Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won the Booker McConnell Prize for 1981, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the English Speaking Union Literary Award. A fecund, dynamic, baroque, transformative fable of memory and politics – ‘a commingling of the improbable and the mundane’ – the book has been equally acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, and in the subcontinent. 250,000 words long, it has sold more than a quarter of a million copies in this country alone, and has been translated into twelve languages.
Born in Bombay into a Muslim family who emigrated to Pakistan in 1964, Rushdie was subsequently educated at Rugby and Cambridge. ‘I am an emigrant from one country (India) and a newcomer to two (England, where I live, and Pakistan, to which my family moved against my will),’ he writes. ‘And I have a theory that the resentments we mohajirs engender have something to do with our conquest of the force of gravity.’ After Cambridge he became a professional actor, and then supported his creative writing by working for some time in advertising. Now in his mid-thirties, he is married to an Englishwoman, Clarissa, and has a young son, Zafar.
Occasionally interrupted by telephone calls, builders calling at the door to talk about roofing and pointing, and Rushdie’s own keenness to check the test match scores on teletext, I talked to him at his comfortable terraced house in Tufnell Park, London. His eagerly-awaited new novel, Shame, shows us Pakistan in the looking-glass: ‘however I choose to write about over-there,’ he writes, ‘I am forced to reflect that world in fragments of broken mirrors’. Its subject is truly shame – ‘Sharam, that’s the word… shame… embarrassment, discomfiture, decency, modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world, and other dialects of emotion for which English has no counterparts’ – and shamelessness. Shame is published by Jonathan Cape this month.
Many readers of Midnight’s Children have felt that the childhood of Saleem Sinai must approximate to that of Salman Rushdie. Speaking now in propria persona, can you say something about your early life and upbringing in Bombay and Karachi?
I don’t like Karachi, whereas I did like Bombay very much. But even Bombay has been more or less ruined as a city; it’s now an urban nightmare whereas it used to be a courtly, open, hilly, seaside city. It has become a kind of Hong Kong, only more incompetent than Hong Kong. In Bombay nothing works. When I was there in February there had been a fire in the telephone exchange on Malabar Hill, which is the ritziest residential area, and they had still not got around to providing a telephone service four months afterwards. If I were to go back to India now, I would not live in Bombay, which is something I would never have said before. It still has the feeling of being my home town, but it is no longer a place in which I feel comfortable.
My family moved to Pakistan in 1964, when I was seventeen. I had come to school in England in 1961, but I went back for most of the holidays; and until I was fourteen I had never left the subcontinent. I was a complete Bombayite until I was seventeen. Karachi I gradually got used to over many years; I have come to know it better and to feel more connected to it as a place, but it’s not a big city the way Bombay is. Karachi is a city that has almost no urban life, because of the repressions in the culture. Very little happens on the street, and there is a problem with sexual segregation, which makes life odd. You see men holding hands – and that is not because they are homosexual, it has to do with the need for physical contact. I find society in Pakistan very closed, and that closed world is expressed in Shame.
You went to school at Rugby, where I think you had a bad time?
The first half of my time was very bad, the second half less bad, but the whole of it was bad enough to make me not want to go on to Cambridge, and I had to be more or less bullied by my parents. I had my place at Cambridge, but there was a six months’ interim during which I went to Karachi and told my parents that I did not want to go back to England. My father was appalled because he had gone to King’s, and in the end I think I went to Cambridge because they wanted me to do so.
Did your schoolmasters persecute you as much as the boys?
No, to be fair to them, it wasn’t the masters. I had a pretty hideous time from my own age group: minor persecutions and racist attacks which felt major at the time, the odd bit of beating up. But I grew to my adult height very young – which meant that I was for a long time taller than my contemporaries – so there were not many physical attacks. People would go into my room and tear up my essays or write slogans on the wall. I found it odd because I had never thought of myself as foreign before – largely because I had never left my own country before, but also because I had been educated in an English mission school in Bombay. For a long time I had been taught by English and Scottish teachers, and I knew quite a lot about England, so I did not feel strange in coming here. I went home for the holidays, but I didn’t tell my parents what a bad time I was having, I only told them when I left school. I remember very bad moments when I felt very depressed, but it did get better as I got older. I never had any friends at school, and I don’t now know a single person I was at school with: when I left school I consciously determined never to see any of those people ever again, and I never have, I just wiped them out. I did decide to be cleverer than them – which wasn’t difficult – and Rugby did have brilliant teachers. Obviously, it helped to be in classes of six or seven, and I certainly had the impression of being better taught at Rugby than I ever was at Cambridge. Although Cambridge had the great historians – I was studying History – not many of them were great teachers. I think my real problem at school was that I wasn’t good at games; other Indians and Pakistanis at Rugby had no trouble if they were good at games: everything was forgiven them.
