You know it's foolish, but you can't help flinching when the restaurant suddenly turns up the lights in the darkish corner you've settled into, shining what feels like a theater spot on the balding, blue-shirted international celebrity with whom you're trying to have a quiet lunch.
Don't do that, you mutter to yourself.
Salman Rushdie doesn't so much as blink.
It's been seven years since the murderous Iranian fatwa against him was effectively withdrawn -- almost as long as the nine years it was in place. When you first meet him, he is standing alone by the Cafe Atlantico bar: no handlers, no stone-faced security guys. Rushdie's publisher has assured you that safety is not a concern for him anymore.
Still, the thing that springs immediately to mind when his name comes up is not that the author of "Midnight's Children" and 13 other books is widely viewed as one of our best living writers. It's not that he has a new novel -- "Shalimar the Clown" -- out this month. No, it's that in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini put a price on his head. In the literal-minded view of Iran's radical theocracy, Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" had blasphemously disrespected Islam.
Old news. You're almost embarrassed to bring the subject up.
So you move on to another that seems central to understanding Rushdie and his work: the continuing, essential place of storytelling in the modern world.
Rushdie has produced his share of nonfiction, from a long essay on frontiers to a passionate appreciation of "The Wizard of Oz." But his stock in trade is inventing stories on a large scale. So what does he think when the literary form to which he's devoted his life is trashed as archaic, irrelevant, incapable of engaging with the 21st century? Just last month, for instance, V.S. Naipaul -- another celebrated English writer of Indian descent -- loudly dismissed literary fiction as inferior to reportage.
This, Rushdie says, is really old news. People are forever writing fiction off, but they're wrong.
"The art of the novel, I think, is to open worlds to you," he says. "And it seems to me we live in a time when that's of desperate importance. So why would that be the time when you declared the novel dead?"
Miss Marple and Jeeves
At 58, Rushdie has spent a lifetime connecting different worlds, both geographical and cultural. Over gazpacho, guacamole and a glass of red wine -- "I'll fall asleep later, but what the hell" -- he discusses, with equal facility, the works of Rudyard Kipling, Mikhail Bulgakov and J.K. Rowling. He confesses his love for the war sections of "War and Peace" and for the comic strip art of Garry Trudeau. And he tackles the age-old question of "what ifs" in history, as applied to the catastrophic partition of India six decades ago, at the end of Britain's colonial rule.
Mostly, however, he talks about "Shalimar the Clown," and the way he's used his storytelling skills to evoke the increasingly borderless universe we now inhabit, in which "everything is leaking into everything else."
His own border-crossing story began in India, where he was born in 1947 and spent his first 13 years. If his non-religious Muslim parents had stayed put, he says, "there's no question that I would be today living in my family house in Bombay." But after sending their son off to an English boarding school, they sold that house -- in a move that still angers and mystifies him -- and relocated to Pakistan.
Finishing up at Cambridge University in 1968, he faced a choice: Karachi or London? After a short, unhappy stay in his parents' new home, he flew west.
As it happens, English writers had shaped his sensibility even before he'd left India. At an evening reading sponsored by Politics and Prose at Temple Sinai on Military Road NW, Rushdie will startle an audience of close to 500 people by citing as his earliest literary influences none other than Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse.
Really? The creators of Miss Marple and Jeeves?
"They're fantastic storytellers," he explains, "whatever else they may or may not be." And "when I began to think seriously about writing, I thought it was very important to try and return narrative to the center of the literary novel." Because if you "put a big narrative engine in the middle of the book, people will swallow almost anything else. I mean, you can do all kinds of weird stuff around it and people will go along with it, because if you've got them by the throat and you're dragging them through the story, they want to find out what happened next."
By 1980, when he published "Midnight's Children," he'd gotten the technique down.
An almost impossibly rich mingling of the personal and political, the fabulous and the historic, "Midnight's Children" hinges on the liberation of Rushdie's homeland from British rule and its bloody division, in 1947, into the perpetually feuding nations of India and Pakistan. Showered with literary honors -- it won England's prestigious Booker Prize, and in 1993 it was awarded the "Booker of Bookers" as the best book to win the prize in its 25-year history -- the novel succeeded so well in hanging complex historical and cultural information on its "big narrative engine" that it shows up on the reading lists of history and sociology classes today.
