Saturday, December 29, 2012

1914 : Salman and I (By Ruchir Joshi)

Again from Man’s World. Makes me want to subscribe to this mag all over again. They do such fantastic writing.

Take a bow MW.

Original article at

Reproduced below for easier reading


Like many other aspiring artists of his generation, Ruchir Joshi was blown away by the exuberant language and storytelling in Midnight’s Children. Here, Joshi reflects on three decades of engaging with Salman Rushdie, reading his books and meeting him in person

New York, 1982

I was 22, living in New York on the Lower East Side while I considered my options for a Master of Fine Arts degree. Like all cocky kids that age, me and most of my friends thought we knew a hell of a lot about literature, art and film. I’d developed chronic bookwormia at age eight, and now, having emerged at the other end of my teens and finished my BA, I had strong and clear opinions. I couldn’t stand the shit goras wrote about India. I couldn’t bear V.S. Naipaul’s bwana-buttering prose and the unreadable books he’d written on India. And I really couldn’t stand most of the Indian fiction being written in English — the writers I had read were so gingerly with the language they made me think of gardeners allergic to grass and leaves.

In any case, I wanted to be a film-maker and my fiction sector was completely occupied by the best of the world’s films so cheaply available all around me in Manhattan. The gluttonous intake of cheap Monday morning shows, all-night screenings and double bills in the art house cinemas was my main activity that year. The books I was troubling at the time were non-fiction: about cinema and visual art, with a couple of Po-mo meditations on desire and on photography. Unusually, I’d read only two novels that year. Scraping by as a part-time waiter through the brutal winter of 81-82, I spent my off days doing the classic thing of huddling between heater and anglepoise, rationing the cigarettes, and, finally, devouring a small paperback brick of War and Peace. Then, next, I’d heard so much from my aspiring writer friends about this translated novel by a Colombian writer that I hungrily scored a copy of A Hundred Years of Solitude and quaffed that down quickly, too, before I got over the shock of what I was reading. For a few weeks, the reverse of the words and images in my head gave me a deep buzz. It was like the bean-sting of the Puerto Rican café con leche tingling at the back of your tongue, surviving the hot milk and heavy sugar.

At the 'Author of the Year' party at Hatchards Bookshop, in London, in 1992

The stories within Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epic were so mad and true they could be Indian. Equally crazy was the story-telling, the prose constantly shifting its furniture to release the ghosts: dreams that doubled back on themselves, houses that had mirrors for outside walls, 72 girls banging on 72 toilet pans, rain that rained ceaselessly for years, and wan beauties that flew off on wings of drying bedsheets. Clearly, no Indian writer (I’d never heard of G.V. Desani’s All About H.Hatterr) was ever going to match this narrative jazzery; obviously, it would have to be done through film, and Ind-Eng Lit would have to remain on back shelves marked ‘A-B’ for ‘Archaic-Boring’.

After my money-less, food-scarce, woman-wanting winter, the spring warmed up the city and magical realist things began to happen. A beautiful modern dancer asked me to photograph her for her portfolio. Realism correctly told me nothing was going to transpire with her, but the photos were successful and they led to another equally lovely dancer, with whom the magic part did kick in. I found work in a posh restaurant, where the tips were regular (real) and generous (surreal, including lines of the best cocaine, offered to the help under the tablecloth). After months of browsing forays, I could walk into the St. Mark’s Bookshop with intention and a fully weaponised wallet. It is there that I saw the paperback.

The cover was the usual exotic oriental faff and I had only a vague idea of the Booker Prize it was trumpeting. I guess, I bought Midnight’s Children out of curiosity and because I was homesick for India. I began reading and, like innumerable others, I was reeled in. There was this joker in a pickle factory, a digression-junkie but with a hypnotic whine of a voice. There was Kashmir, the Dal Lake and this ancient boatman, ‘His face was a sculpture of wind on water:ripples made of hide.’ There was this young doctor examining different bits of a young woman through a hole in a bedsheet, there was I, the reader, also now bedsheeted, looking through the shifting, teasing hole at different parts of India’s recent history. There I was, Midnighted, benighted, coming to the bifurcations in the story and able to take both forks simultaneously. Here was a writer who loved the English I called Inglish, who took what was familiar to an Indian city boy like me and made it fresh. Here I was, in throbbing New York, missing Calcutta, but hell, this guy could even make me miss bloody Bombay, the city I loved to hate. There it was, ‘my Bombay’, the parts I knew, Kemp’s Corner, Breach Candy, Fort-Fountain-Chowpatty, and it was peopled by characters and events that could match the most powerful in contemporary world literature.

