Within days of each other, Salman Rushdie and Leonard Nimoy both came to speak at the National Press Club in Washington. I attended both sessions, hoping to play the fool and deliberately get the two men confused. “Mr. Rushdie,” I planned to ask the great writer. “In episode 16, is it true that you and William Shatner were having an off screen tiff?”
Of course I chickened out. But asinine juvenility aside, my temptation was a telling one, and not only because of Rushdie’s Vulcan-like features and comparatively subdued and logical demeanor. (Just look at that interesting angular face and tell me you haven’t thought “alien” at least once.) Rushdie, you see, has passed beyond the shadow of infamous intellectual and emerged into the spotlight of celebrity, adopting the roles and ephemera that such a passage implies.
Nimoy may be an American icon, but Rushdie’s is a face known worldwide and associated with far more than just pop culture. The author of one of history’s greatest English literary works (Midnight’s Children, winner of the Booker Prize and the “Booker of Bookers,” an award for the best book to have ever received the former prize), he was guaranteed fame in at least authorly and scholastic circles. When his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, caused the Iranian theocracy to declare a fatwa, which demanded his death for the book’s perceived anti-Islam content, Rushdie became much more. He was thrust into the roles of icon, a hero of free speech, a symbol of the tyranny of religious persecution and, depending upon one’s political slant, other less circumspect roles: goat, heretic, prophet, apologist and political cabalist.
Ironically, like all writers, Rushdie had sought the role of iconoclast, not icon. His books are known for their unfettered phraseology, wholeness of people and for their tendency to throw a knowing wink at normally protected institutions like government, religion, and the military. In this sense at least, the fatwa has served him well, lending him an air of authority when dealing with issues of personal and international security and the veracity and sanguineness of the artist’s voice.
Rushdie himself cites as an influence the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who through verse taught young Salman the “Writer’s Job” as being both a private artist and public commentator. From this tradition arises Rushdie’s latest book, Step Across This Line, a collection of essays, speeches, letters, and newspaper columns written over the past 10 years and encompassing his thoughts on all manner of things, including life under the fatwa—what he calls his “plague years.” It is clear he is striving to once again embrace the poetic voice and the poet’s political license, his years of plague seemingly having inoculated him against fears of unpopularity or derision.
Step Across This Line is an intriguing work for its contextual positioning of a rag-doll Rushdie to be buffeted by history’s unpredictable winds. An unintentional irony has him beginning the book with an odd essay about his fascination with The Wizard of Oz, the ultimate tale of windstorms and otherworldliness. Rushdie’s fascination with The Wizard of Oz pops up time and again in his nonfiction, serving as a motif for his unique position between worlds of ancientness and modernity, East and West, theocratic and secular governance, the black and white dull world of Dorothy’s Kansas and the bright fantastical literary world of Oz.
Between Kansas and Oz is a rainbow boundary, a line over which Rushdie bids us step. He reminds us of Voltaire’s claim that writers (and presumably all supposed thinkers) should live near frontiers, so that one can simply step across into a new political sphere should one’s ideas prove unpalatable to those in power. In his live address, though, he laments that Voltaire’s strategy is no longer sound, that the world is now such that no frontier truly abuts a sanctuary anymore; Oz is unattainable for those who transgress as vociferously as Rushdie did.
His transgression has created an author of melancholy, though he would surely refute such a characterization. There is a tone of loss that hums beneath the brazen prose of Step Across The Line, one that hints at regret and dismay. It’s a sentiment not echoed in the book’s ostensible content, however, which makes bold and unapologetic political proclamations. To live under decree of assassination is, it seems, an opportunity for an artist of Rushdie’s caliber to embrace Faiz’s dictum, to exist in the entire world of ills simultaneously, while essentially being restrained in a cage. And to be compelled to monitor a world of miseries is to unavoidably have one’s joyful core challenged. In his address, Rushdie proclaimed that the world of the Ionian philosopher Hericlitus is dead: the way we live our lives no longer determines how our lives will end. In other words, good people are increasingly getting screwed. Rushdie’s novelized characters therefore exist in political scenarios in which the world external to the protagonist, and not his internal machinations, defines the course of his life.
