One of the most honest yet under-reported reasons for anyone wanting to become a successful writer is that he can impress and get the girl. (For women, the world still being tragically gender-skewed, the reason for writing is thought to be more noble: for the pleasure of writing.) In the case of Salman Rushdie, noted author and fatwa-fuelled cerebral celebrity, every new book, like it or not, sounds like a mating call.
In Mumbai on a private visit this week — that has invited ire from the usual suspects that include some two dozen Samajwadi Party supporters, members of the All India Ulema Council and Rushdie’s host Parmeshwar Godrej’s kitchen staff — the Artist Formerly Known As Mr Padma Lakshmi is getting ready for the publication of his ninth novel and 15th book, The Enchantress of Florence. The buzz surrounding the continent-jumping novel of a noble woman in Renaissance Italy who finds herself in a Mughal court is already palpable, months before its scheduled summer release. But more than the literati yapping about Rushdie’s story of a woman who “tries to command her own destiny in a man’s world” is the well-washed masses yapping about Salman and his ladies — past, present and hypothetical.
After Padma, who?
Everyone’s been playing ‘Fill the Padma Lakshmi Vacuum’ game since the Bombay boy has dropped by. And clues lead to the meeting of Sir Salman and Bollywood Bong Riya Sen, the two bumping into each other at an after-show film awards party. Busybodies have it that the author of Midnight’s Children went to have tea (coffee?) at the house of the actress of Tum... Ho Na! And why are all these private bits and bobs going into the fog-machine that is a pre-publication dhamaka? Because Rushdie has happily chosen to remain the parody of the famous gimlet-holding, pop cultural high priest, Salman Rushdie.
But just before bushy browed followers of High Literature scoff at the ‘New’ New York Rushdie, the writer has been doing things that behoves a man who still is best known for the reaction to one of his novels rather than for any of his novels: defending artistic freedom in the country that has hounded out M.F. Husain and wants to quietly throw out Taslima Nasreen. And it is this straddling the two worlds of glitz and cogitation that foxes even the least dim among us. Which, of course, hasn’t been able to hide Rushdie’s growing complex of having to write things ‘that matter’. If his 1999 novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet was the last book in which he openly played with pop culture and the slippery, shape-shifting narrative in the form of a pretend bio of a Freddy Mercury-Farrokh Bulsara, the need to balance his public dalliances with the Beautiful People with ‘political messengry’ came about in the two subsequent novels. His 2001 Fury was a feeble explanation about his move from London to New York. In the 2005 Shalimar the Clown, Kashmir was his inkpot.
The truth is that his life under the Vegas lights may have actually made him push towards writing fiction that doesn’t quite suit his genius. So like the stand-up comic who is at pains to show the world that he really is a serious, manic-depressive bloke once he hands in his mike, Rushdie too has been found guilty of trying too hard of coming across as a writer tackling heavy, world-commenting themes.
Which is why, going by the dribble let out about The Enchantress of Florence, one catches something of an old spark of a theme: migratory, identity-changing metamorphoses in the life of a woman who is a pawn in the hands of civilisational rulers — who still manages to find her identity by getting things done her way. Rushdie has commented about his personal difficulties in finishing this book during ‘difficult times’. So does that sound the (at least temporary?) victory of the cliché of the suffering writer writing gloriously over a gloriously happy writer writing crap? Or is even that a part of the Rushdie grand plan — a cunning image makeover disguised as a return of the prodigal?
With only the cover of the forthcoming book for public display, it’s obviously too early to tell. We wish Rushdie all the best in his attempts to find a companion to perch on his shoulder for those 40/40 Club bashes in NYC. But truth be told, if the hole in his heart makes him refrain from going ‘all-political’ on us in his fiction, we do hope that in his next meeting with Riya Sen — or whoever — he utters the words stuttered out by one of his fictional role models, G.V. Desani’s H. Hatterr, who tells Ms Bloomsbohemia: “But, Madam! Whoever asked a cultivated mind such as yours to submit your intellectual acumen or emotions to this H. Hatterr mind? Suppose you quote me as saying, the book’s simple laughing matter? Jot this down, too. I never was involved in the struggle for newer forms of expression, Neo-morality, or any such thing! What do you take me for? A busybody?”
We, at least, sincerely hope not.