Happy birthday, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

Happy birthday, Salman Rushdie!

He is all of 67 today. What a pity a book he began with such brio has haunted him ever since.

Few books open as memorably as The Satanic Verses. I cannot imagine any other writer describing an air crash quite like him. After the plane explodes over the English Channel, the two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are the only survivors, found washed up on a snowbound English beach.

I have not read beyond the opening because I don’t want to get into any religious controversy. All religions should be respected. I don’t want to hear ill of any religion.

But the opening of this novel is unforgettable. The two characters falling from the sky, flapping their arms and singing as they fall, reminded me of Walt Disney and Mary Poppins.

That’s the brilliance of Salman Rushdie. He is wildly imaginative, with talent to match.

Rushdie in his memoir, Joseph Anton, explained what made him write The Satanic Verses. He had a bee in his bonnet from the time he was a history undergraduate in Cambridge. Writers get this itch which refuses to go away till they put it in words. So Rushdie wrote what he wrote, but at what terrible cost. People died in the Satanic Verses controversy.

What is remarkable is that, two years after  The Satanic Verses (1988), Rushdie came out with Haroun And The Sea Of Stories (1990). How could he write such an enchanting tale while living in fear of his life?

He was moving from safehouse to safehouse under British police protection at the time following the fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini calling for his execution. And yet he could write a magical fairy tale!

He wrote it for his son, Zafar. Haroun was his son’s middle name.

I saw Rushdie following the success of Midnight’s Children, the 1981 Booker prize winner, when he gave a talk in Calcutta (now called Kolkata). Looking at the bookish, bespectacled, soft-spoken young man, who could have known he would get into so much trouble?

I did not know then he was friends with Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan. They are some of the finest writers to emerge in Britain since the 1970s.

Another reason I like Rushdie: he loves rock music. His novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), shows an amazing knowledge of music.

Step Across This Line (2002), a collection of his non-fiction, includes a 1999 essay on rock music. There he explained why he loved the music from his boyhood. He wrote:

It was the sound of liberation, and so it spoke to the free spirits of young people everywhere, and so also, of course, our mothers didn’t like it.

After she became aware of my fondness for Bill Haley, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, my own alarmed mother began to advocate the virtues of Pat Boone, a man who once sang a sentimental ballad addressed to a mule. But singing to mules wasn’t what I was after. I was trying to imitate the curl of Presley’s lips and the swoon-inducing rotation of his hips, and I suspect boys everywhere, from Siberia to Patagonia, were doing the same.

What sounded and felt to us like freedom looked to the adult world like bad behaviour, and in a way both things are true. Pelvis-wiggling and guitar-smashing are indeed liberty’s childish fringe; but it’s also true, in all sorts of ways we have learned much more about as adults, that freedom is dangerous.

Rushdie has had his troubles, but he is nothing if not resilient. “In the immortal words of Popeye the Sailor Man. I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam,” he proclaims on Twitter.

Yes, life goes on. In fact, this is the sixth year since The Enchantress Of Florence (2008), his last novel, was published. Isn’t that a long time?

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