It is deliciously ironic that such is also the case of the author himself, thrust into danger by virtue of political happenstance. There is a sobering moment in Step Across This Line, when Rushdie reveals his first reaction upon learning of the fatwa: “I’m a dead man,” he thought to himself. Descriptions of his “plague years” make the best reading. One devours with full attention passages that describe Rushdie holed up in a Manhattan apartment whose windows were blocked by bulletproof mattresses, guarded by “armed men with Schwarzneggar-sized muscles and weaponry.” In that room, he was taught to meditate by poet Allen Ginsberg. The irony of the Indian by birth instructed in Buddhism by an American, in that most ridiculous and terrifying of environments, is not lost to Rushdie. He ends the passage, “There’s nothing like life; you can’t make this stuff up.”
Rushdie’s relationship with the East is a difficult one. Though he paints his recollections of India, and of his ties with India once relocated to Britain, in loving hues, there is most definitely a current of bitterness in his voice. After his Washington address, a man asked whether Rushdie would be setting any future novels in the nation of his birth. He replied that yes, of course he would, since India is deeply a part of him. But when an Indian woman then asked why the covers of his Indian editions are less attractive than those of his books’ Western editions, he snapped rather irritably that he is not responsible for what his Indian printers select as cover adornments. The anger lasted but a split-second, but it was there.
It is clearly a complicated relationship, this thing between the great author and his motherland, one like between a prodigal son and rejecting parent. There are charming recollections in the book of a youth spent in England, hoping to milk his exotic Oriental appeal for social or sexual gain: “In the quest for cool, it helped that I was Indian. ‘India man,’ people said. ‘Far out.’” And there is the bitter tale of trying to produce a film version of Midnight’s Children, only to have the project railroaded at the last moment by the Indian government. In his words, “As for me, the rejection of Midnight’s Children changed something profound in my relationship with the East. Something broke, and I’m not sure it can be mended.”
As Step Across This Line shows, though, Rushdie is still preoccupied with India. He devotes whole chapters to Indian issues, whether government corruption, writers’ rights, the rise of fundamentalist Hinduism, Islamist terrorism or Gandhi’s legacy. His abiding and longing fascination is thus expressed:
Churchill said India wasn’t a nation, just an “abstraction.” John Kenneth Galbraith, more affectionately, and more memorably, described it as “functioning anarchy.” Both of them, in my view, underestimated the strength of the India-idea. It may be the most innovative national philosophy to have emerged in the post-colonial period. It deserves to be celebrated; because it is an idea that has enemies, within India as well as outside her frontiers, and to celebrate it is also to defend it against its foes.
A triumphant chapter, titled “A Dream of Glorious Return,” tells of his eventual (secretive) return to India almost a decade since his effective banishment. It is a profile of a maturing man who longs to show his grown son the familial and racial legacy and history thus far denied him. There is a seeping, tortured love of the land that spits from between clenched teeth, shaped into words by a mind who yet wishes to be perceived as columnar and, in this case, somewhat dispassionate. It’s an entertaining chapter, not the least for its descriptions of nutty Indian officiousness and the difficulties of sustaining a pretense of secrecy.
Rushdie’s India is one he sees reflected when reading Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Austen’s “willful, sharp-tongued women, brimming with potential but doomed by narrow convention” struck Rushdie as typically Indian. And Dickensian London, “that stenchy, rotting city full of sly, conniving shysters, that city in which goodness was under constant assault by duplicity, malice, and greed” seemed to him to be a mirror of sprawling “pullulating” Indian cities, with their “preening elites” living in willful ignorance of the plight of the masses in the streets below. Despite himself, he seems constantly drawn to the tug of cultures between East and West, always positioning himself on the frontier betwixt the two, seeking Dorothy’s rainbow or Voltaire’s border of escape even while denying that such a thing can still exist.