The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- To open the universe a little

There's a great scene in James Ivory's early film, Bombay Talkie, in which Jennifer Kendal as a reporter visits the set of a Bombay movie, and the set is this giant typewriter, and on the keys of the typewriter, there are nautch-girls in various kinds of d'shabill', and there's a bit of music and they're dancing, and she asks the director of the film what this is. And he says, 'You see, the typewriter is the typewriter of life, and we are all dancing out our stories on the typewriter of life. To which she says, not knowing what to say, 'It's very symbolic'. And he says, 'Thank you.'

In this world, the world of the typewriter of life...the pleasure of the film is this kind of portmanteau pleasure, that you're seeing many different kinds of stories being told at once. And they're moving quite naturally from one to the other, or sometimes unnaturally or jerkily, but you come out having seen a comedy, a love story, an adventure, a musical all at once.

Now, have a look at Hamlet. Act I Sc I is a ghost story, Act I Sc II is intrigues of the Danish court, Act I Sc III is a love story between Hamlet and Ophelia, then you have the comedy and knockabout stuff with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, then you're back on the ramparts with the ghost again. So Shakespeare is doing exactly the same thing. He's saying that you can make four or five different kinds of theatre and you can put them in the same play. And you can go from one scene to another and as long as you do it right the audience will come with you. And it will actually get a more complex kind of satisfaction than if you told just a ghost story, or just a comedy or just a love story or just an adventure story or just a political intrigue. Put them all in the same show. And you got Hamlet. Or Bobby. Or Mr India. Or Macbeth.

I thought there's a real clue here: if you can find out how to do this, you can find an interesting way to tell stories in prose form which break the rules, and yet, in fact, increase people's pleasure by doing so rather than decrease it.

Somewhere I made up this name for Bombaiyya slang. I call it Hugme ' Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, English ' all jumbled up. And that kind of jumble happens linguistically if you grow up in a city like Bombay.. It seems like a natural thing to want to reflect that multi-sidedness in literature. And this, I think, was the final clue for me and made me the kind of writer that I became, which is this, the Indian city of which the most central and obvious fact is the crowd.

The question is: how do you, in literary form, write down a crowd' How do you represent multitude in fiction' You don't do that by telling one simple beginning-to-end story. You tell a crowd of stories. And you allow your central story to push its way through the crowd, to elbow its way through the crowd, to step over other stories in the street, bump into other stories on the bus. And that became a direction, and took me a long way.

But nothing takes you all the way. You start off with certain ideas as a writer, and they take you a certain part of the journey Some writers manage to make do with their stock of original ideas ' writers, for instance, who are deeply rooted in a place, writers like Faulkner or Narayan ' who are deeply rooted to a given patch of the earth and can mine that patch of the earth throughout their lifetime without exhausting it. That's a kind of literary good fortune. The kind of writer that I've been ' knocking about in various countries ' doesn't have the luxury of that certain patch of ground under my feet. I have to, in a way, work out the meaning of the ground, create the ground. Naipaul writes about this anomaly in The Enigma of Arrival: the problem of not knowing, or having to invent the world before you can put a story into it.

There are good and bad things about this dislocated position too. But what happens at a certain point is that the original impetus can run out of steam and you can find that you've done that a lot and you have to find out what is the next thing. I remember a point at which a journalist came to me and said, 'Mr Rushdie, why is there so much incest in your books' I said, 'No there's not. There's not incest in my books.' And he said, 'In this book there's this one, in this book there's this one.' And I thought, god, there's a lot of incest in my books. And I thought, I'd better stop doing this. People will talk. I've got three sisters. So now there's no incest in my books any more.

In my books, there's a lot of doubling. Perhaps people will say, an overuse of the idea of the double and the other and the twin, and the self and the shadow, the idea of the road taken and the road not taken, the self and the face in the mirror ' there's a lot of this stuff in my books and I'm now beginning to feel that I've really done this enough and I'd better not do it again. So now, if a character finds himself or herself looking in a mirror in a book of mine, all they're doing is brushing their hair. The image in the mirror no longer has a separate identity. At least, that's what I'm insisting.

