As public readings go, the event at the Union Square book store of Barnes & Noble in New York was unremarkable. An audience of nearly 400 people sat expectantly for Salman Rushdie to read from his memoir, Joseph Anton, published earlier that day (18 September). Rushdie had a busy schedule: He was coming from the sets of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. He had been on other talk shows, read positive reviews of his new book (he continued to say how surprised he was that Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times had finally given him a good review), and courteously greeted friends in the audience as he left after responding to questions.
There was security at the store, in plainclothes, which seemed almost routine, as if it was there solely to keep crowds at bay. There were electronic detectors at the entrance—but that was to stop shoplifting—and the guards on the fourth floor seemed more keen to check your bags to see if you had bought the book, to qualify for a seat in the audience. Commerce, not art, was being protected, which wasn’t a bad thing, because in a city that values ideas and debate, art thrives on exposure, not concealment; it doesn’t need to be protected by barriers. Only the presence of a few officers with guns in their holsters inside the store on the ground level suggested that this wasn’t an ordinary event.
Nearly a quarter-century has passed since the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a death sentence in the form of a fatwa on Rushdie, because the ayatollah didn’t like a novel Rushdie wrote—The Satanic Verses. Naturally, Khomeini hadn’t read it, but like the Indian parliamentarian Syed Shahabuddin, who said he didn’t have to step into a drain to know it was filthy, Khomeini wasn’t going to bother reading a book that he thought insulted his faith (about Shahabuddin’s observation, Rushdie remarks in his book that it was a fair point to make, if you were talking about drains).
On Valentine’s Day in 1989, Rushdie heard about the fatwa when a BBC reporter phoned him, asking, “How does it feel to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?”
Not very good, Rushdie thought.
He rushed down to lock his front door, draw the curtains, trying to shut himself off from the madness that had emerged in a region far away, threatening him, extending its arms in an attempt to grab him and extinguish him. He became a man without an address, his phone number unlisted, his bank account changed, his identity obliterated, and officers recommended he take a different name. He chose Joseph Anton, after Conrad and Chekhov. Conrad, because in The Nigger of the Narcissus, a sick seaman called James Wait is about to make a difficult voyage, and another seafarer asks him why, and Wait says, “I must live before I die, mustn’t I?” And Chekhov, because he was “the master of loneliness and melancholy, of the beauty of an old world destroyed, like the trees in a cherry orchard, by the brutality of the new; Chekhov, whose Three Sisters believed that real life was elsewhere and yearned eternally for a Moscow to which they could not return.”
In the early days of the fatwa, Rushdie wondered: Would he see his beloved Bombay (now Mumbai) again? Would he even be able to return to his house in London? He began to disappear from the public eye. The assassins wouldn’t get him, but by imprisoning him in a sense, the ayatollah sought to silence him. But imposed silence, he would not accept. In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie writes: “What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive: or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits: but, the hundredth time, will change the world.”
Rushdie did not set out to change the world. He wanted to be himself, to be free. And by insisting upon that, he changed the world around him. It wasn’t going to be easy. His friends, as Bill Buford, then editor of Granta, told him, would form an iron ring around him, and so they did; Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, the late Christopher Hitchens, Liz Calder, and many others, many of whom raised a glass with him in London last week. And in the leakiest of societies—literary London, nattering New York—where he was, what he did, who he saw, stayed a deep secret.
Describing the frustration, Rushdie told his New York audience on Tuesday night how once he was being driven in a motorcade across Place de la Concorde in Paris, which had been emptied for the motorcade to pass through, lest a misguided Jackal attempt to shoot him, when he saw through the window startled Parisians, sitting along the sidewalk enjoying their espresso, wondering what the fuss was all about. And at that moment, Rushdie said, he wanted to sit with those Parisians, and have his cup of café-crème. He wanted to stand in supermarket queues, to get stuck in traffic jams, to sit outside, at a coffee shop.
What happened next? Everything. His story became a sort of prologue, as he writes in Joseph Anton—A Memoir: “When it begins it is just about him; it’s individual, particular, specific. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film” (“Was that, too, Saleem’s fault?” as Rushdie might write, resurrecting the leitmotif of Midnight’s Children).
Novelists often lead uneventful lives. Rushdie’s life, on the other hand, reads like a novel. He didn’t choose that. He views his own life in the third person, referring to himself as “he”, a device that you don’t notice because it functions so smoothly. There is good reason: Rushdie today is not the Rushdie of 1988; he wants to look back at the past with the objectivity distance brings, observing his younger self, commenting on his decisions grand and small, and reflecting on his opinions, describing the actions he took—brave at times, mean at some others. As a literary device, it works.
But this is about the real world, with real people. Unlike in fiction, in this story, real people get hurt. As Rushdie travels on his book tour and gives interviews, he never fails to remember Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, who was murdered in 1991, and William Nygaard, his Norwegian publisher, who was shot at close range three times in 1993 in Oslo. Nygaard survived, and reprinted The Satanic Verses. Other translators were attacked, and several bookshops in the US, UK and Australia were targeted, some receiving crude pipe bombs. In response, some bookshops placed his book in the shop window. He expressed gratitude to the brave publishers, book stores, and most important, the readers, who refused to comply with the extremists’ demands, and kept reading it and talking about it. When the crisis began, Rushdie told his friends this wasn’t about him; the text had to be defended. The readers, publishers and bookshops defended the text.