And going to Cambridge did revitalise you?
Yes, it was a great pleasure to know that the persecution was over, and to be surrounded by intelligent people, so that intelligence ceased to be a factor in one’s encounters. It was nice to know that you didn’t always have to be in the company of idiots whose idea of literature was the Daily Mail. Public schools are basically composed of philistines. It was an exciting time to be at Cambridge, from 1965 to 1968: it was a very politicised period. There was the Vietnam War to protest about, student power to insist upon, drugs to smoke, flowers to put in your hair, good music to listen to. It was a good time to be young, and I’m very pleased to have had those years: there was an energy about student life then.
In writing Midnight’s Children did you feel any element of compensating to yourself for the lack of tempest in your own early childhood?
No. When I began the book it was more autobiographical, and it only began to work when I started making it fictional. The characters came alive when they stopped being like people in my own family. You see, my grandfather was a doctor but he never lived in Kashmir, he never met my grandmother in that odd way, nor was he particularly involved in politics. One of the discoveries of the book was the importance of escaping from autobiography.
Your first draft was 900 pages long, and written in the third person.
It was messier, much more direct. It was a very uneven draft, because I was discovering things as I went along. The character of Saleem in the draft was not the same at the end as it was at the beginning; I was learning about him as I was writing the draft. At the beginning of that draft he was probably quite like me, or quite like what I thought I wanted to say about me.
Did the pattern of incidents change much as you revised?
No, although a certain amount didn’t happen until Saleem took over the narrative. One couldn’t have those discursive passages until the first person voice took over. I thought that by putting the book in the first person Saleem’s voice would organise and hold together the material. But basically the sequence of events and the structure of the story didn’t change, except that a lot of it got left out, and some things that were very long in the original draft either vanished completely or became very small pieces. All the sentences changed, because in the first draft I wasn’t too worried about the actual words, I was trying to get the story down. I use first drafts in a very rough way, almost to find out what’s happening. Some passages do survive, but almost all the sentences change, and in the case of Midnight’s Children it was almost inevitable that they would change because of the switch from the third person into the first. Shame had three complete drafts. I tinker between the second and third drafts, but there’s not much change of substance then, mostly technical things.
Do you now feel at all dissatisfied with anything in Midnight’s Children?
I do feel that it’s no longer my property. The reaction to it in India has been so enormous that it belongs to hundreds of thousands of people, and in a way my view of it is now no more or less valuable than anyone else’s. I also feel quite detached from it, since I finished it more than three years ago, and I started it in 1976 – seven years ago – and one simply forgets. I can remember feeling alarmed at the size it was turning out to be – frequent feelings of panic that I was losing control of the material and that what was happening was no good – and also being nervous that nobody might wish to publish it… and having to proceed in spite of that. What I can’t remember is the day-to-day process of discovering the story.
Was there a time lag between writing the first two Books and the third, which seems to be written with a different sort of moral energy?
It wasn’t written at a different time, it was deliberately written to be quite different. I think the book would not work without Book Three, it would be much less unusual – a kind of Bildungsroman – and that part puts the rest of it into perspective. Book Three grows so naturally out of the earlier stages, it was essential to have it. I personally think Book Three contains some of the best things in the novel – the jungle chapter, for instance, which is the passage that divides the book’s readers most dramatically: readers dislike it intensely or they like it enormously.
Because it is a phantasmagoria?
It seemed to me that if you are going to write an epic, even a comic epic, you need a descent into hell. That chapter is the inferno chapter, so it was written to be different in texture from what was around it. Those were among my favourite ten or twelve pages to write, and I was amazed at how they divided people so extremely.
