All fiction, is has been said, is ultimately autobiography. And Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House is no exception. Its pages are replete with references to Mumbai, some obvious, some more cryptic. Today, even after half a century of exile, Mumbai is clearly an indelible part of Rushdie’s identity.
“If you were to ask me essentially who I am,” he told an interviewer some years ago, “I would say I am a boy from Bombay who has travelled the world a bit.” So it is perhaps no coincidence that the place he chose to finally put his roots down is Manhattan, a place that, as he points out, has striking similarities to the Mumbai of his childhood.
Rushdie was my senior at Cathedral School, and I still remember how, at the annual prize giving, his name would be called out again and again, to come to the stage to receive his various prizes. As a result, we little kids were rather in awe of him.
Rushdie’s childhood friend, Mohan Matthen – himself something of a prodigy, and later Professor of Philosophy in Toronto – recalls him as being “exceptionally clever, and with a flair for words”. Another buddy, Darab Talyarkhan, remembers his early gift for storytelling and writing, and says his teachers spotted his talent and used to pay particular attention to him. According to Talyarkhan, a special influence on Rushdie’s prose was the eclectic English master, Owen Glynne-Howell, with his penchant for wordplay, allegory and metaphor.
Glynne-Howell, when I wrote to him, a couple of years before he died, replied that Rushdie was one of the brightest kids he had ever taught, and that one of his prized possessions was a copy of Midnight’s Children. His wife later told me that the book was so precious to him that he had, poignantly, wrapped his copy in a length of satin to protect it.
The melted Mont Blanc pen
Rushdie’s classmate Keith Stevenson – immortalised in the novel, rather unfairly, as “Glandy Keith Colaco”, the school bully – remembers him as a spoiled, slightly effete kid, “with pink cheeks – you know, cho chweet”. He wore expensive white seersucker shirts to class (so exotic that Stevenson could still describe the intricacy of their weave forty years later).
According to Stevenson, Rushdie came to school in a swank car and wrote with a Mont Blanc pen. “One day someone put sulphuric acid in his ink-pot,” Stevenson told me, “so the next time he filled that damned Mont Blanc of his, it melted in front of his eyes.” He then added, with wicked glee, undiminished by the years, “Oh, the joy of it!”
Dinyar Mullaferoze, a self-confessed “class goonda”, remembers Rushdie as being a shy kid, who handled the school bullies with precocious diplomacy, and a smile that was one part sweetness, and one part disdain. One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that Rushdie was a disaster at anything athletic. He was always the proverbial last kid to be picked in games of tennis ball cricket, for example, and was then banished to the farthest possible corner to keep him from messing up things.
Rushdie summed up his years at Rugby, after Mumbai, by saying he was “clever, foreign, and bad at games”. You could apparently be two out of the three and get away with it, but he, unfortunately, was all three. If Rushdie had, indeed, been better at cricket – as he so yearned to be – it’s interesting to speculate how that might have altered the course of his life.
Midnight’s Children is filled with references to Cathedral School (someone once counted over 200 of them). It’s also filled with tantalisingly enigmatic names, and when the book was first released, a popular game in Mumbai was to figure out who-was-actually-who. “Cyrus-the-Great” was easy: Cyrus Guzder, later company chairman and heritage conservationist, whom Rushdie had obviously admired in school – although Guzder confesses that, while he was flattered by the characterisation, he had never, in fact, known Rushdie particularly well.
“Hairoil” and “Eyeslice”, were evidently Rushdie’s closest friends, Darab and Fudli Talyarkhan – the former getting his name from the large quantities of hair-oil he applied, and the latter, from the way his eyes squeezed shut when he smiled.
The girls in the book are more intriguing. “Evie Burns” is apparently based on an Australian girl, Beverly Burns, rumoured to be the first girl Rushdie ever kissed. And “Masha Miovic, the champion breaststroker”, draws on Alenka Breznik, a statuesque Yugoslavian beauty he had an adolescent crush on – though her father wrote him a curt letter after Midnight’s Children was published saying, sorry, but his daughter didn’t know anyone named Salman Rushdie from her Mumbai days.
When I tracked Breznik down in her home town of Ljubljana, she first said stiffly, “Although I did move in the circles mentioned, I do not remember the events described.” But then she later relented and admitted, “He takes reality and spins it out into fantasy, and that’s what makes his book so unique!”
Saleem Sinai and other mysteries
The big mystery, however, is the identity of Midnight’s Children’s protagonist, Saleem Sinai. While everyone naturally assumes the character to be based on the writer himself, Rushdie says that Saleem, in fact, feels very unlike himself – having somehow acquired an independent life of his own by persistently disobeying the author’s commands (which is the way it often is with fiction). According to Rushdie, Saleem was named in tribute to his academic rival in school, a boy named Salim Merchant.
So, what happened to Salim Merchant and where is he now? I managed to track him down to a Melbourne suburb, where he is a retired radiologist. When I told Merchant that he was the one after whom Rushdie had named the protagonist of Midnight’s Children, he seemed flabbergasted. Radiologists, evidently, rarely have works of magical realism written about them.
Are any of his Rushdie’s Mumbai friends in touch with him today? It doesn’t seem so. Even his closest childhood buddy, Darab Talyarkhan, confesses, “The last time we met was when Midnight’s Children was launched in 1981. He came to Mumbai to give a talk at the British Council. I later went up and introduced myself, and he said, ‘Gosh you’ve changed! What happened to all that oily hair?’ I told him that he had changed a lot as well. We chatted for a bit, but we haven’t been in touch after that.”
There is a delicious urban legend about a Salman Rushdie-Freddie Mercury connection. The story goes that Mercury, still known by his real name, Farrokh Bulsara, after having failed in his boarding school in Panchgani, was put into Cathedral School, where he was Rushdie’s classmate. This legend probably popped up around the time Rushdie wrote The Ground Beneath Her Feet, with its Mercury-esque rock musician protagonist, Ormuz Cama. It is a fascinating notion to think of Rushdie and Freddie being childhood friends – but, alas, the story is completely untrue.
This mystery was revived, however, when Rushdie later said in an interview that he had grown up “a hundred yards away from Farrokh Bulsara”. This is strange, because the fact is that Rushdie’s family lived off Warden Road, while Freddie stayed at Dadar Parsi Colony, with his aunt, during holidays from his boarding school – which, of course, doesn’t add up. Rushdie’s childhood friends – as well as Freddie Mercury’s – say that they’re mystified by the claim. So what is the explanation?
The only thing I can think of is that, while all fiction is autobiography, sometimes a little bit of autobiography can also be fiction.