The raging controversy over author Salman Rushdie's visit to the Jaipur literary festival and the abrupt cancellation of a video link with the writer at the last minute on Tuesday evening refuses to die down. We reproduce an interview with Rushdie, when he visited India in 2000.
At Oberoi Hotel's Nilgiri room, when Salman Rushdie made his first media appearance in India after 12 years, like all celebrities he seemed smaller in real life. Despite the tight security, he smiled readily at the wall of camera lenses and in his grey suit, he looked more like a corporate lawyer than one of this century's bestknown -- certainly its most controversial -- writers. Accompanied by his (then) 21-year-old son Zafar, Rushdie seemed pleased by the fact that he had evaded the papparazzi during his week-long effort to renew "a broken relationship" with India.
When asked why he was hiding from the media, his eyebrows shot up in mock protest, "I did not tell the press that I am here. And just because I did not tell the press it does not mean that I was hiding. It's just that the press did not know about it."
He spoke to Dibang.
Mr Rushdie, thank you very much for your time. Which part of your visit did you like the most?
I was very happy to have visited my house in Solan. This house belonged to my father and was built by my grandfather. My father gifted me that house on my twenty-first birthday. I took my son there this time and coincidentally, he too is 21. Going back to that house was a very happy moment because we had lost custody of that house. It was taken over by the local government there. We had to contest the case in the lower courts for seven years till we won it. Now the house is back with us and we are very happy.
Before this visit I had spent two happy days in that house when I was 11 years old. Besides Solan, I am also very happy to have visited Agra, Jaipur and Delhi too.
What kind of changes have you observed to have taken place in India?
Firstly, there is a lot of money here, but that money is in the hands of a few people. But that is nothing new. Now technology is big news here. During my last visit, there was only one television channel, Doordarshan. There were no computers either. Now, both the media and computers are big things. The government has changed. The Congress seems to be on a decline and there are other, different types of governments here. I have had to learn a lot of new things. I have been talking to people to try and understand what is happening here. Now I will have to write something about all this.
You wanted to come to India earlier but there was a controversy about it. What do you have to say on the matter?
It was very bad that I could not visit my country. All my friends know how sad that made me. Which is why these are very happy days for me. I hope now that I will visit again not once in 12 years as I have done this time, but far more often.
What do you have to say to the Muslims in India who are upset with you?
There are people who like a book and people who don't. If you don't like my books, then close the book and forget about it. If you don't read a book it is not going to do you any harm. But it is important to remember that there are people in India who like my books too.
What I am trying to say is that it is 12 years since all this has happened. And during this period, a lot of people have read and liked my book just as some people haven't liked my work. All this is an old story. It is time for us to start a new chapter. I too belong to an Indian Muslim family. We should not fight over such matters. This is an old battle.
Do you feel bad about the fact that there was so much controversy over the book?
Yes, yes of course. I am very sorry that it happened. I wish it had not happened. But the past is the past. What has happened has happened. The thing to do now is to look at the future. That's what I have been trying to do. I hope we can do this because you can't stay stuck in the past.
What do you have to say about the demonstrations that were held in Delhi in protest against your visit?
If people want to demonstrate, unka haque hai. They have the right to do it. I appreciate the fact that this was done in a civilised, peaceful way. If we object to each other then we should express our objections. In a democracy we do that but we remain civilised with each other and that is what I hope we can do.
If you could speak to those who demonstrated against you, what would you tell them?
I will say I am very sorry that you don't like it. It is very unfortunate that people think this book is something it is not. This is the reason for not wanting the ban. People should read the book and decide whether or not they like the book.
Before you attack a writer, before you say he should not come to India, before you say he should be killed or whatever, at least read his work. A lot of things which people say about me is not there in this book.
So what has happened is that people have been worked up. But if they read the book they find out for themselves.
In fact, a lot of things which people say I have written is not there at all in the book. What can I say to all this? If people read the book for themselves, they will know whether or not to get angry with me.
