Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie is one of the world's best know writers. He has been named as a possible recipient of the Nobel Literature Prize and his book “Midnight's Children” was selected as the best English-language books of the 1980s and 1990s. Even so he is known best as he writer who had a million dollar price on his head because of fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeni. [Source: Ian Hamilton, New Yorker, December 25, 1995]
Rushdie was born in India but lived for decades in Britain. He managed to returned to India every year until his problems with “Satanic Verses”. Rushdie told the Los Angeles Times, "I've always felt that India was a country with no middle register, this country where the light is so bright that it throw everything into stark relief, this country with no shades of gray, unlike England, which is nothing but “shades of gray." Since 2000, Rushdie has "lived mostly near Union Square" in New York City.
Rushdie's novels are: “Grimus” (1975), “Midnight's Children” (1981), “Shame” (1983), “The Satanic Verses” (1988), “The Moor's Last Sigh” (1995), “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” (1999), “Fury” (2001), “Shalimar the Clown” (2005), and “The Enchantress of Florence” (2008). Collections
Salman Rushdie's Early Life
Like the character Saleem Sinai in “Midnight's Children”, was the Rushdie was born into a Muslim Bombay family around the time India became independent and was divided into India and Pakistan (the partition). Rushdie was born on June 19, 1947, eight weeks before Indian independence. After the partition, his parents decided to stay in India while two of his uncles and their families moved to Pakistan.
Muslims from Bombay had a reputation for being fairly liberal. Rushdie’s family participated in Muslim holidays and fasted during Ramadan, but otherwise was not very religious. Growing up in Bombay Rushdie said his greatest joy was going to a local record shop called the Rhythm Center to buy the latest Elvis Presley singles.
Rushdie attended the Cathedral and John Connon School in Bombay. He enjoyed reading and was a star student but was not very good in sports. His sister later wrote, "In his school, we went every year to prize-giving. They had a prize for each subject and they had an over-all prize. And he got “every” prize."
Rushdie was brought in a wealthy household. His father was a Cambridge-educated lawyer turned businessman from Delhi. His mother was a teacher from northern India. Both had been married before. Their romance reportedly blossomed when his mother was still married to her first husband. The Rushdies owned a fair amount of real estate in Delhi and a sprawling estate in Bombay, where the family lived. The family money came from a leather-and-textile business started by his father's father.
Rushdie has three sisters and one brother. "I've been all my life surrounded by hordes of women," he told the Los Angeles Times. "They make most of the noise in my writing and are the most powerful characters. The boys just skulk in the corners."
Rushdie's father was said to be a great storyteller. His sister Sameen once wrote, "One story fell into another. Some of them were rooted in the “Arabian Night”, but he would embellish them and some he would tell straight, probably depending on how imaginative or tired he was feeling."
Salman Rushdie in Britain
At the age of 13, Rushdie left India to study at Rugby school in Britain. He remembers his years there as ones of torment and achievement. He says the he was a misfit and victim of racism. He managed to impress his classmates, however by using words they didn't know.
Rushdie turned down a scholarship to Balliol college at Oxford and chose instead to attend Kings College at Cambridge, where he was given a scholarship. King's was where his father went. Salman attend Cambridge at the height of the sixties from 1963 to 1968. He got caught up in the era and ended up with a below average 2.2.
While he was in Britain, Rushdie's family moved to Pakistan. After graduating Rushdie worked as a small time actor in London, a producer for a television station in Karachi, and a struggling writer-actor. He didn't begin earning a descent income until he got a job with the advertising firm Sharp McManus, where he came up with the slogan "irestibubble" for Aero chocolate bars.
Salman Rushdie and Women
Rushdie had been married four times. He met his first wife, Clarissa Luard, which he described as "a very well-bred English-rose type," in 1970 when he was a struggling writer. They were married from 1976 to 1987 had one son Zafar. The marriages ended after Rushdie had an affair with Australian woman, who trekked across the Outback with a camel. They were introduced by the writer Bruce Chatwin.
Rushdie's second wife, American writer Marianne Wiggins left him soon after he went into hiding. In 1997, he married British editor Elizabeth West, who gave birth to son around the same time his son by his first marriage to entered university.
In 2000, Rushdie left his third wife and took up with Indian model Padma Lakshima. He moved to New York to be with her and to get away from "the backbiting and incestuousness" in London. They were married from 2004 to 2007.
Salman Rushdie as a Writer
Rushdie quit his advertising job to work on his first novel “The Book of Pir”. It was about a guru in an unnamed eastern land. He couldn't get an agent let alone a publisher and went back to writing advertising copy. Salman Rushdie's literary career took off after he wrote “Midnight's Children”, which won him the coveted Booker prize in 1981.