As an Indian, suddenly I could be among my international khichri of friends with more than just Satyajit Ray to flaunt. Yes, yes, this other SR, this Salman funny-surname was based in England, but he was clearly appun ka-ich, so khaali-pili hair kyu spilt karne ka, re? Within a couple of months, I would decide to go back to India without attempting to get into an MFA course. Thanks to a couple of new Indian films I’d seen, and in no small thanks to A Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children, I realised where I needed to be in order to find the stories that were mine to tell. I realised where my war and peace lay and returned to Calcutta.

Calcutta, March 1983

The accent was more clipped Brit public school than Warden Road drawl, but the man himself seemed to have no airs or graces. The talk at Kala Mandir Basement had ended and Rushdie was surrounded by signature-seekers. I’d fixed up to do an interview for the The Telegraph. Being nervous, I’d recruited back-up in the shape of my friend Vivek Benegal, had made him quickly read the book, and got him to borrow someone’s little cassette-recorder as well. The British Council lady was firm: ‘You have only 45 minutes. Mr. Rushdie is very tired because of the tour.’.

Anti-Rushdie protests in Tehran, in 1989

We sat in the dark lawn of New Kenilworth Hotel, and SR ordered beer. ‘The newspaper has given us a budget, so we can pay,’ I said, trying to be helpful. ‘Don’t worry, I think we’ll let the British Government get this one.’ Which was a good idea, since my budget was a princely 500 Rs and the hotel was expensive. We began talking: a slim 30-something fellow draped on a cane chair, two younger bozos, excited, sitting straight and scribbling away. After a while, I looked at my watch. ‘Do you have to go somewhere?’ asked Salman. ‘No, but they said only 40 minutes.’ ‘That was me playing safe. You’ve no idea how many dreadful interviews I’ve been through. Relax.’

By the time the bar closed, we’d killed several bottles of Black Label. The three of us tottered up to Salman’s room and we said goodnight. Then we remembered and rang his doorbell. ‘Now what?’. ‘Photograph. Need…photograph, sorry!’ I snapped off a few shots of SR looking big-eyed, black eyebrowed, fully nosed and slightly scary, a younger, more handsome version of Tintin’s Rastapopoulos.

Reading that full-pager today is interesting. The early years so movingly described in Joseph Anton are encapsulated: Bombay, his father’s bedtime tales, the move to boarding school and the sneering gora students; Cambridge, reading history and British racism in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He doesn’t yet mention Shame, but says ‘the body of work that includes Midnight’s Children is now finished.’ Pakistan comes up. “I’m continually amazed at the total absence of organised protest in Pakistan. If we were talking like this in Pakistan,” he suddenly looks around suspiciously to see if anyone is listening, “I’d be doing this all the time.” Asked about future projects, SR says “I don’t want to become an India expert. I want to write about the tensions and difficulties of moving from here to the west. After all, I’ve had 20 years of it. The writing should also migrate at some point and I think this is it.” The Prophet comes up twice, once when he tells us that he’s the only student in the history of Cambridge to have done a paper on Mohammad and the rise of the Caliphate, and again, when we ask him about future work. ‘Islamic history, too, has always interested Salman Rushdie, and one of his tentative projects concerns the early life of the Prophet Mohammad.’

Protests in Pakistan, in 2007

A lot of it would have been standard-issue S.Rushdie biography, honed into nuggets by that time to aid variously competent interviewers. But then we asked him about things like the India Festival going on in Britain at the time, and about Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi, both of whom were then in power. We discussed the stuff that would keep all of us occupied for the next five years: (in today’s words) how to finish un-installing the Raj and get rid of the last, pesky junk files; how to fight racism; how to deal with the fallout of dangerous nutters like Ronald Reagan and Zia-ul-Haq; was there any possibility of a Khalistan coming into being, and, if so, where? A lot of it didn’t make it into print, but the conversation re-inforced the love I had for the novel with a warmth towards the man. The admiration was there, of course, but my main memory of that encounter is of Rushdie’s humour and irreverence, the sharpness of his intellect, how non-doctrinaire he was, the openness with which he seemed to regard the world and himself.

