Last year, when the venerable New Yorker magazine turned 75, it threw a unique birthday party—a three-day literary weekend honouring its many writers and devoted readers. In over 50 Manhattan venues, its contributors, critics and cartoonists read fiction, gave erudite talks, and debated on panels. The New Yorker Festival was such a success that it returned this year to a sold-out encore.
The magazine's Pulitzer-winning discovery, Jhumpa Lahiri, was slated to read at one of Friday's Fiction Night events (on May 18) with another writer—"To Be Announced". Last year's tba, a closely-guarded secret, was paired with hot, twentysomething British novelist Zadie Smith of the bestselling White Teeth fame. The mystery guest turned out to be Salman Rushdie, emerging happily from hiding. This year, however, The New Yorker's initial coy notice was soon overtaken by a programme boldly listing Rushdie as the second reader.
The audience of approximately 600 was welcomed by Bill Buford, The New Yorker's fiction editor who, as former editor of Britain's offbeat literary magazine Granta, had first published Rushdie 20 years ago, when Midnight's Children came out. "The New Yorker is devoted to serious, indepth writing and the lunatic people who are prepared not to watch television but actually read that stuff," he said. "We get 1,000-2,000 unsolicited manuscripts a week, and my job—the best in publishing—is to sit around reading made-up stories. What excites us about an unknown writer is the mysterious thing called 'voice', it's like a writer's fingerprint, her dna. That's what excited us about Jhumpa Lahiri."
Giving examples, Buford went on to praise Jhumpa's sentences which, he said, seemed simple but drew the reader into the story by seducing him into the next sentence. "Jhumpa will read first," he concluded, "Mr tba will follow." The audience roared with laughter.
Jhumpa came onstage, ravishing in a straight black skirt, shimmering ivory top, spiked high heels and blue pashmina. A pearl choker with a diamond clasp glinted at her throat. "I'm thrilled to be part of the Festival again and especially excited to be reading with Mr tba," she said, before reading for 45 minutes from her latest short story.
Then, "Mr tba," introduced by his old friend Buford, read from Fury, to be published this fall. Rushdie's narrator is a man much like himself: in his mid-50s, India-born, running from Britain, settled in New York. The hilarious excerpts poked fun at everyone, from Woody Allen, Deepak Chopra to Gurumayi.
What a long way Rushdie has come! Two years ago, at a reading in Seattle, Washington, ticket holders went through elaborate security arrangements. It took hours to seat a 3,000-strong audience in Seattle's biggest auditorium, a blue-and-gold Chinese landmark theatre. Rushdie was to read from The Ground Beneath Her Feet. But when he came onstage at that first large post-fatwa public meeting, he was so thrilled that he chose to talk personally to the audience than read at length.
Beaming from ear to ear, he started by thanking the audience: "I love Seattle, I haven't forgotten the warm welcome you gave me the last time I was here." Then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he added, "In fact, I got a proposal of marriage then from someone in the audience!" Rightaway, a woman from the back shouted out, "I'm still here, waiting for you!" Not missing a beat, Rushdie replied, "I thought you might be. I autographed your arm and I've been wondering all this time whether you've been able to have a shower. "
And so it continued—with Rushdie in high spirits, telling joke after joke that had nothing to do with him or his book. A happy little boy having his own good time and carrying the indulgent audience along on his joyride. At the exclusive, high-security reception that followed, a reader who asked for an autograph had his book snatched away by bodyguards who would not permit Rushdie to sign. They feared ... what? A pen bomb? (The book was signed and returned to the fan later.) But Rushdie was not afraid: he shook hands, made jovial conversation, and eagerly met everyone. A man starved for human contact.
This time in New York was a total contrast to that Seattle evening. No bodyguards, no security, no secrecy. Accompanied by girlfriend Padma, Rushdie attended at least two other Festival events: interviews with filmmakers Woody Allen and Ang Lee. Afterwards, he hung around on the street, talking to whoever came along. No longer a distant celebrity protected by Scotland Yard, he's accessible and open—just another New Yorker.