World renowned author, winner of the Booker Prize and the 13th greatest English novelist according to the TIME Magazine, Salman Rushdie sits down with Hafeel Farisz of the “Daily Mirror” for his first interview with the Sri Lankan media. Rushdie, currently a Professor and Distinguished Writer at the New York University, speaks of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses, his childhood, his views on religious and political freedom among others in this exclusive interview
Excerpts of the Interview
Q: You have been very vocal about the idea or notion of the freedom of expression. Where does this voice in you toward the need for unfettered freedom of expression come from?
A: I have lived in places where there were a serious attempts to repress speech. I remember, it was at the time I began to write ‘Midnight’s Children’, being in India during the emergency, when press censorship was very heavy. People were put in jail for expressing their opinion, including members of Indira Gandhi’s own family. I’ve had family in Pakistan all my life.-Because of the partition my family was almost split down the middle. Half my family lived in Pakistan, and the other half in India. I had cousins, aunts and uncles in India, and I would go there quite often as a young person. To be in Pakistan during various dictatorships — the Ayub Khan period, the Zia Ul-Haq period– was to experience first-hand the stifling effect of censorship. Not just censorship, but the fear of saying what you thought.
I remember visiting my cousins in Karachchi, and we were just spending an evening in somebody’s house. I can’t remember what I asked, but it was a political question regarding what was happening in the country. My cousin who was sitting across the table from me kicked me from under the table. Because I wasn’t born yesterday, I changed the subject and asked something about cricket. About 20 minutes later my cousin said to me, “It’s okay now”. I asked, “What do you mean it’s okay?” And what he said was that the person who left the room was one whom they had identified as an informer, and now that he had left the room it was okay to talk. So I asked them why they would invite him if they knew he was an informer?
And they said, If we didn’t invite him we wouldn’t know who the informer was, and somebody else would be sent along”, and that “it was better to know who the informer was than not”. So I have lived in times of censorship and I’ve had a very strong reaction against it : the moment one starts to express one’s view of the world, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, in my case it’s predominantly been fiction, there are plenty of people who won’t want you to do that. Indira Gandhi at one point wanted to take me to court. The case disappeared because unfortunately she was murdered. But it’s not unusual even for imaginative writers to run up against the power structure. If you look at literature, you see this happening in country after country. Writers trying to say ” I think it’s like this” run up against people who try to prevent them saying that. In the Soviet Union of course many writers had their lives destroyed by trying to speak up against Soviet power. At this moment in China it’s very much the case. Journalists and creative writers are oppressed and disappearing, and living in a very precarious way. For me it seemed natural that one should object to that.
Actually the first great writer I met was the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I knew him as a child because he was a very close friend of one of my aunts, and he became like an extra uncle to me. His work fell into two kinds. On the one hand there were ‘Gazzals’ – beautiful poetry, much of which was love poetry, and much of which of course was set to music and became popular, and made him such a popular figure. Then on the other side, there was poetry which was political. He directly engaged with the big subjects of his time, partition being the biggest. He quite naturally moved between those two worlds — the world of the public and the world of the private. And I just thought. “Oh that’s what you as a writer are supposed to do”; that you engage both with the public subject and the private subject. I have tried to do that, and of course you know, like everyone else who does that, you run up against people who don’t want you to do that.
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