The ''Satanic Verses'' author resurfaces with ''The Moor's Last Sigh''

By Nisid Hajari
Updated February 09, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

The language of security envelops Salman Rushdie, writer and fugitive: A phone call arranges the rendezvous at Barneys in midtown Manhattan, where, amid glittering wristwatches and glassed-in Moschino suits, an escort materializes with the coy invitation ”Want to take a walk?” Through hillocks of muddied snow and crowds swathed in faux fur — destination unspoken — to the imperial marble foyer of the Four Seasons hotel. Up 12 floors, down a dim corridor along which a red light blinks at the lock of each beige door. ”Okay,” a bodyguard murmurs into his phone, ”I’ll call you back on a hard line when there’s a window.”

Yet, nearly seven years after the late Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced him to death for blasphemy, Rushdie, 48, is reclaiming his most potent tongue. Rapturous reviews have garlanded the author’s latest carnivalesque opus, The Moor’s Last Sigh, and Rushdie speaks in mellifluous Oxbridge tones more as a litterateur than as target.

”A great deal of the attack on me was that I was no f—ing good as a writer,” he says. For four years after The Satanic Verses infuriated Islamic leaders, the campaign to dislodge Khomeini’s fatwa publicly limited him to being an anticensorship icon. ”I knew,” he says smilingly, ”that there needed to be another big book.”

A reimagining of India’s contemporary history through the vivacious, fantasticated exploits of a Jewish/Christian spice-trading dynasty, The Moor’s Last Sigh returns Rushdie to the site of his groundbreaking 1981 novel, Midnight’s Children. But the land of his birth — the first country to ban Satanic Verses — has again proved treacherous ground: The Indian government halted imports of the book after its wicked satirizing of a Hindu fundamentalist demagogue enraged one of the novel’s models — Bombay strongman Bal Thackeray.

”I often felt during the writing of this book that journalists the world over… had this article [already written], of which the headline was RUSHDIE DOES IT AGAIN,” complains the novelist. The venom of the Iranians, however, seems actually to have cooled: ”It doesn’t endear you to people you’re trying to borrow money from if you’re killing their citizens,” Rushdie, a British subject, notes with refreshing glee. And while his renewed mobility occasionally clashes with the demands of stealth (”He wants to see the Vermeer show,” groans a handler), the writer himself moves with hearteningly mundane confidence — strolling unhurried through the hotel lobby, lingering politely for goodbyes on what seems an inadvisably exposed sidewalk.

That ease speaks to Rushdie’s defiance as eloquently as his frenetic masala prose. ”The fatwa could have damaged me as an artist,” he explains, ”by making me more cautious or more strident. I wanted to say, ‘I’m not going to become either… because those are both the fatwa’s creatures. And I’m not going to be the fatwa’s creature. I’m going to go on being the writer I was.”’