Midnight's Children | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Salman Rushdie | Biography

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Childhood and Education

British Indian author Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie was born on June 19, 1947, a few months before Indian independence, in Bombay, British India—a city now known as Mumbai. His Westernized parents, a successful Indian businessman and a Bombay schoolteacher, were Muslim by birth but casual in their practice. They sent Salman initially to private school in Bombay. He left Bombay at age 14 and attended an English boarding school, where he was exposed to the racism of his classmates. He continued his education at the prestigious King's College at the University of Cambridge, focusing on history, and he eventually received a graduate degree from Cambridge. As an Indian-born British citizen, Rushdie's sense of self was shaped by this hybrid identity, a term that expresses the diversity of influences, both Eastern and Western, that are his inheritance.

Early Career

After a brief job as a writer of television programs in Pakistan, Rushdie returned to England, worked for an ad agency, and began writing his first novel Grimus (1975). The novel fell flat, but Rushdie recovered well. His second novel, Midnight's Children (1981), was a great success. It garnered many awards, including the Booker Prize for Fiction, the Best of the Bookers, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and an Arts Council Writers' Award. Rushdie continued writing, publishing Shame in 1983, The Satanic Verses in 1988, and a string of novels, children's stories, essays, and Persian translations of his novels.

Controversies

Rushdie was sued for libel by Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (1917–84) three years after the publication of Midnight's Children, in which she figures prominently. In the novel, Indira Gandhi is Saleem's nightmare, "a talon-nailed, green and black devouring Widow with parti-colored hair who rolls little children into balls and hurls them into the darkness." Biographer Katherine Frank reports that Rushdie has acknowledged that this is his own vision of Mrs. Gandhi. In the novel Gandhi is attacked for the imposition of the Emergency, during which she imprisons her opponents, suspends civil rights, and enacts many new laws. Mrs. Gandhi's lawsuit was based, however, on a personal slur, a single sentence in the early editions of Midnight's Children in which the widow is accused by her son of causing the death of her husband through neglect. The sentence was removed by court order from the paperback edition. To Gandhi's credit and that of British law, the political insults and the ugly caricature in the novel were never part of the libel complaint, and there were no attempts to suppress this book in England or elsewhere.

On the other hand, great troubles emerged for Rushdie upon the publication of The Satanic Verses. One of the plot lines of the novel is a retelling of the life of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Although the novel was praised by critics in the West and won awards including the Whitbread Book Award, the subject matter enraged Muslim clerics because of its unflattering portrayal of the Muhammad-like character, Mahound. Within five months of its publication, the book was denounced as blasphemous and banned in 13 countries with large Muslim populations.

Rushdie's life was threatened when on February 15, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the First Supreme Leader of Iran, declared a fatwa, a call for any among the faithful to assassinate Rushdie and any others who aided him in the publication and sales of the offending novel. Attached to the fatwa or death warrant was the promise of a large monetary reward, which quickly climbed in value. Subsequently, Rushdie's Japanese translator was murdered and his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher were attacked and seriously wounded. Bookstores in Berkeley, the Bronx, and London were firebombed. Rushdie remained in hiding for 13 years, protected by the British government. The fatwa was not lifted until 1998.

Honors and Awards

Rushdie has produced a number of novels, nonfiction works, essays, and children's books. From 2014 to 2019 he published five new works in addition to Persian translations of two of his novels. His work appears in over 40 languages. He holds honorary doctoral degrees from eight institutions while being a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Distinguished Fellow in Literature at the University of East Anglia. Rushdie is also the recipient of numerous awards: The Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1992), the Aristeion Literary Prize (1996), and the Best of Bookers award for Midnight's Children (2018).

In 2007 Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926) for his contributions to literature.

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