Salman Rushdie is one of the world's most conceptually and artistically ambitious writers of literary fiction. He is also a controversialist whose provocative forays into sensitive ideological battlegrounds have resulted in a contentious, and in the case of one novel incendiary, body of fiction. Politics, however, while it is crucial to Rushdie's artistry, is ultimately a secondary concern in his work, for though he has consistently used his fictions to interrogate political and cultural developments, Rushdie is first and foremost a storyteller whose fictions seek to entertain readers with their lush extravagances, their Rabelaisian comedy, their witty denunciations, their gothic depravities, their clever (sometimes overly clever) game playing, their grotesque caricatures, their hyperbolic narrative experiments, and their unfettered sense of the pleasures to be found in language and narration. To read Rushdie is, sometimes, to be overwhelmed – as many of his less sympathetic reviewers have noted with disapproval. Being overwhelmed is, however, a central part of the aesthetic experience that Rushdie seeks to create, for it is Rushdie's view that the world he represents is one that is frequently overwhelming, one that doesn't conform to conventional notions of what is “real,” “normative,” “natural,” or “known,” and one that, as a result, requires an extraordinary aesthetic to do justice to it. “The world,” as Rushdie explained in 1993, “is operatic and surreal and grotesque” – and so the novels he writes are “operatic and surreal and grotesque” too (Chauhan 131).
Ahmed Salman Rushdie was born to Muslim parents on June 19, 1947 in Bombay, India. His birth year, by meaningful coincidence, is a significant one in recent Indian history: in August 1947 India gained its independence from Britain, and at the same time the former British colony of India was “partitioned” into the secular (but predominantly Hindu) Dominion (later Republic) of India and the Muslim state of Pakistan. Both these interlinked events have marked Rushdie's writing. The former, which effectively made him a member of the earliest generation of independent Indians, has bequeathed him a lifelong investment in the successes and failings of the “new” postcolonial South Asian nation states. The latter, which artificially divided the country of his birth in two and ushered in a half century of fratricidal wars between India and Pakistan, has given him a powerful aversion to ideologically and religiously motivated segregationism, and has resulted in a career devoted to the consistent defiance of border lines and boundaries – whether national, aesthetic, or personal. These characteristics are apparent in his first successful novel, Midnight's Children (1981), which uses the lives and experiences of its protagonists to pose the vital postcolonial question: How has India fared in its first few decades of independence? How has it used the magical gift of autonomous nationhood? The answer the novel gives, through its metafictional, magic-realist allegory of children born at the very moment of independence, is an ambivalent one. On the one hand, Rushdie argues that the nation has been tragically betrayed by its political leaders – particularly Indira Gandhi, whose “emergency” suspension of normal political processes between 1975 and 1977 Rushdie presents as a despoliation of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru's, vision of India as a democratic and socially just modern state. On the other hand, the sheer polyphony of Midnight's Children, the multiplicity of narrative and event, can create the impression of an endlessly regenerative culture that will always, ultimately, overcome tyrannical attempts at control, containment, and suppression. This practice of offsetting a satirist's pessimism about the competence and credibility of political leaders with the artist's and humanist's faith in society, culture, and art has become a consistent feature of Rushdie's work. Repeatedly, his novels involve a sustained, vitriolic condemnation of politically corrupt or totalitarian rulers, but mitigate the bitterness of their political satire by reveling extravagantly in the possibility for renewal offered by art and the unfettered utopian imagination.
After early schooling in Bombay, Rushdie was sent at 14 to study in England. He attended Rugby School and then Cambridge University, graduating with a degree in History in 1968. Then, following a brief attempt to start a career in television in Pakistan, to which his family had relocated four years earlier, he settled in London. There, having abandoned an early interest in acting, he took jobs as an advertising copywriter while he worked on fiction, and, after several abortive early attempts, he wrote his first novel Grimus for a science fiction writing competition run by the publishing company Gollancz. Grimus did not win, but his friend and (later) agent, Liz Calder, managed to persuade Gollancz to publish the novel anyway, so in 1975 Rushdie became a published writer.