Yes, it is quite a short section in the context of the book as a whole, yet it seems to be an eternity of disintegration and mania.
I like that: a lot is imagined to be happening by the characters. I also very much like the magician’s ghetto. The jungle section and the magician’s ghetto are two parts I still feel very affectionate about in the book. There are things in Book Two which I don’t like so much any more, although, by and large, that section has been most praised.
One of the things that slightly puzzles me about the book is the question of tone. The book is fundamentally about the destruction of potential in a new Independent India, and one might have expected more overt anger to have emerged from that context. Did you feel you needed to establish a consistency of tone geared to that impetus?
The tone is basically comic and remains so even when it darkens: I thought that was a kind of constancy.
A black comedy, do you mean, almost like Candide?
There is a comedy that does not always make you laugh, and in that sense it is a comedy … even at its worst moments, and that is one of the elements Midnight’s Children has in common with Shame. The moment when Sufiya is discovered surrounded by decapitated turkeys is a comic moment, but black comedy of that sort doesn’t make you laugh. I think of Shame as a comedy, although in a way it is even nastier than Midnight’s Children, or at least the nastiness goes on in a more sustained way. Kafka can unite comedy and tragedy, and I was interested in doing that.
Did you nonetheless have to make deliberate efforts to countervail the anger you must have felt at the real events which lay behind the action of Midnight’s Children, consciously to translate it into the genre of comic epic?
The book was conceived and begun during the Emergency, and I was very angry about that. The stain of it is on the book. The Emergency and the Bangladesh War were the two most terrible events since Independence, and they had to be treated as the outrageous crimes that they were. I was in India near the beginning of the Emergency, but not throughout it; I felt the shock of having it imposed. Fortunately I wasn’t in Bangladesh, but I know a lot of people who were there – on all three sides. It is a complete fallacy to believe you must always experience what you put into a book, what matters is whether you can imagine it or not; there is no automatic connection between experience and imaginative writing.
In Shame I found that the characters of Iskander and Raza, because they are in some sense buffoon characters, become palatable, almost sympathetic, and yet one knows that they are based on Bhutto and General Zia of Pakistan. I felt uneasy as to whether that mode of burlesque was right, the one you felt it appropriate to hit.
I was trying to say that there are moments when both of them are sympathetic characters. When Raza stakes himself to the ground, for example, one does feel on his side. When Iskander gives up his mistress, he tells his daughter that men are bastards and that she should never have anything to do with them; he’s talking about himself but she takes him literally, and I felt quite warmly towards him at that moment. If one is not going to make cardboard characters it is important to say that even people who do terrible things are not unrelievedly terrible people, or at least that they are not always terrible: there can be moments when they behave well.
Which is not to say that their stupidity redeems them, but it humanizes them?
Yes, nothing redeems them. I didn’t want just to make hate-figures, I wanted to make people. Although there is clearly something of Bhutto in the one, and something of Zia in the other, I have no way of knowing whether the personalities of Iskander and Raza are actually like those actual personalities. It really wasn’t my purpose to invent portraits of them, but what I took from them was that kind of tragic connection – of the one being the protégé of the other and ending up as his executioner – that was what interested me.
There were two or three starting points which glued together. Another was the title, Shame: I kept finding instances of that emotion or concept at work in societies, at all different levels from the private to the public, and I began to think that it was one of the most central means of orchestrating our experience. The more I looked for it in human affairs, the more central I discovered it was, and I wanted to explore that area. When the book starts, the shame is private and sexual – to do with being pregnant when you don’t know who the father is – and the book develops by building variations on that theme, showing how shame is part of the architecture of the society the novel describes, and perhaps not only that society. I have a feeling that it is not peculiar to the East, but I didn’t explore that; I thought that if it were universal the only way of showing that was to be concrete and particular. People who read the book can decide whether or not it has applications outside the society under discussion. It seems to me that it does exist elsewhere.
