Some lives are richer than others. And by richer I don’t mean money richer, but rather how much do you see when you look about you, how much of what’s out there have you registered in your consciousness and eventually your memory. In this regard the richest person who ever lived has to be Marcel Proust. There’s no end to what he remembers of his past, no end to what he can then describe and relive in his writings. Would that we could all do as he does, then we would all be writers and the separations between us, between me and Marcel Proust for example would disappear.
Salman Rushdie is such a person as Proust. He makes his past come alive because of the sheer numbers of words, sentences, images and pictures that he is able to recall when he writes about his past. Here I’m posting a June 2000 New Yorker article when he writes about his return to India following some 12 years of partly forced and partly voluntary exile. Every paragraph is alive and we’re there with him for his return. It wasn’t the intended glorious return that he had envisioned, but just a return made special by nothing other than the artistry of the writer. There was nothing special about the places he returned to, only about his way of seeing them once again. One wonders if such a return to the places of one’s past, of one’s youth is possible for all of us. The return yes, but not the artistry of this writer’s account of his own return.
Thursday, April 6th: I have left India many times. The first time was when I was thirteen and went to boarding school in Rugby, England. My mother didn’t want me to go but I said I did. I flew west excitedly in January, 1961, not really knowing that I was taking a step that would change my life forever. A few years later, my father, without telling me, suddenly sold Windsor Villa, our family home in Bombay. The day I heard this, I felt an abyss open beneath my feet. I think that I never forgave my father for selling that house, and I’m sure that if he hadn’t I would still be living in it. Since then the characters in my fiction have frequently flown west from India, but in novel after novel their author’s imagination has returned to it. This, perhaps, is what it means to love a country: that its shape is also yours, the shape of the way you think and feel and dream. That you can never really leave. Before the Partition massacres of 1947, my parents left Delhi and moved south, correctly calculating that there would be less trouble in secular, cosmopolitan Bombay. As a result, I grew up in that tolerant, broadminded city whose particular quality-call it freedom-I’ve been trying to capture and celebrate ever since. “Midnight’s Children,” which was published in 1981, was my first attempt at such literary land reclamation. Living in London, I wanted to get India back; and the delight with which Indian readers clasped the book to themselves, the passion with which they, in turn, claimed me, remains the most precious memory of my writing life.
In 1988, I was planning to buy myself a place in Bombay with the advance I’d received for my new novel. But that novel was “The Satanic Verses,” and after it was published the world changed for me, and I was no longer able to set foot in the country that has been my primary source of artistic inspiration. Whenever I made inquiries about getting a visa (although I was born an Indian national, I now have a British passport), word invariably came back that I would not be granted one. Nothing about my plague years, the dark decade that followed Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, has hurt more than this rift. I felt like a jilted lover, left alone with his unbearable love.
It has been a deep rift. India was the first country to ban “The Satanic Verses”; the book was proscribed without due process before it entered the country, by a weak Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi, in a desperate, unsuccessful bid for Muslim votes. After that, it sometimes seemed as if the Indian authorities were determined to rub salt in the wound. And the ban on “The Satanic Verses” is, of course, still in place.
After the September 24, 1998, agreement between the British and the Iranian governments, which effectively set aside the Khomeini fatwa, things began to change for me in India, too, and I was granted a five-year visa. At once, there were threats from Muslim hard-liners like Imam Bukhari, of the Delhi Jama Masjid, and, more worryingly, some commentators told me not to visit India, because if I did so I might look like a pawn of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government, the B.J.P. I have never been a B.J.P. man, but that wouldn’t stop the Party from using me for its own sectarian ends.
“Exile,” I wrote in “The Satanic Verses,” “is a dream of glorious return.” But the dream fades, the imagined return stops feeling glorious. The dreamer awakes. I almost gave up on India, almost believed the love affair was over for good. But not so. As it turns out, I’m about to leave for Delhi after a gap of twelve and a half years. My son Zafar, twenty, is coming with me. He hasn’t been to India since he was three, and is very excited. Compared to me, however, he’s the picture of coolness and calm.
Friday, April 7th: The telephone rings. The Delhi police are extremely nervous about my impending arrival. Can I please avoid being spotted on the plane? My bald head is very recognizable; will I please wear a hat? My eyes are also easily identified; will I please wear sunglasses? Oh, and my beard, too, is a real giveaway; will I wear a scarf around that?
The temperature in India is close to a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, I point out: a scarf might prove a little warm.
Oh, but there are cotton scarves.
I’m going to India because things are better now and because if I don’t go I’ll never know if it’s O.K. to go or not. I’m going because, in spite of everything that has happened between India and myself, the hook of love is in too deeply to pull out. Most of all, I’m going because Zafar asked to come with me. High time he was reintroduced to his other country.
So: I fly to Delhi, and nobody sees me do it. Here’s the invisible man in his Business Class seat. Here he is, watching the new Pedro Almodovar movie on a little pop-up screen, while the plane flies over, er, Iran. Here’s the invisible man sleep-masked and snoring.
I feel an urge to kiss the ground, or, rather, the blue rug in the airport “finger,” but am embarrassed to do so beneath the watchful eyes of a small army of security guards. Leaving the rug unkissed, I move out of the terminal into the blazing, bone-dry Delhi heat, so different from the wet-towel humidity of my native Bombay. The hot day enfolds us like an embrace. We climb into a cramped, white Hindustan Ambassador, a car that is itself a blast from the past, the British Morris Oxford, long defunct in Britain, but alive and well here in this Indian translation. The Ambassador’s air-conditioning system isn’t working. I’m back.
