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‘The personal and political are deeply intertwined in our times’

Encounters with Salman Rushdie,recently published by Penguin and edited by Daniel Herwitz and Ashutosh Varshney...

Written by Sudeep Paul |
May 7, 2009 11:23:37 pm

In Midnight’s Diaspora: Encounters with Salman Rushdie,recently published by Penguin and edited by Daniel Herwitz and Ashutosh Varshney,writers and intellectuals offer their insights into the cultural and political aspects of Rushdie’s writing. In a discussion with SUDEEP PAUL,Ashutosh Varshney — writer,political scientist and currently Professor of Political Science at Brown University — talks about his interview of Rushdie in March 2003 and offers his own views on literature and politics. Some excerpts:

•Any writing is a political act,and all litterateurs are political beings,existing in political contexts. Some engage in active politics,such as Mario Vargas Llosa; some are anyway intensely political as Marquez; others are very political but never make their political moorings eclipse their fiction as art,such as Philip Roth. Where do you place Rushdie?

I’m not sure I’ll agree that all writers are political beings. Jhumpa Lahiri writes lovely stories,but there doesn’t appear to be a single political bone in her body. But there are writers like Arundhati Roy,who unfortunately make their politics eclipse their art. Rushdie stands in the middle,somewhat like Milan Kundera. That is an attractive intellectual location. In his interview to me,he says it’s virtually impossible for him to write like Jane Austen,because the personal and the political have become deeply intertwined in our times. Indeed,his own life exemplifies how the political and the personal,often,interpenetrate each other.

•Your public interest in Rushdie is premised on his political self. But The Satanic Verses made Rushdie a political object himself,while Midnight’s Children,Shame,Moor’s Last Sigh are better books. Would you have been happier if Satanic Verses had never happened,and not distracted you by Rushdie’s explicatory engagements?

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The Satanic Verses is not one of my favourites. In contrast,the other books you mention were truly impressive,both for their stories and how politics and history were adroitly,imaginatively woven into the narrative. But once the political waves so brutally engulfed SV,the matter was no longer purely literary. It was important to defend a basic political and moral principle: no one should be killed for the act of writing. Whether Rushdie will ever be read the way he was before Satanic Verses was published remains to be seen.

•To your query about novelists’ political responsibility,Rushdie had replied (as novelists do) that he wasn’t offering a prescription to other writers. His own “instinct” is political. As a political scientist and also a reader of literature,what are your own demands of the novelist?

As a political scientist,I found Midnight’s Children and Shame fascinating — how the political and the personal were woven together. But I don’t demand such imaginative fusion of all writers. Sometimes,the story is purely human. At other times,the underlying political vision is disturbing,but one still finds the story engrossing. A racial rape constitutes the central image of Coetzee’s Disgrace. I was living in South Africa when Disgrace came out and for all the social problems,I would not have used rape as a central metaphor for post-apartheid South Africa. I was disturbed by how the political and the personal were interwoven in Disgrace,but I can’t deny it was a great novel. It so happens that I like Rushdie’s politics as well as his art,but often one has to step outside politics to appreciate a work of art. Kundera puts it quite well: one should first see a poem in a poem,a painting in a painting… before subjecting it to a political framework.

•At the centre of Rushdie’s politics is free speech. Ironically,he nearly took recourse to censorship,post-Satanic Verses. What do you think of the politics of establishment censorship and that of mass censorship (vandalism and book burning),and of Rushdie’s opinion that it’s better to get the “reprehensible ideas” out in the open?

Freedom of speech should be vigorously defended. But I do differ from Rushdie on whether some forms of speech should be constrained. If you separate free speech from the power structure,terrible things can happen. Generally speaking,the colonised and the subaltern have often internalised the images fed by the powerful. A radical defence of free speech alone cannot counter such power-laden implications of inequalities.

But one can’t defend vandalism as a way to counter objectionable speech either. A plural society does need to pay attention to cultural sensitivities,and accept some constraints on free speech. But that doesn’t mean allowing murder and physical threats. Rushdie is a radical defender of free speech. I link freedom of speech and the power structure,and favour some publicly deliberated and accepted constraints,not capriciously imposed.

•Edward Said wanted the intellectual to ask awkward questions,to be “embarrassing,contrary,even unpleasant to the powers that be.” Rushdie has suffered an actual condition of exile. But he hasn’t lived outside the system of privileges.

Rushdie is both in a state of exile and privilege. He can certainly speak truth to power,has done so,and has suffered a lot as a result. But his experience is very distinctive. On the whole,the diasporic intellectual does not speak truth to power the same way as the homeland intellectual does. A homeland intellectual can be harassed much more easily by the powers that be. The risks for the diasporic intellectual are normally lower,and the privileges undoubtedly greater. Rushdie’s suffering was,therefore,very unusual. The diasporic intellectual does not normally suffer that way.

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