Salman the Clown

Salman Rushdie. Shalimar the Clown. Random House. September 2005.

A new novel by Salman Rushdie is not a quiet thing, to be taken up in a moment of intimacy in which the reader reciprocates the labor of the writer, the private act of reading reflecting back the solitary task of writing. The Rushdie novel appears in a convoy, behind barricades and police lines, with outriders and bodyguards, its image controlled by public relations handlers, its message broadcast over loudspeakers. Each new novel by Rushdie, no matter how significant or trivial as a literary object, brings with it other narratives: the fatwa imposed by the ayatollah; the cover photo of Rushdie with Bono; copies of The Satanic Verses being burned in nameless third-world countries; Rushdie threatening a New York journalist with a baseball bat. A Rushdie novel, like its author, is a public figure, its thingness easy to lose in the sound and the fury. It takes an effort of will, therefore, to step back from the roar, to think of the books, and recall the early intimations of the wrong turn taken by this once talented writer, to remember the pointless controversy that consumed people who had more crucial battles to fight.

For me the transformation of Rushdie’s work from a promising group of early books—Midnight’s ChildrenShame, and his first collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands—into a succession of hectic events began two decades ago, in a Calcutta kebab shop, where I met a man who detested Rushdie without having read a word of him. He was a daily wage worker, a small man with a pockmarked face who asked me if I’d heard about the author who had written a book insulting Islam. I am not a Muslim, but the worker didn’t seem particularly interested in my religion. He could tell I was a college student, someone who had a relationship with books and the English language, and who therefore shared an affinity with the man against whom he would demonstrate that evening outside the British Consulate. He was curious to know my interpretation of Rushdie, even if it wasn’t likely to accord with his own. “Why demonstrate against Rushdie?” I asked the man. “Our mullah asked us to,” he said. “This man Rushdie insulted the prophet.”

It was the kind of scenario later to send neocons into a frenzy. They would have been even more impressed by the surroundings in which our conversation took place. The kebab shop was in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood, a place of twisting alleyways and low houses where great slabs of beef hung from hooks in butchers’ shops across from the restaurants. I lived in a hostel nearby and came to the neighborhood for its cheap meals, often walking past a small group of men prostrating themselves on the narrow lane as they went through their afternoon or evening prayers. Two years later, when the Gulf War broke out, the streets of the neighborhood would be festooned with pictures of Saddam Hussein. But these impressions present only a partial picture. The neighborhood was near College Street, the busiest stretch of bookstalls in Calcutta. If the kebab shops fed my body, the College Street bookstalls—many of them run by Muslims—supported my reading habits. And the Muslim neighborhood was capable of containing other identities: there was the Hindu dairy stall where I got my mug of evening milk, the Hindu charity with a hearse that was sent out periodically to perform cremation rites for people who had no family to consign them to the flames. The neighborhood offered, in other words, the kind of cosmopolitan cultural mix often cited by Rushdie as inspiration for his omnivorous style. An early example is the self-conscious pronouncement of Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Midnight’s Children:

Note that, despite my Muslim background, I’m enough of a Bombayite to be well up in Hindu stories, and I’m very fond of the image of trunk-nosed, flap-eared Ganesh solemnly taking dictation!

This was the idea of Rushdie I had in those days: an engaged, irreverent writer who took his material from all traditions and set his work against authoritarianism. Needless to say, I hadn’t read The Satanic Verses myself—no copies were to be found in the shops, and the book was soon to be banned by the Indian government because of fears that it would lead to rioting—but I didn’t consider this a problem. I had read and admired Rushdie’s earlier novels and possessed a certain understanding of literature, of its work of resistance against tyranny and dogma; I had a specific sense of Rushdie as a man determined to write from the margins. In those days, Rushdie’s books appeared to be books, not events, and appeared to stand at an angle to the history they were narrating, inserting new registers and ideas about the third world into the homogeneous body of novels in English.

More from Issue 3

Issue 3 Reality Principle

Not utopia, but it was nice.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

With how many people did people used to sleep? It’s hard to tell. Language changes, and there’s the problem of bragging.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

Poor R. The double-bind he’s in has made him lose his mind. Or maybe it’s the Pinor Noir?

Issue 3 Reality Principle

Dear Oprah, None of us can prove our books are of genuine worth yet. Instead, we’re impatient.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

Do not think that we were being horrible, indifferent parents.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

Today the concept of global peak oil is widely accepted in the energy field.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

People read less, but ideas once derived from books, and now turned into circulating rumors, are all they have.

Issue 3 Reality Principle
Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop
Issue 3 Reality Principle
A Violent Season
Issue 3 Reality Principle
First Love
Issue 3 Reality Principle
The Neoliberal Imagination
Issue 3 Reality Principle

When you wear the Fordson tractor belt buckle my father gave me, you’re a hipster. When I wear it, I’m a redneck.

Issue 3 Reality Principle
Two Fairy Tales
Issue 3 Reality Principle
What Independent Film?
Issue 3 Reality Principle
Or Things I Did Not Do or Say
Issue 3 Reality Principle

And yes, one knows what it is like to receive a harsh review; and yes, one is aware of the basic inhumanity of the critic’s task.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

A specter is haunting the academy—the specter of close reading.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

Levitt, then, far from being a rogue, is really Becker’s dutiful heir.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

The point of these shows was not just how people would be altered, but that they could be altered.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

“Does he who fights douchebags become, inevitably, something of a douchebag?”

More by this Author

Issue 12 Conversion Experience
Issue 29 Bottoms Up
Paranoir
Issue 10 Self-Improvement