How Salman Rushdie and I Cooked a Carrot Halwa in Dunstable
You’ve probably heard the story of Neil Armstrong and Mrs Gorsky. It was in the papers a few weeks after the moon landing: The astronaut, having taken his first step on the moon (which was in fact a giant leap for mankind), was then heard making a throwaway remark: “And good luck to Mr Gorsky.”
When at the press conference later he was asked about Mr Gorsky, he blushed. Had he mentioned his name? he asked. Yes sir, you did. He said that it was a private thought, and refused to elaborate. A couple of years later, all that changed. On a tour in Des Moines, unasked, he explained the Gorsky allusion, saying first, that he felt free to do so as he had just learnt that poor Mr Gorsky had passed. The Des Moines audience gaped as they had never heard the allusion, or if they had, they had forgotten it.
‘When I was a teenager in Wyoming, we had these Polish neighbours,’ he began… ‘They were quiet ordinary folk and got on well with the precinct. One night Neil overheard a heated argument between the spouses.
‘So is it oral sex you want, Gorsky? Did I hear right.’ The young Armstrong was not entirely sure what that meant, and did not catch the husband’s response.
‘Well, Gorsky, if it’s oral sex you want, I give you oral sex. But only what that stoopid whatsisname boy next door, Hammer _’
‘I told you it’s not hammer, it’s Neil,’ Gorsky pointed out.
‘When that Nail he walks on the moon.’
Later, I would remember that Salman Rushdie told me a different allotrope of the same story, when he came to spend time with me in Kirby Close, Dunstable.
When he was a child in Bombay, he said, his neighbours had a baboon-faced boy called Babu, whose mother was a loud-mouthed, betel-chewing, blood-spitting Harijan-hating harridan. Whenever Babu’s father was around, he would be the butt of her bile. One day, the famous writer overheard the mild-mannered and mildewed man suggest to his wife that she made some of her nonpareil gajar halwa on Sunday. This, not unexpectedly lit some fuse in the ill-tempered lady.
‘So you think there are twenty hours in one day, isn’t it? Arrey, Babu ke baap, (Babu’s father) so you think what you do is work, work, work, and what I do is fun, fun, fun? Admit it, or you would not order me to make stoopid gajar halwa.’ The discomfited man had apologised profusely, saying it did not matter, shaking his head and admitting that he had indeed been thoughtless.
‘Now,’ Salman said, ‘if you think that was the end of the story…’, finishing it by miming the rest with grimaces, lip-pursing and head-shaking, which I read to mean that it was just the beginning.
‘Gajar halwa, I’ll have you know, Babu ke baap, I mean the real stuff which my Ma Jaan used to make, bless her soul’ she spat out some invisible saliva as a sign of disgust at the thought of the inferior sweet others made, ‘is something you have never tasted in your dreams … your mother couldn’t even make puri!’ She paused for breath.
‘It takes hours to make. You need to choose each carrot like you’re choosing a bride for your son, you need to peel peel them one at a time.’ Salman had tried to imagine someone peeling two carrots in one go, but could not. The lady was now in full flow, and her temper seemed to have mellowed a tad while she went through the four or five hundred stages of the culinary marathon. She finally reached the finishing line out of breath.
‘I’ll make you a huge degh of pukka gajar halwa, the day that big-headed badmash next door, who’s such a bad influence on our Babu, the day he wins the Booker Prize that he’s always boasting to everybody he will win one day.’ O.K. So you think this is a tall story. Wait till I tell you the whole story.
When the ayatollah pronounced his fatwa, I was greatly disheartened, and it was my hope that I might find the means of bringing some succour, however minimal to the Bookered author. I decided to write to him c/o his publishers Viking Press, with a message of sympathy and solidarity. I included a cutting from a Mauritian newspaper, La Voix de l’Islam, which my sister had sent me, reproduced below, thinking that he might find it amusing. It bore an imperious title.
