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Keeping Up with Salman Rushdie

Yes, this clears the air. Salman Rushdie has committed the sin for which there is no forgiveness—the sin of having Arnold Wesker as a friend.

Wesker in fact is one of the Dismayed Friends. He described Rushdie’s conversion as a victory for religious terrorists. To which Rushdie retorted that it was “none of Arnold’s business.” With me, when I suggested we might record a little talk together, Salman was gentler but still firm: what was none of Arnold’s business was none of mine either. But there were other things we might talk about than God and Islam, and I thought the reader might be interested to get just a flavor of Rushdie’s current thinking on this and that—his table talk, if you like.

2.

I first got to know Salman Rushdie—or to feel that I was beginning to do so—in Toronto just over two years ago at the Harborfront literary festivals. At the time, the row over The Satanic Verses was a cloud no bigger than Rajiv Gandhi’s hand. The book had been banned in India after riots protesting its publication, but the worst of the rioting was still to come, and the row seemed as much political as religious. Salman read from the book. He’s a born performer, a first-rate mimic, and he had the audience immediately on his side and laughing. In the discussions, he defended his corner in the way he has always been able to do, with a fine arrogance. Not quite the arrogance that he used against Rajiv himself in print—

Mr. Prime Minister, The Satanic Verses may just, in the eyes of the world, be the unmaking of you. Worse still is the judgment of the eye of eternity…and, Mr. Gandhi, has it struck you that I may be your posterity? Perhaps you feel that by banning my fourth novel you are taking a long overdue revenge for the treatment of your mother in my second; but can you be sure that Indira Gandhi’s reputation will endure better and longer than Midnight’s Children? Are you certain that the cultural history of India will deal kindly with the enemies of The Satanic Verses? You own the present; but the centuries belong to art—2

but with the same relish for a fight.

I had been away from England for more than two years, and was feeling in need of contact and news. Salman and I went for a walk by the lake, and I remember particularly the sad way he spoke of Bruce Chatwin, who was then in the last stages of AIDS. Salman in private was less ebullient than I expected, and for reasons not much to do with his novel. He was fed up with England, where he found a horrible mixture of hypocrisy and xenophobia, mediocrity and envy of success. He was anyway somewhat vulnerable to any printed slight, but I knew from the example of another friend of mine (not an immigrant but a Jew) that when England begins to affect you in this way you may be absolutely sure that you will find evidence to reinforce your feelings. England becomes a prison.

So we walked along the shore, with Salman going on about how insincere the English were, and me (being nothing if not English) trying hard to be more sincere, to make up for everybody else’s insincerity. So I asked him if it had occurred to him to go back to India, and immediately I worried if that would sound xenophobic and hostile, but it appeared to go down okay, and he said that you can’t, once you’ve made that break, go back. He was thinking, perhaps (his wife was American) of moving to New York….

Well, he went back to England, Bruce Chatwin his friend died, and Salman’s last public appearance for many months was at his memorial service. The doors closed. The nightmare began. In Manila, where I was living, the postman spoke to me for the first time ever, to inquire about the case of Salman Rushdie, and I thought: Friend, you have achieved a fame beyond Byron’s.

Meeting him again in London recently, two years after the Saint Valentine’s Day Fatwa, I was concerned to set straight one small matter, on which I felt I could speak with some authority, and that was the question of the kipper. In much that is written about Salman Rushdie, and in The Satanic Verses, you come across the sad story of the thirteen-year-old Indian at Rugby School, faced with this strange fish that he has never seen before, a bony thing he doesn’t know how to eat. Nobody at the table gives him any advice. He decides he must face this one out, and heroically struggles away until the kipper is eventually consumed.

Now this story is designed to make any fellow victim of the British public school system feel guilty: Where was I when Salman faced his first kipper? But what I wanted to say was that none of the rest of us really knew how to eat kippers, or if we did we all kept quiet about it. They were unpredictable fish in those days—sometimes you found an edible one with a comprehensible bone structure, but the rest were a lottery.

