Salman Rushdie: On God, Writing, Politicians…

11/16/06 – One day, when Salman Rushdie was thirteen and a half, he quit God. It was a day during the first year of many at the Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, and he remembers sitting in French class, or maybe it was Latin, looking out through the window towards the school’s famed Rugby Chapel. The young Rushdie thought the building, an oeuvre in the gothic revival style designed by noted architect William Butterfield, to be terribly ugly. “What kind of God would live in a house as ugly as that?” he remembers thinking.

By the end of the lesson, Rushdie, who had come from a mildly Muslim family, had given up God from what he called a very low level of belief. He went to the campus store, bought a ham sandwich and ate it. “The failure of a thunderbolt just proved to me that there was no God,” he said, waving his hands to audience laughter. And it wasn’t even a very good ham sandwich.
Rushdie, celebrated writer and winner of numerous awards, told this and many other stories to a full audience during a light-hearted conversation on Thursday. The event was part of the “Strange Times, My Dear: A Freedom-to-Write Literary Festival,” co-sponsored by the Watson Institute and the Literary Arts department. Rushdie spoke about religion, writing, Kashmir, and even ventured to tell the odd story about President John F. Kennedy’s sex life.
Rushdie grew up in Mumbai, or as he pointedly corrected, Bombay, in a household not imbued with religion. “My mother developed religion late in life, like rheumatism… The extent of Islam in our house was that there was no pig. But plenty of booze,” he said. His parents, who felt that they were more Indian than Muslim, did not move to Pakistan after the partition, and instead, moved the family from New Delhi to Bombay, to a neighborhood he describes as hosting “every conceivable way of being Indian.” Rushdie spent his childhood summers in Kashmir, before the region was beset by the territorial squabbling of regional superpowers. Instead, he remembers it as the epitome of religious tolerance and harmony. “It was a model of how people might live together…that was smashed up by Indian militarism and Islamic radicals.” The region and its fair skinned, blue-eyed inhabitants are often prominently featured in his novels.
“Novelists, like politicians, are trying to create a picture of the world,” Rushdie said, “the politician just tends not to tell you that [it’s fictitious].” A novelist is a recorder of memory, a role that sometimes collides with political realities. After the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, Iranian political leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, a bounty on Rushdie’s head for blasphemy. The controversy snowballed into an international incident. Now, though the fatwa is still in effect, Rushdie has adopted a more light-hearted attitude. “The only thing I want to say about the bad review I received is that one of us is dead,” he said at a reading later that day.
In spite of the political controversies, Rushdie refuses to cave in and let external pressure influence his writing. And that includes having the choice of writing about rock ‘n’ roll instead of radical Islam. “You’re suppose to write about the whole of life…compose with the whole orchestra,” he said.
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Xiyun Yang ’07