Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta had just emerged from a screening of her new film adaptation of his Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children, at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado.
As they passed a couple on the street, they heard one person say to the other, “Did you See Midnight’s Children? I loved it. It was Forrest Gump with brown people.”
At which Mr. Rushdie quickly turned and rejoined: “But I wrote it before they wrote it.”
That delightful anecdote and several others were told Thursday evening in Toronto, where an appreciative audience of 400 book lovers and cinephiles turned out to hear the renowned writer and the celebrated film director interviewed by John Stackhouse, The Globe and Mail’s editor-in-chief.
Both artists, Mr. Stackhouse noted, have known persecution – Ms. Mehta, 62, as the director of films that, when shown in her native India, had catalyzed protests and cinema burnings; Mr. Rushdie, 65, as the author of The Satanic Verses, the 1988 novel deemed blasphemous of Islam’s prophet Mohammad. Soon after its release, a now infamous fatwa was issued by Iran’s clerical leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, calling for his summary execution.
Mr. Rushdie, who wrote the screenplay for Midnight’s Children and provided its voice-over narration, said his experience with persecution – he spent the better part of the next decade in hiding, living under police protection and a false identity – had not fundamentally changed him as an artist.
But it had, he said, given him a “keener sense of the values” that PEN Canada campaigns for, “freedom of imagination above all. It makes you want to fight that fight, not just for yourself but other artists.”
Part of the funds raised for the evening’s event, which also featured a screening of the new film, will go to PEN.
Ms. Mehta, who has made eight previous films, said she recalled the day in 1999 when Mr. Stackhouse, then The Globe’s Asian correspondent, had called her to ask her reaction to the news that a screening of her film, Fire, had led to a cinema being burned down.
At the time, she recalled, she had been totally stunned. “But I’m not so naïve any more. I’m a bit more wary, especially where India is concerned. I feel less stupid, yes.”
Mr. Rushdie allowed that many of the principal characters in Midnight’s Children, which deals with the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent and its traumatic aftermath, were drawn from members of his own family.
That included a not-so-favourite uncle who had once served as a general in the Pakistan army. After the attacks on his nephew in the wake of The Satanic Verses, the uncle had placed an ad in the local newspaper effectively saying, “we never liked him anyway.”
When Mr. Rushdie finished the book, he’d been worried – unnecessarily, it turned out – about his mother’s reaction. It was his father, who had studied English literature at Cambridge, who was offended by the unfavourable portrait his son had painted of him.
“I made it worse,” recalled Mr. Rushdie, author of nine novels, three collections of essays and two children’s books, for which he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2007. “I said to him, ‘If you think that’s unfavourable, you should see the stuff I left out.’”
A thoroughly modern trope, in short: Two artists brought together – in the peaceful heart of North America – for polite discussion.
But the subtext was clear: The not-so-well-mannered past and how history’s tumultuous currents continue to course through modern life, East and West.