Politicians, Women

I asked her whether she felt immortal. No, she answered

The Times – December 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

The last time I communicated with Benazir Bhutto was via e-mail in October after the first attempt on her life when she returned to Pakistan to fight the free elections which General Musharraf had promised.

She escaped unscathed on that occasion, although hundreds of her supporters did not. I wrote to Benazir (or Bibi as she preferred to be known informally) scarcely knowing whether the message of support would even reach her amid such turmoil, let alone expecting a reply – and such a swift one at that.

“Thanks a million for writing to me,” she had typed. “It’s been quite terrible. Hope u [sic] come back and we visit again here.”

I’m not sure whether “here” was Dubai, where we had met on the first occasion, or London (the location of our second meeting, this summer, when she held a sort of salon of old and new friends in a safe house in the West End); or, indeed, Pakistan which I had hoped to revisit at some point in the future with Benazir back in power. The extraordinary thing is not what she wrote, but that she had found the time and had the courtesy to do it.

Our friendly relations were not neccessarily expected after our four-hour interview at her home in exile in Dubai in the spring. Of course, I had admired and respected her in advance of meeting her and was riveted by the part she could play in shaping Pakistan’s future at such a critical moment in its troubled history.

Although the corruption charges that plagued her were not insignificant they seemed far less crucial than the political impact she could make on a country that was at the forefront of her mind throughout all the long years of exile; a country to which her family has dedicated the lives of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who founded and led the Pakistan People’s Party before passing the mantle on to his daughter, two of her brothers and now Benazir herself.

We spent four hours together, just long enough for me to experience a potted version of the Benazir Bhutto package. She did have a tendency – not unknown among politicians – to go into oratorical mode, and once she had embarked on a certain line there was no stopping her.

This did not bother me as Pakistan’s history – and the Bhutto dynasty’s part in it – is so dramatic. Also since almost every terrorist attack that has taken place around the world leads back in some way to Pakistan, what she had to say about dealing with the extremist tendency could hardly be more important. She did come across as haughty on occasion, but what I liked about her was that you could point this out, and she was big enough to pause and think about why this should be.

Over lunch, Benazir made a rather astonishing remark about my weight saying: “You know, I am envious of the way you have let yourself go.”

As an interviewer, that comment was a godsend since it allowed me later to go on to ask her all sorts of impertinent questions about her own complicated relationship with food.

Her two older teenage children, a boy and a girl, were present at the time, and I think they found their mama rather embarassing – but, then, what’s new about that where teenagers are concerned? Her older daughter told me that she had written a birthday rap for her mother and I longed to hear it.

What I remember most was asking the children whether they had any interest in politics and being met by a fairly typical adolescent shrug; the difference being that the Bhutto family back then, and still now, is not a typical family.

Benazir, herself, for instance, did not want the heavy mantle of responsibility to be passed on to her by her father. I wrote in that piece something that was prophetic: “Bhutto represents everything the fundamentalists hate – a powerful, highly educated woman operating in a man’s world, seemingly unafraid to voice her independent views and, indeed, seemingly unafraid of anything, including the very real possibility that one day someone might succeed in killing her because of who she is . . . Perhaps it is her sense of destiny – the daughter, rather than her brothers, groomed from such an early age to be the political heir to her father, despite her initial reluctance – which explains her equanimity in the face of death.”

After the interview – which was by no means uncritical – was published, Benazir sent me an e-mail that could hardly have been more gracious. She thanked me for taking the time to visit Dubai and was sorry for her lunchtime indiscretions.

“I am also writing to apologise for remarks I may have made inadvertantly which were insensitive,” she wrote. “Please accept the apology.”

A few months later we met again in London. Her old mates were there from the University of Oxford, including Alan Duncan, the Tory MP, and the writer Victoria Schofield, a close friend who has been at her side through so many tragedies, and an American author, Ron Suskind, who was working on a book about terrorism. Her sister, Sunny, was there along with Benazir’s youngest, sweet-faced daughter, Asifa.

We ate samosas and cucumber sandwiches, and talked about terrorism, and Duncan told her how he could effect an introduction with David Miliband, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, although I hardly felt Benazir needed any help on that count.

She looked younger and lighter, and freer, than when we last met – her hair flowing freely, wearing hardly any make-up and dressed in an almost hippyish kameez, lime-green and flame-orange in colour. She was, as I remember it, walking barefoot.

Benazir had survived many attempts on her life. She told me that she never discussed her travel arrangements because: “I think the threat very much remains because my politics can disturb not only the military dictatorship in Pakistan, but it has a fallout on al-Qaeda and a fallout on the Taleban.”

I asked her whether she felt immortal. “No,” she had replied. “I know death comes.

“My young brothers I have buried . . . and I have been to the homes of people who have been hanged and people who were shot in the street, so, no, I don’t feel there’s anything like immortality.”

Politicians, Women

Destiny’s daughter

The Times – April 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Benazir Bhutto’s life has been a rollercoaster of high political drama, acute personal loss, early triumph followed by downfall and charges of corruption. Ginny Dougary meets her in exile in Dubai, as she plans her return to power in Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto
Photo: Mark Harrison

The story of Benazir Bhutto is dramatic enough on paper but becomes almost fantastic in person. Her pampered-princess start in life, raised at her father’s knee in the ancestral estate on heady tales of the Bhutto family’s political dynasty; her education at Harvard and Oxford, where she was president of the Oxford Union; her heartbreaking return to Pakistan when she was unable to save her beloved father – despite intense international pressure – from being hanged in 1979 by General Zia’s military dictatorship, whose coup had toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s democratic government. Her subsequent years of solitary confinement, as the new leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (the mantle passed on to her by Bhutto Sr, who founded the socialist party in 1967), in the squalid, inhumane conditions she had last seen her father calmly endure; the isolation of house arrest with virtually no visits or phone calls; her escape to Britain in 1984, campaigning in exile against the injustices of the Zia regime, and triumphant return to Pakistan two years later, where she was greeted by a staggering one million supporters and elected prime minister at the age of 35, in 1988, the youngest person and first woman to hold that position in any modern Muslim nation.

Within two years, her government was controversially dismissed by the military-backed president and an election called, in which the PPP (in a democratic alliance) was defeated. In 1993, she was re-elected, only to be dismissed once again three years later by another president on the grounds of mismanagement and corruption. Since 1999, Bhutto has been in exile in London and, latterly, Dubai, where she was reunited with her colourful husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was released from prison in Pakistan in November 2004, having spent eight years awaiting trial on corruption and murder charges.

Two years earlier, the present president, General Pervez Musharraf, who continues to remain head of the military – seemingly impervious to widespread public criticism of his dual role – introduced a new amendment to Pakistan’s constitution, banning prime ministers from holding office for more than two terms. This should disqualify Bhutto from ever resuming that position and also her old rival, Nawaz Sharif. But in Pakistan, anything can happen, and Bhutto is planning to return to her country – regardless of the numerous corruption charges which she and her family still face (as well as the couple’s separate, ongoing money-laundering case in Switzerland) – to fight the allegedly free and democratic elections which have been promised by the end of this year. As she says, her own life has mirrored the history of Pakistan and that is why, at such a pivotal time in the West, it is both fascinating and important to hear what Benazir Bhutto has to say.

The four hours spent in her home in Dubai are a rollercoaster of copious laughter and floods of tears, noncommittal cautiousness and breathtaking openness, plain-speaking to the point of impertinence and insinuating charm, high-handed loftiness and affectionate intimacy. Bhutto is the most extraordinary woman who says the most extraordinary things, veering wildly between self-aggrandisement and a knowing, sometimes humorous, recognition of how she can come across.

