You are here:

Memories of a fatwa bygone: Reviewing Rushdie's memoir

By Oindrila Mukherjee

The epigraph of Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Random House; 636 pages) includes the words “what’s past is prologue” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Certainly, the last couple of weeks, following the release of an anti-Islam YouTube video and the subsequent murder of the US ambassador to Libya would indicate exactly that. The past is not over; it is merely an indication of what’s to come.

Salman Rushdie’s much awaited memoir begins on that fateful day, 14 February, 1989, when the author received his Valentine’s Day greeting from the Ayatollah Khomeini, and traces Rushdie’s life for the next decade, lived under the shadow of the fatwa. Except it isn’t really his life. It’s the life of Joseph Anton.

This Tom Clancy-esque life

Rushdie was asked to come up with an alias that would enable him to rent homes and write checks, and also prevent the secret police assigned to protect him from inadvertently saying his name in public. Indian names were forbidden because they might be too obvious. Rushdie said in a recent interview with Charlie Rose that he had to give up not only his home but even the ethnicity of his name. In the end, he “retreated into literature,” and found the names of two of his favourite writers – Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. Thus, a new persona was born.

The creation of this persona might be one reason why this memoir is written entirely in third person. Rushdie has said he felt like the events were happening to someone else. The third person perhaps helped him to detach himself and novelise his life. The device has a curious effect. It is so clearly Rushdie’s voice and life, that I unconsciously inserted the “I” into the sentences.

Rushdie has said he felt like the events were happening to someone else. AP

In many parts, the memoir reads like a spy novel. With the help of a journal he kept at the time, Rushdie recreates the daily trials of his surreal life. We see him ducking behind a kitchen counter, fleeing from home to home every time his cover was blown, living in hotels and friends’ homes for days, weeks, or months at a time, and being “dry-cleaned” by police vehicles on the streets when he needed to go somewhere – an elaborate ritual that involved mixing up car speeds, and changing lanes to throw off potential tails. The need to constantly hide, live with protection officers, and notify the police of every move, reveals an existence that was devoid of privacy, spontaneity, and of course, independence.

The long, dark months are contrasted by occasional, brief visits to the USA, where Joseph Anton was able to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life, such as a walk in Battery Park, a buggy ride, or throwing a football around on the beach. In recent times, the American media has portrayed Rushdie as a party animal, who is frequently sighted at various social events across New York. The freedom to go out in public at will, after years of being imprisoned in temporary homes, must be euphoric.

Celebrity encounters

Salman Rushdie is the ultimate cosmopolitan. Even in the darkest times, his life still would seem glamorous to many. The memoir mentions his surprise appearance at a U2 concert, dinners with the who’s who of the literary world, friendships with Martin Amis, Angela Carter, and Edward Said, encounters with Vaclav Havel, John Major, and other heads of state.

Listening to one of Rushdie’s talks or reading his memoirs have a similar effect. Both include a generous sprinkling of celebrity anecdotes. He travels to America on a plane whose interior is designed by Ralph Lauren. He played croquet with EM Forster when he was a student at Cambridge. He stayed at Bono’s home in Ireland where guests were asked to scribble messages on the bathroom wall. He received a kiss on the mouth from Hugh Grant during the filming of Bridget Jones’ Diary, but it never made the final cut.

We get interesting information not only about Rushdie, but about other iconic figures. Edward Said was a hypochondriac until he really fell seriously ill with leukemia. The painter MF Husain painted over a portrait of Rushdie’s mother made by the artist Krishen Khanna, sold it, and later refused to divulge its whereabouts. Writer Thomas Pynchon appears at a dinner hosted by Sonny Mehta, publisher at Knopf, “looking exactly as Thomas Pynchon should look. He was tall, wore a red-and-white lumberjack shirt and blue jeans, had Albert Einstein white hair and Bugs Bunny front teeth.” Angela Carter sat upright in an armchair and bravely poured tea a month before she died of lung cancer.

Along with his faithful recording of loyal friends who stood by him, Rushdie makes sure to mention the detractors. Cat Stevens repeatedly “bubbled up in The Guardian like a fart in a bathtub,” demanding that Rushdie withdraw his book and “repent.”

