And so, Mr Rushdie, a not-so-fond farewell from a former admirer

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The Independent Online

So farewell then to Mr Rushdie, who has announced that he has left "bitchy" London forever and is settling well into wonderfully warm and welcoming Manhattan, where he now lives with his new lover, the Indian model Padma Lakshmi. Hope New York can give him what it is he seeks and that he gets some properly expensive NY therapist to cure him of this tendency he has acquired to leave those who love him.

So farewell then to Mr Rushdie, who has announced that he has left "bitchy" London forever and is settling well into wonderfully warm and welcoming Manhattan, where he now lives with his new lover, the Indian model Padma Lakshmi. Hope New York can give him what it is he seeks and that he gets some properly expensive NY therapist to cure him of this tendency he has acquired to leave those who love him.

And I am not talking of his ex-wives and children, although a part of me does wonder how he can choose to put a vast ocean between himself and his two sons, one who lost so many years with his father when the fatwa hung over Rushdie's head, and the other who is just four years old.

But that is his personal business, and anyway (so we are told), artists and writers play by their own rules and should never be required to be bound by petty things such as fidelity and responsibility. What concerns me is the way this brilliant and uniquely gifted writer turns his back again and again on the people who adore him.

These repeated betrayals of various constituencies seem perplexingly self- destructive, especially as Rushdie's massive ego needs this adoration to live and grow. Is he testing this love, or is he now simply too big for his own head? Remember that he wrote in this newspaper a few years ago that writers like him filled the "god-shaped hole" in people's lives. Rushdie was beginning to think of himself as more than merely human. He had already put his chair down next to Zeus.

When Midnight's Children was published in 1979, the effect on many of us British Asians was indescribable. I had little cash at the time, but I bought two copies because I wanted my future grandchildren to have a clean copy. He was the first Asian to burst on to the British literary scene without apology, with panache, telling stories that made us think of ourselves in a radically new way. People who had never bought a novel proudly displayed this book in their sitting-rooms next to the family photos and, at times, pictures of Mecca.

We loved the way he kicked bad Pakistani and Indian politicians, leaving indelible marks, and the way he spoke out clearly and sharply against racism and the dreadful Margaret Thatcher. He was one of us and stayed that way until The Satanic Verses in 1988. We paid little attention to the fact that he had already shown himself to be careless with people who cherished him. Remember that in 1986, when he turned 40, Rushdie left his first wife, Clarissa Luard, his publisher and his agent.

The furore over The Satanic Verses ended this attachment we felt to Rushdie. Most British Muslims feared the fatwa and never supported it. But we did not agree with Rushdie's claim that the only thing that mattered was his absolute freedom of expression, a belief that he seemed to have come to rather late in life. Until then he was merciless in his attacks on white writers and film-makers who dared to show India through their eyes.

It should perhaps be better known that Rushdie issued a public apology to Indira Gandhi after she sued him for "cruel attacks" on her and her son in Midnight's Children. But once the infamous Satanic Verses was burnt in Bradford, he became the champion of freedom for the Western world. He had the right to publish, no question about that. But was he right to do so? This is what many of us were asking as we lived through those turbulent times.

We felts like orphans, caught between Muslim extremists and liberal fundamentalists. Rushdie found this response hard and said that he too felt abandoned, hurt to be "disliked so intensely by people among whom I have always numbered myself". But then, as now, he couldn't see that he was not the only person suffering.

Muslims lost jobs; our children were beaten up, and places that had previously been open to us in the name of happy-clappy multiculturalism were closed to us suddenly. I remember interviewing a Muslim woman in Bolton whose young daughter had been pushed into a dustbin with a crazy dog who had ripped her face open. The kids who had done this shouted "Rushdie!" and "Fatwa!" as they held the lid down. Rushdie meanwhile had taken off and fallen into the arms of white liberals, who were not only delighted to embrace him but who used this crisis to turn on all British Muslims with a vengeance that I still find unforgivable.

There they were, brave soldiers, defending values they held dearer than life. The list was as long as it was impressive. Fay Weldon, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer, Melvyn Bragg, Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Michael Ignatieff, even Kilroy, all took up the cause in the name of liberalism, secularism and post-modern nihilism. If Rushdie cut himself, they queued up to give him their blood. And if anyone dared to criticise him, they unflinchingly came out to fight back. Bragg wrote a passionate attack on Americans (in New York, as it happens) who found Rushdie arrogant and said so. I wonder how they feel today at what must appear wounding ingratitude on the part of their hero.

Have they any plans to raise money, and keep this national treasure at home the way art-lovers did with The Three Graces by Canova? Are they even now promising Rushdie all future book prizes forever, whether he deserves them or not? Or are they, at long last, able to look at this episode with a dispassionate eye? A fascinating new film, Words of Fire, to be shown on Channel 4 in October, tries to do just that, and not before time.

This was not a battle between the civilised and the barbarians, but an extremely important crisis that revealed how secular liberals cannot simply take charge and dominate society, because too many people are too dissatisfied with the world they have created. We have just seen another battle over Section 28, where similar conflicts between values have emerged. This does not mean that liberal values have to surrender to the domination of mad mullahs or priests, but that we need to evolve a better balance between freedom and responsibility; between artistic inspiration and the needs of society.

Such discussions do not generally happen in the US, where the constitution guarantees that anything goes. This is why it will make a good home for Rushdie - at least until he tires of it and moves to Moscow, or wherever, because even celeb-loving New Yorkers will not fill the Salman-shaped hole in Rushdie's world.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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