Salman Rushdie, Author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children

Photo courtesy of Salman Rushdie

Legendary Author Salman Rushdie

On India’s History & the Midnight’s Children Movie

 

From Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Miller to Jon Krakauer and Stephen King, I’ve had the chance to interview some seriously influential authors over the course of my career. But never have I interviewed one as divisive as Salman Rushdie, who recently granted us a 1-on-1 interview to promote the new Midnight’s Children movie, an artful adaptation (from Oscar-nominated director Deepa Mehta) of his breakthrough novel.

 

Born Ahmed Salman Rushdie in Bombay, India in 1947 into a Muslim family of Kashmiri descent, he started his career as an ad copywriter before becoming a full-time author after his second novel, Midnight’s Children, won the Booker Prize for its unique combination of historical fiction and magical realism.

 

Of course, Rushdie ultimately became best known for his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, which sparked violent protests from Muslims incensed by the creative license the author took in his novel based on the life of the prophet Muhammad. Outraged by blasphemy and a perceived mocking of the Muslim faith, a fatwā calling for Rushdie’s death was issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.

 

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

Rushdie Poses With the Book That Earned Him Death Threats

 

For over a decade now, Rushdie has lived in the United States, serving since 2007 as Emory University’s Distinguished Writer in Residence in our hometown of Atlanta. He’s been busy writing, working on a sci-fi series for Showtime (which he told me may or may not come to fruition) and releasing Joseph Anton: A Memoir, which details his life during the Satanic Verses fatwā. He also wrote and executive produced the Midnight’s Children movie.

 

The semi-autobiographical story, which was loosely based on Rushdie’s childhood, deals with India’s rough transition from British colonial to independence, and the extremely bloody partition of the nation. We were delighted to sit down with the knighted author to discuss the new film adaptation, India’s evolution, and the lasting impact the end of the colonial era had on his homeland.

 

The Midnight's Children Movie Poster

The Midnight’s Children Movie Poster

 

 

This seems like a very personal project for you.

With Midnight’s Children, I wanted to write a novel that arose out of that place (Bombay) at that time, using my own experience. I gave Saleem certain parts of my childhood, so essentially he lives in my house and goes to my school. His friends are composites of people I went to school with. The school bullies know who they are.

 

What are your strongest memories of growing up in the time of India’s independence?

Looking back at my childhood, I felt it was an extraordinary period in the country. It was the end of the [British] empire and the beginning of independence. This was the first generation of free children to be born in India in more than two centuries! Transition is an interesting and confused time: The past is still there, but the future is being born. Bombay has always felt a little different from the rest of India, in the way that New York doesn’t feel like the rest of America, and Paris is not like the rest of France. One of the great characteristics in Bombay at that time was tolerance: There was virtually no sectarian trouble. We didn’t care about the Hindu-Muslim conflicts that happened in other places. The families I grew up with in my little neighborhood were of every conceivable background– European, American, and Indian, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Farsi, Sikh, Buddhist, etc. I wanted to write the book out of that spirit.

 

Can you talk about the impact of Colonialism in India, and how the withdrawal of those influences impacted the nation?

After World War I, Britain was impoverished by the war effort. There was actually food aid going from America to Britain. With the election of their first Labor government, the British suddenly decided they couldn’t afford [the price of Colonialism]. Suddenly, the India Nationalist Movement discovered the British resistance against them was collapsing. When it was done, it happened at an almost indecent speed. When the British finally sent their last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, he arrived with instructions to get out as fast as you can. They set the date of Indian independence 10 weeks later. After 250 years of Colonialism, you had to do the whole process in 10 weeks.

 

 

Ten weeks? Wow…

Yes. To withdraw the entire power structure in 10 weeks and, at the same time, divide the country into two countries, created endless chaos. There’s no doubt that the violence that happened is partly the product of that.  What was awful was that this moment that should’ve been of great hope turned extraordinarily bloody, with these huge massacres. The official number [of deaths] could be 300,000-400,000 people, but most informed people say it may have been double that, or close to a million people who were slaughtered, both Hindu and Muslim, in the partition riots. So you have this country born with this double-edged thing– great hope and incredible carnage. You have to look at both things to see how the country would develop. The idea of the “Midnight’s Children” was, yes, it was about my generation, but I also wanted them to embody the possibility. The idea behind giving them magic powers if they were born in the midnight hour was to say, “Freedom is a magical moment, and here is the potential of that freedom.”

 

What were you trying to say about the impact of Colonialism on Indian culture?

The British believed they were doing good– they called it “hundreds of years of decent government”– but clearly they did harm. When we showed the film to younger audiences in India, the events surrounding independence felt like ancient history. But as the film gradually moved towards present events, particularly the Emergency of 1975-1977 (when PM Indira Gandhi suspended elections and civil liberties), they felt more connected. Right now in India, there’s a big conversation about political corruption and the rise of authoritarianism in various Indian states. So they could easily relate those scenes to what’s happening outside the theater today.

 

Salman Rushdie and Director Deepa Mehta at TIFF 2012

With Director Deepa Mehta, photo courtesy Toronto International Film Festival

 

Do you think there were any positive impacts of the Colonial era?

To give the British their due, they built the railroads and roads, and left behind an extremely efficient civil service center, without which India couldn’t function. They wrote a constitution totally lacking in religion, which has been a very valuable thing. They left the country in pretty good shape structurally, although a mess in terms of the calamities that were happening. As with America, the founding fathers of the Indian Independence Movement were great men who were available to lead the country into the moment of freedom. India was very blessed by those leaders– people of deep intelligence, deep philosophy, great sophistication and selflessness. It was clear to them, because of the partition massacres, that the question was, how to make sure that never happens again? The answer was that you have to keep religion out of the state. India has a gigantic religious majority, with 85% of the population that is in some way Hindu, then you have 12% Muslim, and 3% Buddhist, Christians, Jews, etc. They felt that if you have a religious state, the big majority would dominate the minorities, and that would create stress. Now, a much smaller-minded generation of Indian politicians is trying to impose a majoritarian culture on India, which would lead to the exact kind of discord that the Founding Fathers were trying to avoid. At the moment of independence/de-colonization, India was lucky in being left with a constitution that was sensible, and blessed with leaders who knew how to defend and protect secularism.

 

Satya Bhabha as Saleem in Midnight's Children

Satya Bhabha as Saleem, Whose Life Was Loosely Based on Rushdie’s

 

In closing, I wanted to talk about the controversy that has surrounded you ever since the release of The Satanic Verses. I’ve read that you had to be surreptitious when filming in certain locations for the Midnight’s Children movie, and that certain people in India spoke out against the film?

There were fears, including some nervousness about what would happen in India. This is a time in India when any two-bit politician looking for a headline can stand up and shake his fist to get some attention. What’s interesting is that, at the Kerala Film Festival, there were one or two local politicians who did make a fuss. But overall the film went down very well at Kerala, and there was no attempt by the central government to intervene. The film sailed through the censor board without a single cut. All these things that we had feared actually didn’t happen, and the filmed opened there without any trouble.  –Bret Love

 

If you enjoyed our interview with Salman Rushdie on the Midnight’s Children Movie, you might also like:

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20 Responses to INTERVIEW: Salman Rushdie on India’s History & the Midnight’s Children Movie

  • what a great interview! i loved the book – can’t wait to see the movie!

    • I haven’t read the book, but my suspicion is that it’s better than the movie, which feels a little long and slow at times. Still, it’s a fascinating story and a gorgeously shot film.

  • Wonderful interview, Rushdie is always compelling — though his personal charm is much more evident in person! It’s sad to think that the violence and chaos of partition is still affecting India today, and that a movement towards “majoritarianism” sometimes seems to be defeating India’s inherent pluralism. Would love to see India heal from these wounds, and become a strong, peaceful, tolerant and pluralistic society .

    • I had not heard about the push towards majoritarianism until we interviewed him, so I find that very interesting. Seems to run so contrary to the philosophies of Gandhi that I think most Westerners associate with India. But I guess every country goes through growing pains…

  • Great interview.

    I’ve loved all of his books that I’ve read, although I haven’t been keeping up to date the last few years. Foucault’s Pendulum to this day remains one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    Compelling interview, and thanks for sharing :) Kudos for getting the opportunity!

  • Nat says:

    An interesting topic to choose. Growing up in the UK educational system, the “great” British empire was never mentioned. Many years of history have been swept under the carpet. There is never any mention of the effect on India. I would watch this film, just to find out more.

    • Thanks, Natalie. I liked the film, though it was a little long and slow for my tastes. But the history Rushdie covers in his story is riveting. It’s amazing to see the effect it can have on a country when long-time rulers– in this case the British– suddenly decide to disappear. And tragic to watch as India tries to pick up the pieces in the aftermath.

  • Laurence says:

    Wow, we Brits sure did a whole pile of damage didn’t we!

    • Not just the Brits: ALL the “colonial imperialists.” Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands… From the Spanish Inquisition on up to Apartheid in South Africa, so many of the world’s problems can be traced back to exploitation during the Colonial era. And of course many countries (including America) are still exploiting today.

  • Terrific interview-congratulations. Rushdie is always so thought provoking and controversial, I can’t wait to see the movie. India is one of my favorite countries, and the news of late has had women thinking twice about travel there. I hope this movie will help people understand why it is such a complicated place, with so much to offer anyone who is lucky enough to visit.

    • Yes, I think the movie (and the book) DEFINITELY opens people’s eyes to the origins of the problems facing India. It should also serve as a cautionary tale for any nation considering interfering with another nation’s governance. As Rushdie says, the Brits did lots of great things for India, but the irresponsible way in which they pulled out of the country caused damage that’s still being dealt with now, 60+ years later. Makes me very concerned for the future of currently war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan….

  • Thank you for this wonderful interview. I not only learned a lot about Rushdie and India’s history, but I now have a new novel to read.

  • Loved the book and I’m looking forward to the movie–especially after reading your interview with Salman Rushdie in which he comes across as completely human despite his superhuman career path and life experiences.

    • I didn’t love the movie nearly as much as the interview: It’s a bit long and sluggishly-paced for my tastes, and some of the early reviews have not been kind. But the story itself is pretty remarkable, and the historical insights Rushdie offers within the context of his “magical realism” approach were incredibly enlightening, and ultimately only made me respect India all the more.

  • Great interview and article. It’s important to highlight elements of history that are often glossed over in textbooks.

    • That’s true, and I think getting the insider perspective of someone who actually lived through, and was deeply impacted by, that history is really valuable. We spoke for 20-30 minutes, but I would’ve loved to have an hour so we could’ve talked more. I didn’t even have time to ask him about his latest book, or his life during the fatwa.

  • We enjoyed reading the book shortly after it was published. However, we’ve read so many books since. So, when we watched the trailer, the plot didn’t seem at all familiar. Rotten Tomatoes supports your misgivings about the movie, Bret. It gets 42%: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/midnights_children/

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