Of Arundhati Roy he says he ran into her at the launch of The God of Small Things, and wanted to congratulate her for a positive review she’d received by John Updike in the New Yorker. But he found her in a surprisingly icy mood. When he suggested she enjoy her books success instead of being so cool, she looked him straight in the eye, said, “I am pretty cool,” and turned away.

The memoir could easily have been a hundred pages shorter. There are esoteric passages on the history of Mauritius, when he goes there for a vacation, or the life of German photographer Gustavo Thorlichen for instance, that seem a tad long. But if you’ve heard Rushdie speaking in public, he is both erudite and voluble.

Last spring, when I was teaching fiction writing at Emory University, I requested Rushdie to visit my class. It was without a doubt one of the most entertaining 75 minutes in the history of creative writing pedagogy. He told the students in my class, quite accurately, if they wanted their protagonist to sleep with a woman, they probably shouldn’t have him tell her that.

Rushdie in love

Moments of lightness such as these provide some relief in the period of prolonged darkness that the memoir focuses on. But the most moving sections are when he talks about his closest relationships.

After a strained relationship with his father for most of his life, Rushdie made a sort of peace with him during the last six days of his life. When he learned his father was dying of cancer, he went to Pakistan, where his parents now lived, and cared for him. “Tenderly, one afternoon, he picked up an electric shaver and shaved his father’s face.” (Saladin Chamcha does the same to his father in The Satanic Verses.)

His portrayal of his four marriages as well as other relationships with women reveals a complex man who maintained close friendships with two of his wives but was deeply disappointed by the other two. He is brutally honest about his infidelities, his quarrels, and his vulnerability to the women in his life.

Rushdie speaks of his former wives  Clarissa Luard and Elizabeth West, the mothers of his two sons, with great affection and gratitude. While he can sound patronising sometimes while underlining how he helped them professionally or financially, his grief at Luard’s death is genuine and profoundly moving. He describes the “worst day” of his life as the one when she, from whom he was already estranged, and their son Zafar, were missing for a few hours and could not be found.

Both Luard and West are hailed as loyal and loving, and as excellent parents. In contrast, his second wife, the writer Marianne Wiggins, is portrayed as a manipulative and unstable woman who lied, stole his photographs, and often looked “deranged.”

Rushdie’s most honest self-appraisal perhaps comes when he talks of how he left West for model and actress Padma Lakshmi, whom he describes as his “millenarian illusion,” “an American, pilgrim dream – a Mayflower fantasy.” Lakshmi’s is another scathing portrayal, this time of a beautiful but ambitious and self-absorbed opportunist. Rushdie is very good at cutting people to size when he wants to.

There is much affection for his sister Sameen, nostalgia for his parents, and gratitude for friends. But anyone who reads this memoir or has seen his Facebook posts know that the most abiding relationships in his life are with his sons Zafar and Milan. The honesty with which he records Zafar’s troubled phases, for instance when he steals from his parents or does not do well at school, is touching. But he never wavers in his concern for their safety and his genuine devotion to them.

People write memoirs to confess, to vent, to express what has not been expressed. Rushdie says that one of the great pleasures of writing his was to be able to thank those who supported him during the years when he was a hunted man. He speaks of the humiliation of a life in hiding, and the despair that he frequently felt. He also writes a series of imaginary letters to various characters ranging from his mother to his detractors to his younger self.

Ultimately, this memoir is not about one man, however compelling his life’s story might be. Both in this book and in recent interviews, Rushdie has spoken of the fatwa as a sort of starting point for the conflict between radical Islam and Western culture. He traces a line in the memoir from the issuing of the fatwa against him through the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, to the events of 9/11.

Time and again, the author writes about his attempt to be the flag bearer for freedom of expression, and about his role in the shaping of the world’s history. While his claim may sound conceited, it is not entirely untrue. The self-comparisons with Dostoevsky and Rabelais, and other great writers of the past, also seem a little pompous, until one realises that this memoir is not just about Salman Rushdie’s life or relationships. It is a defense of literature itself and a chronicle of our times, and will surely be read as such in years to come.