Important Communiqué From Rose-Hill Muslim Central Council
Concerning the loathsome book by Salman Rushdie whose title is not permissible to mention.
Brothers and Sisters of Islam are warned not to touch it through curiosity or to get it in the country through friends abroad.n Do not pry into it. The intention of those who havenconceived it is not holy. It is a POISON to faith, a chemical weapon to stop short the alarming growth of Islam. When the gas is released, do not open your nostrils, wearnmasks.
Christians are also warned to avoid the equally hurtful book, “The Jesus Scroll” which defames the prophet Jesus (THE BLESSINGS OF ALLAH TA’ALA BE UPON HIM).
Written by DONOVAN JOYCE (SPHERE BOOKS, LONDON, available all good bookshops, £1.99) and based on the so-called revelations of the scroll at the excavation of MASADA, ISRAEL, it is conceived as no less than a time bomb for Christianity. (Communiqué)
Idris Korimbocus, O.B.E.
(CHAIRMAN OF THE ROSE-HILL MUSLIM CENTRAL COUNCIL) 22nd. February 89
I imagined that thousands of eminent sympathisers would have sent messages of support to the author, and was not too surprised not to get an answer. He might have suspected that I was an agent provocateur or someone paid by the Iranians to flush him out.
In the next few months, bookshops selling his profane book were being firebombed. There were anti-Rushdie riots in India resulting in a number of deaths. A Japanese translator of The Verses was gunned down on the streets of Paris. I imagined a guilt-ridden Rushdie all alone, unable to sleep, feeling sorry for himself and despairing of his plight.
Later that year, the BBC broadcast my radio play based on the life of Joseph Priestley, the father of Oxygen, who had also incurred the wrath of the religious establishment, and whose house was burnt down to the ground by zealots, inspired by the vitriolic attacks of the Archdeacon of St Albans. The Gordon riots!
Priestley had to disguise himself as a woman and escape to a safe house in East London before making it to safety in America. Shortly after, I received a letter from Mr Rushdie, congratulating me on the excellence of my play (his description), and thanking me for the letter I had sent over a year before, adding that the cutting had made him laugh aloud for the first time in weeks.
Out of the blue, a month later came an invitation to have lunch with him. It took me by surprise. Next day I was waylaid on my way home from work by a man in a bow tie and carrying an umbrella, on High Street Dunstable. He said he had something of great importance to discuss with me, in connection with my impending visit to “a certain gentleman” who has incurred the wrath of his fellow Muslims, did I catch his drift, eh what? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. If the man was MI5, why did he go out of his way to be so conspicuous, I wondered. But does even the secret service itself understand their own ways.
We popped in Nick’s café and he immediately intimated to me that if his views counted for anything, this reckless visit would never happen, finishing with a misquote: ‘But ours is not to reason why, but to obey and to die.’ He warned me sternly about being careful not to divulge any secrets that would indubitably come my way, as he could not guarantee that there would be no nefarious consequences to me. The one thing he was insistent upon was that I was not to reveal to my own family about the coming encounter. I promised that I knew how to square that circle. Topping, he said, winking at me, and left me to pay the bill.
I can reveal that I was to call at an address in Hampstead on a certain day. A safe house, I presumed. I was met at the door by someone who was manifestly a spook. He frisked me rather demurely and invited me to wait in the lounge. After about half an hour, a small Irishman arrived and asked me to follow him. Salman would tell me later that the fellow had failed to gain a place at RADA, and had therefore decided on the next best course for his talent: adopting different personalities, and his work in the Service provided him with ample scope for this. You will spot him in my next novel, Rushdie promised.
I was ushered in a funny vehicle with darkened windows which prevented me from seeing outside, the sort of purdah car popular with mega-rich Arab sheikhs, striving to stop infidel eyes falling on their private property. When the vehicle stopped after what might have been a circumbendibus, I found myself in a Regency House with an extensive alleyway, and massive bushes on either side. We might have been in Surrey, or just a couple of streets away from the Hampstead house. I made no attempt to find out. If one day I am kidnapped by the Iranian Secret Service, even under torture, their secrets would be safe with me.
