But first, the facts. The latest from Salman Rushdie is a miscellaneous grab-bag of bits and pieces by the great man. There are essays here, and newspaper columns, and prickly public correspondence dating from what Rushdie identifies as "the plague years", when he lived in the shadow of the famous fatwa. Finally, there is the text of two lectures on 'Human Values' that Rushdie delivered at Yale earlier this year—'Step Across This Line'. Many of the essays are familiar from earlier incarnations: the Wizard of Oz essay introduced the book of the film; the infamous 'Damme, This is the Oriental Scene for You!', about the greater worth of Indian writing in English, as against that in other Indian languages, appeared in the New Yorker...I suspect there is very little here that has not been published before, though some of it needn't have been. Still, it's good to have these essays collected in one volume. 'Columns', spanning the period from December 1998 to March 2002, offers a kind of melancholy commentary on these years—from the deliberately sabotaged prosecution of Pinochet to the horrors of Gujarat, on which Rushdie's plainspeaking is particularly salutary: "...in India, as elsewhere in our darkening world, religion is the poison in the blood....Yet we go on skating around this issue, speaking of religion in the fashionable language of 'respect'. What is there to respect in any of this, or in any of the crimes now being committed almost daily around the world in religion's dreaded name?"
These are also the years of Rushdie's own move to America—a move, it appears, somewhat more than merely geographical.
Rushdie is a poet of migrancy, of the joy of leaving—as also of the permanent homesickness of the exile. He invented the romance of border-crossing, so that the unglamorous act driven by material necessity—whether it be the Filipino who consents to be smuggled into "affluence" (and sometimes death) in a sealed container, or the technocrat, chasing big bucks—is transformed into an existential adventure, a life-long high. Even bread and water—the classic diet of denial, voluntary and involuntary—is transformed into something magical as, moving to the West, Rushdie discovers varieties of bread, and the sheer freedom of being able to drink tap water!
The Yale lectures, rather more grandly, reiterate familiar Rushdie themes about the value of transgressing the lines that bureaucrats and other terrorists, secular and religious, are so fond of laying down. In a similar vein, Rushdie writes with eloquence and passion about the calling of literature. Clearly, he is drunk on the idea of literature—in addition to the tap water! It seems callow to remark that, despite occasional flourishes, Rushdie's recent fictional performances do not quite rise to this high conception. Perhaps this is a risk that comes with the presumption of creativity. Still...
In a column not included in the present volume, Rushdie describes the several kinds of unacceptable anti-Americanisms rife in today's world —"shallow name-calling", "contradictory", "hypocritical", "misguided", "ugly". That's quite an indictment. Apparently the world is full of people who love blue jeans and hamburgers, jazz and American movies, and are still critical of American war-lust, or Americans' callous disregard for the lives of those who are neither American nor White. Surely Rushdie is too clever to be making such a silly argument. So what is going on? This volume is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens, who's developed a nice line in anti-anti-Americanism in the shadow of the trashing of Afghanistan. Clearly Rushdie is signalling some kind of a realignment. To be fair, he does conclude in that column that "a sober look at the case against America may serve America's interests better". But there is all kinds of fudging possible here, depending on what content is smuggled into the "case against America". And Rushdie must know this. So what is going on?
I clutch my much-thumbed copy of Midnight's Children close, and prefer to listen to the Rushdie who writes with grace and insight on some of the most delicate "passages" of our earthly transit. Revisiting Oz ten years after the first publication of the essay, now himself a father with grown-up children, he says: "Now...I have become the fallible adult. Now I am a member of the tribe of imperfect parents who cannot listen to their children's voices. I, who no longer have a father, have become a father instead, and now it is my fate to be unable to satisfy the longings of a child. This is the last and most terrible lesson of the film: that there is one final, unexpected rite of passage. In the end, ceasing to be children, we all become magicians without magic, exposed conjurers, with only our simple humanity to get us through. We are the humbugs now."
Anyone who can think that thought deserves a reduced sentence!
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