Salman Rushdie (7508 words)

Martina Ghosh-Schellhorn (Universität des Saarlandes) ; Revised By: Catherine Pesso-Miquel (Université Lyon II)
Download PDF Save to Bookshelf Tweet Report an Error


Born on 19 June 1947, two months before India, the country of his birth, achieved her independence from British Rule, Salman Rushdie is, and yet is not quite, one of India’s Midnight’s Children. The newly installed Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, gave voice to the historical moment when he evoked the “tryst India had made with destiny” which would be “redeem[ed] [….] At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps”, allowing India to “awake to life and freedom”. Anglophone Indian Literature had to wait another thirty-four years for a writer such as Salman Rushdie to write Midnight’s Children (1981), a novel with which Rushdie was to make his stupendous breakthrough as an international writer.

Based in England at the time of writing Midnight’s Children, Rushdie, after having paid Bombay a visit, chose to locate his story in the city of his birth. Born into a liberally orthodox Muslim family of wealthy parents, Rushdie grew up in a Bombay marked by cosmopolitism and a metropolitan secularism. His father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, had had to take up business after a career in law; he later turned to drink and was eventually to succumb to dipsomania. Negin Butt, Rushdie’s mother, a school teacher by profession, agreed to send her son to Bombay’s prominent Cathedral and John Connon School, run by missionaries, where he was inducted into the anglophone Indian educational system. This system’s aim had been formulated over two hundreds years ago by Thomas Babington Macaulay, namely to “create a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” As a consequence of this policy, English as medium of instruction was established in Indian schools. Rhymes from Mother Goose, the adventures of Robin Hood, the stylistic excellence of King James’ Bible, and the world of English classics, became the study material of the upper and middle classes. With time, English and the study thereof was to achieve a hegemonic status in India which far outdid Macaulay’s wildest expectations.

At Rushdie’s home, however, Urdu, a language forbidden as medium of communication in school, continued to be spoken alongside English, and it was in these two languages that Salman and his three sisters received their parents’ richest legacy to their children: a fund of stories to fuel their imagination. A dichotomising linguistic experience such as this one has, according to some other anglophone Indian novelists, led to fissures in their identities as writers. In contrast, Rushdie, for whom The Kathasaritsagar, The Mahabharata, The Ramayana, and The Arabian Nights are as much part of his intellectual baggage as works in the Western canon (notably Shakespeare, Swift, Sterne, Blake, Dickens), has been among the most outspoken champions of the idea of hybridity, particularly under diasporian conditions. That re-location should be a gain worth celebrating rather than a loss to be constantly bemoaned, is an opinion much in evidence in Rushdie’s writing, and his reading of one of his favourite films, The Wizard of Oz (1992), demonstrates this most refreshingly: “[The song] ‘Over the Rainbow’ is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants, all those who go in search of the place where ‘the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true’. It is a celebration of Escape, a grand paean to the Uprooted Self, a hymn - the hymn - to Elsewhere.”

Indubitably, this intellectual position derives from his family background, which, like the other elite families in India, is as much characterized by affluence and the unquestioned status accompanying it, as by its unselfconscious adaptability to different cultural codes. Rushdie’s father had been schooled at Rugby and had studied law at Cambridge, a course he charted out for his son as well, who left Bombay for Rugby when fourteen. It was there that he experienced racism at first hand, and in later years claimed that it had been this taste of discrimination that sensitised him to the inequitable conditions facing migrants in Britain.

By the time Rushdie finished school his parents had migrated to Karachi in Islamic Pakistan. He found employment in Pakistan Television, but after making several unsuccessful attempts to introduce a more liberal brand of journalism into the media, he resigned himself to entering his father’s alma mater, King’s College, Cambridge, to read History. Despite his initial qualms, his Cambridge peers proved to be a far cry from the “philistines” he recalled having to endure at Rugby, and he became politicised in the hippie years of Vietnam war protest (1965-1968). On graduating, Rushdie tried his hand at acting at the experimental Oval Theatre for a year, before working part-time in London as a copywriter.

It was during this period that he wrote his first published novel, Grimus (1975), which was entered for Victor Gollanz’s science fiction competition for new writers. The story comprises mythic elements taken from cultures both Asian and Western, which are woven together in a manner which eschews social realism in being set in a twilight zone of the fantastic and the mundane. The novel is intertextually linked to the Sufi Farid-ud-din Attar’s twelfth-century poem, The Conference of Birds. Today remembered mostly for its prototypical character, the novel heralded the Rushdiesque strategy of employing a self-conscious narrative mode that fuses traditional and post-modern aspects while featuring an autobiographically-inspired first-person narrator.

