Salman Rushdie: Interview

Never a fan of organised religion, Salman Rushdie reserves his blind faith for north London‘s other team. He talks to Time Out about Tottenham, his latest novel, being ’three-quarters Kashmiri‘ and going toe-to-toe with George Galloway.

  • Salman Rushdie is excited about Tottenham Hotspur’s prospects for the new season. He picks over the merits of their new signings with our photographer, a Swindon supporter, and says he’s particularly looking forward to seeing Edgar Davids in action. But he also admits that since he spends much of his time in New York, where he and his wife Padma Lakshmi have an apartment, he’s watched more baseball than football recently. Rushdie, the most famous literary habitué of White Hart Lane since the philosopher AJ Ayer used to haunt the Paxton Road end, has become a New York Yankees fan and regularly travels up to the Bronx with his eight-year-old son to cheer them on.

    As Rushdie dilates sunnily on Martin Jol’s coaching style, I’m reminded of an essay he wrote six years ago entitled ‘The People’s Game’. In it, Rushdie describes a trip to Wembley to see Spurs play Leicester in the Worthington Cup Final. Spurs win a poor game with a scrappy late goal, and as Rushdie is leaving the ground, he is spotted by a fellow supporter: ‘“Gawd bless yer, Salman,” he yelled. I waved back, but I didn’t say what I wanted to say: nah, not Gawd mate, he doesn’t play for our team.’

    You’d expect that from someone whose life has been blighted so dramatically by followers of one particular ‘gawd’. Nonetheless, Rushdie is happy to adapt the old line about football itself being a kind of religion.‘Why else would one follow Tottenham Hotspur?’ he laughs. ‘You have to be a very deep believer. I came to England in 1961 and that’s the year that Spurs were very good – the last time they won the League Championship. If you support a team that fails to win the league for 44 years, it does feel like a kind of cult.’

    He’s being skittish, of course – he hasn’t suddenly gone soft on organised belief. A couple of days before our interview, Rushdie shared a platform at the Edinburgh International Television Festival with George Galloway. When asked by a member of the audience whether he thought there should be a TV adaptation of ‘The Satanic Verses’, Galloway, predictably, had demurred. ‘He went into this great speech, which was extraordinarily unpleasant, about how if you don’t respect religion you have to suffer the consequences. And so I said that sounded unusually like a threat, and what did he mean – what would those consequences be? He is preposterous and I think that’s what stops him from being dangerous. I’d never come across him before and I didn’t know what to expect. I was surprised to see how heartily I disliked him. I’m sure the feeling is mutual.’

    And last month, in the Times, Rushdie wrote an opinion piece in which he called for a ‘Muslim Reformation’ that would ‘combat not only the jihadi ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows of the closed communities to let in much-needed fresh air.’

    Yet for all that, there is a sense, when he talks about his latest novel ‘Shalimar the Clown’, that his enduring public commitment to a kind of secular cosmopolitanism – he insists that after the fatwa, the experience of not having a home came eventually to feel like a ‘liberation’ – has been complicated somewhat by a sharpened appreciation of his own roots and of the need for belonging. The book is dedicated ‘In loving memory of my Kashmiri grandparents’ and Rushdie agrees that it differs in significant ways from anything he’s written before.

    ‘The whole story of migration and what that has done in interconnecting the planet is obviously something I’ve written about a lot. This book isn’t so much about that; it’s about the aftermath of that. Another thing is that there is a criticism that is sometimes made of Indian writers in English: it’s that most of the books have urban settings. The argument goes that this is a Westernised urban elite writing books about a Westernised urban elite. I have never really written a village novel, but there’s a passage in [his 1999 novel] “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”, in which the photographer Rai goes off the road into the deep countryside, which is one of the passages of mine that I like best. But it’s just a passage. I thought it was about time I tried to create a village reality and to get out of my city-fied skin, in order to see how people think in a world very far from the urban environment I’ve always inhabited.’

    Not just any ‘village reality’, however, but the reality of village life in Kashmir. Rushdie describes himself as being ‘three-quarters Kashmiri’ (though he arrived in England at the age of 13 and boarded at Rugby) and says that the fate of that disputed mountainous region wedged between India and Pakistan has long preoccupied him.

    ‘I was surprised that I hadn’t got to this subject [Kashmir] before, because it’s something that has exercised me for a long time. I guess one reason is that the explosion and insurgency there happened in 1989, and I had a few other things going on at the time! But I felt a compulsion outside myself to do something that investigated that properly.'

    Characteristically, Rushdie has chosen to examine this theme through a transnational lens. ‘Shalimar the Clown’ begins with the murder, outside his daughter’s flat in Los Angeles, of Maximilian Ophuls (‘Nothing to do with the film director,’ Rushdie says flatly), a former US ambassador to India. But this isn’t geo-politics; it’s revenge of an altogether more personal kind. It turns out that Max’s killer Noman Sher Noman, known as ‘Shalimar the Clown’ (he’d been a tightrope walker in Kashmir), was cuckolded years earlier when the ambassador tempted Shalimar’s wife Boonyi to leave him. Shalimar subsequently joins a jihadi training camp at which he hones his skills as a murderer until such time, he says, as ‘I have become death.'

    We encounter a parade of the kind of improbabilities familiar from Rushdie’s previous novels – the octogenarian Max has an affair with India’s ‘hottest box-office star’; a mullah made entirely out of iron inveighs against the infidel at one of the camps Shalimar attends – yet, at the same time, he writes with considerable lyricism and straightforward affection about the landscape of Kashmir. ‘The danger with writing this kind of novel,’ Rushdie says, ‘is that you end up writing about nothing and the book has no roots at all. You just skim the surface of everything and don’t get under the skin of anything. So you need more roots. You have to be rooted in each place you go to, and not just the locations but the inner realities of the people in those places needs to be made as truthful as you can make them.’

    This has meant abandoning some of the postmodern devices he has relied on in the past, notably the use of an authorial surrogate or ‘me character’. ‘Roth can have Zuckerman and nobody minds,’ Rushdie says testily, referring to Philip Roth’s narrative alter-ego. ‘But with me, it skews the reading of the book if there’s anybody in it about whom people can say, “There’s the author in disguise.”’ So, as he won’t be appearing in his books, perhaps eagle-eyed readers should look instead for the scholarly gentleman in a blue and white scarf cheering on Davids at the Lane.


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