“A book is a version of the world. If you don’t like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.”—Salman Rushdie
“Five mysteries hold the keys to the unseen: the act of love, and the birth of a baby, and the contemplation of great art, and being in the presence of death or disaster, and hearing the human voice lifted in song. These are the occasions when the bolts of the universe fly open and we are given a glimpse of what is hidden; an eff of the ineffable.” —Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
The last interaction I had with Salman Rushdie was the night before his horrific stabbing. He had posted a serene photo of the full moon on Lake Chautauqua and I had admired it. Less than 12 hours later, as the awful news spread, it was like a body blow. I can’t think of another writer whose work has had such a visceral influence on me. I was 17 when Midnight’s Children opened up a world whose language shed the stilted straitjacket of so-called “proper English” and replaced it with the lush polyphony that captured the way South Asians live and speak, inhabiting multiple linguistic realms at once. This, coupled with his amazing ability to invent new words (a skill he had already perfected in his early advertising days in the UK) is what continues to make one marvel. Who else could come up with such gems as “Insultana” (Luka and The Fire of Life)?
When Salman Rushdie speaks of the early influences on his writing, he mentions the Thousand and One Nightsanimal tales of the Panchatantra, and the epics of the Mahabharata give Ramayana among others. Although fantasy and fantastical situations and attributes are a hallmark of his magic realist style, I believe the crux of his genius lies in how he uses these magnifications and distortions to reflect upon our essential human nature with all its flaws and foibles. There are obstacle courses in all of Rushdie’s novels, any number and permutation of internal and external dilemmas around which the story rushes as though it were the rapids of the river and this is what yields the rich palimpsest where you have the sediments of fantastical underpinnings above in which the narrative momentum flows, interspersed with eddies and pools in which the inner workings of the character brew and ferment. It is also worth noting that although the milieu of his novels has shifted from India and Pakistan to the West, the central characters in all his works continue to be South Asian and in their various dis/locations are an important kaleidoscope of the immigrant experience.
What makes Rushdie one of the most important contemporary writers, however, is that he has always maintained that the writer has a responsibility to tackle the larger issues of the day. ”It seems to me imperative that literature enters such arguments,” he wrote in an essay, ”Because what is being disputed is nothing less than what is the case, what is truth and what is untruth, and the battleground is our imagination. If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history’s great and most abject abdications.” The world needs Salman Rushdie’s words to continue more than ever. I and my fellow wordsmiths wish him a speedy recovery.
(Sophia Naz is a bilingual poet, essayist, author, editor and translator. She has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, in 2016 for creative nonfiction and in 2018 for poetry.)