Grimus was not commercially or critically successful, but Rushdie continued writing, and after visiting India with his then wife Clarissa Luard, he started an epic novel about the country that, he hoped, would “restore the past” of his own childhood “in CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor” (Rushdie 1991, 10). This novel, Midnight's Children, took five years to write, and was published in 1981 to massive acclaim. It went on to win the Booker Prize that year and has subsequently won both the “Booker of Bookers” in 1993 and the “Best of the Booker” in 2008 celebrating, respectively, the first 25 and 40 years of the prize's eminent history. Midnight's Children has in some important senses changed the face of literary publishing in Britain. It heralded an era in which big books about weighty international issues could become bestsellers rather than niche fictions. It also represents a turning point in the study of literary fiction, because it was this publishing event that effectively made “postcolonial” writing in English voguish. This voguishness has been criticized and, indeed, has made Rushdie himself a target of critique, because, it has been argued, it rests upon a commercial appetite for the exotic in Western book markets and so can be seen as a continuation of the old imperial project of othering and exploiting the East. If the publishing industry can be accused of marketing Rushdie's novels in order to maximize this element of his appeal, however, Rushdie himself has a much more complex relationship to this process, since his fictions, while feeding the West's appetite for the exotic, simultaneously work to condemn and critique such appetites by exposing their implicit Orientalism, and by undermining the binary oppositions upon which such othering rests.
The success of Midnight's Children enabled Rushdie to concentrate solely on his writing. In 1983 he published Shame, which focuses predominantly upon the political experience of Pakistan between the late 1960s and early 1980s and involves a thinly veiled caricature of two political leaders of the period, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Zia ul-Haq. It also includes a series of reflections, delivered by its unnamed but distinctly Rushdielike narrator, upon the experience of seeing from two perspectives at once: that of the insider, whose family lives in Pakistan, and that of the outsider, whose emigrant status allows him a distanced perspective. This capacity for “stereoscopic vision” (Rushdie 1991, 19) has become a dominant theme in his writing, and it has been one of Rushdie's most consistent arguments, in both his fiction and non-fiction, that the dual vision and sense of displacement produced by the migrant experience should be regarded not solely as a curse, but as a gift to be celebrated. “It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation,” as Rushdie writes in his important essay “Imaginary Homelands”: “I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained” (17).
The interrogation of the migrant experience is also to the fore in Rushdie's 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, in which, after his complementary (and contrasting) fictions about India and Pakistan, he turns to consider the third dominant area of his own cultural experience – diasporic South Asian communities in London. This complex and profound novel focuses on the lives of two male Bombayites who have, for different reasons and with different objectives, moved to London in the era of the Brixton race riots, ascendant post-Falklands Thatcherism, and institutionalized racism in the police force and media. It engages, among other things, in a scathing, Menippean satire on British racism, and a sustained philosophical investigation into the impact of migration upon the individual and the nation. These were not, however, the aspects of the novel that initially garnered the most attention, for The Satanic Verses also includes some inflammatory scenes that parodically rewrite the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and that, provocatively, question the sacred inviolability of the Koran as a received text. These scenes prompted a rumble of complaints from some Muslim readers, which escalated into a storm of protests after photocopied extracts were circulated to Islamic leaders in Britain. This British “affair” then became international, with bans in various countries (including India), mass protests and – the climax of the “Rushdie affair” – a fatwa demanding Rushdie's execution for blasphemy issued by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran on Valentine's Day, 1989. Rushdie, in fear for his life, went into hiding and he remained thus, protected by British Special Branch police, for over nine years until, after lengthy negotiations, the Iranian government announced on September 24, 1998 that it would not pursue the death sentence on Rushdie and disassociated itself from the bounty money offered for his murder.
The significance of the Rushdie affair for our understanding of the writer's role in the modern world cannot be underestimated. The extensive debates surrounding the fatwa touch upon such pressing international issues as the nature of free speech and its limits (if it has any limits); the responsibilities of the writer in sensitive multicultural contexts; the nature, role, and permissibility of blasphemy in the arts; and relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Britain and elsewhere. The affair has also become a kind of test case, invoked whenever the role of the arts in multicultural, multifaith arenas is being discussed.
The impact on Rushdie has, of course, been enormously damaging – both personally, because of his long-term loss of personal freedoms, and professionally, because the affair's international prominence has tended to distract attention from his work and refocus it on non-literary issues. However, an understanding of the fatwa's significance is not entirely irrelevant to the study of his subsequent works. His children's fiction, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), written under the shadow of the death sentence, involves a sustained allegorical satire upon censorious tyrannical regimes, and includes a spirited defense of the storyteller against the forces of silence and oppression. Later novels, moreover, such as The Moor's Last Sigh (1995) and Shalimar the Clown (2005), offer up disturbing anatomies of the uses of political violence, the former by engaging in a bitter lament for a Bombay that is being destroyed by brutal sectarian politicians and cynical globalizing mega-capitalists, the latter by offering a sobering representation of the impact upon international relations of the scramble for control of Kashmir.
