Bookmark of Terror
I browsed the library, touching the line of books with my fingertips. A blue cover read: Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. I would have kept it back as I had done many times before. History weighed on the book; so much was written about it that the book was inviolable, too distant. But for that day.
An hour ago, I had finished a long talk about drugs, rock music and how it fuelled student rebellion. I had spent long hours in preparation and the research was sedately accepted. Standing in the huge hall, exposed to tiers of student benches, I had constructed arguments citing Naipaul, Kesey, Che, Pink Floyd lyrics, some random writings from the 1960s, and a few pictures: one of a student standing before a military tank on the Tiananmen Square. I had stated the case and afterwards felt as empty as a discarded can on the street.
With nothing better to do, no other book to read and no more music to listen to, I was back to scouting books at the library to fill the void. In a forgiving mood, I picked up the blue book.
Finding Rushdie was an accident. I remember discovering Camus, Sartre and Conard soon after I stumbled on Rushdie. Garcia would still remain unfathomed for another year.
Midnight’s Children opened like a reluctant talker from a different world, though soon metamorphosed into a bold and bullying genre; a chapter on hallucinatory imagination to be fed on, from time to time. After Midnight’s Children, Shame followed, and I was handed a photocopy of The Satanic Verses by a benevolent professor. I found The Moor’s Last Sigh to be the closest recreation of Midnight. Grimus, Rushdie himself had rejected. Haroon was insubstantial. East, West had no magic; a failed attempt, and Imaginary Homelands had run out of print. The Ground Beneath Her Feet reminded me of my talk on the day I first picked Rushdie.
IIT-Delhi of early 2000 was still effervescent; there was an indescribable patency that melted away in later years when the rebellion against reservations rapped on its doors. There were several ways to burn your cash in the hip campus, but those days, a neat portion of my allowance went into collecting books. The collection would vanish in the last month of the college, some borrowed and never returned, and some lost. The only things that I carried from my hostel room were two big cartons of dusty old books, with a few Rushdies thrown in.
Within months, I had read whatever Rushdie I could find, and waited in anticipation for Fury to come out. Rushdie was not in the news anywhere, he was forgotten and disliked, and no one cared. Eventually, Fury came out with a cover showing New York, Rushdie’s adopted new city. Inside the book, New York first came to life, and then, the city was allowed to be mercilessly torched. Rushdie’s pen had ignited the city and that horror was the only impressionable part of the novel.
On this particular September afternoon in 2001, after having just read the book, with which I was feeling slightly disappointed, somebody shook me out of my sleep. I had come to watch the play rehearsals; the practice was long over and the Convocation Hall was discarded. I had fallen asleep on one of the cushioned chairs in the large hall. I stood up to a headache and singled out the book for my discomfort.
The blue tint of disappointment hung over me as I collected my stuff — a notepad, a pencil, Fury, a book on thermodynamics — and left the hall. I was feeling empty again. Having read all of Rushdie’s writing, there was nothing left, no magic to discover. What next? Walking back to the hostel, the craving for something substantial to fill the vacuum rose again.
There was a crowd in front of the single TV. Everybody was preoccupied and intense. A cricket match was on. Watching it, I could pass some time too, and forget the novel, dislike for which was rising with the growing headache. It wasn’t the cricket match, and it took me long minutes to realise what it was. I first thought it to be my delirium taking shape, my leftover sleep penetrating the reality. On the TV, a single tower, next to another holed one, burst into debris and flames when an airplane flew into it.
It was New York. It was being mercilessly torched.
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu