Thursday, June 05, 2008

Reading Rushdie's Enchantress from Florence...

Article on Rushdie in Rediff

When you want to learn whether or not you've made a difference to people who read literature, all you need to do is take a trip down Mumbai's busy crossroads. Wait a while as the traffic lights turn red, and look for young children weaving their way through the parked vehicles, balancing little piles of books in their hands as they rush to the faces in open car windows. If what you have written features among the photocopied, pirated titles they hawk, pat yourself on the back and walk away satisfied.
Ahmed Salman Rushdie could have, by that yardstick, patted himself a great many times over the past two decades. His novels continue to be part of those little piles. They continue to foster debate in and outside classrooms worldwide. They continue to hog large portions of bookshelves, at stores and libraries and homes. And, perhaps most importantly, they continue to encourage younger generations of writers to reach for their keyboards or writing pads in an attempt to up the ante.
For over a quarter of a century now, Salman Rushdie has continued to serve at what keepers of the canon refer to as the high altar of literature. Irrespective of the success he has enjoyed during that time, he deserves an award for that service alone.
Born in Mumbai around two months before India attained independence in 1947, Rushdie's stories have forever been tied to the country of his birth.
The city he lived in until he turned 14 (before moving to Pakistan and, subsequently, England) first occupied centre-stage in his work in 1981 -- when Midnight's Children was published -- and continued to make an appearance in the years that followed, from Shame (1983) to The Satanic Verses (1988) to The Moor's Last Sigh (1995).
India continued to play her part too, be it in collections of essays such as Imaginary Homelands (1992) and Step Across This Line (2002), or novels such as The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) and his latest work, the much-applauded Shalimar the Clown (2005).
These days, Rushdie is doing publicly what he has long done in private -- mentoring young writers. He is currently a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where, for the next five years as distinguished writer in residence, he will teach weekly literature seminars for graduate students. Emory has no doubts about this valuable addition to their faculty. Which is why it also opted to buy his papers -- almost 100 boxes of personal material including computers with his e-mails, pages of typescript for The Satanic Verses and a great deal more.
Over the last twenty years, then, Rushdie has slowly moved from freelance advertisement copywriter to successful novelist; from international writer to world treasure.
He has, along the way, picked up everything from the Booker Prize for Fiction (for Midnight's Children) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, to an Arts Council Writers' Award, Whitbread Novel Award, Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (for Shame), Writers' Guild Award (for 1990's Haroun and the Sea of Stories) and, for good measure, the Booker of Bookers (again, for Midnight's Children). And then there are those eight honorary doctorates laid at his feet by universities from around the world.
Like all things, with the good has come the bad. Sadly, the reason for Rushdie's overwhelming celebrity is a book that has overshadowed his finest work.
He could not have known, when writing about Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha -- two Indian actors falling to earth from an exploding Air-India jumbo jet -- that his life would change so drastically. With the publication of The Satanic Verses came death threats and calls for his assassination. It led to him spending years underground.
That episode still eclipses much of what makes Rushdie a powerful figure in world literature. There is Grimus (1975), his exercise in science fiction that draws on a twelfth-century Sufi poem; there is, of course, the hypnotic Midnight's Children, with its star Saleem Sinai and a thousand others born on the eve of India's independence; there is Shame, a powerful indictment of Pakistan's Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Zia-ul Haq; Haroun and the Sea of Stories -- an allegory that continues to delight children and frighten adults; The Moor's Last Sigh's (1995) exposure of right-wing Hindu fundamentalists; The Jaguar Smile's (1987) exploration of the outcome of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua; and the prolonged cry of pain for all that Kashmir has lost, in Shalimar the Clown.
Taken in its entirety, this is a strange, wildly exciting blur of traditional storytelling and fantasy. It is a body of work that has led to the creation of new genres, and new means of definition. Before Rushdie arrived, for instance, academics simply didn't know what a 'historiographic metanarrative' was.
There have been other controversies too. Like his public support in 2006 of comments made by the British leader in the House of Commons, Jack Straw, criticizing the wearing of the veil. The fatwa against Rushdie continues to stand -- it was reaffirmed in 2005 by Iran and requests for its withdrawal have been denied -- while he simply continues to hold forth as a powerful advocate of free speech, be it in his past role as president of the PEN American Centre or current one as supporter of the British Humanist Association.
For Rushdie, this has been a lifetime of speaking out; of taking on those trying to silence voices of dissent. He continues to make his presence felt, as a powerful influence on the literature of our time, and also as an Indian abroad. Over the years, irrespective of whether he continues to write or not, Rushdie can only gain in stature. His work will attract generations of admirers, and continue to inspire new writers.
Above all other achievements though, he deserves recognition for what the Russian playwright and writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov once wrote in one of his letters: 'A writer is not a confectioner, a cosmetic dealer, or an entertainer. He is a man who has signed a contract with his conscience and his sense of duty.'
Salman Rushdie is that man.

1 comment:

TradeExpress said...

wonderful tribute. it makes me want to pick up one of his books. my fave quote of rushdie is

questioner : what have you tried to say in your book?

Rushdie : all of it