When I was a graduate student at Cambridge University I had a difficult couple of years. Things were so bad that as a mathematics graduate student I doubted whether 1 plus 1 makes 2. During those dark times, I felt cut off from the attachments that moored me to my past life in Bangladesh and I felt swept about by an internal sea of tumultuous emotions.
Thanks to my upbringing, I grew up surrounded by literature. I remember my father and my sister excitedly discussing Salman Rushdie’s great novel Midnight’s Children when it first came out. In Cambridge, during those dark days, it was Rushdie’s marvellous book of essays Imaginary Homelands which gave me solace from loss and alienation from the milieu I was born in. Rushdie taught me that real adventure is hard work and I learned to embrace that hard work. Rushdie taught me that it’s okay to leave the past behind and venture into new spaces and that for us, the uprooted, our real homeland is in the imagination. When I was dabbling in poetry as a young man, I had learned the definition of poetry as that which is lost in translation. Rushdie proposed that perhaps something is also added in translation. Rushdie taught me pride in being a translated man, literally and metaphorically.
Another book was also a lifeline for me during that time. It was Milan Kundera’s book of essays Testaments Betrayed – a book about the dual testaments of the art of the novel and European modernist music that Europeans themselves have forgotten. And the first chapter of that book was one of the most passionate and elegant defences of Salman Rushdie’s great novel The Satanic Verses. What I found interesting and beautiful was that Kundera’s defence of Rushdie’s controversial novel wasn’t based on freedom of expression. Instead, it was based on the art of the novel. And Kundera diagnosed a deep malady in the European soul. He argued that instead of taking the opportunity of the attacks on Rushdie’s novel and using it to explain to the world and to themselves what the art of the novel is — that it is a feast of relativity, a humourous and liberal enquiry into existence free from prejudged notions of right and wrong — Europeans had started to apologize for defending Rushdie. The Children of the Novel (as Emil Cioran had characterized Europeans) had forgotten their testament and heritage.
When the fatwa against Rushdie was first issued, I was a high school student in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Although I was a ‘science’ student I spent most of my time during those days trying to write poetry and thinking about film and literature. My father, a voracious reader, used to subscribe to an Indian weekly magazine. During a time when most of Bangladesh was full of linear rage against Rushdie, I started reading articles that Rusdhie himself wrote in his own defence in those Indian magazines that my father brought into the house.
Those articles and my youthful discussions with fellow literature lovers crystallized in my mind what literature is about. That it is not about expressing a point of view or about insulting or belittling anyone but it’s one of the deepest and most intuitive modes of exploring existence. Years later, in Cambridge during my dark years, when I came across those same essays in Rushdie’s collection Imaginary Homelands I felt a strange nostalgia. And somehow his words became doubly home for me.
Many years later I learned that the defence of Rushdie that Kundera wrote had moved him so much that he wept upon reading it. And it is thus no surprise that Rushdie named his second son Milan.
What is my favourite book by Salman Rushdie? It is Haroun and the Sea of Stories, that fable about story-telling itself set on Earth’s secret and second moon called Kahini. During another crisis later in my life, that book cured me of a deep heartache in a way I still find as magical as the story itself.
But that’s a story for another day.