Salman Rushdie who was in India to promote Deepa Mehta's film The Midnight's Children and managed to get into a controversy about the Kolkata Literature Festival, spoke about contemporary English writing in India and why new Pakistani writers thrill him.
There was a time when almost every Indian writer writing in English wanted to be Salman Rushdie - or Vikram Seth. And a bit later Arundhati Roy. What do you make of the situation now?
This phenomenon of Indian writing in English which began in the 80s was a huge boom. And then it kind of faded and then it came back. What is interesting now is that there's no longer just two or three writers but a whole literature. And that literature goes from the very high-brow Amit Chaudhuri to the very low-brow Chetan Bhagat and there's a whole spectrum. That's a very good thing.
So I think what's happened is that we don't have to talk about it as a phenomenon any more. Now it's a literature. And that will develop and people will rise and fall and change, but what's happened is that in thirty years we now have what we didn't have before: a broad spectrum of Indian literature in English. I like Rana Dasgupta, Jeet Thayil and I enjoyed Nilanjana Roy's children's book. But I actually think that the Pakistani stuff is more interesting.
What do you make of Mohammed Hanif?
Yeah, yeah. I think Mohammed Hanif is the business actually. I like Daniyal Mueenuddin, I like Nadeem Aslam, I like Kamila Shamsie. I just think that's what hasn't happened before - the arrival of a generation of Pakistani writers in English. Before, there was the odd one. There was someone like, you know, Bapsi Sidhwa. But you didn't have the sense of a sudden explosion.
Before Midnight's Children, writers from the subcontinent writing in English would also write in a very different kind of English that was all very proper and droll and pretty. Did Midnight's language, furious word-play and fantastical narrative come about as a reaction to all that?
Well, I also got bored with that. [Laughs] Obviously, I did try and make that kind of 'street English' into a kind of literary version. And it was fun. But there comes a point when you say, I've done this, I'm going to do something else. When I went back to read Midnight's Children [to write the script of Deepa Mehta's film adaptation of the novel], I thought I really don't write like this now.
If you compare, say, the last adult novel, which is The Enchantress of Florence, if you just compare the prose, I don't write like that any more. In The Enchantress, the writing is very ornate. It's deliberately like that because that was the kind of writing that people were reading at that time [16th century]. So I thought: write the kind of book the characters of the book would like to read.
Baroque writing for baroque people?
Yes. If you have this age of Ariosto and others, and over here you have all the court poets of Akbar and so on, it is a very baroque world. And as you get older, you find the writing that suits the thing that you're trying to do. Rather than have some kind of project where you make [puts on comic 'Indian' accent'] peepol shpeak like this onlee. You've done that trick. You need another trick to do.
Have you been translated into any Indian languages?
Yes, yes. There's a project to do lots. So far, I think Haroun [and the Sea of Stories] just came out in Hindi. Some came out with an earlier publisher and went out of print. Now Random House India is trying to bring some of the books back in print and then do more. I'm really pleased that somebody's doing it. It was happening earlier sporadically.
There was one publisher who did Midnight's Children and I think he went bust or something like that. We're looking at that translation to see whether it needs some tweaking. Otherwise they can reissue it. And not just in Hindi. Then maybe in Kannada, Malayalam…
Do you want to write another book about India?
The truth is that I follow what's happening here in India, you know, by reading the papers. But I don't think I have my finger on the pulse enough any more to write about it. So in theory, yes, I guess I'd like to write a book set in India. In practice? I don't know.
Right now if you wanted me to write a novel about Bombay -- Mumbai -- I'm not sure I can do that. It may not be my book to do. The closest I came to it was in The Moor's Last Sigh which was the novel about the transition, the moment when Bombay became Mumbai.
That was interesting to me because it was like: here's a city I used to know; and it's become another place. When I was writing it, I kept thinking that the next city that Bombay was becoming may not be my city to write about. I remember when I was much younger thinking, telling journalists even, that I won't write about India any more. And the next book would be about a huge book about India [laughs]. So you don't know. For instance the Enchantress, it's not really a novel about India' it just happens to be set in 16th century India.
Your interest in India is obviously connected to your personal history. But beyond that? Anything beyond wanting to turn memories into fiction?
It's not only about my past. Shalimar [the Clown] is about Kashmir. I remember when I was writing that book, I told myself, you have to write a novel which happens in a village. If you're going to write about Kashmir, it can't happen in Srinagar. The challenge for me of writing that novel was not writing about the politics, but about writing about village life I have no idea about.
This reminds me of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, a movie he made without ever having gone to a village in Bengal before.
Exactly! [Laughs] I recently taught both the book [by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay] and the film. The interesting thing about when you read the book and contrast it with the film is that Ray's version of the village is much more romanticised. The novel is much more brutal.
There's a lot of violence - sexual violence particularly, at least three extreme acts of sexual violence and in each case the violent man gets away with it. Village life is much more brutal in the novel and much more beautiful in the movie where the worst thing that happens is a girl steals a mango.