You have the reputation of being a controversial writer and that you write only to create a controversy.
Well, that's not true. But what I think is that any serious writer tries to understand what is happening in the world and he tries to give his response to that and that's what I tried to do. I write on things the way I see them. If you don't like it, what am I to do? I can only write what I see and that's what I have always tried to do and I will always try to do.
Did you ever imagine that there would be such a controversy over the Satanic Verses when you wrote the book?)
Who would wish on themselves all that has happened to me? You would not want to spend 12 years the way I have spent them. The part on Islam in the Satanic Verses is very small. It is not the subject of the entire book. The book is about Indians who have gone to England. The bit about Islam covers only two chapters in a book of 500 pages. Now people think that the whole book is on Islam. I am really sad in a way that these two chapters have distracted attention from the rest of the book.
How did the (Iranian) fatwa affect yor life?
I feel that if somebody is trying to shut you up then you should try and talk louder. If somebody is trying to say don't sing, you should sing better. My private life is separate from all this and wasn't affected in any way.
Are you likely to meet politicians during this visit and request them to lift the ban that has been imposed on Satanic Verses?
I am not doing anything this time. This is not a political trip. I came to see and talk.
After The Ground Beneath Her Feet you had said that India will no longer be a part of your books. Do you still feel the same way?
No. A character in my book says this, not me. In my books, my characters often leave India, but I will never do that. I will return.
So India will find a mention in your future books too?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I find it interesting to have many roots.I come from both India and the West and write from both the places. That will go on happening. Sometimes the books will be here, sometimes there.
Rumour has it that you wish to settle down in New York?
That is not true. I have always liked New York. But I am not emigrating. I have emigrated once in my life from here to England and that's enough. (For many years I had wanted to visit New York but I couldn't. Now I go because I can go. But my home is London and I will continue to live in London. Perhaps I will buy a home in New York too though I don't have one as yet.
In your book on Indian writing you did not include a number of writers who ideally should have been included. There was a lot of discussion on this matter. What do you have to say?
Well, if you look at the 50 years before Partition, in those years there were very few writers in English. But in the 50 years after the British left, strangely enough, English becomes an interesting language in literature. So I wanted to highlight this fact. That's all. It is a big shift in Indian writing that now there are so many good writers in English.
In the last 20 years a lot of English writers have come up. This is something to be happy about. You have Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rohinton Mistry, Amitav Ghosh etc and this is a great wealth that India possesses. It doesn't matter that they write in English as much as it does that they are good writers. If they had happened to write in Hindi it would have been just as exciting. In ten years time may be it won't be as exciting but now it is. This is something to be happy about.
I am sorry that people felt that I excluded other writers. But the problem was I was not allowed to make new transltaions and in many cases translations that were there were bad. You can't represent people by bad translations, it is not fair. So because I had to choose what was in translation I chose the best from that. I hope other people will do other anthologies too.
There are writers from Australia, South Africa and Japan who write so well in English. People outside England are writing so well in English. Why is this so?
I think that the sign of our times is that life has become very international. People who have complicated life experiences. People take their experience from here, there and everywhere, those people, it seems to me, are doing the most interesting writing. Because I think that is more and more what our contemporary life is like. Life has become like that. We pick up various experiences from all over which in turn mould us into what we are.
Last question. What are the kind of problems that are faced when a writer becomes bigger than his writings?
It is a strange thing, a curious, distorting factor. If you are talking about fame, it is mostly a bad thing. It gets you tables in restaurants but apart from that it's a bad thing. It gets in the way. Writing does not come easy. And when you are doing it you stop being a famous person. You have to work so hard to write a good book. You have no time to be famous. It is not relevant. So writing a book can be a very humbling experience.
What do you have to say about all the media attention you are getting here?
It has happened before too and I am flattered. I am glad that people are interested in what is a very moving and important moment for me. Let us turn the page now. Let the past be past. And let us start a new chapter.