March 5, 2007
Rushdie’s truth in fiction
Deepika Bahri is associate professor and director of Emory’s South Asian Studies Program.
Salman Rushdie is the greatest storyteller of our time. He is the author of nine novels, one collection of short stories and five works of non-fiction. But this is a somewhat dry if formidable calculus of why he matters as a writer.
Those of us who return to his books again and again — from “Grimus” to “Midnight’s Children” to “Shame” to “The Satanic Verses” and others — know that we read them to find a new map of the world, from a writer who understands that reality and the world leave a lot to the imagination. “Let me rescue you,” goes the refrain to a song Rushdie wrote for U2. “Let me rescue you,” his fictions seems to say, and take you to another world, somewhat invented, and therefore maybe more true.
There was a brief time when we had forgotten to read his work, diverted by the series of unfortunate events dubbed “The Rushdie Affair,” inaugurated with the arrival of a not-so-funny valentine delivered on Feb. 14, 1989. The consequence, Rushdie so academically described, of “a category mistake” that takes “fiction for fact” while ignoring what is true in it.
During the stunned silence when we wondered if he was lost to us as a writer, Rushdie had begun writing “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” to keep a promise made to his son Zafar. He began writing to keep a promise to his readers, to return to us to ask “is not the power of speech the greatest power of all?”
“We inhale the world and breathe out meaning. While we can,” he wrote, and declared, “I must live until I die.”
We knew then that wherever he was, he never left us, and was at work — in his own words, “a poet’s work, to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it [from] going to sleep.” We knew then that he was with us, would always be with us in his stories, which proclaim: at this very moment, in this story, here I am, with a darn good yarn.
We also knew that we were not lost if we could find ourselves in his stories, and reading his words, hear in them our own longing for belonging, our aspirations to be otherwise than history to wants to make us, our own desire to be free to speak when we needed to. Rushdie’s stories matter to us because he reminds us that “stories are what are left of us.”
If we are lucky in our writers we will find those stories that reinvent a world made cynical by injustice and suffering, that urge us to test the limits of our imagination, that teach us to look for false notes in our reality and for truth in the best of our fictions, and show us that other, better worlds have always been possible — that our history has been one of missed appointments with these possibilities. These are the worlds of Salman Rushdie’s fictions which invite us to imagine homelands, step across this line, and — finding a lesser world — to invent a better one.
Adapted from Deepika Bahri’s introduction to Salman Rushdie’s Feb. 25 Sheth Lecture in Indian Studies.