I was taken into a sitting room by the Irishman who left immediately, and Salman, in jeans and a wooly cardigan appeared after a short while, as if he had just floated in. He was clean-shaven and had lost weight, and looked nothing like the photos in the papers. He was disconcertingly shorter than I had imagined, but his hooded eyes were a giveaway.
‘Ha, ha,’ he said laughing happily, extending a limp hand for me to shake. I had supposed that he’d be tight-arsed and bitter. ‘You must be Sanaoullah!’.
When I wrote to him, I had used my more familiar moniker, San. I have never used my given name of Sanaoullah in a quarter of a century. A Play by San Cassimally, the BBC announcer had said.
MI5 must have done its homework, I guessed.
On my way to Hampstead from Dunstable, I had become slightly apprehensive. I was going to meet one of the most gifted writers of this century, what was I going to say to him? Would I be tongue-tied? Or worse asinine? Would he give a sigh of relief when I left?
I was therefore quite relieved when minutes later, we were seated opposite each other on plush armchairs, chatting like we had known each other for ever. Obviously with our Indian heritage and at least nominally, Muslim background, to say nothing of the fact that were both immigrants in this country, we had much in common. I was not surprised that he knew quite a lot about the island of my birth. He asked how the system of indentured labourers had worked, about the sugar industry, about Ramgoolam, about how entrenched the French language was in the national consciousness. I had an idea that he knew most of the answers, and was just verifying them_ or boasting. He said that he had always hoped to visit my island some day, but as I could obviously guess, that it was not going to happen any time soon.
I knew from his essays that he had precise views about most subjects, and he expressed them with clarity, and a conviction bordering on dogmatism. His refusal to accept guilt for the deaths of innocent people in Rushdie riots, or killed for translating his book had always shocked me. When I mentioned this he looked hurt, and I changed the subject.
I mentioned that I had always found it difficult to accept his position regarding the existence of cultural roots. He had famously said, that when he looked at his feet he never saw things sprouting. My own view is that however long one might live in a foreign country, however many of its traditions one might embrace, it is impossible to entirely dismiss the culture of the country of your birth from one’s psyche. The first few years of one’s life form the basis for what was to come. As an example, I offered this little paradigm: I am a non-believer, but the God I do not believe in is called Allah. He guffawed happily.
‘Sanaoullah,’ he said, I see what you mean, but it is an illogical position. Either you believe, or you don’t. Khalass.’
He made some chai, reminiscent of the tea you get on railway platforms in India. He explained that his cousin Mansoor in Bombay posted him Indian goodies c/o Vikings’
Whilst savouring the beverage he told me about Nicaragua, Chile and Allende, and asked about places that I had worked in or visited, like Zaire, Algeria, Rwanda and Nigeria.
I found myself telling him the Russian story of a man, who for a bet, voluntarily imprisons himself in his own house, seeing nobody in twenty-five years.
‘You mean twenty-four years and three hundred and sixty-four days, yaar,’ he interrupted me. I liked being called his yaar.
He had obviously read everything.
For a few minutes we discussed isolation and solitude. What would you do if I get my MI5 friends to kidnap you and keep you sequestrated on your own for years? he asked.
‘So many book, so little time,’ I replied rather grandly, ‘surely that’s something you must be doing, no?’ He shook his head. His words were quite unexpected.
‘No my friend. I have read everything I’ ve wanted to read, I am a fast reader, and in any case one can read only so much a day. One’s eyes get tired, don’t you know?’ He paused, and I saw him hesitate, as if he was not sure whether he needed to say this.
Then, lowering his voice he added, ‘We don’t have must-read authors like Garcia Marquez, Calvino or Bruce Chatwyn any more.’
‘What about Le Carré?’ I asked mischievously.
‘That square peg in the round of his own arse-hole,’ he said rather intemperately.
Time to think? I ventured. He fairly exploded at this.