This scheme was first successfully employed in his next novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), which had a tumultuous reception, as evidenced by the fact that it won the 1981 Booker Prize, the James Tait Prize in 1993, the English Speaking Union Literary Award, and the Booker of Bookers Prize (judged first among the best twenty six prize winners since the prize’s inauguration in 1969) twelve years later. The intermedial possibilities of his narrative have been variously explored by Rushdie. His documentary film, The Riddle of Midnight (1987), contextualises post-independence India in terms of its capacity for change in the face of tradition-bound injustices. Moreover, twenty-three years after its first appearance on the book market, Midnight’s Children was performed as a play by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Jan.-Feb. 2003), before moving onto Broadway.

Midnight’s Children occupies a unique position in anglophone Indian literature in being regarded as a towering landmark. Among others, Anita Desai, one of the more prominent members of the older generation of these writers, has openly stated that the publication of this novel has forever changed the course of what had hitherto been a social realist tradition of fiction by writers such as Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, or herself. Casting his unreliable first-person narrator, Saleem Sinai, in the mould of the traditional Indian story-teller, Rushdie spins out, through this protagonist, who considers himself “handcuffed to history”, the story of Nehru’s “Midnight’s Children”. Initially, there were a thousand and one highly-gifted Children, who could telepathically communicate with each other using Saleem as their “medium”. At the close of the novel, thirty years later, only 581 of them have survived the hounding, oppression, and enforced sterilisation carried out by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency government. The Children have been betrayed by one of their own, Shiva; Saleem’s double, and rival in love. Shiva fathers Aadam, the silent child, who, along with his peers will perhaps, Saleem suggests to his interlocutor Padma, be able to change the course of the sub-continent’s hitherto disastrous history. Thus, from the aftermath of the Partition of India, to the atrocities of the Indo-Pakistani war in 1977, and finally, the Emergency itself, the novel focuses on recent Indian history, and imaginatively transforms it into a tale which transports the reader, on a flying carpet borrowed from The Arabian Nights, to the world of magic realism.

There are, however, critical voices which challenge the elevation of Rushdie to a pedestal, prominent among them being Shashi Deshpande and Farrukh Dhondy. Deshpande, a writer excelling in depictions of the middle-class Indian woman’s life-world, soberly eyes Rushdie as a highly overestimated writer who does not do justice to his subject-matter. Hers is a position that some Indian writers occupy: by virtue of having chosen to base themselves in India, these writers have to deal with the fact that migration to the centres of the native English speaking world increasingly provides easier access to the channels of international fame, if not of excellence. Dhondy, who, on account of his keen ear for dialogue, pays Narayanesque attention to the specific when writing for his Indian and/or British readers, criticises Rushdie’s cavalier approach to the social and linguistic realities of India.

Rushdie’s novels manifest a highly creative use of English as an international, rather than a native, language. As he has said in a recent interview: “even though this [word play in a multilingual context] is the way everyone speaks in India, nobody had the confidence, when I started writing, to use it as a literary language.” Much as Sam Selvon had consciously created a non-localised form of Creole in his Moses trilogy, Rushdie presents his readers with what remains an artificial language, modelled on G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr (1959), India’s first experimental anglophone novel.

Rushdie’s Indian English, in being innocent of regional difference, social class, religious affiliation, and gender membership, is an unspecified cosmopolitan hybrid. This surprising insensitivity to the lively language scene in India is reflected in his editorial decisions with regard to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing (1997), an anthology he edited in collaboration with his third wife, Elizabeth West. In the introduction to this book, he states that “The prose writing - both fiction and non-fiction - created in this period (since Independence) by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen recognized languages during the same time.” This is blatantly untrue, and although Rushdie admitted a few years later that the anthology was “weak”, its publication has not exactly served to endear Rushdie to his detractors.

It is suggestive that, in Midnight’s Children, Rushdie should celebrate his rendition of the sub-continent’s realities by using the term “chutnification”. In a chutney, the individual taste of the vegetables or fruits being preserved becomes homogenised by the vinegar, sugar and salt, in which they are preserved. Analogously, in Rushdie’s writing the specific tends to be subsumed under a comprehensive homogeneity which allows for the depiction of, for example, India and Pakistan as magical areas.

