Caught Between East And West, Rushdie Keeps On

To be sure, it isn't the first time Salman Srushie's work has been suppressed. It's just the dumbest. So for the record, here are the lineds that Turner Broadcasting, apparently fearing deadly Islamic reprisals, demanded be expunged from the American edition of "The Courter," a splendid story in Rushdie's new collection, East, West (214 pages, Pantheon. $21)

Flintsontes! Meet the Flintstones! They're the modern stone age family.

And they nixed this too:

They're a page right out of his-to-ry.

Sipping tea in a London office borrowed for an interview, Rushdie concedes that maybe this isn't "a censorship issue, but is sure as hell is chickensh--. If I quoted these lines, somebody would shoot Fred Flintstone?"

Come Valentine's Day, it will be six years since Khomeini called for Rushdie's death. In the interim, Islamic terrorists have murdered his Japanese translator, stabbed his Italian one, shot his Norwegian publisher. Since Rushdie's very presence, or the presence of his writings, has now gathered this immense, fear-inducing weight, there has been over the years a raft of smaller fear-induced indignities: British Airways, American Airlines, and Lufthansa, among others, refuse to allow him on their flights. Beyond that, there is the simple, and simply absurb, quotidian ripple effect, as when a woman at a recent party demanded, "Should I be standing next to you? It's felling a bit dangerous."

Recounting this ingenuous social moment, Rushdie laughs mellifluously. "All I could say was "Well, if you feel you're in danger, you should leave. I'm not going anywhere'."

His dress is spiffy if unobtrusive; his plaid socks and shirt are nicely mismatched, and he is notably more attractive than his photos convey, particularly the recent Avedon portait in The New Yorker, which made him look like a deranged mullah, not the target of one. Where he lives, where he goes, who he knows is still a fiercly guarded secret. Special Branch operatives hover just outside the loaned office, and anyone who nears Rushdie is thoroughly searched, but within his security cocoon Rushdie is involved in the most normal of professional activities, namely, promoting the new book.

"East, West," his first major work since "The Satanic Verses," is an imaginative stew of nine short stories. They're cleanly divided into three sections -- "East," "West," and "East, West" -- but all take place on a charged middle ground where the tectonic plates of culture grind and merge. The book opens with the magical "Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies," in which a young Pakastani woman manages to sabotage her arranged marriage to a man off in England. It closes with "The Courter" in which an aging Indian nanny is sweetly romanced by an Eastern European porter (they are our Flintstones fans), but abandons him to return to Bombay. Each story illuminates the dialogue and conflict between cultures. And each, in its fashion, returns to what Rushdie calls "this theme of cultural movement and mongrelization and hybridity." Given the metaphor of the author's own life as the embodiment of a very fundamental conflict between East and West, the book is not only appropriately titled, it is sometimes spookily resonant. Rushdie himself hangs in the balance there, too.

For a time, he wasn't writing. He had plunged into hiding, his marriage had fallen apart, his professional focus had been derailed. Two solid years were spent appealing to presidents, prime ministers, lining up support to pressure Iran, until it dawned on Rushdie, "I just can't spend the rest of my life circling the corridors of power saying, "please,' because I'm a writer and if I can't write, then, in a way, the attack has been successful."

"East, West" is the ebullient proof that Khomeini's fatwa hasn't succeeded. "It feels like a sort of victory," he says happily. And soon -- perhaps as early as fall -- it will be time for more victory laps. Two weeks ago, he turned in the novel he has struggled with for years, "The Moor's Last Sigh." But the joy of completion is offset by an increasing sense of isolation. "This may well be the last big novel that I can set in India," he says, "I don't want to write books that are out of touch, nostalgic." His India, that "tough-minded, secularist ... outward-looking" culture, "is ending," and Rushdie cannot be a witness. While he hasn't been banned from India, he fears that if he were to return, "some local extremists could put a mob on the street very easily. Any politician can put 5,000 people on the street, and I just don't want that to happen again.

"For the first time in my life," he says, "I actually feel in exile." It sometimes feels "as if somebody cut a leg off."

For now, then, he will focus on England. "I've been in very strange places all over this country in the past few years. I've had a very good look at it, actually -- without it knowing I was looking at it sometimes."

But how could he slip into a nosy little village and escape?

"Well now," he says, puckishly, "If I told you that I'd be telling you everything that I've worked so hard to keep quiet, wouldn't I?"

Rushdie's life is a little more "normal" these days. He manages to slip into his beloved movies more, to shop when the need arises. Still, he finds he has to convince people -- even his Scotland Yard minders -- to stop smothering him with protection. "There's a difference between protecting somebody and concealing them. It's quite clear that actually a lot of the people they protect are in more danger than me -- if you're a member of a royal family or, more recently, if you were the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. They're major targets, and yet they see their friends and they go where they like. As long as you take a few precautions it's all right to do all this stuff."

Or is it? Last October when a New York reviewer rode the subway with the galleys of "East, West" tucked under her arm, a fellow rider sidled up. "They caught him yet?" he asked. She shook her head no. "They will catch him. And they will _B_chop off his head."_b_

Still, Rushdie says, "I'm in a lot less danger than the Algerian journalists. There, it's open season on anyone with a pen." This may be an exaggeration -- but not by much. Since Rushdie's fatwa was declared, the worldwide talley of attacks on writers has been impressive. "It's a new form of terrorism being used against soft targets," he says heatedly. "It demonstrates what I've been saying, which is that this is not a one-on-one case. If you ignore this case and do not solve the problem you will find this technique being reused. And, bingo! It's getting repeated and reused. It's flattering in a way. But on the whole I think most of these writers would prefer to be alive than, ah, flattered."

In a sense, Rushdie beats the now dead ayatollah at this extraordinary game simply by living through it in terms that begin to approach his own. He takes the project very seriously. His life, and the lives of those closest to him, are still in play. Does Rushdie's 15-year-old son understand all of this?"

"I have tried to teach him a honestly as I could what's happened," Rushdie says. "Both his mother and I, who haven't been married for a long time but are still good friends, felt that he would understand it best if we were most open with him -- and didn't just tell him to not worry. Because, you know, children do worry. If you tell someone somebody's trying to murder your father, but don't worry, it doesn't quite work. Let me tell you, he has a much greater understanding of these issues than any other 15-year-old in the world."