Monday, November 22, 2010

The hotter the fire, the better the thtory: Salman Rushdie and Suketu Mehta at the 92Y

Listening to Salman Rushdie read and speak in public is like eating a lot of dark chocolate; it’s sinful, delicious, addictive, with a bitterness that stings at the end of each delectable bite. Rushdie toys with words on paper and in conversation, and is consistently arrogant enough to offend some of his readers/listeners all of the time, keeping all of us on our toes. It’s brilliant!

Suketu Mehta, famous for Maximum City – a book about Bombay; an ode, really – and a regular contributor to the NYTimes, introduced and interviewed Rushdie. I know Mehta him to be an insightful writer and journalist; he teaches journalism at NYU. Reading him, however, I didn’t hear his bashful Indian accent and lisp, and it was endearing to see him stand at a podium and talk about “thitting in thith thame auditorium where you all thit now, homethick for Bombay, lithening to a writer from Bombay talk about Bombay.” This man with thinning hair and twinkling eyes had heard Rushdie speak at the 92Y in 1981, after Midnight’s Children was published, and approached him afterward, brimming with Indian familiarity: “Mr. Ruthdie, I, too, am from Bombay; thall we take dinner?” Rushdie gently declined, but after Maximum City was published in 2004, he wrote a glowing review and invited Mehta out to dinner. “And here we are.”

They have become close friends and their sons play together. While putting off the children’s book(s) his son Prakash wants him to write, Mehta obliges him with “Salman uncle’s” words and, most recently – and tonight’s cause for celebration – Luka and the Fire of Life. “And now let uth hear from Thalman uncle,” Mehta said, concluding his introduction.

Rushdie explained that his foray into children’s literature came about at a writers’ conference in London – full of writers famous for their “egghead tomes” – where a famous German author pulled him aside, with the dramatic grip-on-the-wrist that an older and wiser writer has the authority to use, and instructed him, “You must a children’s book write.” When Rushdie’s first son, Zafar, was 8, he asked his father when he would write a book that he could read. Rushdie promised his son he would write his son something as soon as he finished what he was working on. That was Satanic Verses and the earthquake that followed gave Rushdie the perfect excuse and reason to work on something less…incendiary. Haroun and the Sea of Stories was Rushdie’s way to explain to his son what was happening to his father: Haroun’s father is a story teller who faces obstacles when creating and telling his stories, and is nearly silenced forever.

Rushdie became a father for the second time at the age of 50: “I took a break between parenting – my sons are 18 years apart,” and it wasn’t long before Malin was asking him when Rushdie would write a book for him; Zafar already had one. Rushdie remembered Paul Simon’s song St. Judy’s Comet:

Cause if I can't sing my boy to sleep
Well it makes your famous daddy look so dumb
look so dumb

and said he would write something. “The engine” of his book is a father reflecting upon his mortality and age, being that he is considerably older and having a child nearly twenty years after he had his first.

The storytelling father in Luka and the Fire of Life falls into a deep sleep – a coma? – and Luka, younger brother of Haroun from Haroun and the Sea of Stories has to enter his father’s world of magic to rescue his father from his inevitable doom.

At this point Rushdie read 3 excerpts from his book, establishing its setting – the World of Magic – its main characters – Luka, his pets Bear (a dog) and Dog (a bear), a phantom of his father (named “Nobodaddy”) and his adversaries in the World of Magic – and its plot – how Luka tries to prolong his father’s life. Rushdie is a terrific reader, and neither the density of Midnight’s Children nor the linguistic playfulness of Luka and the Fire of Life impedes his narration. He used his reading glasses for the longer passages “that I’ve not yet memorized” and added commentary where necessary:

“I should mention that “Nobodaddy” is not my invention. William Blake used it first in his poem To Nobodaddy, and later James Joyce in Ulysses.”

“I have always wanted a flying carpet in a novel and I finally got one.”

