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Amrita Tripathi
Friday , September 21, 2012 at 11 : 59

On Rushdie (being Joseph Anton)


Salman Rushdie seems in his element, chatting to a crowd, reading from his own work in his sonorous voice - pitch-perfect, except when the mikes fail him, the lapse almost imperceptible. He seems to have an ear for a joke, a laugh, working his crowd really well, inviting them in, and who doesn't like to be made to feel part of an inside joke, anyway! His legacy isn't ever in doubt, his confidence in that legacy helps makes him quite the power performer, and yet he doesn't come across as a huge snob.

It's always a relief to note that some of the most wonderful voices, the biggest names, also wear it so lightly. But then with writers, you don't expect the sort of movie star baggage we've grown accustomed to with our pop icons.

What's clear is that Rushdie transcended that writer tag long ago - trace it back to the fateful 1989 Valentine's Day fatwa annoucment, or rather its aftermath. He moved fiercely into the pop culture space. I mean he is essentially a cultural icon (and this goes way beyond Bridget Jonees). It's World Vs Freedom of Expression, or Religious World vs Freedom of Expression, Exhibit A. (India is seeing way too many of these cases now, and that is cause for depression, but more on that later).

Waiting for Rushdie at a New York bookstore

Of course Rushdie also marks the watershed of the world's discovery of Indian writers in English. You don't get the sense from listening to him, that it weighs him down... At a press conference at the Jaipur Lit Fest when he did go a few years ago (to be greeted with no uproar whatsoever) he spoke about how he used to get manuscripts from all kinds of aspiring writers. That's quite a sweet visual, no? I remember asking him at that press con whether he felt the pressure, or fear rather as a result of that pressure, that he wouldn't be able to write (or not as well), and he said No, explaining that's not what drives him.

On Thursday, in Brooklyn New York, when asked by an audience member how living under a fatwa hit his writing, he said it was a conscious decision to follow the path he had chosen, to be the writer he knew he was, and avoid all the "elephant traps" around.

You can watch a small part of the reading here:

His speeches have a smattering of names you and I would have read and admired ... The late Christopher Hitchens and Julian Barnes (who wrote to him right after the fatwa was announced, Rushdie tells his audience, to say Don't let them make this be what you're about). Twice in two days, I've also heard him cite Edward Said bravely living the Conrad quote, "You have to live till you die", as moving and inspirational.

I'm not sure why, but I went for two sessions in New York, celebrating the launch of Rushdie's memoir Joseph Anton. Both were entertaining, and there wasn't too much overlap. One session was at a bookstore, where I was far in the back, craning to spot Rushdie as he read an excerpt, and I left as he started fielding questions, not least because of odour issues in my general vicinity, but also because I knew I had another evening coming up, and I would get to hear him again. And it is a treat.

I haven't met Rushdie, except as he signed a copy of Shalimar the Clown some four years ago at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and you can't count that as a meeting, since it was also an attempt to get an interivew. He's very selective about interviews. (As a journalist, I find I have to combat the tendency to project negative attributes onto those who reject those demands, or choose to go elsewhere...I'm just saying!) We did a phone interview around when Luka was published, and I'm sure that helped ease the hurt, but what has remained with me all these years since that first press conference, is his sense of humour. Of course you know he's funny, and witty from his books, but that doesn't always translate. I get a sense that he's kinder when it comes to his readers or audience members than he is with journalists, and whyever not, but does not seem the type to "suffer fools gladly". I mean, I could visualise him eviscerating those who ask the dumber questions. (Though he recites to much laughter how the 3rd question on a 60 Minutes interview back in the day, was on his sex life may or may not have suffered, because of the life-in-exile. He gets the laughs, for sure. And I think it's quite revealing that he didn't give much away in that interview itself.)

Now to read Joseph Anton, and more of Rushdie, rather than about Rushdie. Which brings me to the fascination with his private life...not the case for most novelists. Two people in the space of two hours, ask me what the scene is in terms of his love life. I have no idea and don't care in the least, but am looking forward to reading Rushdie on Rushdie.

(Finally, the pronuciation tip: It's Rushdie, like Pushkin, not Rushing)

Agree? Disagree? Were you at either book launch? Write to us @ibnlive, @amritat with your feedback.


More about Amrita Tripathi

Amrita Tripathi is a news anchor with CNN-IBN, and also doubles up as Health and Books Editor. An MA in Philosophy from St Stephen's College, Delhi University, she has also taught a few undergraduate classes at her alma mater, informally! When she is not tracking health issues, Amrita is busy chasing the literary dream. Her debut novel Broken News was published in 2010. Before joining CNN-IBN, Amrita worked with The Indian Express.



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