The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- A writer talks about his art

It's very nice to be back here in just 22 years. The sadness is that other than this great event which I'm very happy to be at, we were also hoping to be taking part in an event honouring Satyajit Ray. Unfortunately, that event was postponed. So I just wanted to begin by saying one or two words about him that I might otherwise have said in another place.

When I was here last, I had the fortune of going to watch him at work, directing The Home and the World ' Ghare Baire. I was on the way back from lecturing at Santiniketan, and it so happened that the location was off that road. So we turned off the main road and drove for what in my memory is like four hours ' down a tiny little track, stuck behind trucks laden with potatoes. And in the middle of nowhere we found this big old house ' big old zamindar house ' and there was nowhere to stay except the local circuit house which was where everybody was booked in. So I stayed there too, and for the next couple of days, we were really thrown together a lot. It was an extraordinary opportunity to watch him and talk to him and listen to his thinking. One of the things I've always remembered is the brilliance of his directing of actors, because it's clear that he wanted to play all the parts. So he'd have the actors stand round and he would literally leap from position to position, saying 'you do it like this', and 'you do it like this'. And he was very good, including the female roles.

The one thing that I did which I think hit the right note was that I praised his relatively less-seen film, The Golden Fortress. I think, because it was a children's film, it had not got a general release in the way that his films tended to do in England. So it kind of vanished. It was as if I had praised the unlucky child. And he jumped to his feet ' and there was a lot of him ' and said, 'Oh, you like that film' You saw that film' Nobody's seen that film.' Recently, a couple of years ago, I was asked to be the guest director at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado in America, and while I remembered this conversation with him, I thought one of the things I really wanted to do was to bring that film to the festival. We brought The Golden Fortress to Telluride. And I cannot tell you what a hit it was. The screenings we had put on were insufficient, and we had to put on two or three extra screenings, and of all the films that were in the festival, it was one of the big successes. And I thought of how happy he'd have been to have known that, that this forgotten child finally had its moment in that place.

And the other thing that came out of that trip, which is much more unusual really, is that when I saw this house in the middle of nowhere where this film was being made, it made a big impression on me, and then, later, when I was writing the so-called Titlipur section of The Satanic Verses, in which there is this house, the old zamindar house in the middle of nowhere next to a village that's inside a jamun tree, I more or less used the same house. So the house is not only the house in Ghare Baire, it is also the house in The Satanic Verses, thanks to that visit 22 years ago.

Anyway, it's great to be able just to mention my admiration for somebody who during his lifetime was in my view the greatest artist working in this country, and one of the greatest ' perhaps the greatest ' artist this country has produced. And when I'm asked what is my favourite film of all time, it's really very easy to answer the question, because it has been, ever since I saw the first film of the Apu trilogy, Pather Panchali. That has been, I believe, as great a film as Citizen Kane and, in many ways, a more moving and touching human document than that film.

Lecturing in India is always unusual, for you never know quite what to expect....I find, particularly in Bombay but not exclusively, that people want to be in my books, and assume often that they are, and the fact that I've never met them before doesn't deter them. I was lecturing in Bombay soon after Midnight's Children came out, and a very grand lady, very well-dressed, came up to me with a fan and whacked me with it. Whack! She said, 'Naughty boy! But never mind, I forgive you.' And I'm thinking, 'Madam, who the hell are you' And she says, of course, you have based such and such character [on me]. And I said, 'You have to admit that I've never met you in my life.' She said, 'Look, I've already forgiven you, you don't have to go on again.' Then there was the moment where Asha Putli decided that the character of Veena in The Ground Beneath her Feet was based on her...

And then, sometimes, they are right. I remember the same time when Midnight's Children came out, a man came up to me and introduced himself as the character of Hairoil from Midnight's Children. Now it so happened that there were a couple of brothers who were childhood friends of mine on whom I'd based the characters of Eyeslice and Hairoil, Saleem's boyhood friends. And Hairoil was the one who was very neat, with slicked-out hair and a very neat set parting. And this chap comes up to me and says, 'Hello Salman, I'm Hairoil.' I thought a number of these things were very strange. First of all, he was right. He actually was my boyhood friend, who I hadn't seen for many years, on whom I'd based the character. But as a child he had never been called Hairoil. It was a nickname I had made up for the book. So here was a real person who really is my old friend introducing himself to me by the name of a fictional character. And even more tragically, he had lost all his hair. So a completely bald man introducing himself as Hairoil, a non-existent person. These are the strange consequences of writing novels that you don't fully understand.

I'm just going to say a little bit about the kind of novels that I started out trying to write. One of the things I wanted to mention here is the question of oral storytelling. I remember in Kerala listening to a very popular oral storyteller in front of a very very big crowd. And the thing struck me about how he was telling the stories. He was breaking all the rules which we are taught about how to hold the audience's interest. These are the rules best expressed by the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, when he advises Alice to start at the beginning, go on till you reach the end and then stop.

But the old storyteller does not do this. He goes in great loops and circles. He will introduce a story which may have some mythological origin, but then he will introduce a local political story, or a personal family anecdote, he will sing a song, or he will tell a rude joke, and there's an endless process of digression and self-interruption. And it feels like a kind of narrative juggling act...the storyteller is throwing balls in the air and the attraction of the performance is precisely the difficulty of the juggling act. You're waiting for him to drop one of the balls, but the fact that he doesn't keeps you watching. At first it seems almost random. But then you remember that this is a really ancient form, and, I thought to myself, supposing it is actually evolved into this, because this is the best way to hold the people's attention....this kind of juggling form, that's a very interesting piece of information because this is the opposite of what we're taught.

What would be the written-down equivalent of that' I thought there must be some kind of a literary version of that gymnastic act. And doing it in a way that people find not offputting or confusing or overcomplicating but pleasurable and fun and enjoyable, that people get in on it and have fun with it. And that gave me a clue of where to go. It meant that from the beginning my idea about being a writer was to put storytelling very much at the centre of the project.

The reason for this, I think, is that man is a storytelling animal. As far as I know, we are the only creatures on the earth that tells itself stories, true stories, and imaginary stories. We tell ourselves stories to understand ourselves. And as a result, the story becomes important not just to writers and readers, but to all of us whether we ever write a story or read one.

Take for example the family. I've said one thing about families in my books. They're often quite weird. The biggest lie that we live inside is the lie called ordinary life. 'How's everything at home' People say, 'Fine, everything's fine.' Now actually, we know when you go behind the door of the family, it's mayhem in there. It's not fine, it's not peaceful, it's very turbulent and difficult ' the mad aunts and wicked uncles and crazy relatives and corrupt's hell inside there. And then there's also love and understanding.... Then we become stories, and that in fact is our little bit of immortality ' 'Oh, you should remember great Uncle Salman, he got himself in some trouble once...'

Stories become central to not just the literary project but the human project. It's who we are. We are creatures who tell stories. And the writer in a way becomes the person who articulates that need in everyone. It just becomes more extreme. My mother stopped telling me family stories because, she said, all you do is write them in your books and I get in trouble. So writers are people who tell tales, they tell in public the stuff that should be kept in private, and your mother gets in trouble, or you're in trouble yourself.

In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, there's a question that the boy asks his father. He says what's the use of stories that aren't even true' And the point of that book is in a way to try and answer that question: What is the use of the imagination' What does it tell us about ourselves'

Email This Page