Salman Rushdie knows a great deal about the New York Yankees. “They’ve had trouble all year with their starting pitching,” he fretted last month as we watched the workmanlike Mike Mussina face the White Sox in the Bronx. “They’re scoring five, six runs a game and losing. That’s not right. Meanwhile, there’s Clemens and Pettitte in Houston, and Hernandez and Contreras in Chicago, and even Wells in Boston—it’s like an entire Yankees rotation out there having a great season.”
Some writers talk like they write; Rushdie is not among them. At its best, his prose style has the clutter and color of Bombay, whereas his conversation has more the wit of King’s College and London. But occasionally, as in this catalogue of discarded Yankee pitchers, one hears an echo of that enthusiastic naming of things, the recitation of the contents of the world, which gave his early work the glitter of wonder and which in his later work sometimes has had the strain of habit. And there is a further resonance to this list of men who were thought by Yankee management to have lost their stuff, because Salman Rushdie, after a series of novels—Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh—that by any definition constitute a significant, even Nobel-izable achievement, has published two novels in a row—The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury—that have been met with almost universal scorn. Now he has produced Shalimar the Clown, which in the simplicity of its prose and the explicitness of its story line is a marked departure for him. And he waits.
The trip to Yankee Stadium was his publicist’s idea. “Dear Keith,” she had written:
I had a few ideas about “hanging out”
1--a walk through central park and coffee?
2--museum trip to the Met or MoMA?
3--a baseball game?
It was an easy call, though there was a catch. Rushdie’s 8-year-old son, Milan, would come, and at Yankee Stadium we were to discuss the new novel rather than the event that made Rushdie so well-known to begin with, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 death sentence on him for writing The Satanic Verses. This would be hard to do. For one thing, I wouldn’t have time to finish Shalimar by game time; for another, the ayatollah’s fatwa was one of the most important events of the past twenty years. It was not just that Rushdie and his then-wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, had been forced into hiding and that people had actually been attacked—that the Italian translator of The Satanic Verses had been stabbed and wounded; that his Norwegian publisher had been shot and wounded; and that his Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, had had his throat slit outside his office at Tsukuba University and then was left to die in the hallway—though these things were bad enough. But the really ominous thing was the fact that people in London itself had marched through the streets with signs that said RUSHDIE BURN; it was the fact that certain writers made apologies for this. The fatwa was announced on February 14, 1989. Valentine’s Day. More significant, it was the day before the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan. The Soviets held a ceremony at the border; CIA officers held a champagne party in Langley, Virginia; and the CIA chief of station in Islamabad cabled home, simply, WE WON. But as Wiggins wrote at the time, “One night, watching . . . television, I saw the president of a bankrupt desert nation [announce his] intent to send a black arrow of revenge from that distant desert into my husband’s heart.” It sounds familiar now. The Cold War was over, but with the fatwa, something new and terrible had begun.
In the years that followed, as Scotland Yard’s Special Branch kept Rushdie in hiding, mostly in London, he occasionally made surprise appearances at literary parties, at rock concerts, at conferences in Paris and New York. For other writers, he became a sort of totem, to make of what they would. Martin Amis had seen the headlines announcing the fatwa and thought of fame; Cynthia Ozick saw him at the Louvre and thought of Henry James. “When I sat down to write this morning,” wrote Paul Auster, “the first thing I did was think of Salman Rushdie.” Wiggins left, but he eventually married Elizabeth West, a book editor, and one of the few people with whom he had had regular contact during those years. In 1997, they had a son, Milan.
A year later, the newly elected Iranian government distanced itself from the death sentence. Rushdie could do as he wished! And he did. He soon met a beautiful Indian model and actress, Padma Lakshmi, at the launch party of Talk magazine, left his wife and child, and moved to New York. Some people had always had trouble accepting Rushdie as a free-speech martyr—he was vain, he was a bit of a joker, he was Indian—and now the ridicule poured forth. The British press had been especially brutal, but neither was New York a haven of anonymity. To wake up in the morning and “think of Salman Rushdie” now meant, more likely, to think of him on “Page Six.”