I want to tell a story about that old cliché of teachers: that reading opens the door to other worlds. I don’t like the saying, to tell the truth, but this story is mine. And it isn’t about other worlds, exactly. It’s about how reading Salman Rushdie’s books revealed the world itself, in its unimaginable bigness and variety, to a very sheltered—one could say slightly trapped—and deeply closeted teenager.
I grew up, until I was eight, very close to the Chautauqua Institute, where Rushdie was stabbed this August in an attack presumably motivated by objections to his work and, specifically, the calls for his death ever since the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses in 1988. To me, Chautauqua was the name of my home county. Since reading the news of the attack I’ve been immersed in memories. As I write this, Rushdie is recovering, so rather than a eulogy, I want to take the chance to write this as a letter of thanks. I realize the risk of making it all about me—of being, in fact, yet another white queer person instrumentalizing a colonized ‘elsewhere’ as a metaphor for my own personal life journey. It’s not how I feel about it. I want to thank Rushdie for writing books that decentered me—that revealed that the United States is not the center of the world, and that I was just one speck lucky enough to live in this teeming planet alongside so many others.
In 1988 I was nine. I wasn’t living in Chautauqua County anymore. In my new, equally small town in central Massachusetts, I was lonely and anxious and immediately fascinated by the glimpses I caught of the ‘Rushdie affair’. I was already captivated by stories of captivity, hiding, and existential threat, so I could not help being drawn in by the totalizing menace of the fatwa which decreed that Rushdie should die for his words. To be cast out but yet trapped, hidden but surveilled: as a far-from-out queer kid with a complex home life, I found this paradoxical state of being meaningful in ways I could not hope to articulate yet. No one seemed to think Rushdie would make it out of the 1980s. I didn’t think I’d make it out of anywhere.
My parents discussed Rushdie. One—I can’t remember which—said to the other: I’ve heard his book is actually unreadable.
I think they meant: why kill this odd man over his bizarre book?
I think they also meant: this is foreign to us and we need not consider it too deeply.
I didn’t know yet how ‘unreadable’ is used to denigrate the work of marginalized people (although I don’t think that was my parent’s conscious aim). But I was puzzled by the word. How could a book be unable to be read? I wanted to find out—to be someone who could judge unreadability for myself, to be someone who could read the unreadable.
At that time however Rushdie’s work was, for me, simply unreachable.
Two or three years later, a friend recommended Haroun and the Sea of Stories, his fable-like tale for young readers. I don’t remember how I got hold of it but once I did I was smitten. What I remember: Haroun on the bus winding its way through the impossibly steep mountains, reading warnings like advertising jingles in all capital letters:
LOOK OUT, SLOW DOWN, DON’T BE FUNNY
LIFE IS PRECIOUS, CARS COST MONEY
The summer after my parents divorced, I loitered in the town library, an old yellow brick building, wondering if I’d get in trouble for being in the Adult Fiction section. It was organized by author and I didn’t know what to look for, so I looked for Rushdie. Was The Satanic Verses not there? Or was I still too scared to read it (to associate myself with scandal, to show that I desired what was forbidden, to risk discovering that I couldn’t read it after all)?
In any case, I went home with Midnight’s Children, surprised that the librarian hadn’t said a word when I checked it out. In my memory what follows is an endless succession of hot summer afternoons, home alone, lying on the screened-in porch while this completely unexpected book changed my world. I could hardly have been less prepared for it. I knew almost nothing about India or South Asian history: I don’t think I even knew that both Hindus and Muslims lived there, much less that the British had partitioned South Asia into India and Pakistan before independence in 1947. Nor had I yet encountered magical realism in any significant way.
None of that mattered. Like any teenager would be, I was instantly seduced by the story of a group of misfits endowed with magical qualities by the accident of their birth at the moment of decolonization, at the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947. (It didn’t hurt that my birthday is only a few days, not to mention decades, later.) I loved the characters and their stories, and the long lists of description, and the whole detailed evocation of a place that was entirely new to me.
I especially loved the collapsing of personal history and national history, and the metaphor of chutney for how the events of everyday life become marinated and pickled and processed into what we call History. I didn’t even know what chutney was, but I searched the aisles of the nearby supermarket until I found Major Grey’s Mango Chutney. Of course, I loved that too (even though it’s probably a very far cry from the real chutney Rushdie meant). I ate it straight from the jar, barefoot in the wash of cold air from the open refrigerator, trying to connect myself to the scenes that had tumbled off the page and into my mind.
For the next decade I was a stalwart Rushdie reader. In addition to the novels, I read the older books of essays, absorbing the sharp debates of liberal internationalism and the haunting politics of diasporic lives from Jaguar Smile and Imaginary Homelands. When I finally got to it, I thought Satanic Verses was terrific, although by then I’d learned enough about Islam to understand, at least in principle, why Rushdie’s recasting of the origins of the Koran had caused such deep offense. I bought The Ground Beneath Her Feet brand-new and devoured it like candy.
At some point, I stopped putting Rushdie at the centre of my reading life. There wasn’t any particular reason; I just got interested in other things. If I read those books now they would mean something else to me, and I’d probably have a different take on them. Once I could quote them chapter and verse but now what remains are fragments. Bombay, its seafront and cosmopolitanism and diversity and glamour. The characters who grow up there and think Art Deco itself comes from the city—that it’s really Art Dekho—from the Hindustani for look—Look! Look at the art! I got the pun even without the language, and felt the power of provincializing Europe (to use Dipesh Chakrabarty’s famous phrase), of relocating the centre of the universe to India.
But on the other hand, airplane travel. The character who still looked polished and composed after something like seven hours of flight, and what that revealed about their steely determination to transcend material limitations. The exploding airplane that lands (I think) Gibreel Farishta in London (Ellowen Deeowen), which now strikes me as a brilliant metaphor for the catastrophic realities of even quite privileged migration. The character who loved the sea but then took easily to air as well—because they were both routes out.
The most moving piece of student feedback I’ve ever received said that I’d shown the student that the world was a bigger place than they’d given it credit for being. In my turn, I must thank Salman Rushdie for showing me the same thing. And the strange thing, the part I haven’t figured out yet, is how that realization is also a kind of salvation. When you are hiding, and you are the biggest thing by far in the tiny claustrophobic closet of your life, it is to realize that the earth is vast beyond imagining—that the ways of doing and thinking that surround you are no more than happenstance—that you are only small and insignificant, but that, whether by land, sea or air, it is possible to connect, however transiently and imperfectly, with worlds beyond your own.