Although she declines to name names – saying that “it’s better not to give the impression that you’re trying to fire political shots over somebody else’s shoulder” – it is clear that there have been high-level discussions behind the scenes in Washington, where Bhutto is frequently invited to give speeches, and perhaps the UK. There continues to be widespread speculation in the press about the possibility of a deal being struck between Musharraf’s “people” and Bhutto’s party. Her response to these reports is that although “there have been ‘back-channel’ contacts with Musharraf for some time, they have not led to any understanding. And so all this talk of an ‘understanding’ I find very confusing.” It is also confusing that while Bhutto does not shirk from criticising Musharraf at every opportunity, she also makes it clear in this interview that she would be prepared to work alongside him as long as certain conditions were met.

In her riveting autobiography Daughter of the East, published in 1988 and recently reissued with a new preface and conclusion, she tells us that her father advised her never to lay all her cards on the table. Although there may have been a time when she found it difficult to stick to his advice – “I always lay my cards on the table” she maintained – I certainly find it difficult to pin her down on her current political agenda. It requires an exhausting degree of Paxmanesque persistence, repeatedly asking the same question, to elicit this response on the possibility of a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance: “You have asked me an important question and I want to give you my answer, since my followers will read this and they haven’t heard me speak like this before,” Bhutto finally allows. “Firstly, I plan to go back to Pakistan by the end of this year whether Mr Musharraf would like it or whether he would not like it. And I believe that the [corruption] cases must all be dropped, which categorically has not happened. Not one single case has been dropped and you will please note that between my mother, my father-in-law and myself there are about 20 charges or more. And what I feel and my party feels is that for more than a decade these charges have been used to hobble the opposition… to undermine my leadership and the PPP, and they should be dropped because none of them has been proven, and if they’re not dropped then it creates an unbalance as we enter the elections of 2007. And we feel outraged that government funds have been used on a politically motivated investigation that has borne no fruit over ten years.

“But I also believe there are other important issues for the people of Pakistan to consider, which is would Musharraf continue to keep his uniform? And would there be a balance of power between the president and the prime minister, because at the moment we have shadow-boxing, where the prime minister is technically the head of the government but the substantive decisions are taken by the presidency or the military.” The current state of play, she goes on to say, is that General Musharraf’s ruling party has said that “they can rig the election so there’s no need for free elections or a future parliament headed by the PPP… Which is why it’s premature to talk about working alongside General Musharraf at this stage, although in the past we have worked jointly on certain issues such as the Women’s Bill.

“At the same time, I want you to know that we are also partners with Mr Nawaz Sharif [in exile after he was deposed by Musharraf’s military coup] in something called the charter for the restoration of democracy, so we are talking about a new democratic process in which the people of Pakistan are allowed to choose their leader and put together a coalition. And for that we are calling for a robust international monitoring team to ensure that these elections are fair and free because obviously if they’re not, the ruling party will still be in the driver’s seat and the creeping Talebanisation of Pakistan will continue.”

Bhutto does not rule out the possibility that she might become prime minister again: “If the people vote for my party [she remains chairperson of the PPP, which received the highest number of votes in the last parliamentary election in 2002] and parliament elects me as prime minister, it would be an honour for me to take up that role and General Musharraf would be there as president, so I think that a good working relationship between him and me would be a necessity for Pakistan.” What a pragmatist she must be. “Yes, I would have the choice of either respecting the will of the people and making it a success or being short-sighted and putting my personal feelings about past events ahead of the national interest, and what I want more than anything is for Pakistan to prosper as we make a transition to democracy,” she says.

I put a number of questions to Senator Tariq Azim Khan, the Federal Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, to establish the Pakistan Government’s position. He was affable and helpful on the telephone and sent me his answers, as requested, in writing. Yes, he wrote, there are a number of cases still pending in various courts in Pakistan against Ms Bhutto and her husband, Mr Zadari – and these cases (almost all 10 to 11 years old) have not been dropped. No, it is highly unlikely that she will be arrested upon arrival in Pakistan. She will nevertheless have to apply for bail in the cases where she has been convicted while abroad. And, lastly, for Ms Bhutto to become the prime minister for the third time, the constitution will have to be amended and this will require a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Pakistan has been ruled by the military for so many years since it came into being in 1947, that I wonder whether democracy will ever have a chance to flourish. “Democracy can work in Pakistan if the West stops upholding military dictatorships through their financial and political support,” Bhutto says. “Our tragedy has been that the military has been able to exploit the West’s strategic interest in Afghanistan for almost two decades.” And you and your party would like that support? “Of course, we need that economic assistance and diplomatic support and we didn’t have it.” Do you think there is any likelihood of you ever getting it? “Pakistan is a critical country,” she says.

Musharraf is undeniably under siege at the moment, which has grave implications beyond his own country. There have been violent protests against his dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on the flimsiest of grounds, provoking fears that the government is attempting to muzzle the independence of the judiciary, and newspapers such as Dawn – set up by the lawyer and founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah – have been alerting the international media community about unacceptable levels of government control.

Meanwhile in the same capital, ostensibly the very stronghold of government power, we witness the strange spectacle of stick-waving, burkha-clad schoolgirls – like a fundamentalist version of St Trinian’s – kidnapping suspected brothel-keeping madames (an elderly woman, her daughter, daughter-in-law and six-month-old granddaughter), and then the police officers themselves who came to release the captives. But the more one reads about this incident, the more alarming it becomes. In Feburary, 3,000 of these female students from the hardline Jamia Hafsa madrassa connected to the Lal Masjid mosque, occupied the only children’s library in Islamabad, where they remain, saying that any action to remove them will be met with violence. The black-shrouded girls have also been seen in the company of male students carrying Kalashnikov rifles. During their protests, the students chant the names of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader.

The headquarters of Pakistan’s intelligence security agency – the ISI – are close to the mosque and it has been reported that several of its members are regulars there. Some believe that there are rogue elements within the agency who have strong ties with al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Ever since Musharraf chose to back America’s War on Terror, there have been calls in the mosque for his death.

Even to those of us in the West who are not nuanced in the labyrinthine historical intricacies of the politics of Pakistan, there is a growing concern that what happens so many miles away has the potential to make a devastating impact on our own lives. Dutiful English-born boys, often from blameless Muslim families, continue to travel to Pakistan – some already radicalised but not all – to one or other madrassas, emerging from those religious schools with a hatred of their parents’ adopted country, and we are all too aware of where that can lead.

It was my understanding that Musharraf’s inability to control the Taleban-controlled Waziristan – on the Pakistan border of Afghanistan – was an inevitable source of disquiet for his American backers and likely to make them at the very least question his leadership qualities. Benazir Bhutto’s response to a recent treaty which had been negotiated was: “My party would not have allowed the Taleban to become such a huge force that they would need to sign a peace treaty.” What the West wants to avoid at all costs is the possibility of the fundamentalists seizing power. And according to Bhutto, who is, of course, hardly an impartial observer, Musharraf, far from being weak, is strategically catering to the extremists in order to convince the US that unless they continue to back him their worst fears will be realised. Does Bhutto know whether Musharraf is anxious about losing US backing? “The indications are that he is confident that he has the support of the White House and that because of the situation arising with Iran’s stand-off with the West he feels that he will continue to be a key ally,” she says. “In fact, as far as General Musharraf is concerned, I think he feels that he’s got the West in his hands.” A provocative remark fully intended, one feels, to pack a well-aimed punch.

