Salman Rushdie's new novel, Shalimar the Clown (reviewed in India Today, August 29) brings Kashmir to the centrestage of contemporary fiction and makes all the current lamentations on the novel's failure to deal with the complexities of today's world redundant. He discusses his novel and its political as well as ancestral context with Executive Editor S. Prasannarajan. Excerpts:
Q. Welcome back home. In retrospect, the farewell-to-India passage in The Ground Beneath Her Feet was emotionally intimate but premature-thankfully!
A. That farewell was the character Rai's, not mine. But it was given an extra charge by the fact that at that time I was unable to visit the country. Happily those days are past.
Q. There is no escape from India then?
A. I have never written a novel without an Indian central character and don't expect to do so any time soon. I am sure that some novels will veer away from India while others swing back towards it. That's inevitable in the work of a writer whose experience is divided among several different worlds. I have learned not to try to forecast the future of my work.
Q. India, always volatile, can't keep you distracted for long.
A. Everywhere is volatile. Everywhere is fascinating. And everywhere, as I wrote in Shalimar the Clown, is now connected to everywhere else.
Q. Now you return to Kashmir. Was it a journey you were destined to undertake?
A. I have always wanted to write about Kashmir. Yes, there's the beginning of Midnight's Children, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a dream of Kashmir, but I wanted to make the subject of Kashmir central to a novel, and it has taken me this long to figure out how.
Q. One can see the Kashmir of the minimum 36 course banquets and bhand pather vanishing into violent fantasies. Is it the loss of beauty, beauty as in what Dostoevsky said, "Beauty shall save the world"?
A. Yes, the loss of beauty, that's it. But the book's mood is not, I think, entirely elegiac. It exists too much in the present for that.
Q. What is the idea that killed the Kashmir of your memory?
A. Ideas didn't kill that old Kashmir. Greed killed it, greed for possession, Indian and Pakistani greed.
Q. You are unforgiving and affectionate at the same time. You don't spare the mullah or the state. You don't spare tyranny.
A. I am happy that both General Kachhwaha and the iron mullah Bulbul Fakh are comic figures. I like it that they can be at once funny and nasty. If I don't spare tyranny, it's because tyranny spares nobody.
Q. You argue with history, and in Shalimar, the history stretches from Strasbourg to Kashmir.
A. When I wrote Midnight's Children I felt able to focus my story on one place, the Indian subcontinent, and didn't feel the need to encompass any elsewheres. Since then I have begun to feel more and more that because of many things-mass migration, international mayhem, economic globalisation-the world's stories are no longer separate but commingled, and have set myself the challenge of exploring the literary consequences of taking on this newly frontierless world.
Q. In Shalimar, it's all there: Islam, suicide bomber, Pakistan, America, the Indian military operation, terrorist training camp ... Is it a novelist's rejoinder to the lies of the state as well as of the faith?
A. I am a writer of my time. This is the matter of my time.
Q. In Shalimar, Kashmir-Kashmira-alone survives. Is it "Kashmir Regained"?
A. Kashmira, formerly "India", does indeed regain Kashmir, in a way, but her regaining of it is full of loss (her father's death, her discovery of her mother's fate). Still, I am glad she was able to go to Srinagar to fall in love.
Q. Does Kashmir live in you as a great hurt-or as an intimate loss?
A. Both, really. I don't believe that what has been broken there can be remade.
Q. And it's your first "Indian" novel without Bombay-"Wombay" as you punned once. How come?
A. I have wanted for a while to write an Indian book that wasn't an urban story. I'm delighted to have been able to tell the story of the two villages of Pachigam and Shirmal. It was challenging to create a credible contemporary LA, and, even more, a believable wartime Strasbourg, but for me the making of the world of these Kashmiri villages is what gives me most pride. I can only hope that Indian and Kashmiri readers will approve.
Q. How is it being the world's most famous novelist?
A. Oh, stop it.