Saturday, April 8th: India rushes in from every direction, thrusting me into the middle of its unending argument, clamoring for my total attention. Buy Chilly cockroach traps! Drink Hello mineral water! Speed Thrills But Kills! shout the hoardings. There are new kinds of message, too. Enroll for Oracle 81. Graduate with Java. And, as proof that the long protectionist years are over, Coca-Cola is back with a vengeance. When I was last here it was banned, leaving the field clear for the disgusting local imitations, Campa Cola and Thums Up. Now there’s a red Coke ad every hundred yards or so. Coke’s slogan of the moment is written in Hindi transliterated into Roman script: Jo Chaho Ho Jaaye. Which could be translated, literally, as “Whatever you desire, let it come to pass.”
“Horn Please” demand the signs on the backs of a million trucks blocking the road. All the other trucks, and cars, bikes, motor scooters, taxis, and phut-phut autorickshaws enthusiastically respond, welcoming Zafar and me with an energetic rendition of the traditional symphony of the Indian street.
Wait for Side! Sorry-Bye-Bye! Fatta Boy!
The news is just as cacophonous. Between India and Pakistan, as usual, acrimony reigns. Pakistan’s ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has just been sentenced to life imprisonment after what looked very like a show trial stage-managed by the latest military strongman to seize power. India’s army of vociferous commentators, linking this story to the unveiling by Pakistan of a new missile, warn darkly of the worsening relations between the two countries. Plus ca change.
I’ve been back only for an instant, and already everyone I talk to is regaling me with opinions on the new shape of Indian politics. If Bombay is India’s New York-glamorous, glitzy, vulgar-chic, a merchant city, a movie city, a slum city, incredibly rich, hideously poor-then Delhi is its Washington. Politics is the only game in town. Nobody talks about anything else for very long.
Once, India’s minorities looked for protection to the left-leaning Congress Party, then the country’s only organized political machine. Now the disarray of the Party-and its drift to the right-is everywhere apparent. Under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, the once mighty machine languishes and rusts. People who have known Sonia for years urge me not to swallow the line that she was never interested in politics and allowed herself to be drafted into the leadership only because of her concern for the Party. They paint a portrait of a woman completely seduced by power but unable to wield it, lacking the skill, charm, vision, indeed everything except the hunger for power itself. Around her fawn the courtiers of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, working to prevent the emergence of new leaders who just might have the freshness and will to revive the party’s fortunes but who cannot be permitted to usurp the leadership role that, in the Sonia clique’s view, belongs to her and her children alone.
I was last in India in August, 1987, for the fortieth anniversary of Independence. I have never forgotten being at the Red Fort, in Old Delhi, and listening to Rajiv Gandhi delivering a stunningly tedious oration in broken schoolboy Hindi, while the audience simply and crushingly walked away. Now, here on television, is his widow, her Hindi even more broken than his, a woman convinced of her right to rule but convincing almost nobody except herself.
I remember another widow I met during that 1987 visit, a Sikh, Ravel Kaur, who had seen her husband and sons murdered before her eyes by gangs known to be led and organized by Congress people. Indira Gandhi had recently been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, and the whole Sikh community of Delhi was paying the price. The Rajiv Gandhi government prosecuted nobody for these murders, in spite of much hard evidence identifying many of the killers.
For my friend Vijay Shankardass, who had known Rajiv for years, those were disillusioning days. Vijay is one of the most distinguished attorneys in India, with a proud history of anti-censorship victories to his name. He and his wife hid their Sikh neighbors in their own home to keep them safe. He went to see Rajiv to demand that something be done to stop the killings, and was deeply shocked by Rajiv’s seeming indifference: “Salman, he was so calm.” One of Rajiv’s close aides, Arjun Das, was less placid. “Saalon ko phoonk do,” he snarled. “Blow the bastards away.” Later, he, too, was killed.
The Congress Party has strange bedfellows these days. Its decay can perhaps best be measured by the poor quality of its allies. In the state of Bihar, these include the bizarre political double act of Laloo Prasad Yadav and his wife, Rabri Devi. Some years ago, Laloo, then state Chief Minister, was implicated in the Fodder Scam, a swindle in which large amounts of public subsidies were claimed for the maintenance of cows that didn’t actually exist. Laloo was jailed, but first managed to make his wife the Chief Minister, and blithely went on running the state, by proxy, from his prison cell.
Since then, he has been in and out of the clink (though never convicted). At present, he’s inside, and his wife is at least technically still in the driver’s seat, and another juicy corruption scandal is emerging. The tax authorities want to know how Laloo and Rabri manage to live in such high style (they have a particularly grand house) on the relatively humble salaries that even senior ministers in India pull down. Laloo and Rabri were, very loosely, the models for the wholly fictitious and wildly corrupt Bombay politicians Piloo and Golmatol Doodhwala in my novel “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” In the novel, Piloo, India’s “Scambaba Deluxe,” runs a scheme that involves claiming public subsidies for nonexistent goats.
