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NDTV’s interview with Salman Rushdie (17 Sept 2012)

20 September 2012

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Large excerpt from the transcript of NDTV’s exclusive interview with Salman Rushdie follows | Updated: September 18, 2012 00:34 IST

New Delhi: India a more intolerant country today, than when it first gained independence? Author Salman Rushdie says yes it is. Speaking to NDTV, just ahead of the launch of his memoirs on the Fatwa years, Mr Rushdie says the ban on ’Satanic Verses’ that India was the first country in the world to ban the book and that set the tone. Since then, the State has failed to protect artistes or free speech. From attacks on art galleries to recent sedition cases against cartoonists, Mr Rushdie says India is no longer Nehru’s country. Nehru was a liberal, he says, who always argued against government censorship.

Here is the full transcript of the interview:

NDTV: Salman, It has been more two decades since the Satanic Verses was first published and then you found yourself literally living on the run after a ’fatwa’ was declared against you. Why did it take you so long to write about what happened in those years?

Salman Rushdie: Because I did not want to for a long time. First of all the whole saga lasted almost 12 years really, and by the time I finally came out of the tunnel, and had a sort of ordinary life back, frankly the last thing I wanted to do was to go back into the tunnel and to write about it. I mean a lot of people suggested that I should write about it but I just said that I don’t want to do it. I’m a novelist, I would write novels and I want to get back to my real life and so for long time that’s what I did, I wrote novels and stories and so on but I always knew that I would write about it. That’s the only reason I kept journals through those years, because I’m normally not somebody who will keep journals, I’m not one of those writers who keep a diary everyday about their lives. But in this period I thought so much is happening with such intensity that there is no way to bring it, so write it down!

NDTV: The memoir is called Joseph Anton, named after Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, but before you were going to be Joseph Anton, you wanted to be ’Ajeeb mamuli’. Now because I’m an Indian, you don’t have to translate that into English for me, you know I get what it means, Ajeeb Admi who is also an ordinary Admi. Now, people might call you ’Ajeeb’, but you are not ’mamuli’!

Salman Rushdie: I don’t know, I felt pretty ’Mamuli’ at that time. That was really just a joke; I did never think it was going to seriously catch on. I actually thought it might be a name for a character in the story really more than me but I never used him. So maybe he is still lurking somewhere to be used. I mean the reason I made this title of the book is to just give a sense to people how weird those days were. You know first of all to be asked to give up your name is very strange, especially if you are the author of the books which have your name on them, and also to be asked to give up the ethnicity of your name, don’t choose an Indian name that is too obvious, people can put two and two together etc. Then I thought well if I can’t have Indian names I can retreat it into literature which is sort of my other country I guess. That’s why I finally picked up these first names of Conrad and Chekhov in order to make this name.

NDTV: Except much to your annoyance, not just that you have these false names which are not your ethnicity or your cultural background but Joseph becomes Joe...

Salman Rushdie: Yes, it really annoyed me

NDTV: Did you ever tell your protectors that?

Salman Rushdie: Yes, I told them all the time. I said it’s really irritating. They had to train themselves to use this name all the time, use my name by accident when they go for a walk round the clock or something, but I must say the day I could get rid of this pseudonym was a good day. It always annoyed me. I just thought it would be a way of dramatizing for people, the strangeness of the time

NDTV: Interestingly, you are writing not in the first person. You are actually writing about Joseph Anton as Salman Rushdie Rushdie

