Yore Lore: Salman Rushdie

Most of us have heard of Salman Rushdie. It may be no more than remembering a Seinfeld episode in which Kramer is convinced that he met Rushdie in a New York health club, or no more than knowing that he is a highly controversial writer. Who is Salman Rushdie, though? What has made him such a famous writer?

Rushdie was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India on June 19, 1947, approximately two months before India gained independence from Britain. He was the only son of Anis Ahmed Rushdie, a University of Cambridge-educated lawyer-turned-businessman, and Negin Bhatt, a teacher. His parents were devout Muslims, and Rushdie grew up a believer in the Islamic faith. After the partition of India and Pakistan, many of the Rushdies’ relatives moved to Pakistan, but Salman Rushdie’s family decided to stay in Bombay, partially so that Salman Rushdie could receive a British education.

Rushdie’s family was wealthy, and as an only son he was a pampered member of the family. When he was 14, Rushdie left for England to attend Rugby School. Here, he was treated as an outsider, despite his previous British education, because of his ethnic descent.

After graduating from Rugby School, he went to Pakistan, where his family had moved since he had left for England. However, he now fit into neither Indian nor Pakistani cultural contexts due to his British school and cultural training. After much urging from his father, Rushdie decided to attend Cambridge, where he had won a scholarship. At this time in his life, Rushdie did not wish to return to England, but felt it was his only choice. He describes his return to England at this point as “one of the most disorienting moments of my life.”
Upon graduation, and after trying out different jobs, Rushdie published his first book, Grimus, in 1976. But, his second novel was his first step to fame, titled Midnight’s Children. The book won the 1981 Booker Prize and in 1993 and 2009, was awarded the Best of the Bookers, as the best novel to have received the prize in its first 25 to 40 years. Midnight’s Children’s main character, Saleem Sinai, is born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the day India became independent from Britain. Saleem’s life story is a loose allegory for the early historical events of post-colonial India.

After Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s next novel, Shame. Shame, won France’s Best Foreign Book and was a close runner-up for the Booker Prize.

His most controversial work, The Satanic Verses, was published in 1988 and lead to accusations of blasphemy against Islam. Islamic demonstrations against Rushdie took place in India and Pakistan and the orthodox Iranian leadership issued a “fatwa,” essentially a sentence of death, against Rushdie on Feb 14, 1989. While the fatwa is still technically in effect, it seems the active pursuit of his death has diminished considerably.

Rushdie continued to write many other famous books. Among them is Haroun and the Sea of Stories from 1990, a warning about the dangers of storytelling that won the Writers’ Guild Award. Rushdie also wrote a book called The Ground Beneath Her Feet in 1999. This novel reworks the Greek myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” and also presents an alternative history of modern rock music. The band U2, in fact, borrowed one of the many song lyrics in the book, in writing a song by the same name as the book.

Rushdie’s 2005 novel Shalimar the Clown received, in India, the prestigious Crossword Fiction Award, and was, in Britain, a finalist for the Whitbread Book Awards. It was also shortlisted for the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

On June 16, 2007, Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to literature. Since 2007, he has also held the position of Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, a position he has agreed to hold until 2012.

Sir Salman Rushdie will be giving a talk on Oct. 22, 2009 at the Pantages Playhouse.