“The outcome is not always in favor of the virtuous”: Salman Rushdie discusses peace, Barbie, and the price of freedom in his life.
To start, I would like to share a tale with you. There were two jackals named Karataka and Damanaka, meaning Cautious and Daring respectively. They were part of the second group in the lion king Pingalaka’s entourage, but they were ambitious and cunning. One day, the lion king was startled by a loud noise in the forest, which the jackals knew was just the sound of a runaway bull and nothing to fear for a lion. They went to the bull and convinced him to come before the lion and declare his friendship. Although scared, the bull agreed and thus, the lion king and the bull became friends. In gratitude, the monarch promoted the jackals to the first rank.
Regrettably, the lion and bull were engrossed in conversation for so long that the lion neglected to hunt, causing the other animals in their group to go hungry. The jackals manipulated the situation by convincing the king that the bull was conspiring against him, and simultaneously persuading the bull that the lion planned to kill him. As a result, a fight broke out between the lion and bull, resulting in the bull’s death. This provided an abundance of meat for everyone, and the jackals gained even more favor with the king for warning him of the supposed plot. Their reputation also improved among the other animals in the forest, except for the unfortunate bull who was no longer alive, but his death provided a satisfying meal for all.
This is the general plotline of On Causing Dissension Among Friends, the first section of the Panchatantra, a collection of animal fables. What stands out to me about these stories is that many of them do not offer moral lessons. They do not preach about being good, virtuous, humble, honest, or restrained. Instead, cleverness, strategy, and amorality often triumph over all obstacles. The outcome is not always in favor of the “good guys” and it’s not always clear who those are. This makes the stories feel surprisingly relevant to modern readers, as we live in a world where immorality, shamelessness, and deceitfulness are prevalent and often lead to success for the villains.
I have always found inspiration in myths, folktales, and fairytales, not because they include fantastical elements like talking animals and magic, but because they hold deeper truths. An example is the ancient tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, which greatly influenced my novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet. In fewer than 100 words, it raises profound questions about the connections between art, love, and death. Can love, with the aid of art, conquer death? Or does death ultimately triumph over love, despite art’s efforts? Alternatively, perhaps the story suggests that art transcends both love and death by immortalizing them in timeless tales. These few words hold enough depth to inspire countless novels.
The collection of mythical stories is abundant. It includes the works of Greek mythology as well as the Norse Prose and Poetic Edda. Additionally, Aesop, Homer, the Ring of the Nibelung, Celtic legends, and the three major European Matters can be found: the Matter of France, which centers around Charlemagne; the Matter of Rome, which focuses on the empire; and the Matter of Britain, which revolves around King Arthur. In Germany, there are the folktales gathered by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Growing up in India, the Panchatantra was a significant part of my childhood. Even now, when I have breaks between writing projects, I turn to the clever and cunning characters of jackals and crows for inspiration on what story to tell next. They have never failed me thus far. These tales contain everything I need to understand about morality, freedom, imprisonment, and conflict. However, for matters of love, one must seek guidance elsewhere.
What can we learn about peace from the world of fables? Unfortunately, the outlook is not optimistic. According to Homer, peace only comes after a long period of war where loved ones are lost and Troy is left in ruins. Norse myths suggest that peace follows Ragnarök, the event where gods defeat their enemies but ultimately face their own demise. The Mahābhārata and Ramayana depict peace as a result of violent sacrifices. And the Panchatantra emphasizes that peace can only be attained through deceit.
However, for the time being, let us leave behind the tales of the past and focus on this summer’s two prominent stories: the movie duo known as Barbenheimer. The movie Oppenheimer serves as a reminder that peace was achieved only after the use of two atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the other hand, the blockbuster hit Barbie highlights the idea that uninterrupted peace and pure joy can only be found in a world where every day is flawless and every night is reserved for girls, symbolized by the color pink.
Currently, we are discussing the concept of peace while a war fueled by one individual’s desire for control and domination rages on. Simultaneously, another bitter conflict has erupted in Israel and the Gaza Strip. In the midst of these events, peace seems like a distant and unattainable dream that only exists in a state of altered consciousness. Achieving peace is not an easy task, and it is something we continuously long for, not just the grand peace that follows war, but also the small moments of tranquility in our personal lives. It is a highly valued goal that we fervently pursue. The idea of peace prizes also holds a sense of fantasy. However, I am captivated by the possibility that peace itself could be the ultimate prize, a year’s worth of it elegantly packaged and delivered to you. It would be an honor to receive such an award, and I am even considering writing a story about a man who receives peace as a prize.
I envision the setting to be a small rural town, specifically at the annual village fair. The typical competitions include determining the top pies, cakes, watermelons, and vegetables, as well as guessing the weight of a farmer’s pig. There are also contests for beauty, singing, and dancing. A peddler dressed in a worn frock-coat arrives in a brightly painted wagon pulled by a horse. He resembles the wandering con artist, Professor Marvel, from “The Wizard of Oz.” The peddler boasts that if he is chosen as the judge, he will distribute the most remarkable prizes ever seen. He enthusiastically cries out, “Greatest rewards! Step right up! Step right up!”
The humble villagers and the peddler distribute tiny containers marked with labels such as Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Goodness, and Peace to the winners at the fair. The villagers are dissatisfied with their prizes and would have preferred money instead. The year after the fair, peculiar events take place. The recipient of the Truth prize becomes a nuisance and isolates himself from his neighbors by openly expressing his true thoughts about them after consuming the contents of his bottle.
After consuming her prize, The Beauty’s appearance improves according to her own perception but also leads to her becoming excessively conceited. The villagers are taken aback by Freedom’s promiscuous actions and assume that the drink she had must have been a potent intoxicant. Goodness proclaims himself to be a saint, causing everyone to find him insufferable. Meanwhile, Peace simply sits under a tree and smiles. However, in a village filled with turmoil, even this smile becomes highly irritating.
One year later, the fair is held once more and the pedlar comes back, but the villagers push him away. They exclaim, “Leave us alone! We do not desire such prizes as a rosette, cheese, ham, or a red ribbon with a shiny medal. Those are typical prizes. We prefer something else.”
I am uncertain about whether or not I will write that story. At the very least, it could be used in a playful manner to demonstrate a significant idea. This idea is that what we consider to be positive traits can be perceived as negative, depending on one’s perspective and the impact they have in reality.
For many years, my destiny has been to embrace the idea of freedom and write whatever comes to mind without any limitations. As I prepare to release my 22nd book, I must admit that out of the 22 times I have followed this path, it has proven to be a worthwhile journey. It has allowed me to live a fulfilling life by pursuing the one career I have always desired.
During the release of my fourth book, I discovered that with freedom comes the possibility of a backlash from those who oppose it. I also learned how to deal with the consequences of this reaction and to strive to maintain my artistic freedom. I realized that many other writers and artists face similar challenges when exercising their freedom and that, ultimately, freedom can be a risky decision.
However, this only increased the urgency, significance, and importance of defending it. Together with many others, I have put forth my best effort to protect it. I must admit, there were moments when I wished to drink the Peace elixir and spend my days peacefully under a tree with a contented smile, but that was not the option presented to me.
We are currently living in a time that I never thought I would witness. It is a time where our freedom, especially the freedom of expression that is essential for the world of literature, is under attack from various sources including reactionary, authoritarian, populist, demagogic, uneducated, egotistical, and careless individuals. Educational institutions and libraries are facing hostility and censorship, and extremist religion and narrow-minded ideologies are encroaching into areas where they do not belong. Additionally, there are also progressive voices advocating for a new form of censorship that may seem noble but is seen by many, particularly the younger generation, as a virtue.
The concept of freedom is facing challenges from both the political left and right, as well as from younger and older generations. This is a recent development that has been further complicated by the use of modern communication tools, such as the internet. On this platform, deceitful content is often presented alongside factual information, making it difficult for individuals to distinguish between the two. Additionally, on social media, the notion of freedom is frequently exploited to justify a form of online mob mentality. This is often encouraged and financially benefited by the wealthy owners of these platforms.
How can we address the issue of free speech being frequently misused? We must continue to actively combat this issue by responding to harmful speech with more compelling arguments, challenging false narratives with more accurate ones, countering hate with love, and having faith that the truth will prevail even in a society filled with deceit. It is vital that we passionately defend free speech and have a broad understanding of what it encompasses. It is crucial to stand up for speech that may offend us, otherwise we are not truly defending the concept of free expression.
According to Cavafy, “the barbarians are arriving today”. It is believed that the solution to philistinism is art, while civilisation is the answer to barbarianism. In a cultural conflict, it is possible for artists of various mediums – such as filmmakers, actors, singers, and writers – to unite and prevent the barbarians from entering the gates.
Regarding the concept of liberty, I am grateful to those who expressed their support and solidarity after the assault on me 15 months ago. This support held personal significance for me and my family, and demonstrated the widespread belief in the importance of free speech around the world. The outcry following the attack was not only in sympathy for me, but also reflected people’s horror at the vicious and ignorant attack on a fundamental value of a free society. I am deeply appreciative of the overwhelming show of friendship and will continue to advocate for the cause that so many stood up to defend.