Salman Rushdie: Yes sort of

NDTV: Because that was life, wasn’t it? It was two people in one

Salman Rushdie: Well I did think partly what I wanted to say is there was a kind of strange dislocation of identity in those years, there were so many versions of me that were created by people for their own agendas, there were so many Salman Rushdie Rushdie walking around, none of which were really me. I also wanted to write about that, what it feels like to have your identity taken away from you and remade by other people for their own purposes. And how hard it was to try and say, excuse me I’m not like those people over there with my name on them, I’m like this and that was a very difficult thing. That’s part of it but also I very much had this idea when I started writing this book that I wanted to write it novelistically, I wanted to write it to have the kind of shape, language, the attention to character that you have in a novel, because I thought if the people, including the person with my name, if the people are not alive on the page then you don’t care about them, so you don’t care what happens to them. So, to make the reader care about them, you have to use a kind of novelistic techniques. I thought about these famous non-fiction novels as they are called, you know ’The Right Stuff’, ’In Cold Blood’ or ’Schindler’s List’, you know books like these, and I thought that’s sort of a way to go, that these are the stories that are completely true, but the writer has used a kind of novelist skill to tell that story. But the difference of course is that those writers were not telling their own stories, they were telling someone else’s story. So for me, the third person was a way, just getting that detachment from myself, it was a way like stepping to the left of myself, you know, so I could look at myself, like the other characters in the story, and be as objective as possible.

NDTV: And do you think you have achieved that because you do include in the book criticism of you in the print, by women you were in relationships with, by friends, by people who disappointed you, so it’s not that you shied away from reproducing that fierce criticism of you?

Salman Rushdie: I think, I think you can’t. I think if you are writing a book like this, an autobiography, in a way you have to be toughest on yourself, you know because otherwise it looks, it just all looks like self-justification. And you have to; the reader has to understand that the writer really knows himself.

NDTV: And there is self-awareness.

Salman Rushdie: Yes and he is not perfect and is aware of that and willing to let that be present. Because we all are human beings, nobody is perfect. So, and if you are trying to tell the story of a human being, even if that’s yourself, you have to, you have to be undefended you know and that’s one, really one of the things I thought, let your guard down. Many of the things that had happened you know which people criticised or whatever, which I could defend, you know actually if I wanted to offer a defense, I probably could. And I just thought, don’t do that, don’t do that. Just let it stand.

NDTV: You write about how your friends actually provided the phrase you use, an iron circle and you could live within that circle protected from everything that was happening around you. But what’s interesting to me is that because you were Joseph, borrowed from Joseph Conrad, Joseph Conrad in the heart of darkness talks about the essential nature of all of us being alone, we live alone as we dream alone, that’s the essence of his thought. How alone were you in these years?

Salman Rushdie: Well it is very odd in the sense I was less alone physically, I was less alone than the ordinary lad because of all these people around, policemen. People had this image of me sort of stranded somewhere in solitude. But actually it was not solitude; it was more like claustrophobia, because there were strangers around. I mean I have talked to other people who have had to put up with maximum security. I talked to Tony Blair about it for example; I talked to, there was a British Judge who was threatened by the IRA who had to have this kind of protection, and they all said the same two things that I thought, one is that sense of intrusion into the privacy, which is very hard to deal with. And the other is the loss of spontaneity. You can’t do anything like that. You know, you want to go for a walk, you can go for a walk, but they say just give us an hour and half to set it up. An hour and a half later, you don’t want to go for a walk!

NDTV: And Tony Blair wasn’t living under a false name and wasn’t living under an underground life, so that makes it worse, right?

Salman Rushdie: No but yes, just the intrusion of strangers into your world you know, it is difficult. And they are actually trained to be sensitive to that. You know they are actually very good at that. But yes it was so, but I did feel alone even in the middle of that claustrophobia you know, and yes it was especially when, as you were saying, there are all these other people making up versions of me, you know so I felt there were lies about me circulating in the world and I was stuck in this box unable to rebut those lies.

NDTV: Yes, your relationship with your father has often woven its way into your books as fiction in the form of Ahmed Sinai, but as your actual relationship in your memoir. Now interestingly, you describe your father as a Godless man but endlessly fascinated by the world of Gods and prophets, and later you say you know you were your father’s son because in many ways that would describe you as well, wouldn’t it?

Salman Rushdie: Yes that’s right. I mean one of the things I am really pleased about in the book is to have been able to give this portrait of my father. You know when there have been, as you said it, there are so many difficulties between fathers and sons, in a couple of my books and we also had that difficult relationship, although it got better towards the end.

NDTV: As he was dying and you go back to Pakistan to meet him ...

