THE RUMOURS STARTED A WHILE back: Salman Rushdie had discovered speed garage. Speculation that he was going to turn his new novel. The (il'tlltlltl Beneath Her l’eet. into a conceptual long-player (with the aid of ['2) put literary society into a spin and evoked painful images of the author chilling behind the decks and scratching some wicked tunes. Then. the second blow came: Vikram Seth had tuned in as well. The two kings of post-colonial fiction were going head- to-head to see who really deserved the golden stylus.
.-\s it happens. this was just hype. Seth‘s latest work —- his first since l‘)‘)3’s .-l Suitable Bay — is called xlll lit/ital Music. deals with classical music. not kickin‘ beats. and will probably do in prose what liliot‘s l’aur Quartets did with sonata forms in poetry. Rushdie‘s work. on the other hand. really deals with music only peripherally and. as for the ['2 connection. there's no need to invest in earplugs: they've simply reworked the 'title song‘ for their next album.
Rushdie has always been a writer of grave scope. and to give himself up to the vanities of the music biz. would be to undersell the real significance of this new hook. The epic tale of two performers and (doomed) lovers. Vina and ()rmus. is narrated by a photographer. Rai Merchant. and is strong in its reworking of the ()rphctIs and litirydice legend. its tracing of Western mythology to liastern roots. its discussion of a post-colonial Bombay and representation of India's shifting relationship with the West.
in person Rushdie is polite enough. while never forgetting his position. He has a strong physical presence and is well dressed. but he doesn't talk to you so much as to an entire audience. llis cynical face forbids you to ask personal questions
although. of course. for years.
secrecy became a necessary way of
life due to the death threats pronounced upon him following the publication of The Satatu'e Verses in IUXX. I ask him what he. as a man born and raised in Bombay. feels about the colonial presence there. as the book shows a marked ambivalence about it.
‘lf you come from Bombay. then the simple fact is that the British built it.’ he replies in his cultured. faintly atntised voice. ‘lt‘s not like l)elhi. an
ancient city which has a tnueh older tradition than the limpire. ln Bombay there simply wasn‘t anything there. except a fishing village.‘
He continues in a tone of incredulous disgust: ‘Now the Shivsena [Hindu Nationalist Party. working in coalition with other parties] are in charge. calling it "Mumbai" and pretending it has some ancient Murathi past. 1 always thought that it was a great form of cultural generosity in India. that you could hate the limpire. but not hate the people that came from it.
'The Indians love cricket. for example; there‘s a very strong affection for what they think of as linglish life. I think that‘s the distinction to draw — between the political phenomenon of Imperialism and the cultural phenomenon of linglish culture.‘
In The (imam! Beneath Her l’eet however. Rushdie‘s antidote to lmperialistn comes in the form of reclaimed mythology. ()ne character undertakes the project of tracing all of Western myth to its liastern beginnings. until ‘()dysseus becatne a monkey god and Paris a demon king. and the Parsee knight and the Iinglish property-wallah grew so close that it became impossible to tell them apart.‘ Rushdie laughs and shrugs. 'lt all started with us. It just is true that it did. and it came here later because of the migration of the Aryan race. I became at one point very interested in these mythological connections. and it's incredibly sad that. because of Nazism and their attempts to appropriate their idea of Aryan culture for a completely evil thing. the process became tarnished because it was thought to be part of the ideology of racial supremacy.‘ He gives a rakish smile.
‘l‘m just more interested in polytheistic religion than monotheistic religion. because there
.are more characters. there are more
stories. there‘s more fun. And the gods behave badly.’
As the interview progresses. Rtishdie becomes more personable. With many big-league authors comes the terrible possibility of their writing having no heart. no emotional impetus behind it. as though that urge somehow evaporated as soon its success — with its attendant glittering lifestyle — knocked on their garret
'I always thoughtthat it was a great form of cultural generosity in India, that you could hate the Empire, but not hate the people that came from it.’
door. Rushdie's view of art is surprisingly romantic. given that at this stage he could quite happily subside into academia or become one of Britain‘s great and mysterious ‘cultural patrons’.
Sounding like the idealistic ‘struggling writer‘ he claims he once was. he says that 'there‘s a truth that can only be told through the exercise of the imagination. And it’s not like historical truth. it’s not like journalistic truth. it's not even like fact. it‘s not an account of things that are so. neces- sarily. It‘s about the deep truth of how we are in our itnagining selves. our dreaming selves. There is a truth of art. and that’s the thing we try to tell.‘
The minutes pass and Rushdie seems to get younger and younger. recounting little morsels of publishing gossip and telling me about being snapped by Richard Avedon on a large- format camera. This passion for photography — more than the music. more than the central romance — drives the entire narrative of The (imam! Beneath Her I’eet. and Rtishdie‘s at his most natural when he talks about it.
“I‘m a completely hum photo- grapher. But I’ve always been very interested in photography. My dad had a Rolleiflex and a Leica which was always around. He was a business- man. he would have been horrified to have been described as a good photographer. He thought of it simply as a hobby. but actually he took some beautiful pictures.
‘There‘s an amazing one of me aged about seven or eight. wearing pyjamas. in the garden of our house. wearing his sunglasses. And although I‘m obviously little. he must have gotten down really low on the ground to take it. So there‘s this kind of epic. movie—star pose of this kid with sunglasses on. There's another amazing picture of me and two of my sisters. the three of us on this bed. with me in the middle reading to them. And the two girls are looking intently at the book I’ve got. and I‘m very seriously reading aloud to them. And the book is Peter l’att.‘
Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet is published by Cape on Tue 13 Apr at £18; Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music is pubished by Phoenix House on Thu 8 Apr at £16.99. Seth will be at Glasgow Waterstone's on Wed 14 Apr, 7.30pm.
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