The magic and mayhem of Salman Rushdie

When Salman Rushdie graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in history in 1968 and said he wanted to be a writer, his father yelped in pain.

“What,” he cried, “will I tell my friends?”

Events eventually forced Anis Rushdie, a barrister who had also graduated from Cambridge, to change his opinion. Nineteen years later, on his 40th birthday, in June 1987, Rushdie says he received his most precious communication – a letter from his father praising his books. By then, he was a famous author, having won the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children in 1981 and followed that up with another acclaimed novel, Shame, about Pakistan, in 1983 and The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, in 1987.

His father did not live much longer. Five months after that letter, he died at 77 of myeloma – cancer of the bone marrow.

Soon after began Rushdie’s own tribulations. In September 1988, The Satanic Verses was published and immediately condemned by Muslims. India was the first country to ban the book followed by Pakistan in November 1988. In February 1989, on Valentine’s Day, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against Rushdie, calling for his death, accusing him of blasphemy.

Britain and Iran broke off relations over the fatwa.

Born in Bombay, Rushdie went to England to be a student at Rugby School at the age of 13 and was a British national. Living in London with his second wife, the American writer Marianne Wiggins, when the fatwa was issued, he was immediately given police protection, the police also keeping an eye on his first wife, Clarissa Luard, and their nine-year-old son, Zafar, who were Londoners too.

Later, Rushdie wrote about the more than 13 years he spent under police protection in Joseph Anton, his autobiography published in 2012. Joseph Anton was the pseudonym he adopted while in hiding, borrowing the names of the writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

Britain and Iran gradually normalised relations in the 1990s. In 1998, Iran’s pro-reform government of President Mohammad Khatami distanced itself from the fatwa, saying the threat against Rushdie was over. But in 2019, Twitter suspended Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s account over a tweet that said the fatwa against Rushdie was “irrevocable”.

However, Rushdie, living in New York, apparently felt safe enough and moved about freely. The writer, who became a US citizen in 2016, said in a recent interview that life had become almost normal. How wrong he was became horribly clear when he was brutally assaulted at a literary event in western New York on August 12 this year (2022).

A 24-year-old man from New Jersey jumped on stage and savagely stabbed the 75-year-old writer in the neck and abdomen more than 10 times. A helicopter flew him to hospital where initially he was put on a ventilator. Subsequent reports said he might lose an eye and be maimed for life.

The media has been quick to link the assault to the Iranian fatwa.

Iran has denied any involvement but is apparently not sorry. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said, “In this case, we don’t blame or condemn anyone except Salman Rushdie and his supporters.”

In other words, Rushdie deserved what he got. He had it coming. That seems to be the Iranian line.

The conscience seems clear also of the 24-year-old arrested by the police. He pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and assault.

But, according to preliminary reports, Hadi Matar, the alleged assailant, is a textbook example of a potential terrorist. Born in America to Lebanese parents, he is a loner who “barely worked” and has no girlfriend, reported Fox News. He lived with his mother, who said he changed after a visit to Lebanon to see his father in 2018. She explained she divorced his father in 2004.Matar was said to be sympathetic to “Shia extremism” and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

The attack, so unexpected, so long in coming after the fatwa was issued more than 40 years ago, reminded me of one of Rushdie’s novels: Shalimar the Clown, published in 2005.

It’s the story of Shalimar the Clown, a Kashmiri terrorist. But there are differences. Shalimar becomes a terrorist after his wife has an affair with the American ambassador who takes her to Delhi and has a daughter by her.

Eventually, the ambassador returns to America, taking the daughter with him, while the wife returns to her village in Kashmir. Shalimar waits for years to take his revenge – first on his wife and then goes to America to kill the ambassador and the latter’s daughter. The daughter is 24 years old when Shalimar kills the ambassador.

Matar, unlike Shalimar, had no personal scores to settle when he allegedly stabbed Rushdie. Only 24 years old, he wasn’t even born when The Satanic Verses was published and the fatwa issued.

But, apparently, like Shalimar, he also planned the assault. Prosecutors said the attack was premeditated. Matar travelled by bus to Chautauqua and bought a pass to attend the event at the Chautauqua Institution where Rushdie was invited to speak. Matar allegedly struck with a knife. A knife was also Shalimar’s favoured weapon.

We were shocked by the attack. But the spy thriller writer John le Carre said long ago commenting on the fatwa against Rushdie, “There is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.” Le Carre, who died in 2020, can’t be asked to give his views on the attack, but he was aware of the danger though Rushdie resented his words.