‘My friend, ever since I was knee-high to a mongoose I’ve indulged in this futile exercise. I do not need confinement to be able to think. I think when I eat, when I shit, when I listen to music. I daresay I even think when I’m sleeping. Don’t you?’
After a little lull, I told him something I had been composing in my head since the invitation came.
‘I’ll tell you something … you tell me if there is any truth in my conjecture,’ I said, and he nodded.
I often imagined him jogging in the park at midnight, away from the eyes of putative assassins.
‘I think of you as the Midnight Jogger.’
‘I’ll take the fifth amendment on that, yaar,’ he said.
He was obviously feeling relaxed in my company, for he began telling me about the next book he was going to write: some sort of fairy tale about the source of literary invention.
Although he had not been physically writing anything, he had a good few short stories bubbling over in his godless head (his word). And one of them was set Mauritius.
‘I will write it first and then when I visit it, I’ll find out how close to reality I was,’ adding with a wink, ‘it had better be.’
A surly spook came in without knocking and Salman suggested we ordered an Indian takeaway, which Harry here would go fetch in the city centre. When Harry came back half an hour later, my host said that he was going to eat his rice and korma with his fingers, and I offered to do the same, for I like nothing better.
It was the first of many meals my new friend and I were to share over the next months. Whilst eating I returned to the theme of cultural roots. Surely, I said, the fact that we are eating Indian food, and with our fingers, contradicts his assertion that roots are artificially created. This is so obviously untrue, he said. You know very well that Indian restaurants are overwhelmingly frequented by white people, so was I telling him that these people feel Indian?
‘Maybe you will agree that Indian food is superior_’
‘No, yaar, it’s cheaper.’
Later he started talking about Nusrat Fateh Khan, the Qawwali. I think he was saying a trap for me.
‘Ha!’ I said, taking it, ‘there you are_’ He shook his head.
‘I like Qawwali, but I also like jazz, I like Wagner … are you saying I have German roots? I like all music. I couldn’t live without music, I’ve always said that I’d rather be blind than deaf!’
Three weeks later, he asked me over again. This time it was Golders Green. I recognised the Irishman, but he was wearing a wide-brimmed sombrero and spoke with a South-American accent. He jumped into the purdah car parked in Corringham Road, and we drove for about an hour and ended up in a similar house to the one I was driven to last time.
There were two South-American women there as well as a well-known black broadcaster. Salman would make me swear not to mention their names before I left. This time we talked about soap operas on television and Rupert Murdoch. The latter got his goat and during the conversation he shot a quiver of priceless invectives in the direction of the press baron. Bengt chod, and madar chod were probably the least offensive. After an apéritif, we all rolled our sleeves and got down to the business of cooking an international banquet, and listened to rumbas and sambas while we ate.
It was only at my third visit that he asked me what was my strategy for ensuring that my family was kept in the dark about “our illicit trysts”. I explained to him about the Playwrights’ Co-Op. We met fairly regularly, sometimes for the reading of a member’s play with Equity actors, followed by discussions. It was always in Collier Street, in London, and taking travelling into account,a session usually took most part of a day.
He wanted to know about my family and I told that my wife was from Finland.
‘And she is called Pirjo and you two met on the plane taking you both to Kisangani,’ he interrupted with wink. Did MI5 have money to burn to waste its resources on gathering non-essential info like this? I wondered. He knew that I had a seventeen year old daughter Khadijah, and two sons, Karim and Hakim, that Khadj had done early A levels, scoring A*’s in all her subjects and the lads were still in secondary school. He knew that Khadj had got a place at Cambridge but was taking a gap year. With this knowledge the country was safe from a nuclear attack by the ruthless Russians.
‘Is Finland as lovely as they say.’ he asked. I said perhaps he could tell me.
‘I know you haven’t been for a few years,’ he said.
