Salman Rushdie came to Vassar College earlier this week to deliver a lecture to the Class of 2010–but he made it clear to the organizers that he would cancel if I was involved in his visit. I had earlier been asked to introduce him, and then, well, I was disinvited. Mr Rushdie and I have never met, although I have heard him speak several times. I presume his dislike of me has to do with essays like this that I have written about him in the past. I cannot say whether he has read my Passport Photos but it’d be fair to say that the book takes its cues from Rushdie. It was from him that we really learned to show some attitude. When I say “we” I’m talking of many contemporary Indian writers in English. But we have also sought our own paths, and in doing so we’ve also sometimes sought to renounce our past, the past in which Mr Rushdie looms so monumentally. I don’t know whether I could’ve usefully involved the freshmen at Vassar in a public discussion of any writer’s troubled relationship with his or her forbears; nor am I certain how much they (or, for that matter, our honored guest) would’ve valued a dissection of the ways in which criticism must survive in the world. But despite those uncertainties, I very much feel that an opportunity has been lost. In any case, here’s a part of what I had intended to say in my introduction:
In Bombay, the city of Salman Rushdie’s birth, more than six hundred films get made each year. In the theatres in the Indian small towns (like the one in which I grew up), the arrival of the film’s hero—a cigarette flung on the floor and rolling out of sight or the dark boots in the frame announcing his dramatic advance—is usually greeted by loud cheers and whistles. I’m speaking here of the vast majority of films, the ones that attract a substantial part of the 12 million daily viewers, viewers who recognize that melodrama is our real national birthright. Everyone in the audience knows that the villain, who till a moment ago might have been molesting the timid heroine or pushing around a retired old man, or, because there isn’t a whole lot of premium on subtlety, even slapping a handicapped beggar, his crutches lying beside him on the street—this monstrous villain is about to be very quickly brought to his knees. People who in their actual lives might have very little power or wealth go wild with excitement. Men in the audience have been known to tear off their shirts as they welcome the hero in that dark space of the theater, which we all know is also a space of fantasy and imagination.
About twenty-five years ago, with the publication of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie met with the reception usually accorded to Hindi film heroes. His book won the Booker Prize and some years later the Booker of Bookers.
Now, you might know this, but in the first hour or so of the three-hour Hindi film, our hero often vanquishes a bad character who then becomes a staunch ally in bigger, more dramatic battles that are sure to follow. I guess I would be speaking for a lot of readers, particularly in those parts of the planet that used to be called the Third World, who saw Mr Rushdie as having fought and won against, and made an ally of, the English language, the alien language that had come to us with our colonial rulers. Mr Rushdie has had to fight many other battles since; he has made many friends and enemies; and we (I’m speaking as an Indian here) we, as his readers and as writers, have followed his actions, his songs, his mannerisms, and even when we have chosen not to follow him into the sunset, we’ve always had to define ourselves, and our rebellions, against this image we have had of him, looking down at us from giant billboards at each street-corner of our past.
One of Mr Rushdie’s most heroic struggles has been the one with a cleric who put a price on this writer’s head. Well—as our honored guest has himself remarked, of the two adversaries, only one has lived to tell the tale.