A new novel by Salman Rushdie is not a quiet thing, to be taken up in a moment of intimacy in which the reader reciprocates the labor of the writer, the private act of reading reflecting back the solitary task of writing. The Rushdie novel appears in a convoy, behind barricades and police lines, with outriders and bodyguards, its image controlled by public relations handlers, its message broadcast over loudspeakers. Each new novel by Rushdie, no matter how significant or trivial as a literary object, brings with it other narratives: the fatwa imposed by the ayatollah; the cover photo of Rushdie with Bono; copies of The Satanic Verses being burned in nameless third-world countries; Rushdie threatening a New York journalist with a baseball bat. A Rushdie novel, like its author, is a public figure, its thingness easy to lose in the sound and the fury. It takes an effort of will, therefore, to step back from the roar, to think of the books, and recall the early intimations of the wrong turn taken by this once talented writer, to remember the pointless controversy that consumed people who had more crucial battles to fight.
For me the transformation of Rushdie’s work from a promising group of early books—Midnight’s Children, Shame, and his first collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands—into a succession of hectic events began two decades ago, in a Calcutta kebab shop, where I met a man who detested Rushdie without having read a word of him. He was a daily wage worker, a small man with a pockmarked face who asked me if I’d heard about the author who had written a book insulting Islam. I am not a Muslim, but the worker didn’t seem particularly interested in my religion. He could tell I was a college student, someone who had a relationship with books and the English language, and who therefore shared an affinity with the man against whom he would demonstrate that evening outside the British Consulate. He was curious to know my interpretation of Rushdie, even if it wasn’t likely to accord with his own. “Why demonstrate against Rushdie?” I asked the man. “Our mullah asked us to,” he said. “This man Rushdie insulted the prophet.”
It was the kind of scenario later to send neocons into a frenzy. They would have been even more impressed by the surroundings in which our conversation took place. The kebab shop was in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood, a place of twisting alleyways and low houses where great slabs of beef hung from hooks in butchers’ shops across from the restaurants. I lived in a hostel nearby and came to the neighborhood for its cheap meals, often walking past a small group of men prostrating themselves on the narrow lane as they went through their afternoon or evening prayers. Two years later, when the Gulf War broke out, the streets of the neighborhood would be festooned with pictures of Saddam Hussein. But these impressions present only a partial picture. The neighborhood was near College Street, the busiest stretch of bookstalls in Calcutta. If the kebab shops fed my body, the College Street bookstalls—many of them run by Muslims—supported my reading habits. And the Muslim neighborhood was capable of containing other identities: there was the Hindu dairy stall where I got my mug of evening milk, the Hindu charity with a hearse that was sent out periodically to perform cremation rites for people who had no family to consign them to the flames. The neighborhood offered, in other words, the kind of cosmopolitan cultural mix often cited by Rushdie as inspiration for his omnivorous style. An early example is the self-conscious pronouncement of Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Midnight’s Children:
Note that, despite my Muslim background, I’m enough of a Bombayite to be well up in Hindu stories, and I’m very fond of the image of trunk-nosed, flap-eared Ganesh solemnly taking dictation!
This was the idea of Rushdie I had in those days: an engaged, irreverent writer who took his material from all traditions and set his work against authoritarianism. Needless to say, I hadn’t read The Satanic Verses myself—no copies were to be found in the shops, and the book was soon to be banned by the Indian government because of fears that it would lead to rioting—but I didn’t consider this a problem. I had read and admired Rushdie’s earlier novels and possessed a certain understanding of literature, of its work of resistance against tyranny and dogma; I had a specific sense of Rushdie as a man determined to write from the margins. In those days, Rushdie’s books appeared to be books, not events, and appeared to stand at an angle to the history they were narrating, inserting new registers and ideas about the third world into the homogeneous body of novels in English.