The boy born at the midnight hour of Indian independence languished in an unpublished text before Salman Rushdie brought Saleem Sinai back to life and placed him at the heart of a new novel he was preparing to write. Rushdie, then almost 30, was a struggling writer in London and working part-time as an advertising copywriter. His then literary oeuvre comprised four unpublished texts, and the novel Grimus , which, by the author’s own admission, revealed a writer who hadn’t “fully worked himself out”.
Armed with the advance for his first novel, Rushdie had set out, travelling in India, before returning to Britain with the framework of a new book in his head. The protagonist of the yet-to-be born novel had been identified, as well the ideas that would anchor his most ambitious work thus far.
Rushdie began writing in the third person, and to his frustration felt it fall limply on page. “There was a host of good stories waiting to be told, but the writing was falling short of what the stories needed,” he recalls.
Then, as an experiment, he lent Saleem Sinai the right to tell his story — the narrator of Midnight’s Children . It proved epiphanic. “I have always thought of that day as the day I became a writer, because what came out of me, somehow, was what I at once recognised as the best page I had ever written, in a voice that was not my own and yet gave me voice.”
Languages of Truth , Rushdie’s new collection of essays, is endowed with insights into a writer at work, the recurring trials till he finds the proverbial wings. “But once you have found those wings, however long it takes, however many times you have failed before you found them, once you have found your wings, you fly,” he says. The volume is a hat tip to literary mentors, some long gone, others active till the recent past.
The revelatory personal essays are the high points of this collection, nearly 40 of them written over 17 years (2003-2020), which is otherwise a rumination on story, storytelling and storytellers. His subjects span the spectrum: Carrie Fisher and Osama Bin Laden, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Philip Roth, truth, courage and liberty in modern times. The obituary of friend and critic Christopher Hitchens shines with gratitude for his vociferous defence of Rushdie during his troubled fatwa years.
Split into four, most pieces in Languages of Truth are either adapted from lectures or revised from previously published essays. Among the few originally published in the volume is ‘Pandemic’, which captures Rushdie’s personal battle with the virus, and writing in fraught times.
Languages of Truth defies chronology or a binding theme. Yet, Rushdie emerges, fighting for a school of writing — the exponents of ‘wonder tales’. He is a decorated veteran of this subgenre, the practitioners of which currently find themselves “out of fashion”. Fiction itself has fervently turned to realism in the era of non-fiction, and novelists whose works are illuminated by the magical and the fantastic have found themselves out of favour.
Realistic fiction, forte of newer writers Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgård and, other descendants of Clarissa Harlowe, comes from “a place very close to if not identical to the author’s personal experience”. Rushdie has cast himself as the writer of “weirder books”, a tradition just as long, but not as populated as realistic fiction. “The Western writers I have most admired, writers such as Italo Calvino and Günter Grass, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaac Bashevis Singer, have all feasted richly on their various wonder-tale traditions and found ways of injecting the fabulous into the real to make it more vivid and, strangely, more truthful,” he observes.
He returns to the dichotomic traditions in ‘Gabo and I’, an essay on Gabriel Garcia Márquez, ruminating on fickle literary fashions, and insists magic realism is not a passing fad. There is resignation, and also hope when he claims becoming unfashionable is not such a bad thing after all. “It removes the work from the glare of the world’s attention and allows it simply to be there, greeting what readers do come, and waiting for the great wheel to turn, as it must, as it always does”. Rushdie’s essays are meditations on the story and storytelling, habits that precede the written word, are nourished by imagination, and which, often dip into the wondrous, fantastic and the magical, yet speak the truth, albeit differently. Languages of Truth is a writer’s diary and also a handbook on storytelling. It is Rushdie’s dissection of the storyteller he came to be.