Tehelka (New delhi)
Date: Sept 2000
Salman Rushdie is living well, and that's his best revenge
By Salil Tripathi
"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London
that life can afford."¨ It was Samuel Johnson who said this, in the 18th
century. Dr. Johnson was talking about London at the height of its imperial
glory, when Britannia had begun to rule the waves, with intellectual
fervour matching the excitement that a big city brings.
That was nearly 200 years ago. The world has turned upside down since then,
but it would seem everyone, from the British Tourist Authority to magazines
like Newsweek and The National Geographic has taken this comment to heart,
and believes that the grey capital of a small island off the continent of
Europe remains the centre of the universe. Why, the prime meridian still
passes through the city.
Salman Rushdie thinks otherwise. In an interview with The New York Times
that has perplexed Londoners, hurt some of his old fans and friends, and
got the chattering classes chatting, Rushdie said in public what was
already known in private: that he was moving from London to the Big Apple.
Not only is he supposed to have left behind the city where he spent nearly
three decades of his life and where his two sons, Zafar and Milan, and his
third wife, Elizabeth West live, he is actually enjoying New York.
With the attractive Padma Lakshmi by his side, Rushdie has been a common
fixture at movie premieres in Manhattan, attending the kind of parties that
get written about in society pages, and hobnobbing with New York's literary
lions: a baseball match with Dom De Lillo, another with Paul Auster, and
lunches and dinners with Bill Buford and Sonny Mehta. Rushdie has arrived
in Manhattan, and Manhattan has liked him. It is all too good to be true;
living well, clearly, is the best revenge.
London is hurt. Grumpily, columnists have written about his ¡§betrayal¡¨
the city that gave him refuge; ridiculed his choice of girlfriend,
criticized his decision to leave his wife and son behind (but he's done
that before, too), and reminded readers that nobody really liked The
Ground Beneath The Feet in London, though American reviews were kind. (It
is his only novel that failed to make the Booker shortlist, not counting
Grimus, his first effort.)
Betrayal: now that's a strong word, but that¡¦s how some have
his move. After all, Britain shaped his career, rewarded him with prizes
and international attention, provided him with security cover and refuge
during the worst years of the fatwa. How could he turn his back?
But by that logic, didn't he betray Bombay earlier? Arguably, he turned his
back on Bombay, too; a city he loves and grew up in but in which he
couldn't see himself living anymore. There are some in Bombay who hate him,
but none has despised him because he chose to leave the city. London's
response, in contrast, was amateurish, considering that, as Rushdie puts
it, although he has lived nearly three decades of his life in London, so
little of it has figured in his writing.
Bombay? Well, that's different; it keeps reappearing, like leitmotif, full
of pleasant memories of one¡¦s first love, in novel after novel,
resurrecting forgotten incidents from the city¡¦s life, such
Ahuja-Nanavati murder case in Midnight¡¦s Children, the kissing
Ali Baig in The Moor's Last Sigh, Rhythm House in The Ground Beneath The
Feet, and the Bollywood world in The Satanic Verses. London¡¦s
Tower, the Big Ben, hasn't made it yet, nor has London¡¦s cricket
the Kennington Oval, although Brabourne Stadium gets mentioned often in his
writing. Whoever said he loved London?
At 14, when he went to Rugby, a classmate was crayoning WOGS GO HOME near
his room. He was forced to eat kipper, a particularly unpleasant fish. His
sister had a nasty incident in the London tube. When he spoke out for the
minorities, particularly people of colour, he was criticized for being
fashionably leftist; when the Muslims turned against him and burnt his book
in Britain, the same minority felt he had deserted them, to be a poster-boy
for freedom of expression. He had said once he liked old, established
intellectual traditions of dissent in Britain, but those traditions have
been on the wane for some time.
What made Rushdie leave London, very likely, was the niggardly attitude of
some British--who wanted to count the cost of his security, and blame him
for bringing the fatwa upon himself. Writing in The Guardian, he said:
¡§What got to me, in the end, was the belief - widespread in Britain,
elsewhere except in fundamentalist circles - that I was to blame for the
terrorist assault against my life and work; the constant attack on the cost
of my protection; and the incessant attempts at character assassination.
had thought I was fighting for what I valued most - a great principle, an
idea of freedom, and yes, a book - against what I most disliked -
intolerance, bigotry and violence. I am so sorry that the British have, for
the most part, not been prepared to see it that way.¨
There were clues about his feelings for Britain, for those who cared to read
his interviews closely. He lived in London, but he never felt he belonged
there. In 1987 when he was filming the Riddle of Midnight in India, Dina
Vakil and I met him at the President Hotel. He had just completed writing
The Satanic Verses, and none of us knew about the furore it would cause.
asked him about living in London, and he said: "I have always seen it as
kind of impermanent settlement, but it is an impermanent settlement that
has lasted 25 years! I do regularly think about not staying there (in
England). I don¡¦t particularly wish to grow old in England--it's
not a very
pleasant country to grow old in. I don¡¦t like being cold."
