The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 15, 2002

Incisive, witty & analytical essays from a superb raconteur
Manju Jaidka

Step Across This Line: Collected Non-Fiction 1992-2002
by Salman Rushdie. London: Jonathan Cape, 2002. Pages. 454. Rs. 895.

Step Across This Line"SO this is the water’s edge… this is where the land begins. Creatures from the watery kingdom climbing on to the dry terrain step across a frontier, willing to face the enormous risks involved." Thus begin the Tanner Lectures on Human Values that Salman Rushdie delivered at Yale earlier this year. Entitled ‘Step Across This Line,’ this eponymous section of Rushdie’s latest book lays bare a mind that is on the one hand poetic and reflective, and on the other incisive, witty and analytical.

Step Across This Line collects essays, newspaper pieces and columns on diverse topics written and published over the last 10 years. The subjects include the children’s classic, The Wizard of Oz, essays on specific individuals (like Angela Carter, J.M. Coetzee, Arthur Miller), ‘Messages from the Plague Years’ (select pieces written during the 10 years of the fatwa), syndicated columns for the New York Times (including the outstanding piece on ‘Amadou Diallo’), and the recent Tanner Lectures. Altogether they make impressive reading, the musings of a brilliant author inviting the reader to take up challenges, step across all daunting lines of control, and explore new territories.


Rushdie can be ruthless and hard-hitting, as in his piece ‘Not About Islam?’ which calls a spade a spade. He can be maddeningly provocative, as in the Introduction to his Vintage Anthology of Indian Writing in English (collected here as ‘Damme, This Is the Oriental Scene for You!’ with a half-sheepish footnote and a slight toning down of his earlier abrasive remarks on regional literatures). He can be passionate in his indignation against racial injustice, and expansive in his appreciation of rock music. But at all times his good humour, his sense of mischief, plays peek-a-boo with his most profound beliefs. He thumbs his nose unselfconsciously at stuffed shirts, no matter how high a pedestal they occupy. He refers en passant to Shashi Deshpande’s ‘curdled judgments’; he dismisses with a shrug the divine aspirations of ‘dharma bums’; he does not like the way J.M. Coetzee writes (not surprising this, for Rushdie and Coetzee are two writers as different from each other as the strong and gusty autumnal wind is from the brilliant but freezing December sun!).

Rushdie is a superb raconteur. He does not get freighted down with his sweeping range of knowledge nor does he resort to obfuscating jargon (behind which a lot of contemporary theorists love to take refuge). Punctuating his torrent of ideas with interesting anecdotes and asides, he can hammer home his point. On page after page we encounter the unexpected bends and rugged textures of his terrain as he shows us the different trees that he can climb. Sometimes he tosses us ripe mangoes, sometimes we get the pits!

The over-riding metaphor of the two Yale lectures in particular, and the entire volume in general, is the frontier and its host of connotations. This ‘fixed and shifting’ line is the backdrop against which he chooses to view human existence. What is the ‘frontier consciousness’ that we must cope with? How are borders made and what do these artificial, man-made dividing lines symbolise today? — such questions are raised and the author gives us tentative answers. The idea of freedom is involved in his metaphor, so is the figure of the frontier-less migrant who emerges as the archetypal figure of the present times.

What an Indian reader would perhaps look for, and sadly miss, in the present volume is some Indian inspiration. True, there is a free sprinkling of names and events from India, but in these pieces composed over the last decade, the soul seems to be alien. While Rushdie waxes eloquent on U2, Shaggy, film festivals, electoral scenes and other events that make popular news in the western world, he seems to have moved far from the Midnight era and lost touch with the mass culture of India, the popular icons, the songs and singers, the prolific Mumbai film industry et. al. Quite understandable, given his circumstances, but saddening all the same.

Moreover, through all the discussion on stepping across different lines, one would look – and look in vain – for some reference to the Lakshman Rekha, which is probably the first idea that would strike a reader from the Indian subcontinent. And in all those pages on the frontier one would expect at least one mention of sarhad — the highly evocative and irreplaceable word (from the author’s own mother-tongue!) for the dividing line between two nations, invoking the sarhad-i-suba and all the myths and legends of the frontier province. But, no. Apparently Rushdie has moved far from his roots, too deep into American culture. In the last 13 years he has crossed many frontiers and each frontier-crossing, as he tells us, changes us: we become the frontiers we cross. So the consciousness that we encounter in this volume is one that belongs to the world: it is not an Indian spirit but a spiritus mundi that pervades his works.

As an author he takes his job seriously. For him, inspired by the poet Faiz, a writer has a dual role – part private and part public, part dream and part responsibility. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves that we are underlings," he quotes Shakespeare (No, Mr Rushdie, it was not Casca but the lean and hungry Cassius who uttered these words). We are what we choose to be: we may choose to remain underlings and "find ourselves dishonorable graves" or we may step out of the "underling" slot, face the risks involved, attempt to change the world – and be irrevocably changed in the process. The choice is ours.

"When the imagination is given sight by passion," says Rushdie, "it sees darkness as well as light. To feel so ferociously is to feel contempt as well as pride, hatred as well as love. These proud contempts, this hating love…." All this and much more are offered here in Step Across This Line.