| Sebastião Salgado’s Beyond the Border
Step Across This Line: Collected Non-Fiction 1992-2002 By Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, Rs 895
The scale of this collection — like that of its author’s great novel, Midnight’s Children — is self-consciously, even self-mockingly, gigantic. Looking at his own portrait by the photographer, Richard Avedon, Rushdie is shocked and depressed: “It looked, well, satanic.” This hell-brink essence — darkly interior and egregiously public — is what these pieces perform. They are written in a baroque prose that is also unmistakably contemporary — alternately satirical, contemplative, Shandian, operatic and trashy, capable of being learned, cerebral and discriminating, yet also irresistible in its seductiveness and modulated flamboyance.
The backbone to this diverse collection is provided by four relatively long pieces placed at more or less regular intervals from one another. The opening essay, of 1992, is a masterly reading of the 1939 Hollywood version of The Wizard of Oz. Seen as a child in Bombay, this film was Rushdie’s “very first literary influence” and “made a writer” of him, inspiring his first short story, “Over the Rainbow”, written at the age of ten and eventually lost somewhere along his family’s “mazy journeyings between India, England and Pakistan”. The second long piece is called “A Dream of Glorious Return”. It is the journal of his April 2000 visit to India, after a gap of 12 years, with his son, during which Rushdie spends a few days in his grandfather’s villa in the Shimla Hills, reclaimed shortly before the visit after being wrongfully taken over by the state government, post-Partition, as “evacuee property”. This is followed by “The Last Hostage” (1993), written four “unthinkably strange” years into the Satanic Verses fatwa: “One of my favourite films was and is Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. It is a film about people who cannot get out of a room.”
The book closes with Rushdie’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered at Yale this year. This series, entitled “Step Across This Line”, is a grave and eloquent meditation on the nature of human frontiers in an age of global terror. It has at its centre an image — by the Mexican photographer Sebastião Salgado — of the wall between the United States of America and Mexico, “snaking over the crests of hills, running away into the distance, as far as the eye can see, part Great Wall of China, part gulag”. But the human subject of this photograph is the “tiny, silhouetted figure of a running man, an illegal immigrant, being chased by other men in cars”. Strangely, although the man is clearly on the American side, “he is running towards the wall, not away from it”.
Starting with Judy Garland walking away with her dog down the Yellow Brick Road from grey Kansas to the vivid witcheries of Oz (“It wasn’t a dream, it was a place…Doesn’t anyone believe me'”), and finishing with Salgado’s man running towards his doom at the American border, Rushdie’s great theme in this collection is “the human dream of leaving, a dream at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots”. The fantasy of “going away”, the nightmare of having to go away or not being able to go away or to return, the thrill and the terror of what Rushdie calls the “migrant condition”, and conversely, the other side of this fragile and muddling freedom, the surreal injustice of not being able to “get out of a room” for fear of death — these form the deep structures of this collection, its aesthetic, political, philosophical and autobiographical foundations.
Rushdie’s preoccupation with borders and frontiers — and therefore with literal, moral and metaphorical journeys and transgressions — claims for the writer the unfettered liberty to be a citizen of the many countries making up “a frontierless nation”. In the “Declaration of Independence”, written for the International Parliament of Writers in the fifth year of his fatwa, Rushdie deliberately makes this nation a figurative terrain which transcends geography even while evoking its mappings and boundaries: “The finite and frontiered country of observable reality and everyday life, the boundless kingdom of the imagination, the half-lost land of memory, the federations of the heart which are both hot and cold, the united states of the mind (calm and turbulent, broad and narrow, ordered and deranged), the celestial and infernal nations of desire, and — perhaps the most important of all our habitations — the unfettered republic of the tongue.”
This constitutes a sustained political defence of intellectual liberty, in the great tradition of John Stuart Mill, repeatedly invoked in the “plague years” of the fatwa, and seen as embodied in such 20th-century dissidents as George Orwell and Arthur Miller. It also informs Rushdie’s literary essays on contemporary fiction, in which he uses the notion of an essential migrancy to point up the limits of certain kinds of political criticism that confine the novelist to a particular corner of history: “What does it matter where the great novels come from, as long as they keep coming'” Literary influence also operates within “international families” of words and images. Fellini and Dickens variously inspire Midnight’s Children, Virgil’s Georgics become essential reading for the psychedelic Ground Beneath Her Feet, and the spirit of Jane Austen shines through such diverse novels as Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. “Books can grow as easily from spores borne of the air as from their makers’ particular and local roots.”
The eternal enemy of this unfettered republic is, of course, god. Rushdie’s ideal of intellectual freedom is inseparable from a profound and abiding secularism, an antipathy to religion which is both a gut-level hatred and an intellectually upheld conviction that “it is perfectly possible, and for many of us even necessary, to construct our ideas of the good without taking refuge in faith” — and this is “worth fighting for with one’s life”. In his essay on the Gujarat genocide, “India’s problem turns out to be the world’s problem…The problem’s name is God.” And it is god who patrols the ultimate frontier. “Imagine there’s no heaven, my dear Six Billionth”, Rushdie advices this much-beleaguered citizen of the world in an open letter, “and at once the sky’s the limit.”
A beautiful emblem of Rushdie’s ungodly and mongrel universe is an Urdu poem quoted in English in the Tanner lectures. It is by the communist poet and unbeliever, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and was recently put up on posters in the New York subway. Faiz was an old family friend, and Rushdie’s last “gleeful memory” of him is at his sister’s wedding, when “to the gasping horror of the more orthodox…believers in the room, [Faiz] proposed a toast to the newlyweds while raising high a cheery glass brimming with twelve-year-old Scotch whisky on the rocks”. In this poem — translated into English by the Kashmiri-American poet, Agha Shahid Ali — Faiz becomes for Rushdie “a Virgil, showing us poor Dantes the way through Hell”: “You ask me about that country whose details now escape me,/ I don’t remember its geography, nothing of its history./ And should I visit it in memory,/ It would be as I would a past lover,/ After years, for a night, no longer restless with passion,/ With no fear of regret./ I have reached that age when one visits the heart merely as a courtesy.”