Dina asked if
returning to India was an option. He thought for a while and said: "Going
back to India would be the easiest thing to do, but there is a sense in which
you can¡¦t go home again. Your life takes you in a certain direction."
Yet, many chose not to see those signs, nor the obvious similarity between
the polyglot, energetic and electric cultures of New York and Bombay. If
people in London are surprised that Rushdie has moved to New York, I¡¦m
surprised that it took him so long to do so.
Among all the columnists who have responded to Rushdie¡¦s betrayal
London, if it can indeed be called that, the most personalized response
came from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who writes on race-related issues in The
Independent. She felt personally betrayed, having looked upon him as the
writer who gave his community a voice in what was, until then, a white
world. "Hope New York can give him what it is he seeks and that he gets
some properly expensive NY therapist to cure him of this tendency he has
acquired to leave those who love him. What concerns me is the way this
brilliant and uniquely gifted writer turns his back again and again on the
people who adore him. These repeated betrayals of various constituencies
seem perplexingly self-destructive, especially as Rushdie¡¦s
needs this adoration to live and grow. Is he testing this love, or is he
now simply too big for his own head? Remember that he wrote in this
newspaper a few years ago that writers like him filled the "god-shaped
hole" in people's lives."
In a stinging response, Rushdie referred to her ¡§unusually malevolent¡¨
piece as ¡§a prolonged sneer,¡¨ and insisted he was
not abandoning Britain.
"Do I really have to explain that it is possible to live in two places and
maintain close relationships in both? Has Yasmin ever heard of aircraft?"
Alibhai-Brown recalled the days of the fatwa, during which she felt
orphaned between her community's elders, some of whom felt insulted by his
book, an emotion the secular fundamentalists completely failed to
understand. She went on: "There they were, brave soldiers, defending values
they held dearer than life. The list was as long as it was impressive. Fay
Weldon, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer, Melvyn Bragg,
Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Michael Ignatieff, even Kilroy, all took up the
cause in the name of liberalism, secularism and post-modern nihilism. If
Rushdie cut himself, they queued up to give him their blood. And if anyone
dared to criticise him, they unflinchingly came out to fight back. I wonder
how they feel today at what must appear wounding ingratitude on the part
their hero. Have they any plans to raise money, and keep this national
treasure at home the way art-lovers did with The Three Graces by Canova?
Are they even now promising Rushdie all future book prizes forever,
whether he deserves them or not? Or are they, at long last, able to look
this episode with a dispassionate eye?"
At least one of them, the brilliant novelist Ian McEwan, who won the Booker
for Amsterdam in 1999, had a wry response. When asked by a Manhattan
weekly why Salman Rushdie was keen to quit London for the Big Apple, he
replied: "It's the difference between being stuck in a remote foggy island
off the northwest coast of Europe in AD50 and being in Rome.¡¨
The British have often seen Manhattan and its excesses as the Rome of our
times, and in their more nostalgic moments, thought of themselves as the
Athenians of our times. The reality is closer to what McEwan describes:
Britain is that remote foggy island, not Greece. Cheap novels, plays whose
names you can't remember, and navel-gazing newspapers that are neurotically
focussed on domestic issues pervade the scene.
On top of all that is the literary bitchiness, which many feel is another
reason Rushdie decided to leave. You can eat only so many frogs, as the
Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz once said, describing his decision to leave
Underscoring this point, John Sutherland wrote in The Guardian: "I
personally think he is the greatest living novelist we have. And now we
have him no longer. Are we then driving away the geese that lay our golden
literary eggs? Could we reverse this talent drain by being nicer to our
Sutherland too believes that the thing that possibly upset Rushdie most was
the literary party gossip and the reviews. There is some truth in this.
Back in 1983, when Rushdie was on his triumphant journey through India
after Midnight¡¦s Children had won the Booker, I had spent the
of a morning with him. We drove from Nariman Point to Breach Candy,
zig-zagging through Bombay Gymkhana, Metro cinema, and the Marine Drive,
then all the way to his old house (Methwold Estate in the book) in the
quiet lane above where Amarsons now stands (and once it had Bombelli and
its one-yard-of-chocolates!), near Scandal Point. He talked about his
writing, and we took pictures of him near the part of Bombay that he has
immortalized in so many of his novels.
I asked him about Grimus then, and he said he was surprised by the
vicious reception it received. Most first novels rarely get reviewed; but
in the case of Grimus, not only was it reviewed and given prime space,
most people were "very, very rude" about it. Even after the Booker and the
accolades, that continued to hurt.
