hat is this. some sort of initiative test‘?’ The cab driver assigned to

take the first of a string of

journalists to meet one of the world’s tnost prolific writers is

confused. He knows where he is going. but he doesn't know why. His passenger knows why. but not where. It is a cat and mouse game and neither is giving much away.

So begins the farcical journey from Jonathan Cape publishing house across London to the hotel where Salman Rushdie sits surrounded by security people - the trappings of a life in hiding. Only for him. this is no charade. this is real life.

If it was not necessary to protect Rushdie from the threat of assassination. it would be a great publicity stunt. The 47-year-old author is launching his first full-length adult novel since I988. when The Satanic Verses propelled him into the heart of the literary world and the shadow of a death sentence. It also proved a highly-charged watershed for the world debate on censorship and the role of the writer.

For six and a half years, Rushdie has moved from house to house 50 locations in the first four years - eluding the fatwa issued by Iran’s spiritual leader the Ayatollah Khomenei. as payback for insulting Islam. Khomenei died in I990. but the death threat still stands.

For Rushdie. this hotel suite is just another backdrop in a long line of shifting scenery. lt

makes no odds where it is or how fancy the wallpaper is. All that matters is that the media want to talk about his new novel The Moor is Last Sigh.

Before leading the way to Rushdie’s suite. a woman with a smart suit asks for my identification. Muttering into a walkie talkie to unseen colleagues. she gets the green light and ushers me into a lift. through some doors and to the door. There is nothing as dramatic as a secret password. although ‘open sesame’ does spring to mind; just a couple of buttons to be pressed before it opens. revealing more sharp suits and a passageway to Rushdie's room.

Inside. the man himself stands clutching a bottle of spring water in his hand. ‘This is warm.’ he says to his publicist. who promptly leaves for some ice. Rushdie's only other complaint in 35 minutes is to say he has been robbed of the freedom to return to India when he wants.

The writer is in a quietly bouyant mood. The prospect of meeting journalists with their tongues hanging out is. he admits. thrilling. Since 1988. there has been a collection of short stories. East, West. and a fable. Haroun and the Sea ofStories. but for Rushdie. this is the biggie. “I’m feeling quite excited about getting this book out: it’s been a long time.’ he says. ‘lt feels to me like it could represent the turning of the page. It puts The Satanic Verses a long way in the past.’

The fact that the Indian distributors of The Moors Last Sigh are shelving the book in Bombay for fear of angering the city’s powerful Hindu fundamentalist group. fails to perturb him. ‘There’s a small local difficulty.’ he says. ‘Bombay is currently under the rule of a fanatical extremist party called the Shiv Sena. Since the novel is very much opposed to the development of such political groups. it’s not surprising they have taken against it.’

Rushdie’s staunch refusal to dilute his writing to avoid offence comes across not as an angry tirade. but a quietly reasoned argument. He appears to have left behind his darkest days in hiding. when on Christmas Eve I990. in a desparate attempt to snatch back some of his life. he proclaimed his belief in Islam. The

‘l’m feeling quite excited about getting this book out. It feels to me like it could represent the turning of the page. It puts

The Satanic Verses a long way in the past.’

gesture disillusioned many who had campaigned on his behalf. “I have unsaid that a billion times.‘ he says. momentarily irritated. ‘lt was a mistake I made at a very low period in my life. What I feel about Islam is no different than about any other religion when taken to extremes. I’m against fanaticism. Sadly, in the world of Islam there’s a lot of it about.’

Born in Bombay to Muslim parents, Rushdie left India at thirteen to attend Rugby boarding school in England before studying at Cambridge University like his father before him. After graduating. he worked for a theatre group and in advertising. giving up his career when his first novel. Grimus was published.

The Moor is Last Sigh is a return‘ to Rushdie’s Bombay. gateway between east and west. It traces four generations of a wealthy trading family through the eyes of Moraes Zogoiby. the ‘moor’ of the story. A tragi-comic. compassionate love song to a vanishing world. it


is a classic tale of a fall from grace and Moraes makes a spectacular fall.

It is easy to assume Moraes is a fictionalist Rushdie-Born after only four and a half months in the womb. the character lives what he describes as a half-life. ageing at double the natural rate and watching helplessly as the years race by. Like Frankenstein’s monster. he is on the run. shunned by his parents and compelled to ‘crucify’ his story to trees and gateposts as he goes ‘the story which points to me‘.

If the story also points to Rushdie. he is coy about it. ‘You mustn’t carry the analogy too far.’ he says. ‘Anybody using... a first person narrator like that will have an area of overlap with the narrator. but he is not me.‘ He smiles that delicious. dark smile captured in newspaper photographs and says wryly: ‘My relations with my parents are good.’

Some believe Rushdie suffered his own fall from grace after scaling the heights with his Booker prize-winning novel Midnight is Children. ‘One of the most moving things that

.ever happened to me was the way which Indian

readers seized on .‘vlidnights (‘hi/dren and took it to their hearts as a book that belonged to them.’ he says. India was later the first nation to ban The Satanic Verses.

‘The idea of the fall from grace. which is how Moraes describes his own life. is an echo of what happened to me.’ says Rushdie. ‘But I don’t see it like that. I fell into a political vortex. People in India have never ceased to be on my side. I don’t feel that sense of banishment and expulsion.’

What hurts Rushdie most is his inability to travel at will to India and visit his mother in Pakistan. although she visits him in London. The Moor 's Last Sigh represents to him that sense of captivity. ‘This novel is the first I’ve felt the sense of writing from cxile.’ he says. ‘I’ve written this novel from over here. which is not as difficult as it sounds because I've got India inside. But it felt sad.

‘To me. it’s been one of the hardest things in these years. to lose the most important part of my life. but if I felt an outsider from India I wouldn’t write about it.’

Rushdie speaks pragmatically about his closeted life. but glosses over the security details. ‘l’m not going to say how it’s done.‘ he says. ‘lt’s still not normal. but it’s not crazy. It's strange to live in a place where I don‘t have my own front door key.’

Asked if he lives alone he and his second wife. the writer Marianne Wiggins. separated a few months after the fatwa was issued he gestures towards the door where his bodyguards stand. ‘I look forward to the day when I live alone.’ he says. ‘I think this will happen. The temptation is to rush.’

There is a distinct optimism about Rushdie. Whether it comes from having finally published a novel four years in the making or whether it is the response of a natural extrovert finding a platform again, is unclear. What is obvious is that while the oxygen of publicity lasts. he will enjoy every lungful.

The Moor 3' Last Sigh is published by Jonathan Cape at £15.99. East, West is published by Vintage at £5.99. A BBC 2 documentary, Salman Rushdie and the Lost Portrait, is on Monday ll September at H . 1 5pm.

Photo taken front Writers by Sally Soames, published by Andre Deutsch at £20.

The List 8-21 Sept 199511