July 09, 2020
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A Native Return

Amita Malik met Salman Rushdie during his emotional India trip

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A Native Return
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Finally, it was the police presence that dispelled the suspense. That afternoon of the Commonwealth Book Awards ceremony, coming up the stairs of the Oberoi, I found the corridors and indeed, both sides of the road all the way past the Golf Club, littered with gun-toting men in khaki. It was sure confirmation that Salman Rushdie was really coming and I made up my mind to be there on time. In the evening, when I got there, I didn’t have to park a mile away, in fact, I was allowed in without a second glance. Moving to the banquet hall entrance, I negotiated the beep-emitting door-frames and body-searches, only to be stopped with a stern "Aap 7:30 ke pehle andar nahi ja sakte." A long wait in the lounge followed before a second security check was conducted. This, of course, was after the sniffer dogs had gone.

I wasn’t there just to see the man again, there was more to it. By a remarkable coincidence Zohra Sehgal rang me up the day before Salman arrived: "Uzra is in town." Knowing that Zohra’s sister Uzra is Salman’s mami (maternal uncle’s wife) and the adorable Pia of Midnight’s Children, I volunteered to give Salman Uzra’s phone number in case he turned up and I got close to him.

So, expecting Salman to be surrounded, I went armed with a note with the number written on it. But in the event I didn’t need it. For I found myself seated at table No 3-right next to Salman. And that’s when I made a classic gaffe. Looking at the burly, very tall, pink-cheeked, dark-haired young man sitting opposite me at the table, I whispered to Salman: "These British security men are really tough-looking, aren’t they?" A vastly amused Salman replied: "Oh, he’s my son."

Anyway, it was quite a homecoming for Salman. What with his son, Zafar, coming along and the meeting with his long-lost mami. Zafar, taking a year off from Exeter University, is dabbling in ‘the entertainment business’-which means arranging shows at clubs. But Salman always knew where he was going. When I asked him how and when he decided to be a writer, he replied: "I’ve always read a lot, and even as a five-year-old, when boys normally want to be engine-drivers, I’d decided to be a writer. But there was a stage when I could’ve easily become an actor. In fact, I was more into acting than writing while at the university."

The occasion demanded a family reunion, which happened courtesy a gracious Vijay Shankardass, lawyer and Salman’s great friend. It was at his place that Salman met his aunts and relatives. And everyone was delighted to meet Zafar, a quiet-spoken, polite young man. I asked Salman if it had been an emotional visit for him. Yes, he replied, so much so "that I sometimes have to sit in a corner and think about it."

During the joyousness, someone asked Zafar if, during those anxious days in hiding, Salman ever had to sport a false moustache or wear a blonde wig. There was laughter all around-it’s a great relief to be able to joke about those days! In the same mood, Salman talked about the controversy over his introductory piece in an anthology of Indian writing: "I’ve been properly bashed up, haven’t I? Actually, you can blame the translations." Translations of what’s probably the best in Indian languages are so poor, he said, that he preferred the best translated ones, which probably were not the best literary pieces.

Salman also affirmed his fondness for Bombay. Even after visiting tourist spots with Zafar, moving incognito in Chandni Chowk, after those nostalgic visits to Shimla and, of course, Anees Villa in Solan, Bombay remains his favourite. That’s where his roots lie and he promised to go there first next time. And he hopes to return again and again.

In all, India finally seemed to have given him a warm welcome. And perhaps made some amends for being the first to ban Satanic Verses and subjecting him to the persecution and agony which followed.

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