In Midnight’s Children you acted, as it were, as the recording angel of the experiences of India since Independence, whilst in Shame you seem to be more sternly controlling a story about an alienated place, Pakistan…
… as the exterminating angel, if you like. That felt partly good: I felt in charge of the material, probably more so than I had ever felt before – except at the end of Midnight’s Children, where I felt great relief that I had somehow managed not to fuck it up. I felt with Shame that I knew what I was doing from a much earlier point. It is a harder book, and it’s not written so affectionately although – as I say somewhere in the book – Pakistan is a place I’ve grown to have affection for, so that it’s not written entirely without affection. The episode of the wedding scandal may be satirical, but it is affectionately written. But by and large it is a harder and darker book. And that’s because of its subject matter: Pakistan is very unlike India.
To my mind there was more satire in Midnight’s Children. Shame seems to be composed in part with a fierce sarcasm.
There were parts of Shame that disturbed me to write, because they were so savage and I wasn’t quite sure where that savagery was coming from. The later sections of the book were very disturbing: they disturb me to have written them. It’s a book which comes from a very different place from Midnight’s Children.
Did you think of Midnight’s Children as proposing a continuous allegory – the allegory of Saleem’s body as being the mirror of a disintegrating state, for example, or the allegory of the Midnight’s Children’s Conference?
There are those allegorical elements, but I always resisted them in the writing. Allegory comes very naturally in India, it’s almost the only basis of literary criticism – as though every text is not what it seems but only a veil behind which is the real text. I quite dislike the notion that what you are reading is really something else. The children in Midnight’s Children become more a metaphor than an allegory, a representation of hope and potential betrayed. They are not developed along any formal allegorical line, and when they operate in the plot – like Parvati the witch – they don’t operate allegorically but just as characters. Similarly, although Saleem claims to be connected to history, the connections in the book between his life and history are not allegorical ones, they’re circumstantial. Although the book contains those large allegorical notions, it tries to defuse them.
You’ve said elsewhere that the book is written from the point of view of a child who feels responsible for everything that happens in the larger sphere, and yet it seems to me that the form you gave the novel suggests something different, that things that happen in the public domain just happen to answer to states of collapse in his own being.
What I meant was that Saleem’s whole persona is a childlike one, because children believe themselves to be the centre of the universe, and they stop as they grow up; but he never stops, he believes – at the point where he begins the novel – that he is the prime mover of these great events. It seemed to me that it was quite possible to read the entire book as his distortion of history, written to prove that he was at the middle of it. But the moment at which reality starts to face him it destroys him: he can’t cope with it, and he retreats into a kind of catatonic state or he becomes acquiescent and complacent.
A number of critics have found it a rather despairing book, but perhaps nihilism is the better word. Nihilism supposes that there was no possible rectification of the events that have taken place – they’re something appalling and absolute – whereas despair would imply that things could have gone better, with a programme or strategy which has failed in a desolating way.
I wouldn’t really accept either word. The book wasn’t written as a social tract, it was written as a fiction which forces you to obey the rules you’ve laid down. It seemed to me that the Emergency represented the dark side of Independence, and that there was a progression from one to the other – from light to dark – and that was going to be the progression both of the book and of Saleem’s personality. It never occurred to me that people would read the book as showing the end of all hope. It’s the end of a particular hope, but the book implies that there is another, tougher generation on the way. The book exists to be a reaction to events as the author has reacted to them. It was written in the light of a very dark time.
Saleem offers us a hope for the next generation, as you say, and yet we have learned to look ironically at his narration, his self-illusions and delusions, and we might therefore judge that his hopes are frail and ill-founded. Authorial irony has made us sceptical.
Yes, you are supposed to be sceptical, but what I’m saying is that the book does not present the end of possibility…
… which would be a cynical view to take.
Yes, and actually stupid, objectively disprovable, untrue. It has somehow been taken that way, but I think it’s a misreading. People in India actually say much worse things than anything Midnight’s Children says; it’s an optimistic book by comparison with present Indian attitudes about the future, which are much bleaker. The book contains nothing that people in India don’t say every day, and my point was to put it down. People chicken out of saying things; they become optimistic and talk about rays of hope, but at the time of writing there didn’t seem to be much hope. First of all there was the Emergency, and when that ended the world got taken over by eighty-year-old urine drinkers, and that didn’t seem to be much improvement: they proved to be just as corrupt and more incompetent.
