Although some Islamic fundamentalist groups would still like to see him dead, the Iranian government backed away from its fatwa last fall. In the wake of that decision, life for Rushdie has become more relaxed, yet hardly casual. He still travels with armed guards. But even though his movements are still cloaked in a degree of secrecy, he moves more freely than he has in years.
In recent weeks Rushdie has indeed been on the move, publicising his most recent novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which was simultaneously published in 12 nations — an act of creative (not to mention commercial) affirmation that clearly pleases Rushdie.
Even for this most protean of talents, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a startling and sprawling novel. To simplify: it is a rock-and-roll story. To amplify: it is a retelling of the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. To sum up: its ambition is epic.
Perhaps the most succinct summary of the story comes from Publishers Weekly: "Ormus Cama, a supernaturally gifted musician, and his beloved, Vina Apsara, a half-Indian woman with a soul-thrilling voice, meet in Bombay in the late ’50s, discover rock and roll, and form a band that goes on to become the world’s most popular musical act. Narrator Rai Merchant, their lifelong friend, is a world-famous photographer and Vina’s ‘back-door man.’ Rai tells the story of their great abiding love (both are named for love gods: Cama as in Kama Sutra, and Vina for Venus)."
Rushdie’s fame as a controversialist is, as he explains below, unwarranted and unwelcome. Before the publication of The Satanic Verses, he already enjoyed an international reputation as the man who, said the New York Times, "redrew the literary map of India" with the publication of his 1981 novel Midnight’s Children.
Before Rushdie, the tone of Anglo-Indian literature was decidedly cool. There was, for example, the sensitive reserve of E.M. Forster and the stiff upper lip of Rudyard Kipling. Rushdie’s prose is more pungent, his range of reference more polyglot, and his world-view playful to the point of daring.
Although Rushdie — who exhibits a sort of muscular diffidence — might shiver at the suggestion, he comes as close as anyone in public life to matching Hemingway’s ideal of courage: grace under pressure.
Q: Let’s talk first about growing up in Bombay. In Midnight’s Children, you wrote, if I recall the line correctly, that you were "floating in the amniotic fluid of the past."
A: The thing to say about the Bombay of the 1950s and the 1960s is that it was a very different place than the city that now exists. I suppose it’s true that, to a certain extent, there’s a kind of golden glow of childhood about it in my memory. But it’s also the case that the people who were of an older generation thought of that city as going through a particularly beautiful and sort of memorable phase. It does seem to have been Bombay’s great moment. How to describe it?
I mean, as a child, it was a very exciting town to grow up in. It was a very cosmopolitan town, much more so than most other Indian towns. Like any great city, it acted as a magnet, and so people came to Bombay from all over India. It had a greater diversity of Indians than other Indian cities. And it was the commercial center, so it attracted a large population of non-Indians. When I grew up, the kids I played with were by no means all Indian kids. They were American kids, Australian, Japanese, Europeans, and so on. It felt like a very cosmopolitan, big-city upbringing.
Q: So you were multicultural before your time?
A: Well, we all were. I think this idea of a separation of cultures between the East and the West was certainly never the idea I grew up with. They were all mixed in together from the beginning.
Q: Your parents were Muslims. Was your family religious?
A: Not really, as far as I can remember. I think that’s one reason why, although it was technically an Indian-Muslim family, my parents — at the independence of India and at the division of India into India and Pakistan — never considered going to Pakistan. They certainly felt more like Indians than Muslims. And my father’s family was an old Delhi family from the old Muslim neighbourhoods of Old Delhi, and that’s where my parents lived when they first got married.
They decided to move to Bombay about nine months before I was born, I guess. They, like many other people, were nervous about the trouble that everybody could see coming at the partition. And my father felt that Bombay would be a safer place. Bombay has always had — until recently, anyway — a reputation of being a more tolerant environment than the rest of India. So they moved to Bombay to get out of the firing line. When the terrible events of the partition happened, the riots and the massacres and so on, almost nothing happened in Bombay. And so they stayed there, and that’s where I was born and raised.
Q: Can you recall your extended family?
A: I can’t remember my father’s father, who died before I was born, but he was, by all accounts, one of my few literary antecedents, in that he was an essayist and a patron of young writers and so on — and he also made a fortune, which my father then spent most of his life losing.
Q: How about your mother’s father?
