John Haffenden

John Haffenden talks to Salman Rushdie

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.

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