Oct 142012
 

When i was younger, and far more hard headed and terribly more cynical, i found the realm of Magic Realism to be strange. Maybe growing up with Hindi films with God in special appearance, or a dream sequence did that to me.

I was not yet a teenager when Salman Rushdie’s first book Midnight’s Children was released. One summer vacation, I must have been around 13 maybe even 14, someone gifted us a copy. I tried reading it, and naturally, did not understand it. I trudged through it, hated it and went back to reading whatever it is that I was reading at that phase in life. Later on I discovered the works of Isabella Allende and her magnificent House of Spirits, Marquez and even the later works of Rushdie. But I never really got back to reading, what most critics considered to be his finest work,  Midnight’s children.

A few months ago, i got an eBook version of Midnight’s children. But, before i could start it, Joseph Anton was released. Joseph Anton tells the story of Salman Rushdie and how his life is impacted by the fatwa declared by Ayotollah Khomeni.

Joseph Anton is a the name under which Mr.Rushdie lived during the fatwa period – an amalgamation of the names of two authors he admired - Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. The memoir is told in the third person. A form in which the author almost becomes a bystander in his own life. Things happen to him. It never seems that he is actively involved in any of them. Marianne Wiggins chases him, marries him and dumps him. Elizabeh West breezes into his life, loves him  and wants to have his baby. His friends pull out all stops to fight for him. His enemies pull out all stops to want to kill him. The press vilifies him. The politicians are unsure of him. The cops are there like a brick wall for him. And, in all this the protagonist Joseph Anton is almost an observer.  He participates sometimes, but the support cast are far more interesting than he is.

Among the more fascinating characters is his father, Anis – who woke the genie of story telling in a young Salman, telling him stories of the Panchtanra, Kathasaritasagara, Hamzanama & Hatimtai.

To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no ‘real’ genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths and the truth could not tell him, and second they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father’s, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard…his to laugh at and rejoice and live in and with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life by them in turn.

Just as he grew with a from of narrative that gave you a story within a story – so too in Joseph Anton he gives you interlinked stories, that can work as stand alone ones. There is the story of the immigrant, who is caught between cultures, until he realises that he is not “rootless, but multiply rooted”.There is the story of his troubled relationship with his father Anis and the portions of the memoir that deals with these have the most emotional connect. It seems that there is a raw wound even now. There is the story of a bad marriage, with author  Marianne Wiggins, going off the rails (she is portrayed in terrible light). There is a love story with Elizabeth West. Then there is a Lolitaesque story with Padma Lakshmi. There is a story of friendship that endures. There is a story of betrayal. There is the story of a brave stand. Then there is the biggie – the story of the man on the run. And finally there is the story of the Freedom of Speech and what it means in today’s multicultural age, where each culture is trying to assert its identity.

A bulk of the book is about the fall out of the fatwa. The rush to find safe havens where he won’t be blown up, his having to live life as a protected person and the impact it has on his freedoms. The effect of ‘security’ and being in a state of suspended animation from normalcy on him, and those nearest and dearest to him. In this entire saga, his friends are there for him like Rocks of Gibraltar.

He would remember this, the nobility of human beings acting out of their best selves, far more vividly than the hatred – though the hatred was vivid all right – and he would always be grateful to have been the recipient of this bounty.

There are three very telling lines in the book, about Satanic Verses. The first is

The book took more than four years to write. Afterward, when people tried to reduce it to an ‘insult’ he wanted to reply, I can insult people a lot faster than that

and the second was

“Well, of course he had done it on purpose. How would one write a quarter of a million words by accident?”

and then there was the writing on the wall

Throughout the writing of the book he had kept a note to himself pinned to the wall above his desk. “To write a book is to make a Faustian contract in the reverse,” it said. “To gain immortality, or atleast posterity, you lose, or atleast ruin, your actual daily life”

And, it came to pass. almost a decade of living in the shadow of terror. Of being a prisoner. of being reviled and hated. Of guilt on the deaths due to riots. A decade in which he became the focal point of protests on freedom of expression. A decade in which his political involvement increased, but his  writing suffered – the first few years he is barely able to write anything.

For a man who spends the bulk of the book defending his right to free speech and expression, he is very unforgiving of the choices of others, especially those who did not want to become a part of the fight. His universe is binary. Those who unquestioningly stand by him – no matter what – are  the good guys. Those who question him become grey. If a publisher did not want to publish the book because he didn’t want his staff bombed out, or the cops called off a book signing for security reasons it, in the book, becomes a more or less irrational decision. But hey, it is his memoir. He is allowed to be the hero in it.

How is the book? it needed a good editor to prune 200 pages out of it. IT is like every party, every celebrity, every slight  every praise had to go into the book and, therefore,  it did. It is terribly indulgent, and terribly long. The first 40 % is brilliant. absolutely brilliant. The second 30 % is decent.  The last third has all the charm and attraction of a plate of cold idli served at an express-way food court

A book about a fatwa on an author who wrote book, that changed lives . One the violence caused by the reactions to the book, he paraphrases his lawyer saying ..

 …the consequences of violence were the moral responsibility of those who committed the acts of violence; if people were killed, the fault lay with their killers, not with a faraway novelist.

In a world where offence is quick, and the call to violence is quicker – i agree with this statement a 100%

Salman Rushdie, for me, before I began reading this book was never a sympathetic character. I was a student in Britain in the days following the fatwa. It seemed that he not only instigated the issue, but revelled in it. It made him world famous. But, 25 years later as i read the book, i realise the flaws a binary teenage view of the world has. The easiest thing for him to have done is capitulate. It is not Rushdie against a fatwa. It is a man against governments of the world including his own government, with people venting hate at him, with tremendous pressure for him to recant , with a sense of guilt at people dying, and the cost to his own family. And he stood his ground. If nothing else, that requires admiration. It cannot have been easy. I only wish if i am in a similar situation – facing a mob or even a small group alone, with only the courage of my convictions on my side – i show some of the courage that he does.

I have finally begun reading Midnight’s Children, almost 28 years after i last tried to read it.

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