The going had not been good for Salman Rushdie for most of 2008. Critics everywhere tore into his latest novel The Enchantress of Florence. "Static and enervated…as though it has been mechanically assembled from a recipe," said the New York Times. "Salman Rushdie's inkwell has dried up; it is time he bought a new ball point pen," remarked Khushwant Singh witheringly. His personal life too was on the brink, after his "emotionally violent" divorce from his fourth wife Padma Lakshmi, 23 years his junior, that he admitted "provoked a crippling bout of writer's block which threatened to end my writing career".
But there is afterlife after double disaster. The New York-based author was knighted last month and has now won the Best of the Booker, the English-speaking world's prestigious fiction prize for the third time on its fortieth anniversary. His 1981 classic Midnight's Children — that jostling melee of characters, images and pidgin English whose drippy-nosed protagonist Saleem Sinai is a metaphor for the partitioned sub-continent — was voted online by readers, and endorsed by judges, as the best novel in the history of the Booker Prize. That Rushdie's competition included Nobel prize winners like J M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer means that the book stands out; that its exciting imaginative and linguistic stretch still resonates with younger audiences 27 years after its first appearance.
It is possibly true that his best work is behind him and that he has entered a phase of literary decline — for how will he match the pyrotechnical wizardry of the early novels? All he has produced since the 1990s is turkey after turkey, the last widely applauded work being The Moor's Last Sigh (1995). After that: a case of mixed reviews and a mixed up life. Too many medals can weigh decoratively heavy on an old general's chest; so too can a heap of honours emphasise a writer's sterility.
A writer's life is often supposed to be a life of detachment, distance, solitude, even isolation. From their ivory towers they emerge from time to time to strew a few pearls before an avid and hungry public. Salman Rushdie's life is the opposite: of active interlocution, controversy and courting celebritydom. There has always been a touch of the showman about him and he now makes the cut as the paparazzi's next best party guest. By his own admission if he hadn't been a writer he would have been an actor; he enjoys cameo appearances in films like Bridget Jones's Diary. (J M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer would probably find such an idea abhorrent.)
The analogy with an old soldier isn't inexact, either, for Sir Salman proudly carries scars from a famous, long drawn-out war. For years after the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini on publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 and the uproar that followed — book burnings, bannings and other violence — he was on the run, a heavily guarded fugitive moving from one safe house to another. The British broke off diplomatic relations with Iran over the cause celebre (they weren't restored till 1998). Despite mutterings in some quarters, British taxpayers bore the massive costs of protecting him unlike cowardly governments in India, reduced to hand-wringing appeasement, when called to stand up for Taslima Nasrin and M F Husain.
Rushdie emerged as the champion of freedom of expression and the creative imagination, a role he plays to the hilt, pugnaciously guarding the legacy as a famous liberal of the late 20th century. Feisty, articulate, erudite, prolific and coruscating in conversation — he is all that. But how will Sir Salman restore his creativity?