A Writer by Partition: Salman Rushdie Interviewed by Michael Enright

Article excerpt

Salman Rushdie's latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, is set for the most part in Kashmir. It tells the story of how an act of betrayal can unleash a flood of violent consequences. The tale of Shalimar the Clown is also a portrait of a once idyllic land torn to pieces by religious extremism, virulent nationalism, and global politics. Five years in the writing, the novel is as contemporary as a news report and as lyrical as Rushdie's best work. Here, the author discusses the ties of faith, homeland, and hatred with the CBC's Michael Enright.

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MICHAEL ENRIGHT: Your friend Christopher Hitchens described you as Kashmiri by family, Muslim by birth, and Indian by partition. How does that inform your work? I don't know what the triptych of schizophrenia is, but you have all of these parts at work in you.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: If you are of my generation, the partition is a gigantic fact. I am eight weeks older than the partition. From the time of my birth, not only was the country divided, but my family was divided, more or less half and half between India and Pakistan. So that borderline actually ran through not just nations but through our family. And in the case of Kashmir it was an unusually contested borderline, because almost immediately after partition came the first conflict in Kashmir, during which the Pakistanis sent over irregular--not uniformed--forces to try to seize the valley, and the Indian army came in to "defend" the valley, and what ended up happening was that Pakistan got hold of, roughly speaking, the northern third, and India had the remaining two thirds, including the main valley of Kashmir, thus creating what is now called the "Line of Control"--the ceasefire line around which these huge armies stand staring at each other. Ever since then, India and Pakistan have quarrelled over the fate of Kashmir. And during that time nobody has paid much attention to what Kashmiris have said. The Kashmir Liberation Front, when it began in the '70s, was not at all a religious movement, nor was it a sectarian movement. It was a nationalist movement of a completely secular type, and its slogan was "Kashmir for the Kashmiris." And that is consistently what Kashmiris have said now for getting on sixty years. And this is the only option the outside powers won't consider, won't talk about, because of course these two great monsters are busy tearing at each other.

And now they are nuclear-armed monsters.

Yes, these nuclear-armed monsters are clawing at one another--and here is poor old Kashmir, this beautiful place, famously peaceful, with its almost comically peaceful people. Indians used to make jokes about the lack of martial spirit in Kashmiris. That this place should have become so contested and violent is a real tragedy.

Is that why you wrote once that you felt handcuffed by history?

Well actually, that was not me, but my narrator Saleem in Midnight's Children saying that he felt handcuffed to history. I am not sure that I do--or I am not sure that I do any more than anyone else. The joke of Midnight's Children is that Saleem thinks that history is his fault. But I do think, and I suppose I have been obliged to think from when I was very young, that in these days you can't escape the impact of public events on your private life. And that has a consequence for the novel.

It used to be the case that you didn't have to be troubled much by public events. If you think about the great literature of England in the nineteenth century, very little of it mentions the British Empire. You look at the complete works of Charles Dickens, which are exactly contemporary with England's greatest power in the world, and there is hardly any mention of the British Empire. Jane Austen wrote during the Napoleonic wars and barely made reference to them--the only function of the British army in the works of Jane Austen is to look cute at parties. And I am not criticizing her, because I think that in her time she was able to wholly, profoundly explain the lives of her characters without reference to the Napoleonic Wars. …