Saturday, October 30, 1999

an interview with salman rushdie

Proud papa Salman Rushdie anxiously awaited a phone call. No, it had nothing to do with the death sentencethe Iranian fanatics have imposed upon him.

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in Forbes in October 1997).

INDEPENDENT India turned 50 this summer, and so did author Salman Rushdie. When we interviewed him recently in Manhattan he was focused on both anniversaries- his own and that of his native land, whose birth he celebrated in his splendid 1981 novel Midnight's Children.

"It's serious, 50 is serious," says Rushdie somberly. "It tells you there may not be that much time. It makes you conscious of that, but that's constructive."

Rushdie, of course, already had a fair amount to be anxious about, courtesy of the death sentence pronounced upon him by the fanatical Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for his book, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie has lived in hiding in the United Kingdom since, protected around the clock. When he does get out, as he did during his recent visit to New York, every reservation must be made under a false name.

We are meeting in New York City, two fellow Indians, long residents abroad, yet feeling a common bond. He looks rumpled in a literary sort of way, in blue T shirt, baggy pants and red shoes. We are speaking quietly. "Nobody talks like this in India," smiles Rushdie. "They either shout or whisper." We both pause, exchange a knowing look and say almost in unison: "More likely shout."

He goes on: "India is one of those odd places where there is no middle register, there are only extremes." Including extremes of wealth and poverty. American liberals like to bemoan what they see as a growing gap here between the rich and those just getting by, but they don't have a clue as to how wide that gap can get. India is developing fast, becoming richer by the day, but at least half the population is left way behind. "If there was a failure of trickle-down economic theory in any country, it was India," he says. "There is a cliche about Bombay: the hovel and the high-rise. There are people who live on the 40th floor and come down only to get into their chauffeur-driven cars and go on to another elevator and up to another 40th floor. Then there is the humanity that lives in the gutter."

The gutter, of course, is a breeding ground for demagoguery. India is so rich in demagoguery that its supposedly secularist government has bowed to Iranian pressure and prevents Rushdie from returning home.

Though Muslim, his parents remained in Bombay rather than flee to Pakistan in 1947 when British India was split into Islamic Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India. The resulting exchange of population led to the deaths-by violence or disease-of at least 500,000 people.

Oddly, Rushdie, bigotry's victim, believes that Islamic fundamentalism is more benign than it appears. "It's a mistake in the West to think that when the mullahs speak they speak with the 'true' voice of Islam, and that dissidents are a minority. There is a liberal voice in these [Islamic] cultures saying ... modernize."

Rushdie is not about to go around cringing. "I'm not waiting for the Iranians to hand me back my freedom-it was never theirs to take away." He has just married for the third time, to Elizabeth West, the mother of his 3-month-old baby, and with whom he has recently coedited an anthology of Indian writing titled Mirrorwork. "Of course there is a need for caution, but it's one thing to be cautious and another to hide under the bed."

Just then the cell phone rings. Rushdie jumps. The news is good. His son got into the college of his choice. (Rushdie won't say which one for security reasons.) Suddenly the literary figure is just another proud papa. "Thank God, two years of tension are over," he says, wiping his brow in mock relief.