7 2/3 Innings With Salman

Photo: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum

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” with Rushdie:
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.”

“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.”

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.

In recent years, the pressures of Rushdie’s life have begun to take a strange toll on his work. His early books were praised for the virtuosity of the prose, the acuity of Rushdie’s ear, but what really strikes one about them is their incredible sweetness. This sweetness has now been covered over with a layer of sophistication, worldliness—and also anger. Fury makes rage its explicit subject (Professor Solanka wants to kill rich white people); and Shalimar the Clown is still obsessed with it. The book opens with a beautiful young documentary filmmaker, India, training for revenge. Her father, an aging man of the world and former ambassador, has been assassinated by a Kashmiri separatist named Shalimar. The rest of the novel unspools to explain how a Kashmiri village acrobat could end up in Los Angeles beheading an important man.

‘You have to describe the world that’s about to be destroyed, make the reader love it. That way, when the shit hits the fan, it hurts.”

In returning to Kashmir—going back a generation and showing how the onset of postcolonial postmodernity, in the form of Pakistani religious fanaticism on the one hand and Indian imperial ambitions on the other, eventually tore apart the ancient peace of village life—Rushdie is undertaking an important novelistic task, and one for which he is particularly well suited. The encroachment of the modern world onto a Kashmiri village—first, television, then paid television, then Islamic fundamentalism—is described in a mythical, almost cartoonish way, but it is very effective. At the same time, there is a sharp, tough satire on the psychotic Indian officer in charge of counterinsurgency in the region.

The book’s American material is much weaker. The characters in Shalimar undergo a kind of celebrification: Many of the scenes end with dramatic speeches, and even Shalimar, at the end of the book, receives a California-style celebrity trial. Finally, there is the fictional problem of, not to put too fine a point on it, Padma. Rushdie the man is in love, and he doesn’t quite know what to do about it as a writer. Every time he’s introduced a Padma-like character in the last two books, he has been less than masterly. “He was learning her better every day,” he writes in Fury, “exploring her as if she were a new city in which he had sublet space and where he hoped one day to buy.” Of India in Shalimar, he writes, “These days she had herself firmly in hand. The problem child within her was sublimated into spare-time pursuits, the weekly boxing sessions at Jimmy Fish’s boxing club on Santa Monica and Vine where Tyson and Christy Martin were known to work out …”

This is not unlike the prose lists that fill Midnight’s Children—“And sometimes Koli women, their hands stinking of pomfret guts and crabmeat, jostle arrogantly to the head of a Colaba bus-queue, with … a smarting glint of old defeats and dispossessions in their bulging and somewhat fishy eyes.” The Los Angeles version of this is slack, perfunctory, and, more than anything—“to name the unnamable,” was the definition of the writer’s task given in The Satanic Verses, “to point at frauds”—uncritical.

As of this writing, Shalimar is receiving a slightly better reception than Fury, and yet the sense of Rushdie having lost his way is still pressing. But he is still reasonably young, for a writer, and no longer, these days, quite so unreasonably famous. In the seventh inning of the Yankees game, Milan exclaims that we were just on the big JumboTron in centerfield.

I say that it’s about time.

“No,” Rushdie is forced to disappoint me after consulting with Milan, “it seems the people in front of us were on the screen, and we could be seen in the corner.”

A little later, just before Milan finally declares to his dad that he is just too sleepy to go on, Rushdie’s cell phone rings. He talks briefly about the game, which is exciting, and the drizzle, which has been off and on. When he hangs up, I try to maintain a neutral face, but something about it must say “Bono?” because Rushdie clarifies. “Mrs. Rushdie,” he says happily.

Mussina has given the Yankees six strong innings, leaving with a 3-2 lead, and, as Rushdie explains, once the Yankees go to their late relievers, things are much better. Rushdie and Milan leave after the eighth, but he proves right. The setup men have been excellent, and when Mariano Rivera emerges from the bullpen for the ninth, the sound system plays the hook from Metallica’s ominous “Enter Sandman” (“Take my hand / We’re off to never-never land”), and every fan in the stadium, not a single one of whom has given any indication of recognizing Salman Rushdie, stands up and cheers. Rivera started the season by blowing two save opportunities against the Red Sox, but he’s been almost perfect ever since. The Hammer of God, they call him, because of the authority with which he delivers a single pitch, his “cutter,” over and over and over. Now, as I frantically write up my Rushdie notes, he puts the White Sox down in order for his 30th consecutive save. “A bunch of people had me retiring [after the Boston series],” the Hammer of God will say after the game. “But I trust my stuff. I know who I am.”

7 2/3 Innings With Salman