Arriving early for lunch with Salman Rushdie at the River Cafe in west London, I walk out on to the restaurant’s lawn beside the Thames to gather my thoughts - only to see a very relaxed-looking Rushdie in jeans and a blue shirt ambling towards me. He explains that he has asked for our table to be changed to one just indoors because it’s a bit nippy on the patio.
We settle in and I ask him about a recent column he has written calling for a Muslim Reformation, a new scholarship in the religion that moves away from the literalist view of the Koran towards an assessment of the historical circumstances in which it was written in seventh-century Arabia.
By way of a reply, Rushdie says that one of the reasons his father chose the name Rushdie is that he was a great admirer of the Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd, who argued against a literal interpretation of Islam. “One argument is that in the Koran, unlike the Christian and Jewish tradition, man is not made in the image of God. Ibn Rushd and other philosophers argued that language after all is a human quality, therefore by the Koran’s own argument it would be improper of us to believe that God speaks Arabic [so] the Koran is an interpretation itself. It is a message which we as human beings write down in linguistic form. If that is so, then further acts of interpretation are also legitimate. You can say in a different set of historical circumstances, maybe these ideas need to be re-examined.”
Helping himself to a breadstick, Rushdie warms to his theme: “That was the argument defeated several hundred years ago by the literalist lobby and from that defeat much trouble has flowed.” He criticises the lack of engagement with secularism by militant Muslim communities in Britain and elsewhere, pointing to the opposite example of “India’s 150 million Muslims, who have been secular for 60 years, understanding that secularism is what protects them”.
Rushdie has made his way through most of the bread basket and I realise it is time to order. He opts for prosciutto and figs to start and, in a reflection of his generally ebullient mood these days, the Bellini special. Does he see signs that a concerted challenge to the diktats of Muslim dogmatism is being launched anywhere in the world? “I don’t know what the answer is. My job is to ask the questions,” he replies. “There has to be a rejectionist movement which just says, ‘We’ve had enough of this.’ In the end what works is when people say, ‘We don’t want our lives shaped by these people any more’ - and the Muslim community in Britain and everywhere else has to reach that point and reach it pretty soon.”
I suggest that in the wake of the recent attacks in London and Sharm el Sheikh, and the daily bloodbath in Baghdad, all directed at people engaged in the most everyday activities - commuting, queuing, shopping and holidaying - we can paraphrase Kennedy in Berlin: we are all Salman Rushdies now, whether we are British or Egyptian or Iraqi. How did he get through the years when he had a fatwa from Iran hovering over his head, yet also manage to hoof it up at parties with the likes of Nigella Lawson and write some of his funniest work - Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a children’s fable, and The Moor’s Last Sigh?
”Truthfully, at the beginning I didn’t think my chances were very good. What made me feel better was when I started arguing back and when they actually started the political campaign which eventually resulted in governments taking the case up with more energy and resolving the matter,” he says. “I’m not saying that I was stupid enough never to be frightened but I had to put it to one side and continue.” He must have been quite frightened to have “converted” to Islam soon after the fatwa was imposed? “Let’s not bring that up,” he says, clearly irritated. “I’ve unsaid that a hundred million times. That was a response to being put under unbelievable political pressure, including by the British government.”
The arrival of our main courses - seabass and lentils for him, salmon and grilled vegetables for me - prompts a change of subject and we move on to talk about Rushdie’s new book, Shalimar the Clown. Shalimar grows up in Kashmir, the idyllic northern Indian state that has for nearly two decades been the battleground in a very uncivil war between Indian security forces and Pakistan-backed jihadis and local separatists. The novel reflects the contemporary zeitgeist: a long-festering problem is made worse by broad-shouldered alpha males on both sides who, blessed with the gift of moral certitude, respond to brutality with more brutality.
Shalimar, a tightrope walker, is drawn into terrorism when his dancer wife, Boonyi, becomes the mistress of Maximilian Ophuls, the US ambassador to India and later America’s counter-terrorism chief. Shalimar’s terrorist brother is brutally tortured and killed by the Indian army. In a reflection of the way terrorist acts - and terrorists - leap across borders and from city to city these days, the novel moves from Kashmir to London and begins and ends in Los Angeles, where Shalimar monomaniacally hunts down Ophuls.