When it came out, Shame was disappointing. One didn’t have much love lost for Pakistanis at the time (Imran was captain, they were winning irritatingly often) but even so, I remember feeling bad for them. First, the buggers got the worse deal in the Partition, and now Rushdie had replicated that in his ‘twin’ novels — Shame was to Midnight’s Children what Pakistan was to India. But there was a lot more to Rushdie than just his latest novel. There were the essays and the brilliant small book on Nicaragua, The Jaguar Smile; there was always a political engagement and a constant quarrel with quietism; there was the point he eloquently made: fighting racism didn’t mean you had to accept all or any nonsense spouted by a person of colour.

Looking back, many of us never saw that Salman of the mid-80s as any kind of Olympian figure. As an Indian film-maker or writer, when you read him, one of the best things about him was that he seemed a somewhat older, quite advanced colleague. He was ours, even as he hung out with his other famous pals Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. He was on our side, reachable and touchable, even as he hobnobbed with cultural stars all over the world.

When The Satanic Verses came out in 1988, reports from fellow fans were mixed. ‘Brilliant beginning, but…’, ‘Hard work, but worth it.’, ‘He’s gone off the rails, tried to include everything, his editor’s gone missing in action, but enough great stuff in here, so hopefully he’ll get back to full form in the next one.’.

The next one. The next thing. Till February 14, 1989, The Satanic Verses was still only the latest of a series of novels, done and yet to come, in the normal up and down career of one of the most adventurous writers of our times. Till that day, Rushdie was more than his latest novel. After that day, as he himself points out in different words, Salman and Rushdie fissioned: ‘Rushdie’ went supernova, way more massive and scattered than a 547-page hardback, while ‘Salman’ compacted inwards at cosmic speed, almost, but not quite, turning into a black hole.

Iranian drawings published in 2000

Standing on the hill made by 25 years, it’s easy to see now. Prologue: the nutter Reagan pumping up Saddam Hussein, the Taliban and Bin Laden. The psychopath, Islamist Zia lapping up American help, powering up the chainsaws that would dismember his own country. The terrified cretin Rajiv Gandhi opening up Babri Masjid and banning the Verses. Then the detonation of the fatwa by the old vulture Khomeini. And then the vicious crescendo of (mostly) brown people screaming nonsense, accepted and manipulated by the powers that be all over the world.

Now, the trenches left by the once-buried grid of dynamite-lines lie clearly visible.

To list just a few:
Fatwa – to Babri demolition (Hindus return Offended) – to BJP
government – Offence epidemic (Taslima, Husain, Fire, et al) – to
re-warmed Babri ‘kar seva’ – to Gujarat massacres.
Fatwa – fillip to Islamic fundamentalists – Abu Hamza and gang in
London’s Finsbury Park Mosque – 9/11.
Fatwa – rise of the Taliban – Babri demolition – Kashmiri jihadis –
Kandahar hijack – 9/11.
Fatwa – 9/11 – Gujarat massacres.
Fatwa – Fundamentalist virus spreads in Pakistan – Rise of the Taliban
– 9/11 – US invasions – implosion in Pakistan – Bombay 2008.
Fatwa – Innocence of Mulims – undercutting of Arab Spring.

At the fulcrum of this vast web of stories, a man gets thrown out, falling out of nothing as piffling as an aeroplane, but flung out of the world. Flung out for what? For telling a story. In a book. Written in a quite peculiar, not that easy-to-understand English and Inglish.

New Delhi, March 2012

There’s an open-air part to the bar at The Hyatt, where each seating unit has a wide sofa with two far armchairs facing it across a table. One evening in mid-March, two men are trying to decide where to place themselves in one of these units. At first, they sit on the sofa, looking at the chairs catching the setting sun.