Laura Shapiro of Newsweek described Rushdie's writing as "pell-mell...wild with wordplay." It has also been called the Indian subcontinent's answer to the magical realism of Gabriel Marquez. Describing a Bombay slum in “The Moor's Last Sigh”, Rushdie wrote, "the face-slapping quarrels of naked children at a tenement standpipe, the grizzled despair of idling workers smoking bidies on the doorsteps of locked-up pharmacies...the toughness of women with saris pulled over their heads, squatting by tiny primus stoves...as they tried to conjure meals from empty air."
In an essay to German writer Günter Grasse, Rushdie described the goal of writing, "Go for broke...Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim to the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody minded. Argue with the world."
“Midnight's Children” (1981) was one of the best received book in the last 25 years of the 20th century. It won the famed Bookers literary prize twice; once in 1981 and again in 1993 as "Booker of Bookers," to celebrate the prize's 25th anniversary. The BBC made a film version of the novel in Sri Lanka in the early 2010s. In the early 2000s the novel was adapted for the London theater by Rushdie himself. It was 3½ hours long and had songs, dances and hallucination scenes.
“Midnight's Children” won Rushdie acclaim from other writers as well as critics. V.S. Prichett described him as "a master of perpetual storytelling." The novel blended English and Indian vernaculars and inspired a whole generation of young Indian novelists and brought Indian writers visibility. "Rushdie was the first generation of Indian writers to use the English languages, confidently and unashamedly."
"When I wrote “Midnight Children”," he told the Los Angeles Times, "I felt that all Indian writing in English up to that point used a received, classical English—the cool, English style. The last thing India is is classical and cool! It's Dionysian and hot! I wanted to let the noise into Indian literature, to try to find another music in the language—loud—not the quietness and air conditioning but the street heat of India, the vulgarity."
Passage from Midnight Children
“Midnight's Children” is the tale of Saleem Sinai, a young man with large nose and the power to read minds. He is one of 1,001 children born in the first hour of India's independence all of whom possess supernatural powers and have strange stories to tell.
“Midnight Children” begins, "I was born in the city of Bombay...once upon a time. No that won't due, there's no getting away from the date. I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters too. Well then: at night. No, its important to be more...On the stroke of midnight as a matter of fact. Clockhands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out: at the precise instant of India's arrival at independence."
"I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps,. And outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment....I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon:, hade become heavily embroiled in fate."
Rushdie Books From the 1980s
“Shame” (1983) was Rushdie's second major novel. It was sharply critical of Pakistan and also won rave reviews. It was short listed for the Booker Prize. Many people thought Rushdie would be the first writer to win the award twice. Everybody thought it was going to win. Instead “Life and Times of Micheal K” by South African writer J.M. Coetzee won. At the awards ceremony there was a scuffle involving Rushdie or his supporters. After “Shame”, he wrote “The Jaguar Smile”, about his experience in Nicaragua with the Sandanistas. It was not as well received as his other books.
“The Satanic Verses” won favorable reviews but it end up landing Rushdie in a lot of trouble. Time wrote “The Satanic Verses” is "a long, sardonic novel, by turns philosophical and comic and fantastic...He explores the roots of his Muslim faith and retells some legends of the Prophet Muhammed in a whimsical and sometimes outrageous way."
Rushdie Books from the 1990s and 2000s
“The Moor's Last Sigh” showed that Rushdie had no intention of softening the political tone of his books. One of the characters in the book is based on Bal Thackery, the leader of the radical Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena group in India. Shiv Shena was accused of inciting the violence that lead to the death of 800 people in Bombay after Hindu radicals demolished the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992.
Describing why and how he included a sex scene in “The Moor’s Last Sigh”, Rushdie told the Los Angeles Times, "There's not much sex at all in Indian literature. And this, the country of Kama Sutra! The country with most erotic temple carvings in the world! By the time I wrote “The Moor's Last Sigh”, I realized I had never actually written a sex scene. I made myself solve this problem in several ways—indirectly, comically and directly—full frontal if you will."
Rushdie's novel “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” (Jonathan Cape, 1999) is about a female rock star who wakes up from a dream on Valentine's Day about human sacrifice in which she is the victim and is then swallowed up by an earthquake. The book then explores her Orpheus-like relationship with a male rock star from Bombay, who descends into the earth to try and rescue her. The novel was largely panned. In it are the lyrics to rock song Rushdie wrote with his good friend, Bono, the singer in the rock group of U2. Some of the lyrics go: "All my life, I worshipped her, her golden voice, her beauty's beat. How she must feel, and the ground beneath my feet." The lyrics appeared on a U2 album. It was the first time U2 used someone else's lyrics.
“Fury” (2001) was about a philosophy professor turned dollmaker who leaves his wife and son because he believes he might be accidently murdered when he flies off into maniacal rage. Newsweek called a “stunningly lousy book.”
