Imagine growing up in the 1980s as the child of Indian immigrants in Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States. Imagine trying to find a model, someone who mattered to the larger culture around you, and failing. None of the people who move others with their words, deeds, or songs seem to have your story, your burdens, or your sense of the world. You have not yet heard the word “cosmopolitan,” but you do have a sense of living in the world yet displaced from any particular part of it. No one else’s kitchen smells like yours. No one else’s parents fight like yours. No one else has grandparents who don’t speak English but watch English television for hours anyway. Where do you find inspiration, or even just comfort, that there is a way you might matter in this cruel yet dynamic culture?
Then one day in 1978 you see Freddie Mercury on The Midnight Special television program singing “We are the Champions.” He’s tan like you. He’s loud. He’s sexual. He does not care about anyone who can’t handle his presence or his performance. A bit of reading reveals Mercury, too, is a desi—a “person of the country,” of South Asian descent. He, too, had traditional parents but heard the thumping, erotic call of rock and roll and knew he could never be like them. You suspected, but would not know for some years, that there was even more to his journey than just a rebellion against desi traditions. But for now, he was something else. And damn, you needed that.
As you grow you wonder why there are no other desi politicians, actors, sports stars, or writers who seem to matter. You catch glimpses of tennis player Vijay Amritraj losing to Björn Borg at Wimbledon (like everyone else did) in 1979. But that image has no staying power for you. Losing is losing.
Then, in 1981, you begin to read about a new writer. He’s young and brash. He wins a big literary prize for his new novel, one that purports to tell the story of the Independence and ultimate partition of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The novel itself proves to be difficult going for you, so far underexposed to big, ambitious works of fiction. But you take an interest because here is a guy who does not stand down, does not bow to the Sahibs. And the Sahibs seem to reward him for it.
Now, as Salman Rushdie lies in a hospital bed in northern Pennsylvania, recovering from stab wounds inflicted after he spoke publicly about his life and work, writers and desis across the world are reflecting on what Rushdie has meant to them. You are among them.
Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s second novel, sat among Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire on the coffee tables of all the white people you knew who fashioned themselves bookish in the early 1980s. Suddenly, everyone seemed to care about India, or at least about one British Indian. Inspired again, and a bit embarrassed that you, the Indian kid, can’t talk about it, you forge about three chapters into the book. There you see a brief account of the 1919 massacre of hundreds of Indians protesting in Amritsar, Punjab. “‘Good shooting,’ Dyer [the British commander] tells his men, ‘We have done a jolly good thing,’” Rushdie writes with economy and power.
It leaves you shaking. It’s not that you did not imagine such brutality coming from the British. It’s that no one had ever told you that story, and it seems rather important. Indian independence was not the happy, nonviolent story that you had heard your whole life—one of a reasonable, enlightened democracy relinquishing its gentle control over an aspiring democracy when the time was right—but a horrifying process that revealed just how mercenary a colonial could be.