Rushdie-Naipaul: Mirror images?

The ground beneath Rushdie?s feet has shifted and now he is eerily like his old bete noire Naipaul, says Namita Bhandare.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2007 15:02 IST

In the Eighties, Indians regarded the emergence of Salman Rushdie with a special sort of pride. Admittedly, he hadn’t lived in India for a long time. His parents had migrated to Pakistan and he was sent off to school at Rugby. The young Salman had gone on to Cambridge, to advertising, to one poorly received science fiction parable (Grimus) which sank and then, suddenly, to the Booker Prize success of Midnight’s Children.

Even though he held a British passport, was married to a Brit, lived in London and had a family that was based in Pakistan, Rushdie claimed to be determinedly Indian. Midnight’s Children celebrated a Bombay childhood and went on to reflect the triumphs and failures of modern India. Moreover, Rushdie pleased us by finding virtues in India. He raved about the Baroda School of Painting, praised our democracy (as distinct from Pakistan’s record of military rule) and even said the right things about Indira Gandhi (he didn’t like her, a sentiment shared by the urban middle-class).

But there was another reason why we warmed to Rushdie. In the Eighties, the best-known author of Indian origin was V SNaipaul. And Naipaul missed no opportunity to tell us how much he hated us. He may have hated his birthplace (Trinidad) even more but the land of his ancestors was — in his view — a complete failure. It was, in the Sixties, an area of darkness. And by the Seventies, it had become a wounded civilisation.

Rushdie delighted us because he was the un-Naipaul. He celebrated India’s diversity, found virtues in its secularism, hung around with Tariq Ali and espoused vaguely lefty views. Unlike Naipaul who loved England, Rushdie saw it as a deeply racist society headed by a woman he called Mrs Torture.

Predictably, Rushdie and Naipaul never quite got on. In private, Rushdie was scathing about Naipaul’s views on India and (post the publication of Among the Believers) his negative take on global Islam. Naipaul, ever the snob, dismissed Rushdie as a trendy lefty who traded on his Indianness.

But something strange has happened over the last five years. Rushdie and Naipaul may not dislike each other any less. But in some mysterious and completely unpredictable way, they have turned into mirror images of each other.

 Rushdie in Jaipur, 2007

The parallels stretch from their writing to their private lives, to their political views, to their public images.

First, both are novelists who are now better known for their non-fiction and their political views than for their novels. Midnight’s Children was a long time ago and while critics still regard Rushdie with respect, it has been over a decade (if not more) since he has written a novel that has been treated with the regard accorded to the early work. So it is with Naipaul. His political views may be prescient or offensive, depending on your perspective, but it is a long time since he has written a novel in the same league as his first books.

Second, both men have hit the social circuit thanks to glamorous and ambitious wives from the subcontinent. Naipaul’s first, and English, wife was a retiring figure and the Argentinian-English girlfriend he travelled with, avoided parties. His new wife, a Pakistani journalist called Nadira, however, is an entirely social animal and Naipaul is a familiar figure at Delhi parties. So it is with Rushdie. His early wives and girlfriends never had the glamour of Padma Lakshmi, his current South Indian model wife, and the two are one of New York’s beautiful couples, featuring on society pages and hanging out with U2’s Bono.

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First Published: Jan 24, 2007 04:00 IST