Salman Rushdie: A Bio-Literary Introduction

Salman Rushdie: A Bio-Literary Introduction

Born in Mumbai, to Anis Ahmed and Negis Rushdie, on 19 June 1947 – when the high drama of the independence of India and the caesarian birth of Pakistan was on the airs with an impressive star surgeon-cast of Mountbatten, Nehru and Jinnah, Ahmed Salman Rushdie is the acclaimed author of many a novel – Grimus, Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury, Shalimar the Clown, and The Enchantress of Florence – the last one in 2008 itselfand one book of stories, East, West, as well as three works of non-fiction—Imaginary Homelands, The Jaguar Smile, and Step Across This Line.

The young Salman had his schooling in Bombay – Cathedral School (1954–61) – and at Rugby (1961–65) in Warwickshire, England. As for college, he is a product of King’s College, Cambridge, from where he did his MA in history in 1965–68. This is the reason why the interplay of history and individual is a prominent characteristic with his literature. There he had joined the Cambridge Footlights theatre company. Before this, in 1962, his family had moved to England only to return to Bombay soon afterwards. Two years after, they moved to Karachi, Pakistan with a view to settling there. After his postgraduation, he returned in 1968 to Karachi where he worked briefly for the Pakistan TV. Embittered with its heavy censorship, with which he has never been comfortable but with which (politico-religious fatwa) he is destined to live, he returned to London.

Read: Acknowledgement

In London also, he did not disentangle his ties with the cine-world. In 1968–69, he became an actor with the Oval House productions, Kennington, London. There, he also worked with the television, advertising and publishing industry. Later during 1970–80, he worked freelance as an advertising copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather in London. Rushdie has also produced a documentary film. The Painter and the Pest saw the light in 1985. Similarly, in 1988, he wrote and produced The Riddle of Midnight, a documentary for Channel 4 television. In 1992, he published The Wizard of Oz for the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series. Rushdie has always been associated with the issue of migration. For example, during 1977–83 he worked as a member of the Camden Committee of Community Relations on projects in North London to help Bangladeshi immigrants.

Meanwhile, after a six-year-long affair, he married Clarissa Luard in 1976. During this, he also visited India with her. His son Zafar – with whom he travelled to India much later in 2000 to claim for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize – was born in 1979. This marriage was dissolved in 1987. The next year he married American author Marianne Wiggins. In August 1989, they separated and in 1993, the relationship was dissolved. In 1997, Rushdie married Elizabeth West. From this communion, son Milan took birth. His marriage to Elizabeth West was dissolved in 2003. Next year in April, he married Padma Lakshmi.

Linguistic Experimentalist

The highly commended Midnight’s Children is his second novel, the year of publication being 1981. As chronicled elsewhere[i], the novel won, among other awards, the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1981, Booker of Bookers in 1993 and the Best of the Bookers in 2008 to have been the best novel to have won the Booker Prize for Fiction in the award’s 40-years history. The author raised a sort of literary storm with the publication of this novel, the colossal popularity of which rests on two things: the innovative use of English as a language, and the incredible use and representation of history.

Rushdie is a linguistic experimentalist par excellence who uses his tools in a startingly imagist way. Through his novels, he destroys the native rhythms of the queen’s language and dislocates, or rather rediscovers English by Indianising, revitalising and decolonising the language. The use of regionalised English provides a sort of authenticity and credibility to the novel and helps it achieve the unequivocally postcolonial and postmodernist personality. As a novelist of migrancy, he employs a consciously crafted and hybrid language. As such, he uses not only the local idiom of Mumbai and Islamabad but some Latin and Arabic words as well. Some of the dazzling examples are ‘mucuna pruritis’, ‘feronia elephanticus’, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’ (Latin), ‘kam ma kam’, ‘fiqadin azzaman’, ‘tilk al-gharaniq al’, and ‘ula wa inna shafa ata-hunna la-turtaja’ (Arabic).

Read: Structure of the Thesis

As we will see later (in chapter IV of the dissertation), the novel narrates key events in the history of India through the story of pickle-factory worker Saleem Sinai. Salman Rushdie uses food as a recurring motif and his texts can be approached as a feast, with his narrators as the cooks, setting different dishes of memory and experience before the reader. Rushdie himself forthrightly acknowledges the link between the preservation of memory and the preservation of food: Saleem, of course, is a cook. But not so an average cook:

You are amazed; but then I am not, you see, one of your 200-rupees-a-month cookery johnnies, but my own master, working beneath the saffron and green winking of my personal neon goddess. And my chutneys and kasaundies are, after all, connected to my nocturnal scribblings — by day amongst the pickle-vats, by night within these sheets, I spend my time at the great work of preserving. Memory, as well as fruit, is being saved from the corruption of the clocks.[ii]

Saleem refers to each chapter as a ‘pickle’:

