On the eve of India’s 75th anniversary of independence (August 15), the 75-year-old Salman Rushdie was stabbed multiple times on stage in New York. Thankfully, the author survived the attack. But you might be wondering how a writer came to be the target of such violence.
If you’re only getting to know Rushdie as a result of this incident, you’re about to discover how his work has changed literature, inspired generations of writers and also been deeply dividing.
A chronicler of Indian modernity through fantastical plot twists and detailed evocations of urban life, Salman Rushdie’s narratorial voice is conspiratorial, irreverent and chatty. His tone alternates between arrogant and self-deprecating. His style is somehow both street-smart and highbrow.
Rushdie’s confident embrace of this dizzying collision of opposites totally rewrote the rules of the global literary game. In 15 works of fiction (12 novels, two children’s books and a short story collection) and an eclectic body of non-fiction (including anthologies of essays, a memoir and a travelogue), he compelled western readers and writers to look away from literature’s North Atlantic centre of gravity.
His early work redefined literary critical studies through centring the exploration of postcoloniality, or the condition of the once-colonised, as an indispensable concern of the academic discipline. His boldest innovation was to link together the big story of the nation and the little stories of ordinary people by adapting the Latin American technique of “magic realism” for South Asia.
Much of the controversy surrounding Rushdie took place in the late 80s and early 90s, which is also when some of his best books were published. Here is a brief introduction to some his most important works, to inspire a new generation of readers of an author who is considered by many to be the greatest literary voice of his time.
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His influential novel of 1981, the Booker prize-winning Midnight’s Children, is a work of magic realism, in which the fantastic and the ordinary coexist in the fictional realm. The book’s protagonist, Salim Sinai, is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15 1947, which grants him telepathic powers.
Midnight on August 15 is the moment that India, in the words of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, “awakened to light and freedom”. But independence was also conjoined with the violent and traumatic partitioning of British India into the new nations of Pakistan and India. Midnight’s Children brilliantly captures these contradictions through Salim and his family’s history.
With Partition, Pakistan declared itself a homeland for British India’s Muslims. Salim is born into a modern Muslim family in Bombay, just like his creator was. Such people, according to the logic of Partition, would have moved to Pakistan. However, the novel unambigiously shows Salim as belonging to Bombay, a city of, a city of many diverse, dissenting but coexisting groups.
Yet the novel’s stylistic bravado conceals a tragic underlay. Rushdie uses fiction to open up a deeply personal reality: the consequences of his family’s choice to stay in India like so many other Indian Muslims did.
The Indian Muslim Salim, Rushdie’s alter ego, is a nocturnal chutney maker who is literally cracking apart. Through this ridiculous protagonist of an epic tale, Rushdie celebrates and mourns the creation of the Indian Muslim as a permanent minority in a secular nation.
Rushdie’s subsequent novel, Shame (1983), is an embittered indictment of those, including his own family members, who chose Pakistan, a country that the novel depicts as mired in corruption, debauchery, patriarchy and self-loathing.
The Satanic Verses
Rushdie has strenuously insisted on his atheism, but his fiction is deeply marked by two religions that have long occupied the space of the Indian subcontinent: Islam and Hinduism.
The Satanic Verses brings together the birth of Islam with the impact of Britain’s history on those who migrated there from its former colonies. The novel collapses dream and reality, the scatological and the sacred.
Characters tumble through space and time, irrevocably entangling Islam’s birth with the birth of the postcolonial subject. This is how, Rushdie says, “newness enters the world”. But even his unbridled imagination could not predict the novel’s fallout.
Published in 1988, The Satanic Verses contains a psychologically sharp evocation of Islam’s emergence from the desert geography, tribal politics and worship of multiple gods, that characterised pre-Islamic Arabia.
Ironically, a novel about remaking the self through migration attracted the ire of Britain’s Muslim communities for its supposedly blasphemous depiction of Islam’s founder, the prophet Muhammad, among other issues. Following escalating tensions worldwide, in 1989, Iran’s political and religious head, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa (religious decree) calling for Rushdie’s death.
Rushdie’s novel changed the ways we must think about modernity’s relationship to secularism. On the personal and artistic level, too, it had life-changing repercussions. The novelist went into hiding for over a decade, as his moving memoir, Joseph Anton, relates.
In free fall after the fatwa
Two big novels about Islam in India followed. The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), which connects Islam in India to its Andalusian roots and Shalimar the Clown (2005), which is about its relationship to the Kashmir conflict. But there is a clear watershed between the irreverent imagination of the pre-fatwa days and the increasingly portentous, belaboured character of his subsequent fiction.
The far-reaching consequences of the fatwa are foretold in Rushdie’s poignant fable of 1990, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which narrates a storyteller’s silencing by Khattam-shud (“The Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech”), and his son Haroun’s efforts to restore his voice.
The fatwa’s repercussions have violently resurfaced in the recent attack on Rushdie, even as India and Pakistan celebrate their 75th anniversary of independence. Being stabbed in the neck, almost losing his vision and his voice, this incident has touched all those in South Asia and the world battling Khattam-shud-like figures. They are the Harouns of today.
Ananya Jahanara Kabir received funding from the AHRC and the British Academy for the research that went into this article.