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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Salman Rushdie (1947-)


Anglo-Indian novelist, who uses in his works tales from various genres – fantasy, mythology, religion, oral tradition. Rushdie's narrative technique has connected his books to magic realism, which includes such English-language authors as Peter Carey, Angela Carter, E.L. Doctorow, John Fowles, Mark Helprin or Emma Tennant. Salman Rushdie was condemned to death by the former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989, after publishing Satanic Verses. Naguib Mahfouz, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, criticized Khomeini for "intellectual terrorism" but changed his view later and said that Rushdie did not have "the right to insult anything, especially a prophet or anything considered holy." The Nobel writer V.S. Naipaul described Khomeini's fatwa as "an extreme form of literary criticism."

"Insults are mysteries. What seems to the bystander to be the cruelest, most destructive sledgehammer of an assault, whore! slut! tart!, can leave its target undamaged, while an apparently lesser gibe, thank god you're not my child, can fatally penetrate the finest suits of armour, you're nothing to me, you're less than the dirt on the soles of my shoes, and strike directly at the heart." (in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 1999)

Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay, India, to a middle-class Moslem family. His paternal grandfather was an Urdu poet, and his father a Cambridge-educated businessman. At the age of fourteen Rushdie was sent to Rugby School in England. In 1964 Rushdie's parents moved to Karachi, Pakistan, joining reluctantly the Muslim exodus – during these years there was a war between India and Pakistan, and the choosing of sides and divided loyalties burdened Rushdie heavily.

Rushdie continued his studies at King's College, Cambridge, where he read history. After graduating in 1968 he worked for a time in television in Pakistan. He was an actor in a theatre group at the Oval House in Kennington and from 1971 to 1981 he worked intermittently as a freelance advertising copywriter for Ogilvy and Mather and Charles Barker.

As a novelist Rushdie made his debut with Grimus (1975), a fantastical science fiction, which draws on the 12th-century Sufi poem The Conference of Birds. The title of the novel is an anagram of the name "Simurg," the immense, all-wise, fabled bird of pre-Islamic Persian mythology. At his young age, Rushdie had read a lot "yellow-jacketed science fiction novels" and books by Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury. Grimus originated in a sci-fi writing competition. Commenting on the negative reviews, Rusdie said that he had not yest flound his voice as a writer at that time. (The Science Fiction Dimensions of Salman Rushdie by Yael Maurer, 2014, pp. 4-5)

Rushdie's the next novel, Midnight's Children (1981), won the Booker Prize and brought him international fame. Written in exuberant style, this comic allegory of Indian history revolves around the lives of the narrator Saleem Sinai and the 1000 children born after the Declaration of Independence. All of the children are given some magical property. Saleem has a very large nose, which grants him the ability to see "into the hearts and minds of men." His chief rival is Shiva, who has the power of war. Saleem, dying in a pickle factory near Bombay, tells his tragic story with special interest in its comical aspects. The work aroused a great deal of controversy in India because of its unflattering portrait of Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, who was involved in a controversial sterilization campaign. Rushdie was sued by the former premier for defamation. Midnight's Children took its title from Nehru's speech delivered at the stroke of midnight, 14 August 1947, as India gained its independence from England.

Shame (1983) centered on a well-to-do Pakistani family, using the family history as a metaphor for the country. The story included two thinly veiled historical characters – Iskander Harappa, a playboy turned politician, modeled on the former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and General Raza Hyder, Iskander's associate and later his executioner. Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) was written for children, and wove into the story an affable robot, genies, talking fish, dark illains, and an Arabian princess in need of saving. Luca and the Fire of Life (2010), the sequel, told about the younger brother of Haroun, who enters into adventures in the World of Magic.

Rushdie won in 1988 the Whitbread Award with his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. The story opens spectacularly. Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, two Indian actors, fall to earth after an Air India jumbo jet explodes 30,000 feet above the English Channel. This refers to a real act of terrorism, when an Air India Boeing 747 was blown up in 1985 – supposedly by Sikh terrorist. Gibreel Farishta in Urdu, means Gabriel Angel, which makes him the archangel whom Islamic tradition regards as "bringing down" the Qur'an from God to Muhammad. "'To be born again,' sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, 'first you have to die. Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won't cry? How to win the darling's love, mister, without a sigh? Baba, if you want to get born again...' Just before dawn one winter's morning, New Year's Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky." (in The Satanic Verses) Gibreel Farishta and Saladin are miraculously saved, and chosen as protagonist in the fight between Good and Evil. In the following cycle of bizarre adventures, dreams, and tales of past and future, the reader meets Mahound, the Prophet of Jahilia, the recipient of a revelation in which satanic verses mingle with divine. "'I told you a long time back,' Gibreel Farishta quietly said, 'that if I thought the sickness would never leave me, that it would always return, I would not be able to bear up to it.' Then, very quickly, before Salahuddin could move a finger, Gobreel put the barrel of the gun into his own mouth; and pulled the trigger; and was free." The character modelled on the Prophet Muhammad and his transcription of the Quran is portrayed in an unconventional light. The quotations from the Quran are composites of the English version of N.J. Dawood and of Maulana Muhammad Ali, with a few touches of Rushdie's own.

Shortly before the publication of The Satanic Verses Rushdie had said in an interview, "It would be absurd to think that a book can cause riots." The novel was banned in India by the ministry of finance – about a week after it had been published in Britain – and South Africa and burned on the streets of Bradford, Yorkshire. Videoed images of the protest spread across the world. When Ayatollah Khomeini called on all zealous Muslims to execute the writer and the publishers of the book, Rushdie was forced into hiding. Also an aide to Khomeini offered a million-dollar reward for Rushdie's death.

The Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz joined eighty other Arab intellectuals in declaring that "no blashphemy harms Islam and the Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer." (The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah and the West by Daniel Pipes, 2003, p. 148) In 1993 Rushdie's Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was wounded in an attack outside his house. When it began to seem that Rushdie could survive unharmed, the reward was doubled in 1977, and the next year the highest Iranian state prosecutor Morteza Moqtadale renewed the death sentence. During this period of fatwa violent protest in India, Pakistan, and Egypt caused several deaths. In 1990 Rushdie published an essay In Good Faith to appease his critics and issued an apology in which he reaffirmed his respect for Islam. However, Iranian clerics did not repudiate their death threat.

Since the religious decree, Rushdie has shunned publicity, hiding from assassins, but he has continued to write and publish books. The Moor's Last Sight (1995) focused on contemporary India, and explored those activities, directed at Indian Muslims and lower castes, of right-wing Hindu terrorists. In the character of Moor, the first person narrator, Rushdie promoted an ideal of hybrid India, in opposition to the Hindu-nationalist agenda. In his introduction to Imaginary Homelands (1991), a collection of essays, Rushdie said: "It is a paradoxical fact that secularism, which has been much under attack of late, outside India as well as inside it, is the only way of safeguarding the constitutional, civil, human and, yes, religious rights of minority groups."

The Ground Benath Her Feet (1999), set in the world of hedonistic rock stars, was a mixture of mythology and elements from the repertoire of science fiction. In Fury (2001) Malik Solanka, a former Cambridge professor, tries to find a new life in New York City. He has left his wife and son and created an animated philosophising doll, Little Brain, which has its own successful TV series. In New York he has blackouts and violent rages and becomes involved with two women, Mila, who looks like Little Brain, and a beautiful freedom fighter named Neela Mahendra. "Though Mr. Rushdie weaves his favorite themes – of exile, metamorphosis and rootlessness – around Solanka's story, though he tries hard to lend his hero's experiences an allegorical weight, Fury lacks the fierce, visionary magic of The Moor's Last Sigh and Midnight's Children." (Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, August 31, 2001) Step Across This Line (2003) was a collection of non-fiction from 1992-2002. Most of its articles were written while the fatwa was in place.

Rushdie has been married four times, first in 1976 to Clarissa Luard and after divorce in 1988 to the American writer Marianne Wiggins. The marriage broke up during their enforced underground life. In September 1998 the Iranian government announced that the state is not going to put into effect the fatwa or encourage anybody to do so, but Ayatollah Hassan Sanei promised in 1999 a 2,8 million dollar reward for killing the author. However, when the threat was formally lifted, Rushdie ended his hiding. In the beginning of 2000, he left his third wife upon falling in love with the actress Padma Lakshmi and moved from London to New York. They married in 2004, but in June 2007, Rushdie agreed to divorce.

After Rushdie was made a knight by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 2007, demonstrations broke out across the Islamic world. A government minister in Pakistan declared that Rushdie's knighthood justifies suicide bombing. The Enchantress of Florence (2008), finished in the aftermath of divorce, was a historical romance about the mutual suspicion and mistrust between East and West, in this case Renaissance Florence and India's Mughal Empire.

In addition to giving interviews to the media, Rushdie has played himself in television films and was cast as Dr. Masani, a gynecologist, Hunt's comedy Then She Found Me (2007). For the US network Showtime Rushdie wrote in 2011 a teleplay, Next People, about contemporary American life. Following President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown on the country's uprising, Rushdie and other authors, such as Umberto Eco, David Grossman, Amos Oz, Orhan Pamuk and Wole Soyinka, urged in June 2011 the United Nations to condemn the repression in Syria as a crime against humanity. Deepa Mehta's 2012 film adaptation of Midnight's Children, starring Satya Bhabha, Shahana Goswami and Rajat Kapoor, encountered difficulties in finding a distributor in India. Rushdie himself wrote the screenplay.

Joseph Anton (2012), Rushdie's book of memoir written in third person, was an account of his life living under the threat of murder. At the suggestion of the polile, he adopted a false name (Joseph Anton), which was formed from the first names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Checkhov. The police called him "Joe" – Rushdie detested the abbreviation. "He had spent his life naming fictional characters. Now by naming himself he had turned himself into a sort of fictional character as well." The Golden House (2017), Rushdies 13th novel, is set in New York against the backdrop of the Obama era. Rushdie had began writing the work before Donald Trump was elected president and endend with the election of a building magnade, called "the Joker," a very thinly veiled version of Trump. "The strange thing was, even though I was hoping for the opposite election result, the book was clearly heading in the direction of what happened in reality. Sometimes the work of fiction can be wiser than the artist." ('Salman Rushdie: 'I like black comedy in dark times'' by Arifa Akbar, The Guardian, 16 Jun 2018)

Quichotte (2019) is Rushdie's rewrite of Don Quixote. The protagonist, named Ismail Smile, travels across America to find his love, a TV star named Salma. Sancho is his imaginary son. The book was shortlisted for 2019 Booker Prize. Rushdie was stabbed several times on 12 August, 2022, while speaking at an event in Chautauqua Institution. He lost the sight of one eye and one hand is incapacitated.

For further reading: Salman Rushdie in Context, edited by Florian Stadtler (2023); Critical Analysis of Salman Rushdie's Novels by Baijayanti Swain (2016); Salman Rushdie in the Cultural Marketplace by Ana Cristina Mendes (2016); The Science Fiction Dimensions of Salman Rushdie by Yael Maurer (2014); Salman Rushdie's Global Philosophy: Critical Essays, edited by Seodial Frank Deena (2014); From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath by Kenan Malik (2010); Salman Rushdie and Indian Historiography: Writing the Nation into Being by Nicole Weickgenannt Thiara (2009) ; Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie, ed. M. Keith Booker (1999); An Attempt to Understand the Muslim Reaction to the Satanic Verses by Victoria Laporte (1999); Salman Rushdie by D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke (1998); The Salman Rushdie Bibliography by Joel Kuortti (1997); Unending Metamorphoses: Myth, Satire and Religion in Salman Rushdie's Novels by Margareta Petersson (1996); Salman Rushdie by Catherine Cundy (1996); Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie by Leonard W. Levy (1995); A Satanic Affair by Malise Ruthven (1990); The Rushdie File, ed. by L. Appignanesi and S. Maitland (1990); The Rushdie Affair by D. Pipes (1990); Salman Rushdie, Sentenced to Death by W.J. Weatherby (1990); The Perforated Sheet by Uma Parameswaran (1988). Note: The Irish rock-group U2 recorded Rushdie's poem from his book The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

Selected works:

  • Grimus, 1975
  • Midnight's Children, 1981 (Booker-McConnell prize)
    - Keskiyön lapset (suom. Arto Häilä,1982)
  • Shame, 1983 (winner of the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger)
    - Häpeä (suom. Arto Häilä, 1983)
  • The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, 1987
    - Jaguaarin hymy: matka Nicaraguaan (suom. Arto Häilä, 1987)
  • The Satanic Verses, 1988
    - Saatanalliset säkeet (suom. Arto Häilä, 1989)
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories, 1990
    - Harun ja tarinoiden meri (suom. Arto Häilä, 1991)
  • In Good Faith, 1990
  • Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981–1991, 1991
  • The Wizard of Oz, 1992 (BFI Film Classics; edited by Melvyn Bragg and Richard Maltby)
  • East, West, 1994
    - Itä, länsi (suom. Arto Häilä, 1995)
  • The Moor's Last Sigh, 1995
    - Maurin viimeinen huokaus (suom. Arto Häilä, 1996)
  • Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-1997, 1997 (ed., with Elisabeth West)
  • The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 1999
    - Maa hänen jalkojensa alla (suom. Arto Häilä, 1999)
  • Fury, 2001
    - Vimma (suom. Arto Häilä, 2002)
  • Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002, 2003
  • Shalimar the Clown, 2005
    - Shalimar, ilveilijä (suom. Arto Häilä, 2006)
  • The Enchantress of Florence, 2008
    - Firenzen lumoojatar (suomentanut Arto Häilä, 2010)
  • Luka and the Fire of Life, 2010
    - Luka ja elämän tuli (suomentanut Arto Häilä, 2011)
  • Next People, 2011 (teleplay)
  • Joseph Anton: A Memoir, 2012
    - Joseph Anton: muistelmat (suomentanut Arto Häilä, 2013)
  •  The Writer and the Citizen: the PEN/Pinter Prize Lecture 2014, 2014 
  • The Golden House, 2017
    - Kultainen talo (suomentanut Maria Lyytinen, 2020)
  • Quichotte, 2019
  • Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020, 2021
  • Victory City: A Novel, 2023
  • Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, 2024

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