MAS­TER­CLASS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Greer were lam­bast­ing him for his hubris. ( Greer called him a ‘‘ mega­lo­ma­niac, an English­man with dark skin’’, spark­ing a feud that was reignited in 2006 af­ter Greer sup­ported Bangladeshi ac­tivists at­tempt­ing to block the film­ing of Mon­ica Ali’s novel Brick Lane .)

‘‘ That was a pa­thetic protest by a tiny group of peo­ple,’’ Rushdie says. ‘‘ Ger­maine’s com­pletely batty. The trou­ble with be­ing a con­trar­ian means you just see what ev­ery­body is think­ing and by re­flex say the op­po­site.’’

Ac­cord­ing to Rushdie, the first 18 months un­der­ground were the hard­est. ‘‘ It was aw­ful, un­be­liev­ably claus­tro­pho­bic. I wanted the door open. I’m the op­po­site of Princess Jodha,’’ he says, segue­ing neatly back to his novel. ‘‘ Her whole world is inside Fateh­pur Sikri. She thinks the idea of travel is ridicu­lous: why go some­where where peo­ple don’t un­der­stand what you mean?’’ His eye­brows arch over his wire- rimmed spec­ta­cles. ‘‘ Th­ese ideas about be­ing grounded and root­less are some­thing that rea­sons I’ve had to think about.’’

Rushdie is for­tu­nate to have in­sider ac­cess to a num­ber of dif­fer­ent worlds. He con­sid­ers him­self a Bom­bayite rather than an ex­pa­tri­ate In­dian: ‘‘ I can go back and speak Hindi or Urdu and that helps you for­get you don’t live there.’’ But it’s his shape- shift­ing that in­forms his writ­ing most. ‘‘ I’m in­ter­ested in un­der­stand­ing how the world joins up, partly be­cause I’ve bounced around it a lot and want to give mean­ing to my own per­sonal lit­tle odyssey.

‘‘ Like when you’re in In­dia look­ing west, you see one thing. When you’re in the West, you see an­other. Those mul­ti­ple perspectives are things you gain.’’

His abil­ity to step, Dash­wanth- like, into pop­u­lar cul­ture has won him a rep­u­ta­tion as a dance- floor dude, pal to ev­ery­one from Bono and au­thor He­len Field­ing ( he had a cameo in the 2001 film ver­sion of Brid­get Jones’s Diary) to Barry Humphries and Kylie Minogue. ‘‘ I met Kylie and Dame Edna through my old friend Kathy Lette. You know one Aussie in Lon­don, you know them all,’’ says Rushdie, who moved to Man­hat­tan in the ’ 90s, but spends a few months of each year in Lon­don, where his sons Za­far, 29, and Mi­lan, 10, live. ‘‘ Kylie is a very se­ri­ous Scrab­ble player. Her sis­ter Dan­nii in­tro­duced me to Speed Scrab­ble.’’ He smiles. ‘‘ She beat me.’’

In an ar­ti­cle in The Sun­day Times in 2006, Rushdie’s elder son com­mented on his dad’s gift for at­tract­ing women at par­ties. ‘‘ Beauty loves brains,’’ he quipped by way of ex­pla­na­tion (‘‘ I got so beaten up for that,’’ groans Rushdie). The writer’s mag­netism seemed vin­di­cated by his fourth mar­riage to In­dian- born model turned television pre­sen­ter Padma Lak­shmi, a rav­ish­ing dark- eyed beauty 27 years his ju­nior. When they parted last July af­ter three years to­gether, Rushdie is­sued a press re­lease through the Wylie Agency’s New York of­fice. It was her de­sire to end the mar­riage, it said, not his. ( He is now ru­moured to be dat­ing ac­tor- nov­el­ist Car­rie Fisher, best known for her Star Wars role.)

In the mid-’ 80s Rushdie had a three- year re­la­tion­ship with Aus­tralian writer Robyn David­son, known for her epic desert treks. ‘‘ Robyn took me off the road, gave me the real ex­pe­ri­ence of wilder­ness Aus­tralia. For­ag­ing for food, fire­wood. Se­ri­ous stuff. By my­self I would have been dead in an hour.’’ He’d first vis­ited Aus­tralia in 1984 with the au­thor Bruce Chatwin. ‘‘ Bruce was work­ing on what would be­come ( his book) Song­lines and I tagged along. We flew to Alice Springs and spent two weeks driv­ing around in non­stop con­ver­sa­tion. No­body talked more than Bruce in the his­tory of the world.’’

Ex­cept, per­haps, a jet- lagged Rushdie. ‘‘ I went to Fateh­pur Sikri,’’ he of­fers, mind­ful of the joys of travel and, of course, his novel. ‘‘ The weird thing is it’s still stand­ing there,’’ he says of the city that was briefly the Mogul cap­i­tal un­til it was aban­doned in 1585 af­ter its lake dried up. ‘‘ No one knows why the lake van­ished. You can still

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ob­vi­ous stand on the palace com­plex and look down and see this big lush green basin.’’ I tell him I vis­ited Fateh­pur Sikri ( 40km west of Agra) in 1983, one stop on a hip­pie trail where ev­ery sec­ond Westerner seemed to be read­ing Mid­night’s Chil­dren . ‘‘ That’s nice,’’ he says, a lit­tle re­gally.

A sweep­ing his­tor­i­cal novel that nar­rates the his­tory of In­dia through the story of a pickle fac­tory worker, one of 1001 chil­dren born at the mo­ment that In­dia gained in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain, Mid­night’s Chil­dren is con­sid­ered Rushdie’s mas­ter­piece. It’s the novel that many feel he’ll never sur­pass. Is he both­ered? He shakes his head. ‘‘ Clearly, if you’re very lucky in your life you have a book that ac­quires a life of its own. When Joe Heller was told that he’d never writ­ten any­thing as good as Catch- 22 he used to say, ‘ Yeah, but nei­ther has any­one else.’ In the end you just go on your way, writ­ing books.’’

Writ­ing is a vo­ca­tion for Rushdie, never a job. He has said that be­yond self- ex­plo­ration lies a sense of writ­ing as sacra­ment, of fill­ing a hole left by the de­par­ture of God. ‘‘ It’s a call­ing,’’ he shrugs. ‘‘ For me it’s al­ways had this sense of great im­por­tance.

‘‘ It’s sur­pris­ing how many peo­ple are like, ‘ I think it’s time I wrote a novel.’ ’’ There are enough books in the world, he rea­sons. ‘‘ So if you’re go­ing to add to that heap, it’s got to be be­cause the book feels nec­es­sary.’’

But it’s magic, not re­li­gion, that looms largest in The En­chantress of Florence . ‘‘ One of the in­ter­est­ing things about that pe­riod both in Europe and In­dia was that magic was the one thing peo­ple re­ally be­lieved in. Not Chris­tian­ity. Not Hin­duism. Not Is­lam. Magic. If you wanted some­thing to hap­pen, you wouldn’t go to a priest, you’d go to some­one for a po­tion. Magic was treated in the way we treat science. It was part of the fab­ric of life.

‘‘ I thought, ‘ How in­ter­est­ing to live in a world where the mag­i­cal and the ev­ery­day are com­pletely in­ter­pen­e­trated’,’’ he con­tin­ues. ‘‘ But I never imag­ined my ideas about Machi­avelli and Ak­bar would end up in the same novel.’’ He pauses, smiles. ‘‘ It’s been magic, I think, from start to fin­ish.’’

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