Is it true that Morarji Desai drinks his own urine?
Yes, every day. He lives on urine and pistachio. He calls it ‘taking his own water’, and he thinks it’s very good for him. Maybe he’s right: look how old he is – he’s endless, immortal.
Some critics regard the form of a novel as being the pattern of an author’s personality. Do you feel any discrepancy in yourself between the free–wheeling and exuberant personality we feel in Midnight’s Children and your social self, which seems on first acquaintance to be urbane and intellectual?
I think, like most writers, that I am most completely myself when I write, and not the rest of the time. I have a social self, and my full self can’t be released except in the writing. Shame is a different sort of book from Midnight’s Children, and that’s me too. Books are interim reports from the consciousness of the writer, and that changes. I don’t think I could write Midnight’s Children now.
Midnight’s Children has been compared to novels like The World According to Garp and other large-scale, potentially absurdist books, and of course it has strong affinities with a tradition stemming from Sterne. Shame also fits the modem form of the reflexive novel – you take pains to draw attention to yourself-as-author and to the fictiveness of the book. To what extent did you decide your literary pedigree when you began writing Midnight’s Children, or to what extent did you take any models – Marquez, Gogol, Kundera…?
I don’t like The World According to Garp, I don’t think it’s a good novel. I didn’t consciously think of a single writer as a model. Even the correspondences with Sterne were for a time unconscious, and I only realised that Tristram Shandy had gone before me when I was some way into the drafts. When I remembered it, I did little bits of stylistic underlining, to make sure that people knew what I knew.
Gogol saw Dead Souls as being a book which might reform Russian society.
Actually Gogol got that into his head at the end of volume one, and fortunately not much of volume two got written. I was under no illusions that Midnight’s Children could change the world. But I did think that there were certain kinds of conversation which were not taking place in India and Pakistan, because certain things had been swept under the carpet. I had not read Kundera when I wrote Midnight’s Children, but the point he makes about the connection between memory and politics is, I think, relevant to what I was doing. I thought that because I write about these things people who read the book will be obliged to think about them. So I did want to say how it was, so far as I could remember: and when your version differs from the official version, then remembering becomes a political act.
Would you subscribe to Kundera’s concept of the novel as ‘investigation into human existence’? That definition comes from an article he wrote in the New York Times (24 October 1982) about his novel The Joke – I suppose the emphasis should be put upon the word ‘investigation’ – and he also says that the novel proclaims no truth, no morality.
Yes, I think so, though that formulation actually says very little. Midnight’s Children is very orchestrated, full of architecture – it’s as though the skeleton is on the outside and the flesh on the inside – but I felt that Shame was much more of a voyage of discovery. When I had the Iskander-Raza plot, for instance, I thought it was a very macho kind of book – all about careerism, coups, politics, revenge, assassinations, executions, blood and guts – but then I kept discovering more and more in all the peripheral characters, particularly the female characters. It became very interesting to me to find that I was writing a book in which the central characters almost never took the front of the stage, and that in a way there were no central characters: there were a dozen or so major characters, and they would sometimes step into the centre of the plot and sometimes move to the edges of it. That struck me as an enjoyable thing to do after writing a novel in which the central character had been so dominant. Omar Khayyam in Shame is constantly described as the hero, but he’s clearly not the hero. That was a piece of deliberate fun. Omar Khayyam is not important, except as the person who brings Raza Hyder to the killing ground.
He’s described as Iskandar’s confederate in debauchery, and he marries Sufiya.
Yes, he has peripheral roles all the way through the plot, and I wanted to have a peripheral man as someone I called the hero. He’s central to none of it, and he’s not important enough to arouse real rage. After Saleem in Midnight’s Children I wanted to have a kind of nonentity at the centre of Shame, a hero who happens to be rather a good doctor. During his nightmare towards the end of the book he confesses that ‘Other persons have been the principal actors in my life-story’. What he is saying, and what I was saying, is that the sum total of the events of the book adds up to his life. There can be people who are peripheral to their own lives: that’s what his character is about, that there can be people whose lives are led entirely as spectators, and everything that’s interesting in their lives is done to them or by others in their presence.