After Rushdie entranced us with his magic for forty minutes, he sat down with Mehta to answer questions and shed light on his book. Mehta asked what his son thought of the book, and Rushdie proudly answered that Milan enjoyed it very much. Rushdie refused to show it to his agents and publishers until his son had finished the book, which he could only read after he had finished his daily homework, and Rushdie liked nothing better than keeping his people waiting while his son slowly made it through the book after Chemistry homework was done. He reminded us that his older son Zafar, to whom Midnight’s Children is also dedicated, has not read Midnight’s Children, but saw a play of Midnight’s Children in London, and considers that the same as reading the book. Rushdie doesn’t mind: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or a singer. To your children, you’re Dad.” And reading something your parent has written can be strange: “if you read about sex in a book written by your father, it’s deeply humiliating.”

Rushdie attributed inspiration for this book to oral storytellers in Kerala (in South India), a flourishing state known for its 100% literacy rate. “And highest suicide rate,” Mehta interjected, to which Rushdie rejoined, “These things may be highly related.” Rushdie continued: “The oral storyteller knows exactly when he loses his audience – it’s when the audience walks away.” This motivated Rushdie to create some “playful pyrotechnic storytelling,” a multitude of plots and characters that he’d have to sustain over several pages. It’s like a juggler with many balls in the air, he explained. “The fun is in wondering when he may drop one. But in fact he adds another ball to the mix and keeps on juggling.”

Mehta asked a question about setting, making references to controversial regions around the world – the Middle East, the state of Arizona. Rushdie didn’t miss a beat and added Kansas to that list, for its state-wide rejection of evolution. “The people’s opposition to Darwin was the disproof of Darwin’s theory. Evolution can go backwards – and produce Kansas.” OH SNAP.

Rushdie described his childhood literary and cultural influences. Growing up in a city like Bombay, he said, culture arrives haphazardly. The Ramayana and the Mahabharatha are daily fare. There are the (Aesop’s Fable-like) Panchatantra tales. The Arabian Nights. Enid Blyton. He gorged on Superman and Batman comics as a child, claims to know more about kryptonite and superpowers than most, and prefers Superman to Batman because, “how fond can you be of someone who hangs upside down at night?” In a cosmopolitan Indian city, there’s a plethora of stories one reads as a child which have formed the “fictional mulch” he works with. Mehta asked if his Hindi character names were a private joke between him and 1 billion readers. Rushdie corrected him: it was more a joke between him and “people with culture.” Oh snap AGAIN.

Several scenes in Luka and the Fire of Life have the appearance and feel of a video game, with characters collecting lives by stepping on mushrooms and shaking trees, and a digital counter in one corner measuring the number of lives left. Mehta asked him about his video gaming prowess, and he responded, “There was a moment when I got really good…depressingly good at video games,” when he played them years ago with his first son, back when video games were linear, like Super Mario Brothers, and not as complicated and destructive as Call of Duty and Halo. Nowadays he watches Malin play, and limits his engagement to iPhone apps, his current favorite being Angry Bird which, he boasted, he has mastered. “Blackberry users, weep,” he scoffed.

Mehta: What are your thoughts on reincarnation?

Rushdie: Negligible. Once is enough. I’d rather not come back as an ant or gogo doll or whatever the options are.

Mehta asked him the apocalyptic question about novels v. e-books, the internet and other digital technology. Rushdie argued that the novel is in fact the most sophisticated technology: “You can drop it in the bath and it preserves all its data. It gets a little wet, but you can dry it. It’s more interactive and has greater failsafes than any other technology.”

Mehta: Have you read the Harry Potter books?

Rushdie: I’ve read them all, all 7 of them; God help me. If you want to talk to your children, you have to know what they’re talking about.

He admired JKRowling for turning a generation of children onto books but said he’d be happier if they were reading books written by other authors. (Oh SNAP for the third time, shizzam.)

About the memoir he’s currently working on, Rushdie admitted, “I’ve had the misfortune of acquiring an interesting life.” Is it stranger than fiction, Mehta asked, and Rushdie said that life is always stranger than fiction. He quoted the writer’s creed: “The worse it is, the better it is.”

To which Mehta responded, “well, leth hope it geth worth.”


  1. What a delightful account - and how I wish I could have been there! Reading this was the next best thing to actually being there in person. Here is the link to an interview with Sir Salman in this weekend's Wall Street Journal:


  2. Delightful account. Reading this will compensate for not being there.