Beyond boundaries

THIS latest non-fiction collection, Step Across This Line, is like an off-line web link that provides access to a decade's writings of Salman Rushdie. Reinforcing his established reputation as a storyteller, and an intellectual who has spoken out on a variety of issues, he emerges as a thinker who reaches out for the spaces beyond borders. An educated, independent voice, alive and sensitive to the overarching diasporic concerns of the times, Rushdie's views are certainly not mandated by any ministry, department, religion or pressure group.

The hybrid vigour in the subjects dealt with, speaks for the felicity of thought and expression of this creative writer. He is comfortable talking on leavened bread, or titular mystification ("Reservoir Frogs", or "Places called Mama's"), or the haunting hold of The Wizard of Oz, both in its print and film versions ("Out of Kansas").

The essays are embedded with perceptive comments on writers and their craft. Rushdie has the advantage of fusing the creative and the critical instinct, his keen sense of history, wide scholarship and experience, and the result is an astonishing range and depth. He can attune to the psyches of both the writer and reader, as in his comments on Angela Carter, Arthur Miller or on Beirut Blues.

Of Angela carter and her craft, he says, "She opens an old story for us like an egg and finds the new story, the now story we want to hear within" (p.45). The poignant moments of Beirut Blues makes him comment, "It should be read by everyone who cares about the truths behind the clich�d Beirut of the TV news; and by everyone who cares about the more enduring and universal truths of the heart" (p.50).

Such passionate commitment to good writing springs from the faith of the free and the liberated writer. The fatwa years have affirmed more strongly the need to transcend religion or prejudice. His erudition and intelligence are evident in the essays that range from close readings to commentary on trends and crises in present day literature. A great critic has the ability to make the individual voice become a collective one. Like Coleridge or Wordsworth or T. S. Eliot, here is a creative writer engaged in the quest of the indefinable nature of the creative talent. But when Rushdie takes a look at the intellectual and literary climate of the times he comes to grips with the issues posed by society. There is no critical baggage of theories, but an intuitive analysis that is sharp and empathetic. And does not Rushdie have the last word when he says, "But what one writer can make in the solitude of one room is something no power can easily destroy"?

The episode of the unsuccessful efforts to film Midnight's Children is told in a very transparent manner ("Adapting Midnight's Children"). As prophetically stated by him in the postscript of this essay, in January 2003, the dramatised version is to hit the stage. This three-hour play has been scripted by Rushdie himself, in collaboration with Simon Reade, who had been formerly with The Royal Shakespeare's Company, and Tim Supple who will direct the production as he did with "Haroun and the Sea of Stories", two years ago at the National Theatre in London. The universities of Michigan and Columbia are to invest two million dollars in this massive Anglo-American venture.

He has his own winning ways to establish a gentle rapport with the readers. A simple analogy or a homely metaphor does the trick to invite the reader to share his views, opinions, judgement and comments. And then there is the Rushdie brand of word magic and word pictures, that are evocative of smells, feelings, relationships, novelistic devices aplenty at his disposal, that help to recreate the climate and place, be it Bombay or London, or a soccer match or a rock concert. The nostalgia flows easily into the experiential being of the readers because of an easy frankness and a directness in recall.

What is most endearing is the ability to look at himself objectively. The passage from the piece "On being Photographed" is a sample of this distancing principle, crucial to any writer (p.116-117):

Let me try to see this picture as if I were not a subject. Richard Avedon was not interested in making a picture of the cheery novelist without a care in the world. I think he wanted to make a portrait of a writer to whom a number of bad things had happened. I think the picture shows some of that pain, but also I hope something of resistance and endurance. It is a strong picture and I am grateful to Avedon for his solidarity, for his picture's clarity and for its strength.

Step Across This Line, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape (distributed by Rupa and Co.,), p. 454, Rs. 895.

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