commercial breaks) got a bit better, others (racial harassment) got rather worse. The tape remained the same.
What I had, perhaps naïvely, failed to anticipate was that the text of the lecture would be distorted, falsified and used against me by people of a different political disposition than myself. I was accused both by Geoffrey Howe and by Norman Tebbit of having equated Britain with Nazi Germany, and so of having ‘betrayed and insulted’ my adopted country. Now it’s true that the text of this essay is deliberately polemical, and no doubt that upset the Howes and Tebbits. I make no apology for being angry about racial prejudice. But it is also true that the piece repeatedly insists that the situation in Britain is not comparable to life under Nazism or apartheid. I draw attention to this now, because distortions and falsehoods have a way of becoming true by virtue of being repeated frequently. The ‘Nazi Britain’ smear has been around for long enough. The republication of ‘The New Empire Within Britain’ in this volume enables readers to decide for themselves whether it was justified or not.
I am, of course, by no means the only British writer to have come under fire in these past years. The regular scoldings meted out in the newspapers to all of us who wrote against the grain of Thatcherism were a notable feature of the past decade. Ian McEwan was scolded by a Sunday Times leader for his novel The Child in Time. Harold Pinter was scolded for his views about American policy in Nicaragua. Margaret Drabble was scolded for being worthy, Hampsteadish and boring. In between scoldings, such writers were dismissed as ‘champagne socialists’. This is because their books and plays and films were popular. If the work had been unpopular, no doubt they would have been attacked as failures. It was a good decade for double binds.
Section six contains three pieces—reflections on the Thatcher/Foot election, on Charter 88 and on the question of Palestine—of, I suppose, the scolding-provoking variety.
The next five sections—on writers from Africa, Britain, Europe, South America and the United States—need no footnotes. The last section deals with a subject—the crisis that engulfed my novel The Satanic Verses—to which far too many notes have already been appended. I have little to add.
Finally, some necessary acknowledgements. To the original publishers of these pieces, who include the London Review of Books, Guardian, Index on Censorship, Observer, Granta, The Times, American Film, New Society, New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic, Times Literary Supplement and Independent on Sunday, my thanks; most particularly to Bill Webb and Blake Morrison, the best of two generations of British literary editors. Thanks, too, to Bill Buford, Bob Tashman and everyone at Granta Books who helped to pull this book together. Edward Said kindly allowed me to reproduce the text of our public conversation at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. And to Susannah Clapp, for plucking out of the text of an essay the phrase that became first its title and then the title of this book, a big hug of gratitude.
THE RIDDLE OF MIDNIGHT
An old photograph in a cheap frame hangs on a wall of the room where I work. It’s a picture dating from 1946 of a house into which, at the time of its taking, I had not yet been born. The house is rather peculiar—a three-storeyed gabled affair with tiled roofs and round towers in two comers, each wearing a pointy tiled hat. ‘The past is a foreign country,’ goes the famous opening sentence of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, ‘they do things differently there.’ But the photograph tells me to invert this idea; it reminds me that it’s my present that is foreign, and that the past is home, albeit a lost home in a lost city in the mists of lost time.
A few years ago I revisited Bombay, which is my lost city, after an absence of something like half my life. Shortly after arriving, acting on an impulse, I opened the telephone directory and looked for my father’s name. And, amazingly, there it was; his name, our old address, the unchanged telephone number, as if we had never gone away to the unmentionable country across the border. It was an eerie discovery. I felt as if I were being claimed, or informed that the facts of my faraway life were illusions, and t
Bombay is a city built by foreigners upon reclaimed land; I, who had been away so long that I almost qualified for the title, was gripped by the conviction that I, too, had a city and a history to reclaim.
It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.
Writing my book in North London, looking out through my window on to a city scene totally unlike the ones I was imagining on to paper, I was constantly plagued by this problem, until I felt obliged to face it in the text, to make clear that (in spite of my original and I suppose somewhat Proustian ambition to unlock the gates of lost time so that the past reappeared as it actually had been, unaffected by the distortions of memory) what I was actually doing was a novel of memory and about memory, so that my India was just that: ‘my’ India, a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions. I tried to make it as imaginatively true as I could, but imaginative truth is simultaneously honourable and suspect, and I knew that my India may only have been one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by quitting Bombay never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was, let us say, willing to admit I belonged.
Other author's books:
- Midnight's ChildrenThe Satanic VersesJoseph Anton: A MemoirShameLuka and the Fire of LifeStep Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002The Enchantress of FlorenceEast, West: Stories
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