There is a pause.
“That’s a mixed metaphor,” says Rushdie. “But you understand.” And then I tell him, in our newfound spirit of honesty, that an acquaintance of mine has already written a very tough review of the book.
“Really?” he says. “Who?”
“Siddhartha Deb. He’s a young Indian writer.”
“Ah,” Rushdie says. “God preserve me from young Indian writers!” He takes it well. He could be a lot more dismissive than he is.
“They want you to be Naipaul,” I suggest.
“Right, and I’m not. I’m this guy.” He considers what this might mean. “I don’t think you’d find Sir Vidia at a baseball game, do you? I don’t think sports are one of his interests.”
“What do you think of him?”
“We keep our distance from each other.”
“You called him a Fascist.”
“I called him a fellow traveler of Fascism,” he corrects me. “And I think it’s true. If you ally yourself with the BJP”—the Hindu nationalist party—“you’re allying yourself with Fascists. I used to not talk about it. If you’d asked me about it before, I’d just have passed, but now he’s one of only two Indians to have won the Nobel, and, you know, Tagore’s not around.” Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in 1913 and died in 1941.
The Yankees score another run to go up, 3-0. Then El Duque settles down.
Rushdie is the anti-Naipaul. He is exuberant and effusive where Naipaul is stern and reticent; he is an orthodox liberal where Naipaul is a heterodox conservative. Naipaul came from genteel Hindu poverty, Rushdie from cosmopolitan Islam and money. “They should bomb the Taliban back to the Stone Age they came from,” Naipaul said after September 11. Rushdie, on the other hand, wrote a New York Times column saying the West should be clear on what it stood for: kissing in public, for one thing, and bacon sandwiches.
Both, in the end, have made assimilation to the West their great subject. Naipaul has been brutally honest about its difficulty; Rushdie has enjoyed less clarity. At Yankee Stadium, he repeats to me the line he always uses to describe his experience of being sent to an English boarding school from Bombay when he was 13 years old. “I wasn’t good at games. I was foreign and clever, but I’d have been forgiven those if I’d been good at games. I wasn’t.” This is part of the Rushdie coming-up-in-the-world story: After the bad time at school, he goes to Cambridge, where there is liberalism, and girls, and he lives happily ever after. The novels tell it better, as in the lovely passage in The Satanic Verses, where an Indian boy sent to boarding school decides, despite everything, to become a good and proper “English”:
Yes, an English . . . even if it meant a lifetime spent among winter-naked trees whose fingers clutched despairingly at the few, pale hours of watery, filtered light. On winter nights he, who had never slept beneath more than a sheet, lay beneath mountains of wool and felt like a figure in an ancient myth, condemned by the gods to have a boulder pressing down upon his chest.
But one adjusts. The Indian boy decided to fit in and succeeded: “He fooled them the way a sensitive human can persuade gorillas to accept him into their family, to fondle and caress and stuff bananas in his mouth.”
They’ve since stuffed so many bananas into Rushdie’s mouth! His early work, especially Midnight’s Children, was canonized with astounding rapidity—as if entire departments of postcolonial studies had been sleeper cells programmed to activate upon its publication. The fatwa, for all its brutality, did not immediately affect his writing, as he produced a very impressive novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a series of finely angry pieces about his situation, many of which are collected in the 2002 book of essays Step Across This Line.
Only now has a kind of doubt crept into everything. At the game, Rushdie keeps coming back to the Indian writers. “I know all their names,” he says. “They write the most brutal things about me.” They don’t hurt his sales, of course, but there is the question of being seriously read, and Rushdie, for all the photos people have taken of him, still seems to care about literature. “You know,” he concludes, “after a while you just say, ‘Look, I’m doing this thing. There are some people over there who seem to like it.’ ”
And yet that thing has been ever-changing. After writing in a very consistent style for twenty years, his last book was in the key of Saul Bellow, a European intellectual touring New York; Shalimar is more of an international potboiler. He has been married four times, lived in three major cities. His house in Murray Hill (“the Gramercy Park area,” he says, still mastering the geography) is his second long-term residence in New York. During the fatwa, he lived in as many as nine separate safe houses. When young Salman was away at school, his father sold the family home in Bombay. “The day I heard this,” he once wrote, “I felt an abyss open beneath my feet.” He has been relocating and reinventing himself ever since.