Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay in 1947, just months before the Partition of British India. His father, Ahmed, was a businessman and his mother, Negin, was a teacher. He grew up loving the escape literature and film offered, and he wrote his first story when he was ten years old. He encountered some of his earliest influences at a young age, including The Wizard of Oz, Superman comics, and Bollywood movies.
He left India at the age of fourteen to attend Rugby School in England, while his family left India for Pakistan. Of his time at Rugby, he says: “I had three things wrong, I was foreign, I was clever and I was bad at games, and it seemed to me that I could have made any two of those mistakes and I’d have been alright. . . . If I’d been any two of those things I’d have got away with it — three was unforgivable.” He then studied history at King’s College, Cambridge, and after graduation, he earned a living working in advertising while writing his first novel Grimus.
The positive reception his second novel, Midnight’s Children, received allowed Rushdie to become a full-time writer, crafting vivid novels about life in and out of modern India and Pakistan. The success of Midnight’s Children made Rushdie the voice of Indians writing in England, promoting fellow writers and editing the volume Indian Writing in English.
With the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, Rushdie became the target of a fatwa, or a religious edict, supported by Iran’s religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Since the fatwa called for his death, Rushdie went into hiding in February 1989. Many bookstores in the U.K. and the United States received threats regarding his book. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was stabbed to death, and both the Italian translator and the Norwegian publisher were attacked but survived. Protected by the Special Branch, Rushdie moved from one secure house to another, communicating to his friends and family via secure telephone line and fax. In 1999, the fatwa was finally lifted, and Rushdie was able to appear in public again.
In 2005, Salman Rushdie joined the faculty of Emory University as Distinguished Writer in Residence. He also placed his archive at Emory’s Woodruff Library, which opened to the public in Spring 2010. His memoir Joseph Anton: A Memoir came out in 2012.
See: Magical Realism, Postcolonial Novel, Partition of India
Midnight’s Children and The Booker Prize
Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, depicts the condition of India through the voice and family of Saleem Sinai, a child born at the moment of India’s independence. His momentous birth endows he and 1001 other children born close to the stroke of midnight with special powers. Saleem believes his birth, marked by a letter from Prime Minister Nehru, determine that his fate is bound up with the nation’s.
Written in Saleem’s irreverent, humorous voice, Rushdie fictionalizes India’s recent political and social history. Using his family and their friends as a template for the various factions in India’s political, business, and military scenes, Saleem chronicles a military coup in Pakistan, the war between Pakistan and India, and Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981, the Booker of Bookers in 1993, and Best of the Booker in 2008. It has been adapted for the stage, and attempts have been made to adapt it for television but have failed. Rushdie worked with filmmaker Deepa Mehta to turn the novel into a film.
Themes in Rushdie’s Writing
Many themes in Rushdie’s writing weave themselves through his work, although history always plays an integral role in establishing the framework of his stories. According to Rushdie: “Literature revalues history by shifting the point of view, by demystifying, by seeing what was always there to be seen, what we would have seen if the conjurers of power had not been trying so hard to distract our attention.” History provides Rushdie with the backdrop to develop motifs exploring the complexities of identity, migration, politics, and love.
- Rushdie, Salman. East, West. London: J. Cape, 1994.
- —. The Enchantress of Florence. London: Vintage, 2009.
- —. Fury. London: J. Cape, 2001.
- —. Grimus. London: V. Gollancz, 1975.
- —. The Ground Beneath Her Feet. London: J. Cape, 1999.
- —. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. London: Granta Books in association with Penguin, 1991.
- —. Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta Books in association with Penguin, 1991.
- —. The Jaguar Smile. London: Pan Books in association with J. Cape, 1987.
- —. Midnight’s Children. London: J. Cape, 1981.
- —. Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing (edited with Elizabeth West). New York: H. Holt and Co., 1997.
- —. The Moor’s Last Sigh. London: J. Cape, 1995.
- —. The Satanic Verses. London: Viking, 1988.
- —. Shalimar the Clown. London: J. Cape, 2005.
- —. Shame. New York: Knopf, 1983.
- —. Step Across this Line. New York: Random House, 2002.
- —. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. New York: Random House, 2016.
- —. The Wizard of Oz. London: BFI Publishing, 1992.
Rushdie Official Website
Overview of Rushdie’s Life and Works
Rushdie on The Colbert Report
David Cronenberg Interviews Rushdie
Salon Magazine Interview with Rushdie
Salman Rushdie’s Papers at Emory University
Section Author: Kathleen Hanggi, August 2009
In the introduction to his 1991 volume of essays, Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie mentions his first published novel, “Grimus, which to put it mildly, bombed” (1). Not only was the book denied the critical acclaim and commercial success its author might have hoped for, but it has also been largely ignored by postcolonial critics, which is most unusual for a novel by this author.
