For the man who has spent a decade living a real-life version of The Fugitive, Salman Rushdie no longer fits the part as well as he once did. True, the 51-year-old author's whereabouts are kept secret, meetings are arranged in clandestine fashion, and he is almost never without several bodyguards close by. That was the case last week, as members of the RCMP's VIP squad hovered about during a visit to Toronto mostly spent inside a downtown hotel room. And when Rushdie read at the University of Toronto from his new book The Ground Beneath Her Feet, spectators had to provide photo identification and were not allowed to bring bags. But the fatwa, or death sentence, pronounced by the then-leader of Iran in 1989 was lifted last September - and so, at once, were Rushdie's spirits. "This is a time of caution: the danger has not gone, but lessened," a relaxed Rushdie said in a one-hour interview. "It makes it possible to regain more of life."
For the Bombay-born Rushdie, that marks a crucial change, but it is only one of several positive developments in recent years. He married his third wife, longtime companion Elizabeth West, in 1997; the couple have a 22-month-old son, Milan. (Rushdie has a 20-year-old son, Zafar, from his first marriage.) The heavy-lidded look that made him appear brooding is gone - the result of surgery several months ago to correct a condition called ptosis, by which the tendons that lift his eyelids were growing weaker and stretching so that he sometimes had to prop his eyes open with his fingers. Now, he says, he "can see things more clearly. Everything is brighter."
That is an appropriate metaphor for Rushdie's life. He acknowledges continued danger from Islamic splinter groups still furious over what they call the "blasphemous" look at their religion that was a centrepiece of his 1988 book The Satanic Verses. At least one group has a $4-million bounty on him. But Rushdie says he tries to overlook that, and in professional life appears to be approaching the peak of his creative powers. Although some of his seven previous novels (along with three nonfiction books and a screenplay) have taken up to five years to write, he now teems with energy and ideas and says he "told my agent I have eight different books in my head."
His new book has received rave reviews - and is his most accessible, despite its complexity. The sprawling plot of The Ground Beneath Her Feet mixes mysticism, the netherworld, rock music and forays into a parallel universe, in language that is extravagant, pun-filled and exuberant. It draws from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the doomed musical sorcerer and his lost lover.
Rushdie has liked rock music since his youth in India, when he listened to Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley on the now-defunct Radio Ceylon. "I think I have a bit of a rocker's sensibility," Rushdie says with a smile. "That's been overlooked because of the controversy around me." His fascination is evident in the new book: its protagonists are rock stars, one from Bombay and the other having a father who comes from there. The book is peppered with one-liners from old hits and sly distortions of rock history (in one, John Lennon, rather than Mick Jagger, sings Satisfaction). In real life, Rushdie's friends include Bono of U2, Lou Reed and David Bowie. In a case of art meets real life, lyrics for a song in The Ground Beneath Her Feet have been used by U2 for a ballad of the same name on the band's next album.
That fascination with pop culture seems removed from Rushdie's reserved image. Born to a wealthy family in Bombay in 1947, he attended the posh Rugby private school in England, and later studied history at Cambridge. When Rushdie graduated in 1968, he moved to Pakistan, where his parents had relocated. He quit a job as a story producer for a government television station when it censored the word "pork," and gave up on life there when an article he wrote for a magazine was also censored. Returning to England, Rushdie spent 10 years as an advertising copywriter, crafting fiction in his spare time. His first novel, 1973's Grimus, an allegory set on an imaginary island, received scant, unenthusiastic attention.
Rushdie's breakout came with Midnight's Children, which began with India's first independence day and swept effortlessly through the subcontinent's past and future. It won the 1981 Booker Prize. But the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses brought Rushdie much greater, unwanted, renown. On Valentine's Day, 1989, he was at home with then-wife Marianne Wiggins, an American novelist, when he received a call from a radio reporter asking, "How does it feel to be sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?" That began a decade spent in seclusion. His marriage broke down in 1991, and he made a desperate attempt that year to have the fatwa called off by saying he planned to become a devout Muslim. The insincere gesture failed. "It wasn't my best idea," says Rushdie, who follows no religion.
The dangers of the controversy were very real. Six people died and more than 100 were injured in anti-Rushdie riots in Asia, and a Japanese book translator was stabbed to death. In London, more than 30,000 Muslims demonstrated outside Parliament, many chanting "Kill Rushdie." But Rushdie received crucial support from then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Though he had been - and is - one of her most acerbic critics, she backed his cause, and supplied security.
Not all fellow writers sympathized. In 1997, Rushdie crossed swords with John le Carré (whose real name is David Cornwell). He said Rushdie should not presume that "great religions may be insulted with impunity." In an interview with Maclean's last March, le Carré again raised the issue, saying "the willingness of Christians to endure criticism doesn't mean everyone is required to exhibit the same tolerance when their God is mocked." Rushdie responds impatiently that le Carré's sentiments arise because "he can't help being a pompous jerk, and he has never gotten over the fact that I wrote a bad review of [his book] The Russia House."
Rushdie says he first scribbled elements of The Ground Beneath Her Feet in a notebook eight years ago, but started in earnest in 1994. It begins with a fictitious earthquake in Mexico on Valentine's Day, 1989 (the day the fatwa was declared). "I had an earthquake that never happened destroy places still intact in real life," he says. He followed the maxim that "if you change the world, you make it fresh. I ask readers to accept versions of the world that are not so."
These days, Rushdie is experiencing the delights and frustrations that come from increased freedom - and notoriety. Rushdie says he is so well known that views of his books are coloured by people's views of him. He feels "like the aging gunslinger sipping bourbon in a saloon. Even if you mind your business, some kid will always come after you to take you down."
His fame has made him a darling even in circles where his books are unknown. Recently, he was invited to a party at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. Someone brought forward a Playboy bunny "who had not a clue who I was, nor a thought in her head. But when the camera went off, what a smile she gave." After the picture appeared in British newspapers, Rushdie says wryly, "it was a treat explaining to my wife."
Then there is the unique window that Rushdie has acquired on another aspect of celebrity. In Los Angeles he realized that he was staying at the same hotel as Thatcher - even though he had not seen her. The reason he knew was that he encountered on the elevator one day a British government security agent who had previously guarded him - and who, he knew, is now with Thatcher. "And how is milady?" he asked the guard. "Enjoying life, sir," came the polite reply. After a long time in darkness, the same seems true for Rushdie again.
Maclean's May 24, 1999