Sunday, April 9th: Zafar at twenty is a big, gentle young man who, unlike his father, keeps his emotions concealed. But he is a deeply feeling fellow, and is engaging with India seriously, attentively, beginning the process of making his own portrait of it, which may unlock in him an as yet unknown other self. At first, he notices what first-time visitors notice: the poverty of the families living by the railway tracks in what look like trash cans and bin liners, the men holding hands in the street, the “terrible” quality of Indian MTV, and the “awful” Bollywood movies. We pass through the sprawling Army cantonment, and he asks if the armed forces are as much of a political factor here as they are in neighboring Pakistan, and looks impressed when I tell him that the Indian Army has never sought political power.
I can’t tempt him into Indian national dress. I myself put on a cool, loose kurta-pajama outfit the moment I arrive, but Zafar is mutinous. “It’s just not my style,” he insists, preferring to stay in his young Londoner’s uniform of t-shirt, cargo pants, and sneakers. (By the end of the trip, he is wearing the white pajamas but not the kurta; still, progress of a kind has been made.) Zafar has never read more than the first three chapters of “Midnight’s Children,” in spite of its dedication (“For Zafar Rushdie who, contrary to all expectations, was born in the afternoon”). In fact, apart from “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” and the story collection “East, West,” he hasn’t finished any of my books. The children of writers are often this way. They need their parents to be parents, not novelists. Zafar has always had a complete set of my books proudly on display in his room, but he reads Alex Garland and Bill Bryson, and I pretend not to care. Now, poor fellow, he’s getting a crash course in my work as well as in my life. In the Red Fort after Partition, my aunt and uncle, like many Muslims, had to be protected by the Army from the violence raging outside; a version of this appears in my novel “Shame.” And here, off Chandni Chowk, the bustling main street of Old Delhi, are the lanes winding into the old Muslim mohallas (or neighborhoods), where my parents lived before they moved to Bombay. It’s also where Ahmed and Amina Sinai, the parents of the narrator of “Midnight’s Children,” faced the gathering pre-Independence storm. Zafar takes all this literary tourism in good part. Look, here at Purana Qila, the Old Fort supposedly built on the site of the legendary city of Indraprastha, is where Ahmed Sinai left a sack of money to appease a gang of arsonist blackmailers. Look, there are the monkeys who ripped up the sack and threw the money away. Look, here at the National Gallery of Modern Art are the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil, the half-Indian, half-Hungarian artist who inspired the character of Aurora Zogoiby in “The Moor’s Last Sigh”. . . O.K., enough, Dad, he plainly thinks but is too nice to say. O.K., I’ll read them, this time I really will. (He probably won’t.)
There are signs at the Red Fort advertising an evening son-et-lumiere show. “If Mum was here,” he says suddenly, “she’d insist on coming to that.” Zafar’s bright, beautiful mother, my first wife, Clarissa Luard, the Arts Council of England’s highly esteemed senior literature officer, who was the guardian angel of young writers and little magazines, died of a recurrence of breast cancer last November, aged just fifty. Zafar and I had spent most of her final hours by her bedside. He is her only child.
“Well,” I say, “she was here, you know.” In 1974, Clarissa and I spent more than four months travelling around India, roughing it in cheap hotels and long-distance buses, using the advance I’d received for my first novel, “Grimus,” to finance the trip, and trying to stretch the money as far as it would go. Now I begin to make a point of telling Zafar what his mother thought of this or that-how much she liked the serenity of this spot, or the hubbub over there. What began as a little father-and-son expedition acquires an extra dimension.
I’ve always known that this first visit would be the trickiest. Don’t overreach yourself, I thought. If it goes well, things should ease. The second visit? “Rushdie returns again” isn’t much of a news story. And the third-“Oh, here he is once more”-barely sounds like news at all. In the long slog back to “normality,” habituation, even boredom, has been a useful weapon. “I intend,” I start telling people in India, “to bore India into submission.” Things have improved in England and America, and I have grown unaccustomed to the problems of having to be protected. What’s happening in India feels, in this regard, like entering a time warp and being taken back to the bad old early days of the Iranian attack.
My protection team couldn’t be nicer or more efficient, but, gosh, there are a lot of them, and they are jumpy. In Old Delhi, where many Muslims live, they are especially on edge, particularly whenever, in spite of my cloak of invisibility, a member of the public commits the faux pas of recognizing me.
“Sir, there has been exposure! Exposure has occurred!” my protectors mourn.
“Sir, they have said the name, sir! The name has been spoken!”
“Sir, please, the hat!”
It’s useless to point out that I do tend to get recognized a fair bit, because, well, I look like this and other people don’t; or that, on every single “exposure,” the reaction of the persons concerned has been friendly. My protectors have a nightmare scenario in their heads-rioting mobs, etc.-and mere real life isn’t enough to wipe it away. This has been one of the most frustrating aspects of the last few years. People-journalists, policemen, friends, strangers-all write scripts for me, and I get trapped inside those fantasies. What none of the scenarists ever seem to come up with is the possibility of a happy ending-one in which the problems I’ve faced are gradually overcome, and I resume the ordinary literary life, which is all I’ve ever wanted. Yet this, the wholly unanticipated story line, is what has actually happened. My biggest problem these days is waiting for everyone to let go of their nightmares and catch up with the facts.
I dine with the artist Vivan Sundaram and Geeta Kapur, at their home in the Shanti Niketan district of South Delhi. Vivan is a nephew of the painter Amrita Sher-Gil, and some of her best canvases are on the walls of his home, as is his own luminous portrait of Amrita and her family.
“So, do things feel different?” Vivan asks, and I say, Not as much as I thought they would. People don’t change, the heart of the place is the same. But of course there are the obvious changes. The B.J.P. in power. The new-technology boom that has given even more impetus and affluence to the Indian bourgeoisie.