I have found as a kind of second act, that the new subject that is emerging ' not just for me, but for very many writers ' is the question of the shrinking world, which is of course given to me by a life of successive acts of migration which have brought me into collision with a number of different kinds of life in parts of the world ' India, Pakistan, England, America. The story of everywhere is now part of the story of everywhere else. There was a time when a story in India could take place here and a story in America could take place there and you didn't have to make any echoes or connections between them, because you could fully and profoundly explain the lives of your characters without that kind of transcultural reference, or without any kind of historical or political reference.

Jane Austen's career [for example] is more or less exactly contemporary with the Napoleonic wars. And yet, there's essentially no mention of the Napoleonic wars in the novels of Jane Austen, except that soldiers show up at balls and look cute. The function of the British army in the novels of Jane Austen is to look cute at parties, and defeating Napoleon was a side-issue. The reason that she can do this ' I'm not criticizing her ' is that she can fully explain the lives of her characters without a reference to the public sphere. The public sphere was remote from private life in that time.

What's happened, I think, as time has gone on is that space ' the space between the public and the private ' has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. Now the public and the private smash up against each other every single day. And that has problematic implications for the novel because to try and include contemporary public events in fiction is a very dangerous game. You run the terrible risk that when those events lose their immediacy, the novel also loses its immediacy. That is, you can write stuff which dates....

Yet it is a question I ask myself a lot as a writer: how to accommodate the fact that private lives are now directly influenced by public affairs to a degree that was not formerly the case' How can one fully explain the lives of one's characters' To give you an example, if you deal with a country with a dodgy currency and a speculator of the Soros kind decides to attack and the currency collapses and thousands and thousands of people are thrown into unemployment, their character has not been their destiny. Whether they were good or bad at their jobs, whether they were virtuous individuals or not, has had nothing to do with the destruction of their lives. It's an external agency that has acted to change their lives. And their destiny in a way becomes their character.

This problem with the old maxim, that a man's character determines his fate, is something that I have to wrestle with as a writer, as I think many writers now do. Because we see every day the way in which external events determine and shift and change the realities inside which we live and therefore affect our lives. When those planes hit the World Trade Towers, the story of al Qaida became the story of New York. Until that moment, it would have been ridiculous to say that the activities of this group far away were in any sense a Manhattan story, whereas now, of course, it's one of the central stories of New York and has redescribed the city to itself. And it seems to me now that that is ' if I'm looking forward rather than backwards where to go ' then how to explain to ourselves the ways in which our stories interpenetrate each other. And what we are to learn from that and how we are to deal with it seem to me to have become a lot of the future....

I'm just going to stop this part now by quoting you a story, which I think defined for me very well what it is to be a writer. Not just a writer, but what it is to be an artist in a world such as this. There's a paragraph in Saul Bellow's novel, The Dean's December, which is actually a very minor moment in the book, but it just struck me. The Dean's December is about an American dean in a university, who has a Rumanian wife. They go to Rumania for family reasons. And this is Ceausescu's Rumania, so it's very bleak. And it's winter as well, which makes it even more bleak. And nobody has much money and there's an atmosphere of fear and it's that moment before 1989 ' long before, actually ' and there's a moment in the novel where the dean is standing at the window of the apartment in Bucharest, looking out at a park. And in the park there are no leaves on the trees, there's frost on the ground ' it's bleak ' and he hears in the distance a dog beginning to bark. The dog barks and barks and barks and will not stop barking, nothing can stop it barking, and it barks for ages and ages. And he at first is irritated by the dog's barking. And then, because this is a dog in a Saul Bellow novel, it becomes necessary to understand why the dog is barking, and the dean imagines that what the dog is doing is uttering a protest against the limitations of dog-experience. And what the dog is saying in its barking is, 'For god's sake open the universe a little more.'

It's a very beautiful phrase: for god's sake open the universe a little more ' and it seemed to me when I read it, you know, that's the job. That is what great art ' whether it's music or painting or film or literature ' that is what great art does. It opens the universe a little more, makes it possible for you, a little bit, to feel something, or think something or understand something just a little bit beyond the limits of what you previously felt and knew and understood. And the way you do that is not by sitting in the safe middle ground and telling stories which don't push the frontier. You do it by going to the edge and pushing.

And to open the universe is not an easy job. The universe sometimes resists. There are people who don't want it to open, who want to push back. But it is the job, I believe, I learnt from that moment in Bellow ' it is the job of the artist to go to the edges and push. And by doing that, if we do it right, the universe, a little, opens.

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