Last Friday, writers including Paul Auster, Kiran Desai and Roya Hakakian, read out from Salman Rushdie’s works at a ‘Stand with Salman’ event on the steps of the New York Public Library, a week after he was viciously stabbed at a literary meet. Rushdie, of course, has been living under threat since 1989 when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him for offending Islam and the Prophet in his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). The attacker said he had acted alone and was not in touch with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and though Iran has distanced itself from the fatwa, it is yet to be revoked.
Rushdie had written three novels before The Satanic Verses, and went on to write 10 more after the fatwa, and other works of non-fiction, including three volumes of essays, Imaginary Homelands, Step Across this Line and Languages of Truth; his 15th novel, Victory Day, will be out in February 2023. In his memoir of Joseph Anton, Rushdie writes that as a small boy his father would tell him stories at bedtime, of Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights, the animal fables of the Panchatantra and the marvellous tales from the Kathasaritsagara, often remaking them and reinventing them in his own way. He learnt two unforgettable lessons from these tellings: first, that “stories were not true, but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him”; and second, that they all “belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father — the story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away.”
Gods and prophets
Stories abound in Rushdie’s life, with his father, Anis, even gifting him the family name after Ibn Rushd, the 12th century Spanish-Arab philosopher who stood for reason and against blind faith, discarding the original Din Khaliqi Dehlavi. Rushdie recalls that when the storm broke over The Satanic Verses, he told himself, “I’m going into this battle bearing the right name.” It was while studying history at Cambridge that Rushdie, “godless, but fascinated by gods and prophets,” found out about the “satanic verses”, as he took up the subject about Prophet Muhammad, the rise of Islam and the early Caliphate, the only one in his class to opt for it. Rushdie remembered reading about the verses and filing it away as a good story.
After studying history at Cambridge University, a stint at advertising, and “unbearable amounts of garbage” later, his first novel, Grimus, was published, a science fantasy retelling of a Sufi poem, Mantiq ut-Tair (Conference of the Birds) by Arid ud-din Attar. It wasn’t received well, and Rushdie decided that if he was to achieve his dream of becoming a writer, he had to take on a “gigantic, all-or-nothing project.” Thus was born his 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children. Saleem Sinai, the protagonist, had been a secondary character in an abandoned manuscript, an “entirely forgettable fellow”. But he had one valuable characteristic: he was born at midnight, 14-15 August 1947, the freedom at midnight moment of India’s independence from British rule. In his memoir, Rushdie — born in June 1947 — recalls that his father would often joke that “Salman was born and eight weeks later, the British ran away.” The character he created, Saleem Sinai, had an even more impressive feat: the British would run away at the exact moment of his birth, and he surely deserved a book of his own, providing a public history of the Indian subcontinent.
Rushdie followed up Midnight’s Children, with Shame, dealing mostly with Pakistan where his parents had ‘mistakenly’ chosen to live after independence, leaving Bombay. It’s a “ferocious, satirical, personal” outpouring of a novel, conveying his feelings. Then came The Satanic Verses, a “personal, interior exploration, a first attempt to create a work out of his own experience of migration and metamorphosis.” In between, and as he struggled to write his “least political novel”, he travelled to Nicaragua and wrote a short work of non-fiction, The Jaguar Smile, reporting on “people with real problems”.
After the fatwa, Rushdie was forced into hiding for nine years under the British government’s protection, but he never stopped writing. Under cover, he first penned a book he had promised his nine-year-old son could read, the delightful and underrated Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990); Imaginary Homelands (1991); a short story anthology East, West (1994); The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), the story of Moraes ‘Moor’ Zogoiby, the last surviving scion of a dynasty of Cochin spice merchants, and also of modern India; The Ground Beneath her Feet (1999), a reworking of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth.
In 2000, he moved to America, and in the last two decades has published a string of novels including Shalimar the Clown, The Golden House and Quichotte, as well as a third book of essays. He gathered stories everywhere he went — watching a group of travelling players perform ‘clown stories’ in Kashmir became the heart of his ‘Kashmir novel’, Shalimar the Clown. In India, for a special documentary on Midnight’s Children, when the country was celebrating its 40th year of independence, Rushdie had seen an open-air theatrical performance in Kerala where the narrator frequently digressed from the narrative, told jokes, sang songs and connected his political story to ancient tales and thought this “adoption of complexity and playfulness and rejection of start-to-finish linearity” confirmed his own ideas about writing.
For free speech
Persuasive and defiant in what he wants to say, Rushdie’s incisive essays always push for free speech. In a recent essay, ‘Truth’, he writes, “How to resist the erosion in public acceptance of basic, evidence-supported facts? How to combat political demagoguery? What might be the role of writers?” His answer: “As far as writers are concerned, we need to rebuild our readers’ belief in the argument from evidence and to do what fiction has always been good at doing: to construct, between the writer and the reader, an understanding about what is real.” When he had to come up with a nom de guerre in hiding, he adopted Joseph Anton, from his literary inspirations, telling himself, “Joseph Anton, you must live until you die,” like a character from a Conrad novel. As Rushdie battles serious injuries, readers are doing the best thing they can to bolster his spirit: going back to his books.