Grimus is a “futuristic fantasy” (Amanuddin 42) about an immortal Native American called Flapping Eagle, whose quest is to find his sister Bird-Dog and vanquish the arch-villain Grimus, ruler of Calf Island, which is “not quite” in the Mediterranean (Grimus 14). Flapping Eagle and Bird-Dog belong to the fictitious Axona Amerindians,who live in complete isolation near a town called Phoenix (which, incidentally has very little to do with its Arizonian counterpart). Due to Flapping Eagle’s posthumous birth, the siblings are virtual outcasts, which is why they have little difficulty in leaving their people when they are offered immortality. Flapping Eagle hesitates for a while and loses track of his sister, for whom he then searches for seven centuries. An old acquaintance enables him to travel to another dimension and reach Calf Island, where he meets gravedigger-cum-guide Virgil Jones. Virgil helps him in his difficult ascent of Calf Mountain, at whose summit Flapping Eagle wants to challenge his antagonist and doppelganger, Grimus.
In the middle section of the novel, Flapping Eagle abandons his companion and attempts to settle down in the town of K (whose name is the Latin equivalent to the Arabic letter Qaf/K (hence “Calf Island”), where he wreaks havoc on its population by depriving some inhabitants of the absolute certainty that is necessary to fight off the “Dimension-fever” caused by Grimus. After this interlude, Flapping Eagle finishes his quest by overcoming Grimus and destroying the mysterious “Stone Rose” which Grimus had used to hold the place under his spell. Following that event, the island itself is utterly destroyed.
Grimus and Postcolonialism
The novel contains references to numerous works of literature such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Farid-Ud-Din Attar’s12th-century Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds,” Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Hamlet, The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe, and The Edda as well as to writers like Coleridge, Keats, and Samuel Beckett, to name but a few. There are parallels to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain –the protagonist, the discussion of time, the self-obsessed community of people from different nations, and the affair with a Russian woman. In addition to these allusions, Grimus also contains “tentative steps towards an examination of post-coloniality (Cundy, “Rehearsing Voices” 129). However, Rushdie touches topics such as hybridity, nationhood, immigration, imperialism, exile and so forth only in passing and at no time is their treatment anywhere as profound as in his later work. “Flapping Eagle,” Cundy writes, “is at one and the same time the hero of a nascent and tentative study of migrant identity, and a chaotic fantasy with no immediately discernible arguments of any import” (“Rehearsing Voices” 131). Syed criticizes the book for its “failure to countenance postcolonial concerns”(Syed 148).
Apart from the “flimsy” treatment of postcolonial issues (Cundy, “Rehearsing Voices” 134), Grimus has been criticized for its “often tedious mimicry of other writers” (Cundy, Salman Rushdie 12), its generic insecurity between science-fiction and fantasy, its misogyny–”I didn’t blame the ladies, dear sweet bebummed betitted things.” (Grimus212) — and particularly for its adolescent puns: “The people, like the names, the events and encounters, are carried to irrational and immoderate extremes which only a very youthful sensibility could enjoy or even envisage” (Walsh 120). Indeed, the glaringly suggestive names, at times reminiscent of classic Star Trek, might lead one to regard Grimus not so much as postcolonial literature but rather as part of the Douglas Adams/Terry Pratchett tradition of science fiction/fantasy writing. The problem with this novel is that science fiction is usually a fundamentally rational genre. In Grimus it seems as if “anything goes,” which makes the story seem arbitrary (Cundy, “Rehearsing Voices” 136).
At times we get a glimpse of the more mature Rushdie of his later, superior works — “Grimus is in many ways an early manifesto of Rushdie’s heterodoxical themes and innovative techniques” (Syed 135).
Structural and stylistic similarities might lead one to wonder whether the book Rushdie really had in mind when tearing apart Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was actually Grimus: “It is humourless, devoid of characterization, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts. Reader: I hated it” (Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands 270).
- Amanuddin, Syed. “The Novels of Salman Rushdie: Mediated Reality as Fantasy.” World Literature Today 63:1 (1989): 42-45.
- Cundy, Catherine. “‘Rehearsing Voices’: Salman Rushdie’s Grimus“. Ariel 27:1 (1992): 128-38.
- Cundy, Catherine. Salman Rushdie. Manchester: Manchester University Press,1996.
- Hume, Kathryn. “Taking a Stand while Lacking a Center: Rushdie’s Postmodern Politics.” Philological Quarterly 74:2 (1995): 209-30.
- Rushdie, Salman. Grimus. London: Vintage, 1996.
- —. Imaginary Homelands. Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London: Granta/Penguin, 1991.
- Syed, Mujeebuddin. “Warped Mythologies: Salman Rushdie’s Grimus.” Ariel 25:4 (1994): 135-52.
- Walsh, William. Indian Literature in English. Harlow: Longman, 1990.