"Shame" followed, and "The Satanic Verses." Then Rushdie became a target of state-sponsored terrorism, and the books he continued to write were overshadowed by Iran's promise to make a millionaire of anyone who'd take his life. This remained true long after the death threat was repudiated in an agreement between the British and Iranian governments in 1998.
"Shalimar the Clown" began with a single, grim image that came to him in 1999: a dead man on his daughter's doorstep, the killer standing over him with a knife. He started writing but "couldn't get it right," so he set the book aside and wrote another. Set in New York City, where Rushdie now makes his home, "Fury" had the bad luck to come out on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It became a historical novel on the day it was published," he says.
He went back to "Shalimar." He'd conceived it as a narrowly focused story built around the dead man, the daughter and the killer. But after 9/11, he says, he heard his characters speaking to him:
Don't confine us that way, they said. Tell our full stories.
So he did.
He gave them a far bigger canvas, including on it -- among many other things -- the Nazi occupation of Alsace in World War II, the postwar projection of American power around the globe, the end of the Cold War, the rise of Islamic radicalism and, most centrally, the destruction of a peerlessly beautiful mountain land caught in a politico-religious crossfire.
"The world is now so interpenetrated," Rushdie says, that "to explain a murder in California you have to understand the history of Kashmir."
An Ominous Clang
Love, hate, shame, repentance, revenge: The tragedy of four linked lives is Rushdie's reader-grabbing engine.
The murdered man is Max Ophuls, a former American ambassador to India: irresistibly charming, cheerfully amoral. His killer is Shalimar the clown, a Kashmiri acrobat turned terrorist, his name taken from his assigned role in a traditional theatrical production. The other principals are Max's beautiful Kashmiri lover -- who longs to escape the narrow bounds of village life -- and the daughter they scandalously produce.
The personal narrative has its climax in Los Angeles. The broader, public tragedy of Kashmir, which lies behind it, is remote from the experience of Rushdie's Western readers. But it is central to his own.
Kashmir was the enchanted place of childhood for Rushdie. Not only was it a physical paradise, mountain-ringed and cool, but it was a repository of the kind of human beauty exemplified by his Kashmiri grandfather.
A devout Muslim, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca and said his prayers five times a day every day of his life. "Not praying again, Granddad!" his grandchildren would tease. But he was also, Rushdie says, "the most tolerant, open-minded, intellectually generous, nonjudgmental adult that I ever met as a child.
"You would say to him, 'Grandfather, I don't believe in God,' and he would say, 'Well, sit down here and tell me how you came to that nonsensical conclusion.' " A serious conversation would ensue, at the end of which "nobody was cross with anybody."
Small wonder that as Rushdie wrote about Kashmir, "the spirit of my grandfather came to infuse the spirit of the place."
He has, perhaps, exaggerated that spirit's universality. The real Kashmir of his childhood was already feeling the tensions produced by the India-Pakistan split. Yet to Rushdie it remained a place where, for the most part, tolerance reigned between the Hindu minority and Muslim majority; where Muslim women never wore the veil; where the people were so pacific that Indians told racist jokes about their cowardice. He offers an example: "If you put a gun in a Kashmiri's hand, it has to go off by itself, because he'll be too scared to pull the trigger."
So how did this tiny, tolerant corner of northwest India, with its 5 million inhabitants, become what Rushdie describes as a paradise not simply lost but destroyed? How did Kashmir end up with two jittery nuclear powers facing off across a "Line of Control," with 900,000 Indian troops on one side and 700,000 Pakistani troops on the other? How did its homegrown liberation movement get hijacked by radical jihadists who terrorize the population, murder moderate Muslim leaders and force burqas on village women? How did hundreds of thousands of Hindus come to be driven from their homes?
For Rushdie, the story begins with the partition of 1947.
At that time, he says, "the former colonial powers were drawing lines all over the world. And many of the ills of the world since then are the consequence of those acts."
One of Rushdie's most imaginative creations -- a radical cleric he calls the iron mullah, who shows up some years after Kashmir's troubles have begun -- offers a further clue to his thinking.
The iron mullah has "beautiful pale eyes that seemed to look right through this world into the next one." He preaches hellfire and damnation, denouncing as "little infidels" the easygoing Kashmiri Muslims who "mistake tolerance for virtue and harmony for peace."
