A literary pilgrimage | Sunday Observer
Languages of Truth:

A literary pilgrimage

19 September, 2021

Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Penguin Random House

Literature depicts truth. But how does it depict it? How does it illuminate the truth about society and culture? And what is the truth in literature or art? Salman Rushdie, a Booker Prize-winning, internationally bestselling author, discusses this issue in his newly collected, revised, and expanded nonfiction.

It includes many texts from the first two decades of the twenty-first century by him, which are never previously in print. He brings together insightful and inspiring essays, criticism, and speeches that focus on his relationship with the written word and solidify his place as one of the most original thinkers of our time.

The book, in fact, chronicles Rushdie’s intellectual engagement with a period of momentous cultural shifts. Immersing the reader in a wide variety of subjects, he delves into the nature of storytelling as a human need, and what emerges is, in myriad ways, a love letter to literature itself.

Rushdie explores what the work of authors from Shakespeare and Cervantes to Samuel Beckett, Eudora Welty, and Toni Morrison mean to him, whether on the page or in person. He delves deep into the nature of “truth”, revels in the vibrant malleability of language and the creative lines that can join art and life, and looks anew at migration, multiculturalism, and censorship.

On realism

Rushdie begins the book with a sentence, “Before there were books, there were stories,” and reflects on the art of storytelling and on his individual search for a narrative. It’s a journey that took him beyond the realm of realism in order to create magical universes of alternative realities.

Generally, Rushdie does not remain in realism in literature. According to him, a novelist who writes in conventional realism cannot explore the truth in society and man. He says in the book that “the realist tradition is doomed to a kind of endless repetitiveness”, and hence novelists “must turn to irrealism and find new ways of approaching the truth through lies”.

Novels and novelists

Among the finest of some 50 pieces contained in the book are those that carry his reflection on novels and novelists ranging from Leo Tolstoy, Philip Roth, Cervantes, and Samuel Beckett to Kurt Vonnegut. Rushdie divides great novels into two broad categories: the ‘everything novel’ that tries to include almost every aspect of life and the ‘almost nothing novel’ that examines truth in the light of a single thin narrative strand.

There is a very important essay in the book as Autobiography and the Novel where Rushdie wistfully remembers that the title pages of the three greatest novels of the 18th century — Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and Tristram Shandy — didn’t carry the names of their authors. “Just two hundred and fifty years ago it was possible for books to become famous and celebrated… and for the author to remain in the shadows.” It’s a world that seems to have been lost forever in an era that expects writers to make a regular appearance on their YouTube and Instagram channels, said an Indian author Ashutosh Bhardwaj writing to Financial Express, an Indian newspaper, reviewing the book.

As Bhardwaj describes, the book also records his evolution both as a reader and a writer.


Besides some insightful essays on stories and storytellers, there are some fine pieces on painters such as Amrita Sher-Gil and Bhupen Khakhar, and also anecdotes related to some writers, in the book. For instance, there is a poignant episode that marks the beginning of his fantastic essay on Roth.

The book reveals that in October 2017, Roth wrote to Rushdie requesting him to deliver the inaugural Philip Roth lecture instituted by the Newark Public Library. Rushdie, much younger than Roth, was on the moon to have received the invitation from his literary hero. However, before he could deliver the lecture, Roth died.

Before his first novel ‘Grimus’, Rushdie had four unpublished texts, one of them with a secondary character called Saleem Sinai born at the moment of Indian Independence, who was famously reborn in ‘Midnight’s Children’. His experiences — be it of racism as a schoolboy in Britain (to “be someone else’s Other”), the Ayatollah’s appalling fatwa, and the people he met and the friendships he struck — are interwoven in his critical appraisal of his life and work or other writers, ranging from Shakespeare and Beckett to Roth and Vonnegut.

Rushdie once visited Martello Tower, the famous landmark in Dublin immortalised by James Joyce in ‘Ulysses’. Describing his emotion, Rushdie wrote how he “succumbed” to “the feeling of having walked into the pages of the great book”.

As Ashutosh Bhardwaj describes to Financial Express, “Languages of Truth, on most occasions, is one such book. A literary pilgrimage. Rushdie himself sets it up. ‘If you are not a writer, don’t worry: this book won’t teach you how to be one. If you are a writer, I suspect it will teach you a lot.’ It will take you on a journey, leaving you in the middle to find a way of your own.”

Religious intolerance

Rushdie comments on religious intolerance as well. He argues convincingly that religious intolerance has become resurrected in a secular form in one of the essays written not so long ago. “If I had stood before you a decade ago, I might have argued that religious extremism was the greatest threat to liberty we faced. I did not foresee what seems to be a secularisation of that fanaticism.”

Therefore, he rhetorically poses the question “Who will guard us from the guardians?”

Talks and lectures

Twenty of the essays in this collection have been adapted from public talks and lectures. The number is in line with the figure Rushdie cuts in this century: not so much a novelist who happens to be famous, but a fixture in the culture pages, more in the news for his opinions than his work. Writing to Guardian, Abhrajyoti Chakraborty, an Indian writer, says, “There was the time he called the writer Mo Yan a ‘patsy’ of the Chinese government. Or the kerfuffle that seems to ensue whenever he admits that he couldn’t finish Middlemarch. Rushdie is just as at home holding forth on the morality of children’s stories as recounting his friendship with Carrie Fisher. In an essay on screen adaptations of novels, he can move from Satyajit Ray to Lolita to Slumdog Millionaire, and also reveal that he was invited to appear on Dancing With the Stars.”


Another aspect of Rushdie’s life is his activism on writers’ freedom. Therefore, he chronicles some events relating to a writer Ai Weiwei’s arrest in China where he passionately rails against, and speaks out against the rise of Hindu supremacy in Modi’s India. During the heyday of the Trump administration, he calls out the impunity with which “a government of billionaires and bankers … is able to dismiss its adversaries as elites”.

The final 50 pages or so comprises pieces on painters, photographers and personal ephemera through all of which he gives us fascinating insights about them. So, Languages of Truth has a very significant value, especially for writers.