Rushdie And The Ladies

Did Barkha and Sagarika manage to steal Guardian and BBC’s thunder? Or not?

You can’t not be impressed that of the few TV interviews which Salman Rushdie gave during his publicity drive for the release of his book, Joseph Anton, the first two were to two Indian news channels. And both journalists who were geared to interview him kept it under wraps till the day the interview was to be aired. Another miracle. Given Rushdie’s propensity for the fairer sex, I don’t know whether it’s important or not that the interviews were to the grand dames of today’s Indian news channels – Sagarika Ghose and Barkha Dutt. One would have thought that Arnab might have jetted to London along with the duo to ask Rushdie all the questions the nation wanted to know, but sadly not.

Since Monday, Rushdie’s interviews have been popping up in the international press – BBC Radio 4’s Andrew Marr interviewed him for Start The Week. Before that, The Guardian, ran its interview of Salman Rushdie on Monday morning.

After reading and hearing, respectively, The Guardian and BBC Radio 4’s brilliantly conducted and researched interviews, I did wonder what new nuggets of information would Sagarika Ghose and Barkha Dutt manage to extract.

The Guardian interview was marked by the usual British light-hearted banter, like most of their interviews. Stuart Jeffries began by mentioning Rushdie’s tryst with films – from wanting to play “Brando in a turban” to his turn as someone as close to himself as possible in Bridget Jones’ Diary to not starring in International Gorrilay – “the film about jihadists who vow to kill an author called Salman Rushdie”.  The depth of information which was broached and discussed by Guardian and the tonality of it – deferential but not fawning, anecdotal but not preachy, with just a dash of humour stood out.

The interview covered his life on the run from 1989 to 2002, after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on him. Rushdie’s horribly tumultuous life at the time was summed up in one taut and brutal paragraph. To quote – “During that time his first wife Clarissa died of cancer, his second and third marriages broke up, his fourth was shaky, his Japanese editor was murdered, his Norwegian publisher shot, his Italian translator stabbed, hundreds died in riots protesting against his novel, his books were burned from Bradford to Islamabad, he did things that still make him burn with shame and he found that writers he admired such as John Berger and John Le Carré, both writing in the Guardian, attacked him for not withdrawing the novel”. Everything you wanted to know about the black years, but were afraid to ask.

Jeffries discussed every aspect of Rushdie’s life – from his books to his reaction on hearing about the fatwa (“’I wish I’d written a more critical book,’ he told CBS, adding that he did not feel his book was especially critical of Islam, but that a religion whose leaders behaved in this way could probably do with a little criticism.”), his  memoir, to his embracing of Islam in 1990 by saying he was sorry for insulting Islam and then regretting it, to his many wives and what he felt for them, and ended with Midnight’s Children receiving a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival. From public disapproval to a public embrace – the full circle. The interview was marked by its wry humour and objectivity.  And was steeped with information.

I didn’t really expect any new aspect on Rushdie to be revealed in BBC Radio 4’s interview. But the 43-minute audio interview revealed information which at least I was not aware of and which was not repeated in either Guardian or in Barkha or Sagarika’s interviews. Andrew Marr spoke of Rushdie’s background and how his father had invented the surname Rushdie in homage to the philosopher, Ibn Rushd – and the coincidence that Ibn Rushd was a proponent of freedom from theology. Rushdie spoke of his rugby school and “Greyfriar’s world” and answered questions on his early years in advertising and how he wrote jingles for Cream Cake and how they were “naughty but nice”. Marr discussed Rushdie’s writing being described as magic realism (Marr compared it to Indian storytelling unlike the European naturalist tradition of storytelling). Rushdie also commented on how Satanic Verses was a reflection on the nature of the migrant.

Rushdie’s tone in both interviews was conversational, not strident – even while speaking of the Rajiv Gandhi government’s reaction to Satanic Verses and how he mistook the Ayatollah’s fatwa as “rhetorical flourish” and not as serious as it turned out to be. He spoke of how Martin Amis said that he “disappeared into the front page”, the banalities of being on the run, his relationships, not wanting to settle scores through his memoir (which he did repeat in The Guardian as well), why he wrote in the third person, the 1990 Paddington incident and writing while in hiding in an “airless world”. No question was taboo. Marr was also the only one to mention Rushdie’s paper – ‘Why I am Muslim?’ and his opinion on immigrant writers in American literature, and the nuances and commentary of living in exile in Luka And The Fire Of Life.