Salman Rushdie: Yes, or even a bit before that, I mean he wrote me a letter I remember on my 40th birthday which is five months before he died, and which was very moving to me, because it was the first time he really wrote about my work. You know he never used to say anything good about my books. So, but he finally did and I understood that he had all along really understood them and was proud of them and so and so, I mean I carry that letter around with me wherever I go to this day, anyways. So, but it was good to write about the fact that we were in many ways very alike you know, that we were so alike that people used to mistake our voices on the telephone. His friends would call up and start talking to me, and I had to interrupt them and say no, I am not him, you know, but even in our way of thinking, I in a way it made even clearer to me writing this book, how much I owed to his interests, his cast of mind you know, his way of seeing the world which also became mine.

NDTV: How do you think he would have reacted to what happened to you had he lived to see it, because you do mention that you were glad that he was not around to see the ’fatwa’ years?

Salman Rushdie: I mean, I think, The Satanic Verses would have been his favorite of my books because...

NDTV: You think that?

Salman Rushdie: Yes because it corresponds to, most closely to, his areas of interest. And you know I mean the one thing I know is that he would have been you know 100% on my side

NDTV: Now, your parents were Indians, who migrated to Pakistan

Salman Rushdie: ... very late

NDTV: Very late

Salman Rushdie: Yes

NDTV: ... and you talk again and again, you write about how you can’t reconcile, this family that grew up in Balli Maran in Old Delhi and then goes to Pakistan, a country that you never had an easy relationship with. Do you think you have ever cracked the riddle of what made them do that?

Salman Rushdie: No, no I think there is a question mark there. You know because of these my father was completely uninterested in religious faith. I mean for himself, as you say he was interested in it as a subject you know, personally he had none and my mother was also you know, the extent of practicing religion in our household was that we didn’t eat meat, pork, that’s it.

NDTV: And then later you, in an act of defiance, you grab your first ham sandwich as a student.

Salman Rushdie: Yes, but I did not in my mother’s house, she never did, because I think it was one thing that she disapproved of, but that was the extent of it really. But they grew up in, I mean we grew up in India because they wanted to be in India and they obviously felt much more Indian, they didn’t define themselves by religious terms, so it’s a mystery why they suddenly opted, left, I mean, I don’t know, may be there were some strange business scandal or maybe I don’t know, I have, I have...

NDTV: Did you ever ask them?

Salman Rushdie: I have asked them but I got all kinds of answers, which felt like nonsense. And so they never told me you know, they are not around to be asked, but I just have a little suspicion that there is something that we don’t know.

NDTV: Now because of the ’fatwa’, and because you had to live in hiding, you couldn’t actually go back and meet your mother?

Salman Rushdie: No, she came to England a few times

NDTV: She was able to come to England

Salman Rushdie: She came to England, my father was dead by then, but yes she did come to England a few times.

NDTV: Towards the end of the memoir you write, it was very tongue in cheek, but it was sweet, you talk about speaking to your mother on the telephone after this whole furore over Satanic Verses had died down and she said in Urdu, agli bari koi achchi kitab likhna

Salman Rushdie: Thanks a lot to Amma

NDTV: What did you say to that after you have been through everything, it was your mother?

Salman Rushdie: What can you do, you just laugh

NDTV: And your son saying when are you going to write a book I can read

Salman Rushdie: Yes

NDTV: All of this is also happening, right?

Salman Rushdie: Well families are, you know what families are like, and they are disrespectful.

NDTV: But they keep you real

Salman Rushdie: Yes, I mean actually that request from my sons resulted in two of my favourite books that I have written. I think those two books ’Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ and ’Luka and the Fire of Life’ are really two of my favourites of what I have done, and that entirely came in response to my sons demanding books that they would enjoy.

NDTV: Talk a little bit about your relationship with India. Your memoir mentions Midnight’s Children as being a process by which you were thrilled, that a country that hadn’t necessarily reclaimed you might yet do that now and you write in your book that this was more precious to you than many awards for many jurists

Salman Rushdie: I mean yes, at that point you know I had been I had been making a life in London and I mean I was also worried that I was kind of losing a connection with India you know, which I regretted you know. So in many ways, writing Midnight’s Children was also for me, a way of claiming.

