Under an unknown picture somewhere in India there is hidden a portrait of Salman Rushdie’s mother. The story goes like this. An artist, hired by Rushdie’s father to paint Disney animals on the walls of the child Salman’s nursery, went on to do a portrait of Mrs. Rushdie. When the painting was finished, Rushdie père did not like it. The artist stored the picture in the studio of a friend of his, another artist, who, running out of canvases one day, painted a picture of his own over it. Afterward, when both had become famous artists, the friend could not remember which picture he had painted over the other’s canvas, or to whom he had sold it.
When Rushdie told me the story recently when I was interviewing him for the Irish Times it struck me as peculiarly apt, given both the kind of artist Salman Rushdie is (the painted mother, the harsh father, the Disney creatures poking their anthropomorphic noses through the backdrop) and his present circumstances. He too has disappeared behind a work of art.
We met in the stillness of a post-Christmas bank holiday afternoon. I had not seen him for ten years. He had changed. How would he not? Yet the differences in him were a surprise. I had expected that he would be angry, tense, volubly outraged. However, what I sensed most strongly in him was an immense and somehow sustaining sadness. The confident, exuberant, funny thirty-five-year-old I met ten years ago had taken on a gravitas that was at once moving and impressive.
On February 14 Rushdie will have been in hiding for four years. The fatwa, or death sentence, imposed on him by Ayatollah Khomeini in retribution for his “blasphemous” novel The Satanic Verses, is still in force, backed up by the offer of $2 million in blood money to anyone who should be successful in murdering him. Over the years the world has accommodated itself to this extraordinary situation, but nevertheless it is, as Rushdie himself insists, a scandal.
I began by asking if he could discern any shift in the political situation in Iran that would give him hope that the fatwa might be lifted.
“I used to spend a lot of my time trying to keep up with the internal struggles there, but then I thought, to hell with that. It’s not my business to understand the internal politics of Iran. The banning of my book and the imposition of the fatwa is a terrorist act by the state of Iran, and my business is simply to make sure that the Iranian state is dealt with on that basis, and is obliged to alter its position.”
Does he have any contact with people in Iran—people in power? “There have been occasions when so-called intermediaries have popped up out of the woodwork, claiming to have great contacts in Iran. What tends to happen is that I talk to them for a couple of weeks and …