The Solan house that brought Salman Rushdie back
Anees Villa – locally called Purani Kothi – is a well-known residential building in Solan, the picturesque hilltop town about 45 km south of Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh. From a distance, it is a remarkable example of authentic colonial-era architecture, with a large sliding roof, and works of wood, stone and masonry likely to attract the attention of passers-by.
But as you get closer, disappointment is imminent. His lawns are overgrown with wild grasses, weeds and untrimmed shrubs. Several windows have broken glass and crumbling wooden fixtures reveal a history of neglect. It is obvious that the house has not been painted or repaired for years.
However, in 1992, this house suddenly became the center of a lawsuit which aroused the curiosity of the inhabitants.
Salman Rushdie, the famous Indian-American British author, filed a suit in the High Court of Himachal Pradesh in Shimla claiming it was his ancestral property.
By then, Rushdie was already famous – and notorious.
Her second novel, The Midnight Children (1981), won the Booker Prize. But his 1988 novel, satanic verses, sparked outrage among Muslims around the world, including in India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, where Rushdie was then living. India became the first country to ban the book, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s supreme leader, issued a fatwah calling for Rushdie and his publishers to be killed.
Rushdie was forced into hiding, as it became apparent that he could be assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists.
On August 12 of this year, as the 75-year-old novelist was about to give a public lecture in Chautauqua, New York, he was stabbed multiple times, allegedly by a certain Hadi Matar. (Matar, 24, a Lebanese-American, pleaded not guilty to attempted murder charges.)
Since the attack, local journalists have started visiting Solan’s villa to uncover stories about Rushdie, said his concierge and caretaker, Govind Ram, 60. “The attack was a shock,” he said.
Ram lives in part of the six-bedroom villa with his family of four.
“I was paid a salary of Rs 1,700 per month,” he said. “The last installment came in 2015-16 – Rs 8,000. After that, I received nothing.
Ram also laments the dilapidated state of the building.
“The roof needs immediate repairs,” he said. “Every monsoon water seeps through the wide cracks. There are black mold stains on the walls. The woodwork and even the structural joinery are deteriorating.
And yet he vividly remembers the one time Rushdie had returned to that house.
It was April 13, 2000. “His son Zafar was with him, as well as his attorney, Vijay T. Shankardass,” Ram said. “Rushdie had people put lights up all over the villa. He kept coming in and out. He was very happy and walked around the estate several times.
He also remembers cooking an elaborate dinner and how Rushdie and his guests were up all night telling nostalgic stories.
Rushdie wanted to make the villa a residence for writers, said Rakesh Kanwar, secretary for language, art and culture in the government of Himachal Pradesh.
“We haven’t heard from him. This property could be used for literary activities,” said Kanwar, who previously served as deputy commissioner, Solan.
Until Rushdie filed the case in 1992, no one had any idea of his literary ties.
“The building was right next to the deputy commissioner’s residence and in the possession of the education department,” said former Solan deputy commissioner Vineet Chowdhary. “As there were no claimants, I gave the order to hand over the property to the government after following the proper procedures.”
From 1993 to 1996, it served as the official residence of the Additional District Magistrate of Solan. Arun Sharma was its first and last official occupant.
“The government was paying rent of Rs 130 per month until 1987,” Sharma said. “After that, all payments to the owner’s Bombay (Mumbai) address continued to be returned and deposited in the District Education Officer’s office.”
But after Rushdie’s lawyers filed the petition in the High Court, former Deputy Commissioner Srikant Badli passed an order transferring ownership to Rushdie in 1997.
He visited three years later – but only stayed in the house for one night. The threat to his life was imminent and his visit was kept secret.
“My dad gave me this cabin for my 21st birthday,” Rushdie told reporter Sunil Sethi in an interview later that year. “And I had taken my son there just as he was approaching his 21st birthday. It was as if I was fulfilling a promise made to my father.
“It was really very emotional for me,” he added.
Rushdie became the owner of Anees Villa in 1969, when his father Anees Ahmed Rushdie, a Cambridge-educated lawyer turned businessman, gifted it to him. The Kashmiri Muslim family lived for many years in Bombay (Mumbai), about which Rushdie wrote several novels.
The family moved to Pakistan in the mid-1960s, when Rushdie was already at school in England. He also lived in Karachi for a few years. His grandfather Mohammed Uldin bought the house, which was built in 1927 according to official records, in the 1940s.
“We know the property needs a lot of repairs and restoration work,” Anirudh Shankardass, son of late Rushdie attorney Vijay T. Shankardass, said when contacted by phone.
“There are plans to put it in order because Anees Villa has significant historical and emotional appeal,” he added. “Some people are ready to collaborate. But after the attack, it may not be the right time to talk about home repairs.
Spread over 2,000 square meters, the property is surrounded by lush cedar trees. But it quickly loses its charm. Illegal constructions all around even hide it from view.
“I don’t know why they stopped paying my salary,” goalkeeper Govind Ram said. “I also stopped doing research.”
He also runs a tea stall at Solan’s Bypass Market.