Ahmed Salman Rushdie (ROOSH-dee) may be the most famous novelist of the Indian diaspora, though for some unfortunate reasons. Born into an affluent Muslim family in India, Rushdie began his education in 1954 at Bombay’s Cathedral School. Rushdie’s family sent him to Rugby, one of England’s finest boys’ schools, when he was thirteen. In 1964, during a war between India and Pakistan, his family moved to Karachi, Pakistan, where Rushdie spent his school vacations. From 1965 to 1968, he attended King’s College at Cambridge University, where he read history with an emphasis on Islamic religion and culture. After graduation, he returned to the East, joining his parents in the new state of Pakistan and working briefly for Pakistani television. Within a year he returned to England as a result of political difficulties arising from his Pakistani production of Edward Albee’s play The Zoo Story–specifically because of the play’s reference to “pork.”
In London from 1968 to 1970, Rushdie tried to become a professional actor at the experimental Oval House theater. He worked sporadically as an advertising copywriter from 1969 to 1981. Through the 1970’s, he wrote fiction on the side, but his first novel, Grimus, sold badly and was poorly received by critics. Rushdie visited Pakistan and India for five months in 1974 in preparation for writing his second novel, Midnight’s Children. With that novel’s publication in 1981, his literary fortunes changed. He married an Englishwoman, Clarissa Luard, in 1976, and they had a son; their marriage ended in divorce. In 1983, Rushdie became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1988, he married the American novelist Marianne Wiggins; they divorced in 1989.
Rushdie is a humorous but deeply serious writer who often takes generous liberties with the excesses of all forms of authoritarianism. Not an easy novelist to read, he demands considerable intelligence of his readers and a capacity to follow enormously complicated labyrinths of mischievous improvisation. As a literary form, the novel can be digressive, unstructured, and parodic; it can also be mockingly satiric, salacious, pornographic, and spiritedly tasteless. Midnight’s Children is all these things, a collection of social, religious, political, and psychological comment, loosely glued together by the wild idea that at the midnight hour on the first day of Indian independence from Great Britain (August 14, 1947), 1,001 children were born in India with unusual gifts, ranging from intense beauty to the ability to change sex to the narrator’s own ability to communicate with other children in his head. This blending of history and fantasy is in the tradition of Magical Realism. The novel garnered the 1981 Booker Prize, Britain’s highest award for fiction.
Similar to Midnight’s Children in theme and style, Rushdie’s next book, Shame, was also received with critical enthusiasm and nominated for the Booker Prize. When he did not win the prize, he astounded the audience at the award ceremony by publicly protesting his loss. (The novel did win the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger.) In 1986, he was invited to Nicaragua as a guest of the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers; afterward, he wrote the extended journalistic book The Jaguar Smile, which severely criticized U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s policies in Nicaragua, particularly his aid in arming the counterrevolutionary Contra army.
Rushdie’s work, however, did not really come to public attention until 1989, shortly after the September 26, 1988, publication of The Satanic Verses, just in time to be nominated for the Booker Prize. Although the novel did not win the award, it was favorably reviewed. From the beginning, however, the book’s references to religion and Rushdie’s depiction of the Muslim prophet Muhammad caused unrest in the large immigrant Muslim community in England. On October 5, its sale was banned in India, and on October 24 in South Africa. Within weeks, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states had joined the ban. By early 1989, the situation had exploded into worldwide controversy. A group of Muslims burned a copy of the book as a public protest on January 14, 1989, in Bradford, England, a town with a large Pakistani population. On February 12, a riot erupted at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, protesting the set February 15 publication date for the American edition. Police defending the embassy killed five people and injured more than a hundred others. On the following day, similar riots broke out in Kashmir, leaving another person dead and a hundred more injured. The Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, proclaimed a fatwa ordering Rushdie’s execution, offering a reward of $1 million or more, depending on the executioner’s nationality. In response to the clamor and support for the fatwa from fundamentalist Muslims throughout the world, Rushdie went into hiding in England on February 14, 1989; he would later receive protection from Scotland Yard. Diplomatic relations between Iran and countries that protested Khomeini’s threat were seriously disrupted and, in some cases, severed. Although Muslims burned copies of The Satanic Verses, attacked shops where it was sold, and wounded its Norwegian publisher, the novel became a best-seller and remained in print. Despite Rushdie’s publication of an apology confirming his respect for Islam, the fatwa and the harassment continued.
Rushdie continued publishing collections of stories, essays, interviews, reviews, and novels, including The Moor’s Last Sigh in 1995. This novel did not antagonize Muslims, but it did anger ultranationalist Hindus. The Shiv Sena, an extremist political party in India, called for a ban on importation of the book. Although not optimistic about diplomatic negotiations to lift the fatwa, Rushdie began making public appearances in early 1996 to publicize his new novel, attending lectures and book signings in England, South America, and Australia. In 1997, Rushdie married Elizabeth West, with whom he had a second son. In 1998 the Iranian government removed the fatwa, and Rushdie soon decided to come out of hiding altogether. In 1999, the novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet appeared; set in the world of hedonistic rock stars, it combines elements of mythology and science fiction in a retelling of the Oedipus myth.
In early 2000, Rushdie left West after falling in love with an actress and moved from London to New York City. Soon after this relocation, Fury appeared, in which Malik Solanka, a former Cambridge professor, abandons his family in fear that he is a danger to them and tries to find a new life in New York City. In 2003, responding to a question about what life was like following the fatwa, Rushdie commented that he “had this sense that there were all these lines people were telling me not to cross. . . . And the only way to do it was to step across it. . . . I had to do that for a long time and eventually got back here.” This metaphor for his experience provided the title for his 2002 collection of essays, Step Across This Line.
Among the many awards that Rushdie has won in addition to the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children are the “Booker of Bookers” for the best novel to have won the prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread Prize, the Writers Guild Award; and Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, France’s highest artistic honor.