Biography of Salman Rushdie, Master of the Modern Allegorical Novel

The writer has defied a religious fatwā for more than three decades.

Salman Rushdie at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019
Salman Rushdie at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019.

David Levenson/Getty Images

Sir Salman Rushdie is a British-Indian writer whose allegorical novels combine magical realism and Indian culture to explore history, politics, and religious themes. His work is marked by surrealism, humor, and drama. His willingness to offend and to present supposedly "sacred" topics in ways often deemed disrespectful has given his work a unique ability to cut through the cultural noise, but has also brought danger and controversy.

Rushdie has published both adult and children’s fiction to universal acclaim, making him one of the most important literary figures of the modern era. His work often denotes the many ways that Eastern and Western cultures connect and overlap, while also exploring the vast differences and gulfs of understanding.

Fast Facts: Salman Rushdie

  • Full Name: Ahmed Salman Rushdie
  • Known For: Novelist, essayist
  • Born: June 19, 1947 in Bombay, India (now Mumbai)
  • Parents: Anis Ahmed Rushdie and Negin Bhatt
  • Education: King's College, University of Cambridge
  • Selected Works: Grimus (1975), Midnight’s Children (1981), The Satanic Verses (1988), Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), Quichotte (2019)
  • Selected Awards and Honors: Booker Prize for Fiction (1981), Best of the Bookers (1993 and 2008), Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Golden PEN Award, India Abroad Lifetime Achievement Award, Whitbread Prize for Best Novel, James Joyce Award, Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award, Knight Bachelor (2007), Fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature.
  • Spouses: Clarissa Luard (m. 1976-1987), Marianne Wiggins (m. 1988-1993), Elizabeth West (m. 1997-2004), Padma Lakshmi (m. 2004-2007)
  • Children: Zafar (1979) and Milan (1997)
  • Notable Quote: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

Early Years

Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay in 1947; at the time the city was still part of the British Empire. His father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, was a lawyer and businessman, and his mother, Negin Bhatt, was a teacher. His father was expelled from the Indian Civil Services over a controversy regarding his birth date, but went on to become a successful businessman, settling in Bombay. Rushdie was one of four children, and the only son.

As a child, he attended a private school in Bombay, and then attended The Rugby School, a boarding school located in Warwickshire, England. He then attended King’s College at the University of Cambridge, where his father had studied before him. He earned an M.A. in History. His family had moved to Pakistan in 1964, so Rushdie lived there for a short time, where he worked as a writer for television before moving back to England. In the UK he first worked in advertising, eventually working as a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather.

Author Salman Rushdie
Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie, author of the controversial book 'The Satanic Verses,' sits on the sofa in his home, London, United Kingdom, 1988. Horst Tappe / Getty Images

Grimus, Midnight’s Children, and Shame (1975-1983)

  • Grimus (1975)
  • Midnight’s Children (1981)
  • Shame (1983)

In 1975, Rushdie published his first work, Grimus, a science fiction novel about a man who drinks a magic potion and becomes immortal, and then spends the next 777 years searching for his sister and trying on different lives and identities. He eventually finds his way to an alternate world where immortals weary of life but not ready for death live under a rigid, sinister system. The book debuted Rushdie’s trademark surrealist tendencies and blurring of various myths and cultures, and received mixed reviews.

His second novel, Midnight’s Children, published in 1981, was Rushdie’s breakthrough work. A magical realist story about a group of men and women born at exactly midnight on August 15, 1947—the moment India became a sovereign nation—and are gifted with special powers as a result. Rushdie weaves in traditionally oral storytelling techniques from India and can be read as a compressed but comprehensive summary of India’s cultural history. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1981, as well as the special award The Best of the Booker in 1993 and 2008.

In 1983, Rushdie published his third novel, Shame, which is often seen as an unofficial sequel to Midnight’s Children. Using a similar style and approach, Rushdie explored the artificial division of culture and territory, setting his story in a country that is almost certainly meant to be Pakistan. While the novel was well-received and was shortlisted for the Booker prize, some critics found that it repeated many of the techniques used in Midnight’s Children, resulting in a less compelling narrative.

Salman Rushdie 's book 'The Satanic Verses' cover.
Cover of Salman Rushdie 's book 'The Satanic Verses' cover. Published London, Viking. Culture Club / Getty Images

The Satanic Verses and Fatwā (1984-1989)

  • The Satanic Verses (1989)

In 1988, Rushdie published his most famous novel, The Satanic Verses. The novel was acclaimed by literary critics as a return to form. The novel tells the story of two Indian Muslim men, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, trapped on a hijacked airplane. Farishta is suffering from what appears to be schizophrenia. When the plane explodes, both are miraculously saved and transformed—Farishta into the angel Gabriel, Chamcha into a devil. As the two men try to return to their lives and survive ordeals, they become antagonists, and Farishta experiences several vivid dreams or visions. As a result, the narrative of the two men serves as a frame story organizing these visions.

In one of Farishta’s dreams, the prophet Muhammad appears, initially adding a verse to the Quran that describes a trio of pagan deities local to Mecca, then later disavowing these verses as having been dictated to him by the devil. This depiction enraged Muslim communities, who viewed it as irreverent and blasphemous, and protests began to mount. On February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s spiritual leader, declared a fatwā (a non binding legal opinion regarding religious law) against Rushdie, calling for his execution for blasphemy.

Tehran Reacts To Rushdie
Demonstrators in Tehran call for the death of Indian-British writer Salman Rushdie after a fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemning him to death for blasphemy after the publication of his novel 'The Satanic Verses', February 1989. The women are holding models of the Holy Qur'an and carrying a banner reading 'We will kill Salman Rushdie'. Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

In August 1989, a man named Mustafa Mahmoud Mazeh died when a bomb he was fashioning inside a book exploded prematurely. An obscure terrorist group called the Organization of the Mujahidin of Islam claimed the bomb had been intended for Rushdie. That same year several bookstores were bombed for stocking the book on their shelves.

Rushdie was forced to go into hiding, and Scotland Yard provided police protection to Rushdie. Although Iranian president Mohammad Khatami proclaimed the fatwā to be ended in 1998, it has never been officially lifted, and organizations in Iran have regularly increased the bounty on Rushdie’s head; in 2012, the bounty reached $3.3 million. In 1990, Rushdie issued a statement proclaiming he had renewed his faith in Islam and deprecating the passages in The Satanic Verses that had caused the controversy; he also declared he would not allow a paperback version of the book to be released. He later characterized this as a "deranged" moment and expressed disgust with himself.

Post-Verses Fiction (1990-2019)

  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990)
  • The Moor's Last Sigh (1995)
  • The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999)
  • Fury (2001)
  • Shalimar the Clown (2005)
  • The Enchantress of Florence (2008)
  • Luka and the Fire of Life (2010)
  • Quichotte (2019)

Rushdie continued to write, and also traveled and made surprise public appearances. In 1990, he published Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a children’s book that explores the power and danger of storytelling through Rushdie’s trademark allegory and magical realism. In 1995, he published The Moor’s Last Sigh, in which a man whose body ages twice as fast as it should traces his family lineage and history. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel.

In 1999, Rushdie published The Ground Beneath Her Feet, an ambitious novel that uses the myth of the Orpheus and Eurydice as a framework to recast the history of rock music from the 1950s through the 1990s in an alternate universe. Rushdie’s blending of ancient myth, Eastern and Western culture, and myriad pop culture references make The Ground Beneath Her Feet one of his most celebrated novels.

U2 Performing At Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - 1993
U2 performing at Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - 1993, Bono with Salman Rushdie. Brian Rasic / Getty Images

Rushdie remained active throughout the 1990s and 2000s, publishing six more novels as well as the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Luka and the Fire of Life. Rushdie used video games as inspiration for this second children’s book, the story of a young boy enthralled by the stories his father tells, who must seek out the titular fire of life when his father falls into a magical sleep.

In 2019, Rushdie published his fourteenth novel, Quichotte, inspired by Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The story of an Indian-American writer and the character he creates, a man who travels with an imaginary companion named Sancho in search of a former Bollywood star-turned reality TV host. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Essays and Nonfiction

  • The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (1987)
  • Imaginary Homelands (1991)
  • Joseph Anton: A Memoir (2012)

In 1986, while working on The Satanic Verses, Rushdie visited Nicaragua after being invited by the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers. The Sandinista National Liberation Front had come to power in Nicaragua in 1979; after a period of support from the United States, their support for other leftist and socialist revolutionary parties, such as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, brought them into opposition with the United States’ foreign policy. The U.S. took a series of actions designed to lead to regime change in the country, making Rushdie’s visit controversial.

Rushdie’s account of his trip, The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, was published in 1987. The book received mixed reviews due to a perceived anti-American sentiment mixed with a lack of journalistic detachment, but the book remains an important first-hand document of a period in history.