‘This is good. He can have a chair.’
‘No, but he might not like the sun in his eyes. It might feel like an interrogation.’
‘True.’ Under the bemused eyes of the serving staff, the two flip themselves ourselves over into the chairs, flinging the chair pillows on to the sofa.
‘No, it’s good. He looks like he’s put on some weight, so he’ll be happier on the sofa.’
They sit for two beats, flicking glances over their shoulders.
‘Mmm, dude?’
‘Yeah, man?’
‘These chairs are, I don’t know, maybe a bit higher than that sofa?’
‘They are. You think he might think we’re, like, talking…’
‘Down to him? No, he wouldn’t think that.’
‘But look, the sun’s almost gone now.’
‘Right, you’re right. I’m sure he’d much prefer a chair, actually.’

They move over, chuck the pillows back and plant their asses on the sofa. Almost immediately they — or rather, Jeet Thayil and I — stand up again.

In the intervening 29 years, I’ve seen Rushdie in person only once, when he made his triumphant return to India, after the waning of the fatwa. At the time, the hysteria, the Hokusai wave of photographers rising behind him, the riot of fans with their eyes switched to high-beam, all of it kept me from even thinking of approaching him. Now, as he walks towards us, I see that age and circumstances have been doing their usual malicious damage. His gait is slow and there’s a large oval that’s colonised his middle. I see him approaching and I’m suddenly aware of my own too-large middle, I feel as if I’m aging those 30 years in fast-motion. ‘Hello, Jeet, Ruchir.’ We shake hands. SR removes the extra pillows and settles down on a chair. We order red wine.

Between Rushdie and me, there are the nearly three decades. And then there are the last six weeks.

At a promotional event of his latest book, Joseph Anton, in New York

On January 16th, I hear that SR has withdrawn from the Jaipur Literary Festival because a crack hit team from Bhailand has accepted a supari on him. From both the national and the Rajasthan state government emanates the sound of hands being wrung, a kind of slimy, slithering, satisfied silence that says “What to do? Who told you ask this trouble fellow to come?” No one says, “This is an outrage.” No one says, “We, the government, will not be held hostage by a pair of hired killers.” Later, we understand why, at the time we don’t know. On January 20th, at the end of our session at Jaipur, Jeet and I read a passage from the Verses. The session itself goes beautifully, but soon all hell breaks loose.

Jeet, I and two other writers — each of us independently had the same idea — are all pilloried by a multi-hued coalition of assholes, ranging from fundamentalist mullahs to leftist pundits. The festival organisers get heavy, the cops get tense, there are attempts to slap cases on us by various local political party thugs and pawns. For about a month, we are constantly in the national news. Acquiring some distance, it’s very clear that the Rushdie-ball has been set rolling by parties maneuvering in the state elections. By end February, things get calmer, but there’s still the constant piranha nibble of court appeals, stupid columnists, FB jousts and personal sniping.

Two days after the reading, I get a brief email from Rushdie, a single line thanking me and hoping we are all safe from arrest. It’s the first contact from the man since I received a scrawled note in 1983: ‘Dear Ruchir and Vivek, thank you for the article. I thought it was by far the best piece to come out of the ‘Indian media blitz’!’

It’s crazy to think about that ‘tentative project on the early years of Islam’, which he mentioned in ’83. It’s weird to remember that proposed migration of his writing, that boomeranged migration and the super-strong rubber-band twisted from his own words that’s kept Rushdie yoked to the subcontinent in such unforeseen ways. It verges on the magic-real that it’s those same two early ideas that have brought us back face to face. I’m in Delhi, passing through, when I read that Rushdie was also in town for a conclave. After replying to that first email in January, I’ve had no reason to contact SR. Our stand was about the Satanic Verses, yes, but it was also about the much larger issue of being able to read and write what one wants. But, now I send him an email: ‘Would you have time to meet Jeet and me fora drink?’ The reply is an immediate ‘yes’, so here we are.

We talk about Jaipur. Jeet and I describe what happened, and who said and did what afterwards. Salman has stuff to tell us as well, about the lead-up to the festival, the invitation, the police sliding into becoming fiction-wallas and inventing a non-existent hit team.
“”Altaf Batli” and “Aslam Kongo”, what fantastic names,” I say.
‘Yes, they’re great. I’m planning to use them, actually.’ Salman smiles firmly.
‘Yeah, yeah, sure, of course.’ I back off quickly. I don’t need these, I’m good with inventing names.

