Fifty-nine years ago, India claimed its independence from Britain. But another 36 years would pass before it would find a voice to announce its new identity. Then, in 1983, a novel called Midnight's Children exploded out of nowhere, to upset the placid applecart of English literature, play merry havoc with the English language and create something more full of invention and clairvoyance than anything Empire could imagine.
Salman Rushdie's second novel was a call to free spirits everywhere to remake the world with imagination. It took the magical realism coined in South America and gave it a wicked satirical thrust. It took the mythic exuberance of Günter Grass, the narrative innovations of Laurence Sterne and James Joyce, and filled them with South Asian energy and polymorphousness. It even sang into being a new, gleefully mongrel world in which East and West were so all over one another that the action clearly lay in the spaces between them. A small boy's coming of age in a new country became a story of how colonized could trump colonizer with something raucous, larger than life and triumphant.
Like any revolution, Rushdie's assault on the old divisions (of high and low, old and new, East and West) was messy and sometimes excessive. And like many of those who remake history, Rushdie lost control of his own inventions at times. Seemingly spellbound by his own brilliance and celebrity, he sometimes began to parody himself, sometimes gave too much vent to a capacity for vengefulness. He followed Midnight's Children with a scabrous attack on Pakistan, Shame, and then with a vivid satire on Islam, in The Satanic Verses. When the Ayatullah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa, or death sentence, on the Islamic-born infidel in 1989, the voice of modern Asian profusion became a one-man campaign for freedom of speech, internationalism and the rights of the imagination in the face of tribal prejudice.
But whatever you thought of him, it was hard to deny that Rushdie had not merely opened a new chapter for the novel he had opened up a new universe by changing the way we tell stories and see the world around us. Go into a fusion restaurant in San Francisco, listen to a DJ sampling oldies in a London dance club, visit any place in Asia where old colonial buildings are flooded with shiny new handicraft shops, and you are in the world brought into life and divined by Salman Rushdie. Some writers from former British colonies (Derek Walcott, Michael Ondaatje) have shed tropical light on the dusty monuments of English literature; still others (V.S. Naipaul and Kazuo Ishiguro, English-raised, though Japanese-born) have pushed the classical novel into new exile territory. But the post-classical novel, the eruption of 21st century literary masala mixing, was set off by an Indian-born, English-speaking, overseas-based Muslim who came into the world, with characteristic prescience, at the very moment when India claimed its independence 59 years ago.