It’s 10:30 in the morning in New York and 8:30 in the evening in New Delhi. The phone rings and the voice says rather plainly, “Hello, this is Salman Rushdie.” I had expected somebody — an agent, a PR person, an operator, any one other than Salman Rushdie really — to tell me, “Hello Mr Hazra, you have 15 minutes with Mr Rushdie,” followed by a telephonic handover. Instead, it’s the man himself who waits to be questioned. Congratulating him for his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, I clear my throat and start.
Excerpts from the interview:
Names are important in your novels. How important is the act of naming characters for you?
It’s extremely important. I usually take a long time coming up with names for my characters. Naming things lies at the beginning of writing a fictional world. The name serves a very important function to my building a character. In this book, the way the names are changed by ‘outsiders’ in a multi-cultural setting is not unlike what happens in the world we live in today. Queen Elizabeth becomes Rani Zelabat; Jaluluddin Akbar becomes Zelabdin Echebar.
Much of your writing is peppered with cross-cultural references and playing with languages. Do you fret over the fact that much of these nuances may be lost to readers, especially Western readers?
I stopped worrying about that sort of thing a long time ago. You write the way you want the book. But there is satisfaction when the reader does latch on to particular references.
The references to Jodhabai in the book come at a time when there has been much debate about the historical character thanks to the film Jodhaa-Akbar. How coincidental is that?
I haven’t even seen the film and I think the whole debate about whether she existed or not is ridicuolus. 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. To consider that all this has any bearing with real history is missing the point of a novel.
Your Jodha seems to be the exact opposite of another character in the book, the ‘Memory Palace’, the former being a figment of Emperor Akbar’s imagination taking on a flesh-and-bones quality, while the latter, a human, is really a story-telling device.
Absolutely. The novel is full of such mirror including the one that you just mentioned. There are many such echoes throughout the book that obliquely connect one part of thebook to another like a hall of mirrors.
Talking about history and fiction, what kind of reading did you do for writing this book?
It was going back to my training in history [Rushdie studied history at King’s College, Cambridge]. I had been planning this book for more than seven years. In the meantime, I even wrote two other novels [Fury (2001) and Shalimar the Clown (2005)]. But all the while I was researching for this book. This is the most researched novel I have ever written. It was largely the history of the Mughals as well as the history of the European Renaissance that I was researching.
But was it an effort to ensure that the novel didn’t become a history book in disguise?
I was using history to tell a story, not the other way round. I used research material to create imaginative, fictional connections that needed to be made to tell a story. In the end, it was the story that had to be told.
What about reading the Literature of that era? You criss-cross the novel with references not only to Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso but also to the writings of Machiavelli.
Yes, in fact I came across Ariosto’s character of the pagan princess who travels across strange countries and I found her story fitting into my own narrative. It wasn’t there at the beginning, but the character grew larger as I proceeded. Niccolo Machiavelli is, of course, one of the main characters in the book and his Discourses was part of my reading list.
You have an extensive bibliography at the end of the book. Why the need for that in a novel? Aren’t you showing off?
The bibliography is there to serve two purposes. One, to lead the reader if he chooses to, to delve deeper into the literature that can shed more light on the matters dealt with in my novel. And two, as a form of acknowledgement to the books that I had read to research this book.
Talking about Machiavelli, the rhetorical device of dissimulation — lying, pretending — are pivotal elements in The Enchantress of Florence. Does this Machiavellian element of dissimulating fascinate you as a novelist?
I don’t think the book is as much about lying as it is about protecting one’s identity by taking up other multiple identities. The European traveller constantly changes his identity, even his name, according to the situation he finds himself in, and according to the person he is with. His multiple personalities help him to negotiate his way through his travels.
In the preface of the first English translation of Orlando Furioso, Sir John Harington refers to the Machiavellian strategy of “hiding the truth so that it may be properly discerned only by those qualified as an important ethical means of defending poetry against sceptical moralists”. You’ve met your share of ‘sceptical moralists’. Have you felt the need to ‘hide the truth’?
Not really. I don’t like conducting nudge-nudge, wink-winks with my readers in my novels. I really don’t like books that do that. My private and personal life is not for my books, not even in a cloaked form. The story in the novel is all that I as well as the reader need to deal with. There are no secret messages, no coded comments about my detractors, no parallel narratives referring to my life or situation.
But you do have your detractors, the ‘sceptical moralists’ both in India and elsewhere. You’re visiting India more often these days. Do you see a change in India that makes you feel less wary of visiting?
Yes, I do visit India more frequently than before. These are exciting times and I’m quite excited by the kind of India that is being talked about across the world. And I’m not talking in terms of its growing economic success story. There are still vast disparities. But my visits these days are more about exploration, especially North India, to places like Agra where I’m really keen on exploring the country, discovering new aspects of its past, rather than delving in nostalgia. Bombay is a changed city. The Bombay I knew and grew up in is no longer there. But the new Bombay interests me greatly. What worries me, however, is the growing intolerance that is becoming more and more visible in India.
But aren’t these visible signs of intolerance more about liberal silence?
It is, but it’s more than just that. What has happened to Deepa Mehta and M.F. Husain and others are deeply worrying. I don’t think this kind of intolerance was so prevalent before. There were arguments that would get resolved. But now, 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 he has to worry about all this. It can be hugely constricting.
In your eyes have you changed as a writer over the years?
One thing that I have noted about myself is that I am more keen to be accessible to the reader, be less confusing, these days. Which is why I showed this book as I proceeded with it to some people whose feedback I respect. This was less the case when I was younger.
Are you influenced by other art forms like film and music?
Music is very important to me. I wrote a novel [The Ground Beneath Her Feet] using the metaphor of music. As for films, there was a time when I was watching all kinds of films, world cinema, all the time. I had even planned to write a novel about the cinema. I never got around writing it.
How long has it been since you left London and moved to New York?
I moved in 2000.
Have things been different since then?
New York is exciting. I had always loved the vibrancy of the city even when I used to come here to visit. It’s the kind of place where no one bothers to look up even at celebrities passing. It allows me a great deal of space.
You wrote about India when you lived in London. Will you write about London now that you’re in New York?
[Laughs] Well, that’s a possibility. I have dealt with Indians living in London in a novel. But I do plan to write a London novel, a novel about London. Yes, I do plan to write it. Distance, of course, 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.
There’s been speculation that you’re buying a house somewhere in India and plan to settle down here. Any truth in that?I haven’t made any plans yet. But who knows. Never say never.
Once you’re here, maybe you’ll write a ‘New York’ novel.
That’s a thought. Yes, writing a New York novel from India. [Laughs]
Since we started with the primacy of names, we’ll end on those lines. How do you pronounce ‘Rushdie’? I was never sure.
It’s Rooshdie. Roosh-die.