I haven’t read The Satanic Verses, only its opening and can’t forget the scene. The book opens with two Indian actors, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, falling into the English Channel from a hijacked airliner after it explodes in mid-air following a bomb explosion. Rushdie describes the two men falling from the sky – Gibreel singing the Bollywood legend Raj Kapoor’s Mera Joota Hai Japani (“My shoes are Japanese”) and Saladin in a bowler hat reciting Rule Britannia! The scenario is so far out, it’s indelible.

Why did Rushdie have to write about the Prophet later in the book and anger the Muslim world? It has taken such a terrible toll. Its Japanese translator was stabbed to death, its Italian translator injured, its Norwegian publisher shot and wounded. There have been riots. Now Rushdie himself is a victim.

Rushdie has never shied off hot topics, excoriating Indira Gandhi in Midnight’s Children, scrutinising Pakistan in Shame, portraying Indian gangsters and zealots in The Moor’s Last Sigh, and lamenting the tragedy of Kashmir in Shalimar the Clown. The tirades and threnodies are part of his take on the world, which includes coverage of the music and entertainment scene in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, writing about coups, the internet and New York in Fury, and travel back in time to the court of Akbar the Mughal emperor and Renaissance Italy in The Enchantress of Florence.

But clearly, he went too far in The Satanic Verses.

As Rushdie’s English teacher at Rugby commented ruefully on TV the day after Khomeini issued the fatwa: “Who’d have thought a nice, quiet boy like him could get into so much trouble?”

I had no idea how controversial Rushdie would eventually be when he won the Booker Prize in 1981. That was big news in India.

Other Indians have won the Booker since then: Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things in 1997, Kiran Desai for The Inheritance of Loss in 2006, Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger in 2008.

But Rushdie was the first, after the Trinidad-born VS Naipaul, of course, who won for In A Free State in 1971.

Rushdie won by the narrowest of margins, three votes to two. The writers Malcolm Bradbury and Brian Aldiss voted in favour of DM Thomas for The White Hotel, but the TV presenter Joan Bakewell, critic Hermione Lee and Prof Sam Hynes of Princeton University preferred Midnight’s Children.

A successful advertising copywriter whose debut novel, Grimus, failed to click, Rushdie was second time lucky, with Midnight’s Children. He went for broke with the novel, quitting his job to go to India with his first wife, Clarissa Luard, to remember what it was like. He set out to create his own language, English but Indian too, colourful and exotic like the stories he told, fantastical with the spell of magic realism.

A pop music lover, I was swept away by The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I can think of no other novel covering the music with so much brio. It’s a love letter from a fan.

Amusingly, in his essay Rock Music, in 1999, Rushdie recalled: “After she became aware of my fondness for Bill Haley, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, my own alarmed mother eagerly began to advocate the virtues of Pat Boone, a man who once sang a sentimental ballad addressed to a mule. But singing to mules wasn’t what I was after. I was trying to imitate the curl of Presley’s lips and the swoon-inducing rotation of his hips, and I suspect boys everywhere, from Siberia to Patagonia, were doing the same.”

Yes, Rushdie can be funny, witty, entertaining.

My favourite image from Rushdie, however, appears at the end of his novel, Fury, published in 2001. Where the protagonist, Professor Malik Solanka, tries to catch the attention of his son, Asmaan, after having left his wife, the boy’s mother, Eleanor, who is now with another man. Seeing the three of them at a funfair in London, the professor tries to catch the boy’s eye by climbing up the stairs of a bouncy castle, startling onlookers, and jumping up and down like a child.

“’Look at me!’ shrieked Professor Malik Solanka, his leather coattails flapping like wings. ‘Look at me, Asmaan! I’m bouncing very well. I’m bouncing higher and higher!’”

That’s typical of Rushdie. He always wants to go higher and higher. That’s why his novels can be so baggy and sprawling, so full of incidents, allusions, so over the top.

Rushdie is a fabulist, meshing myths, fables, current affairs and his own vivid imagination to write about extraordinary things, forsaking the humdrum and the mundane.

Maybe that’s art following life, his life.

Married four times, he was divorced from his most recent wife, Padma Lakshmi, in 2007 after three years of marriage. Even his parents, Anis and Negin Rushdie, who left Bombay and settled in Karachi late in life, were unusual, unlike others of their class and time. Theirs was a second marriage. Both had been married before.

With such an unusual life story, of course, Rushdie couldn’t be like other people. He had to be a maverick.

One can only pray that he will recover from his injuries and continue to write.
Rushdie has a book coming out in February next year: Victory City. May there be more.

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