“Your social life,” I say to him as the White Sox bat uneventfully in the first, “it engenders a lot of hostility.”
“Yes,” says Rushdie enthusiastically. “I’m not supposed to do this and I’m not supposed to do that. I’m not supposed to have interesting friends. I’m not supposed to have such a beautiful wife. Well,” says Rushdie, “I do.”
Back in 1989, some moderate Muslims had suggested that an apology from Rushdie would help smooth things over. The ayatollah made clear that this wasn’t so. “Even if Salman Rushdie repents,” he said, “and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim . . . to send him to hell.” In the years since his release, Rushdie has been faced with an impossible situation, and he has made certain decisions. He has refused to become grave; he has refused to martyr himself any further. In his public pursuit of Lakshmi—the turbulence in their relationship was regularly analyzed in the gossip columns—he had the courage to seem ridiculous. He has written conscientious op-eds for the New York Times syndicate and served as president of American PEN, but Salman Rushdie has clearly not become the most pious man of all time.
I don’t want to get paranormal on you,” says Daniel Menaker, Rushdie’s editor at Random House, “but it does seem to me that novelists are capable of picking up trends in the culture that are just beginning to coalesce, and so end up writing what in retrospect appears to be prophecy.”
Rushdie has always been “handcuffed to history,” as he once put it, and he continues to be: On the night we went to the stadium, the White Sox sent to the mound the former Yankee Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, the Cuban defector. Rushdie had written El Duque into his 2001 Fury. That book, his New York novel, was about an Anglo-Indian professor, Solly Solanka, who leaves his wife and child in London and comes here. He is horrified and fascinated by what he finds, by the “loudness, garishness, impossibility.” At one point, turning on the television, he sees “El Duque on the mound, his amazing, hyperbolic action. The pitcher coiled himself up until his knee almost touched his nose, then unwound like a whip. Even in this erratic, almost panicky season in the Bronx, Hernandez inspired calm.”
“I’m not supposed to have interesting friends. I’m not supposed to have such a beautiful wife. Well,” says Rushdie, “I do.”
Something of what troubles critics about Rushdie’s recent books can be seen here—the repetition of “almost,” the slight imprecision of “coil” and “unwound,” and also the hint of knowingness (as if everyone knows that “El Duque” and Hernandez are the same person, which maybe they do). In any case, on this night El Duque looks very vulnerable. Derek Jeter opens the Yankee first with a shot to left-center that White Sox center fielder Aaron Rowand only miraculously runs down, diving for it at the edge of the warning track. The next batter sends the ball to right-center, and this time Rowand catches it over his shoulder, facing the wall. “Did you see that, Milan?” Rushdie asks his son. Given that everyone had stood up to watch the catch, Milan could not possibly have seen it, too, but he nods. It’s hard to tell how much baseball he understands, but it must be like the references to India and Pakistan and Bangladesh in Rushdie novels that one doesn’t quite catch—you can still appreciate the sounds of them, the constructions. Thus Milan at Yankee Stadium.
As El Duque walks Gary Sheffield and then gives up a two-run homer to Alex Rodriguez, we talk about Rushdie’s upcoming publicity tour. September, October, and a good portion of November are simply shot, he says. “Impossible to do any work,” as he will be traveling city to city, doing radio and print interviews, over and over. “It’s not the repeating oneself that is most tiring,” says Rushdie, “but just the physical wear and tear.”
He has a reputation for haughtiness and irascibility, but at Yankee Stadium I find a man eager to show off his baseball knowledge and discuss his novel: He says that he hasn’t had such a good response from those around him since the 1980 Midnight’s Children, arguably his best book. When I confess that I’m still reading Shalimar, he tells me the plot (though without giving it away), explains how the psychology of the character Shalimar develops (from a Kashmiri villager to an international terrorist assassin), and also justifies the space he devoted, in the first sections of the book, to the neighboring Kashmiri villages—one Hindu, the other Muslim—that are destined to be torn apart in the proxy war between India and Pakistan. “I think you have to describe the world that’s about to be destroyed, make the reader love it,” he says. “That way, when the shit hits the fan, it hurts.”