Salman Rushdie | The language of truth 

The famed author is battling for his life in a U.S. hospital after a stab attack

Updated - August 14, 2022 01:35 pm IST

Published - August 13, 2022 06:51 pm IST

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

‘I am a dead man,’ that’s what Salman Rushdie thought on February 14, 1989, the day Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued the fatwa for his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses for alleged blasphemy against Islam. Rushdie was in London, and when a BBC reporter asked him how he felt knowing he’d just been sentenced to death, he said, “It doesn’t feel good,” as recounted in Joseph Anton, his 2012 memoir, alluding to the name he had adopted while going underground soon after the death decree, and also a tribute to two of his many literary inspirations.

Also read | ‘My book being put in jail’: Salman Rushdie interview to N. Ram

The celebrated writer, a ‘Midnight’s Child’ (June 19, 1947), is today fighting for his life in a U.S. hospital after being stabbed several times at a literary event in New York on Friday. The attacker has been identified and is in custody, but the motive is unknown. Three decades later, does the fatwa still hold? The Index on Censorship, an organisation which promotes free expression, said the bounty on Rushdie’s head was raised to $3 million as recently as 2016. Maybe it does.

The day the fatwa was issued, Rushdie attended the funeral service of his close friend and writer Bruce Chatwin who had died of AIDS. Other writer friends gathered at the Greek Orthodox Church, like Martin Amis, hugged and told him, “We’re worried about you,” to which Rushdie replied, “I’m worried about me.” The American travel writer, Paul Theroux, called out, “Salman, next week, we’ll be back for you!” What followed was that Rushdie went into hiding for nine years, under the protection of the British government.

Also read | ‘I’m here all by myself’: Salman Rushdie interview to Tishani Doshi

After he emerged out of seclusion, and moved to the U.S., he has not for once given up his fight against religious extremism of all types, and fight for freedom of expression, dissent as being critical to democracy, and liberty. Now 75, he has been making appearances in public in and around New York City without security. Clearly, he is keen to “live his life” and write what he wants. Out in February 2023 is his new novel, Victory City, a “translation of an ancient epic” from the Indian south, a book about “power and the hubris of those in power”.

Writing glory

Rushdie shot to writing glory for Midnight’s Children, his 1981 magic-realism novel. Those were the heyday of the genre with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass showing the way. Midnight’s Children reimagined India’s independence as a story of twins, through Saleem Sinai and the newborn nation. Rushdie was a Bombay boy who had made his life in London among the English, but often “felt cursed by a double unbelonging”. Wanting to reclaim the Indian identity he had lost, Rushdie felt he had found “an intersection between the private [his own life] and the public [India’s birth as a nation] and would build his book on that crossroads”. He did not want to write it in “cool Forsterian English” or in the fashion of Jane Austen. “India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he would try to find that language”. Rushdie found that language, and charted a path for other writers in English in the subcontinent — from Arundhati Roy to Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid to Kiran Desai.

Also read | ‘There is no right not to be offended’, Salman Rushdie’s interview to Mukund Padmanabhan

Rushdie acknowledges his debt to Grass who had dispensed with “safety nets” for The Tin Drum. And in his books, Rushdie tries never to forget that “writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things – childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves — that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.”

While in hiding, Rushdie delivered on a promise made to his son Zafar in 1989 — then, nine years old — that he would one day write a book he could read. The result is the delightful Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a story of a father, Rashid, and a son, Haroun, and of Haroun’s determination to rescue his father, the Shah of Blah, and return to him his special Gift of the Gab, that of telling stories. In an interview with Rushdie, who was still under cover, after the book was published, old friend Martin Amis (Visiting Mrs Nabokov and other Excursions), wrote that it appeared that Rushdie was condemned to “enact his own fictional themes of exile, ostracism, disjuncture, personal reinvention,” occupying a kind of “shadowland”, but “formidably alive.”

In later years, Rushdie’s novels (The Enchantress of Florence, The Golden House, Quichotte) may not have touched similar highs, but his essays, the latest collected in Languages of Truth (2021), are as incisive and perceptive as those in Imaginary Homelands and Step Across the Line. “If I had stood before you a decade ago, I might have argued that religious extremism was the greatest threat to liberty we faced. I did not foresee what seems to be a secularisation of that fanaticism,” he writes in a recent piece, a pithy summation of where we are. As Rushdie battles for his life, this fight against extremism is far from over.

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