Bill Clinton’s visit to the subcontinent coincides with my own, and Geeta and Vivan portray the President’s stay as a defining moment for the rich India that, since my last visit, has experienced exponential growth fuelled by new technology. In America, forty per cent of all Silicon Valley start-ups are launched by people of Indian origin, and in India itself the new electronic age has created many fortunes. Clinton made much of these new techno-boomers, and visited Hyderabad, one of the new boomtowns. For the Indian rich, his coming was both a validation and an apotheosis.
“You can’t believe how they loved it,” Geeta says. “So many people longing to bow down and say, Sir, Sir, we just love America.”
“India and the U.S. as the two great democracies,” Vivan adds. “India and America as partners and equals. That was the idea, and it was said without any sense of irony at all.”
The India that remains in thrall to religious-communalist sectarians of the most extreme and medievalist type; the India that’s fighting something like a civil war in Kashmir; the India that cannot feed or educate or give proper medical care to its people; the India that can’t provide its citizens with drinkable water; the India in which the absence of simple toilet facilities obliges millions of women to control their natural functions so that they can relieve themselves under cover of darkness-these Indias were not paraded before the President of the United States. Gung-ho nuclear India, fat-cat entrepreneurial India, super-nerd computer India, glam-rock high-life India all pirouetted and twirled in the international media spotlight that accompanies the Leader of the Free World wherever he goes.
Monday, April 10th: I learn that the head of the British Council in India, Colin Perchard, will not let me use the council’s auditorium for a press conference at the end of the week. In addition, I was told that the British High Commissioner, Sir Rob Young, was instructed by the Foreign Office to stay away from me-“not to come out of the stables.” Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, is arriving in India the day I am due to leave and, it would appear, is anxious not to be too closely associated with me. He is scheduled to travel to Iran soon, and, naturally, that trip must not be compromised.
Hansie Cronje, the captain of the South African cricket team and poster boy for the new South Africa, is being accused by the Indian police of having been involved, along with three of his teammates, in taking money from two Indian bookies to fix the results of one-day international games. Sensational news. The police claim to have transcripts of telephone conversations which leave no room for doubt. There are hints of a link to underworld crime-syndicate bosses like the notorious Dawood Ibrahim. People start speculating about this being the tip of an enormous iceberg. It’s no secret that as the one-day version of the game has become a big money-spinner, and as such matches have proliferated, the interest of Far Eastern betting syndicates and bookmakers with underworld links has grown. But no cricket lover wants to believe that his heroes are jerks. Such chosen blindness is a form of corruption, too. “We treated them like gods,” a fan says, “and they turned out to be crooks.”
Within moments, the denials begin. Hansie is a gent, clean as a whistle, honest as the day is long. And why were Indian policemen bugging South African players’ phones in the first place? And the voices on the tapes don’t even sound South African. Cronje himself gives a press conference denying the charges, insisting that his teammates and his bank statements will confirm that he never tried to throw a match or received any cash for doing so. And behind all the backlash is what sounds, to Indian ears, suspiciously like racism. Commentators from the white cricket-playing countries have been the fastest out of the blocks, rubbishing the allegations, casting doubt on the professionalism and even the integrity of the Indian policemen investigating the case.
The officer in charge of my protection team is the kindly natured Akshey Kumar, who loves literature, can speak with knowledge about the work of Vikram Seth and Vikram Chandra, Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy, and is proud of having two daughters at college in Boston, at Tufts. Kumar’s friend K. K. Paul, New Delhi’s Joint Commissioner of Police, is running the Cronje investigation. He is a superb detective, says Kumar, and a man of great probity. What’s more, South Africa being a friendly nation, the Indian authorities would never allow these accusations to be made public unless they’re one hundred and ten per cent convinced of the strength of the case that K. K. Paul and his team have built. Therefore, Kumar advises with great prescience, just wait and see.
We’re off on a road trip to show the boy the sights: Jaipur, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra. For me, the road itself has always been the main attraction. There are more trucks than I remembered, many more, blaring and lethal, often driving straight at us down the wrong side of the carriageway. There are wrecks from head-on smashes every few miles.
Look, Zafar, that is the shrine of a prominent Muslim saint; all the truckers stop there and pray for luck, even the Hindus. Then they get back into their cabs and take hideous risks with their lives, and ours as well. Look, Zafar, that is a tractor-trolley loaded with men. At election time, the sarpanch, or headman, of every village is ordered to provide such trolleyloads for politicians’ rallies. Allegedly, for Sonia Gandhi ten tractor-trolleys per village is the requirement. Nobody would actually go to the rallies of their own free will. Look, those are the polluting chimneys of brick kilns smoking in the fields. Outside the city, the air is less filthy, but it still isn’t clean. But in Bombay between December and February, think of this, aircraft often can’t land or take off before 11 A.M. because of the smog.
The New Age is here, all right. Zafar, if you could read Hindi you’d see the New Age’s new words being phonetically transliterated into that language’s Devanagari script: Millennium tires. Oasis Cellular. Modern’s Chinese “Fastfood.”
Behold, Zafar, the incomprehensible acronyms and abbreviations. What is a G.I.S.? What is the H.S.I.D.C.? One reveals a genuine shift. You see it every hundred yards or so: S.T.D./I.S.D. P.C.O. P.C.O. is Public Call Office, and now anyone can pop into one of these little booths, make calls to anywhere in India or, indeed, the world, and pay on the way out. This is the genuine communications revolution of India.
