Fatehpur Sikri, the old, abandoned capital of India’s Mughal King Akbar, is a somewhat deserted place these days, a bit off the beaten tourist path, outdone by the popularity of the Taj Mahal about an hour away.
Here, guides spin questionable tales of the emperor playing hide-and-seek with his beautiful queens. And here, within the parched landscape of the ghost city, author Salman Rushdie stood time and time again over the years dreaming of the life that had been, imagining the splendid court and dark-eyed queens who would eventually people his latest novel, “The Enchantress of Florence.”
“Sikri - I’ve been there 10 times,” he said, describing it as wonderful, one of the best places in India.
For more than seven years Rushdie read about Sikri and Mughal royal ways. Then, on one of his final trips, he stood in front of the palace and understood that the guides were misguided fellows spinning fictional tales of the emperor chasing his queens. The historical record showed otherwise.
“So this time (after the research) I could go there and see the place clearly with the eyes of knowledge,” he remembered. “It was really extraordinary. It was as if I had never been there before - the way the place opened up to me.”
Rushdie was able to see the life of the long-ago court easily. He was ready to write.
“The Enchantress of Florence” takes history as its base and spins it on its head, connecting the flourishing old Mughal capital to the flourishing Medici city of Florence even when history makes no such connection. Rushdie’s link is the fictional Qara Koz - “dark eyes” in Turkic - a Mughal princess who, through wars and love, ends up in Florence. She is the enchantress whose story is carried to Akbar’s court by a rascally adventurer from Florence.
In Milwaukee recently to promote the novel, Rushdie talked about his global viewpoint, which draws no lines between East and West; his method of writing; and, among other topics, his delight in winning the Best of Bookers for “Midnight’s Children,” the 1981 blockbuster novel that first brought him attention.
Rushdie, 61, was affable and as relaxed and well-spoken as he had been at a crowded reading earlier that evening. He ordered red wine, eagerly selected a plate of Wisconsin cheeses with chocolate and strawberries and, ignoring the din in the lounge at the top of the Pfister Hotel, proceeded to answer every question. His publicist had made just one ground rule: no discussion of his personal life, which really meant no questions about his fourth wife, the model and TV cooking show host Padma Lakshmi, from whom he was divorced a year ago.
“The genesis (of the novel) was thinking that here were these two worlds, the world of the Medicis and the world of the Mughals . . . glorious cultural moments in both places . . . and yet they were just about completely unaware of each other,” he explained. “I just had this idea of bringing together these worlds that didn’t know each other - if I could find a story that connected them.”
Akbar’s contact with Florence was minimal: a couple of Portuguese priests from the Indian island of Goa, which the Portuguese had colonized, visited Sikri and stayed for 12 years. From them Akbar would have learned something about Catholic Europe. But Rushdie said that in his novel he describes “a kind of liaison between them but that’s completely fictitious.”
After his seven years of reading - the lengthy bibliography at the end of the novel leaves one breathless - Rushdie spent a year and a half doing further research. He had been to Florence before, had helped pick gold paint out of floodwaters after the Arno overflowed in 1966, and he also found plenty of material in art and other books. Sikri was a different story; his imagination soared.
“I’m a historian by training,” Rushdie said, explaining the fact that he studied history has had an enormous effect on the writer he became. “Do we have the ability to make the world or the world make us?” he remarked.
The two parts of his life - the academic historian and the storyteller - came together in this novel more than in others. When he was ready to write, though, he put his research away. The story told itself, he says. When it flowed, he would go from his bed to his desk each morning, still in his pajamas, and get the first few pages down before getting ready for the day.
“I discarded two or three story lines because I couldn’t make them work,” he said. “I abandoned one or two ideas. I always knew there would be a woman in the middle of it. . . .”
Rushdie was aware that Akbar’s chief queen had a navy of merchant ships that traded with the Middle East. The Middle Eastern city of Herat was known as the Florence of the East. He found that a lot of poetry of that period used the image of black-eyed beauty. The beloved always had black eyes. He borrowed his hot-blooded heroine from one of those poets.
Eroticism and religion are familiar themes in Rushdie’s fiction, and they are brilliant threads in “The Enchantress of Florence.” Rushdie says he’s comfortable writing about women, their desires and their natures. He grew up, he noted, an only son with three sisters.
Rushdie was born in Bombay. His paternal grandfather was an Urdu poet and a successful businessman in Delhi. The grandfather died young and Rushdie’s father, Anis, took over the family business, selling it and moving the family to Bombay when India was partitioned into a majority Muslim Pakistan and a Hindu majority India. His parents later moved to Karachi, Pakistan, in 1964.
The family was wealthy, owning valuable real estate in a growing Bombay, but Rushdie said his father proceeded to slowly lose his fortune. “I inherited nothing,” he said, grinning.
Rushdie was sent to study in England at age 14 and graduated in 1968 from King’s College, Cambridge, where he read history. He held various jobs after graduation - in television, in theater, in advertising as a copywriter - until his first novel. “Grimus,” a science fiction fantasy, was published in 1975.
His next novel, “Midnight’s Children” won the Booker Prize, then twice won the Best of Bookers, the recent one just this month. His fourth novel, the 1988 “The Satanic Verses,” won the Whitbread Prize and drew the wrath of fundamental Muslims, who issued a death-carrying fatwa against him, which brought him international notice.
Rushdie sometimes wonders how many possible novels of his went unwritten during those years of stress and hiding. But he no longer dwells on that time. He sees himself as an ordinary fellow living his life, bonding with his two sons, maintaining apartments in London and New York, and affectionately renovating his ancestral summer home in Simla, in the lower Himalayan ranges.
“It’s become a commonplace of modern life that many people have this kind of experience in more than one place and even feel a sense of deep connection to more than one place,” he said. “So I don’t feel exceptional at all. . . .
“I’m just leading my life. . . . I like living in New York. I feel I have deep roots in England where both my children live and I have very, very deep roots in India. And that’s not a problem for me. I don’t feel the need to define myself more narrowly than that.”
Rushdie plans to write a children’s story for his 11-year-old son. And then, there might be a memoir. He has some truths to tell, especially of the fatwa, he acknowledged.
“Everybody tells me to do it. I haven’t quite managed to get my head around it - but I will.”