Rock 'N' Roll Rushdie

Like the Taj Mahal and most celebrities, Salman Rushdie seems smaller in real life. Sitting in a wood-paneled suite in a Knightsbridge hotel in London, he looks more like a prosperous banker or corporate lawyer, say, than the creator of wild-ride fictions like "Midnight's Children" and "The Moor's Last Sigh." And he looks nothing like the sloe-eyed, hook-nose effigies that blazed on four continents after Ayatollah Khomeini issued his 1989 fatwa against "The Satanic Verses." This may be due in part to his eye lift last month, but it's also because Rushdie is in the process of easing himself out of myth and back into life. After nearly a decade with a state-sponsored bounty on your head, normalcy, he says, "is like riding a bike. We're born with a knowledge of how ordinary people behave."

But Rushdie's not ordinary, even for a world-class novelist. John Updike doesn't hang out with David Byrne. Philip Roth doesn't get bits of his fictions recorded by U2. But then the 51-year-old Rushdie is a new breed of literary lion. A household name from Peoria to Peshawar, he's literature's first global celebrity--as famous as a pop star. Fittingly, his new book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (592 pages. Henry Holt. $26), out this week, is a story of fame and rock and roll. "The Satanic Verses" tackled a great monotheistic religion: Islam. "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" tackles the great modern polytheistic faith: celebrity culture. In this love story inspired by the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Ormus Camus--a musician so super-naturally gifted that he channels classic Western tunes before they're even written--loves Indian-American Vina Apsara, a demigoddess with a platinum voice and an epic sexuality. The lovers form a double act "more Righteous than the Righteous Brothers, Everlier than the Everlys, Supremer than the Supremes."

Like good jazz or love, the book's a bit of a mess. But how better to describe passion, or indeed Bombay, or New York? Vina and Ormus are icons, not fully formed characters. But that's the point. And Rai, an Indian photojournalist besotted with Vina, who acts as the book's narrator and the love triangle's third side, is the most moving character Rushdie's ever created. It's a crowded book, what with whopper themes like Love, Death, Faith and Myth sharing quarters with oversize characters. Thinly veiled versions of Elvis, Versace, Bowie and Sid Vicious flit by. Larry King is there, as is the Dead Diana phenomenon. Rock lyrics run wild--Rushdie has fun riffing on everybody from Presley to Byrne. " 'For years I thought Hendrix was a faggot,' says Vina. 'You know, 'scuse me while I kiss this guy'." But you forgive Rushdie's showy puns and tricksy history, for the book's mythic scope, epic stretch and huge intelligence.

Music may seem a leap from Rushdie's earlier passions of clashing cultures and crumbling empires, but it's not. Rock, he points out, was one of the first truly global phenomena. As a Bombay schoolboy in the 1950s, he grew up listening to Jerry Lee Lewis and playing Elvis Presley on the air guitar. "Maybe it's just as simple as the relationship of the 4/4 rhythm to the heartbeat," he says. "But when this music arrived in India, it immediately seemed like it came from the neighborhood."

If rock and roll was the first sign of a globalism, the Rushdie Affair was another. But most of the dark fatwa days have passed, says Rushdie, since Iran lifted the bounty on his head last fall. His second marriage failed under fatwa-strain, but in 1997 he married editor Elizabeth West, and the couple have a 2-year-old son. There is the matter of the gentlemen from Her Majesty's government who lurk around the hotel suite, muttering into their plastic earpieces when anyone comes in. And when the Indian government finally granted the author a visa last year, there was huffing and puffing from the opposition, who claimed a Rushdie visit would trigger religious turmoil. The author's not rushing back to India: "If I can't be received with a degree of honor and respect, I'd rather not go," he says. "I can get insulted here." Snubbed, maybe, but probably not murdered. He walks the streets--avoiding mosques--and can travel on most airlines. He pops up regularly at fashionable restaurants and parties and says he's no longer afraid. His great challenge now, he insists, is convincing people that he's leading a pretty normal life.

Which he's not, of course. For Rushdie is now a megastar--a great chronicler of the global village. For all the inspiration the book takes from Greek and Hindu mythology, for all its bows to Nabokov and E. M. Forster and its gorgeous ponderings on gods and art, "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" is a book about the way we live now. It's by someone who's been watching the earth very closely--but from a distance.