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
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.’’