NDTV: ... reclaiming, yes

Salman Rushdie: Yes and the fact that that people in India responded so warmly to the book you know was incredibly important to me, incredibly important.

NDTV: It’s a relationship that sours later, do you see the relationship with India souring, or do you see the relationship with its politicians souring?

Salman Rushdie: Well I don’t think it’s India because you know I mean I still feel that there are a lot of people in India who are interested to read what I write, you know who seem, I mean, I don’t think that’s changed, The public sphere you know I mean they were never very fond of me. And I think they are still not.

NDTV: Who was the ’they’ you mean?

Salman Rushdie: I don’t even know their names any more you know. But it started off with of course the fact that Midnight’s Children was critical of the emergency

NDTV: Yes and of the Indira Gandhi years

Salman Rushdie: Yes, well not the Indira, but specifically the emergency...

NDTV: Yes,

Salman Rushdie: ... which I think for many of us who cared about the development of India was a dreadful shock in the mid-70s, and you know and remember this is the mid-70s and the novel came out just a few years later, so the mark of that moment is sort of on the book and people didn’t I guess, people who were, I mean, a lot of people of the Congress I suppose didn’t like it.

NDTV: Now you wrote your famous letter to Rajiv Gandhi, the famous open letter, but in the memoirs you are looking back at the letter and saying, well okay, maybe I was just a little bit arrogant there.

Salman Rushdie: Yes I mean, I think probably yes, but on the other end, I think it’s justified you know, because first of all the way in which the book was treated in India, was improper. You know, it was banned without any kind of investigation or without even anybody being able to read it because there were no copies in the country....


Salman Rushdie: ... and then of course, if you look at the way in which India has become more and more censorious of works of art, you know, I think it’s, it was a moment that’s kind of set a very bad example you know, and many people have followed that example. So you know now you have almost every day you hear about a cartoonist being put in jail or an art gallery being attacked, or scholarly text being banned from universities, or a library being attacked you know, or a novel which is being studied for a long time being taken off from university syllabus you know, or an artist driven into exile, because of threats against his safety


Salman Rushdie: You know, it’s become so common in India now. What began with the attack on Satanic Verses, and it’s so strange, because I mean you know, we all read these letters that you know, that Nehru used to write to the British attacking censorship, and saying how badly it reflected on the censoring person you know, and I mean I guess I was saying the same thing, and it reflected very badly on the government of India. That they took this decision against a novel, with such pre-emptive haste, you know, without even bothering to see a copy of it. As I say, it started something going which we, in India, all are still seeing the consequences.

NDTV: So you think India is no longer Nehru’s India in that sense?

Salman Rushdie: Of course, it’s not. You know I mean one of the things its worse is that when these attacks take place, I mean if they are attacks by a kind of sectarian hooligans or whatever, the state does not defend the artists. In fact there is there is kind of understanding that it’s the artists ’fault’, you know, why are you making trouble you know? So it’s that kind of scenario, rocking the boat attitude, which is making free expression very difficult in India now.

NDTV: You write Joseph Anton in the past tense, as if implying that this is a chapter of your life that is closed, but just staying with India, you saw what happened when you were to come and speak at the Jaipur Literature festival. I remember having to hide in a room and interview you because your session was cancelled. Right?

Salman Rushdie: I know.

NDTV: Right, and you said then that you would be back in India and you were, and nothing happened.

Salman Rushdie: And nothing happened

NDTV: And nothing happened, which points to the absolute politicisation of what’s going on. But it also points to the fact that just may be these years that you talk about in the past tense are not yet in the past.

Salman Rushdie: Well I mean I think yes, you are right, that there are these little moments that bubble up, you know, I mean I am saying that for practical purposes like in terms of how I lead my daily life you know, it’s, they are in the past, but these moments, yes they do crop up.

NDTV: But are you able to live without a sense of fear today?

Salman Rushdie: Yes, I mean really, they only start, comes up when I am talking to journalists

NDTV: You don’t walk on the street and look over your shoulder anymore?

Salman Rushdie: No, no it’s been, I mean it’s been ten and half years, it’s a really long time. But I do agree it’s little bit of like an incurable disease, you know these, anytime anybody feels like exploiting me for their own political agenda, you know it pops up again, which is what happened in Jaipur. But I was really pleased to see that the Congress share of Muslim vote went down after that, they obviously did this to push it up. It didn’t even work. So think again guys. But I think really in terms of, as I say, in terms of living my daily life, it’s no longer really an issue.

NDTV: Yet when Midnight’s Children was being filmed, enormous pressure from Iran on Sri Lanka and in India an uncertainty over whether the film will be grabbed by the distributors, again the shadow of politics

Salman Rushdie: I mean just a little bit I feel that the press has sort of jumped the gun a little bit

NDTV: On whether the film will be seen in India?

Salman Rushdie: Yes, I think just give us a moment here. It just got screened at the Toronto Film Festival last weekend, you know and I know for instance the number of distributors have come in since then in the last two days. We have sold rights in you know Italy, Japan, Turkey you know, we have like four American distributors chasing it, that’s what happens at film festivals. You know it generates interest and people come towards you. So I know, I mean I talked to the producer yesterday and he said look we are talking to a lot of people, you know and we may well, let’s see.

NDTV: You still, you are still hopeful that it will be seen in India?

Salman Rushdie: I mean at least I am not hopeless, I mean you know what it’s true, there is no question is that Indian distributors have not rushed towards it, you know, there is been a kind of nervousness. But I don’t think in this case the nervousness has to anything to do with the ’fatwa’, you know, I think it has to do with what you were saying earlier.

NDTV: You mean the critique of the emergency years?

Salman Rushdie: Yes, I think it’s the nervousness

NDTV: But the emergency is criticised openly in India.

Salman Rushdie: I know. But when it’s criticised by me, apparently that’s a problem.

NDTV: So you believe there could be actual governmental pressure that’s stopping your Indian distributors. Do you have reason to believe that?

Salman Rushdie: Yes, I have some reason to believe it, but as I say I don’t feel I don’t believe the stories of those years, so let’s just give it a moment.

NDTV: And you don’t believe this is connected to the ’fatwa’ years or Satanic Verses?

Salman Rushdie: No no

NDTV: This is connected to your critique of the emergency in Midnight’s Children?

Salman Rushdie: Yes, that’s what I think

NDTV: What does India mean to you today?

Salman Rushdie: You know it’s where I am from, that’s it. I mean I am a boy from Bombay who has travelled a long way. You know you can take the boy out of Bombay; you can’t take Bombay out of the boy you know,

NDTV: And that’s still the case?

Salman Rushdie: That is still the case; I mean that’s what I think. I mean every time people ask me about these questions, that’s what, that’s what I speak to myself.

NDTV: But you had to spend a long part of your life when you were living in hiding, in exile literally from India?

Salman Rushdie: That was may be one of the most painful things and I mean I have tried to say that in the book

NDTV: Yes, you do

Salman Rushdie: That kind of separation from India for whatever it was, nine years almost, was hideously painful. And then when I was finally allowed to have a visa, it was a very happy moment for me. And I always knew that the first visit back would be kind of very noisy and so I thought, make it short.


Salman Rushdie: And then I was invited for the Commonwealth Writers’ Forum, I just thought, come in, do it and go out. And then it’s okay, because one of the things I have learnt about normalising a situation is that you have to bore people, you know.

NDTV: Let it be uneventful!

Salman Rushdie: Yes. Like the first time you show up, everybody goes, oh my God, it’s him, you know the second time you show up, they say look he is here again and the third time you show up they say, oh he came.

NDTV: But that hasn’t happened to you yet

Salman Rushdie: No but....

NDTV: You haven’t been able to even now visit India without media attention?

Salman Rushdie: No, no, I have actually.

NDTV: Really?

Salman Rushdie: It is just because you don’t know

NDTV: Really?

Salman Rushdie: Yes

NDTV: You are then smarter than I am for sure.

Salman Rushdie: Yes, I have been several times.

NDTV: But honestly, are you able to do it in a regular routine?