Zafar wants to learn Hindi and Urdu, and come back without all the paraphernalia that presently surrounds us: without, to be blunt, me. Good. He’s got the bug. Once India bites you, you’ll never be cured.
In the roadside dhabas where we stop for refreshments, they’re talking about Hansie Cronje. Nobody is in any doubt that he is guilty as sin.
Bill Clinton visited the hilltop fortress-palace of Amber, outside Jaipur, but his security people wouldn’t allow him to indulge in the famous local tourist treat. At the bottom of Amber’s hill is a taxi rank of elephants. You buy a ticket at the Office of Elephant Booking and then lurch uphill on the back of your rented pachyderm. Where the President failed, Zafar and I succeed. I feel glad to know-in a moment of Schadenfreude-that somebody else’s security was tighter and more restrictive than mine. Rajasthan is colorful. People wear colorful clothes and perform colorful dances and ride on colorful elephants to colorful ancient palaces, and these are things a President should know. He should also know that at a test site nearby, in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, Indian know-how has brought India into the nuclear age. Rajasthan is, therefore, the cradle of the new India that must be thought of as America’s partner and equal. What was not drawn to Clinton’s attention-because it has no place in either the colorful, touristic, elephant-taxi India or the new, thrusting, Internet-billionaire, entrepreneurial India that is currently being sold to the world-was that Rajasthan was dying of thirst, in the grip of one of the worst droughts for a century. Or that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s appeal to the people of India to help fight the massive destruction wrought by the drought by making charitable contributions, “no matter how small,” was absurd while the Indian government is spending a fortune on Rajasthan’s other weapon of mass destruction.
It’s hot: almost a hundred and ten degrees. The rains have failed for the last two years, and it’s two months to the next monsoon. Wells are running dry, and villagers are being forced to drink dirty water, which gives them diarrhea, which causes dehydration, and so the vicious circle tightens its grip. As the gulf widens between the feast of the haves and the famine of the have-nots, the stability of the country must be more and more at risk. I have been smelling a difference in the air, and, reluctant as I am to put into words what isn’t much more than an instinct, I do feel a greater volatility in people, a crackle of anger just below the surface, a shorter fuse.
Tuesday, April 11th: At dinner last night, Zafar ate a bad shrimp. I blame myself. I should have known to remind him of the basic rules for travellers in India: always drink bottled water, make sure you see the seal on the bottle being broken in front of you, never eat salad (it won’t have been washed in bottled water), never put ice in your drinks (it won’t have been made with bottled water) . . . and never, never eat seafood unless you’re by the sea. Zafar’s desert shrimp knocked him flat. He has a sleepless night: vomiting, diarrhetic. This morning he looks terrible, and we have a long, hard journey ahead of us, on bumpy, difficult roads. Now he, too, needs to guard against dehydration. Unlike the villagers we’re leaving behind, however, we have plenty of bottled water to drink, and proper medication. And, of course, we’re leaving.
A day to grind through. Long, gruelling journey to Agra, then back to Delhi. Zafar suffers but remains stoical. He’s too weak to walk around the magnificent Fatehpur Sikri site, and only just manages to drag himself around the Taj, which he declares to be smaller than expected. I am very relieved when I can finally get him into a comfortable hotel bed.
I turn on the television news. Cronje has confessed.
Wednesday, April 12th: “I AM A CROOK!: CRONJE” says the banner headline in the morning paper. The erstwhile cricketing demigod has admitted to having feet of clay: he has “been dishonest,” he has taken money, and now he has been fired from the South African captaincy and kicked off the national team. K. K. Paul and his men have been thoroughly vindicated.
The money Cronje took was paltry, as it turns out: a mere eight thousand two hundred dollars. Not much for a man’s good name. Hansie Cronje’s locker-room nickname-given him long before the present scandal-was Crime. As in crime doesn’t pay. (He was notoriously stingy, the story goes, about buying a round of drinks.) Now, as the South African government moves toward agreeing to his extradition to stand trial in India, and his lawyers warn him to expect a jail term, he must have started thinking of that nickname as a prophecy.
I am impressed by the relative lack of triumphalism in the Indian response to Cronje’s downfall. “What are we gloating over?” warns Siddharth Saxena in the Hindustan Times: meaning, let’s not be self-righteous about this. The bookmakers were Indians, after all, and in the revelations that should now begin to flood out we may learn that we’re no angels, either. One of the bookies, Rajesh Kalra, is already under arrest, and a suspected middleman, the movie actor Kishan Kumar, will be arrested as soon as he gets out of the hospital, where he is being treated for a sudden heart problem.
Sometime in the nineteen-twenties, my paternal grandfather, Mohammed Din Khaliqi, a successful Delhi businessman, bought a hot-season retreat for his family, a modest stone cottage in the pretty little town of Solan, in the Simla Hills. He named it Anis Villa, after his only son, Anis Ahmed. That son, my father, who later took the surname Rushdie, after the Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), gifted the house to me on my twenty-first birthday. And eleven years ago the state government of Himachal Pradesh took it over without so much as a by-your-leave.
It isn’t easy to seize a man’s property in India, even for a state government. In order to get hold of Anis Villa, the local authorities falsely declared it to be “evacuee property.” The law pertaining to evacuee property was devised after Partition to enable the state to take possession of homes left behind by individuals and families who had gone to Pakistan. This law did not apply to me. I was an Indian citizen until I became a British one by naturalization, and I have never held a Pakistani passport or been a resident of that country. Anis Villa had been wrongfully seized, and provably so.
