Salman Rushdie: ‘I think of my ex-wife as the Kellyanne Conway of my life. She lives in a universe of alternative facts’
The celebrity author sheds light on love, life and literatureUpdated: Sep 04, 2017 19:16 IST
I first met Salman Rushdie in 2008, at the seaside home of Parmeshwar Godrej; after this dinner, I took him clubbing to a Juhu nightspot. The following morning, my friend, the writer John Berendt who was a guest at the dinner, pointed out that Rushdie had made the front-pages: he had been linked to a Bollywood starlet we had met there, and the night out earned him the renewed wrath of the religious fringe. Apparently, they were infuriated by his return to India (the visit was meant to be private, he was finishing an essay commissioned by The Gates Foundation). For all the soup my friends and I landed him in, I’m surprised Salman still speaks to me. Later, over dinner at my home, I made redress for the misadventure. He brushed it off, saying, “I’m always in trouble,” a remark typical of his generosity to younger writers – and telling of his air miles with, well, trouble.
For Brunch, we chatted about The Golden House, his new thunderbolt novel about family, politics, identity and our increasingly-estranged relationship with the truth. Set in America with a striking cast as impellent as it is flawed, the saga is recounted by René, a likeably unreliable filmmaker narrator whose smarts, cinematic hat tips and moral opacity fire the story to life. A marvel of social review, this zamaana book pays service to Stendhal, who believed a novel was a mirror walking down the road.
“I wanted to make a change of gear in my writing and to attempt a panoramic social novel,” Rushdie said. “I have always looked for crossroads at which the conversation inside me intersects with the greater conversation around me, and tried to build my books on those points. So The Golden House deals with exile, reinvention, secret selves, identity, art, the crisis within the self and outside it; a broken and fracturing family set against a broken and fracturing world.”
Echoing the rush tide of Rushdie’s 1995 Bombay ode The Moor’s Last Sigh, the new book is an on-point document of implausible realism. Dadaist enough to tether outside the range of imagination but not of experience, it recalls Lorrie Moore’s appraisal that, ‘Surrealism could not be made up. It was the very electricity of the real.’ In drawing up a post-truth, post-democracy America, has the ringmaster of magic realism set down the whip of his form? “I never say never, so I won’t say ‘never again magic realism,’ but I do feel a change in my personal literary climate,” he clarified. “The undermining of reality by, yes, the bizarreries of the Internet and the greater bizarreries of power pushes me away from my own wilder flights of fancy. But realism is a broad church, with Raymond Carver at one end, if you like, and High Modernism at the other. The ‘operatic realism’ which René the narrator strives towards is as good a description of what I’m trying to do as anything.”
“A novel, Randall Jarrell said, is a long piece of writing that has something wrong with it; perfection is an impossible dream!”
Politics of writing
The process of writing The Golden House was, he says, simple. “I wake up, dive into the book, work until I’m exhausted, then stop. And of course I’m constantly revising, re-reading, subtracting, adding, and that goes on until the day the book goes to press – it certainly did in this case,” said the author who turned 70 this June. “I don’t show anybody anything until I think I’ve finished. ‘Finishing’ to me means realising that my revisions aren’t improving the work, but merely changing it; and becoming aware that my creative energy for the work has dimmed. A novel, Randall Jarrell said, is a long piece of writing that has something wrong with it; perfection is an impossible dream.”
The political novel is a complicated object. In the hands of Toni Morrison, a slavery epic like Beloved – serrated with sorrow, consoled with wisdom – turns into each reader’s private literary heirloom. But Nadine Gordimer is right to caution that novels should not become political manifestos, and some recent fiction from India have read like muddled, hectoring sermons more normally produced by a Berkeley undergrad crushing on Chomsky. While many of Rushdie’s books were consciously political, they are never self-consciously so, thanks to deftness of touch shot through with promiscuous scholarship. “Speaking as a reader, I don’t like books that seem to preach at me,” he says when I raise the prickly subject of Indian writers twerking internationally as professional causewallahs. “My idea is closer to the Joycean concept that literature should be ‘static,’ not ‘dynamic’ - by which I mean that it should not seek to push the reader one way or the other, but to create a world in which the reader can find enjoyment, stimulation, challenge, information, thought, emotion, beauty… all the pleasures of art.”
