THE TIMES – August 20 2005
Salman Rushdie has emerged from the dark Satanic years, happier and more buoyant than he has been in decades. Here, he talks to Ginny Dougary about the war on terror, wonderful women – and why he thinks Joanna Trollope is cool.
From beginning to end, the whole encounter was both magical and undeniably real. It was slightly startling to find that none of the receptionists or bar staff in the fashionable New York club where we meet had heard of one of their more famous members, but it was also the first welcome sign that his name is no longer an automatic byword for “terrorist death sentence”. To see him, leaning over the rooftop swimming pool embracing his eight-year-old son, Milan, a beautiful dark-haired boy, slippery as a seal – with no security, no bodyguards, not even a flicker of interest from the other Manhattanite parents – is evidence that there is, indeed, the possibility of normal life after the fatwa.
But beyond this, quite contrary to expectation, there is an ineffable lightness about Salman Rushdie. He has the gift of making you feel happy. As a master storyteller, it is no surprise that his conversation is pricked with telling and entertaining anecdotes. He is also so relaxed, funny and beguiling that it is easy to understand why gorgeous women, among them Marie Helvin, Kylie Minogue, Nigella Lawson, not to mention his model-actress-filmmaker wife number four, Padma Lakshmi, flock to his side. Is it because I have just been reading his fantastical novels that I imagine the ghost of his old, hunted self banished by the force of this resolutely sanguine, free man?
We repair to the library to sit in front of a frieze of painted books. He is appropriately dressed in the sweltering heat in a loose blue shirt and sandals, and upbraids me in a friendly way for wearing black. He is pushing 60 but has the carefree, unburdened air of someone much younger.
The timing of our interview could not be more chillingly apposite, coming as it does in the aftermath of the first wave of the terrorists’ bombing campaign in London. Just before we met, I was reading the writer’s new novel, Shalimar the Clown, watching the American broadcasters’ version of the troubling events unfolding back home – Who are these people? What is their mind-set? How are they persuaded to do the things they do? Why do they hate us so much? – then finding the answers in Rushdie’s vividly rendered account of what it might feel like to be in a terrorist training camp.
There are two points to emphasise here. Rushdie, self-evidently, has never actually been in a terrorist training camp. But having lived for nine years under the threat of the fatwa – from Valentine’s Day (horribly) 1989 to 1998, when the Iranian Government withdrew its support for the edict – he has clearly had plenty of time to think about the mentality of those who have. As he puts it: “I’ve spent years inhabiting that series of questions.”
When, inevitably, we do move on to discuss what measures must be taken to curb the fundamentalist cultists (aren’t we all in the West, to some extent, living under Rushdie’s fatwa now?) he resists being treated as an expert in the field.
“It’s less interesting for me to offer you theoretical answers, which I could do, you know, but actually so could anyone else,” he says. “What I tried to do in this book was to explain it by entering into it. To say, if you were there, who would be there and how would they talk to you and what would you feel like and how would it make you think and what would it change in you? What would you want to accept and what would you reject? What would you be pushed towards? And not just to explain it but to understand it. And that’s very interesting to me because research will only get you so far. The thing you have to do is to make that imaginative leap in order to get inside the skin of these people.”
Secondly, Shalimar the Clown is not a novel about terrorism. Rather, it is a story of trampled love and innocence, a central personal murder and institutionalised murder on a wider scale, which takes us from modern-day California, to wartime France, dropping off in England and always circling back – in some of the most direct and moving passages Rushdie has ever written – to the wilful destruction of the Eden which was Kashmir.
At the time when the first devastating bombs went off in London, Rushdie was in Brazil at his old friend and first publisher Liz Calder’s literary festival in the old coastal village of Parati between Rio and São Paulo. He hung out there with his pals Michael Ondaatje and Jeanette Winterson, but his new best friend is Joanna “Aga-saga” Trollope. “Joanna’s very cool,” Rushdie says, “and so smart, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go away and read all her books.” [He’s just bought Other People’s Children.] She for me was the great discovery of the festival because we had so much fun together. We really got on like a house on fire.”