Salman Rushdie: I have been to India many times; there has been no persecution. You know, I mean I have taken my sons on holiday, I, you know in the days when I was, Padma and I were together, I would go and visit her family in Chennai and you know I mean I came quiet often and there was, I had no interest in being in the media because that wasn’t the reason I was there. And so it was fine.

NDTV: Now you also write very honestly about the years when or about the phase in these ’fatwa’ years, when you mistakenly, against your own better sense, decided to embrace a Muslim identity. You wanted to say I am a secular Muslim, there was a problem with that word; you made some sort of apology for what you had written, but you didn’t believe in and you talk about, there is a kind of self-loathing about that phase that comes through. Why did you do it?

Salman Rushdie: Well I think first of all you know you have to, when I re-read my diaries, you know about this phase, it’s very obvious reading them that the person writing those dairies is not in good mental shape. You know if I look back at it now, I can see there is an enormous depression and self-disillusion, and you know weakness that I was very beaten down at that point.

NDTV: You said that the need to be loved had made you weak and foolish

Salman Rushdie: Yes, it’s a terrible thing. I have so stupid an idea but if I could just explain things to people properly that they would say oh my God we made a mistake. There is way of speaking to people reasonably. To say look you are just wrong, you have just misunderstood, and if I could just explain it to you properly, then you will see it’s all been a terrible misunderstanding and we can all be friends and proceed. You know

NDTV: Did you really think that?

Salman Rushdie: You know I am saying it’s stupid. I am saying it’s a delusion you know and also I was under enormous amount of external pressure, media and politicians, people saying, look you know you made this problem, you fix it

NDTV: And that people are dying because of you; your translator was killed

Salman Rushdie: This was before all that

NDTV: Oh this was before all that?

Salman Rushdie: But it was just saying you created this problem, and it’s up to you to do something, to fix it and when, and I felt you know very affected by that. But so I allowed myself to be suckered into this situation. I mean I have always thought it was the stupidest thing I did and I tried to say so very plainly in the book

NDTV: You have

Salman Rushdie: Because it was a very bad mistake, but truth is I do think it was a pivotal moment of my life. You know and I think it is a pivotal moment in the story in the book, because it was a moment of kind of hitting bottom you know, and I think the thing that’s beneficial about hitting the bottom is that then you know where the bottom is, you know

NDTV: Can’t get anything worse than that

Salman Rushdie: And I also think I am never going there again, and I think what it did when I kind of recovered myself, and sort of repudiated that, and regained my honest position if you like, you know, I thought I am not doing this anymore. I am not trying to compromise on issues where there can be no compromise. I am not trying to appease people who have no interest in being appeased you know. I am just going to fight my corner, I am just going to say, here is what I believe in and I am going to try and win the argument. You know at least make the argument as strongly as I can

NDTV: How did you deal with the kind of criticism that came your way, not so much from commentators whose business is it’s to opine, but from let’s say your former wife? When Mariannne writes an editorial basically, or gives an interview rather, and she says that Salman Rushdie Rushdie is not interested in freedom of speech debate, this is about him. It is not about the cause

Salman Rushdie: Well I hope she is ashamed

NDTV: And you write about that?

Salman Rushdie: Well I hope she is ashamed of herself. Because I mean actually I have spent much of my life fighting on behalf of freedom of speech for other people, and I had done so before anything happened to me you know. I have been involved with writers’ organisations fighting for, on behalf of censored writers; you know most of my career is as a published writer you know, so I mean I think she had her own motives. Well I think you’d have to ask her, but for me ...

NDTV: How did you deal with it? Because this is somebody you had been married to, this is somebody you loved

Salman Rushdie: Well I was not married to her by that time

NDTV: I know

Salman Rushdie: That was a great relief I have to say. There were moments where friends of mine who said to me that Marianne was much more dangerous than the Ayatollah Ali Khomenei. I don’t know that may be a little over-statement, but it is not that much of an overstatement

NDTV: Really? That bad? But did you ever crumble under the gaze of public scrutiny?