I told him that for years I went almost every summer with my wife and kids, but that I rarely went now. So, what did I do when the family was away? he asked. I stay by myself, I said, I quite enjoy that. I try to get some writing done. I told him about Magnetite, the novel about immigration, encompassing the seven continents, and spanning over two centuries, that I plan to write.
I had noticed, the moment I arrived that he seemed less serene than usual. He sighed a lot and his hooded eyes were sunken. Suddenly he said,
‘There seems to be no end in sight to this tomfoolery. I yearn for a return to normal life, you know, when I can meet friends or go to the theatre and concerts, or like Naipaul, visit a whore, if I wanted to. Which I don’t.’ Then he laughed and said that it was true that he often went jogging at midnight, but also in broad daylight, wearing dark glasses (to hide his hooded eyes, I thought) and a wooly cap which hid half his face. His minders took him to Hampstead Common where he was able to run unhindered and unrecognised. He did change houses fairly regularly.
‘With irregular regularity,’ was how he put it. I looked at him questioningly.
‘Sometimes I’d be in one place for months, and at other times I’d no sooner begin to get used to the place when they move me again. I once stayed in a place one night and got moved the next morning. They love playing spooks, yaar. Once they suggested that they’d put me in a burkha and dress my minder in the clothes of an Arab sheikh and let me loose in Harrods’, but I pointed out that I was too tall and slim.’ I didn’t think he was either tall or slim, but said nothing.
His feeling was that the Ayatollah was not actively seeking to blow him up, they were not fitting up a small army for that purpose, but if an opportunity arose they probably would not hesitate to put the quietus on him.
‘But although I often have visitors over, I rarely go to friends’ homes,’ he said, ‘and I miss that.’ Suddenly he brightened up.
‘I’ve just got an idea. Don’t know if it will pass muster though.’ I gave him a questioning look, but he was tight-lipped, but as I was leaving he stopped me at the door.
‘You said that next month your family will be away to Finland.’
‘Yes, and Khadj is going inter-railing.’
‘Do you think I could come spend some time with you?’
‘I do live in a quiet close, and am surrounded by thick vegetation. And the people on either side, elderly pensioners, are half-blind and completely gaga. It’s certainly feasible. You could stay for months and nobody would be any the wiser.’
‘I’ll work on it.’
I was no doubt investigated anew, as was Dunstable, and both were found kosher.
The Saturday following my family’s departure I received a phone call from Salman. Was it all right if he came over tonight? They have checked that I had a sheltered driveway, and would drop him at my door. Khadj had left her room in an immaculate condition and it would serve my illustrious guest well.
At about eight in the evening, when the sun was still quite bright, a purdah- Mercedes turned into my driveway. Salman emerged carrying a suitcase and a rucksack. The “Irishman” wearing a driver’s cap winked at me and left immediately. We ate a reheated curry that I had made for lunch, drank some single malt and watch a video of Kurosawa’s Ran.
Next morning, when I got up, my guest had already taken a shower and was reading the Sunday papers which get delivered pretty early.
For breakfast I had defrosted and heated up some frozen ciabatta rolls, and I fried some bananas in butter, topping this up with cream and sprinkled sugar and coconut flakes over it, and the author of Midnight’s Children was delighted. And we drank café au lait.
‘How did you find out about my Ma’s speciality?’ he asked, was MI5 also informing me? After the first mouthful, he said, ‘And just as good as Majaan’s.’
We then sat down and devoured the Sunday papers in silence. Suddenly he exploded.
‘What a prat that Richard Ingram!’ And he read me an extract of what the irascible satirist had written about the inappropriateness of black actors playing Shakespeare or Chekhov.
‘Didn’t he learn at Oxford that the theatre is the suspension of disbelief? Who was it, who did not teach him that?’
‘Aye, he obviously doesn’t know that Shakespeare had a man playing a wall in Midsummer Night’s Dream?’ I said.
‘He must also believe playing Othello is such a demanding role that only white
thespians should be allowed near it,’ he said. And I told him that Ingram had indeed said that.