Fairly early on, I’m concerned that his posture is literally so laid-back, my tape-recorder won’t capture his voice. Could you project a little more, I ask him, which reminds me of his first calling. It is well known that, like Fay Weldon and Peter Carey, Rushdie had a successful career in advertising before he was able to devote himself to writing fiction. I can still remember the impact of those billboards of oozing cream cakes, way back in the Seventies, for which he wrote the frisky legend: “Naughty but nice”. Midnight’s Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the children’s book he wrote while in captivity for his older son, Zafar, both show his appreciation for the artful if absurd slogan.
It is, perhaps, less known that in his youth Rushdie planned on becoming an actor. At Cambridge, he did everything from Ben Jonson to Brecht and “in a very small way, I sneaked into Footlights”. If he had to assess his strengths, he would say that his talent was for comedy rather than tragedy.
“My problem as a university actor, which I can see with hindsight, was doing too much. One of the things that good actors will tell you is that you do less and less and less all the time,” he says. “And, you know, I have a slight arm-waving tendency anyway and there was a little too much gesticulating and too much acting going on.”
Richard Curtis cast Rushdie ostensibly as himself in the first Bridget Jones film but the novelist would like to stress that there’s a big difference between being yourself and acting a scripted version of yourself: “Truthfully, I wouldn’t behave like that. If a girl comes up to you at a book party and is sort of embarrassed and confused and, you know, falling over her feet, your instinct is to be nice to her. Not to be arrogant and cruel. So I tried that and the director kept saying, ‘It’s not funny.’ And it turned out that the more haughty I was, the more her [Bridget’s] confusion became comical.”
I have to confess that I can barely remember Rushdie’s role. Should I hire the video as part of my deep research? “No. It’s one scene and it’s in the first 25 minutes, so you really don’t have to watch the film!” He had great fun on set watching all the principal actors at work, and emerged with a number of observations. Renée Zellweger’s method of realising her role, for instance, was never to come out of it. “So when we met again at the London premiere, she’d lost all the weight and had a Texan accent. It was as if I were meeting her for the first time. Very odd.”
One of the problems with London, which is partly why he has chosen to opt for the relative anonymity of Manhattan, is that it’s such a small world, “with endless overlapping circles. You do get to the point where you assume that you’ve met people in some way.” But the underlying idea behind the new novel is that no matter where you are in the world now, everyone and everything has a connection.
“It used to be possible to write a novel about, say, London or Kashmir or Strasbourg or California, without any sense of connection. But now it’s all one story. That’s what I want to say. Everybody’s story is running into everybody else’s story,” he says.
“Four years ago, nobody would have suspected that the story of al-Qaeda and the story of New York City would be connected, for instance. So it’s not like when I wrote Midnight’s Children where essentially I was writing about India and Pakistan and I didn’t need to write about the rest of the world in order to tell that story. Now I feel more and more that if you’re going to tell a story of a murder in California, you end up having to tell the story of many other places and many other times in order to make sense of that event and that place. To try to show how those stories join.”
Just as the precise shade of a colour can alter dramatically when it is placed next to a different colour, so does the context of a country’s history redefine the way in which we view its politics or social change, and it’s always informed by our own culture’s perspective. “For instance, in France, you have Max [Ophuls, the former American ambassador to India whose murder on the doorstep of his illegitimate daughter in California drives the narrative of the book] involved in the Resistance. Now the Resistance is what? The Resistance is an insurgency against an occupied power – which we think of as heroic. But in Iraq, you have an insurgency against what is believed to be an occupied power and we call it terrorist. The same thing is happening but as the context changes, the meaning you give to it changes dramatically.”
Overlapping circles, coincidences, connecting stories… in the London section of the novel, Rushdie briefly revisits the notorious Lord Lucan murder case in Lower Belgrave Street. The novelist was living there at that time with his first wife, the late Clarissa Luard, and so was I, in a house directly opposite his. I drank my first schoolgirl’s half of lager-and-lime in the Plumbers Arms, the pub into which Lady Lucan fled after the mistaken murder of her
children’s nanny. He remembers the Italian restaurant and the Steak House and the newsagent in “which one ran into Enoch Powell sometimes”. Michael Redgrave, Rushdie tells me, lived in the house next door and sold it to the wife of Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator. Years later, Rushdie went to Nicaragua and wrote his book in support of the Sandanistas, The Jaguar Smile.
One of his closest friends – who gave him the confidence, he says, to believe that he could make a go of fiction – was the blazingly magical writer Angela Carter, who died of lung cancer 12 years ago at the age of 51. I was fortunate enough to meet her in Sydney in 1984. She ended up staying in my flat for a week, with her baby son and partner, and cooked a wonderful casserole one evening and invited her friend Robyn Davidson, the Australian writer who had crossed the continent by camel, who met Rushdie when he was over for the Adelaide Festival at the same time and the two ended up having a much-publicised passionate three-year affair (he was still married at the time) and, and… overlapping circles, connecting stories.
It was on this Australian trip that Rushdie hitched up with the late Bruce Chatwin who was researching what became probably his best-loved book, Songlines. The two friends flew from Adelaide up to Alice Springs, hired a four-wheel-drive and set off into the red interior, staying in grotty motels and being blown away by the vast, parched beauty of the landscape. “We even climbed Ayers Rock. I mean, how politically incorrect can you get?” Rushdie says. “Bruce climbed it like a rocket. He just soared up, and I’m sort of hauling myself wheezily up. He kept coming back down to say, ‘Are you all right?’ and then he’d turn around and – zoooooom.”
Like many writers, who look upon their books as a form of literary progeny, Rushdie shies away from picking a favourite. “I can’t choose,” he says. “But also, you know writers…? You can’t satisfy ’em. People say, ‘It’s your best book’, and you say, ‘So what’s wrong with the others?’” Like someone commenting on how well you look, I begin to say, and he jumps in: “So I wasn’t before?” Which reminds him of yet another close writer friend who is no longer here.
“Edward Said was a very good friend of mine, and years ago when he was very courageously fighting that cancer there was a moment where he really got better and stopped being so gaunt and emaciated and came back to looking like himself,” Rushdie recalls. “And I had lunch with him and said, ‘God, Edward, look at you. You look great! You’ve put on some weight and you look really great.’” And Said’s grave response? “‘Yeah, but I’m not fat, Salman.’”
When we both stop honking with laughter at this unbeatable proof that while there’s vanity there’s still life, I remark on how often the mournful phrase “the late” is attached to people who have been pivotal in Rushdie’s life. He says that, yes, it’s true and that there are holes in the world for him and then he returns to the crater which was left by Carter’s death.
He is remembering how he met the novelist through Liz Calder – who was the Rushdies’ lodger back in Lower Belgrave Street – in the days before he’d had a book published: “and the amazing thing about Angela is that she had absolutely no elitism or snobbishness about her, so that even if you were this young unpublished writer and she was ‘Angela Carter’, she would treat you exactly as if you were on the same level as her, with no sense of, ‘Gee, if you haven’t even been published who knows if you’re ever going to amount to anything.’ And I know she was very close to Ian [McEwan] when he first started out and they were living near each other in Clapham at the time.”
He was not part of the Barnes-Amis-McEwan lit-lad circle back then and, as someone who was still struggling to find his voice, was keenly aware that they had found their way as writers far earlier on: “There was Martin with The Rachel Papers, Success and Dead Babies, and Ian with his first collections of short stories, In Between the Sheets and First Love, Last Rites, and I thought, ‘I wish I would be able to write as well as this’, but I was still stumbling around trying to find out what to do. It took me a long time to get going as a writer.”
His debut, Grimus, was both a critical and commercial failure and despite the huge and continued success of Midnight’s Children, all the more remarkable for it being only his second novel, Rushdie could not forgive the casual dismissiveness of those first reviews. I ask him if he has any affection himself for Grimus, as perhaps the runt in his family of books, and he admits that if he sees people reading it, his instinct is to hide behind the furniture. “Although other people have liked it,” he says. “I think Martin likes it but, as I say, it embarrasses me.”
When he won the Booker prize for Midnight’s Children in 1981 (it was further honoured with the ultimate of accolades, the Booker of Bookers, in 1993 for the best novel in the 25-year history of the award), Rushdie made what was widely considered to be a most ungracious acceptance speech. This may have been the building block for his reputation as an arrogant, rather unappealing fellow.
I also have a hazy memory of him writing a knocking piece, earlier still, about Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, implying that there was only one way to write about India – and that if the author’s perspective did not conform to the orthodoxy laid down by Rushdie, it was unacceptable. As events unravelled – as we all know – it was the writer of The Satanic Verses and his supporters who argued that in
a democratic society the quality of freedom, like mercy, is not strained; a writer must be free to write whatever he chooses, from whatever his standpoint, regardless of whether it will cause offence.
Had he, I wonder, possibly had a bit too much to drink when he made that controversial speech? “I can’t really remember what I said but, no, I was completely stone-cold sober because I was determined not to be pissed,” he says. But he does recall that his anger was fuelled by the reaction to Grimus: “When people were saying, ‘Find a different form of employment’, and I thought, you know, for a first book that’s real cruelty. I remember that. And I guess, with hindsight, you shouldn’t ever try to get even because you always lose.”
He started writing Midnight’s Children in his mid-thirties but it took him at least five years to complete it, which isn’t so long when you consider what a vast canvas it fills: Independence, the Partition, India, Pakistan, Kashmir. It teems with so much life and inventiveness that rereading it over a couple of days, I felt both drained and exhilarated by the time I got to the end. He says that when he looks at the novel now, he simply cannot recognise himself as its creator: “I often wonder who that is. Because I don’t write like that any more. I think a lot has changed, not just in the language but also in the perspective. I mean, it’s a young man’s book and it has the strength of that.”
In its extreme vigour and vitality? “Some of the fearlessness just deciding to take it on,” he says. “After the failure of the first book and after one or two false starts or things that never made it to print, I remember thinking, well, you’d better either give up or do something much more conservative and middle-of-the-road and non-risky. Something, you know, littler.
“Or take the biggest risk you can. So that if you’re going to go down, at least go down in flames. And, actually, I remember very clearly thinking, well, OK, then, I’ll do this because I can’t think of anything more artistically dangerous. And, yes, it took me for ever.”
It was a curious pleasure – like the piquant familiarity of seeing old friends and remembering that what you found endearing about them were their idiosyncratic quirks – to find myself back in the company of Midnight’s principal child of Independence, Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, with his grotesque, constantly dripping proboscis. Rushdie, like every proud parent, is delighted to hear this.
He recalls a reading he did in Bombay when someone in the audience shouted out, “Why, he’s got a perfectly ordinary nose!” But then I feel compelled to ask him whether he, like Saleem, ever had to undergo a sinus operation. (The answer is no but he did have his tonsils removed and drew on that terror of going under for the book.) The light bulb moment for him was when he was gazing at a map of India – “When you write a book like this, you do find yourself looking at maps quite a bit, you know” – and was struck
by the thought that the country looked just like a big nose with a drip hanging off it. Thus Saleem’s physiognomy can be read as a map of India, just as his destiny is interwoven with the history of his birthplace.
It is Saleem, as it turns out, not his creator, who has the last word. “It’s a strange thing that happens to me every time I do a reading from Midnight’s Children, I get a runny nose. It’s like Saleem’s curse,” Rushdie says. “It’s got to the point now where I know that if I’m going to read from it, I’d better have a handkerchief handy.”
Rushdie’s beautiful wife, Padma, of course, bears no resemblance at all to her fictional precursor in Midnight’s Children. Saleem’s frustrated lover, Padma, is thick of waist and hairy of forearm, and is named after the lotus goddess “whose most common appellation amongst village folk is ‘The One Who Possesses Dung’.” The only characteristic the two Padmas share is their mutual interest in preparing Indian pickles and chutneys. Lakshmi has written a number of cookbooks along the lines of how you can eat well and still retain a model’s glorious figure.
On August 2, Rushdie informs me, allowing himself a small beam of satisfaction, the couple will have been together for six years. At 32, she is 26 years younger than her husband. I ask him, cheekily, whether she is responsible for his youthful glow. “Yes, probably, let’s give her the credit.” And then, “Actually, why can’t I have the credit?” Would he like to have more children? “Well, not without her help,” he says, grinning.
“You know, I really love my children and I think it’s completely unreasonable to marry a young woman who has not had children and say you’re not going to have any more. But she’s very busy [in Morocco playing the Queen of Egypt in a film] and not currently in a maternal frame of mind, but she will be.”
His second wife, Marianne Wiggins – who left him five months into the fatwa, and then publicly accused him of being a self-obsessed coward – is an American novelist. When I ask him about her, he says: “Do not start me on Marianne Wiggins.” Oh, it’s like that still, is it? “Yes, it is.” But he’s generous enough to allow that she is a good writer. His third wife, Elizabeth West, is a book editor.
Lakshmi speaks fluent Italian, as well as five or six other languages, but the image persists that she’s not quite bright enough for the likes of Rushdie. Does it bother him? “Anyone who’s met Padma knows she’s as intelligent as they come,” he says. “But, you know, it’s not supposed to be permitted to be gorgeous and really smart… and also very nice. She steals all my women friends and I have a lot of women friends. But the moment they meet Padma, suddenly they’re all phoning her and not me, and I think, ‘Sod that!’”
Actually, he says, his wife has all kinds of intelligence that he doesn’t have. Like what? “Well, she’s very entrepreneurial, you know. She has real brains about things like that and I haven’t got a clue.” Does she roll her eyes at you? “Oh, all the time. But she understands that I’m just a moron in that respect.”
Yes, he says, in some ways, as transplanted Indians, their falling in love did feel like a bit like coming home: “Even though we come from opposite Indias – she’s south Indian Brahmin compared to me as a north Indian, Kashmiri Muslim, which is as different as it could be.”
Did he marvel, in the same way that others seemed to, that such a beauty had come into his life? “When you’re in the middle of falling in love that isn’t quite how you think,” he says. “You’re thinking more about the other person and how wonderful they are than about yourself. And the lucky thing is to feel that they might reciprocate.”
Of course it’s hurtful to read captions saying “Rushdie: ugly”. You don’t have to be overweeningly self-regarding to feel dented when so much sport is made of the way you look. The novelist seems to find it slightly bewildering that so much is made of the fact that he doesn’t resemble a matinee idol: “It’s not as though I’ve ever invested anything in the way I look. It’s not what I do. Padma, at least, has made a living out of being a model. But I’ve never said that I consider my looks to be in any way significant in terms of what I’m like. So it feels very odd to see newspaper articles saying ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Why Do Beautiful Women Love Ugly Men?’… this endless stuff. But at this stage, I’m kind of resigned to it at – as you say – pushing 60.”
It must be said that when it comes to women, Rushdie can be lookist himself. He once dismissed Monica Lewinsky as a lumpy Valley Girl and he’s sticking to his guns: “It was my view that if the President had f***** Sharon Stone, he would not have been impeached.” Hmm. Isn’t that dreadfully sexist? “No. Yes. Well, maybe. What I’m saying is that the fact that she was not Marilyn Monroe had something to do with the backlash. You know, if John Kennedy had Marilyn Monroe as a mistress, people would say, ‘Well, sure.’ You know.”
He describes Clinton, whom Rushdie has encountered on a number of occasions, as “the most charismatic individual I’ve ever met”. Did you fall for him yourself? “Yes, I sort of did.” The first time the two men met was in the fatwa years when Frances D’Souza, now in the House of Lords, was running Rushdie’s defence campaign. “And she is nobody’s fool, you know. She’s been everywhere – up in the mountains with the Mujahidin – done everything. And when we left the meeting with Clinton, I noted that she had a somewhat goofy smile on,” he recalls. Which you noted to her, no doubt? “Yeah. I said, ‘Frances, what’s with the goofy smile?’ And she said, ‘Don’t you think he held my hand just a little too long?’ And I thought, ‘This man is world-class.’ If he can do this, in a serious political meeting and have this very strong woman coming out completely, you know, with little birds twittering about!”
More malicious pleasure was had at Rushdie’s expense when a series of photographs were published showing him dancing flamboyantly with Nigella Lawson. The pictures were doubtless intended to make the reader think: why should tax-payers fork out their hard-earned money to save this man’s skin when he’s out having a good time? The more fair-minded response surely was: thank God, with such a terrible threat hanging over him – a worldwide murder bounty of up to $2.6 million on his head – that this most gregarious of writers can still come out of hiding for the occasional hour or two of normal life.
Does he see his own story, I wonder, as the harbinger of the stories we are now living? “When people first started to make a connection between me and 9/11, I resisted it because of the disparity of the scale. But I have come to feel that what happened with The Satanic Verses was a kind of prologue and that now we’re in the main event,” he says. “At the time there was an unwillingness to see it as representative of a larger phenomenon. The people attacking me wanted to say, ‘There’s no larger thing to be drawn from this. It’s just that he did something uniquely horrible and so he deserves a uniquely horrible fate.’
“And even the people defending me wanted to say, ‘Here is a uniquely horrible attack against a writer.’ But I was trying to say that this is happening to writers all over the world. But what happened to me is no longer the story – there’s a different story now, and I don’t think anybody gives a damn about The Satanic Verses any more.”
He finds the linkage of 9/11 with the war in Iraq to be utterly spurious, and the fiction of weapons of mass destruction has completely changed his view of New Labour: “The lie,” he says, “is a terrible thing.” And, yet, he cannot object to the removal of Saddam Hussein and here he disagrees with his confreres on the Left: “If the Left is not about getting rid of tyranny, then I don’t know what it is about.”
When I ask Rushdie if he isn’t concerned that by attempting to view the world through the eyes of the terrorists in this new book, he runs the risk of drawing attention to himself as a target once again, he says: “If you’re a writer at this time in the history of the world you have to deal with what’s there – and this is the subject of our time, you can’t avoid it, you run into it round every corner – otherwise, you know, don’t write books.”
He doesn’t care to use the word “brainwashing” for what goes on in the terrorist training camps and the madrassas, saying it’s too loaded. But in the novel he shows, most feelingly, how you can persuade people that they have been seeing the world wrong, and that the world is not like that – the world is like this, and you must unlearn everything you have learnt in order to understand the truth.
Günter Grass once told him what it was like growing up in a Nazi household, being one of the last boys drafted into the German army, and having it explained to him by the Americans what had really been going on in the camps, “and he said that he suddenly had to understand that everything he had thought about the world was false. And not just false, but morally repugnant. And he had to completely throw away his entire definition of how things were in order to begin again. And that’s what’s happening now, from the opposite way round if you like, but it’s the same phenomenon.”
There is no way to negotiate with those whose goal is the Talebanisation of the planet, he says: “And I’m afraid what is difficult for most English liberals to accept is that the only thing to do is defeat them. And it’s what I wrote years ago, that the way it’s got to happen is from inside the Muslim community not from outside it.
“And, finally now, for the first time – since those bombs went off – Muslim leaders have started saying, ‘Yes, it is our problem and we’ve got to fix it.’ It’s the first time that they’ve been willing not to talk in paranoid language but to say, ‘These are our children who have done this, and we have to fix it.’”
But he of all people knows how intimidating the extremists can be: the translators and publishers of The Satanic Verses who were threatened, attacked and murdered; the shop owners in Britain’s Muslim community who were told that if they didn’t stick anti-Rushdie posters in their windows their shops would be damaged: “And people were saying that ‘we’ve got to treat their feelings with respect’, even though what was happening was gangsterism. People were being paid to go on those demonstrations; people were frightened into going on them.”
But won’t they still be frightened? Will they find the moral courage to stand up to these bullies? “They’re damn well going to have to. Because up to now they have been passive and that won’t do. This sort of language – the language out of which these suicide bombers came – has been tolerated in many Muslim communities, not just in England, and people may have rejected it but nobody spoke up. And as there is a large majority who wants nothing to do with any of that, they’re damn well going to have to stand up and do something. It is their children doing this and they need to know what their children are doing.”
Rushdie still finds it odd that people felt the need to exaggerate the conditions of his nine-year captivity: the le Carré-esque fiction of “safe houses” when the mundane reality was that he always had to find his own places to live; the mad idea that he had to switch habitats 56 times in three months. (Even in the first year, he only moved nine or ten times, and in the last seven years he lived in the same house.) The truth, as he says, was bad enough – not being able to tell his children where he lived, the lack of privacy, none of the familiarity of your own possessions – without making it surreal. In the first days when the Special Branch disappeared from his life he felt quite naked and vulnerable, as though he’d just come out of jail. His friends say that his manner is completely different these days to how it was in the dark years; perhaps it is this liberation into the light, as much as Padma, which is responsible for his lovely buoyancy.
It’s time for him to be photographed wandering down the streets of Manhattan, and Rushdie’s still telling funny stories about funerals and Kingsley Amis and his devilish wit. Freedom? You can’t beat it.