“I do not know how the country will recover or even if it can.... All we can do is fight our corner and hope.
Turning to politics, I bring up his reservations of Modi in India – he had criticised the appointment – but what of living, as he does in America, in the domain of a neurotic, despotic moron? “The crisis of America is a daily agony,” and you gauge a sigh of despair in his tone. “I do not know how the country will recover or even if it can. Even if Trump were to vanish tomorrow, much damage has been done to the country’s feelings of community that won’t easily be undone – e pluribus unum, out of many, one, doesn’t seem to fit any more in this raucous, angry land. All we can do is fight our corner and hope. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, as Antonio Gramsci recommended long ago,” he advised, even as news of a white supremacists rally in Charlottesville came in, underscoring the violent racial tenor of America under Trump.
Who’s the man?
The 1987 fatwa came with its gilded cage – stories of his security are tabloid legion – and it turned him into one of the era’s most recognisable figures. But fame, as Rilke pointed out, is a constellation of misconceptions surrounding an individual. “Fame gets you tables in restaurants and makes people think they know you when they don’t,” he said when I queried his own relationship with celebrity. “I remember Günter Grass saying that there were two people, ‘Günter,’ the person he recognised as himself and who was known to his family and friends, and ‘Grass,’ the figure in the outside world. ‘Sometimes,’ he once said to me, ‘I send Grass out into the world to make a noise, so that I can stay quietly at home and work.’ That struck a chord with me.”
The one room where his celebrity leaves its party keds at the door is family life. As devoted father of two, a sweet, fizzing enthusiasm for his boys sneaks up on social media, when he’s posting pics of his younger son Milan’s dorm rooms or of weddings (his older son Zafar married soprano Natalie Coyle last year). I recall sitting across him at his New York home when Milan rang on Skype, and he excused himself to allay his son’s apprehensions. “I love my family and am lucky to be loved in return. The same goes for my chosen family of close friends. Elective affinities, to use Goethe’s term, can be as powerful and nourishing as ties of blood.”
“The crisis of america is a daily agony... even if trump were to vanish, much damage has been done to the country”
However, the marital power board has not been kind to Salman – some fuses have shot. Several years ago I was on a boat with his ex-wife; she held my hands for a long time, and then narrowing her eyes, said I had ‘very good energy’. She seemed, to put it discreetly, mentally unstable. The colourful comments she volunteered about her ex-husband later found counter in Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton. Recently, another former partner jumble sold unproven marital details to float a memoir as dull as a day-old roti. “I have very little to say about the spouse to whom you refer,” he said. “I think of her as the Kellyanne Conway of my life. She lives in a universe of alternative facts.” Oh, snap, looks like this didn’t end well.
I last met Salman a few years ago at my home in Juhu; he was late, due to crazy-making traffic. Thanks to a new absurd ban on him at the time, there was top-level security – 24 cops spent the evening screening my apartment, then held vigil. His life, during the fatwa years, would have been a glamorous nightmare: basic personal freedoms impaired, one would lose faith in systems, in politics, in fate and in friends, in art and in oneself. To come through this was a spooky kind of heroism, while enduring it might have rendered a lesser man villainous. I recall he stepped across my threshold, oblivious to security, and simply apologised for being late. I smiled. A great writer caught in the jam on Linking Road – the ironic hand of fate had a tart heart. And I couldn’t but help think the city his imagination romanced for decades had gone from the art deco swan of his childhood to a vile little economic reform ruin. “Everyone has a ‘touch of dengue.’ Politics are right-of-insane,” I told him of the city of his birth. “Our roads are minefields; it’s all potholes or a-holes. I dunno what’s going but I wonder if Mumbai is a metaphor for the country, which seems to be riding the down elevator of life. I’m sure you disagree.”
“In my previous novel,” he responded, “the central character, Mr Geronimo the gardener, understands that the reason he can’t go home again is not that he can’t buy a plane ticket and fly East; rather, it’s that the home to which he feels attached is no longer the same, no longer, in the deepest sense, there. As to the city as a metaphor for the country, that thought is probably as true as most metaphors are. Which is to say, it contains some truth, but only some.”
The writer is a regular contributor to Brunch. He is the author of The Last Song of Dusk and honorary director of the arts foundation Sunaparanta, Goa.
From HT Brunch, September 3, 2017
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