I made some pizza for lunch. I had stumbled on an admirable short cut. Instead of making a pizza dough, I defrosted and lightly toasted a couple of focaccia bread halves, and spread my topping, and put this under the grill for a few minutes. Salman licked his chops, and nodded enthusiastically as he swallowed his first mouthful. We ate this to an accompaniment of a bottle of Chianti which he had brought.
We had planned on making gajar halwa in the afternoon. We began by peeling the carrots (one at a time), grated them, put the pulp in a colander to drain it, and collect the orange milk for use later. I have a nice cast iron wok which balances precariously on the ill-designed grate, and I started heating it. Salman, remembering his mother’s recipe gave me instructions. I began by putting a generous portion of butter — ‘majaan obviously used ghee’ — in it, and added the shreds of carrot, stirring all the time. I then poured condensed milk, sugar, ilaiti, raisins, pistachio, nutmeg, and keep stirring, adding the recouped carrot juice to moisten the mix when it was drying up.
Two and a half hours!
When it was done, there was barely enough for four people.
‘Do you know the secret of Indian cuisine?’ he asked. I shook my head.
‘Our ancestors had to find the means of preserving the virginity of our girls, and invented these lengthy recipes so as to keep our daughters fully occupied all day long, so they would have no time to think of sex. Khalass.’
In the afternoon we retired to our rooms for a siesta, and at some point I got up to go for a wee. Coming out of the bathroom, I have the shock of my life when I am suddenly confronted by a shaggy man with droopy whiskers with Iranian writ large on his face. Oh God, I think, what do I do next? Shout so Salman could escape through the window? I never once supposed that they could have caught up with us. How had they got in?
‘The hose is zurrounded by us, to not ressist. We hav nossing against you,
Sanaoullah, just say us where the infitel draidor iss. No harm vil come to yoo.’
‘I, I, don’t know what you mean, effendi’ I stammer , blinking stupidly at the Iranian Bond 007, doubtless licenced to kill by the Ayatollah.
‘Arrey, Sanaoullah, don’t panic,’ Salman’s voice emerges from the man’s throat, ‘that’s just my stupid little joke. It never fails to shock my poor hosts whenever I visit. Not a kind way to say thank you, I know.’
I could not believe it when later he suggested we went for a meal in the Vietnamese restaurant at the foot of the Downs. I have other disguises in my suitcase, he said, adding, It’s going to be fun. He kept the droopy moustache, put on a Hawaiian shirt and a red bandana round his neck, and looked as different from Rushdie as a pig from a pigeon. The meal at the Ha Long passed without incident.
Afterwards Salman and I would meet every now and then, usually in a safe house, but having perfected his disguising skills, he often invited me to a restaurant. Not once did anybody’s gaze linger on us for more than three seconds. We saw a few films together at the Cameo Poly, his favourite cinema. When my play Acquisitive Case was produced at The Southwark Playhouse, I presented him, wearing a flowery shirt and a fake Umberto Eco beard to Mehmet Ergun and Femi Elufowoju, the producer and director of the play, as an American agent, a friend of mine visiting from Seattle. He promised he would send Femi a play which he thought was right up his street. In all our dealings, I never once thought that there was any risk of him being identified.
Now I have to come clean. My daughter Khadjija who had indeed gone inter-railing decided to curtail her tour and returned home early. She arrived home one Sunday afternoon, and as, mercifully she had lost her keys, she could not just walk in. She knocked on the door instead (the bell was out of order).
Let me tell you about Ann, dear reader. She and I had been an item once but in the end she got married to someone else, and went to live in Australia. Later I got married and hardly ever gave a thought to Ann. However, she called me a few weeks before this, telling me that they had returned to London. Could we meet? I had gone to pick her in London.
When Khadj arrived unexpectedly, I was in the embarrassing position of not being able to let her in, on account of being engaged in a certain activity which her mother (my wife) would not have approved of. She went to her friend Katy’s instead. Next day I swore her to secrecy and told her the made-up story above.