A: Yes, my mother’s father I remember very well. He was a huge figure in my childhood. Unlike my parents, he was really quite a religious man. He was a practicing Muslim. He said his prayers five times a day. He performed the pilgrimage to Mecca. But at the same time, he was one of the most tolerant and open-minded men I’ve ever known. For myself, my sisters, my many cousins, he was a huge figure in all our lives because he loved children and was never happier than when he was amongst us.
Q: How did his wonder manifest itself?
A: I remember — not when I was a very small child, but when I was more grown up — we would needle him by claiming not to believe in God and so on. You’d say, in your 10 or 11-year-old self, "I don’t believe in God, Granddad." And he’d say, "Oh really? Come and sit down here and tell me all about it." And so you’d sit down next to him and he would very seriously listen and probe as you offered your 11-year-old reasons for not believing in God. And then, instead of contradicting you, he’d say, "Yes, well, that’s a lot to think about, I think you’ve given me a lot to think about, I’ll have to think about it." And then, a couple of days later, he’d come back and he’d say, "I just did have a couple of thoughts about what you were saying, and let me just talk to you about them." And he’d then offer you, in a very gentle way, his rebuttals to your childish atheism. And when you’d say, "No, no, Granddad, that’s just complete nonsense, it’s completely wrong," he’d say, "Yes, well, you’re probably right, but I just think we should go on talking about it." So certainly, the atmosphere around him was that anything could be said, anything could be discussed, and that’s how we all grew up.
Q: What was the first rock-and-roll record you ever bought?
A: Oh, I think Heartbreak Hotel. It was very difficult in India in those days to buy rock-and-roll records, because they were not locally produced. You had to rely on occasional imports and then run to the record shop when the bush telegraph told you that there were some there. And these were old-style 78 rpm discs that I’m talking about — fragile, you know? They were often damaged in transit or scratched because they were secondhand and being sold off by somebody whose family was going home. So it wasn’t easy to come by these things. There was a particular record store in Bombay, called Rhythm House, which used to occasionally have these imports.
Q: Did you listen to rock and roll on the radio?
A: Yes, but not, oddly, on Indian radio, which was state controlled and didn’t permit the playing of Western music. I think in that post-colonial moment, it was thought to be culturally unsound.
Radio Ceylon, as it was then called — it’s Sri Lanka now — had a rather more tolerant policy, and, yes, at the weekends, it would play a few hours of a Western hit-parade kind of programme. That’s where we first heard a lot of these songs. But also, because the city was so international, we had access. I often heard this music in my friends’ houses, listening to their records. It wasn’t easy for that music to arrive, given these constraints. And yet it did arrive, and we all heard. So, in a way, it became the first globalised cultural phenomenon.
Q: As a former colonial, what was it like going to Rugby and Cambridge? Was it a tough transition?
A: Rugby was tough. Cambridge I had a very good time at, but coming to Rugby was really quite brutal. I was not quite 14 and taken aback to be made to feel like a foreigner, which, until that point, I had never thought of myself as. I did experience certain amounts of racial discrimination — not from the staff, from some of the other boys. And that was shocking and depressing.
And so I remember my school days as not being particularly happy. I was bad at games. I think it was the triple whammy: foreign, clever, bad at games. (Laughs) I think if I’d been any two of those three, I might have been able to get away with it. Foreign, clever, good at games — that would have been all right. I mean, there were some boys there with Indian or Pakistani or, indeed, African backgrounds, but who were excellent sportsmen, and they seemed to have a perfectly nice time at school.
"On St. Valentine’s Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim. Bare-torsoed men resembling the actor Christopher Plummer had been gripping her by the wrists and ankles. Her body was splayed out, naked and writhing, over a polished stone bearing the graven image of the snakebird Quetzalcoatl.
The open mouth of the plumed serpent surrounded a dark hollow scooped out of the stone, and although her own mouth was stretched wide by her screams the only noise she could hear was the popping of flashbulbs; but before they could slit her throat, before her lifeblood could bubble into that terrible cup, she awoke at noon in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, in an unfamiliar bed with a half-dead stranger by her side, a naked mestizo male in his early twenties, identified in the interminable press coverage that followed the catastrophe as Raúl Páramo, the playboy heir of a well-known local construction baron, one of whose corporations owned the hotel.
She had been perspiring heavily and the sodden bedsheets stank of the meaningless misery of the nocturnal encounter. Raúl Páramo was unconscious, white-lipped, and his body was galvanized, every few moments, by spasms which Vina recognised as being identical to her own dream writhings."
Publication (Pvt) Ltd.
410/27, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 07
Tel : +94-75-365891,2 Fax : +94-75-365891
email : email@example.com