Joseph Anton Lived Too Long

Joseph Anton Lived Too Long

Salman Rushdie discovered himself in the years underground but the ordeal may have cost him a bit of his humanity

Book: Joseph Anton

Author: Salman Rushdie

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Price: Rs. 799

Pages: 636

Through Saleem Sinai,Saladin Chamcha,even a bit of Malik Solanka and several other protagonists in his fascinating novels,Salman Rushdie has always been generous,letting the reader peep inside his head and glimpse at what makes him tick. His readers have always been privy to vignettes of his personality,roots,influences and shadows. In the course of the sordid events following the declaration of the fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni (not quite authenticated,oddly enough — unsigned and typewritten,as Rushdie informs us in his latest literary offering) his readers know Rushdie from the pages of newspapers as much as from his books.

But the full Monty — Salman Rushdie’s 636-page memoir titled Joseph Anton — still reveals an author in very special circumstances. This could have been a shorter account. But Rushdie has produced a third person narrative almost as compelling as his other big ventures,which have effectively employed all kinds of techniques — straight storyline,autobiographical elements,magic realism and history. Joseph Anton,the pseudonym he chose in his underground years in the UK,borrows from the names of his favourite writers,Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. Carrying on the tradition of po-co and po-mo – post-colonial and post-modern — Rushdie has coined a term to demarcate his life after the fatwa: ‘po-fa’. His memoir is in part his own story,from Warden Road in Mumbai to Rugby School in England,along with the story of his loves and horrors — sometimes,he alleges,they were the same thing. But most significantly,it is a biography of the ideas that he has developed in his books.

The most fascinating is his account of how Satanic Verses came into being in his mind. He was able to conceive this book because of his fascination with God despite being godless,a fascination for a major religion whose founder is not myth but historical,of recorded times,not just legend. His scholarship helped,as did stories that his father had told him in his childhood. He was moved to look at stories and storytelling,stretched across cultures,symbols and beliefs,as artefacts almost as sacred as the thing the Rushdie-haters say they are anxious to protect.


Rushdie records his often inconsistent approach to fighting his difficult and strained circumstances,battling the angry Ayatollah along with the contempt of the British tabloid press. He moves from being horrified at what is going on to trying to formulate a “defence” — moving from making a loud “free speech” case to dithering about a semi-apology,to “discussions” with British and Egyptian clerics about what he wrote. And then he falsely descended to writing essays where he “accepted” that he was a Muslim. Then he tried to get back from that point to redefine who he was. One of the finest passages in the book examines how events forced him not just to clarify what he was up against,but to get some clarity about “what he was defending”,and about who he was himself.

India finds a special place in his book. He comes here to the “horn of plenty”,the land of gup,if you like. He takes a long drink to help him suffuse his writings with all that only India can offer. But ironically,this is where he also encountered the dark and sullen land of chup,as India was the first country to ban the Satanic Verses. He recalls in detail all those who had opposed his return in the early 2000s,as well as those who had backed him and,even if they disagreed violently with his opinions or with “that awful book”,defended his right to write it.

There are gripping (and contentious) moments in the book when he locates his predicament in the larger debates on free speech,in which the idea of book-burning is seen as a reprehensible prelude to the killing of men. But what is most striking here is that while it tells the story of the Joseph Anton years very well — in most parts,at least — it is very thin when it comes to being self-critical or even mildly critical of Rushdie’s own actions. His country of residence and the UK’s protection team are thanked on the last page,but the impression you walk away with is not one of gratitude for the protection extended to him by the state in his most difficult years.

Again,on the personal front,when writers embark on their memoirs,they have to take a call on how much to reveal. To what extent should they write about the intimate aspects of life’s journey,especially when they involve other living persons? Well,Rushdie has decided to be unsparing about at least two of his wives,Marianne Wiggins and Padma Lakshmi.

There is immense scholarship on display,some humour and also a degree of self-deprecation,admittedly small,in the italicised letters deployed to summarise arguments. Some letters addressed to God (or god?) and to himself are fabulous. Some real letters are also reproduced here and the correspondence with John le Carre in the letters page of the Guardian sparkles.

But what is striking in its absence and lends a sense of incompleteness to this account — which even includes some unnecessary details of the activities of a former mother-in-law — is introspection. And coming from a man of Rushdie’s intelligence,it disappoints by revealing the creator of the multi-layered Saleem Sinai to be totally uncritical of himself. Maybe being Joseph Anton for so long did this to Salman Rushdie.