One of the sad consequences of the entire affair has been that a novel that’s an exceptional work of imagination, bringing together several different stories about the origin of faith, the meaning of inspiration, the source of revelation, and the hybridity of a migrant’s life, became a political football, a metaphor of what one must not write lest one provokes the forces of Chup, as Rushdie describes the land of silence in Haroun And the Sea of Stories. Referring to Rushdie has become a cliché whenever someone attacks religion, regardless of the quality of the work, even if what’s produced is puerile or malicious.
Criticize Islam and get compared with Rushdie—that’s the telegraphic metamorphosis of the complex saga. When Theo Van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam, and his screenwriter Ayaan Hirsi Ali had to flee Europe after they made a film, when Flemming Rose was threatened after he published cartoons in Jyllands-Posten, when an axe-wielding assailant broke through the home of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, when Yale University Press decided not to publish those Danish cartoons in an academic book about the cartoons controversy, when Molly Norris had to go in hiding after she made an artwork defending artists of the TV comedy show, South Park, when a political opportunist like the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders made that forgettable film, Fitna, and when the man who called himself Sam Bacile made the amateurish film, The Innocence of Muslims, Rushdie was invoked, as if he had anything to do with any of what followed. Say the unsayable, and the gods, it seems, react.
But, as Rushdie points out in Joseph Anton, he was an early sceptic, thanks to his father. At school in England, convinced that no self-respecting God would live in a building as ugly as his school’s chapel, he became an unbeliever. He bought himself a ham sandwich, and as “the flesh of the swine passed his lips for the first time that day, and the failure of the Almighty to strike him dead with a thunderbolt proved to him what he had long suspected: that there was nobody up there with thunderbolts to hurl.”
Joseph Anton’s strongest parts are when he describes how he put together the various plots and sub-plots that formed the outwardly exhaustive but internally consistent and coherent structures of his novels. He spends the longest describing how the ideas of The Satanic Verses took shape, and debunks some of the commonly-held perceptions about deeper motives that others have ascribed to his work. In an interview in 1987 that Dina Vakil and I did with him for the now-defunct The Indian Post, Rushdie, who was then still writing The Satanic Verses, spoke about how angels and devils have become confused ideas, how people feel they have revelations, and how the origins of such spiritual thoughts are worth exploring.
In the memoir, Rushdie reflects on that period with the benefit of hindsight, and it is revealing how consistent his view has been about what he had set out to do. He has stayed firm about what inspired him, and stubborn in his commitment to his own freedom, and in the process, forced others to figure out where they stand.
Such freedom comes with risks. When a woman from the audience mentions how the pen is mightier than the sword, Rushdie responds to her in a sober tone—art survives the tyrant, but an artist may not. He recalls how Federico García Lorca, whom the Francisco Franco regime killed, is remembered today while the Falangists are gone; how Osip Mandelstam died, but his poetry survived Joseph Stalin.
Today, as Rushdie walks the streets in the Western world with the kind of freedom he once thought he would never enjoy again, that’s a matter of celebration. But the saddest part is he can’t stroll as easily on Marine Drive (back in 1983, when I first met Rushdie for a long interview, we drove along the city’s seafront, taking him to Breach Candy where he grew up, and photographing him at Westfield Estate, which became Methwold’s Estate in Midnight’s Children).
Can he do that today? That he cannot do it as easily as we could three decades ago, reflects poorly on the debased state of Indian political leadership, of how it has acquiesced to the bullies among us. Not only could the film, Midnight’s Children, not be filmed in India, media reports speculate that distributors are reluctant to risk buying the Indian rights of the film (speaking soon after the film was shown in Toronto, Rushdie said talks are still ongoing with possible distributors). One has to be careful about threatening claims in India: Were the threats that Rushdie reportedly faced earlier this year, and which he took seriously enough to cancel his visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival, real? But the threats succeeded, the festival ended badly, and a planned video-link with him also had to be cancelled (he came without a problem to the India Today Conclave within weeks).
That is the ultimate travesty. But for fundamentalists, that’s an unwise fight to pick. As Joseph Anton shows, Rushdie won’t let himself be erased. Think of what the poet Baal said in The Satanic Verses: “A poet’s work: to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”
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Five things you didn’t know about Salman Rushdie’s life.
1. The Rushdie family surname was Dehlavi. His father Anis changed it to Rushdie, after the 12th century Spanish-Arab philosopher from Cordoba, Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the West.
2. Pakistan refused to allow Rushdie to visit even to attend the funeral of his mother.
3. As a young copywriter, Rushdie refused to work on an account of Campbell’s Corned Beef because it was made in South Africa, and the African National Congress had called for a boycott of such products.
4. Rushdie’s first novel, ‘Grimus’, is an anagram of Simurg, the name of the god on top of Qaf mountain in Fariduddin Attar’s ‘Mantiq ut-Tair’, or ‘The Conference of the Birds’.
5. When his former wife Padma Lakshmi found out that Aishwarya Rai had been named the world’s most beautiful Indian woman, she said, “I have serious issues with that.”
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Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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