Sutherland feels literary bitchiness and bad reviews may have stung too
deeply, and may have contributed to his disillusionment with literary
London. "There is no question that bad reviews hurt. As much as sticks and
stones, if they are done well enough. Nor is there any question that
British literary pages do little to discourage hatchetry or the snide
review," he said. American newspapers do a thorough background check of a
reviewer, to prevent bias, prejudice, or malice colouring judgment. In
Britain, rather, editors like it when reviewers get personal.
The London literary world runs on bile, he says, because the industry is
extremely competitive. Britain is a smaller market than the US, and unlike
the US, more concentrated. There are more ¡¥quality¡¦
papers in London than
in New York, and fewer readers. To arouse and maintain the interest of
these readers, editors like controversy: blood on the broadsheets, as it
were. "Write something slashing, and your friends will all tell you how
much they enjoyed it. Use the word 'splendid' in the first sentence and you
can kiss the reader goodbye," Sutherland said. (In a reflection of the
times we live in, the latest celebrity spat involves cookbook writer Delia
Smith and TV chef Anthony Worrall-Thompson. The epithets they¡¦ve
each other drip with so much venom that I'm sure both spent the better part
of the day thinking of saying something witty, rather than, well, getting
With over 2,000 novels published annually, and only a few getting reviewed,
the publishing companies try hard to market books and authors. Many
reviewers believe they have a god-given duty to fight this assault on good
taste, and take it out on the authors who do book-signings, public
readings--in other words, those who prefer the limelight. And Rushdie
savoured the limelight. These reviewers believe "hype" is a cancer they
must remove from the body. Sutherland thus concludes: "So what if you lose
a genius or two to America in the process."
The novelist Sylvia Brownrigg agrees. She recalled meeting a prominent
literary agent who asked her once why she chose to leave the US for London.
Amused by the question, she wrote: "You won't find New Yorkers posing this
question to newcomers, so sure are they of the universal desire to live in
their city; glum Londoners seem always to express surprise, even
scepticism, towards new arrivals.¡¨ Brownrigg gave some Pollyannaish
response to the effect that she thought London must be a good city for a
writer, to which the agent promptly responded "Really? But it's so narrow
"Certainly in London people publish their lovers, review their exes, review
their employers, puff their friends," she said. "Commentators and diarists
talk across the broadsheets as if attending a raucously entertaining dinner
party, leaving newspaper readers to guess at what private scores they may
be settling as they get in their digs. It is a problem when a small elite
controls the cultural conversation about books," she wrote.
Rushdie is not the first British writer to move to the US: Martin Amis did
it before him, as did the editor-couple, Harold Evans and Tina Brown. All
of that provoked Julie Burchill, a particularly acidic columnist, to write:
"The recent nasty comments from Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Jeanette
Winterson about how they're planning to leg it to America because this
country is going to the dogs - ie, not buying their rotten books in
anything like the quantities they used to. Go on, be honest: which trio
would you rather go down the pub with?"
But Alexander Chancellor, who lived in New York for a year in 1993, wrote
in The Spectator, that he understood the reason for the move, "especially
in the case of Rushdie, who has spent many years in London cooped up in
safe houses with the Special Branch always in attendance. But high-profile
British immigrants also have an irritating tendency to justify a decision
that needs no justification by making wrong-headed, bitter-sounding
comparisons between New York and Britain."
But I suspect it is easy to fall for that, having lived once in New York,
and now in London. There is a feeling of buoyance, of bounce, of energy,
electricity, that one feels the moment one walks down the sidewalks of
Manhattan. It is unique to Manhattan; you don¡¦t feel that in
Brooklyn, sylvan and suburban Queens, rough and ready Bronx, and
whoever goes to Staten Island anyway! In Manhattan, every street corner
is a discovery.
Manhattan is a superlative of what Bombay is all about, of what Bombay
aspires to be. People from all over India came to Bombay; people from all
over the world come to Manhattan. In India, it was believed, you made it
you could make it in Bombay. Manhattan holds similar allure for the world.
At 53, Rushdie is basking in that sunshine, and, in a sense, reliving his
childhood. (In The New York Times piece, Buford talks of Rushdie¡¦s
to boogie the night away--perhaps the first time, since his days at the
Metro Cub Club or Cathedral and John Connon School socials.) No wonder, the
conversationalists and keepers of culture in a cold, wet and grey island
feel hurt and upset about it. But Rushdie is living well, away from the
land that offered him sanctuary during the fatwa.
But, then, leaving the past behind, moving on, and reinventing one's
self--isn't that what his fiction is all about? Why is anyone surprised?