Salman speaks

By PETER KADZIS  |  June 21, 2007

As a former colonial, what was it like going to Rugby and Cambridge? Was it a tough transition?
Rugby was tough. Cambridge I had a very good time at, but coming to Rugby was really quite brutal. I was not quite 14 and taken aback to be made to feel like a foreigner, which, until that point, I had never thought of myself as. I did experience certain amounts of racial discrimination ― not from the staff, from some of the other boys. And that was shocking and depressing. And so I remember my school days as not being particularly happy. I was bad at games. I think it was the triple whammy: foreign, clever, bad at games. [Laughs] I think if I'd been any two of those three, I might have been able to get away with it. Foreign, clever, good at games ― that would have been all right. I mean, there were some boys there with Indian or Pakistani or, indeed, African backgrounds, but who were excellent sportsmen, and they seemed to have a perfectly nice time at school.

How was Cambridge different?
Well, for a start, there were girls. That helped. But also, I didn't feel any oppression. I didn't feel any racism aimed toward me. I didn't feel excluded. And then, also, I was at Cambridge at quite a good time to be young. I went there in 1965 and graduated in 1968 and, you know, of all the years in the last 50 years to have been at university, those were probably the years.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I did, really. My parents tell me that when I was 10 years old, I would say that I wanted to be a writer. Now, obviously, at the age of 10, I didn't know what that meant. All it meant, I suspect, is that I liked being a reader and therefore wanted to be a part of that world which made those things that I liked to read. I did for a time wonder if I might be able to be an actor. I did a lot of theatricals at university, and some after leaving, and then decided (a) that I wasn't good enough and (b) that, anyway, I wanted to write more than I wanted to act. But I still have an unscratched itch about acting. I think I'd be a better actor now than I was then. So maybe I can have a late career, like Gore Vidal.

What's your sense of nationality?
I was born as an Indian citizen, and the only passports I've ever held are Indian and British. In England now, there are probably getting on two million people with Indian or Pakistani origins, either first-generation immigrants like myself or their children. Indeed, by now, their grandchildren. And I think in that group, in which I would include myself, the sense of identity is plural. They're described in Britain as British-Asians, and that's a description which is completely unproblematic to me. I mean, I think one of the facts of the contemporary world is that people have plural identities. African-American, British-Asian: these are perfectly comprehensible terms.

Your work balances alienation and pluralism. Which do you think is stronger? The impulse toward alienation or toward pluralism?
You mean in general?

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