''You Must Live Till You Die'' | Daily News

''You Must Live Till You Die''

If I were given the chance to meet three favorite writers I have never met, I know I will spend an awfully long time trying to choose from a long list; some might be violets by the mossy stone, like the Nepalese poet, Prakash Subedi, some might be world renowned like Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi, Toni Morrison. But one writer I am certain I would never want to meet is Salman Rushdie. For all I know that steely glint in his eyes would freeze me to death; in that sardonic half-smile I might read disapproval and contempt. And yet, I have read most of his books and liked some and been confused by the others, from Midnight’s Children to The Satanic Verses to Haroun and the Sea of Stories and now, The Golden House out last year. Perhaps my fears have no ground. Judging by the stories of those who have met him, Salman Rushdie might not be a big bad wolf after all.

According to Jack Livings, who interviewed Rushdie for the Paris Review “For a man who occasioned such furor, who has been lauded and blamed, threatened and feted, burnt in effigy and upheld as an icon of free expression, Rushdie is surprisingly easygoing and candid—neither a hunted victim nor a scourge. Clean shaven, dressed in jeans and a sweater, he actually looks like a younger version of the condemned man who stared out at his accusers in Richard Avedon’s famous 1995 portrait. “My family can’t stand that picture,” he said, laughing. Then, asked where the photograph is stored, he grinned and replied, “On the wall.”

Laura Gianino, writing in the New York Times recalls how she met him at a book launch. Having written her thesis on ‘his most notorious novel’ she says she summoned her courage and marched over to him. “I hovered until he turned to me, kind but expectant. I realized that I had nothing prepared for this moment, so I quickly offered the first thing that came to mind. “‘The Satanic Verses,’” I said, “changed my life.”

“Well, that’s good,” Salman Rushdie said, laughing and raising his glass. “Because it ruined mine.”

It certainly did. According to Rushdie himself in an article he wrote as a third person narrative in the New Yorker about that fateful day in 1989 “when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number.”

Lucky for him and for us, his life did not end in less than ten days. Instead, he went into hiding in the months and years that followed and was protected by the Metropolitan Police of the British government. The officers assigned to keep him safe advised him to choose a new name “pretty pronto.”

He thought of writers he loved and tried combinations of their names. Vladimir Joyce. Marcel Beckett. Franz Sterne. He made lists of such combinations, but all of them sounded ridiculous. Then he found one that did not. He wrote down, side by side, the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, and there it was, his name for the next eleven years. Joseph Anton.

“Jolly good,” the officers said. “You won’t mind if we call you Joe.” In fact, he did mind. He soon discovered that he detested the abbreviation, for reasons he did not fully understand—after all, why was Joe so much worse than Joseph? But Joe grated on him almost from the beginning. Nevertheless, that monosyllable was what the protection officers found easiest to master and remember. So Joe it had to be.

He had spent his life naming fictional characters. Now, by naming himself, he had turned himself into a sort of fictional character as well. Conrad Chekhov wouldn’t have worked. But Joseph Anton was someone who might exist. Who now did exist. “Joseph Anton,” he told himself, “you must live till you die.”

So far, he has kept his promise. Born in Bombay in 1947, on the eve of India’s independence, Rushdie who now lives in New York was educated in his hometown and in England, where he spent the first decades of his writing life. Talking about his childhood he says “I grew up kissing books and bread.”

Thanks to the fatwa the name Salman Rushdie is today, better known around the world than that of any other living novelist.

But his reputation as a writer has hardly been eclipsed by the political assaults. In 1993, he was awarded the “Booker of Bookers”—a medal honoring his novel Midnight’s Children as the best book to win the Man Booker Prize since it was established twenty-five years earlier. His latest novel, The Golden House, is a modern epic of love and terrorism, loss and reinvention—a powerful, timely story told with the daring and panache that has kept Salman Rushdie a literary and cultural force for decades. When asked if he’s worried readers including the President of the USA will be offended by his treatment of gender or other identity issues, in this book, he mused, “(Trump) doesn’t read, does he?” then laughed, a little bitterly. “I’ve offended people before.”

But, not intentionally, at least not when he wrote The Satanic Verses. The ironic truth was that, after two novels that engaged directly with the public history of the Indian subcontinent, he had seen The Satanic Verses as a more personal exploration, a first attempt to create a work out of his own experience of migration and metamorphosis. To him, The Satanic Verses was the least political of the three books.

Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, however, didn’t think so. But in 1998, President, Mohammed Khatami, denounced the fatwa, and Rushdie now insists that the danger has passed. (Even though in 2016, Forty state-run Iranian media outlets jointly offered a new $600,000 bounty for his death).

Talking about how he works, Rushdie says when he is writing “it is rather unusual of me to come out in the daytime.”

He also says that at times the characters he creates begin to have their own way. Here is how he describes how he wrote Shalimar. “Something strange happened with this book. I felt completely possessed by these people, to the extent that I found myself crying over my own characters. There’s a moment in the book where Boonyi’s father, the pandit Pyarelal, dies in his fruit orchard.

I couldn’t bear it. I found myself sitting at my desk weeping. I thought, What am I doing? This is somebody I’ve made up... I couldn’t bear the idea of telling a story—that it’s so awful, I don’t want to tell it, can something else happen? And then you think, Oh, nothing else can happen, that’s what happens.”

If you are Joe Anton, alias Salman Rushdie, that’s sure what happens. What more would you expect from a writer who believes “The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame.”


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Interesting facts

1. The author knew he was to become a writer since he was five years old.

2. Rushdie became a household name when he earned a fatwa from Ayatollah Ruholah Khomeini who called for his death (and to any bookseller who carried the book as well as any Muslim who publicly condoned its release).

3. The author hid for a decade and to this day gets a reminder now and then that the fatwa is still in effect.

4. In his defense, the author pokes fun at religious fanatics of all faiths.

5. Rushdie has been compared with such greats as Lawrence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, however the New York Times Book Review said that “[it] would be a disservice to Salman Rushdie’s very

original genius to dwell on literary analogues and ancestors.”

6. Salman Rushdie was appointed Knight Bachelor by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 because of his immense contribution to English literature.

7. Rushdie quietly mentors young Indian writers.

8. Among many honors bestowed on Mr. Rushdie are a Book Prize, Golden PEN award, “author of the year” in various countries and, of course, a fatwa.

A fun game Rushdie Played with Christopher Hitchens Rushdie and Hitchens played silly word games one of which was Titles That Don’t Quite Make It: They were, A Farewell to Weapons, For Whom the Bell Rings, To Kill a Hummingbird, The Catcher in the Wheat, Mr. Zhivago, and Toby-Dick. And, Hitch-22.





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