Sunday, August 21, 2011

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: An Intimate Evening with Salman Rushdie

It’s neither a clipped British spittle, nor is it a noisy Indian monsoon. It’s a slippery drawl of rain that collects on the roadside so that the puddles can molest my toes. So that when a taxi driver ignores me pointedly ignoring him and idles hopefully past me, I’m left splashed and stained. The raindrops splotch my wrap-around dress but I’m not visibly dripping. Today’s force of nature is passive aggressive at best – something Mr. Salman Rushdie is not, and never will be.

Drying off inside Tulsi Restaurant, I study the rest of the gathering that has collected inside. We are bourgeois brats out and about this slow Sunday evening, eager to dine in the acknowledged proximity of Salman Rushdie, and elite enough to afford it (tickets weren’t cheap, and for that I owe my generous sister). Aroon Shivdasani, Executive Director of the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC) and tonight’s event organizer, leads with her easy laughter, polished speech and impeccably British-Indian accent. Among the familiar and the envious, she is relaxed in a light blue kurta. In contrast, the rest of us draped in silk, satin and jackets use our indoor voices and try to act dignified.

Rushdie comes through the door, an umbrella on his arm. His small, bright eyes are tucked into an expansive forehead that has usurped most of his head. Whatever hair is left has abandoned any attempt at density except in tufts on the sides. Slight, angular eyebrows direct our attention past his tiny pupils and thin lips to a better groomed ’stache and goatee. When he smiles there is a bulge of cheekbone. He kisses cheeks and shakes hands with Aroon and her crew while the rest of us sip our wine with a fresh focus; we have paid good money for this after all. A hostess carves our crowd of 55 into tables seating 4, 6 and 8. My sister and I luck out at a table with a friendly couple from New Orleans. We are two tables away from Rushdie, who sits at the head of his with that permanently bemused look on his face.

Aroon introduces herself, the IAAC, its growing importance supporting the arts in the Subcontinent and its steady success attracting cash and (Indo-American) celebrities in America. In fourteen years the IAAC has staged plays at the Apollo, operas at the Met and most recently, the annual Erasing Borders dance festival in downtown Manhattan. Coming up is a special tour of the Vishnu exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum followed by dinner with the curator, and did she mention the two book launches next week?

What she doesn’t mention – need not mention – is the panoply of accolades decorating Rushdie’s name, like accents in the Polish alphabet. Instead she tells a story: some winters ago, a New York City fundraiser for Bombay’s street children had sold only 30 out of 200 tickets. Once Aroon “let slip” that “my friend and author” Rushdie would be attending, the show’s attendance jumped six-fold. To applause, she hands the mic over to Rushdie, who opens with a glib “Thank you to Aroon, who continues to pimp me out as the years go on.” Pause for laughter, and there are the inevitable few who roar. More acknowledgments to the IAAC, its recent half page in The New York Times this weekend and his increasingly regular “dual acts” with Shashi Tharoor with whom he “got to play the Apollo,” something he never dreamed he would do.

He dutifully shares his current projects with us. First, a film version of Midnight’s Children. “It’s taken me thirty years to say this,” for the book first came out in 1981, but the wait and the work has been worth it, and he expects it to reach the Toronto Film Festival, if not Cannes and Venice. Having praised the director and actors (the young Saleem is played by the little boy from Taare Zameen Par), he pats himself on the back for the screenplay: converting a 600-page book into a 130-page script is a trying “work of condensation;” better done by him than someone too intimidated to go at Midnight’s Children with a machete. Flirting with the idea of making two movies, Rushdie learned that “everybody wanted to finance the movie Midnight’s Children, but nobody wanted to finance two,” and sculpted his novel into a movie “two and a quarter hours long.” Movie making is a “lesson in real life,” he explains: you do whatever you can within the budget you have, and that’s it.

Second, his memoir. Never desirous of an interesting life, he insists, “unfortunately, my life became interesting,” and now it has become a book. No title and no publishing date yet, but expect to hear something next year.

“And now, I think, it is time for dinner,” he concludes, and we turn to our appetizers. About an hour and a half and three delectable courses later Aroon makes a round of the tables, beaming at everyone’s full mouths and quickly reminding us that our privileged guest is leaving so we should take pictures and get books signed now. A line has already formed and Rushdie signs books, Kindles (has it come to that?) and wine bottles with that mildly sour snarl always pasted on his face. My sister and I wait for him to wave us over, we share a few words, he wishes me good luck on my MFA and the photographer clicks twice. Next.

When we leave the restaurant the rain has slowed but our eyes are bright, our stomachs are full, we are heady with wine and the fact that we just had dinner with Salman Rushdie! Or something like that ;)

Thank you, Thangachi!