A Non-Encounter With Salman Rushdie

Amitava Kumar is currently at Vassar College, and Salman Rushdie was recently scheduled to be a guest speaker. (We had him at Lehigh ourselves about four years ago.) Amitava, as an accomplished critic and essayist, was suggested by the college to introduce Rushdie, but Rushdie apparently vetoed it [**see update]:

Salman Rushdie came to Vassar College earlier this week to deliver a lecture for the Class of 2010–but he made it clear to the organizers that he would cancel if I was involved in his visit. I had earlier been asked to introduce him, and then, well, I was disinvited. Mr Rushdie and I have never met, although I have heard him speak several times. I presume his dislike of me has to do with essays like these that I have written about him in the past. (link)

The essay Amitava links to is a long, partly sunny and partly sour critique of Rushdie, ending with a review of Shalimar the Clown. I think Amitava's best point is probably the following:

The trouble is that despite all his invention and exuberance Rushdie remains to a remarkable extent an academic writer. He is academic in that abstractions rule over his narratives. They determine the outlines of his characters, their faces, and their voices. Rushdie is also academic in the sense that his rebellions and his critiques are all securely progressive ones, advancing the causes that the intelligentsia, especially the left-liberal Western intelligentsia, holds close to its breast. This is not a bad thing, but it should qualify one's admiration for Rushdie's daring.(link)

It's true, many of Rushdie's best, most memorable lines are actually socio-historical commentaries, or nuggets of cultural criticism that could very well come from a professor (though they wouldn't sound as nice). Of course, Rushdie isn't alone in this, and it might be unfair to be overly harsh about academicism, since academic ideas about the fragmentation of the self and problems of nationhood and nationalism have been widely and generally influential. Lots of novelists are discussing issues that are also being discussed at academic conferences. (Indeed, more than a few well-known novelists are themselves academics, to pay the bills -- writing don't pay that well.)

But one can contrast Rushdie's nuggets of cultural criticism (which are especially prevalent in his later fiction) with deeply felt characterization or a personal, human touch. Vikram Seth, who is sometimes named as a protege of Rushdie, has perhaps gone beyond him, both in A Suitable Boy, and in the marvelous personal memoir Two Lives (a much riskier thing to write and publish than a topical novel like Shalimar). Rushdie is still pretty much Mr. Postcolonial, but is he necessarily Mr. India? (Are there term-limits?)

Despite the criticisms, no one can take away from what Rushdie has accomplished as a writer and as a principled public figure over the years, and Amitava acknowledges this at points in his essay as well as in the introduction he had planned to give:

I guess I would be speaking for a lot of readers, particularly in those parts of the planet that used to be called the Third World, who saw Mr Rushdie as having fought and won against, and made an ally of, the English language, the alien language that had come to us with our colonial rulers. Mr Rushdie has had to fight many other battles since; he has made many friends and enemies; and we (I’m speaking as an Indian here) we, as his readers and as writers, have followed his actions, his songs, his mannerisms, and even when we have chosen not to follow him into the sunset, we’ve always had to define ourselves, and our rebellions, against this image we have had of him, looking down at us from giant billboards at each street-corner of our past. (link)

Perhaps a bit passive aggressive? At any rate, nicely put.

[**Update: it appears that Rushdie himself has shown up in the comments to Amitava's post. Rushdie claims that the decision to disinvite Amitava was the college's not Rushdie's, though he affirms that he "refused to share a stage."]