Happy birthday, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

Happy birthday, Salman Rushdie!

He is all of 67 today. What a pity a book he began with such brio has haunted him ever since.

Few books open as memorably as The Satanic Verses. I cannot imagine any other writer describing an air crash quite like him. After the plane explodes over the English Channel, the two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are the only survivors, found washed up on a snowbound English beach.

I have not read beyond the opening because I don’t want to get into any religious controversy. All religions should be respected. I don’t want to hear ill of any religion.

But the opening of this novel is unforgettable. The two characters falling from the sky, flapping their arms and singing as they fall, reminded me of Walt Disney and Mary Poppins.

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Joseph Anton: Rushdie on Rushdie

I remember watching on CNN the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001.

I could not believe my eyes as the two planes commandeered by al-Qaeda terrorists hit the twin towers, bringing them down in tongues of fire, clouds of smoke.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed and retribution followed with the Americans going after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the war on terror, security stepped up everywhere. Commentators began to talk of a post-9/11 world.

But actually the change began more than a decade ago when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in February 1989, calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for blaspheming the Prophet in The Satanic Verses.

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Margaret Thatcher and the books of her time

I blogged about Margaret Thatcher and the music of her time and have seen quite a few articles since then about the British pop music scene of that era. One should recall the books, too. It was a grand time for booklovers.

P.G. Wodehouse died in 1975, but one could look forward to new books by  John le Carre, Len Deighton, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, Gerald Durrell and a phalanx of literary fiction.

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Amit Chaudhuri, The Immortals

It’s been a long time coming. Except that Amit Chaudhuri wouldn’t have used those words sung by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

The gifted Indian writer,who teaches contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia, prefers Indian classical music.

An accomplished singer himself, he pays homage to the music in The Immortals.

Now don’t  let that turn you off a wonderful novel.

Even though I know nothing about Indian classical music, I was drawn irresistibly into the story.

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Salman Rushdie and a fatwa woman

On this day 20 years ago, Salman Rushdie was defending The Satanic Verses in a BBC interview, denying it was an attack on Islam. But the first blood had already been spilled with five people killed in violent agitation over the book in Islamabad, Pakistan. And the next day – tomorrow marks its 20th anniversary – Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, calling for the execution of Rushdie.

Now on the BBC you can listen again to that interview with Rushdie.

“I had no intention to be disrespectful towards the religion itself or towards its founder,” he said. “That’s why I thought let’s not call him Mohammed, let’s not call it Mecca, let’s not call the religion Islam. Let’s preserve the echoes of what I know, but let’s put it into a dream, let’s put it into a dream of a man who has recently lost his faith and therefore finds it difficult to believe in the literal truth of the revelations, a dream that becomes an expression of the turmoil in him.”

You can listen to the interview if you click on The Strand arts programme on the BBC World Service website.

The interview can be heard about 10 minutes into the nearly half-an-hour-long programme where editors, journalists and publishers discuss the fallout from the fatwa.

The Satanic Verses was Rusdhie’s last great novel, says the writer Kenan Malik.

Whitbread prize

It won the Whitbread prize – now the Costa prize – for the novel of the year in 1988.

The BBC broadcaster Kate Adie, who was one of the judges, recalls how it narrowly lost the top prize.

Paul Sayer’s The Comforts of Madness won the Whitbread book of the year award, beating The Satanic Verses.

“We were split right down the middle,” says Adie, who voted for Rushdie. The judges were still debating who should get the prize when it became time for the prize-giving dinner.  Adie recalls with relish the chief came in and told them: “If you don’t make a decision soon, there will be burnt offerings for dinner.”

Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda won the Booker prize that year, another defeat for Rushdie who was on the short list.

Rushdie survives but there have been other victims: the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was stabbed to death, the Italian translator injured in a knife attack, the Norwegian publisher shot and injured, and the Turkish translator was the target of an arson attack that killed 37 others but not him, recalls the BBC presenter Harriett Gilbert.

Journalist who caused riots

You can also hear another writer who had to flee for her life.

The Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel faced a fatwa calling for her execution after she also offended the Muslims.

Her offence was a sentence she wrote about the Prophet in an article about Miss World contestants in 2002. It sparked riots in Nigeria – more than 200 people were killed and over 1,000 injured.

You can read the article here

The deeply repentant journalist, now living in Norway, tells the BBC she wrote the sentence on the spur on the moment. The editor of the Nigerian newspaper, This Day, asked her to write the article, she says and adds: 

“As I was writing, it suddenly occurred to me that according to Islam a Muslim man is allowed to marry up to four wives and suddenly the thought struck me that wouldn’t it be amusing if the Prophet could have chosen one of these beautiful women for himself as a bride. And that was the idea behind the sentence which caused so much fury. I do understand that it’s probably not a form of humour which a lot of Nigerians could appreciate but I personally found it quite funny and amusing.”

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Updike’s Terrorist and adulterers

The Terrorist by John Updike

India, not Iran, was the first to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses shortly after it came out in September 1988, reminds the Observer.

The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government banned the book under pressure from the opposition Janata Party. Both wanted the Muslim vote.

It was only then that a group of imams in Iran read a section of the book to Ayatollah Khomeini. We all know what followed.

This February marks the 20th anniversary of the ayatollah’s fatwa, calling for the execution of Rushdie.

Rusdhie lives but others have died, reminds Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair:

We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal.

I think it’s only decent not to hurt others’ feelings.

But this media self-censorship, as Hitchens calls it, has resulted in a dearth of good writing on a serious issue.

Few writers have written about Muslim terrorists the way Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and John Le Carre explored previous generations of terrorists and spies.

I haven’t read Le Carre’s latest novel.

But I enjoyed Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, where he wrote about Kashmir and terrorism. A lyrical novel with a violent ending, it’s a thriller full of magical realism.

And there’s John Updike, who wrote The Terrorist. The September 11 tragedy inspired him to write a novel about a terrorist growing up in America.


New Jersey high school senior Ahmad Mulloy is the son of an Irish American nurse’s aide and aspiring painter and an Egyptian father who abandoned them years ago.

Ahmad is outraged by life with his mother who brings her boyfriends home and provocatively dressed girls at school. He seeks refuge in the strict teachings of Islam, but that makes him all the more angry about the temptations he sees. “Devils” is the first word in the book. (Time excerpted the first chapter.)

Devils, thinks Ahmad. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair…

The teachers, weak Christians and non-observant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief.

But he hides his feelings, takes part in sports and is a bright student. School counsellor Jack Levy wants him to go to college, but he says he wants to be a truck driver instead.


Levy visits him at home to talk sense into him. He ends up having an affair with the mother instead, dropping by when Ahmad is not at home.

Updike portrays the relationship between Jack and Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, beautifully. She is approaching 40, he is 62, with a wife with whom he still sleeps at home. They both know the affair won’t last, but that doesn’t prevent a growing intimacy. And, along the way, Jack begins to feel like a father to Ahmad.

But Jack doesn’t know the 18-year-old is being manipulated by his religious teacher, a Yemeni imam, who wants him to become a truck driver for a very specific reason. He plans to use Ahmad as a suicide bomber.

Ahmad readily agrees when he learns the plan. But on the day of his suicide mission, he is stopped on the road by Jack, who has somehow stumbled onto the secret.

Jack gets into the truck and tries to dissuade the boy. But Ahmad is adamant. He drives on with Jack sitting next to him. You can almost credits rolling across the screen as they continue their journey. The ending is very much like a movie.

Updike on The Terrorist

The problem with The Terrorist is its central character. Ahmad has a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. He won’t hurt a fly, refuses to have sex until he is married, and yet goes on a suicide mission to kill innocent people. But then who knows how a terrorist’s mind works?

Updike said when the book was published in 2006:

“I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system…

“I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith. The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world.”

Jack and Teresa

And he certainly got Jack and Teresa right. They are ordinary people trying to do their best – he as a counsellor, she as a painter – as they age. They are far from perfect – he is cheating on his wife, she is an indifferent mother – but they are also good, honest and attractive in their own ways. We know Jack won’t leave his wife, Beth, and Teresa will continue to chase her dreams for the right man and as a painter.

And there is Updike’s prose. No one writes better than him. 

Here Jack is watching Teresa – Terry – put on her clothes after lovemaking:

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Marquez biographer talks about the author

Even those who have not read Gabriel Garcia Marquez will enjoy listening to The Strand, the BBC World Service arts and culture programme, where Gerald Martin tells Harriett Gilbert how he wrote Marquez’s biography. The 1982 Nobel Prize winner for literature emerges as such a fascinating figure that one immediately wants to read him. The biography was supposed to appear in 1994 but has been published in Britain only recently and is yet to be released in America, where Martin teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Click on the link to go to the page and then listen to the interview on your media player. It’s almost half an hour long: You have been warned! But Martin has so much to say about Marquez, Latin America and the world that listeners will enjoy every minute of it.

Martin spent 17 years working on the biography, travelling around the world, meeting the peripatetic Marquez and his friends and acquaintances. He had to transcribe more than 300 interviews. But Marquez refused to be interviewed on tape. Martin could only chat with him over a cup of tea or a bottle of whisky and carry it all in his head to be written down later. What made the task more difficult is that Marquez is a born storyteller who likes to spin a yarn, so Martin would end up getting different accounts of the same incident. But Marquez is warm, generous and humorous, says Martin, and he had a wonderful time interviewing him.

Martin talks about Marquez’s friendship with Fidel Castro, Salman Rushdie’s debt to Marquez, and why Marquez is immensely popular in the Third World. One Hundred of Solitude is a global masterpiece that will be read for generations to come, he says, and adds that Love in the Time of Cholera was one of the most popular novels of the late 20th century.

Marquez is popular in the Third World because he writes about the effect of technical progress on developing societies, which can relate to his brand of magical realism, says Martin. He is right. Salman Rusdhie’s Midnight’s Children is perhaps the most successful example of magical realism in English fiction — and it is set in India.

It is a pleasure to listen to the interview because Martin is so knowledgeable and appreciative of Marquez. He started with the impression that Marquez was egoistic and narcissistic and ended up enjoying his company. Marquez is deeply intuitive and intuited what was going through his mind faster than he could get insights into the author,  says Martin.

Listen to the BBC interview and read the reviews of Martin’s book, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life, in The Times, the Telegraph and the Independent. The Telegraph review is especially fascinating with colourful details about Marquez. For example, on his honeymoon, he and his wife went to bed with three packets of cigarettes and an ashtray each and he told her the outline of what would become his greatest novel. 

The Enchantress of Florence

The Enchantress of Florence begins and ends like a movie. It opens
with a golden-haired stranger arriving in the Mughal emperor Akbar’s
capital, Fatehpur Sikri, and ends with Akbar meeting a legendary
beauty. What happens in between has the fairytale quality of the
Arabian Nights and uses the same literary device.

The Enchantress of Florence is a tale within a tale – the tale of
the stranger’s growing friendship with Akbar as he tells the emperor
the story of the legendary beauty, the enchantress of the title,
leading up to the revelation of his own identity. Both he and Akbar are
related to the lady, claims the stranger who calls himself Mogor
dell’Amore, the Mughal of Love.

According to him, the Enchantress of Florence is really the Mughal
princess Qara Koz (Lady Black Eyes), Akbar’s grandfather Babur’s “lost”
sister . But if she is Babur’s sister, how is she still a ravishing
beauty when she appears before Akbar? And is the Mughal of Love really
who he claims to be? He is either telling the truth or he isn’t. But,
speaking to the enchantress, Akbar learns it’s not so simple as that.
There’s a third possibility unknown even to the Mughal of Love.

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Le Carre: The spy who almost went out into the cold

John Le Carre was tempted to defect to the Soviet Union when he worked for MI6 during the Cold War in the early Sixties. “I wasn’t tempted ideologically, but when you spy intensively and you get closer and closer to the border . . . it seems such a small step to jump . . . and, you know, find out the rest,” he tells the Sunday Times.

As a British Foreign Service officer based in Germany, he knew how defectors were spirited across the Iron Curtain and described the manoeuvres vividly in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, one of his most famous thrillers published while he was still in the Foreign Service in 1963.

Le Carre — real name David John Moore Cornwell — was a member of the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964 after teaching at Eton from 1956 to 1958. His secret service career ended prematurely when his cover was blown by another former British agent, Kim Philby, who defected to Moscow in 1963 and revealed the identities of scores of British agents, many of whom were subsequently killed.

The Sunday Times says:

“It seems that in 1987 le Carré was offered the chance of a meeting… with the traitor (Kim Philby), fixed up through a shadowy Russian intermediary…  But le Carré demurred; he could not dine with Philby. “I just couldn’t do it. I said no.”

Why? “I just couldn’t do it.” He pauses for a moment. “There was always an instinct towards corruption in him. And remember, he was responsible for sending countless British agents to their deaths, to be killed – 40 or more in Albania . . . ”

Le Carre also answers questions about his feud with Salman Rushdie whose Satanic Verses he criticised as an affront to Muslims. But his own words now may offend the Muslims.

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Two Indians still in the Booker fray

I am not surprised Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence has failed to get past the long list to the short list for the 2008 Man Booker Prize even though bookmaker Ladbrokes installed it as the 4-1 favourite. As I wrote in an earlier post, the West might find the story too exotic. Midnight’s Children, the 1981 Booker winner which went on to the Booker of Bookers award this year, was exotic, but it was also a political allegory published at the right time, four years after the lifting of the state of emergency in India, which made it highly topical and relevant. And, of course, it’s a classic.

The Enchantress of Florence is highly relevant, too, if one looks under the surface. It deals with magic, the power of words, and social engineering — for what is the central character, who calls himself Mogor dell’Amore, but a piece of social engineering who has crafted a new persona for himself? Reading the book, I was reminded of Barack Obama who is as charismatic, confident and articulate and who has also been able to forge a persona of his own through his autobiographies.

But The Enchantress of Florence also has the fairytale quality of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a children’s classic, and that’s not usually found in Booker winners.

As an Indian, I am rooting for Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, which has been shortlisted for the Booker.The winner of the 50,000-pound prize will be announced on October 14.

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