The second point is: when I think of Salman and the kipper—and he all of thirteen years old—I also think of myself at the age of seven, on the first night at prep school, faced with the fact that someone had stolen the entire contents of my sponge bag. If I must ask myself, Where was I when Salman faced his first kipper? am I not also entitled to wonder, Where was Salman when I faced my empty sponge bag? Was there a kindly nine-year-old Indian boy who helped me face down the bullies? These things cut both ways after all.

Salman: “I don’t think you should apologize for the kipper.”

Self: “It’s not just me apologizing. It is England. England apologizes to you.”

Salman: “Let me tell you, this is very touching, because you’re the second person in my life to have made an apology to me on behalf of a nation. The first time was actually the first time I went to the United States. I was much younger and I was, working in advertising and I had been sent to America because I was supposed to write ads about going on holiday in America for the United States Travel Service. I had never been there before. In those days I was going to say that I had longer hair but I should probably say I had hair. In those days I had lots of hair.”

Self: “We both had hair.”

Salman: “Yes, we had hair. I’m talking about the early 1970s now. I had lots of hair, long hair, and a mustache, and it was the early Seventies and I remember I flew directly to the West Coast, it must have been San Francisco, and in the customs hall there was a sign saying, ‘A few minutes extra in customs is a small price to pay to save your children from the menace of drugs.’ And in front of me in the queue were these two classic American rednecks with very wide necks, and one of them turned to me and said: ‘Buddy, I sure feel sorry for you, because even if you haven’t got anything they’ll find something.’ And they tried. I was taken apart, the body search, the rectal examination, everything, and after what felt like about a week of this, I was finally—“

Self (audibly shocked): “You mean a week up the rectum?”

Salman: “Yes. I was finally released into America, a kind of gibbering wreck. I was standing in the queue waiting for the bus, clearly in major trauma, and there in front of me was a tiny white-haired lady about half my size who saw that I was in pain, and she said, Was I all right? And, just because this was a moment of human generosity, it all poured out. I unleashed at her this whole tirade about the awful humiliation to which I’d been submitted. At the end of which, I’ll never forget, she did the most extraordinary thing. She heard me out, and when the storm blew out, she drew herself up to a tiny height, clasped her hands together, and delivered to me a formal apology on behalf of the United States of America. It was extraordinary. She said: We, the people of the United States of America, wish to apologize to you for this terrible intrusion into your privacy. We are not all as you feel that we might be, and to many of us this is as offensive as it is to you, and we too are violated by this intrusion into your privacy, etcetera. The thing that was amazing about it was that by the time she had finished I felt better. I thought, Okay, fine, that’s good. And then I was able to go into America and have a great time. And she made it all right. So maybe you just finally made the kipper all right, James.”

Having laid the ghost of the kipper, I proceeded to inquire whether he still felt as badly about England as he had at the time of our discussion in Toronto. He did not.

Salman: “It’s true at that time I was in a state of considerable disillusion with England, which after all I wasn’t alone in, in that we were talking about the depths of the Thatcher catastrophe, and, whatever one might think about the Thatcher catastrophe, one of the things that was always true about it is that half the country hated it. I was a part of that half of the country, and was much more fortunate than most of that half, in that I was able to do something about it, in that, if I chose to do so, I could go somewhere else. I thought maybe that would be a good idea. Anyway I’m a boy from a big country, and there’s a part of me that’s always hankered for a big country round me again, not a small island. One of the things that I promised myself after The Satanic Verses came out was that I was going to buy myself a small pied-a-terre, a kind of joint in Bombay, so that I could have a place of my own back in my hometown, so that if I wanted to go for a month or two every year I didn’t have to bum off my friends or stay in hotels. So I’d made all kinds of plans about restoring large skies to myself. All that has become impossible.”

Impossible to slope off back in the direction of Bombay, now and then. Impossible to go anywhere without the British government informing the government of that country, and securing their acquiescence, in case anything should crop up.

  1. 2

    Illustrated Weekly of India, October 7, 1989, cited in Malise Ruthven, A Satanic Affair (Hogarth Press, 1991).

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