Satanic Verses and the Fatwa
On February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Rubhollah Khomeini issued a “fatwa” (a Muslim edict) calling for a death sentence for Rushdie for blasphemizing the prophet Mohammed in his book “The Satanic Verses”. The fatwa read, "The author of the book and those involved are sentenced to death." Islamists were practically outraged by a description of a sexual tryst between the prophet and a prostitute.
The fatwa was issued a few months before the Ayatollah Khomeini died and on the same day Rushdie attended the funeral of close friend Bruce Chatwin. Khomeini issued it partly to rally his supporters who had been demoralized by the Iran-Iraq War and create discord and bitterness between the West and Iran. The fatwa was a rather audacious move. It was intended to be acted upon by Muslims everywhere. Rushdie was born a Muslim but he was not a Shiite as most Iranians are. He was a British citizen and had no ties to Iran.
A $1 million price was put on Rushdie's head and the author was forced to go into hiding. In 1997, the price on Rushdie's head was raised to $2.5 million, which the writer described as a cost of living increase. In May, 1999, the value of the price on Rushdie's head stood at $2.8 million.
India was the first country to ban "Satanic Verses." The fatwa was a major obstacle in diplomatic relations between the West and Iran. When Rushdie visited the U.S. shortly after the fatwa was decreed, President George Bush refused to meet with him. The death fatwa brought Rushdie worldwide attention that he otherwise would have not received. Literary supporters in London and New York wore buttons that said I AM SALMAN RUSHDIE.
Several people associated with Satanic verses were killed. In July 1991, Hitishi Igarshi, a Japanese scholar who translated the book, was stabbed to death, and Italian translator Ettore Capriolo, was wounded in a knife attack. In July 1993, the hotel of Aziz Nesin, a Turkish publisher of the book, was set on fire by a mob. Thirty seven people were killed but not Nesin. In October 1993, Norwegian translator William Nygaard was shot three times and seriously wounded. Bombs were planted in bookstores in Britain owned by Penguin, Rushdie's publisher.
In 1997, Rushdie and British John le Carre got into literary duel in the pages of the British newspaper, The Guardian. Rushdie called le Carre "an illiterate pompous ass" and le Carre called Rushdie a "self-canonizing" and "arrogant" man, insensitive to the dangers that his book has posed for others. The feud began when le Carre complained that he was the victim of a witch hunt by "politically correct" zealots who cast him as anti-Semitic. When he learned of the comment, Rushdie said he wished he had showed the same concern for him when Iran issued the “fatwa”.
Rushdie's Life After the Fatwa
After the fatwa was decreed Rushdie moved from safe house to safe house and was constantly watched by Scotland Yard security guards. The British government spent around $20 million to provide round-the-clock security for Rushdie for 10 years. Rushdie was moved between 30 different houses with a unit of Special Branch officers. To pass the time the officers played scrabble. British Airways had a policy in which Rushdie was not allowed to fly on its planes.
Rushdie said the most unbearable thing about the time he spent in hiding was not being able to act spontaneously: to go to a pub, see a movie or wander through a bookstore. While in hiding Rushdie wrote a children's book and released a collection of stories called “East, West”.
After the publication of his book “The Last Moor” in 1995, Rushdie made a number of unannounced appearances at social and literary events. In November, 1995, Rushdie was taken to a secret location after there were rumors of an attempt to assassinate him in Santiago, Chile. By 1996, his appearance and book signing was marked by only minimal security. He also showed up unannounced at cocktail parties and matches of his favorite soccer team, Tottenham Hot Spurs. In February 1999, Salman Rushdie was granted his first visa to visit his homeland since the 1980s.
Describing security on trip to India in 2000, Rushdie wrote, "My protection team couldn't be nicer or more efficient, but, gosh, there are a lot of them, and they are jumpy. In Old Delhi, where many Muslims live, they are especially on edge, particularly whenever, in spite of my cloak of invisibility, a member of the public commits the faux pas of recognizing me.”
Fatwa on Rushdie's Life Ends
In September 1998, Iran restored relations with Britain and distanced itself, but didn't completely lift, the fatwa against Rushdie because it could not rescind a Khomeini decree. A carefully negotiated statement read: "The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has no intention, nor is going to take any action whatsoever to threaten the life of the author of the Satanic Verses, or anybody associated with that work, nor will it encourage or assist anybody to do so." After the release of the statement, Rushdie said, "Well it looks like it is over. At the same time an Iran state newspaper reported: “Fatwa can not be changed or withdrawn.”
Iran had dropped hints for a while that the fatwa might be dropped. In 1996, some Iranian leaders said the fatwa was "only theoretical." Radical groups refused to recognize the end of the fatwa. One extremist group in Iran chanted, "Remember our faces, Salman Rushdie. We will kill you." The conservative 15 Khordad Association raised the bounty on Rushdie to $2.8 million. In 1999, 508 Iranians offered to sell their kidneys to fund the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated June 2015