Salman Rushdie kicks off his world book tour tomorrow at the South Bank Centre in London. But unsurprisingly, the author of the ‘Mughals-meet-the Medicis’ novel, The Enchantress of Florence harbours many thoughts about India, both the 16th century fictionalised version as well as the 21st century real one. Speaking to HT over the phone, the subject of Jodhabai naturally comes early on.
In his new book, Jodha is a feisty and alluring creation of Emperor Akbar’s imagination — far removed from Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa that kicked up such a fuss in India. “I haven’t even seen the film and I think the whole debate about whether she existed or not is ridiculous,” he says.
“I had come across references to Jodha while reading Mughal history. But very little is known about her. It’s in these cracks of history that the imagination comes into play. That is what a writer does — fills in the blanks through fiction.”
But India interests Rusdhie beyond history — and in a new way these days. “These are exciting times and I’m excited by the kind of India that is being talked about across the world,” says the 60-year-old writer who left Bombay at 14. “And I’m not talking of its growing economic success story.” He’s been coming to India more often of late, but less and less for nostalgic reasons. “My visits are more about exploration, especially North India where I’m keen on exploring the country, discovering new aspects of its past."
And what about Bombay? His Bombay? The Bombay of fellow 'Midnight's child' Salim Sinai? "Bombay is a changed city. The Bombay I knew and grew up in is no longer there. But the new Bombay interests me greatly," he says from New York.
But for all his enthusiasm, he is also worried by certain trends in India. "What has happened to Deepa Mehta and MF Husain is deeply worrying. I don't think this kind of intolerance was so prevalent before," says the man about the first country to have banned his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. "Even liberal society seems to be tolerating intolerance by using the excuse of the need to respect 'sensitivities'. It's impossible for a writer or an artist to work in an atmosphere where has to worry about all this."
Be that as it may, Rushdie laughs when told about the rumours doing the rounds about his planning to buy a house somewhere in India and settling down here. "I haven't made any plans yet. But who knows? Never say never." He has, after all, kept India as his prime protagonist even as he moved from London to New York in 2000. "Distance does provide a view. But too much distance can remove one from knowing the place altogether. It's about striking the right balance between the imagined, invented memory and the real thing."
Now that he's settled in New York, Rushdie has a vague plan to write a 'London novel' soon. So will he write a 'New York novel' once he's settled in India? "That's a thought. Yes, writing a New York novel from India," he laughs.