Salman Rushdie: No I mean, we talked about it, that’s the moment of crumbling you know. I mean actually after that, as I say the recovery from that mistake made me feel stronger you know, and then I began to fight this international campaign to try and rally political support from various countries you know, to mobilise pressure to get these threats lifted and actually the moment I was doing that, then actually I felt like a protagonist you know and not just a package in the corner. I felt much better; it felt more dignified somehow.

NDTV: You do write that. But do you believe that the freedom of speech debate has actually been resolved anywhere in the world? Look what’s happened in Libya, there’s a video that’s perceived to be anti-Islam, by all accounts it’s distasteful, it’s not even about art, it’s just about hatred and the American Ambassador gets killed in Benghazi

Salman Rushdie: You know it would be obvious that I am against acts of violence in the name of religion...

NDTV: No, no of course but I am just saying how do you resolve the debate?

Salman Rushdie: ... but I don’t want to, well I just don’t want to comment too much on this case because it’s a little unclear what had actually happened you know. No we see, hear reports from America that this attack may not....

NDTV: They have been planned

Salman Rushdie: ... They may have been planned, may not have been connected with the stupid film that may actually have to do with the anniversary of 9/11and be a kind of Jihadists attack on America, so let’s wait and see. I am not going to do the current Mitt Romney thing of shooting my mouth off and I don’t know what I am talking about

NDTV: No, the question is beyond this incident, the question is simply this, is there something called hate speech which has to be treated differently from the right of an artist to express herself or himself?

Salman Rushdie: You know different countries have argued this differently. I mean in England for example there is a Racial Act, which makes it illegal to indulge in racial hate speech

NDTV: Would you agree with those restrictions?

Salman Rushdie: Well I used to agree with them

NDTV: Because you were an anti-racism sort of advocate?

Salman Rushdie: I was, I was, but I think the American position, the First Amendment position is different from that. The First Amendment defends all forms of speech including hate speech, which is why groups like Ku Klux Klan are allowed to utter their poisonous remarks.

NDTV: .... or the Koran can be burnt

Salman Rushdie: ... or the Koran can be burnt. What I’ve come to feel is that’s a better position than these restrictions, because hate doesn’t cease to exist when you sweep it under the carpet. In a way it’s better to see where it is, because then you can take it on. Sometimes when you ban it, you glamorise it. You give it the power of taboo and it can actually strengthen that agenda. So I think now and one of the things you learn if you spend any time at all in defending freedom of speech is that you’re often defending work that you dislike, because it’s easy to defend people that you agree with. It’s easy to defend people you’re indifferent to or who don’t particularly upset you. It’s when somebody says something that you really dislike that you discover if you believe in free speech or not.

NDTV: For instance, an American person who may otherwise exist in the lunatic fringe wants to burn religious text and the counter argument that is made, look this could have a ripple effect in what’s happening to American troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This is actually making a war much more difficult, it’s costing lives. What do you say then?

Salman Rushdie: I’m not in favour of burning books of any kind. Actually, the famous line of Heinrich Heine that is often quoted, where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people, actually that comes from a play called Al Mansoor in which the book that is being burnt is the Koran. So what he is talking about in that play is the wrongness of burning the Koran because afterwards you will burn the followers of the Koran. Obviously, burning books is a terrible thing. When I saw my book being set on fire, it’s just a kind of terrible rage came out of me because it’s such an ugly act. The problem of liberty is that sometimes people do ugly things. People don’t behave always well in a free society, but if you want a free society it includes the right of people to behave badly and also I think to respond to that with mayhem and murder, that’s also a problem you know. I have to say yes, this stupid thing on YouTube that looks like the worst little clip ever made, it also now seems to be doubtful whether the full film actually even exists, it may be just a stupid clip on YouTube, the actors are saying they didn’t know what they’ve been asked to participate in, I mean it’s clearly a very highly manipulative incident, we don’t even know who the filmmaker is because he is hiding behind a secret identity, so it’s a disgusting little thing, but it’s more disgusting to attack and murder people who have nothing to do with it. This idea that somehow America you know is responsible for the deeds of every American is a stupid mistake. In this case, it’s a fatal mistake.