The technique of inserting the fantastic into an otherwise realistic narrative has been popularised by the realismo mágico works of Latin and South American novelists, foremost among them Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. Along with their works, Rushdie has often cited Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel among the models which have influenced him. Rushdie’s use of the fantastic has fascinated readers with little access to the realities of the worlds in which his narratives are set. This becomes particularly clear in his third novel, Shame (1983), where the reader is explicitly warned against expecting “a realistic novel” about Pakistan, because, ominously foretelling his own future, he writes that the “book would have been banned, dumped in the rubbish bin, burned. All that effort for nothing. Realism can break a writer’s heart”. The reader is, instead, presented with “that world [Pakistan] in fragments of broken mirrors” via the invented story of the “peripheral hero” Omar Khayyam, who marries Sufiya Hyder, daughter of a character based on General Zia ul-Huq. The rivalry between the General and his archrival, Zulfikar Bhutto, is re-enacted in the novel as the competition between two men for the same woman. It is left to the mentally challenged Sufiya to bear the burden of their shamelessness, she being the embodiment of sharam, a quality only loosely translatable as “shame”, or “moral consciousness”, which, according to the novel, is what is most conspicuously lacking in the new nation of Pakistan. Sufiya, accordingly, is plagued by blushing fits, and her shame takes on increasingly violent proportions, as when she tears the heads off the 218 turkeys being openly raised by her father’s mistress on the plot of land adjoining his bungalow, and then pulls their intestines “up through their necks”, or when she kills four delinquent young men using the same method. Eventually, Sufiya turns into a monstrous homicidal creature of retribution.

In Shame, which was banned in Pakistan, but won the prestigious Priz du Meilleur Livre Etranger, Rushdie presented readers in the West with a modern-day allegory which transposes political realities, about which he had written straightforwardly in The Jaguar Smile (1987), in the context of Nicaragua, to the realm of magic realism.

In India and Pakistan, the reception of Rushdie’s early novels was less enthusiastic than in the West. It was felt that his manner of depiction amounted to a refusal to grapple with the harsh socio-economic realities of newly independent post-colonies. This particular viewpoint found its most unexpected justification in the aftermath of the publication of Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni placed a fatwa upon Rushdie on February 14th 1989. Insiders to the Indian literary scene, such as, for example, the novelist and journalist, Kushwant Singh, had warned Rushdie that the book would be a veritable “bomb” if published in its projected form. On being queried in a pre-publication interview about the deliberate provocativeness of his book, Rushdie retorted: “some people might get upset because it is not reverent”, and he justified the book as “a serious attempt to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person”.

The magic realism devices Rushdie utilized in dealing, as a “secular person”, with a chapter of Islamic history which had been effectively erased from the Quran, enraged Islamic religionists in India, Pakistan, and Britain, among other countries, who began burning the novel after inflammatory passages had been mass distributed. Thus, the fact that Rushdie had called the historical figure Mohammed by the derogatory name given him by the infidels, Mahound; had, further, lampooned the Prophet’s polygamy, and had even taken the liberty of inserting himself as the character Salman the Farsi, who “sets” his “words against the Word of God”, into a novel which moreover carried a highly-controversial title, were found sufficient reason for condemning him as a blasphemer who deserved to be killed.

The eponymous verses are those Al-Tabari mentions in his Annales as having been composed by Muhammed in a weak moment, since they were in praise of the pre-Islamic Meccan pantheon of deities. According to the Annales, the prophet had been led astray by Iblis for a very short while before being guided back to a correct understanding of the absolute nature of God by a godly messenger, the angel Gibreel.

As is typical of his creative craft in a period which can be loosely termed “post-Midnight”, The Satanic Verses has a plot structure comprising parallel stories, which are intermeshed in surprising and highly complex ways, featuring twins, or doppelgängers, as protagonists. Thus, the novel ingeniously intermeshes the story of Mahound / Mohammed’s founding of Islam with the contemporary migrant situation in Britain. Rushdie does this by casting the angel Gibreel as an Indian film star carrying the pseudonym Gibreel Farishta (Arabic for Gabriel the angel). An apostate Muslim in quest of his new-found love on a plane bound for Britain, Gibreel and his alter ego, Chamcha, literally fall from the skies onto London when their plane explodes as the result of a terrorist attack. While Chamcha transmogrifies into a devilish beast, thus turning into a living embodiment of racist British stereotyping, Gibreel becomes increasingly psychotic and believes himself to be the archangel Gibreel sent to break the satanic hold over Mahound’s beliefs. “Being God’s postman is no fun”, protests Gibreel, to no avail, as his travails increase in the course of the novel. Chamcha begins reciting some “satanic verses” of his own creation, which recount the intimacies Gibreel has shared with his “ice goddess”, Alleluia Cone, into Gibreel’s ear. Rendered insane by these revelations, Gibreel changes into Azareel, the avenging angel, who finally kills himself. Meanwhile Mahound, the absolutist founder of monotheist Islam, takes on several avatars who all exemplify the bigotry at the core of the newest of world religions.