Bhutto believes that the PPP is feared by the current powers that be because “my party has a modern agenda, speaks for the ordinary Pakistanis and has grass-roots support,” she says. “And they dislike me because I’m a woman and because my father was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And they have a hatred for the Bhutto family, stemming from the fact that my father was able to defeat them in the elections – and the only political party that has defeated this army slate or generals’ slate in my father’s time and my time has been the PPP.”

When she was first elected in 1988, there wasn’t an awareness of what was really happening in the madrassas – “But by the time I became prime minister for the second time in 1993, Pakistan was on the brink of being declared a terrorist state and my government worked very closely with the international community to reform the madrassas and restore law and order.” None of this was painless, she says, “there was bloodshed in the streets of Karachi [which was flooded with Afghan refugees in the Eighties and Nineties, and there were terrible scenes of political and sectarian violence] and I can’t tell you how awful it was getting daily reports of 30 people killed and 20 people killed, but I ended the army operation there after one year, and in the second year the raids went down and I remember how happy I was when I got my first report of ‘zero deaths’. These militant terrorists hold whole cities and towns and villages hostage, and it’s not easy confronting them.”

Bhutto represents everything the fundamentalists hate – a powerful, highly-educated woman operating in a man’s world, seemingly unafraid to voice her independent views and, indeed, seemingly unafraid of anything, including the very real possibility that one day someone might succeed in killing her because of who she is. Her father brought her up to believe in their Islamic faith’s certainty that life and death are in God’s hands. Perhaps it is also her sense of destiny – the daughter, rather than her brothers, groomed from such an early age to be the political heir to her father, despite her initial reluctance – which explains her equanimity in the face of death. “My father always would say, ‘My daughter will go into politics… My daughter will become prime minister’, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I would say, ‘No, Papa, I will never go into politics.’ As I’ve said before, this is not the life I chose; it chose me,” she says. “But I accepted the responsibility and I’ve never wavered in my commitment.” Does this unshakable certainty make it easier for her to accept whatever happens to her? “Yes, in a way, because I don’t fear death. I remember my last meeting with my father when he told me, ‘You know, tonight when I will be killed, my mother and my father will be waiting for me.’ It makes me weepy,” she says, as her eyes fill up, “but I don’t think it can happen unless God wants it to happen because so many people have tried to kill me.

“Let me tell you, the World Trade Center was attacked twice, although most people only remember the second one. But the first time, in 1993, it was Ramzi Yousef and the second attack was by [his uncle] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has confessed and is in American custody, and both these men tried to kill me and failed. So they succeeded with the World Trade towers but they didn’t succeed with me.” This is quite a bravura statement, despite its matter-of-fact delivery. But then she does have an occasional tendency to express herself in hyperbolic terms, which makes her sound rather grandiose. In the new preface of her autobiography, she compares herself – in the context of her drawn-out reluctance to get married – to Elizabeth I, “who had also endured imprisonment and remained single”.

When we discuss her initiative to privatise the public sector in Pakistan, inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s policies (an unusual role model for a socialist, particularly one whose father introduced nationalisation to his country), she makes a point of saying: “Very few people realise that it was my government [in 1988-90] that was the catalyst for the privatisation of South Asia… And now when you look at socialism, it is redefined even in the Scandinavian countries and in England. But I redefined socialism. I was simply doing what other socialists were going to do – and ten years before Tony Blair.”

At one point, I try unsuccessfully to draw Bhutto out on her social life at Harvard and Oxford, where she cut such a glamorous figure in her racy yellow sports car, and she explains why this whole area is so difficult for her to discuss: “When I returned to Pakistan, I was held on a pedestal. I was neither man nor woman. I was regarded as a saint.”

Bhutto may be to some a somewhat tarnished saint by now, her reputation sullied by the corruption charges, of which the most damaging is the ongoing court case in Switzerland, (“Oh, they’ve gone on endlessly,” she sighs), regardless of the eventual outcome. But she is still a force to be reckoned with, as witnessed by the febrile speculation over her comeback. She maintains that had her government remained in power, most of the world’s terrorist tragedies would not have occurred – since the trail so often leads back to Pakistan.

“I really do think that there is at least some degree of causality that most major terrorist attacks took place when the extremists did not have to deal with a democratic Pakistani government, when they operated without check and oversight,” she writes in the new conclusion to her book. “I believe that if my government had not been destabilised in Pakistan in 1996, the Taleban could not have allowed Osama bin Laden to set up base in Afghanistan, openly recruit and train young men from all over the Muslim world and declare war on America in 1998.”

Bhutto knows that in returning to her homeland, she may be arrested or killed the moment she steps off the plane. This is why she is still careful not to discuss her travel arrangements: “I feel very jittery even if my best friend asks me when I’m leaving… I think the threat very much remains because my politics can disturb not only the military dictatorship in Pakistan, but it has a fall-out on al-Qaeda and a fall-out on the Taleban.” Do all these thwarted attempts on her life make Bhutto feel weirdly immortal? “No,” she says. “I know death comes. I’ve seen too much death, young death. My young brothers I have buried and my security guard who was like a brother to me was brutally gunned down, two years ago. I’ve been to the homes of people who have been hanged and people who were shot in the street so, no, I don’t feel that there’s anything like immortality.”

As we sit in Bhutto’s study talking about death and torture and mayhem, servants come and go bearing cups of green tea fragrant with cardamom. She is dressed up for the photographs in a dazzling emerald-green shalwar kameez, with matching power-shouldered blazer, and her hair is free of the white headscarf she dons in public. When I ask her whether she has expensive jewellery on, she laughs prettily: “Yes, I do. I confess.” There are sapphires and pearl rings, all presents from her husband, as well as a socking great man’s watch – “I like big watches… All the better to see you with, my dear” – the face packed with oversize diamonds. The cheapest ring, a simple metal band, was a gift from a follower intended to ward off evil omens.

Her mother, Nusrat, marooned in her lonely descent into Alzheimer’s, is somewhere in the house; the only sign of her existence is an empty wheelchair behind the sweeping staircase. Bhutto mentions her often, and it is clear that this once stunning Iranian beauty has left as much of an imprint on her daughter as the father. Over lunch – I am served curry while our hostess abstemiously sticks to broth and tinned tuna – Bhutto surprisingly tells me that she is envious of the way I have let myself go. “My mother was always telling me that if I ever got fat, my husband would leave me for a younger woman,” she says. A Pakistani friend of mine told me that in her country, this direct way of speaking is considered quite normal among upper-class society women and is not meant unkindly.

When she was a little girl, Bhutto’s father used to say: “Well, if Nehru’s daughter can become prime minister of India, my daughter can become prime minister of Pakistan.” He was always telling her about women leaders, and that was where her radicalisation began: “Of course, I come from a region that has produced women leaders, and so he would talk to me about Indira Gandhi and Mrs Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, Golda Meir and also Joan of Arc.” These were remote figures for her as a girl and it was Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, which Bhutto was in England to witness, that really inspired her.

At Harvard, she joined the protests against the Vietnam War and read all the feminist bibles: “I was certainly emboldened by their writing because at that time at college there was still a debate between those women who wanted to get married and those of us who wanted to have careers.” When I ask her whether she calls herself a feminist, she looks uncomfortable: “I consider myself a defender of women’s rights, yes.” You don’t like the label? “Well, feminist has connotations of people burning their – ah – underwear in the streets.” So did you burn your bra? “No, I never did,” she smiles, “and that [bra] is another inappropriate word not used by good Muslim women!” It is at times like this that you catch a glimpse of what fun Bhutto can be, when she goes “off-message” and is distracted from the pressing concerns of her political future. She says that some of the best years of her life were at university: “Because I was free and in a different culture and the shops had all nice things and it was a different world, but that world ended when I returned to Pakistan in 1977.”