One empty jar . . . how to end? Happily, with Mary in her teak rocking-chair and a son who has begun to speak? Amid recipes, and thirty jars with chapter-headings for names?[iii]

Critical Acclaims

The protagonist is one of 1001 supernaturally powered children born as India won independence from Britain on August 15, 1947. The critic Malcolm Bradbury has acclaimed the novel’s achievement as ‘a new start for the late-twentieth-century novel’.[iv] Salman Rushdie was influenced by writers like Dickens, Gogol, Calvino, Kundera and Gunter Grass, in his development as a novelist. He is equally adept at non-fiction. Few would deny the eloquence and force of Rushdie’s non-fiction writing. His essays and reviews, many of them collected in Imaginary Homelands and Step Across the Line, are more often than not sharp-toothed but illuminating polemics on topics as different as the failure of black film-makers to tell populist stories, the Raj revival of the early 1980s, and the relationship between politics and the novel.

A Fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Salman Rushdie has received, among other awards, the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel (twice), the European Union’s Aristeion Prize for Literature, Author of the Year Prizes in both Britain and Germany, the Budapest Grand Prize for Literature, the Premio Grinzane Cavour in Italy, and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. He holds the rank of Commandeur in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest artistic honour. From 2004 to 2006 he served as President of PEN American Center and continues to work as president of the PEN World Voices International Literary Festival, which he helped create.

Amitav Ghosh: A Chronicler of the Other

In June 2007 he was knighted for services to literature. His books have been translated into more than 40 languages. Films are in production-stage of both Midnight’s Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Salman Rushdie is Honorary Professor in the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was made Distinguished Fellow in Literature at the University of East Anglia in 1995. He was awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1993 and the Aristeion Literary Prize in 1996 and has received eight honorary doctorates. In 2002 he was elected to the Board of American PEN. The subjects in his Step Across This Line: Collected Non-fiction 1992-2002, range from popular culture and football to twentieth-century literature and politics.

Salman Rushdie is also co-author (with Tim Supple and Simon Reade) of the stage adaptation of Midnight’s Children, premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2002. Salman Rushdie became a KBE in 2007. In 2008, his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence (2008), was published and Midnight’s Children won the ‘Best of the Booker’ Prize. He also co-edited The Best American Short Stories (2008) with Heidi Pitlor. A rather recent announcement by the Saint Louis University[v] is that Sir Salman Rushdie is receiving the 42nd Saint Louis Literary Award, 2009 on Wednesday, October 7, 2009, on the University campus. The Award has earlier been won by such distinguished figures in literature as Joyce Carol Oates, Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Arthur Miller, Joan Didion, and others.

Amitav Ghosh: An Ethnographer of the Other

Midnight’s Children was adapted for the stage in 2003. Rushdie had written a five-hour script for the BBC. The production was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with financial assistance from the University of Michigan and Columbia University. After its London run, it played in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in New York for twelve performances in 2003.

Slumdog Millionaire

More lately, ironically, a writer whose own characters have included telepaths and angels chose to take serious issue with the credibility of the year’s Oscars sensation Slumdog Millionaire. “The movie piles impossibility on impossibility,” he said in a lecture at Emory University in Atlanta, raising questions over how the characters end up at the Taj Mahal, 1,000 miles from where they were in the previous scene, and how they manage to get their hands on a gun in India.

Moreover, he also criticised Indian diplomat-author Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A (2005) of which the movie is an adaptation. “The problem with this adaptation begins with the work being adapted,” he clarified. Slumdog Millionaire is a 2008 British film directed by Danny Boyle, written by Simon Beaufoy, and co-directed in India by Loveleen Tandan. Nominated for ten Academy Awards in 2009, the film won eight, the most for any film of 2008, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It also won seven BAFTA Awards (including Best Film), five Critics’ Choice Awards, and four Golden Globes. The film has stirred controversy – just as Salman Rushdie’s books generate – concerning language use, its portrayals of Indians and Hinduism, and the welfare of its child actors.

The White Tiger: Fiction or Political Treatise

Shame (1983) is the author’s third novel. A lot many critics see it as an allegory of the politics in Pakistan. It went on to win the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger. Needless to say, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Salman Rushdie continues to write and publish books. His literature includes a children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), a warning about the dangers of story-telling that won the Writers’ Guild Award (Best Children’s Book), and which he adapted for the stage (with Tim Supple and David Tushingham). It was first staged at the Royal National Theatre, London.

There followed a book of essays entitled Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 (1991); East, West (1994), a book of short stories; and a novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), the history of the wealthy Zogoiby family told through the story of Moraes Zogoiby, a young man from Bombay descended from Sultan Muhammad XI, the last Muslim ruler of Andalucía.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet was published in 1999. It re-works the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the context of modern popular music. His other recent novel, Fury, set in New York at the beginning of the third millennium, was published in 2001. He is also the author of a travel narrative, The Jaguar Smile (1987), an account of a visit to Nicaragua in 1986. Shalimar The Clown is the story of Max Ophuls, his killer and daughter, and a fourth character who links them all was published in 2005. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Whitbread Novel Award. Moreover, there is an unpublished novel by Salman Rushdie: The Book of the Pir. In 1969, Rushdie had started work on this.