Unsurprisingly, SR has no memory of meeting me in ’83. Nor does he let on if he’s ever read anything I’ve written; he makes a nod towards Jeet’s novel, yes, he’s heard about the book and he wishes Jeet well. We move on to other topics, his life in New York, the book, Joseph Anton, the forthcoming film of Midnight’s Children. He talks about personal stuff as if we are old, close friends. Again, there is between us great warmth, candour and easy laughter. Jeet later tells me that when I’ve gone to the loo, SR has apparently leaned forward and said, ‘You know, this guy has written terrible, terrible things about me, terrible stuff, but I won’t hold that against him now.’

When I hear this, I think ‘Well, at least the man knows how to balance a grudge. I know writers whom I could have saved from drowning, but who would have still shot me for an old bad review.’

After that Rushdie interview in 1983, I kept writing journalism, but, mainly, I was a film-maker. I’m still a film-maker, but now I am also, inescapably, in the same profession as Salman Rushdie.

I became a ‘writer’ for perhaps the wrong reasons. I was incensed by a few Indian novels in English that I’d read. The funding that supported my kind of film-making dried up. I became a father and I wanted to pass on the stories my parents had told me, and my own stories, in a form that my son (shortly, two sons) might one day read. Between 1992 and 2001, by some alchemy, these stories became a full-fledged book.

My novel, The Last Jet-Engine Laugh, when it came out, in 2001, was recognised as being very different from Salman Rushdie’s books, and yet owing a debt to his work. One important reviewer (the books editor of a national magazine, no less) excitedly proclaimed that, with my book, Midnight’s grandchild had finally arrived. I’m not sure I even wanted to be Rushdie’s kid brother and I’ve no idea what SR (if he read this) thought of his precious bookly seed having grandsired a strange novel such as mine. Eventually, reviewers found in my book the DNA of many other writers as well — Sterne, Desani, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Angela Carter, the list was longer. Personally, I was flattered and quite happy to have produced a bastard with such a wide-ranging lineage.

The thing is, if I had to draw various lines to do with Rushdie’s work, with all his books, good, bad and indifferent, say a divison that said Rushdie/Naipaul, or one that said magical realism/realistic or hybrid/authentic, I know which side I’d put my written work and it’s the same side I’d put my visual work.

Like SR himself, I, too, am not great at reverence and kid-glove respect. So even while defending SR, or those parts of his work or his politics that I can defend, I’ve been rude to my Dada-Uncle-Grandpa. And, yes, I haven’t shied away from being critical either: save Haroun, the first half of The Moor’s Last Sigh (and possibly The Enchantress of Florence, which I haven’t yet tried to read), SR’s fiction after The Satanic Verses has been pretty forgettable, with TSV itself being problematic, just as literature. Rushdie’s unseemly love for many of official USA’s actions and policies, and for all things American leave me aghast, Rushdie’s excitement at his knighthood (from Tony Blair, at that) baffles me, as does the star-struck, one-man pop fan club that lurks inside the guy.

On the other hand, when I meet him now, or when I dive into Joseph Anton and find myself wiping away tears or heaving with laughter, I realise that I and many others were never looking for an immaculate guru-figure to worship. It’ll do for me that Salman Rushdie is a highly brilliant, erratic writer with many flaws. And the only way I can write about such a man is in a mode of egalitarian exchange, as if we were at some level equal, colleagues, and not two people holding vastly different ranks in some imaginary literary army.

I’m told by knowledgeable people that Rushdie tries to read every word that’s written about him, at least in English. That’s a lot of words. But I can’t imagine the man has bothered to read everything I’ve written about him. If he’d said to my face what he said to Jeet, I might have replied, ‘But, Salman, I’ve also written a whole bunch of nice things about you, passionately defended your work, fought in print with people who were savaging you.’ I might have, and then I might not. Every time I’ve defended Rushdie, I’ve done it solely because I needed to do it, so it’s really not his concern.

Re-reading bits of A Hundred Years of Solitude recently, I came across this sentence about the main character, Aurelio Buendia: ‘…the failure of his death brought back his lost prestige in a few hours.’ As I read Joseph Anton, with all its great passages, its interminably boring bits, its self-serving strands and its great poetry and humour, as I go through it slowly, late into the night, all I can say is ‘prestige’ be damned, I think the fighting off of the fatwa and the failure of Salman Rushdie’s death is a huge triumph for all of us who share a love of his writing. In fact, it is nothing less than the failure of all our deaths.

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