Bhutto, like most people, is full of contradictions. For all her intelligence and determination, she definitely has her fragile side. You don’t expect such a fierce spirit to quote Dale Carnegie as a fount of wisdom or to say that she reads self-help books “to try to cope with stress and anxiety”. In her library, the different categories denoted by hand-written paper stickers, four shelves are devoted to self-help, with titles such as Women Who Love Too Much, Self Help for Your Nerves, Secrets about Men that Every Woman Should Know and The Art of Being a Lady.

This last book could have been penned by her mother. While Benazir’s father was preparing her to be a political leader, Nusrat was instructing her daughter on how to dress for success. “She was very strict about exercising and her weight, and was always telling us that we had to groom ourselves properly and be neat, tidy and smart,” Bhutto says. She still remembers the time when she was 13 and her mother, speaking to her relatives in Persian, complained “‘Oh, Benazir has got so fat’ in such a disappointed way that I at once redoubled my efforts to get thin.” But it was years later, when she was already being half-starved in prison, that she became anorexic.

Now that Bhutto is 53, she finds herself tempted to relax about her appearance, the grooming and the nails. It’s not in her nature to worry about such things and she doesn’t like it, but it’s become a discipline – and she’s always on one diet or another. She talks about food like an addict, with her love for Ben & Jerry’s caramel fudge ice-cream, chocolate cake and meringues: “I eat for comfort. If I want to reward myself, I eat. If I’m unhappy, I eat. I love my food. It’s the one thing that doesn’t complain to me or nag me or cause me any immediate unhappiness.” Sometimes she fantasises about what it would be like to have a different life: “It would be so nice to have the luxury just to laze. So nice not to have to always get up and get dressed for some occasion. Always having to move from here to there, where everything is scheduled and even having lunch with my kids on their Easter break has to be slotted in. Maybe one day…”

It’s hard to know what part Bhutto’s husband would play in this fantasy life. I asked Benazir whether they were separated, as he has been living in New York since 2005, but she denies any rift, saying that he needs to be there for medical reasons (hypertension, diabetes, a heart attack) and she flies out to visit him at least once a month. In the past, Bhutto has conceded – and it has been put to her so very often – that her husband has been a political liability, with his nickname of Mr 10 Per Cent and his role as his wife’s investment minister. But she also says that she is a human being as well as a politician and so, unlike Tessa Jowell, whatever the fall-out, she continues to stand by her man. Perhaps as a Muslim woman in the political spotlight, it is useful to have a husband in tow – however problematic he may be – but I catch a glimpse of genuine affection when she describes his arrival at their home in Dubai, after his last eight-year incarceration.

“You know, out of the 19 years that we have been married, he has spent 11½ in prison,” she says. “And although we were all excited and the children had put out lights and balloons, I was obviously a little apprehensive about getting to know him again. It had been such a long period of time and life is all about shared experiences and I was wondering whether he was the same person I knew.…” And…? I ask expectantly. “And I was very happy to see that he came in with the same jaunty smile,” she says, and for a moment she looks quite different, and almost youthful, with her flushed cheeks and bright expression.

Bhutto’s mother was always trying to line her up with “good husband” material, who would be dutiful and not cause her any problems. When she was finally ready to submit herself to an arranged marriage – as distinct from a forced marriage against the woman’s will – what appealed to her about Zardari was that he seemed to be his own man, unafraid to stand up to her but confident enough in himself, presumably unusual in a Muslim man, to take a supporting role to his wife.

Was there ever a moment when she fell in love with her husband? “What is falling in love and what is love? You know, I love my husband and he loves me,” she says. “I liked his humour and his looks. I liked the sense he gave me of protection and I Iiked the respect he gave me, OK?” Her husband cut new ground, she says, because people weren’t used to a male spouse or having to deal with spouses who had a life or personality or income of their own. There were difficulties at first and lots of heated discussions. “He never imagined that I was going to get elected as prime minister [particularly since she was pregnant with their first child, who was born days before his mother went on to win the elections] although he was about the only person who didn’t,” she says. “He found it very difficult to cope with initially… the adulation, the scrutiny, the phone surveillance and lack of privacy. Now he’s got used to it.”

Although the received opinion is that it is Benazir whose standing has been besmirched by her husband’s perceived wheeler-dealing, it is also true that he has suffered because of her career. This may explain why she falls apart, quite shockingly, when she recalls the time that her husband was tortured in prison – his neck slit, his tongue cut – and almost killed. “It is so awful when in your own country you cannot get justice,” she is gulping with grief. “He nearly died and only narrowly survived and I didn’t know what to do to save his life.”

I find myself asking her, rather clinically, why she still gets so emotional. It seems odd, although not necessarily unappealing, that she isn’t harder after everything she and her family have endured. “What upsets me is that I almost lost my husband,” she says, blowing her nose loudly. “And also I was brought up to believe that human beings are good, which is why it shocks me to the core when I see human beings behaving badly.” This is the self-help devotee speaking, rather than the tough political pragmatist. The man she calls her new partner in democracy, Nawaz Sharif, was prime minister when her husband was tortured and almost died, and was also responsible for initiating the corruption charges that the couple have been fighting ever since. And it was General Musharraf who Bhutto turned to then, to intercede on her husband’s behalf.

Benazir is running late in her scheduled, slotted life. She goes to refresh her make-up for our photograph session, leaving me to chat to a group of men who have been waiting patiently to see her. They are all political exiles and Bhutto supporters – a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer and a property developer – and they are polite but nervous. I pass the time reading an interview in Newsweek with Ali Saleem, the son of a retired army officer, and a bisexual transvestite who has a weekly television chat show which is cult viewing in Pakistan. When Benazir reappears, her face now caked in chalky white foundation and a gash of lipstick, I point out the passage where Saleem says that he has modelled himself on her. She asks the serious, suited men whether they think this is a good thing, and it’s hard to know whether she’s being playful or not. It is a suitably bizarre ending to an unforgettable meeting. It was her father who chose to call his first-born daughter Benazir, which means “without comparison”. I think he would feel that she is living up to his name.

* * *

Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto, published by Simon & Schuster, is available from Times BooksDirect for £11.69 (RRP £12.99), free p&p, on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Writers

The voice of experience

Times Online – September 09, 2006
– Ginny Dougary

At 57, Martin Amis’s days as the enfant terrible of British fiction are long gone, yet he still has the unerring ability to shock. Ginny Dougary hears his frank views about love, terror, growing old and the tyranny of daughters

Martin Amis is jumpy. He sees the secret police everywhere. His eyes dart around, starting at shadows, and his concentration is shot. For a while he’s fine and we’re back to the effortless flow of elegant sentences; the lazy, patrician drawl – and then, arrrgh, back comes the paranoid facial freeze, the whole body tensing and doubling over as he scrabbles to conceal what he fears his tormentors will find. So this, you might think – possibly smugly, particularly if you’re one of those Schadenfreude-meisters who revels in the misfortunes of “little” Martin Amis (as he was dubbed, years ago, and with no great affection, by the “towering” Gore Vidal) – this is what comes of dropping out of metropolitan life for two and a half years to live in a house that has been built for you in the wilds of Uruguay.

