A Faustian contract in reverse

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Oct 1 2012, 02:18am hrs
Salman Rushdies memoir is centred around the years he was forced into hiding by a fatwa. Around the idea that to gain immortality, the writer has to risk ruining his daily life

Joseph Anton: A Memoir

Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape

Hardback, Pg 656

Rs. 799

In 1989, on February 14, Valentines Day, when Ayatollah Khomeini declared war on The Satanic Verses, saying it was against Islam, and announced a fatwa against the writer Salman Rushdie, the latter remembered thinking: Im a dead man. What followed was bizarre: the target of hate became the prosecuted and was forced into hiding, with the British police responsible for his security. For nine years he led a nomadic, claustrophobic existence, fearing for his life and that of his family. In Joseph Anton, he writes about the fatwa years strangely enough in third person, so that the memoir almost reads like a Rushdie novel. In fact, the well-known Rushdie themes all find a place herealienation, migration, the cultural differences that divide East from West, the question of identity, fear vs freedomall surreally mirroring the writers best works as well as life. He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was the author of Satanic Verses, a title subtly distorted by the omission of the initial The.

As the British police moved in to protect him, Rushdie had to rename himself. His own name was worse than useless, it was a name that could not be spoken. He didnt have the freedom to choose an Asian name, otherwise Rushdie had dug into a fragment of a character and come up with Ajeeb Mamouli, Odd Ordinary, Strange Normal. When this was turned down, he began thinking of his favourite authors, writing down, side by side, the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, And there it was, his name for the next 11 years. Joseph Anton. When it was shortened to Joe, the wordsmith who had conjured up many names for his characters in his books like Saladin Chamcha in The Satanic Verses (Chamcha in memory of Gregor Samsa in Kafkas Metamorphosis), simply detested it.

In the long years of hiding, Rushdie writes that he clung on to the words spoken by a Conrad character: I must live until I die, mustnt I A bit self-indulgent in parts, and perhaps a tad too long, but Rushdie does introspect and takes a third-person look at himself here, often criticising a gesture or a statement or a step he took during those troubled years, including his infidelities. He candidly writes about how he deserted a publisher friend when The Satanic Verses was up for publication, who rushed to help when his book troubles began.

Rushdie, scarily, brings alive the harrowing years of the fatwa, when the ordinary became extraordinary. In the early days, he had to move house every now and then; a cleaning lady or a mechanics arrival meant he had to hide, often in a bathroom; every move was monitored and managed; even a visit to his son, eight in 1989, had to be dry cleaned, using all tricks possible (driving fast and slow, taking twists and turns) to ensure he was not followed. Rushdies snatched moments with his growing son are poignant, and it comes as a relief that he could at least keep one promise: write a book for his son. Haroun and the Sea of Stories was published by Granta and friend Bill Buford when no one else would risk a Rushdie publication.

Thats another high point of the book: the literary greats you get to meet, a formidable list of Nobel laureates and others, sometimes sitting on the wrong side of the fence as far as the Rushdie affair is concerned, like John Berger or Thomas Pynchon. On many levels, Rushdies trauma was eased from time to time thanks to the support of writers like Gnter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee, Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Carlos Fuentes, Dorris Lessing, Harold Pinter, Graham Swift, Margaret Drabble and Susan Sontag. Rushdie writes that during a visit to Mexico, Marquez told him, Of all the writers outside the Spanish language, the two I try always to follow are JM Coetzee and you. When Mrquez spoke writer to writer, about books, and didnt ask a single question about the fatwa, it was a high compliment indeed.

Being a migrant, belonging is an uneasy subject for migr Indian writers, he writes about his difficult relationship with India, where the book was first banned in October 1988, a month after it was published in Britain and months before the extreme stand taken by Iran. Strangelyinnocently, naively, even ignorantlyhe hadnt expected it... Book banning was something that happened all too frequently across the border... It wasnt the Indian way. And even when the fatwa was eventually lifted, the worlds unkindness was never far away, as Rushdie was told he couldnt be allowed to visit India. The world had become a place in which his arrival in a land that he loved could lead to a political crisis. Eventually, he would visit India with son Zafar, when there would be joy, only joy.

In this memoir, Rushdie comes to terms with his past by writing about his early years, his journey to boarding school in England, the relationship with his father, the relationship with his four wivesthe book is dedicated to two. Having left Bombay to study at Rugby School in the UK, he learnt his first lesson in alienation early: There would always be people who just didnt like you, to whom you seemed as alien as little green men or the Slime from Outer Space, and there was no point trying to change their minds. But he would have to relearn the definition of alienation years later during the fatwa, even as he tried very hard to change peoples minds about him.

Rushdie fans will get more than a glimpse of how he came to write his most famous book, Midnights Children, spun around the painful partition of India and Pakistan, which won the Booker in 1981. He also takes us through the process of writing The Satanic Verses. He was perhaps fated to write it, having been the only one to take a course on the birth of Islam at Cambridge. The Verses were a much more personal, interior exploration than Midnights Children or Shame.

Initially, he thought, again naively perhaps, that if he could honourably defend The Satanic Verses, then people would change their view of him. But slowly, painfully, he realised that, He was fighting against the view that people could be killed for their ideas, and against the ability of any religion to place a limiting point on thought.

Throughout the writing of The Satanic Verses 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 reverse. To gain immortality, or at least posterity, you lose, or at least ruin, your actual daily life. During the months and years that followed the publication of the book, his daily life would be ruined as he knew it. But it became clear that he would have to continue telling stories, for he was fighting for freedom of speech, freedom of the imagination, freedom from fear, and the beautiful, ancient art of which he was privileged to be a practitioner.

In the early days of the fatwa, what became visible was the beastly monstrosity of the world. But like Beauty, Rushdie too perhaps rediscovered the beauty in the beast, and this memoir tells us how.