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.
Let's talk first about growing up in Bombay. In Midnight's Children, you wrote, if I recall the line correctly, that you were "floating in the amniotic fluid of the past." The thing to say about the Bombay of the 1950s and the 1960s is that it was a very different place than the city that now exists. I suppose it's true that, to a certain extent, there's a kind of golden glow of childhood about it in my memory. But it's also the case that the people who were of an older generation thought of that city as going through a particularly beautiful and sort of memorable phase. It does seem to have been Bombay's great moment. How to describe it? I mean, as a child, it was a very exciting town to grow up in. It was a very cosmopolitan town, much more so than most other Indian towns. Like any great city, it acted as a magnet, and so people came to Bombay from all over India. It had a greater diversity of Indians than other Indian cities. And it was the commercial center, so it attracted a large population of non-Indians. When I grew up, the kids I played with were by no means all Indian kids. They were American kids, Australian, Japanese, Europeans, and so on. It felt like a very cosmopolitan, big-city upbringing.
So you were multicultural before your time?
Well, we all were. I think this idea of a separation of cultures between the East and the West was certainly never the idea I grew up with. They were all mixed in together from the beginning.