In 1991, Rushdie published Imaginary Homelands, a collection of 75 essays written between 1981 and 1991. These essays covered a wide range of subjects, but were linked by the unifying theme of examining Western relations with and depictions of Eastern cultures; several essays examined British stories set in India or featuring Indian characters that nonetheless focused on British interests and points of view.

Author Salman Rushdie Delivers Patriot Act Petitions
Author Salman Rushdie holds a stack of petitions he delivered to Congress on Capitol Hill, September 29, 2004 in Washington DC. The petitions were gathered in bookstores and libraries throughout the country protesting the Patriot Act. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

In 2012, Rushdie published his memoir, Joseph Anton; the title is taken from the pseudonym he used during the 13 years he was under police protection in the wake of the fatwā issued over The Satanic Verses. Rushdie uses that event as the frame for his life story, beginning there and then going back and forth in time to discuss his life. Unusually for a memoir, Rushdie chose to write the memoir in a novelistic style, using the third person to create a distance from his own life and treating himself almost as a character in a literary spy novel.

Personal Life

Rushdie has been married and divorced four times. He met literary agent and arts administrator Clarissa Luard in 1969 and married her in 1976. In 1979 they had a son, Zafar. In the mid-1980s, Rushdie had an affair with the writer Robyn Davidson, and he divorced Luard in 1987.

Rushdie married the author Marianne Wiggins in 1988. When the Ayatollah Khomeini announced the fatwā against Rushdie in 1989, Wiggins went into hiding with Rushdie even as her own book was released, moving from secret location to secret location for several months before emerging on her own to promote her novel. The couple divorced in 1993.

Rushdie married Elizabeth West in 1997. In 1999, the couple had a son, Milan. They divorced in 2004. In 1999, while married to West, Rushdie met television personality and actress Padma Lakshmi, whom he married in 2004. They divorced in 2007.

The Royal Academy of Arts - Summer Exhibition Preview Party - Inside
L to R) Salman Rushdie, Milan Rushdie and Zafar Rushdie attend the Royal Academy of Arts' summer exhibition preview party at the Royal Academy of Arts on June 2, 2011 in London, England. Dave M. Benett / Getty Images

Knighthood

Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 for his services to literature, making him Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie. The knighthood prompted many Muslim countries and organizations to protest.

Legacy

Rushdie’s legacy is impossible to disconnect from The Satanic Verses controversy and the subsequent threat to his life. Few authors have had to endure more than a decade of high-level threat protection due to the danger of assassination as the result of a work of fiction. Most notable about this period in Rushdie’s life is that it did not slow down his productivity. Rushdie had the ability to continue working at a high level even during the initial, most intense period of security protocols and active threats against his life, publishing eleven major works and numerous essays in the wake of the fatwā.

2017 Miami Book Fair
Salman Rushdie attends 2017 Miami Book Fair on November 18, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Aaron Davidson / Getty Images

From a literary perspective, Rushdie occupies a unique place in literature. Straddling Eastern and Western cultures and perspectives, his work persistently examines politics, religion, history, and culture using magical realism as a distancing tool. His characters, typically British-Indian, find themselves in incredible scenarios where the absurdity of religious or cultural beliefs and practices are laid bare. This willingness to examine the contradictions and flaws of the sacred has often been controversial, underscoring its power. Rushdie’s willingness to address political, cultural, and religious taboos with humor and imagination have made his work both timely and timeless.

Sources

  • Anthony, Andrew. “How Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses Has Shaped Our Society.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Jan. 2009, www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jan/11/salman-rushdie-satanic-verses.
  • Rushdie, Salman. “The Disappeared.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 16 Sept. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/09/17/the-disappeared.
  • Moore, Matthew. “Sir Salman Rushdie Divorced by His Fourth Wife.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 2 July 2007, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1556237/Sir-Salman-Rushdie-divorced-by-his-fourth-wife.html.
  • Report, Post Staff. “Iran Adds to Reward for Salman Rushdie's Death: Report.” New York Post, New York Post, 16 Sept. 2012, nypost.com/2012/09/16/iran-adds-to-reward-for-salman-rushdies-death-report/.
  • Russell Clark, Jonathan. “Why Salman Rushdie Should Win the Nobel Prize in Literature.” Literary Hub, 21 Mar. 2019, lithub.com/why-salman-rushdie-should-win-the-nobel-prize-in-literature/.
  • Khan, Danish. “Revealed after 76 Yrs: Rushdie's Dad's Secret Humiliation in London.” Mumbai Mirror, Mumbai Mirror, 15 Dec. 2014, mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/cover-story/Revealed-after-76-yrs-Rushdies-dads-secret-humiliation-in-London/articleshow/16179053.cms.