Vijay Shankardass and I became close friends because of Solan. He took on the Himachal authorities on my behalf. The case took seven years, and we won. Both parts of this sentence are impressive. Seven years, by Indian standards, is incredibly fast. And to defeat a government, even when right is quite clearly on your side, takes some doing.
We regained possession of the Solan villa in November, 1997. Since then, the roof has been fixed, the house cleaned and painted, and one bathroom modernized. The electricity, plumbing, and telephone all work. In preparation for our visit, furniture and furnishings have been rented for a week from a local store, at the surreal cost, for a six-bedroom house, of a hundred dollars. A caretaker and his family live on the premises. Solan has grown out of all recognition, but the villa’s view of the hills remains clear and unspoiled.
Zafar is just a few weeks shy of his own twenty-first birthday. Going to Solan with him today closes a circle. It also discharges a responsibility I have long felt to the memory of my father, who died in 1987. You see, Abba, I have reclaimed our house. Four generations of our family, living and dead, can now forgather there. One day, it will belong to Zafar and his little brother, Milan. In a family as uprooted and far-flung as ours, this little acre of continuity stands for a very great deal.
To get to Solan, you take a three-hour ride in an air-conditioned “chair car” on the Shatabdi Express from New Delhi to Le Corbusier’s city of Chandigarh, the shared capital city of Punjab and Haryana. Then you drive for an hour and a half, up into the hills. At least, this is what you do if you’re not me. The police do not want me to take the train. “Sir, exposure is too great.” They are upset because someone at a hotel in Jaipur has blabbed to Reuters that I was there. Vijay has managed to squash the Reuters story for the moment, but the shield of invisibility is wearing thin. At Solan, as even the police accept, the cat will surely spring from the bag. It’s where everyone expects me to go. The day before yesterday, the Indian state TV service Doordarshan sent a team up to Anis Villa to nose around and quiz Govind Ram, the caretaker, who stonewalled nobly. Once I’m actually there, however, the story will surely break.
One rather unattractive development: the police high-ups who telephone Akshey Kumar every five minutes to ask how things are going have developed the notion that the Jaipur leak was engineered by Vijay and myself. This germ of suspicion will shortly blossom into a full-blown disease. Zafar is feeling better, but I refuse to inflict what will be a seven-hour car journey on him. I put him on the train, lucky dog. I am to meet him at Chandigarh station with my inconspicuous “car-cade” of four black sedans.
There’s another train leaving Delhi, the one that links the Indian capital and the city of Lahore, in Pakistan. However, I discover that the service is now at risk. Pakistan complains that India isn’t providing its share of the rolling stock. India complains, rather more seriously, that Pakistan is using the train to smuggle drugs and counterfeit money into India.
Drugs are a huge issue, of course, but the counterfeit-money issue is also a big one. In Nepal these days, people are reluctant to accept Indian five-hundred-rupee notes, because of the quantity of forgeries in circulation. Not long ago, a diplomat from the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi went to pay his young son’s school fees, and used a mixture of genuine and funny money to do so. The boy was expelled, and although he was later reinstated, the link between the Pakistani government and the bad money had been clearly established.
I collect Zafar at Chandigarh, and as we go up into the hills my heart lifts. Mountains have a way of cheering up plains dwellers. The air freshens, tall conifers lean from steep slopes. As the sun sets, the lights of the first hill stations glow in the twilight above us. We pass a narrow-gauge railway train on its slow, picturesque way up to Shimla. For me this is the emotional high point of the trip, and I can see that Zafar, too, is moved. We stop at a dhaba near Solan for dinner, and the owner tells me how happy he is that I’m there, and someone runs up for an autograph. I ignore the worried expression on Akshey Kumar’s face. Even though I’ve hardly ever been here in my life, and not at all since I was twelve years old, I feel that I’m home.
It’s dark when we reach the villa. From the road, we have to climb down a hundred and twenty-two steps to get to it. At the bottom, there’s a little gate, and Vijay, also in a state of high feeling, formally welcomes me to the home he has won back for my family. The caretaker runs up and astonishes Zafar by stooping down to touch our feet. I am not a superstitious man, but I feel the presence at my shoulder of my grandfather, who died before I was born, and of my parents’ younger selves. The sky is on fire with stars. I go into the back garden by myself. I need to be alone.
Thursday, April 13th: I am woken at 5 A.M. by amplified music and chanting from a mandira, a Hindu temple, across the valley. I get dressed and walk around the house in the dawn light. With high-pitched pink roofs and little corner turrets, the house is more beautiful than I remembered, more beautiful than it looked in Vijay’s photographs of it, and the view is as stunning as promised. It’s a very strange feeling to walk around a house you don’t know that somehow belongs to you. It takes a while for us to grow into one another, the house and me, but by the time the others wake up it’s mine. We spend most of the day mooching around the premises, sitting in the garden under the shade of big old conifers, eating Vijay’s special scrambled eggs. I know now that the trip has been worthwhile: I know it from the expression on Zafar’s face.
In the afternoon, we make an excursion to the next town, the former British summer capital. They called it Simla, but it’s gone back to being Shimla. Vijay shows me the law courts where he fought for Anis Villa, and we go, too, to the former Viceregal Lodge, a big old pile that once staged the crucial pre-Independence Simla Conference of 1945 and now houses a research establishment called the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.