“It is pathetic,” he agrees. “But they’re just horrible to me. They’re proper little fascists about it and they know they can be really authoritarian and still have right on their side.” The Amis litany of American wives, the American über-agent, the American novel, the American teeth; all of this we could live with. But the latest development is distinctly more worrying. For in America, as we all know, lighting up a cigarette is an incendiary offence and Amis, who has always reliably smoked for England, seems to be seriously thinking of giving it up. “The little fascists”, you see, are the nicotine-Nazis – his small daughters, Fernanda and Clio, nine and six – and it is fascinating to see how much power they wield over their father. They must be the real reason (rather than any new Stateside enthralment) why he’s happier these days to be photographed, as he was in another newspaper, looking a bit of a wally – or “ponce”, as he puts it – pert bum in the air, performing his Pilates leg extensions, than with the sagging decadence of a half-drained glass of wine and a fag.

Ah well, he’s hardly the first parent to be tyrannised by the moral loftiness of his offspring. (I told him that my younger son had recently asked me whether I was, possibly, an “antisocial” rather than “social smoker”, and felt a complicated flush of maternal pride when Amis said, “That’s very good. That’s rather penetrating.”) Neither is he the first second-time round father to be struck by the new-found wonderment of a child growing up. But struck, quite palpably, he is: “It’s a great pleasure to watch a growing thing, and it’s more and more of a pleasure to watch my daughters. It was great to watch my boys grow [Louis and Jacob, from his first marriage to the academic Antonia Phillips; now both reading ancient history at Oxford and Bristol], but I was younger then and it didn’t strike me as so significant.

“Now the idea of something growing… that’s why people take up gardening when they’re old. They want to be around growing things. I had a tiny experience of that in Uruguay where it was for a while my duty to water the garden, and there was that elderly pleasure in it… just when you play the water on a plant, how its colour gets richer and you kid yourself they’re grateful for it. No, I didn’t talk to them, but it is satisfying. It’s really because you’re shrinking and dying in the long term that it’s very nice to see something that’s coming up.”

At 57 (incredibly! Did the père have to go, before the fils was finally uncoupled from his enduring epithet – despite that very public mid-life crisis – as an enfant terrible?), Amis has had to contend with the usual roll-call of losses, as well as the less usual – the death of his father, Kingsley, who was most definitely The King to him; followed not long after by Sally, his sister – the baby of the family – struck down by “a mysterious failure cascade” (a phrase, the closing down of organ after organ, I find attached to one of the characters in his new book) and dead within the week; Rob, his oldest friend, who is vividly present in Experience, then dying equally suddenly of cancer at the age of 51; Saul Bellow, the father-figure to whom he was umbilically attached; the ghastly late discovery, at such a long remove from the night of her disappearance, that his cousin Lucy Partington had been one of serial-killer Fred West’s victims.

It is hard to move on from that last name on the list without pausing; the empathy with her family’s bereavement echoing every family’s worst fear. It makes you wonder whether there wasn’t something in Amis’s unconscious that had already divined what the writer didn’t dare to contemplate; the very idea of him inventing a “murderee” (London Fields’s Nicola Six); his male characters who casually boast about beating and raping and subjugating women. Writing fiction can be an unpremeditated exorcism of events that are too profoundly haunting for the surface gaze of rational examination; those thoughts that lie too deep for tears – as in the knowledge, albeit a different order of pain, that you have fathered a daughter you cannot acknowledge (as Amis did, although father and grown-up daughter, Delilah, are now, happily, embraced in each other’s lives). He found it strangely consoling when another novelist, Maureen Freely – in the wake of the news, as it inevitably became – detected the number of “lost or wandering daughters and putative or fugitive fathers” who appeared in his books. It meant, he later wrote, that Delilah had been with him in spirit far more than he knew.

“You find that some things have not been written about by you and gone down to the subconscious level,” Amis says, “and they bel­ong to fiction. It’s a silent anxiety… an anxiety that you don’t articulate. That’s where your fiction comes from. Sometimes it’s stuff that you don’t even know is bothering you. You think life is going on and nothing much is happening but there is… Saul Bellow has a nice sentence for it… ‘The silent work of unev­ent­ful days’, when great changes are happening inside you but it just seems like ordinary life.”

The central subject of his fiction, he says, has been masculinity – but as ageing and its accompanying layers of loss make their imprint on him, it seems likely that his novels will come to reflect those themes in a way that might eclipse his other preoccupations. Or, perhaps, more pertinently, that he might be freed up to engage in a more direct way with the human condition. Amis has never been one of those writers who only lives in his books. We know about his enthusiasms and engagements in the business of living: the daily tennis game, the blokey world of snooker and darts; the long-lasting male friendships (with the writer and polemicist, Christopher “The Hitch” Hitchens, and the novelist Julian Barnes; their glacial rift over the agent defection finally shows signs of thawing); the pageant of glamorously well-connected girlfriends; the importance of family. And yet, as with most serious novelists near the top of their game, surely for him what really matters, in the final reckoning, is the work? But while this may once have been true, Amis says it is no longer the case.

“I’ll tell you why. It has become clearer and clearer to me that when you get into the last lap of your life, you don’t really think about your work at all. What you think about is (a) how it went with the women in your life and (b) your children, and work comes very much third. There’s even a hint of it in there [pointing to his new book, House of Meetings] when the main character says that men always die in torment because they’re not congratulating themselves on their achievements in the world; they’re reproaching themselves for the bad things they did.” When I interviewed Kingsley, a year before his death in 1995, he was beset with those torments at dawn. He said that he still felt guilty – even more, as the years stacked up – about the break-up of his first marriage, when he left Hilly for the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, and the effect it might have had on his children. At the time, his son was in the throes of separating from his first wife for his new love, Isabel Fonseca, whom he went on to marry – and perhaps there was an element of his feeling that it was his own example that had somehow led to this. “There’s no point in agonising about it,” he said, “but that doesn’t stop you agonising. As you get older, you spend more time on your own, therefore you think more about your past. But there’s nothing you can do.”

Martin, when I phoned him then, said that he’d forgiven Kingsley long ago, and made a point of adding that he didn’t know anyone who was as close to their father as he was to his. When I said that Kingsley did not appear to have forgiven himself, he said: “As you get older, you have fewer defences against those big regrets in your life, and sources of guilt. My father says that they are there all the time; you have to live with them.”

Saul Bellow, too, was filled with anxiety in his final days. “You would think Saul would be in a stupor of self-satisfaction because his work was so celebrated. He didn’t say it till quite close to the end when a friend came in, who was almost the same age, and asked, ‘Well, what have you got to say for yourself, Bellow?’ And Saul, from his hospitalic bed in his own house, said, ‘I’ve been thinking. Now which is it? Is it: there goes a man or there goes a jerk?’ And his friend, Karl, said, ‘There goes a man.’ And Saul said, ‘OK. I’ll take your word for it.’

“So that’s what you’re thinking. He had five marriages – and four children – and the last was his longest and his best. But there had been a lot of wounds and blows given and received in four divorces. It’s there [he refers again to the book; its story takes the form of a letter as a manuscript from the Russian narrator to his Am­eri­can stepdaughter], when he says to Venus that there’s a difference between men and women in the last round. Men break the habit of a lifetime and start blaming themselves; women break the habit of a lifetime and stop blaming themselves. Good news for women.”

We’re talking in the garden of the Fonseca family’s summer residence in the Hamptons. A deer and a stag tilt through the high grass in the distance. It’s really a most un-Amis-like setting, despite the tennis court at the approach of the drive. I had been told that the house was in a compound in a nature reserve, but I hadn’t quite clocked that this would be a private compound, much like the Kennedy set-up, with various members of the Fonseca clan ensconced in their own expansive New England-style homes, a discreet remove from one another, divided by curving hedges and banks of blowsy white hydrangeas.

When Isabel Fonseca’s name first appeared in the popular press, she was described as an American heiress, daughter of a Uruguayan sculptor and a Jewish (why the need for that prefix, one wonders?) American socialite, and I remember thinking that didn’t sound right. Surely what was most notable about La Fonseca at that time was that she had recently written a tremendous and highly praised book of her own, Bury Me Standing, about the gypsies of East Central Europe, for which she had devoted four years of her life, interviewing and travelling with gypsies in order to tell their story.

Well, having visited the family estate, I can see that “heiress” is probably accurate – along with “stunning beauty”, and all the other gallant nods to her good looks. Still, writers are competitive, particularly couples – however much they demur – and I caught a faint whiff of it in Fonseca. This struck me at the end of the interview with Amis – when his missus had obligingly posed, despite her understandable resistance, in a sort of disgraced-Tory “happy family” shot. (The “I have resigned to spend more time with…” quips were fast and flowing.)

Afterwards, when we were chatting before she kindly drove us to the bus-stop, Isabel told me that she was working on her first novel, and said, “So you can interview me when it’s published” and then, “No, of course, I’m only joking” and, after another pause, “If it gets published.” And I thought however gilded your life must appear to others – and Mr and Mrs Amis appear to be very happy indeed; they still flirt with each other, for instance – it must sometimes sap your confidence to have your status as a writer relegated to “wife of”.

In his study of masculinity, Amis has always maintained that one of the characteristics that defines men is their intense competitiveness. Several of his novels – London Fields, The Information – zone in on consuming rivalries between different male novelists. Looking through the large Amis file of cuttings, you notice – particularly back in the Eighties, when Money was widely considered to be the novel to speak for that decade – that it wasn’t chick-hacks or geezer-birds who were dispatched to interview its author, but literary-minded young men, often novelists themselves. And it was to America – and the Big Beasts of literature – that Amis would turn, in the Eighties, for his masterful interviews with the likes of Mailer and Updike and Bellow.

I wonder whether Amis now feels that he is in their league? “Oh, no. No,” he says. You have said, in the past, that you have to feel that you’re the best at what you do, in order to do it at all. “You’ve got to think you’re the best of your lot [by which, I take it, he means his generation of British novelists]. But it’s not a wannabe thing. I think it’s much exaggerated, this pecking-order stuff with novelists – particularly since Salman Rushdie. He cut through a lot of that just because it was suddenly life and death, and these little jealousies looked very petty after 1989. Also, more generally, you’re not trying to write someone else’s novels. And they’re not trying to write yours. We’re all trying to write the novel that Trollope called The Way We Live Now – but we’re all coming at it from a thousand different directions.” And then, as an afterthought: “Clear­ly there is a lot of ego stuff… and there must be something in it be­cause it’s such a massively established idea that novelists are… Look, you can be competitive about sales and prizes and stuff like that, but you really can’t be in competition with anyone to write your next novel.”

So you’re not at all bothered by not getting the Booker? (The King was shortlisted three times and eventually won it in 1986, for The Old Devils; The Prince has been shortlisted only once for his Holocaust backwards novel, Time’s Arrow, in 1991; among his friends and contemporaries, Barnes, Swift, McEwan, Okri and Rushdie have all been Bookered.) “No, I’m completely reconciled to the fact that my books do not unite people, and they blatantly don’t unite committees. If they did, I would be a different writer. Obviously, winning the Booker simplifies things. But what’s most important is feeling that you have a core of readers. And that’s more important than the money, too, as long as you’re not starving. The sashes and the cups and the Tonys and the Pulies… that’s very secondary.”

In our meandering conversation – we cover a lot of ground in an afternoon – I am struck by the way Amis talks about his mother. Per­haps it takes the particular skill of a novelist to conjure such a telling portrait of someone that close to him, so tenderly and yet with such forensic precision. The closing chapter of Kingsley’s life – after the crush­ing failure of that second marriage – was spent sharing his home in Primrose Hill with his first wife, Hilly, and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock. Martin recalls how sentimental King­s­ley became about Hilly; we both remember the poems he wrote to “H” which appeared at the end of his memoirs; the girl he met in 1946 “whose eye I could have met for ever then” and how he made the mistake of looking further, since “How can we tell, with nothing to compare?”

Their son says, “I think the sentiment was real, too. But then my mother is a very extraordinary person, and he must have thought that he didn’t realise how exceptional she was.” In what way? “I can elaborate on this a bit. She is the only woman I’ve ever come across who doesn’t have an atom of theatricality in her. She never says anything for effect. Takes it that what you’re telling her is what you mean. None of the Byzantine stuff that we’re used to. Oh, and by the way, I think women are theatrical and men are cinematic. It’s the same sort of seeing themselves from the outside, but men underact whereas women overact. Anyway, she never did that. She was [striking, too, how he slips into talking about Saul and Kingsley in the present; and Hilly, who is still alive, in the past] really straight – which is very attractive and very unusual. She’s also very funny – but, again, she doesn’t time her funny remarks. They just sort of pop out and they’re funny but she sort of doesn’t intend them to be funny. Oh, she’s just very unusual,” he says again, his gaunt features plumped up by the sweetness of the thought. “Everyone who has met her sees it.”

It is Hilly, he says, who provides the extra “lift” in Zachary Lead­er’s forthcoming authorised biography of Amis Sr. “There’s a charming bit where she’s first met Kingsley – it took her a while to fall for him and then she did fall for him in a big way – and she said,” he switches to the first person, “‘He was so unlike my own parents and brothers and sisters. We tended to accept people for what they are and be tolerant of them, but Kingsley, sitting in a café, would say [here, he scrunches up his face in a comically exaggerated look of withering scorn, somehow summoning both his father and his father’s own brilliant mimicking of others], ‘Look at those fools who’ve just come in… look at that bloody hat he’s wearing’, flailing out in all directions. She was very puzzled by that. Couldn’t understand it. She was thinking, ‘What’s wrong with all these people?’, as he’d be going, ‘Look at that idiot over there.’”

So where does he fall between his father’s punishing eye and his mother’s non-judgmentalism? “I’m not inclined, unlike Kingsley, to have a category in my mind that ropes in certain kinds of people for disapproval. But as I’ve got older, I’m a bit harder on what I see as herd stuff. I hate the clunking initials – but the sort of PC package of moral equivalents on every issue, where no one’s right about anything. The use of catchphrases which go around for a few months and then disappear. I keep seeing headlines that say that the new PLO guy is ‘Arafat-lite’ and my attitude to that is, well, take your hat off to whoever said it first but don’t use it yourself. That sort of subtext of used novelty – that’s something that Kingsley disliked.”

The freshly minted expression that becomes an instant cliché? “Yeah… heading towards cliché, like ‘no-brainer’. Don’t yourself use those phrases because it is a sort of automatic thought – and I’m im­patient with that.” So do you manage to be vigilant with yourself? “You have to catch yourself and you have to forbid family members to use them. My daughter says, ‘What? I’m supposed to go to bed without ice-cream? I don’t think so.’ That sort of thing.” He’s amusing himself here, I should point out, as well as me. “You have to say, ‘Fern­anda, that’s the sort of phrase that other people use. You don’t have to use it.’” Not in our house, you don’t. “That’s right – so there’s a bit of snobbery about that.” How do you deal with the dangling question mark, the Valley Girl vault? “She’s actually satirising that at the age of nine; she and her cousin do it as a joke. So I’m very pleased to see that and encourage it.”

When Amis was Fernanda’s age, a most blue-eyed and blond little boy, he saw some image from the Holocaust that disturbed him enough to repeat it to his mother. “And she said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about Hitler. Hitler would have loved you.’ I don’t know whether I’ve ever said this before, but I think that’s why I wrote Time’s Arrow in the end. I didn’t want Hitler to love me. I wanted Hitler to hate me. It sort of worked away at me because I remember thinking, ‘Whew.’

“And now, for instance, it’s very important to me that my daughters are fully Jewish by Jewish law, which is matrimonial. So I’m pleased they’d be the first to be summoned.” That’s rather a peculiar thought, isn’t it? “It is, but let’s not mess about – that’s what they are. So there’d be no shilly shallying there. Especially since what we’re living through now, among other things, is a huge recrudescence of anti-semitism. And, with my two daughters, it makes me feel great solidarity with them.”

He lays the blame for Israel’s plight (and there is, conspicuously, no mention of Pales­tine’s) firmly with the Brits: “For Nasrallah, it’s a power play; for Israel it’s survival. And they always have this hanging over them. It’s our fault because we put them in it. There could­n’t have been a worse place on earth than where they are. They should have been in Bavaria and then they would have had a couple of leather-shorted scoutmasters from the BLO throwing Molotov cocktails at them, from time to time… at least they wouldn’t have been surrounded by millions of people who thirst for their death. So I think you’ve got to bear that in mind.”

He and The Hitch were in Las Vegas the previous week, and shared their grim premonition that this could be the beginning of the end for Israel. “You can’t put them anywhere else now. They can’t have another country, another Homeland. It’s a very chilling thought because the only thing the Islamists like about modernity is modern weapons. And they’re going to get better and better at that. They’re also gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy’s down to 1.1 child per woman. We’re just going to be outnumbered.

“The one built-in element that works in our favour is that it’s so vile and poisonous, so preposterously disgusting that it must burn itself out. They have managed to fix on a real paradigm shift – earlier, people would die for causes and for tiny religious reasons, but to convert it into this luscious, sensual paradise that you go straight to, while the rest of the poor sods have to moulder in the earth for centuries until they’re kicked awake by furious angels and interrogated about their sins. The suicide bomber doesn’t do any of that shit. He goes straight to the ripe wine and women.”

This is the central question Amis keeps coming back to in his writing: an extended and moving review of the film United 93; a short story, published in The New Yorker, The Last Days of Mohammad Atta (we talk about the haunting photograph of the 9/11 leader, with his hard black eyes “full of murder… as though he couldn’t contain it a second longer”); a new 12,000-word essay tackling the terrorists head-on. This last response is likely to be extremely hardline, inflamingly so, if Amis’s message to me is anything to go by.

“What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suff­­er­­­ing? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part. I suppose they justify it on the grounds that they have suffered from state terrorism in the past, but I don’t think that’s wholly irrational. It’s their own past they’re pissed off about; their great decline. It’s also masculinity, isn’t it?”

I remember reading somewhere that Atta’s cell of devout Muslims had been loaded on cocktails and playing Space Invaders in the days leading up to their murder spree. Amis, in his deep research, has come across the suggestion that there were even visits from strippers and call girls: “None of that would surprise me. I think they’re hugely hypocritical in their hearts. Their big beef against the West is that it’s tempting them. That’s just impossible. I mean, ‘Sorry. We didn’t know that what we were doing was creating a society for the tantalisation of good Muslims.’ When Khomeini called America the Great Tempter, that’s what he meant, the Great Satan. In the Koran, Satan is a tempter. So they want it, you know.”

His new book circles back to Amis’s old subject of Russia – which he tackled in Koba the Dread, with its central rebuttal of Stalin’s claim that the death of one person was tragic, the death of a million a mere statistic. House of Meetings revolves around a love triangle bet­ween two brothers – we meet them as prisoners in the Gulag, nightmarishly conjured – and a complicated Jewish beauty, which spans four decades of post-war Russia. A description of the House of Meetings – the generic name for the buildings where prisoners were allowed conjugal visits – in Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, was the starting point for his novel: “the atmosphere after such a visit, where everyone would be silent and very respectful of the man – no laughter, no mocking – because they knew the depth of the pain that such visits always bore.” And, also, a long piece in The New Yorker, entitled “Is Russia Dying?”

Amis says that he had a bad time writing the book – a sentiment, I am saddened to say, I shared on reading it, and not for all the right reasons. His first problem was structural – to whom was his narrator (one of the brothers) telling his story? His solution was to make the hero’s stepdaughter the recipient of his confession. “If she’s there all the time, it grounds it in the present and against another mild ideology – not the ferocious ideology he had to live through – but the modern culture of forgiving.”

The other problem was more existential: “I had a terrible struggle with this; a bit life and death. I’d written a book about the Holocaust, but that was fine because I was writing it from the point of view of a perpetrator. I could never have written it from the perspective of a victim. But this is about a victim. And I was writing about penal servitude above the Arctic Circle when I was living in a house in Uruguay with my beautiful daughters and wife, and having a stressless existence because that’s what it’s like down there – beautiful people; superb manners and civility; wonderful attitude to children; park anywhere you like; no traffic; not speaking Spanish, there were some evenings I hardly said a word and it was nice to have a vow of silence for a bit so you can just think your own thoughts…

“And I realised when I’d done the book that I had to really suffer as a writer. I wasn’t sitting around weeping about the poor sods in the Gulag – although I did have stabs of sympathy, obviously, as well – it just attacks your self-confidence. And then when I’d suffered enough and thought about suicide and not writing again…”

Are you being flippant? (My voice, here, sounds very sharp on the tape.) “No.” Why suicide? “Because you’re in such despair about it.” But why? “I kept thinking that it was pleading with me to abandon it. But that’s all it was really – doing the suffering to earn the book.”

And so we are at the pass I have been trying to avoid – which is my difficulty getting on with (as his father put it; he only managed to finish Time’s Arrow) Amis’s novels. Before we met up, I tried to do the right thing and muscled my way through Money – I’d given up on it when it first came out – and did marvel at its vim and originality and surface dazzle, even catching a glimpse of Amis nudging at something deeper than grotesque satire, with its redemptive suggestion of love that has been offered but squandered, before the fagged-out splutter of the end. London Fields – although again, obviously touched with inventive brilliance – was a bludgeoning ordeal.

Amis has been bludgeoned himself by great regiments of mon­strous women (but only in England, he assures me) accusing him of misogyny. When I said that those particular novels made me feel as though I was trapped in a pub with a group of men making fishy-fanny jokes, he said, sounding genuinely sincere: “Well, I’m very sorry that you felt that.”

Someone wrote – and I wish I had his or her name, since it so precisely expressed my frustration – that while admiring his pure writing talent, “his books lack real emotional bite; we do not care what happens in them. You can open an Amis novel at any point and be mesmerised by the sentences and paragraphs (but you can still open them at any point). Like all standard lines, this is an exaggeration of the truth, but points at a real deficiency.”

Even in the new novel, which Amis says marks his first attempt to go deeper – “I’ve never done a tragic situation before… it felt like new territory to me” – there is something weirdly unjoined up about the emotion; as though the big subject of the tragedy has been grafted on to the characters, rather than us experiencing it through them. When I told Amis that I hadn’t quite got to grips with it, and would probably have to reread it (I tried and failed) – he told me that his previous interviewer (Tatler editor, Geordie Greig) had read it three times. This he took as a compliment – “Well, I do hope it takes a bit of absorbing.”