At his trial, Shalimar’s defence argues that the assassination of Ophuls has been remotely controlled by someone else, an invisible puppet master. (Sound familiar?) In a passage that makes one yearn for the days when the term “suicide bomber” was not as routinely used as “rock star” or “tennis player”, the jury mulls this over: “Now the terrifying possibility that mind-controlled automata were walking amongst us, ready to commit murder whenever a voice on the phone said, ‘Banana’ or ‘Solitaire’... it all made the new, senseless kind of sense.”
Shalimar the Clown answers those critics who said with some justification that Rushdie was hard to read because he never saw a pun he didn’t like and was discursive to the point of being digressive. The book is that rare highwire act, a literary thriller. It seems a vigorous rebuttal to the recent dismissal of fiction by V.S. Naipaul, to the effect that “if you write a novel... it’s of no account.”
Rushdie rolls his eyes at the mention of Naipaul. “It’s a long time since I bothered with his literary views, but I think fiction is unusually important at a time like this because we need people who can make imaginative leaps into reality. I set myself the challenge of understanding the way people become jihadis.”
I ask him about his childhood because I want to hear about some of my favourite characters in fiction - the beautifully sketched grandfather and grandmother in Midnight’s Children, the Booker Prize winner, for instance - and I suspect his family is a way into that. Magically, our restaurant table in London is transported to his grandparents’ home in Delhi, where Rushdie is receiving a dressing down from his formidable grandmother, and then to the north Indian university town of Aligarh where he is riding pillion on his grandfather’s bicycle. (Shalimar the Clown is dedicated to his maternal grandparents.)
Rushdie recounts how he arrived in Delhi after driving from Cambridge over a few months looking like a hippie, filthy and long-haired. “My grandmother refused to acknowledge my existence,” he recalls. “She turned to my sister and said, ‘Tell your brother to have a bath.’ When I returned, she said, ‘Tell your brother to have a haircut.’” Shorn to her satisfaction, she embraced him: “Now, my grandson has returned.” I am laughing along as if his grandmother were part of my extended family, which in a sense her literary incarnation is. His grandfather, he recalls with an apparent fondness, was a Muslim who prayed five times a day and had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, yet he believed in the separation of religion from the state championed by India’s founding fathers. He indulged his grandson by taking out large quantities of P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, those favourites of English-speaking Indians, from the library at the university where he was an eminence grise at the medical school. But there were dark moments in Rushdie’s late teens, as his father battled alcoholism.
In lieu of dessert, we talk about Rushdie’s model/actress wife, Padma Lakshmi. On the subject of marital love, six years after the couple met, Rushdie is not always as interesting as Rushdie the novelist or Rushdie the columnist, but he remains funny and self-deprecating. “She believes I’ve been writing about her all my life,” he says. Has he managed to persuade Lakshmi to include any Kashmiri delicacies in her forthcoming cookbook? His answer is an emphatic no, and we joke about only knowing operatic, larger-than-life south-Asian women.
We go outside as his taxi has arrived. “Have you been sent by Random House?” asks Rushdie. “Yes, for a Mr Rushy,” replies the cabbie without a flicker of recognition. “Close enough,” says Rushdie with a loud laugh, offering to drop me off on his way home. Another entertaining anecdote or three later, it is time to say goodbye. I realise I didn’t get around to saying how Midnight’s Children, which I read the summer before I went to college in Delhi, raised my expectations of the novel and led me to Marquez, Ondaatje and Ishiguro. But literary debts are hard to repay.
Salman Rushdie’s latest novel is “Shalimar the Clown” (Jonathan Cape).
The River Cafe Hammersmith, London
1 x prosciutto
1 x mozzarella
1 x sea bass
1 x salmon
1 x Bellini
1 x white wine
1 x coffee
1 x tea