It is one of the ironies of Rushdie’s fate that the novel which won him the Whitbread Prize for 1988, and in which he passionately exposes British intolerance towards migrants, should have so incensed the latter against him that they demanded his death. During the ten-year period of the fatwa’s imposition, Rushdie, nonetheless, continued to write. The first work to be published in that period was a story he wrote for his young son, Zafar, called Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), which won the Writers’ Guild Award. The narrative is a hymn of praise to the power, peculiar to children, to right some of the wrongs in the adults’ world. Accordingly, Haroun travels to Gup-City (the talkative city) in order to get the authorities there to re-open the tap feeding stories to his father Rashid, whose supply had dried up when his wife inexplicably left him for a bad-tempered neighbour. On passing the Ocean of the Streams of Stories, Haroun learns that the Ocean encompassed the “Streams of Story”, each of which was a “coloured strand” which “represented and contained a single tale”. It is only because these streams freely floated about in the Ocean that “they retained their ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Stories […] was not dead but alive.” The idea of flux, therefore, and closely associated with it, the state of migrancy, are never far from Rushdie’s mind.

In Imaginary Homelands (1991), a collection of essays published during the fatwa interregnum, Rushdie clearly states the parameters of re-location:

The Indian writer, looking back at India, does so through guilt-tinted spectacles […] We are Hindus who have crossed the black water; we are Muslims who eat pork […] Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools. But however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy.

Rushdie has further recounted the genesis of hybridity in genetic terms in a Hamletto-Shandyan re-\"streaming” of the story of poor Yorick: “Yorick espoused Ophelia. There was a child”, he tells us in his short story collection, East, West (1995). The tale concludes with the child “leav[ing] the scene of his family’s tragedy” in order to “wander the world, sowing his seed in far-off lands, from west to east and back again; and multicoloured generations follow”.

\"Multicoloured generations” also form the focus of The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), which can be regarded as the last of the “post-Midnight” novels to date. Here, too, the focus is on Indian history, again magically reinterpreted. Rushdie uses the life stories of the fictive da Gama and Zogoiby families as prisms for refracting the actual political history of the Portuguese colonizers in India, dating from Vasco da Gama’s arrival in Kozikhode in 1498, and the murky beginnings of the Sephardic Jews who came to Kerala from Jerusalem in 72 ACE.

The Moor of the title refers both to the protagonist, Moraes Zogoiby, as well as to the last Muslim ruler of southern Spain, Sultan Abd Allah Mohammed XI, forced to flee to exile in north Africa in 1492 by the Reconquista. Portuguese, Jewish and Moorish history are conjoined in the fantastical figure of Moraes, son of Aurora da Gama and Abraham Zogoiby, possessor of a deformed hand, later trained to become the “Hammer”, who ages at double the speed customary to mankind. The “last sigh” takes its echo from more than one source as well. On looking back for a last time at his home el-Andalus, the Alhambra palace in Granada, the last Khalif of Córdoba is reported to have given a famous “last sigh”. Alhambra is the place where Moraes will sigh his last, too. Yet another narrative strand, reminiscent of the crafted conflation of past and contemporary events in The Satanic Verses, deals with the misdeeds of Bombay’s Hindu fundamentalist leader Bal Thackeray, who founded the militant anti-Muslim Shiv Sena party in 1967. The “last sigh”, therefore, is also Rushdie’s own on witnessing India’s fall into the anarchy of Hindu fundamentalism in ways that are strangely reminiscent of the collapse of the Andalusian kingdom which had been noted for its religious tolerance. The Moor’s Last Sigh won the EU’s Aristeion Prize for Literature, but did not bag any of the major Anglo-American prizes.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) in some ways marks a change of direction in Rushdie’s writing, focussing as it does on contemporary figures with no throwbacks to a historical period to provide interesting parallels to the present setting. Rushdie has, nonetheless, retained his interest in twin figures, in this case the musically-talented brothers, Ormus and his dead brother Gayomart, and in the fantastic. Gayomart, in the Underworld, sings the songs he composes to Ormus, who initially has difficulties in catching his brother’s lyrics. Critics have speculated on whether Ormus, who is a scion of one of Bombay’s wealthy Parsi families, is based on Dylan, or a combination of him, Elvis Presley and John Lennon. Of the various songs the twins “compose”, “Beneath Her Feet” refers directly to the novel’s title: “What she touches I will worship it. The clothes she wears, her classroom seat. Her evening meal, her driving wheel. The ground beneath her feet”, can be seen as exemplifying the triteness of the lyrics being presented. The song is dedicated to Vina Apsana, the half-American-Greek, half-Indian love of Ormus’s life. A talented singer, Vina is the better half of the pop duo VTO which turns both her and Ormus into international cult figures. Their life-and-love-story is narrated by Umeed, the marginal figure of a Muslim photographer and occasional lover of Vina, who outlives both stars.

Through explicit references to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with which the novel is inundated, Rushdie expands on Vico’s concept of myths being nothing other than the family “romances” of civilisations in their development towards maturity. Following the death of Vina in an earthquake in which the ground beneath her feet literally opens to receive her, and that of Ormus through an assassin, the narrator surmises that these larger than life figures had indeed attained the stature of myths in their life times. It was therefore mandatory for the earth to be rid of them. Umeed, secure in the domestic harmony of his new home, explains that “[i]n all the old stories, in different ways, the point is always reached after which the gods no longer share their lives with mortal men […] This, the myths hint, is what a mature civilization is: a place where the gods stop jostling and shoving us […] leaving us free to do our best or worst without their autocratic meddling.” This conclusion to the novel, however unexpected it might be, nonetheless indicates the extent to which Rushdie is prepared to directly or indirectly attack religious belief which he regards an ideological vehicle of coercion.

The question, which of his fictional characters Rushdie is the one most closely related to, is a difficult one, given his propensity to work direct autobiographical details into his novels. Thus, Saleem Sinai shares the same family background as Rushdie; Salman the poet in The Satanic Verses has, similarly, been read in relation to Rushdie’s Faustian conjuring up of life-threatening spirits that he cannot later rid himself of. Yet, Salman the Farsi is killed in the novel, while Rushdie lived to see the end of the fatwa, life being oftentimes stranger than fiction.

Rushdie’s decision to leave Britain for the United States once the fatwa had been withdrawn, has led to a much publicised estrangement from his British peers and supporters. The novel Fury is dedicated, as are others by Rushdie, to his then current partner, the model and cookery celebrity, Padma Lakshmi. Critics have accordingly read Fury as an autobiographical novel, as it deals with Malik Solanka who deserts his English wife and his beloved toddler son, much as Rushdie had abandoned Elizabeth West and his three year old offspring when leaving Britain. In several interviews Rushdie has recorded his frustration at this simple interpretation of the novel, since it is obvious that he has “used some things from my life, and then I’ve made some other stuff up and I’ve changed things round and joined them together in odd ways and that becomes fiction.” Yet, “nobody wants to know that”, he complains.

Fury lends itself well to treatment as a roman à clef for less sensational reasons, too. The least convoluted of Rushdie’s novels, its narrative structure is almost linear, while the reader is presented with the usual set of flashbacks which bridge narrative time and narrated time. Once this gap has been sufficiently closed, the plot gathers a dynamic of it own which propels it towards the highly-dramatic, if cinematically clichéd ending in which a good woman bravely lays down her life for the sake of her beloved.

Thematically, Fury follows the strategy established in The Ground Beneath Her Feet of mythologically framing a contemporary story. The narrative variously explores the concept of the Furies, foremost among them the Hellenic belief that they were the protectors of the social order, especially of the family as a social unit. Linked to this is the image of the Furies as those female figures of violence and fear that had been bequeathed to the Greeks by the Etruscans. The Furies are particularly associated with the punishment of murder as this destructive act seriously threatens the stability of a society. Fury’s protagonist, Malik Solanka, a doll-making ex-Cambridge history professor, forsakes his young family on discovering himself about to murder his wife and child. On having fled to New York, he fears that he might emerge as the murderer of certain young society girls, a fear that is unfounded even in the face of his outbursts of homicidal fury. This fury is channelled into creative energy by Mila Milo, the human “double” of Little Brain, Solanka’s most famous, and now defunct, doll. Yet, when he begins to create a new set of Peekay (“Puppet Kings”) dolls, and becomes enamoured of Neela Mahendra, a woman of ethereal beauty from the Indian diaspora in the South Pacific, Solanka’s belief in the permutability of reality and fiction is alarmingly justified. His Peekay dolls are adopted as personae by the oppositional forces on the island of, possibly, Fiji (Swiftianly named “Lilliput-Blefescu”). Although the “Indo-Lillians” mask and clothe themselves as his dolls when carrying out a successful coup, the “intervention of the living dolls from the imaginary planet Galileo-1 in the public affairs of actually existing Earth had not, however, been foreseen”. Solanka finds himself, as Haroun did before him, in a “Princess Rescue Story” when he flies to Lilliput to try and save Neela, who had wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with Babur, the leader of the Indo-Lilly troops. Babur “wears” Solanka’s face, as the mask he chooses for himself is that of “Commander Akasz” [Kronos], whom Solanka had made in his own image.