Do you feel any emotional identification with that position? I ask because of what you said earlier about your uninteresting childhood.
No, I’m not very passive really. Saleem has been accused of being excessively passive, and I don’t think that criticism is fair in his case: he finds it difficult to act as an adult, but he’s not passive in the way Omar Khayyam is passive … and even Omar Khayyam is not entirely passive – he saves a girl’s life, for instance, and later marries her, without which there would be no plot. But he is an irritating character, and irritating to write about because there’s nothing there.
Your mention of passivity reminds me of Saleem’s remark about making oneself grotesque in order to preserve individuality, and yet his grotesqueness happens to him, either by inheritance or circumstance. He purports to be taking control of his life, when in fact he can’t and doesn’t.
Yes, he tells his story retrospectively, and I’m not sure I believe him. One of the problems with Midnight’s Children is the almost complete impossibility of pointing out that there are moments when Saleem and I don’t think alike. I accepted that as the price I had to pay for his narrative voice, which was very useful to me.
Do you identify with Saleem’s remarks about establishing a ‘philosophy of coolness and dignity-despite-everything’?
I probably did then. I think I was a less relaxed individual when I wrote that book than I am now; I’ve been gradually calming down. At the time I had many more uncertainties about my writing and therefore about myself. There’s nothing like the fear of doing the work and not having it see the light of day; I don’t think it’s a constructive fear, it’s something you have to banish in order to have the energy to do the work. Not having that problem calms you down, makes you feel a little less frenzied. Shame is the first book I’ve written with the expectation of an audience.
Do you find that you can now write with less self–consciousness… or perhaps more?
Less rather than more. There’s less performance in Shame than there is in Midnight’s Children. But then performance is usually regarded as showing-off, at least in Western criticism. I don’t see it like that. One of the things about the Indian tradition is that the performer and the creator are almost always the same person. The idea of performance as being central to creation is present in all Indian art. The dancer is the artist, for example, and not simply the exponent. But Shame seemed to be a book which forbade the kind of display in Midnight’s Children.
Did you feel more nervous in writing Shame than in writing Midnight’s Children?
No, in a way I felt more relaxed, partly for this feeling of having got into control of it at an earlier stage. The moment of control happens, if I’m lucky, at the end of the first draft. I have abandoned two novels at that stage because they didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Sufiya Zinobia, the demon child, is perhaps the most discomforting character in the book. She personifies nemesis, incarnating all the shame and vengefulness of the family. She’s both alarmingly real and a metaphorical agent which explodes the tyranny of her father, Raza Hyder. The last image of the book, which encapsulates that phantasmagorical dimension of Sufiya’s character, suggests the explosion of a nuclear bomb. I wonder why you felt compelled to bring the novel to a conclusion by toppling the military–bureaucratic dictatorship through a metaphorical-fantastic mechanism?
I wanted Raza to fall, and it was also – having set up the idea of the nemesis – in the logic of the plot. One of the interesting things is that Sufiya does not get Raza, although she is the instrument of his fall. I find she is the most disturbing thing in the book, and she was very disturbing to write because she more or less made herself up. For instance, I hadn’t originally thought of her as being mentally retarded, but it suddenly became clear that that was the only way in which she would operate. I hadn’t fully understood in the first draft the way in which she would develop into this completely monstrous being. I thought that the reason why she and Omar Khayyam arrive as opposite figures in the final moment is that in their different ways they are both the repositories of the society, and that’s why they are married.
Originally I wanted her father, the military dictator Raza, to end up in exile in Gloucester Road, as many fallen figures might – not to die in that appalling way but to be living in a Kensington flat, with no pictures on the walls, stick furniture from Pontings, curtains that are never opened, lots of lights and heaters on all the time. I felt quite anxious to get him out of the country and into England – the first draft didn’t have that final carve-up – but it then became clear to me that the characters were refusing to leave the country; it was as though they were saying to me that they had an imaginative life but only within the frontiers of that world, and that if I brought them to Gloucester Road they would cease to exist: they would crumble like characters coming out of Shangri-la. I tried several ways of getting them out of the country, but they wouldn’t go.
