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Talk: Salman Rushie, Shalimar the Clown

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Salman Rushie spoke at Books Inc in Mountain View. These are my notes (more in the extended entry). As always with my notes, although I attempt to use quotes as much as possible, I don't stand by the accuracy of my quotes and they should be considered paraphrasings at best.

For In the Name of the Rose Umberto Eco said, "'I had a great desire to murder a monk'... in my case it was an American ambassador." Shalimar the Clown starts off with Shalimar, a muslim Kashmiri, killing the American ambassador that his childhood sweetheart ran off with. Shalimar is a character transforms from tight-rope walker into terrorist.

In the book you root for Shalimar even though he does horrible things. It "would have been much easier to make him not likable," but then he would be a cartoon and cartoons can't make moral choices. Shalimar "retains the capacity for moral choice" and thus retains moral responsibility. Rushdie had watched a documentary about the downfall of Hitler that humanized the Nazis and he felt that the humanizing "does the opposite of exonerating them." It is one of the roles of writers to make you care about the people because "you have to care about people to care about what happens to them."

Much of the novel takes place in Kashmir and he said, "'[I] always wanted to write more about it than I have." Midnight's Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories have parts in Kashmir, but not very much.

In 1987 he was participating in a British documentary about India at the age of 40. He met a group of travelling players in Kashmir and thought that they lived an "extraordinary lifestyle... on the one hand paradise-like... [but] incredibly poor." He observed their way of life and it "felt like the end of a very long line." This was before the eruption of violence and the insurgency, so he does not imagine that life has gotten better for them.

He wanted to put them in the documentary, but they were "too scared to tell the truth on camera." They would complain about the Indian troops off camera, but when you turned the camera on they would say, "We are very happy," and praise the Indian troops.

On lessons from the Fatwa

Someone asked if the fatwa inspired his death row scene in Shalimar.

"I was in a much more comfortable situation than that."

There were two lessons he did take from that period that Rushdie mentioned. One was that for 16 years he got to think about the "nature of fanaticism and what comes out of it," noting how many of his translators were attacked and even killed. Another was that he "met a large number of very powerful people (Clinton, Blair)," which was research for him as a writer; there was a guy on his shoulder "whispering, 'Good material.'"

On borders, crossings, migrations

Someone asked about the frequent theme of borders, crossings, etc.... in his books.

"That's what my life has been." Rushdie has lived in Bombay, England, Pakistan, the US (East and West Coast). " I always envy writers who have been deeply rooted in one place... if they look at standing still I look at moving around." More people have been moving than every before in human history, which has "changed the kinds of places we live in... changed what people are afraid of." "That private experience... connected with with this much larger" experience. "A lot of people are scared by this" and as a writer he explores this potential.

On a side note, he mentioned that he believes that moving from the midwest to New York is a bigger change that moving from Bombay to New York as the latter is an urban to urban change, so it is "not just about transcultural."

More on Kashmir

A Kashmiri asked what Rushdie would do about Kashmir, noting the quote from Emperor Jehangir who said of the Kashmir valley: "If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here."

Q: "Doesn't your word carry any weight"

A: "No"

Rushdie went on to add that "no one has really listened to what the Kahmiris have been consistently saying.... [which is] Kashmir for the Kashmiris... would you both please fuck off."

In the past Kashmir would be made fun of for a lack of "martial spirit." Kashmir was "one of the places in the world where people learned to get along." Now an area that was known for its peacefulness is an area of great conflict, and it was not ripped apart from within but was rather "destroyed from the outside." The Indian Army came in 60 years ago and created the preconditions for the jihadis to enter. The jihadis kicked out most of the Hindus into camps in India, which was fine by the Indian army because it meant that it was easier to focus on the muslims.

On repentance

He was going to call the book "Repentance" but decided not too after he saw all the book titles like Repentance, Atonement, Fury, Shame.

There's "no necessary connection between repenting and forgiving... they are not connected at all." In his story Max, the American ambassador, is constantly forgiven but not repentant and Boonyi, Shalimar's sweetheart, is repentant but not forgiven. He feels that this is a "strange thing to learn about human nature."

"I'm not repentant for much... all of us ask for it too much." We are all "flawed people" and if we went around apologizing all the time there wouldn't be room to discuss anything else. "Enough with repentance." Forgiveness is much more important.

Who are his characters based on

Rushdie said that the majority of his characters are not based on real people, but "no one believes me." He "may as well pretend" that they are, "but that's the fiction." His wife believes that one of his characters is based on her, but he wrote the book before they met: "this does not affect her view." He is constantly meeting people for the first time who somehow think that one of his characters is based on him. One woman came up to him in line, hit him with a fan and said, "Naughty boy, you put me in your book but I forgive you." He pointed out that "this is the first time we've met," but her reply was along the lines, "Why are you going on? I've already forgiven you."

He did based the characters of Eyeslice and Hairoil in Midnight's Children on real friends, but only to the extent that they were brothers who were very different. One of them came up to him and introduced himself as Hairoil, which was true in the sense that the person was who Hairoil was based on, but "he had never been called Hairoil" growing up and he thought it was strange that this person was now referring to himself using the name of a fictional character. Also, "he had lost all his hair... to call yourself Hairoil at that point is sad."

On dreaming

Someone asked about a quote of his in a column about Kosovo, "The aftermath of a war is no time for dreaming."

Rushdie noted that was in a newspaper column and written polemically. "Truthfully it's always time for dreaming." "In a time like this it may be unusually valuable... I'm sorry I said that."

Rushdie related how the media shows us explosions but does not give us the information to understand. Rushdie learned about the US and Latin American first through reading. I believe he connected this to the idea that novels help us understand and envision other places, but I don't have notes to back this up.

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