Zafar walks gravely around the conference table where the shades of Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah are seated, but when we get outside again he asks, “Why is that stone lion still holding up an English flag?” The probable answer, I hypothesize, is that nobody noticed until he did. India has been independent for over half a century, but the flag of St. George is still up there on the roof.
The Institute of Advanced Studies is run by a local B.J.P. wallah, and I do a little ducking and swerving to dodge him in the grounds. Alas, I mustn’t fall into the trap of looking like the B.J.P.’s man. A handshake that would certainly be photographed is worth a little fancy footwork to avoid. Unlike V. S. Naipaul (who is also in India, I gather), I do not see the rise of Hindu nationalism as a great outpouring of India’s creative spirit. I see it as the negation of the India I grew up in, as the triumph of sectarianism over secularism, of hatred over fellowship, of ugliness over love. It is true that Prime Minister Vajpayee has tried to lead his party in a more moderate direction, and that Vajpayee himself is surprisingly popular among Muslims, but his attempt to reshape his party in his own image has failed. The B.J.P. is the political manifestation of the extremist Hindu movement the R.S.S. (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), rather as Sinn Fein, in Northern Ireland, is the political offspring of the Provisional I.R.A. In order to change the B.J.P., Vajpayee would have to carry the leadership of the R.S.S. with him. Regrettably, the opposite is happening. The relatively moderate R.S.S. chief, Professor Rajendra Singh, has been ousted by a hard-liner, who has started warning Vajpayee to toe the R.S.S. line.
The Prime Minister’s options are limited. He could give in and unleash the dogs of religious strife. He could try doing what Indira Gandhi brilliantly carried off in 1969, when the kingmakers of the Congress tried to turn her into their puppet. (She was expelled from her own party, formed her own faction in the Congress, rallied M.P.s to her side, and later called a general election and destroyed the Old Guard at the polls.) Or, as seems most likely, he could soldier on until the next election and then stand down. At that point, the B.J.P.’s moderate mask will slip, the Party will no longer be able to hold together the kind of broad-based coalition of the sort that presently underpins its power, and, given the shambles that the Congress Party is in, India will enter another phase of splintered, unstable governments. It’s not a happy prediction, but it’s what the probabilities suggest. And it’s a good enough reason for keeping away from B.J.P. apparatchiks, however low-level they may be.
My metamorphosis from observer to observed, from the Salman I know to the “Rushdie” I often barely recognize, continues apace. Rumors of my presence in India are everywhere. I am profoundly depressed to hear that a couple of Islamic organizations have vowed to make trouble, and trouble is news, and so maybe, I think, this will be seen as the meaning of my trip to India, which will be very, very sad, and bad indeed.
At dinner in Solan’s Himani restaurant, I’m tucking into the spicy Indian version of Chinese food when I’m approached by a TV reporter called Agnihotri, who happens to be vacationing up here with his family. And there it is: he has his scoop and the story’s out. Within moments, a local press reporter arrives and asks me a few friendly questions. None of this is very unexpected, but as a result of these chance encounters the jitteriness of the police escalates into a full-scale row.
Back at Anis Villa, Vijay receives a call on his cell phone from a police officer named Kulbir Krishan, in Delhi. Krishan is somewhere in the middle of the invisible chain of command of Delhi desk pilots, but what he says makes Vijay lose his composure for the first time in all the years of our friendship. He is almost trembling as he tells me, “We are accused of having called those journalists to the restaurant. This man says we have not been gentlemen, we have not kept our word, and we have, if you can believe the phrase, ‘talked out of turn.’ Finally the fellow says, ‘There will be riots in Delhi tomorrow, and if we fire on the crowds and there are deaths, the blood will be on your heads.’ “
I am horrified. It quickly becomes clear to me that there are two issues here. The first, and lesser, issue is that after a week of accepting all manner of limitations and security conditions we are being accused of dishonesty and bad faith. That is insulting and unjust, but it isn’t, finally, dangerous. The second issue is a matter of life and death. If the Delhi police have become so trigger-happy that they are preparing to kill people, then they must be stopped before it’s too late. No time now for niceties.
Zafar looks on, dazed, while I blow my stack at poor, decent Akshey Kumar (who is not at all to blame) and tell him that unless Kulbir Krishan gets back on the phone right now, apologizes to Vijay and me personally, and assures me that there are no plans to murder anybody tomorrow, I will insist on our driving through the night back to New Delhi so that I can be waiting at Prime Minister Vajpayee’s office door at dawn, to ask him to deal with the problem personally.
After a certain amount of this kind of raging-“I’ll go to the British High Commissioner! I’ll call a press conference! I’ll write a newspaper article!”-the hapless Kulbir does call back to speak of “misunderstandings,” and promises that there will be no shootings or deaths.
“If I spoke out of context,” he memorably concludes, “then I am very sorry indeed.” I burst out laughing at the sheer absurdity of this formulation and put down the phone. But I do not sleep well. The meaning of this entire journey will be defined by what happens in the next two days, and even though I believe that the police are overreacting, I can’t be sure. Delhi is their town, and me, I’m Rip van Winkle.