And, yet, I am a huge fan of his non-fiction, and it was a joy to revisit The Moronic Inferno – Amis’s take on America; those memorable and instructive encounters with its novelists, film directors, TV evangelists and shonkier politicians. (It was a slight comfort to be reminded of his own difficulties as an interviewer. When Vidal harrumphed that the article – which he had demanded to check pre- publication – was short on the work, Amis later informs us: “This was perfectly true. [Followed by a list of novels he tried but failed to get through] “and concluded that “I cannot get through Vidal’s fiction. The books are too long. Life is too short”). But it was in rereading Experience, his autobiography, that I felt the emotional reach, the thrill of deep engagement drawing you into the internal worlds of the characters (who happen to be real) – that is so absent for me in the novels.

He’s 300 pages into a new book which he describes as a “blindingly” autobiographical gossip novel, with real people in it: Larkin and The King are there, and Ian Hamilton and The Hitch and – of course – Saul Bellow, the inspiration for this departure from Amis’s usual approach. “I realised that he’s the only writer ever in the history of the world who’s been able to write autobiographically – with all sorts of artistry as well – and to do it that way round. Because he stares at the real person until he sees the universal. Most of us go the other way round and arrange our characters to stand for universal things.”

He tells me that he’s not afraid of sentimentality – “which is defined as a coarse and unworthy emotion. Well, we don’t want any of that, but some people are so frightened of sentimentality that they don’t go near the sentiments, and I think you should.” He also says that he can see himself going further into that territory, “that the strange impulse that makes you think, ‘Ah, here’s something for me that I can write’ won’t alight on these dark things so much.”

And what is the theme of this new, new novel? “Ageing,” he laughs. “Yeah, the big one. Actually, I think ageing is a very irresponsible horror film, where they’re saving the worst for last. And just when you think it’s all over, there’ll be the hand coming out of the grave.”

We’re done. Out comes the chardonnay and a lovely warm hug at the end, as we leave Amis to get on with the business of shrinking and dying and not caring all that much about the work. Yeah right, Marty, I don’t think so.

—-

House of Meetings by Martin Amis is published by Vintage and is available from BooksFirst priced £14.39 (RRP £15.99), free p&p, on 0870 1608080; www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

General, Opinion

Where are the Muslim mothers for peace?

Times 2 – August 25, 2006
– Ginny Dougary

Dear New Lot of Terrorists,
I thank you for showing me the light and changing my life. Truly, you have liberated me in ways you could never have foreseen. No longer will my heart feel heavy and my spirit be freighted with dread as I wait for the plane to touch down at JFK or Heathrow. By your actions you have taught me the egregious error of my ways, and from henceforth I will travel unburdened by . . .

This was the letter I was drafting in my head as I experienced one of my most pleasurable flights in 15-odd years of schlepping to and from the United States of the Terrible to interview the rich and famous for The Times. In the bad old days — ie, before 10/8/06 — transatlantic travel had become a gruelling feat of endurance and survival of the pushiest. Negotiating that narrow passageway between the rows of seats, with my child-born hips further widened by a bulging rucksack (an object now robbed of its innocent backpacking past — “does my bomb look big in this?”), a crammed briefcase on one shoulder, and on the other a handbag large enough to hold . . . well, far too much stuff.

All of the above to be stored in the overhead locker, jostling for space with the equally bulky belongings of one’s fellow carthorse travellers. And then the anxiety before the stampede to reload everything on to your weary, jet-lagged body as you face the journey at the other end, when you know you will have to trudge in a nightmarish daze down endless corridors and interminable walkways towards passport control.

Now — Hallelujah! — I have known the joys of flying with only my credit cards, passport and a couple of books in a plastic bag, and I’m never looking back. It is possible, of course, that in years to come it may, once again, be considered almost dubious to travel so light. I may even be prevented from boarding flights to the States with nothing but a see-through bit of polythene carrying all my worldly possessions, the very sight of me clutching such a disposable thing setting off alarm bells in the departure lounge — “Oh! Has there been another threat that we don’t know about?” But having tasted the bliss of the unencumbered, I never want to be a carthorse again.

There was, for me, an additionally odd, circular sense of disbelief about this particular journey. Last summer, a few days after the terrorists’ July bombings in London, I was interviewing the fatwa-reprieved Salman Rushdie in New York. A year later, on the very day of the Heathrow drama, I was interviewing his great mate Martin Amis, also in New York, albeit in a secluded enclave in the Hamptons. On both occasions, current events inevitably featured in our discussions. If you believe, as I do, that literature can help to make sense of the life we are living, then the response of these guys should certainly command some attention.

I was born and brought up for the first ten years of my life in a Muslim country. I will be returning to that community in a small town in Kuwait — if I’m assured that it’s safe to do so — with my younger son this autumn. I hope to revisit the home I grew up in, and the garden, where I remember seeing the turbaned men, whom my father employed, downing tools and kneeling at regular times of the day, as the wailing muezzin called the faithful to prayer from their minarets. As a child it always struck me as a beautiful if mournful ritual. I never, ever, was inculcated with the sense that these people and their beliefs were in any way less than me and mine — although there must have been something in the ether even then, since I remember my parents spluttering when my eight-year-old self asked the visiting sheikh why he thought his religion was better than ours.

And so — I’m with Rushdie and Amis as I read all the sympathetic coverage in the liberal press about the poor, puzzled Muslims who feel that they are being picked on in airports and flights. If the parents of the young men who are attracted to this murderous martyrdom have lost control of their sons, then they must shoulder part of the blame. If the Muslims who choose to live in our society, with all its so-called tempting freedoms, do not protest against those who wish to destroy it, then how can they expect our tolerance? Why are the moderates not, in their hundreds and thousands, standing outside those mosques that are known to preach hatred, shouting “Not in our name” down their megaphones or “One, two, three, four, no more terror anymore”?

And where are the voices of the ordinary mothers and daughters and aunts from the Muslim community saying, “Enough. No more violence. No more deaths”, as did all those courageous women who helped to bring peace to Ireland? And if they, our Muslim sisters, are mute slaves to — or, worse, themselves in thrall to — the siren call of the death-wish culture, is there any hope for the rest of us?

Oh, and just by way of a postscript: you’ll never guess who was on my return Flight of Liberation, which ended in a two-hour wait for our baggage and a near-riot when there were no trolleys available . . . yes, Salman Rushdie.

All I want is a room somewhere in NY

New York feels like one giant nightclub these days, for which I blame Ian Schrager who transformed the modern hotel, after Studio 54, into darkly groovesome dens. In my thirties, I used to love staying in his places: The Paramount, his first “budget” hotel, (soon to re-open as The Hard Rock Hotel ) was wildly hip — with its dancefloor music and neon light shows, and that was just the lifts. But in my forties, I found that I was no longer enamoured of, say, “amusing” taps so fiendishly designed that you needed a manual to turn them on, and even the receptionists at The Royalton complained that working in the perpetual night-time of the lobby was “kinda depressing”. But every other hotel that I’ve tried post-Schrager suffers from the same aesthetic. On this recent trip (W Hotel on Lex), I was extended the sort of welcome that George Bush might expect were he to meet Osama bin Laden. All I ask for now is natural light, a friendly atmosphere and a comfy bed.

Any suggestions?

The art of terror

Reading Martin Amis’s short story about the last days of 9/11’s Muhammad Atta reacquainted me with the haunting power of a photograph. The expression on Atta’s face, quite different from any of his confrères, is one of chilling, implacable hatred. It’s an image as horribly iconic, in its way, as the ones of Charles Manson or Myra Hindley. How long, I wonder, before someone turns it into a shocking new artwork. Or would that be just too scary for everyone?

Writers

The incredible lightness of Salman

THE TIMES – August 20 2005
Ginny Dougary

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.