I don’t know about Khomeini’s rhetorical flourish, but it’s difficult for Rushdie not to speak in quotable quotes and beautiful rhetoric. He was charming, affable and self-deprecating . The perfect interviewee.

Hard acts to follow for Sagarika and Barkha. What was the new information they would manage to wangle out of Rushdie?

Sagarika’s interview began with her almost being joyful and ebullient, seemingly beside herself to be interviewing Rushdie in London. The naiveté would have been endearing if not for the fact that it seemed a little misplaced. And she started off with an inaccuracy which Rushdie was kind enough to correct with a smile. No, his book was not 700 pages, it was 631. She asked Rushdie why he felt this was the right time to come out with a memoir. And did focus on the book for the first 15 minutes of the interview – I’m assuming sticking to the brief given by Bloomsbury. She, like Barkha, mentioned that he had considered the name, Ajeeb Mamooli instead of Joseph Anton. And unlike the others – including Barkha – Sagarika did bring up India Today and how it fanned the fires against Satanic Verses by printing extracts of the book and analysing it incorrectly.

What marked her and later Barkha’s interview was the focus on India. Sagarika did ask an odd question of – “Do you think you became a writer because you were born in 1947?” – which even Rushdie couldn’t answer directly. There was a dash of sensationalism in her questions. She asked him about his famous statement on “bhaasha” writers and his lack of love for Arundhati Roy. And then she suddenly segued from his lack of love for Roy to how Padma Lakshmi dressed as Pocahontas on Halloween and then followed it up by referring to his second wife, Madeleine, as “mental”. It was bizarre, because from seemingly sensible questions on his book and writing, she’d swing to collegiate questions. There was also no discussion on his life in hiding other than in passing – which could be because so much has been said about it already. Ghose ended the interview on what Rushdie felt was the best way to defend free speech.

Barkha, in comparison, was sombre and introduced the interview while walking on a London street and strangely referred to Joseph Anton as Rushdie’s “literary identity” – which made it sound like Rushdie was writing under that pseudonym. She did go into the details of the book, his writing style and commented on Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and the concept of being alone. Her interview style was familiar and anecdotal, far more personal than Sagarika’s. Barkha asked him about his father and the very Indian question of – “How do you think he would have reacted to what happened to you had he lived to see it?”.

You couldn’t miss the Indian/ regional nuances which we all have while asking people about themselves – with references to family, of his relationship with his father, a snippet about breaking Islamic rank by reaching for a ham sandwich, about his mother saying “agli bari koi achchi kitab likhna” (next time write a nice book), and his son asking him when he’d write a book which he could read. And of his alias being further bastardised and shortened into Jo.

What took away from the interview was the self-aggrandisement of how Barkha “remembers having to hide in a room and interview you”. Which crept up again when he told her that he had managed to visit India without media attention and Barkha just hadn’t known, to which her response was – “You are then smarter than I am for sure”. I must agree with her.

And much like Sagarika, even she threw in a token inaccuracy when she got the dates of the Paddington incident totally wrong and upon being corrected said, “Oh this was before all that?” She also mentioned her favourite bugbear of how rude people are on Twitter – irrelevant to the conversation and shrugged off by Rushdie with a wonderful reference to the Times Literary Supplement suddenly printing more complimentary reviews ever since their critics had to carry their bylines and couldn’t write anonymously.

What set Sagarika and Barkha’s interviews apart from Guardian and BBC 4’s was the focus on India. They both commented on freedom of speech – especially in context of intolerance towards artists and growth of Islamic militancy in the subcontinent over the years. If only Sagarika could have been a little more informed and little less sensational, and Barkha could have spoken less about herself. But that would be a perfect world.

The curse of back-to-back interviews is that even Rushdie cannot help but repeat himself, however erudite and verbose he maybe. So analogies were replicated, such as him repeating almost verbatim why he wrote in third person or saying he didn’t want to sound like Mitt Romney by commenting on Libya without having all facts in place. But what stood out was the tonality and how beautifully he lends himself to an interview. For a man who has spent so many years on the run, shunned by his own country – not to forget that India banned Satanic Verses before anyone else – there is no rancour in his speech and lots of humour.


Image By: [ Swarnabha Banerjee]

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  • Rrrrr

    Newslaundry to kutte ke jaise picche padi hai Salman Rushdie ke! Leave the old man alone, fellas!