Friday, April 14th: We leave Solan at dawn and drive Zafar and Vijay to Chandigarh station. (I am going all the way by road.) Zafar is recovering from the shrimp attack, but Vijay looks worn out, frazzled. He repeats several times that he has never been spoken to so rudely, and doesn’t propose to let the matter rest. I can see that he’s had it with the police, with all the travelling, and probably with me. Tomorrow night, I tell him, all this will be over and you can go back to being a lawyer and not think about Salman Rushdie and his problems anymore. He laughs weakly and gets on the train. I am travelling to Delhi at the invitation of the organizers of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and today is their banquet. But I’m not thinking about the prize. All the way back to Delhi, I’m wondering whose instincts will prove the sharper: mine or my protectors’. How will my return-of-the-native trip end: happily or badly? I’ll soon know.
At half past twelve I’m closeted in a meeting with R. S. Gupta, the special commissioner in charge of security for the whole city of Delhi. He is a calm, forceful man, used to getting his way. He paints a dark picture. A Muslim politician, Shoaib Iqbal, plans to go to Friday midday prayers at the city’s most important mosque, the Jama Masjid, in Old Delhi, and there get support for a demonstration against me, and against the Indian government for allowing me to enter the country. The congregation will be in five figures, and if the mosque’s imam-it’s Bukhari-supports the call to demonstrate, the numbers could be huge and bring the city to a standstill. “We are negotiating with them,” Gupta says, “to keep the numbers small and the event peaceful. Maybe we will succeed.”
After a couple of hours of hightension waiting, during which I am effectively confined to quarters-“Sir, no movements, please”-the news is good. Only about two hundred people have marched (and two hundred marchers, in India, is a number smaller than zero), and it has all gone off without a hitch. “Fortunately,” Mr. Gupta tells me, “we have been able to manage it.”
What really happened in Delhi today? It is one of the characteristics of security forces everywhere in the world to try to have it both ways. Had there been mass demonstrations, they would have said, “You see, all our nervousness has been amply justified.” But there were no such marches, and so I’m told, “We were able to prevent the trouble because of our foresight and skill.” Maybe so. But it might also be that for the vast majority of Indian Muslims the controversy over “The Satanic Verses” is old hat now, and in spite of the efforts of the politician and the imam (both of whom made blood-and-thunder speeches) nobody could really be bothered to march. Oh, there’s a novelist in town to go to a dinner? What’s his name? Rushdie? So what?
It’s a hot day in Delhi, and there’s a hot wind blowing. A dust storm rages across the city. As we all take in the news that the only storm today is meteorologically induced, we can finally begin to relax. The script in people’s heads is being rewritten. The foretold ending has not come to pass. What happens instead is extraordinary, and, for Zafar and me, an event of immense emotional impact, far exceeding in its force even the tumultuous reception of “Midnight’s Children,” almost twenty years ago. What bursts out is not violence but joy.
At a quarter to eight in the evening, Zafar and I walk into the Commonwealth Prize reception at the Oberoi hotel, and from that moment until we leave India the celebrations never stop. Journalists and photographers surround us, their faces wreathed in most unjournalistic smiles. Friends burst through the media wall to embrace us. The actor Roshan Seth, recently recovered from serious heart problems, hugs me and says, “Look at us, yaar, we’re both supposed to be dead but still going strong.” The eminent columnist Amita Malik, a friend of my family’s from the old days in Bombay, quickly gets over her embarrassment at mistaking Zafar for my bodyguard and reminisces wonderfully about the past, praising my father’s wit, his quick gift for repartee, and telling tales of my favorite uncle, Hameed, who died too young, too long ago. One of the great English-language Indian novelists, Nayantara Sahgal, clasps my hands and whispers, “Welcome home.” I look around and there’s Zafar being interviewed for television and speaking fluently and touchingly about his own happiness at being here. My heart overflows.
Saturday, April 15th: In all my conversations with the press, I’ve tried to avoid reopening old wounds, to tell Indian Muslims that I am not and have never been their enemy, and to stress that I’m in India to mend broken links and to begin, so to speak, a new chapter. Now the media agrees. “Let’s turn a page,” the Asian Age says. Dileep Padgaonkar, of the Times of India, will put it more movingly the day after I leave: “He is reconciled with India, and India with him. . . . Something sublime has happened to him which should enable him to continue to mesmerise us with his yarns. He has returned to where his heart has always been. He has returned home.” In the Hindustan Times, there is an editorial headed “RECONSIDER THE BAN.” This sentiment is echoed right across the media. The Times of India finds an Islamic scholar, as well as other intellectuals, supporting an end to the ban. On the electronic media, opinion polls run seventy-five per cent in favor of allowing “The Satanic Verses” to be freely published in India at long last.
Vijay throws a farewell party for me. And there’s a surprise: my two actress aunts, Uzra Butt and her sister Zohra Segal, are there, with my cousin Kiran Segal, Zohra’s daughter and one of the country’s foremost teachers of the Odissi school of Indian classical dancing. This is the zany wing of the family, sharp of tongue and mischievous of eye. Uzra and Zohra are the grand old ladies of the Indian theatre, and we were all in love with Kiran at one time or another. Kiran lived with her mother in an apartment in Hampstead for a time in the nineteen-sixties, and when I was at boarding school at Rugby I sometimes spent vacations in their spare bedroom, next to Kiran’s bedroom door, on which there was a large, admonitory skull-and-crossbones sign. I now discover that Vijay and Roshan Seth stayed in the same spare room in the same period. All three of us would look wistfully at the skull and crossbones, and none of us ever got past it.
“I haven’t seen you dance for years,” I say to Kiran.
“Come back soon,” she says. “Then I’ll dance.”