NDTV: You write about making the transition from this terrible mistake that you’ve made in a moment of weakness, trying to say things about being religious that you didn’t clearly mean, to reaching that internal point where you have to ask yourself actually an existential question, is the freedom of speech, is the right for you as an author to write worth dying for? What was your answer?

Salman Rushdie: My answer was I was willing to fight even if it meant my life was in danger, because the freedom of speech is not just the right of writers to write, It’s also the writer’s readers to read, it is the freedom without which all the other freedoms disappear, you don’t have freedom of assembly without freedom of speech, because if you assemble but you’re not allowed to say what you want, what’s the point? So freedom of speech is the bedrock, it’s just about the absolute foundation of a free society, and I think actually it’s something that we are, have, a danger of forgetting even in India because of the way in which people get assaulted for doing perfectly innocent things. I mean to do a cartoon which makes clay on the four lions and turns them into wolves, well I mean yes it’s disrespectful, but when did you ever hear of a respectful political cartoon? You know the form itself requires disrespect and so, in India there’s a long tradition...

NDTV: ....and for the Parliament to be depicted as a loo?

Salman Rushdie: .... yes so what? You know, deal with it

NDTV: But the laws of our country don’t coincide with that interpretation that you are making

Salman Rushdie: Well there is the problem with the laws. Also India has a long tradition of very distinguished political cartooning, it’s not like we just make this up, you know this has been happening ever since Independence and there were cartoons about Nehru and so on, which were very savage at the time and he never objected you know.

NDTV: Why do think India has become less tolerant? What do you make of it?

Salman Rushdie: I don’t know, I just think power corrupts. I think there are people in power who have egos the size of the Ritz, who don’t like to see, who are very thin-skinned and easily react wrongly to this stuff. Self-love is a terrible thing.

NDTV: You speak about you know just the ordinary going away from your life, not being able to play football in the park with Zafar, was there ever a moment when you regretted having written the book?

Salman Rushdie: You know Barkha, I’ve been asked that question may be every week for 23 years

NDTV: And has your answer always been the same?

Salman Rushdie: Yes, it’s always been the same and you can guess what it is. I mean I am very proud of the Satanic Verses. I think it might be one of my very best books. And what I think is that for a long time only the people who are making a noise about it, only the people who are hostile to it, got to speak and they got to, kind of set the agenda on the book for a long time, but now it’s very nice to see that it’s getting studied, it used to earlier get studied in political courses and comparative religion courses, now it’s being studied as work of literature and you know people respond to it very well.

NDTV: And that’s what you see, it was denied the ordinary life of a book, and Martin Amis says you vanished onto the front page instead of being on the literature pages

Salman Rushdie: Yes, well I think it’s managed to find its way back into the books section you know and I think you know, people by large seem to have been liking it, to read it just as a book and I think if books survive, they don’t survive because of scandal. You know we don’t remember the scandal about 100 years ago, you know we don’t care about it, every book that survives any length of time survives because people love it, not because people hate it, you know it’s love that makes art survive and not hatred. I am very proud of the fact that Midnight’s Children is now, whatever it is, thirty-one years old and it’s still of interest to a generation that was hardly born you know, when ...

NDTV: ... when two countries were created

Salman Rushdie: ... when it first came out, so now at least it’s moved into a next generation. If it manages to move into one or two more then it has a chance of sticking around, which I won’t be around to see, but it’s at least made a first step. That’s what you do, I mean if you are a writer like me you’re writing books to endure you know, you are not writing books to make a quick killing then disappear you know. The best seller of 20 years ago is out of print now, I mean when did you last see a copy of Peyton Place you know, in its moment it’s sold a zillion copies and it disappeared. Those of us who write this kind of book are hoping for it to endure. You know you want to leave behind a shelf of books, you want to say like from here to here it’s me and that’s what I hope for, for that book as as well as the other book.

NDTV: You quote Conrad and repeatedly say that this is the sentence that comes up again and again in the book, you have to live till you die

Salman Rushdie: That’s live until I die and I remember I talked about this a lot with my old friend Edward Said



The above excerpt from Salman Rushdie’s interveiw on NDTV is reproduced here in public interest and is for non commercial use