So you had to take your chance with melodrama, with this incredibly alarming and literal image of the feral girl?
Yes, it is a bloodthirsty ending. I find it very affecting; she did frighten me. I think it’s unusual to be frightened by one’s own creations, but she did make me worried about her. I worried about what she meant. Why it is that the character who is the most innocent in the book is also the most terrible? In the end I thought it would be dangerous to go on asking that sort of question – since that unresolved ambiguity was obviously at the centre of her, and it is what makes her moving.
One incentive to your creation of her was clearly the anger you felt about the white boys who set upon an Asian girl in the London underground, as you mention in the non-fiction part of chapter 7, entitled ‘Blushing’.
Yes, I know where she comes from and the process of making her, but she seems to transcend her source material. There is a dark area at the centre of her, and the book is about that dark area.
Can you say something about the enjoyable but ultimately sinister complex of the three mothers of Omar Khayyam?
They came about more or less by chance. The book is partly about the way in which women are socially repressed. I think that what does happen in that state of affairs is that women become very close to each other, and there is a female network of support which is very powerful. There are various expressions of that in the book – the telephone link between Bilquis and Rani, for instance, a connection in which the power relations shift, and eventually that umbilical cord is cut by the intercession of the men. Omar Khayyam’s mothers are another instance of female solidarity, which is really brought about by the way they are obliged to live in the male-dominated society. The group-baby was an intensification of the idea that if they wanted to share everything they would even want to share a child. I like them very much, but for a long time – even before I wrote the first draft – I wasn’t sure whose mothers they were. I even tried to write it so that they were Raza’s mothers (Omar Khayyam was already present, as an adult), but they clearly didn’t belong there. 1 didn’t want to lose them, because they seemed a very strong image. Eventually they discovered their son, and I structured things so that the book began with that curiously tabulated chapter.
Midnight’s Children is a rich and elaborate concoction obviously rooted in your early love for Bombay and for India in general, Shame more of a dark decoction. Since you have never lived full-time in Pakistan, did you feel at all parasitic in writing a novel based there?
Certainly my relationship to the material is different. I feel more detached, but not in the sense of feeling like an outsider – because in fact, in the last two decades, I’ve known Pakistan rather better than India. Still, you couldn’t write that kind of exuberant, affectionate book about Pakistan, it would be a false book; and there will be plenty of people who don’t like Shame because it is harder and sometimes cruel. But I don’t think Shame is just unrelieved darkness: I went to some trouble to provide that light and shade we’ve talked about. In a way, I can write the book from the outside because I can stay alive; nobody in Pakistan could write the book, because they’d die.
Is there any danger to your family from the fact that you’ve written it?
Not as far as I can see. It’s only a novel, after all, written in the English language – which most people can’t read – and it will be stopped from entering the country. I now have a British passport, so in that sense they can refuse me entry to the country or they can deport me if I get through, but that’s about it – given that I haven’t broken any law in Pakistan.
But that’s a risk you felt morally obliged to take?
Yes. When I started writing Midnight’s Children the Emergency hadn’t ended, and at the time the idea of writing a book which might prevent me from going to India ever again was very sad. But it hasn’t happened.
Are you active in working for race relations? You’ve written a strong article – ‘The new empire within Britain’ (New Society, 9 December 1982) – about racism here.
The background for that article came out of about five or six years of doing voluntary work in race relations – I was involved with the local community relations council, here in Camden – but now I simply don’t have the time: it’s sad but true. I’ve resigned from the executive council simply because I could never get to the meetings any more.
Your conclusion to that article is that ‘Racism, of course, is not our problem. It is yours. We simply suffer the effects of your problem.’ I think many people would consider it a joint problem, to be mutually overcome…
The victims of racism are the people who suffer from the effects of a problem which exists in the minds of the racists and in many of the institutions of this society. The argument began when the second generation grew up: it makes them bad-tempered when they are treated as foreigners. It would make me bad-tempered.
At least I know that I really am a foreigner, and I don’t feel very English. I don’t define myself by nationality – my passport doesn’t tell me who I am. I define myself by friends, political affinity, groupings I feel at home in … and of course writing. I enjoy having access to three different countries, and I don’t see that I need to choose.