Oh, and one more, surreal touch: His body is made not of flesh and bone but scrap metal. A rap on his head produces an ominous clang.
The meaning of this is obvious enough, you think. A new fanaticism has arrived, heralding Kashmir's destruction, and Rushdie portrays it as literally not human -- meaning that to him, it is inexplicable.
"No, no, I'm explaining it," he says.
The mullah is not made from just any metal, but from scraps of armor abandoned by the Indian army. Invited to Kashmir after the partition to fend off irregular forces from Pakistan, the troops were soon viewed by the Kashmiris less as allies than as a hostile occupying force.
"The legitimacy of the radicals arose from the people's hostility towards the Indian army," Rushdie says. "That the iron mullah could be created out of the rubble of the army seemed like a truthful metaphor."
He takes no sides in his exposition of the horrors that ensue. Not for nothing did he choose "A plague on both your houses" as an epigraph for "Shalimar the Clown." One side acts. Another reacts. Trapped between them, his grandfather's Kashmir is brutally, mercilessly obliterated. And as some of its sons -- the title character among them -- morph into ruthless terrorists, the personal and the political are inevitably entwined.
Could this have been prevented? Could India have won its freedom without partition, as the religiously diverse country it had always been?
It could, Rushdie suggests, with the usual caveats about what-if scenarios. But if the British hadn't played divide-and-rule with the country's Muslim and Hindu politicians, and if some of those politicians hadn't put jealousy and personal ambition ahead of the common good, then just maybe . . .
Later, at the reading, another question arises: Can we not find contemporary resonance in the nightmare of Kashmir?
Of course, Rushdie says. He hears the echoes himself. But his job is to write the story he's writing, not to put up neon signs telling his readers what connections to make.
Still . . .
"We know about armies of occupation. We know about insurgencies," he says.
Everything You Wanted
Lunch threatens to be over far too soon. Rushdie is too good a talker, and too many questions remain unasked. Still, he covers a lot of ground.
Was he being ironic, you inquire, when he had an Indian character praise Max Ophuls as "the Rudyard Kipling of ambassadors"?
Not at all. The author of "Kim" may have been racist at times, and he certainly suffered from the "ill-judged internalization of imperialist ideas." But when Kipling spins his tales of rural India, says Rushdie -- who particularly loved "The Jungle Book" as a child -- "he gets it right in a way that I think no other English writer really did."
What about the omnipresent J.K. Rowling? Has Rushdie dipped into her version of magical storytelling?
Well, he's listened to "Harry Potter" audiotapes with his 8-year-old and worries what Rowling can possibly do for an encore. It wouldn't do to have a flop, after all.
He gets an idea.
"You know how, in Donald Duck cartoons, the character Scrooge McDuck used to have this room full of gold coins and a diving board and he'd go dive off of it and swim in his money?" A big laugh. "That's what she might have to do."
What about the scene in "Shalimar" in which the title character, as a newly minted international terrorist, is turned loose on "a writer against God, who spoke French and had sold his soul to the West"? Was that some kind of personal nightmare leftover from the fatwa days?
No, he says. He was thinking of the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout -- he spells the name out carefully -- who really was killed by Islamic militants, in 1993. "It was a nod of respect in his direction."
One more thing:
How did he dream up the wonderful bedtime fable that Ophuls tells his daughter, the one about the ambitious man in the palace of power? Abbreviated some, it goes like this:
To reach the room where the man of power sits, you must first get past the jackal-headed man, the man with the head of the rabid dog and a whole labyrinth of other monstrous threats. If you penetrate these defenses, the man of power must give you your heart's desire -- "that's the rule" -- but other monsters will rip and claw at your treasure as you try to leave. Finally outside again, "clutching your poor, torn remnant, you must persuade the skeptical crowd -- the envious, impotent crowd! -- that you have returned with everything you wanted. If you don't, you'll be marked as a failure forever."
Are we talking Washington, or what? Does Rushdie know that he might as well be describing the career of Bill Clinton?
He does. "Lobbying about the fatwa," he says -- straight-faced, not laughing now -- "I got into a lot of similar corridors."
Call it reportage, call it experience -- call it whatever you want. Salman Rushdie's instinct was to turn it into a story.