This article originally appeared in the May 6, 1999 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
As a young man, Salman Rushdie considered becoming an actor. But he stayed true to a more primal ambition and became a writer. Today the world is his stage, and ― although he may have wished otherwise ― he has become perhaps the most famous writer in the world. That distinction was thrust upon him 10 years ago, when the Iranian government placed a bounty ― a fatwa ― on his head after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses.
Although some Islamic fundamentalist groups would still like to see him dead, the Iranian government backed away from its fatwa last fall. In the wake of that decision, life for Rushdie has become more relaxed, yet hardly casual. He still travels with armed guards. But even though his movements are still cloaked in a degree of secrecy, he moves more freely than he has in years.
In recent weeks Rushdie has indeed been on the move, publicizing his most recent novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which was simultaneously published in 12 nations ― an act of creative (not to mention commercial) affirmation that clearly pleases Rushdie.
Even for this most protean of talents, TheGround Beneath Her Feet is a startling and sprawling novel. To simplify: it is a rock-and-roll story. To amplify: it is a retelling of the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. To sum up: its ambition is epic.
Perhaps the most succinct summary of the story comes from Publishers Weekly: "Ormus Cama, a supernaturally gifted musician, and his beloved, Vina Apsara, a half-Indian woman with a soul-thrilling voice, meet in Bombay in the late '50s, discover rock and roll, and form a band that goes on to become the world's most popular musical act. Narrator Rai Merchant, their lifelong friend, is a world-famous photographer and Vina's `back-door man.' Rai tells the story of their great abiding love (both are named for love gods: Cama as in Kama Sutra, and Vina for Venus)."
Rushdie's fame as a controversialist is, as he explains below, unwarranted and unwelcome. Before the publication of The Satanic Verses, he already enjoyed an international reputation as the man who, said the New York Times, "redrew the literary map of India" with the publication of his 1981 novel Midnight's Children.
Before Rushdie, the tone of Anglo-Indian literature was decidedly cool. There was, for example, the sensitive reserve of E.M. Forster and the stiff upper lip of Rudyard Kipling. Rushdie's prose is more pungent, his range of reference more polyglot, and his world-view playful to the point of daring.
Although I suspect that Rushdie ― who exhibits a sort of muscular diffidence ― might shiver at the suggestion, he comes as close as anyone in public life to matching Hemingway's ideal of courage: grace under pressure.