I have not been a big fan of Salman Rushdie’s novels. I found Midnight’s Children rambling and tedious, though I managed to finish it, which is more than I can say about Shalimar the Clown. Rushdie’s fondness for long-winding plots, coupled with his penchant for incorporating elements of magic realism( which I am totally unable to appreciate as a genre) in his works have always made me wary of his books.
That said, I have still admired him greatly for his powerful, smooth, mesmerizing prose. One may or may not have a liking for the kind of fiction he writes but it is difficult not to be awed by his penmanship. Which is why Joseph Anton, his memoir of his fatwa years, was very much on my bucket list ever since it came out. I knew Rushdie couldn’t possibly sneak in any magic realism into a memoir!
The title Joesph Anton is his pseudonym during the fatwa years used by his British security officers. It was derived from the names of his favourite authors Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov–it’s only appropriate that a writer of his calibre should turn to the literary world even when looking for a pseudonym!
It’s a remarkable memoir– he’s had an extraordinary life and he’s been honest in trying to tell it like it was. The flip-side is that it is a tad too comprehensive. He has obviously maintained a very detailed journal of those times. Not a single word or gesture of support/praise received over the years has gone unrecorded, and most certainly no word of dissent/criticism has escaped reproach. He takes criticism very personally, a result probably of the long years of persecution, and even while he says somewhere in the book that holding grudges serves no purpose, he does seem to hold on to an unearthly number of them.
His account of the fatwa years is quite illuminating, though. I knew that The Satanic Verses was banned in India by the Rajiv Gandhi government but didn’t know that India was actually the first country to ban it and set the ball rolling. Rushdie suspects that the Indian government’s action was fuelled by Rajiv Gandhi’s personal animosity towards him for depicting a character based on Indira Gandhi in an unflattering light in Midnight’s Children. He could well be right.
While the British government did provide security, he had to pay, and pay through his nose, towards renting safe-houses large enough to house four armed policemen apart from himself and his family(he often had to break a lease just because the house was no longer considered safe enough). All of it cost him upwards of a hundred thousand pounds a year. Good thing he was able to afford it. How tough would it have been for a lesser mortal, for someone who didn’t have that kind of money?
Rushdie blames Mrs.Thatcher and the Tories in general for doing nothing at all about the fatwa apart from providing him security–not bearing upon Iran through dialogue/diplomatic manoeuvrings or by threatening to sever trade links, for instance. It can be argued that it was unpragmatic to have harboured any such expectations. No country would jeopardize its relations with another country– an oil-rich, middle-eastern country at that– for one single person. International politics, for better or worse, is driven solely by the self-interest of the players. But I do get his point that by shrugging off and going easy on the issue initially, by not coming out more strongly against this overreach by Iran, governments around the world paved the way for the rise of fundamentalism not just in Islam but other religions too. That is true enough.
Now Rushdie has a lot to say about the restrictions, no doubt formidable, placed on his day-to-day life by the security–about how it annoyed him to be told that he was not allowed to do this or that. While it is only natural that he should have chafed at the curbs imposed on his movements , blaming the security itself for his misery, which he often seems to be doing, is hardly reasonable. Maybe for him the security became a hated symbol of the fatwa and the loss of freedom. He mentions a few times that he was grateful to Britain for the excellent security that was made available to him but mostly comes across as cribbing and complaining and not really grateful. The British, on their part, were grudging in whatever they did for him, with the media forever harping on how much his security cost the country, so it had probably become a vicious circle of sorts–the constant grudging and bad press getting on his nerves and making him defiant and sulky, and that in turn leading to more bad press.
Reading this book, one realizes all over again what a blessing good friends can be. Rushdie was very fortunate in that he had a large number of fiercely loyal friends, many of whom were influential literary figures themselves– Edward Said, Harold Pinter, Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens, amongst others. They rallied behind him. They formed an ‘iron circle’, as he puts it, within which he was able to live a somewhat normal life. They lobbied on his behalf with governments, formed pressure groups, wrote and spoke extensively against the fatwa. In the end, they were instrumental in getting the fatwa rescinded and making him a free man again.
The much-married Rushdie has much to say about the women he was involved with, which of course makes for some interesting reading. The juiciest bit is about his fourth and so-far-the-last wife Padma Lakshmi, on whom he turns with all the spite of a jilted lover and bares his broken heart for all to see. Hell hath no fury as a writer spurned! He calls her names( phantom of liberty, millenarian illusion) slams her for narcissism, self-obsession and shallowness–but then, all her faults notwithstanding, eventually it wasn’t him who wanted out. It was Padma, and that obviously hurt him big time. He says,” In the end she broke my heart as I had broken (third wife)Elizabeth’s–she was Elizabeth’s best revenge on me.” Just desserts, I thought. The worst wife award, though, must go to his second, the American author Marianne Wiggins, who comes across as pretty much touched in the head.
Whatever else Rushdie is or isn’t, he is surely a wonderful father. His love for his son Zafar shines throughout the book. His second son was born during his years of hiding and he describes how overwhelmed he was all over again. He named him Milan, meaning a joining or a mixing (of his father’s Indian and his mother’s British roots) in Hindi/Urdu.
Which is a pointer to another thread that runs through the book–his love for the country of his birth. He calls Midnight’s Children his love letter to India, and mentions how the positive reviews that poured in from India after its publication meant more to him than ‘any awards from juries’. And how, when he was finally able to visit India after the fatwa furore had died down, he felt the urge to kiss the ground. I have to say I was a little surprised by the intensity of his feelings for India.
A riveting read for sure. I only wish Rushdie hadn’t opted to tell his story in the third person. It grates a little and sounds pompous.
Tailpiece: When he called his mother on her eighty-second birthday in 1999, the fatwa had just been rescinded. He told her he was working on his new novel. His mother’s response-” Iss dafa koi achchi si kitaab likhna” Ouch!!