Spare a thought for my poor mother. Her birthday was last week and guess what she got as a present from her husband: Joseph Anton, author Salman Rushdie’s memoir of his fatwa years. This would be a lovely gift for someone of a literary bent. My mother happens to be a woman who bemoaned the fruit of her loins (i.e. me) choosing to do something as silly as “read storybooks, and for three years!” in college. As if my father using her birthday as an excuse to buy Joseph Anton wasn’t bad enough, my mother’s other gift was a surprise visit from her only child (i.e. me) whose face for the entire trip had been transplanted by a purple rectangle that had these words on it, “Joseph Anton, A Memoir, Salman Rushdie”.
To someone who has been an unabashed fan of Rushdie’s for more than 15 years, Joseph Anton is unputdownable. I suspect it’s very engaging for regular civilians too, since Rushdie tosses everything from pick-up lines to literary gossip into the memoir’s mix. There’s also a wonderful sense of synchronicity to reading about The Satanic Verses as we inch towards Banned Books Week. It’s deeply heartening to know that Joseph Anton, despite all of Rushdie’s bluntly-put and provocative opinions, has not been banned or burned. Not that I want anyone to take Rushdie as seriously as the fatwa-tics did, I can’t help feel a wave of nostalgia for that bygone era when books and authors mattered because of what they said and not just because of the numbers they sold. If The Satanic Verses had been published today, would it have caused as much of a furore, given it can’t be encapsulated in a couple of minutes on YouTube?
My Rushdie fandom began with Imaginary Homelands, which is a collection of essays; I read Midnight’s Children afterwards, intrigued by Rushdie’s writing on migrant identities. After I read The Moor’s Last Sigh, all possibility of me being objective about his writing was over. I was decidedly besotted. The one time in my life that I’ve been completely star-struck was when I walked into a venue in New York early to hear Martin Amis talk about monsters and realised Rushdie was there, just about two feet away from me. I ordered a drink that I couldn’t really afford and creepily edged closer, thus lessening the distance between us to about one foot.
I read The Satanic Verses as a postgraduate student in the UK, which was the first time I was in a country where you could buy the book casually at a bookstore. I didn’t know then that the paperback copy I was holding had been stalled for years because of a serpentine mess of plans laid and mislaid. I knew about the fatwa, of course, but it wasn’t the controversy that made me spend all night in the magical, shifting worlds of the novel. It was Rushdie’s rootedness in India, in Mumbai. Rushdie’s ability to describe this city and evoke its qualities and cruelties would be remarkable in any author but it’s positively brilliant when you consider Rushdie left India as a teenaged boy. So much of what he writes in his fiction is a city remembered and imagined. Yet his Mumbai is a hologram in which the absurdity, the beauty and the cruelties that make up so many parts of this city shimmer and come together beautifully. His descriptions of Mumbai, like those in The Satanic Verses and The Moor’s Last Sigh, are so full of love, so thick with emotions like anger and bitterness. They are cocktails of sentiments that can only be summed up by one phrase: a sense of belonging.
I think that’s what first drew me to Rushdie’s writing because unlike Rushdie, I’ve never felt like I’d dropped my anchor in any one place. I had something of a nomadic past and it has meant that I didn’t ever feel like I belonged anywhere. While reading Joseph Anton, I had to open up my copy of The Satanic Verses and flipping through its pages, I felt a vague pang of envy. Because I’ve always been the outsider. I sound a little odd; I have a face that most Bengalis insist isn’t really Bengali (whatever that means). Despite seven years in this city, I still can’t confidently say that I’m a Mumbaikar. From little things like the dismissive glance of a Marathi-speaking cop to big things like the price of real estate, there’s so much that makes it difficult for me to put down my roots in this imploding city. Yet Rushdie, despite not having lived here for the better part of his life, belongs to Mumbai in a way that no one can take away from him. Not all the red tape in the country can keep him from being a Bombay boy.
Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently the books editor at DNA.Tags: Books, Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie, The Definite Article