by Salman Rushdie
Random House
September 2002, 320 pages, $25.95 (US)

by Rahul Gairola
PopMatters Books and Music Critic

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Across All Lines

While listening to Salman Rushdie speak and read, one can’t help but notice that, like the complex characters imbedded at the hearts of his epic novels, he is as dazzling a presence behind a podium. A bearded, portly figure with a hybridized accent culled from his days in his birth city of Bombay (now called Mumbai) and at King’s College, Cambridge, Rushdie gingerly sipped spring water from a short glass while reading from his novel Fury and his new collection of essays, Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002. The new collection includes mini-essays on subjects ranging from the rock band U2 to globalization, and includes a section called “Messages from the Plague Years” that documents his campaign against the fatwa (death decry) issued by the Iatollah Khomeini following the controversial publication of “The Satanic Verses.”

Though last year’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center resulted in the cancellation of Rushdie’s 2001 appearance in Seattle (scheduled only days after September 11th), Rushdie attempted to compensate for lost publicity of Fury by offering the audience readings from both books, engaging listeners in political statements peppered by his uncanny wit. Addressing a packed auditorium, Rushdie expressed his delight to be in Seattle the first night of his national tour to promote Step Across This Line. Losing no time in getting right down to the subject of the night — himself — the world-renowned author flipped open a copy of Fury and treated the audience to a fictive dialogue between a man and a woman concerning the social implications of, well, fucking. And a lot of “fucking” it was — the text itself contained much use of “fucking” as an adjective, the word emphasized all the more by Rushdie’s raising voice. The sting of the word was undercut, however, by the humorous voices Rushdie used to emulate his characters, obliging the audience to consider the dialogue and the many ways that the word can act as a political fulcrum in American society. Perhaps this is one of Rushdie’s most prodigious gifts: to not only create complex characters, but to also transform into them.

Rushdie pointed out to the audience that the cover of Step Across This Line features a 1997 photo of a stretch of land upon which a tall fence marks the border between Mexico and Southern California. Using border-crossing as a theme throughout his reading, Rushdie narrated some of the more funny moments in his life: he read a piece called “Heavy Threads: Early Adventures in the Rag Trade,” which offers a snapshot from his experiences in London during the late sixties. Living in a flat above the legendary clothing store Granny Takes a Trip — a swirl of patchouli, psychedelic music, and beads — Rushdie described moments he shared with some eclectic friends. First there is Paul, with whom the young Rushdie would engage in “nodding sessions” as they discussed the superficial coolness of the Maharishi and other “far out” Indian things. After exhausting the limited pool of hip Indian references, Rushdie said “we all just went on nodding, beatifically”. In his interactions with Sylvia, the manager in charge of Granny, Rushdie’s stake to hippie culture via his Indianness holds no cultural capital: conversation is dead before it begins, inducing within him an awareness of conversational insecurity.

These biographical anecdotes, along with the other pieces he read from Step Across This Line reflect the theme of border-crossing that the title and cover image suggest. Indeed there is a multiplicity of crossed lines between British and Indian immigrant culture in “Heavy Threads,” as well as attempts to cross over the barriers that divide some people living in the same country but who look different from one another (Rushdie and Sylvia). Even the piece Rushdie read from Fury demonstrates breakdown between borders that sequester women from men, and normative sexual practices from aberrant ones, both which ostensibly fall away when we focus on the single word Rushdie’s characters from “Fury” kept emphasizing: “fuck.” Keeping with this theme unto the end of his reading, Rushdie took a decidedly political turn so he might poke fun at the current state of American politics and the ways that political and ethical borders are manipulated to frame lost civil rights and grossly irresponsible globalization as an “okay” thing.

In “How the Grinch Stole America,” which Rushdie composed for the inauguration of G.W. Bush, the narrator describes the showdown between the Grinch, who realizes that voting is counting, and the Veep (an allegory for Al Gore). In contrast to the experienced and intelligent Veep, “So far the poor Grinch hadn’t Amounted to zip,/ He just hadn’t Counted. It gave him the pip./ (His father! His eminent Dad! His own blood!/ Compared to him, Grinchy had proved quite a dud)”. Two revelations allow the Grinch to “grinch” America — the dependence of the election in Voteville on “Circles of Air-/ Not to mention the half-holes,/ and the holes that weren’t there,/ but that wanted to be there,/ and thought that was fair” and the existence of other grinches big and small who can assist him. Chuckling to himself, Rushdie told the audience that he had proposed the poem as the preface for a Dr. Seuss collection soon to be published. “I wonder why they decided not to take it,” he asked with a mischievous smile.

In closing, Rushdie read a piece about September 11th, and life in New York City afterwards. Reading from “October 2001: The Attacks on America,” Rushdie said, “They broke our city. I’m among the newest of New Yorkers, but even people who have never set foot in Manhattan have felt her wounds deeply, because New York in our time is the beating heart of the visible world? To this bright capital of the visible, the forces of invisibility have dealt a dreadful blow”. Rather than blaming US government policies on the attacks, Rushdie urged the audience to recognize that this displaces moral responsibility for one’s own acts. “These are tyrants, not Muslims,” read Rushdie. Yet even in his lament for the atrocities that unfolded that day last year, Rushdie was not so naïve to condone knee-jerk reactions to the tragedy or the folly of a potential war with Iraq. “How to defeat terrorism?” asked Rushdie. “Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared”.

Salman Rushdie’s other books include Grimus, Midnight’s Children (which has been hailed as the “Booker of Bookers”), Shame, The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories , The Moor’s Last Sigh, and The Ground Beneath Her Feet. His works of nonfiction include The Jaguar Smile, Imaginary Homelands, The Wizard of Oz, and Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing: 1947 – 1997.