The Satanic Verses

The publication in 1988 of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, lead to accusations of blasphemy against Islam and demonstrations by Islamic fundamentalists in India and Pakistan. The orthodox Iranian leadership issued a fatwa against Rushdie on 14 February 1989 – effectively a sentence of death – and he was forced into hiding under the protection of the British government and police. The book itself centres on the adventures of two Indian actors, Gibreel and Saladin, who fall to earth in Britain when their Air India jet explodes. It won the Whitbread Novel Award in 1988.

The Satanic Verses was banned in India, Bangladesh, Sudan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore, Venezuela and Poland, etc. Mass protests against the novel were organised in London. Public burning of the book @ Bradford was staged on January 14th 1989. The same year, on 14 February, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared the fatwa on Radio Tehran sentencing Rushdie, his publishers and translators to death.[vi] 15 February: a bounty of £1.5 million was placed on his head. Rushdie went into hiding.

The Satanic Curses

In 1990, he published In Good Faith, and Is Nothing Sacred? These are essays explicating the novel in question. The Herbert Read memorial lecture was given in his absence by Harold Pinter. In the month of July, Rushdie’s Italian translator Ettore Capriolo barely survived a stabbing attack in Milan. His Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in Tokyo. Thus, The Satanic Verses became ‘the satanic curses’.

In 1993, on 11th August, Rushdie walked on stage during a U2 concert at Wembley Stadium. The shadow of the threat had not yet vanished. He met John Major. Later, he visited the US and met President Clinton. He was made Honorary Vice President of PEN America and Honorary Professor at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, the bloodbath did not let itself go unnoticed. Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was shot dead outside his home in Oslo. In 1995, the year of the publication by Jonathan Cape of The Moor’s Last Sigh – which later went on to win the Whitbread Award for Best Fiction, Rushdie made his first pre-announced public appearance, in London, since the inception of the fatwa. It may be noted that in 1998, on 24 September, at the UN general assembly, the Iranian government officially distances itself from the fatwa.

The White Tiger: Nation-State Dichotomy

Earlier, in 1996, Rushdie had co-edited with Elizabeth West The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947–1997. Later, in 1999, India granted Rushdie a five-year visa. Publication of The Screenplay of Midnight’s Children, by Vintage, occurred this very year. Rushdie travelled to India, with his son Zafar, for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2000. The Royal Shakespeare Company premiered the play adaptation of Midnight’s Children at the Barbican Centre, London in 2003. Rushdie became the President of PEN America.

Today, Rushdie is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University, and in 2006 placed his archive of private journals, correspondence and manuscripts in the university’s library. He will be giving occasional lectures there over a period of five years. Notably, a film version of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, long thought as unfilmable, is currently in the works, and is scheduled for release in 2010.

To sum up this short introduction about the life and letters of Salman Rushdie, his novels do have autobiographical shades. In his own language, literature is ‘an interim report’ from the artist’s conscience, and it is ‘made at the frontier between the self and the world.’[vii] They are not the history of the individual named Salman Rushdie, rather they are the fictionalized historical accounts of the individual entities named India and Pakistan. Still, Rushdie is not writing a history textbook or for that matter, a reference book on the history of India. He presents ‘imaginary truth’, which relates not to a particular country:

It relates to India, it relates to Asia. It relates to most of the Third World as an idea.[viii]



[i] Literary Biographia, Appendices

[ii] Midnight’s Children, 38

[iii] Midnight’s Children, 550

[iv] The Modern British Novel, Penguin, 1994.

[v] Its journal (Volume 2, Issue 7, March 2009)

[vi] In the name of Him, the Highest. There is only one God, to whom we shall all return. I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses – which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an – and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr.

In addition, anyone who has access to the author of this book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should report him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions. May peace and the mercy of God and His blessings be with you.

—- Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini, 25 Bahman 1367 [February 14, 1989]

[vii] Imaginary Homelands, 427

[viii] Gentleman, April 1984, 66

7 thoughts on “Salman Rushdie: A Bio-Literary Introduction”

  1. Pingback: Chapter 2: Critical Reception of Rushdie's Novels - Avinaux

  2. Pingback: Rushdie's Novels as Historiographic Metafiction - Avinaux

  3. Pingback: Narcissistic Narrative in Rushdie's Novels - Avinaux

  4. Pingback: Salman Rushdie and the War of Civilizations - Avinaux

  5. Pingback: Thesis on Salman Rushdie - A Thematic Overview - Avinaux

  6. Pingback: Salman Rushdie - Insider by Birth, Outsider by Choice - Avinaux

  7. Pingback: Intro to Midnight's Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses - Avinaux

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *