Born in Bombay to Muslim parents, raised among Hindus and Sikhs, educated in England, and now living in New York, novelist Salman Rusdie (1947-) is a walking embodiment of post-modernism and post-colonialism. His devilishly clever and quirky novels, steeped in both realism and fantasy, are for many the literary voice of modern India. Rushdie’s novels address a host of political and religious issues, especially the tense relationship between Hinduism and Islam in India and Pakistan.
Ironically, much of Rushdie’s fame is due not to his remarkable writing, but to the furor that erupted in response to his novel The Satanic Verses (1988). The novel contains passages that many Muslims perceived as blasphemous slights against the Prophet Muhammad. The novel was banned in India, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, and violent public protests and book burnings were widespread, from the Middle East to Great Britain. In early 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death and exhorting Muslims worldwide to track him down. Rushdie spent the better part of a decade in hiding, protected by agents from Scotland Yard.
The notoriety of The Satanic Verses often eclipses Rushdie’s greatest achievement, Midnight’s Children (1981). The novel’s protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the day India won independence from Great Britain and Pakistan was partitioned off as a separate nation. Like the hundreds of other “midnight children” born during the same hour, Saleem has supernatural powers, and events in his life mirror developments in the young nation of India as a whole. Elements of the story are autobiographical—Rushdie himself was born in Bombay in 1947—but much of Midnight’s Children takes place in a fantastical landscape, following in the footsteps of Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and other pioneers of magic realism. The novel earned Rushdie the Booker Prize in 1981.
Though Rushdie will forever be associated with the ayatollah’s death sentence against him, his novels are actually quite light-hearted, celebrated for their inventive use of language. His prose is like a verbal jungle gym, full of allusions and playful tricks. His characters, like Rushdie himself, represent the modern immigrant experience and the intermingling of cultures in today’s world. Rushdie has continues to write in this vein despite the threats against his life, producing the novels Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), among others.
Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale