The life and death of Salman Rushdie


Ever since one of his earliest ‘posthumous’ novels The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) I have no longer been able to read Rushdie without a bizarre sensation I am reading an impostor, writes Dabashi PHOTO/Reuters

In a recent flight, I was sitting a couple of rows behind Salman Rushdie on the British Airways flight 178 from New York to London. It was an eerie experience. On my way to the bathroom, I could see he was playing a video card game on his mobile phone. I was not even tempted to go forward and introduce myself. I can scarcely stand the man. Plus: can you imagine a bearded Iranian man approaching Salman Rushdie on a plane flying at 37,000 feet towards London. The man may freak out and relive the opening gambit of his Satanic Verses. Which one of us would be Gibreel Farishta and which Saladin Chamcha? Nerve-wracking!

I have met Salman Rushdie though, years ago when, in the heydays of the notorious edict (fatwa) against him, the late Edward Said had invited him to visit Columbia. I remember the small gathering Edward had arranged for him was literally behind closed doors and by invitation only. Perhaps a dozen or so Columbia faculty and students had gathered to chat with the author of The Satanic Verses while he was still in hiding.

This haphazard encounter early in October 2017, however, coincided with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s most recent book, The Golden House, of which I was entirely unaware until I ran into a celebratory review in the Guardian – in which it was compared to F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

I dutifully went and purchased a copy of the book and began reading it and, yet again, I could not help feeling I was reading an impostor.

Why an imposter? Allow me to explain.

The birth of an author

I was still a graduate student when Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) appeared. Words fail to describe my joyous fascination in having discovered him. His voice was witty, brilliant, rambunctious, joyous – his prose revelatory, his politics familiar, his imagination trustworthy. I immediately placed him next to and up against VS Naipaul, whom the more I read the more I detested, especially after his horridly racist Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) that had come soon after the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979. Its sheer nasty arrogance could scarce conceal its ignorance of a revolution that had shaken my homeland to its foundations. My love at first read for Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was no doubt in part animated by my revulsion against VS Naipaul. But long after my animus for Naipaul disappeared into indifference, my love and admiration for Midnight’s Children only increased.

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