Rushdie is a man to be admired and envied
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Rushdie is a man to be admired and envied

Ever since I read Midnight's Children I have been in awe of Salman Rushdie: I was dazzled by its brilliance, so were thousands of others who read it. Khushwant Singh writes.

columns Updated: Dec 26, 2010 09:59 IST
Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh
Hindustan Times

Ever since I read Midnight's Children I have been in awe of Salman Rushdie: I was dazzled by its brilliance, so were thousands of others who read it. Deservedly it won The Best of The Booker Prize. I wrote about it in my column as about the best novel I had read. Rushdie paid me a visit and had a drink with me. I was highly flattered.

All went well till the publication of The Satanic Verses. I read it in manuscript and twice again at the behest of its publishers — Penguin-Viking of England. It evoked the ire of Muslims. Ayatollah Khomeni of Iran pronounced a Fatwa, condemning him to death. Muslim countries as well as the Indian Government imposed a ban on it.

As if to slap religious fanatics on their faces, the British Government conferred a Knighthood on Rushdie. Its London Publishers wanted its Indian branch in Delhi to publish it in India. I was consulted as an adviser. Though I have unconcealed contempt for people who impose bans on books and works of art, I advised Penguin India not to risk publishing an Indian edition of The Satanic Verses. I conceded that Rushdie as a scholar of Islamics while my knowledge of it was superficial; he did not sense the touchiness of common Muslims. I was sure if the book was published in Delhi, there would be nothing left of Penguin India. I think I was right. Rushdie felt I had something to do with the banning of his book. I explained the true situation to a common friend Salman Haider who was then India's Deputy High Commissioner in London. Nevertheless, Rushdie did not forgive me.

I remain an admirer of Rushdie and have read all his other books of fiction. The only one which disappointed me was the Enchantress of Florence. It was not upto his standard. I wrote about it saying so.

And now we have his latest Luka and the Fire of Life (Jonathan Cape). I was flummoxed. It is said to be a fairy tale. If that is so, it is not for children but for grown-ups, familiar with Rushdie's style of writing. Those who have read his Haroun and Sea of Stories might find the clue and get a hang of what Rushdie is trying to say in his latest of offering. Haroun was the hero of the earlier novel; his 12-year old younger brother Luka is the central character of this one. In the land of Alifbay (first two letters of the Urdu alphabet) Rashid Khalifa, a story teller, his wife Soraya and their two sons live in the city Kahani (story) along the muddy river Silsila (serial). One day Rashid Khalifa falls into deep slumber and fails to get up for many days. It is feared that he is going to die. Luka sets out and fends the fire of life to save his father. At his doorstep he meets Nobodaddy, an exact replica of his father. He is the angel of death in human form come to take Rashid away. So Luka steps out with his two pets, a dog called Bear and a bear called Dog and accompanies Nobodaddy to find answers of life and death. The quest begins in earnest after they meet Insullana who looks like a younger version of Luka's mother and bears the same name Soraya. She owns the magic flying carpet Resham that can accommodate thousands of people and animals, fly at great speed and also stand-still in the air. At times it has huge rats, elephant-sized ducks and much else. They meet Aalims (wisemen), discuss passage of times with three Js: Jo hua, Jo hai, Jo hoga, to explore the ever changing Universe. My head went reeling trying to comprehend what Rushie was saying. Has he gone nuts? Or am I suffering from senile dementia? But I could not put the book half-read. It ends with Soraya of the magic carpet giving Luke some hot potatoes to insert in his father's mouth. He does so just in time, Rashid Khalifa recovers - and the family live happily ever after.

There is more to Rushdie than his fertile imagination and powerful pen. Besides his brain, he has other parts of his body equally well-endowed. How else can one explain that this beady-eyed, beared man in his middle age having had a succession of wives and mistresses to warm his bed. That is yet another reason why I envy and admire him.

Farewell 2010
Ajit Kumar Das was born in what is now Bangladesh. He migrated to West Bengal and was educated in Kolkata. He made it to the IAS and was allotted to the UP cadre. After retiring he made his home in Lucknow. He has published his first collection of poems Another Voyage (Bharat Book Centre). I found his poems very readable. Of the collection I found one entitled: December Thirty First the most appropriate for my column in the end of the year.

The end of the year; pausing moment
Of the party sun: skyline changes
Into deep russet, the evening brings down/Its shadowy curtain, falling dusk
Obliterates the page of the day.

Tomorrow we will take up, dreaming
Of a landscape sketched by sunbeams
Under the canopy of foliage,
Its colours, shades in vivid display.

But the day will draw the same backdrop: A sense of decay gripping the air;
Pervasive gloom filling corners;
Plagues sweeping the canvas.

Time will flash back the same snapshots
Exclusive zones out of bounds:
Opulence hiding the widening cracks
Hate and terror corroding the axis,
acquiescence ceasing to articulate,
replicate again the mafia kingdom.

The wild beast has broken loose,
Erasing language of love and compassion
The grand enterprise of life is hijacked,
Propelled by diminishing humans.

(Views expressed are personal)

First Published: Dec 25, 2010 23:29 IST