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India/Pakistan






An evening with Salman Rushdie

By Sreeram Chaulia


The anti-prophet meets our writer

"Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself." - Salman Rushdie

According to R K Narayan, there are two species of writers. One set consistently produces classic gem-like books but comes a cropper in personal conversation or public speaking. The second bunch dishes out forgettable baubles in print but is made up of glib talkers and publicists who hold audiences mesmerized with their sheer gift of gab. On March 18, I pleasantly discovered that Salman Rushdie defies the Narayan Law and is not just the reader's ultimate storytelling fantasy, but also a superb communicator and quite a nice man to know.

Quiet excitement had been building up for nearly a month at Syracuse University in anticipation of Rushdie's university lecture, and I had the double thrill of being invited to an exclusive formal dinner with the guest of honor before the lecture began. Strikingly gaunt consort Padma Lakshmi in tow, the bald anti-prophet walked into the elegant oak-paneled surroundings and immediately became the cynosure for all the eyes in the room. I felt certain that had the banquet been hosting some other figure and Rushdie had walked in as an interloper, he would still have garnered the same attention. Upon comparing notes with other invitees, my first impression of an uncanny magnetism about his persona was corroborated.

Driving home a reflection
I cornered him fairly soon and began by rattling off lines from The Satanic Verses where Ayesha leads the believers' brigade into the ocean and drowns all of them. He was gratified that I remembered the exact words verbatim, but quickly added in a clipped British accent, "That was a long time ago, people move on and I can't even recall what I wrote in the mid-'80s now." For someone as prolific a novelist as Rushdie, it seemed a candid disclosure.

With his terrific eye for detail, Rushdie noticed I had tucked a book into my waistcoat pocket and suddenly exclaimed, "My my, what are you reading?!" It was an Indira Gandhi biography and I got the cue to quiz him about the famous libel suit Mrs Gandhi filed on Rushdie for Midnight's Children, in which he describes her as a devouring tyrant. With an avuncular smile, he drew his head back blearily and replied, "It was so silly, because her lawyers wanted me to clip just one sentence which referred to Sanjay Gandhi and I was willing to shear it off in the Indian edition. Initially, I was gung-ho about fighting it out, but my defense counsel said it was worthless because the only way I could win was by proving in a British court that the prime minister of India lacks a reputation. Phew, some revolution in international law!"

Life is a bagful of laughs
At the dinner table, I sat across from him and espied Rushdie effortlessly absorbing minute details of the stately ambience with clinical authorial precision. The scene of a new novel tucked away in some corner of his mind, perhaps! Brimming with bons mots about goats (the leitmotif of his latest book, Fury,) poetry, Britain's tabloid culture and "that country's deficiency in celebrity quotient due to the absence of Hollywood", Rushdie easily established himself as likely the best raconteur that ever graced Syracuse University's Goldstein Faculty Center.

I inquisitively slipped in questions about the recent controversy of his alleged spat with Kofi Annan over a United Nations Population Fund-commissioned book of essays. "You see, they wanted me to write on population control and I blasted Islam," he said with a mischievous glint in his eye. "Apparently, Annan objected to writing the foreword for the book unless I recanted my lambasting. I refused and the book came out without the foreword. Shashi Tharoor tried to do some damage control for his boss, saying the UN never plays censor, but we know better!" I sensed the opportunity and asked him what he thought of Tharoor as a novelist. With a typical mumbaiyaa frown and shake of his head, Rushdie signaled "not great", but qualified that he entirely agrees with the syncretist message of Riot.

It happened to be a rotation dinner, and I was shifted to sit beside the man of the moment in the later half. He quipped, "I am impressed that you are the only person in the room who is not carrying around one of my books!" I insisted that I was never an "autograph person" and he said, "I wonder why people get books signed by authors, as if somehow the value of the contents will be enriched with my pen stroke."

Meanwhile, the jokes kept wafting around the table and like a theatrical performer, Rushdie sent us into peals of laughter by miraculously tying Sadat Hasan Manto, Woody Allen, Zia ul-Haq and "old Dorothy" of The Wizard of Oz into one narrative. Here is the crafty storyteller, I thought, interweaving a complicated conurbation of themes from a random observation. When I asked him about Mumbai, he complained of not knowing any place other than "Bombay", and added, "With the Shiv Sena goons around, it is no longer my Bombay."

As the time for the lecture drew closer, I unsheathed the only prepared question I had: Being a prodigious writer, doesn't he feel it a luxury to have publishing space for so many dedications to near and dear ones? "No" was the laconic response, followed by a Rushdiesque pause and another confession. "You know, I am not a compulsive dedicator. There are some books that I don't dedicate to anyone because I feel I wrote them for myself." I nodded and as we were leaving for the lecture, sneaked in one last observation that his family must be so proud of him for mercurially climbing the ladders of literature, fortune (he is among the richest Asians in the United Kingdom) and fame from the time when Salman Rushdie was a nobody who languished in a London advertising agency. This genuinely touched him.

The lecture was conducted in "Conversations" format, with panelists asking him critical questions and Rushdie responding. Americans these days commence all events with questions about September 11 and Rushdie was asked how he felt about the terrorist attacks and how it has affected his theories on immigration, home and belonging. Like a magician, he conjured a protracted reply linking immigration to urbanization (skyscrapers like the World Trade Center) and communication (airplanes) and cogitated how the two symbols clashed on September 11 (crushing the logic of migration?). "As writers and free thinkers, we must all speak about these issues and not leave it to Bush to define epochal events," he remarked to a round of applause. He excoriated US foreign policy for double standards, mentioning "another September 11" in 1973 when Augusto Pinochet, assisted by the US Central Intelligence Agency, overthrew Chile's democratically elected government and the "caravan of death" followed. US support for "bloodthirsty Islamists in Algeria and Afghanistan was appalling and Uncle Sam continues to commit the same misjudgments today". As a Kashmiri Muslim, he claimed, "I was brought up on the belief that we subscribed to Sufi mysticism that abjures violence and intolerance. Look at Kashmir today ... I consider it a phenomenal decline that Kashmiri Muslims are today indulging in horrible crimes in the name of religion. The problem, as I recently wrote, is God!"

As the evening unfolded, Rushdie's repartee, witticisms and hilarity drew repeated sounds of appreciation from the packed auditorium. The flashlights shone down upon his gleaming hairless pate, and he appeared from my front-row seat like a little jocular Buddha, chuckling at himself and the whole world ever so gently and likably. Just as it seemed I was entering a trance, he brought me back to my feet broaching "this matter between Khomeini and me". I queued up for the audience questions, wanting to ask what he thought of hypocrites and self-appointed spokesmen of the Muslim community such as Syed Shahabuddin, who successfully canvassed in 1989 for banning The Satanic Verses in India without ever reading the book. "Is the problem God or these Godmen?" was going to be my question, but alas, time was up and the convocation drew to a close with one more stunning Rushdie reflection: "There is no global culture per se. I am all for cosmopolitanism, but when MTV tried beaming its Western pop songs into Indian drawing rooms a few years ago, people just switched channels. Finally it had to indigenize the stuff."

I walked back home contemplating what a disgrace it was that a towering intellectual, philosopher and literary icon like Rushdie is even today not welcome in his country of origin, an India that prides itself on having its windows open to all currents of thought, dissent and opinion, an India that boasts of freedom of speech and expression. With all the hullabaloo surrounding Arundhati Roy's conviction by the Supreme Court and how a "Booker Prize Winner" is being "crucified by the apex court's intolerance", do we realize that the "Booker of Bookers", the beacon of anti-fundamentalism and the toast of Indo-Anglian fiction, Salman Rushdie, is an outcast in his original homeland? What brand of secularism and liberality is this that disowns its most gifted litterateur?

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