A longer-term effect of the fatwa has been Rushdie's detachment from his moorings in Britain. He had, he felt, been treated with scandalous contempt in the British press during the affair. Events had also severed him from the communities in Britain with which he had identified himself in the early 1980s. Shortly after emerging from hiding in 1998, he started spending more of his time in the United States, and in 1999 moved to New York. This shift is also marked in his two novels of the late 1990s and early 2000s: The Ground beneath Her Feet (1999), which traces the journey of its rock-star protagonists from Bombay to London to New York; and Fury (2001), which sees its artist-inventor protagonist a permanent resident in Manhattan. Rushdie's severance from Britain has not been absolute, however. In 2006 he returned to work with the British sculptor Anish Kapoor on an installation that fused sculpture with words, and, in 2007, he accepted a knighthood from the queen. Sir Salman Rushdie can thus still be considered British, as well as Indian, Pakistani, and, indeed, international.
Rushdie's farewell to the East (see Rushdie 2002, 294), staged successively in The Moor's Last Sigh, The Ground beneath Her Feet, and Fury, has also proved premature, suggesting that Rushdie, for all his celebration of movement and migration, has found it very difficult to detach himself from the wellsprings of his inspiration. Not only has he gone on, in Shalimar, to compose a sweeping epic of modern Kashmiri history, but his 2008 novel, The Enchantress of Florence (his first fully historical novel) also returns to South Asian themes by providing a fabulous, pyrotechnic account of a meeting between Renaissance Florence and Mughal India. The novel, in this respect, recalls and extends the fictional explorations of similar meetings gathered together in Rushdie's earlier collection of short stories, East, West (1994).
Rushdie established new fictional territory in the 1980s. He made Indian writing in English popular, he reinvigorated the epic novel, he re-acquainted English fiction with politics, and he helped to fuse the difficult forms of narrative experiment favored by the modernists of the early twentieth century with popular forms of narrative storytelling favored by writers of “genre fiction.” Despite its innovative character, however, Rushdie's work, as its anchoring in modernist aesthetics might suggest, does not emerge from a vacuum but from many preceding acts of authorial and artistic creation. Among Rushdie's dominant literary influences must be included the stories of the Arabian Nights, the Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Grimms’ fairy tales, the works of Charles Dickens, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, the novels of James Joyce, G. V. Desani's All about H. Hatterr, Gunter Grass's Tin Drum, and Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is not only novelists and storytellers that have influenced Rushdie, moreover, but filmmakers, artists, painters, and photographers too. The Bengali auteur, Satyajit Ray and the Spanish surrealist director, Luis Bunuel, for instance, have both had a marked impact on Rushdie's work, as has Indian popular cinema and the Hollywood classic The Wizard of Oz. Such intensive, cross-media intertextuality in Rushdie's work serves to reinforce, at the level of the text, arguments about culture and identity that Rushdie is also making at the level of theme and plot. Cultures and individuals, in Rushdie's view, like artworks, are not isolated from each other, but are in constant dialogue, feeding one another, modifying one another, creating new hybrid forms of identity. Rushdie's intertextuality, in this way, is also part and parcel of his central political arguments: that cultures and communities become damaged and distorted if they are artificially isolated from one another by “lines drawn across the world,” and that the most healthy and politically robust communities are those that permit tolerance of diversity and allow free, sustained dialogue between sites of difference.
The most consistent target of satire in Rushdie's writing is what has become known as “fundamentalism” – the ideological insistence upon the absolute inviolable rightness of one particular worldview, and the demand that the community that holds this view should be regarded as “pure,” “distinct,” and “separate” from other communities. The word has, of course, become associated recently with certain radical forms of Islamic belief, but Rushdie finds this segregationist and supremacist tendency elsewhere too: in British cultural imperialism, in racism, in radical Hinduism, and in the views of the Christian right in America. His work, in its formal intertextuality, its relentless refusal of coherent orders, its rejection of final solutions, and its potent satires on bigotry, monomania, and absolutism, is radically opposed to such fundamentalisms at every level. Instead it celebrates impurity, mixture, melange, and muddle, and, through those qualities, the political values that Rushdie cares most about: those of inclusivity, pluralism, humanism, and mutual engagement.
SEE ALSO: Black British Fiction (WF); Censorship and the Novel (BIF); Children's and Young Adult Fiction (WF); Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Speculative Fiction (WF); Historical Fiction (WF); Humor and Satire (WF); Indian Fiction (WF); Migration, Diaspora, and Exile in Fiction (WF); Pakistani Fiction (WF); Postcolonial Fiction of the British South Asian Diaspora (BIF); Postcolonialism and Fiction (WF); Realism/Magic Realism (WF)
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