The fascination with doubling and twins which recurs in Rushdie’s work is much in evidence here, not only in the image of the masks, but far more intricately in the Peekay universe Solanka creates. There the cyborgs created by Professor Akasz Kronos evolve their own ethics out of the set of “six high Kronosian values”, which are combinable through “a series of multiple-choice options” embedded into their “default programs”. The Puppet Kings rebel against their maker and install one of their kind, the Dollmaker - whom Kronos (like Solanka in the real world) has made in his own image - as their leader. Thus, the idea of doubling takes on unprecedented metaphysical dimensions.

The revolt of the cyborgs, on the other hand, is yet another significant variation on Rushdie’s avowed belief in the necessity for emancipation from the mind shackles of ideology, especially of a religious nature. The chief concern of this novel had been presaged in an essay written in 1997 and included in the collection of essays entitled Step Beyond This Line (2002). There Rushdie had addressed the sixth billionth baby to be born into this world in the hope that this child will join in the venture of “refus[ing] to allow priests and the fictions on whose behalf they claim to speak, to be the policemen of our liberties and behaviour”.

Norman Mailer has written about the “spooky art” of imaginatively transforming autobiographical details when writing creatively. It is not surprising, then, that the fictional character Rushdie can be seen to resemble most, is one to whom he has no obvious autobiographical connections. A strength he possesses, which stood him in good stead especially during the harrowing times of the fatwa, is one he shares with the protagonist’s father, Rashid al Haroun, in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, namely “the gift of the gab”. Rashid was “[t]o his admirers […] Rashid the Ocean of Notions” who was “as stuffed with cheery notions as the sea was with Glumfish”. This is Rushdie at his best. The controversies unleashed, whether wilfully or not, by his work, mean, however, that “to his jealous rivals” Rashid, and by corollary, his real-world twin, Rushdie, have to suffer themselves to be derided as “the Shah(s) of Blah”.

Rushdie has been the recipient of many honours: Germany’s Author of the Year 1989, Honorary Professor in Humanities at MIT, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Commandeur in France’s highest Ordre des Arts et des Lettre, and the translations of his books into more than thirty languages speak for themselves. Yet, by a “P2C2E”, “a process too complicated to explain” (Haroun), Rushdie is alternatively seen as one of the greatest story-tellers of our times, or else regarded as a mere wordsmith with a dab hand for intricate plots.


Since the above profile was published in 2003, Salman Rushdie has continued to live in the USA, where he settled in 2000, and where he feels freer to go out and about fearlessly. He has published three more novels, a second book for children, and a memoir recounting what he calls the “plague years”, the “dark decade that followed the Khomeini fatwa” (Rushdie 2002, 181).

His reputation as a writer grew because his novel Midnight’s Children, which had won the Booker Prize in 1981 and the Booker of Bookers in 1993, was also chosen as the Best of the Booker in 2008, an award commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Booker Prize. In 2007 Salman Rushdie was knighted for services rendered to literature, an event which sparked angry protests in many Muslim countries, including Iran and Pakistan, and new death threats. In Britain, not everybody approved of the knighthood: in a television debate led by David Thompson, prominent political figures such as Boris Johnson and Dame Shirley Williams were scathingly scornful of Rushdie, angering Christopher Hitchens, who heatedly defended the literary value of the author’s work, and the necessity of fighting for freedom of expression.

After India banned The Satanic Verses in the autumn of 1988, Rushdie did not visit his native country, “[his] primary source of artistic inspiration”, for over twelve years, and he confided that “nothing about [his] plague years […] has hurt more than this rift” (Rushdie 2002 181). The Indian government refused to grant him a visa, and refused to give the BBC permission to film a dramatization of Midnight’s Children. In 2000, at last, he was allowed back, and has travelled back and forth to India several times since. In 2007, he was invited to the Jaipur Literary Festival in which he participated without anyone complaining. In 2012, however, death threats prevented him from attending the same festival, and when the organisers planned a filmed interview instead, hostile mobs appeared at the venue, ready to cause mayhem, and the interview with Barkha Dutt, which had been organized in London, was not broadcast in Jaipur. The director of the festival, William Dalrymple, received death threats. In this interview, Rushdie accused the Indian authorities of failing to take the necessary measures for the safety of the festival, and of attempting to placate Muslim voters in the coming state elections in Uttar Pradesh. It is therefore obvious that in India Rushdie’s name has become a ploy in community politics.

In 2005, Rushdie published Shalimar the Clown, an allegorical novel centered on the tragedy of Kashmir. The novel is dedicated to Rushdie’s Kashmiri grandparents, Dr Ataullah and Amir Butt, who had already shaped the characters of Saleem’s grandparents and inspired the Kashmiri episodes in Midnight’s Children, and given their name to the bus driver in Haroun (33), where Kashmir is also Koshmar, a nightmare (40). Specific images and details linked to Kahsmir, including the famous scene of the holey sheet in Midnight’s Children (2006, 16-18) find a detailed echo in Shalimar, with the reappearance of the Ghani family and the painting of Diana (2005, 254-255). This picture, “a painting of a plain girl with lively eyes and a stag transfixed behind her on the horizon, speared by a dart from her bow” (2006, 17) seems, across the frontiers of two different novels, to prophesize a happy ending for Shalimar, which refuses to end, leaving the arrow of the heroine suspended in mid-air. But we know that Kashmira, in an ironical remake of The Silence of the Lambs, is wearing “night-vision goggles” (2005, 398). The atmosphere is Hollywoodian, Kashmira’s address is Mulholland Drive, but there are also shades of Jacobean revenge tragedies since Kashmira is aiming her arrow at Shalimar, the killer of both her parents. This intratextual strategy, in which situations and characters seep from one book into another, seems to contradict Rushdie’s wistful regrets in a 1988 interview conducted by W. Webb: “I don’t have a territory, you know, in the way that William Faulkner has Yoknapatawpha County, in the way that Eudora Welty has her bit of the Mississippi, in the way that Hardy has Wessex” (in Reder 93).

In 2008, Rushdie published The Enchantress of Florence, an erudite novel combining techniques borrowed both from the Western historical novel, and from the sheer Eastern joy of story-telling, with its intricate constructions of stories embedded within stories, typical of The Arabian Nights. The story opens in 1583, in Fatehpur Sikri, with the arrival, at Emperor Akbar’s court, of a young Italian calling himself Mogor, and later Niccolo Vespucci, and impossibly claiming to be the Emperor’s uncle. The tale then circles back to 1479, as the Italian begins to tell the Emperor the story of three Florentines, Niccolo Machiavelli, Ago Vespucci (a fictitious younger cousin of Amerigo’s) and Nino Argalia. The Emperor becomes the fascinated narratee and commentator of Mogor’s narrative, the hero of which is Argalia, who escaped from mediocrity to become a powerful mercenary for the Turks and the Medici. Although often impatient, the attentive Akbar has to admit that this intriguing man “[weaves] quite a yarn” (Rushdie 2008, 311). As in Attar’s Conference of Birds, the influence of which could already be felt in Rushdie’s first novel Grimus, the first lines of chapters are used as chapter headings. Unusually in Rushdie’s fiction, the novel is set firmly and totally in the past, in the Renaissance area, and a long bibliography at the end attests to the seriousness of the author’s historical intentions. One of the books cited is Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, in which Sen drew a very flattering portrait of the open-mindedness of two Indian Emperors, Ashoka and Akbar, which obviously inspired Rushdie in his depiction of Akbar as a great man in the making, “not content with being” but “striving to become” (36). East and West, as well as myth and fiction, collide and interact constantly, and Rushdie’s peculiar style and preoccupations are easily recognizable, in the comic way in which he describes Machiavelli’s relationship with his wife Marietta and their brood of children, in the deliberate use of the motifs of casual sex, brothels and prostitutes already prominent in Grimus, and source of so much trouble in The Satanic Verses, but also in his focus on the philosophical questions of faith and religion, as debated by Akbar (2008, 83). As always with Rushdie, doubles, twins and mirrorings abound, linking Italy and India, underlining the links between diverse elements: the tight-lipped Indian Puritans, the “Water Drinkers” who bicker with the tolerant Wine Lovers (79) echo the bitter fights between the Italian Weepers, the “narrow-minded fanatics” headed by Savonarola, who burned Art and Beauty, and the fun-loving Florentines (148). The first and the second “Enchantresses” are paralleled, since the story of Boticelli’s fascination for Simonetta Vespucci (137) is echoed by the love of Dashwant for Qara Koz (125). The motif of painting and painters, and its “magical” treatment by Rushdie, recall another of his novels, The Moor’s Last Sigh. Rushdie is often praised for having created, in his early novels, an “Indianised” form of English, a creative, artistic, transformation of the language, in the dialogues between his characters as well as in the stories told by his Indian narrators. In The Enchantress of Florence, perhaps for fear of anachronism, and of course because of the Italian element, Rushdie writes in a much more classical, “neutral”, albeit very elegant, English.

In 2010 came Luka and the Fire of Life, a sequel to Haroun that Rushdie had promised to write for his second, twelve-year-old son, Milan. Luka is Haroun’s younger brother, and his adventure, written in the form of a video-game, involves a Blake-inspired villain named Nobodaddy, a delightful “Insultana of Ott” named, like Luka’s mother, Soraya, as well as comic, caricatural echoes of the terrifying rats of 1984 or of commanding officers of elite Nazi regiments. Indeed, the rats, including the “Inquisitor Rat” and “Over Rat”, live in the Respectorate of I, where “respect” is compulsory and signifies meekness and acquiescence. They incur the wrath of the Insultana of Ott (Over the Top) and her denizens, the Otters, who are “devoted to all forms of excess” (2010, 77), do everything “too much”, and never take offence. The whole story is a defiant, playful fable that mocks the sinister, theocratic regimes of those who profess to blindly “respect” sacred Books, and glorifies those who neither take offence nor fear to give offence, those who never say “I” or “aye”, but instead enjoy “dissing” (78). It is also a kind of self-reflexive homage paid to Rushdie’s own aesthetics of excess, of “glorious too-muchness” (1995, 202).

In 2012, Rushdie published a much more personal piece of work, an autobiographical “memoir” of 633 pages, written in the third person, and structured by references to Hitchcock’s film The Birds. Very often witty and amusing, sometimes bitter, the book offers multiple insights into Salman Rushdie the man, the writer, the citizen, the intellectual, and into his life, which unfortunately for him has for years been much more “public” than “private”. His private life, and his four marriages, are frankly looked into, however, and his relationship with his fourth wife, Padma Lakshmi, is dismissed as a “Millenarian illusion” (the title of Chapter IX). P. Lakshmi, an American television celebrity, has written her own account of their marriage in a memoir published in 2016.

Rushdie’s latest work to date is a novel entitled Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights, published in 2015, which spans almost two thousand years, between the eleventh century AD and the distant future date of 3015. Part science-fiction, part Arabian tale, it is a funny and energetic story depicting the fight between reason and unreason, between the godly and the ungodly. The recurrent battle opposing sinister, Puritanical theocrats and life-loving, easy-going philosophers and Wine Lovers (one of Rushdie’s very favourite themes) is here won by a female figure, a jinnia, reminiscent of the Insultana in Luka. The novel pays homage to Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. Averroes), the 12th Century philosopher from Arab Spain who was banned for his liberal ideas, and whose books were burnt. Rushdie’s father admired him, and changed the family name to Rushdie as a tribute to him.

Like the journalists of Charlie-Hebdo, Rushdie has unwittingly become a symbol; his name is a political byword, and this often makes it difficult for commentators to analyse his writing serenely and objectively. Thus Zoë Heller could only find faults with Joseph Anton; she ended her long review with the opinion that if readers of the memoir had the uncomfortable feeling that “the world feels rather smaller and grimmer than before”, it was only an impression, because “it’s just Rushdie who got small”. Perhaps, as Stephen Moss argued in The Guardian, Heller was striving to write “the hatchet job of the year”, but she is not alone in reserving a specific hostility for this particular author.

Nevertheless, most writers and competent critics acknowledge his talent, his inventivity, and his comic genius. Even John Le Carré, who was so harsh in his condemnation of Rushdie at the time of “the Rushdie affair”, claims that he admires his work, and that “if [he] met Salman tomorrow, [he] would warmly shake the hand of a brilliant fellow writer” (Flood).


Dalrymple, William. “Why Rushdie’s voice was silenced in Jaipur”, The Guardian, Thursday 26 January 2012.
Dutt, Barkha, Inhterview of Salman Rushdie for NDTV, 25 January 2012
Flood, Alison. “Salman Rushdie and John le Carré end fatwa face-off.” The Guardian, November 12, 2012.
Heller, Zoë. “The Salman Rushdie Case”. The New York Review of Books, 20 December 2012.
Lakshmi, Padma. Love, Loss and What We Ate. A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children (1981). London: Vintage, 2006.
___. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. London: Granta Books, 1990.
___. The Moor’s Last Sigh. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.
___. Step Across This Line. New York: Random House, 2002.
___. Shalimar the Clown. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005.
___ The Enchantress of Florence. London: Jonathan Cape, 2008.
___. Luka and the Fire of Life. London: Jonathan Cape, 2010.
___ Joseph Anton. A memoir. London: Jonathan Cape, 2012.
___ Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. London: Jonathan Cape, 2015.
Thompson, David. “A Question of Spine” Television debate about Rushdie’s knighthood, June 22, 2007.

Citation: Ghosh-Schellhorn, Martina, Catherine Pesso-Miquel. "Salman Rushdie". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 16 May 2003; last revised 06 April 2017. [, accessed 29 November 2021.]

3889 Salman Rushdie 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

Leave Feedback

The Literary Encyclopedia is a living community of scholars. We welcome comments which will help us improve.

Save this article

If you need to create a new bookshelf to save this article in, please make sure that you are logged in, then go to your 'Account' here