Review: Languages of Truth by Salman Rushdie
Reading Rushdie is like hurtling down the Alaknanda towards the confluence with the roiling Bhagirathi at Devprayag, just before you take the turn and find yourself in an entirely different river, the quiet, emerald Ganga. In Languages of Truth; Essays 2003-2020, his words rush out rapid and unstoppable on everything from Hans Christian Andersen and Shakespeare to hijras and Hitchens, from Amrita Sher-Gill, Osama Bin Laden, Harold Pinter, Heraclitus and Pythagoras to political courage, Carrie Fisher and Covid.
As always, his linguistic virtuosity impresses: “In these pages,” he says in his introduction to The Paris Review Interviews Vol IV, “Jack Kerouac comes over exactly as he should, at once vivid and muddy, full of Kerouacity”.
Then there is his sense of humour: “Thank you, Philip (Roth). Taboos, he taught me, are there to be broken. This lesson has, on occasion, got me into trouble.” This deserves a helplessly laughing emoji in the margin or at least a LOL, as does this bit from the essay on Wonder Tales: “The other solution is to remember that fiction is fictional and try to make things up. We are all dreaming creatures. Dream on paper. And if it turns out like Twilight or The Hunger Games, tear it up, and try to have a better dream.”
The gleaming factoids that stud these essays reveal a Trivial Pursuit aficionado. In Cervantes and Shakespeare, he writes that when England switched to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian dating system in 1752, there were riots and “it’s said, mobs in the streets shouting, ‘Give us back our eleven days!’” In Autobiography and the Novel, he yokes together his former home and his current one through Charles II’s all-forgiving consort, Catherine of Braganza: “Bombay and New York, at or near their births, had the same queen”. In The Composite Artist: The Emperor Akbar and the Making of the Hamzanama, he says the mullah Abul Hasan, one of the Navratnas of Akbar’s court, “priest, gourmet and cook,” was the creator of mutton do piaza. (A quick Google search reveals that the Iranians contest this particular origin myth, insisting the do piaza emerged from Khorasan. Hopefully, they aren’t about to sing ‘Instant fatwa’s gonna get you’ for this one.) In Adaptation he points out that “The twelve separate varieties of finches that Charles Darwin found on the Galapagos Islands had all made local adaptations but when the ornithologist John Gould examined Darwin’s specimens in 1837, he could see that these were not different birds but twelve different species of the same bird”.
It’s easy to be dazzled by this performance that calls to mind a young man pirouetting in the presence of pulchritude (ah, death by alliteration). Rushdie will turn 74 this year and such energy would be admirable even in someone half his age. He is as old as independent India: “I was a member of the first generation of free Indian children to be born in over two centuries infused with the spirit of new liberty but carrying with us also the knowledge of blood, of the great massacres of Muslims by Hindus and Hindus by Muslims that attended the moment of freedom,” he writes in Another Writer’s Beginnings.
This knowledge of blood continues to haunt us; it prompts fresh bouts of bloodletting, each incident creating new grudges that lead to the next, and has culminated in what now feels like the inevitable enthronement of Hindutva. It was a long time coming. Today, it is clear that the secular Bombay the author talks about didn’t really exist or if it did, it died around the time his parents left for Karachi in the 1970s. Rushdie simplifies things when he writes “… the city was strongly secular in spirit. That this is no longer the case, that the rise of Hindu nationalism has led to a sharp increase in sectarianism in what is now Mumbai, is a source of sadness for people of my generation.” It wasn’t Hindu nationalism that changed Bombay; nativist fascism did. To be sure, the late Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena made common cause with Hindu nationalism when it was convenient but only then. It is the sort of granularity of detail that VS Naipaul (mentioned twice in this volume), that other celebrated writer with roots in the subcontinent (but perhaps greatly blessed by being a few generations removed) would have insisted on. Rushdie sees India Past like a lot of NRIs who left 50 years ago do, through rose tints. It took him a while to prise them off but the memory of their comforting glow persists.
Still, this is an interesting, thought provoking and enjoyable collection of essays that shows off the author’s formidable intellect. He is brilliant in Wonder Tales when he discusses the problematic nature of the term ‘magic realism’: “… because when it is used, most people equate it with the fantasy-fiction genre. And, as I’ve been trying to argue, the literature of the fantastic is not genre fiction but, in its own way, as realistic as naturalistic fiction; it just comes into the real through a different door. A naturalistic novel is entirely capable of being escapist: read a little chicklit and you’ll see what I mean.
The truth is not arrived at by purely mimetic means… The literature of the fantastic – the wonder tale, the fable, the folk tale, the magic realist novel – has always embodied profound truths about human beings, their finest attributes and their deepest prejudices too…”
And here he is on social change in The Liberty Instinct: “For all the faults of this system, which one might call ‘democracy’ – and the biggest fault, as we are witnessing today, is that the argument can lead to movements in retrograde directions, not only in progressive ones – I still find it the best available method by which an ethical society can be created. As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
At the end, though, it’s the essays he hasn’t written that the reader wonders about. If the pandemic made it to the collection, why hasn’t he taken on befuddling contemporary issues – new puritanism’s threat to freedom of expression, social media lynch mob justice, cancel culture, sexual harassment and Me Too, and the particular ways in which liberalism has come to mimic fascism? PEN with which Rushdie is closely associated – the book includes five pieces written for PEN events – put out a statement when JK Rowling was trolled for her perceived Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist stance in June 2020 (“The ability to write or speak freely without harassment stands as much for trans writers defending their rights as it does for JK Rowling”) but there’s no mention of the battle against groupthink or enforced propriety of one or the other variety in the essays. He touches on it in The Liberty Instinct and comes closer in the Nova Southeastern University Commencement Address of 2006: “We live in a time of competing group thought, and our ideas of right and wrong, of what is permissible and what must not be permitted, are shaped by such thinking to a degree so alarming that it may have stopped being funny”. Sadly it doesn’t merit a fuller exploration 15 years later.
Could the man who outran the Ayatollah and any number of crazed fundamentalists in the 1990s be scared of the emasculating wrath of the moral police and the extremists of political correctness? Perhaps that’s what held back Quichotte, his last novel - one review bizarrely mentioned his four marriages and labelled him “a bit of a horn dog” - that was dazzling in its ambition and enjoyable to read (Unlike The Golden House, which, apparently, Philip Roth loved) but lacked the fearlessness of his greatest books, Midnight’s Children, Shame (yes!), Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
I am being unfair. A writer of Rushdie’s calibre isn’t a hack bound to turn out reams about the latest scandal. Maybe he is saving some essays for his next collection. I will wait.