Salman Rushdie is a chuckler. For readers of his novels, this will not come as a surprise. You will already be familiar with his penchant for pyrotechnic puns and word wizardry, with the way stories unfold within his stories and the sheer glee with which he chutnifies language. So you will know that this is a man who likes a joke. What’s perhaps less evident is that this is also a man who can joke about himself.
A week before the release of his 12th novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (which has already acquired an abbreviation worthy of Bollywood: 2Y8M28N), we spoke via Skype, and he told me about an encounter he had when he first moved to New York at the turn of the century. “I was walking around midtown somewhere and I met an Indian gentleman — very well dressed, fancy camel coat and hat, and he stopped me and asked if I was me. I said yes, and he said (Rushdie puts on the requisite accent), ‘I just want to tell you that VS Naipaul is 10 times as good a writer as you.’ I said, ‘Okay, well, you should be happy because now you’ve told me.’ (Chuckle, chuckle.) He said, ‘Yes, I just wanted you to know,’ and then he walks off. I stood on the street laughing, it was such a wonderful moment.”
It’s hard to say whether this self-effacement is a new thing, but Rushdie is definitely keen on the idea of taking the piss, even at his own expense. He brings up Jonathan Franzen twice over the course of our conversation (Franzen has expressed disappointment that a writer like Rushdie could succumb to Twitter), and though he shot back at the time, Rushdie now says that Franzen is probably right about it being a waste of time. “I understand what Franzen is saying when he says it’s a noise in your head you don’t need. I’ve just about hung in there. But I’m not at all convinced that I will in the long term.”
Before I met Rushdie in 2007, I remember thinking that he was an aloof, forbidding character. His vibe seemed to say, back the hell away. But having subsequently spent time with him on stages and at dinner tables here and there, I can unequivocally state a change of opinion. He is charming, generous and a raconteur of the highest order. To borrow from Ursula K Le Guin, “Rushdie is our Scheherazade.” On the page and in real life, he spins tales — one moment telling a story about Calvino’s widow, the next, roping in an anecdote about Bono or Bertolucci. And while with anyone else this might just be tawdry name-dropping, with Salman it’s always for the cause of a really good story.
His new book is a return to an exuberant kind of storytelling that takes cues from One Thousand and One Nights, the Kathasaritasagara and the Hamzanama. After the experience of writing his memoir, Joseph Anton, Rushdie says he got sick of the truth and wanted to go to the other end of the spectrum, to the highly fabulated. The result is a world of jinns and humans, cities and copulation, wars between the rational and the superstitious. There’s a gardener, Mr Geronimo, who levitates; a sky fairy called Dunia, who falls in love with a human and gives birth to a tribe of children without earlobes called the Duniazat. So many sub-characters and subplots it will make you dizzy. At some point you’ll cease trying to join the dots and just yield to the writer’s frenzied imagination.
“I hope it’s a pleasurable book,” Rushdie says, “There’s no necessary connection between it being fun to write and fun to read but I’d like to think that it was both.” He jokes about how Two Years runs counter to the current trend of autofiction of the kind espoused by writers like Karl Ove Knausgård and Elena Ferrante. “One of the things I’m old enough to know about literature is that there is such a thing as fashion. When I was starting out in England, there seemed to be a desire among readers for something new, something less conventional, and I think a lot of us benefited from that desire — [Ian] McEwan, [Martin] Amis, Angela Carter, [Kazuo] Ishiguro and me, and now there’s a mood for real-life stories, and so my book is kind of the anti-Knausgård,” he laughs. “Nobody does the laundry in this book.”
While most of Two Years takes place in New York and Peristan (the land of jinns), there are also some tender segues into Bombay (never Mumbai). I ask Rushdie whether this is a farewell to the beloved city of his youth, because there seems to be some attempt to settle the score on the illusion of home, in the bidding adieu to French cricket in the streets and the “local Sandras with their flipped-up hairdos.” “I don’t know,” he says, “I’ve learned never to say never because when-ever I’ve said never, I’ve always looked like a fool a few years later.” He admits though, that like his character Mr Geronimo, he believes that you can’t go home again. “It’s not that I can’t go to Bombay. It’s that the Bombay that felt like home isn’t any more. It’s paltrier.”
It’s not unusual in Rushdie’s life for things that shone bright at the centre to pale with time. Cities, wives and critics have fallen into the Rushdiesque crater of People And Places I Won’t Be Returning To In A Hurry, but while the media revels in these splits, what’s less talked about is his fierce sense of loyalty, and the loyalty this in turn inspires. Hanif Kureishi recently told me in London, “Whichever side Salman is on, I’m on that side.” His literary friendships with the likes of McEwan, Amis and the late Christopher Hitchens have exceeded the lifespan of a camel. And certainly, he evokes a strong sense of allegiance among the many younger writers whose work he has nourished (myself included): Suketu Mehta, Rana Dasgupta, Kiran Desai.
So just how does the most recognised writer in the world juggle his various homes, avatars and duties? Salman the famous writer, Salman the dad, Salman of social media... “One of the things I’ve got is real work discipline. I can switch off the world and look at the page for hours at a time. Also, one of the things people don’t say about New York is it’s a really hardworking town. Yes they go out and play hard, but before that they work hard.”
And women? I sense the alert radar kicking in. After his split with Padma Lakshmi (with whom, he says, he is now best friends), his sons Milan and Zafar banned him from marrying again.
Is that ban still in place? “It’s an unofficial ban, but we agree about it. I think one of the big reasons for getting married is to have children, and I’m not in that market anymore. But it would be nice to have a solid, permanent, loving, caring relationship at the centre of my life.” And is there, I ask, a loving, caring…. “No, no,” he interjects, “At the moment, no, just me. Yeah, no. I mean, that’s the simple answer.” More chuckling.
For as much as he chuckles, and for as much as he “gets” other people’s opinions and criticisms that may run counter to the way he does things, there are a few issues on which Rushdie does not joke, and with which he will not negotiate. Freedom of speech is one of them. The Charlie Hebdo/PEN controversy this summer has simmered down now, but Rushdie admits that it put a strain on what used to be close friendships with Michael Ondaatje and Peter Carey. “I just think there’s a funny spirit around that’s partly to do with political correctness, and partly with a kind of misguided notion that you protect the underprivileged by ring-fencing their ideas, which I think is a dangerous path, and could increase hostility towards the people you’re trying to protect. If some people weren’t using machine guns to express their dislike of things, then I think everyone would be a lot more willing to create work that others don’t like. To those of us who were on this side of the fence, this seemed like a no-brainer, not a difficult thing to come to a conclusion about: They were executed for drawing pictures. How can that not be a free speech issue?”
Despite the many controversies that Rushdie has been embroiled in, he insists that he is “completely not a fighter.” He says he wants a peaceful life. But like the children of the Duniazat, and indeed, the children of Midnight, one feels that the fight will always come to him.