A French review of Grimus
Section Author: Hans-Georg Erney, Fall 1998
References in The Moor’s Last Sigh
The purpose of this site is to provide a glossary to some of the references in The Moor’s Last Sigh. In addition, literary works and characters that are mentioned frequently or play a major role in the text are listed along with a brief description. Links to appropriate web sites for further information have also been included.
See also: Jews in India, Spice Trade in India
Pg. 4 line 3 top of page; “Virgils”; Reference to Dante’s Inferno. Virgil led the speaker of that poem on a guided tour of Hell.
Pg. 5 second full paragraph; “Paradise and Pandaemonium”; Reference to John Milton’s epic poem of the struggle between heaven and hell, Paradise Lost. Paradise is of course Heaven, whereas Pandaemonium is the great city of Hell. This and the above reference can also be seen on page 126.
Pg. 11 second to last paragraph; “What shall we do with a shrunken tailor?”; Sailing song, “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” The song goes onto suggest a number of methods of sobering him up including forcing him to drink from the bilges (shipboard sewers).
Pg. 29 second paragraph; “See See See Pee”; CCCP- Cyrillic for U.S.S.R (see below)
Pg. 31 third paragraph; “Cyrillic script”; Russian alphabet, based on Greek and Latin, invented by Byzantine monks to visually represent the sounds of the spoken Russian language.
Pg. 68 second paragraph; “Great family trees from little corns.” Play on words between acorns and peppercorns, spices and pepper being the foundations of the da Gama/Zogoiby family.
Pg. 73 fifth paragraph; “Obeah, jadoo, fo, fum, chicken entrails, kingdom come. Ju-ju, voodoo, fee, fi, piddle cocktails, time to die.” From Jack the Giant Killer’s giant’s “Fee Fie Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman?”
Pg. 94 first paragraph; “this church that only startofied because some Piss-in-Boots old king wanted a sexy younger wife.” Refers to the Church of England, which was founded by Henry VIII in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon, which the Pope in Rome, Leo X, would not allow.
Pg. 115 last paragraph; “Cyrano-fashion, he hired a local accordionist and ballad-singer who serenaded her in the courtyard below her window, while he, Abraham, stood idiotically beside the music-man and mouthed the words of the old love-songs.” Cyrano de Bergerac helped his friend to win the heart of his lady love by serving as his friend’s voice while the friend lip-synched.
Pg. 130 “Crazy as a monkey in a monkey-puzzle tree.” A monkey-puzzle is a particularly evil tree. Every possible surface is covered by extremely sharp spines and in fact the leaves themselves are pointed at the apex and capable of piercing the skin.
Pg. 137 second paragraph; “Bollywood” Indian Subcontinental counterpart to our own Hollywood
Pg. 241 paragraph 3; “a Kaspar Hauser, a Mowgli.” Kasper Hauser was the title character in a play/screenplay by Werner Herzog called The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, also known as Everyman for Himself and God Against All. Mowgli was raised by wild animals instead of his own human kind in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
Pg. 245 paragraph 4; “Laurel and Hardon” Phallic pun on Laurel and Hardy, one of whom was tall and thin, whereas the other was short and stout.
Pg. 292 paragraph 4; “go ask Alice, as the old song goes.” There was a song about Alice in Wonderland being a metaphor for drug use by Jefferson Airplane called White Rabbit which this line is a direct quote from.
Pg. 296 first paragraph; “I will wear my shame and name it with pride — will wear it, great Aurora, like a scarlet letter blazoned on my breast.” Alludes to The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, where the heroine wore a scarlet “A” on her breast to show she was an adulteress. Shows up with an interesting correlation between the Moor’s love for Uma as a betrayal of his love for his mother, Aurora.
Pg. 417 third paragraph; “Blofeld, Mogambo, Don Vito Corleone:” The first is one of James Bond’s nemeses, the second is described in the book as an Indian movie mob boss, and the last is none other than The Godfather of the American movie series about the Sicilian Mafia.
Pg. 418 bottom of page; “I was fortune’s, and my parents’, fool.” Similar to Romeo’s “I am Fortune’s fool!” in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”.
Pg. 421 third paragraph; “Scherazade” Classic adventure tale, Classical music work by Rimsky-Korssakoff.
Pg. 433 second paragraph; “Arthur sleeps in Avalon, Barbarossa in his cave. Finn MacCool lies in the Irish hillsides and the Worm Ouroboros on the bed of the Sundering Sea. Australia’s ancestors, the Wandjina, take their ease underground, and somewhere, in a tangle of thorns, a beauty in a glass coffin awaits a prince’s kiss.” Arthur is King Arthur, asleep and waiting for a new world. Finn MacCool is a giant in Irish legend, who sleeps as well. The Worm Ouroboros appears in a book of the same name by E.R. Eddison and sleeps until wakened by dramatic change. The Wandjina created the Australian continent and the aborigines of that island (according to legend). The beauty under glass is none other than Sleeping Beauty. All of these characters/entities are sleeping and go to sleep in one world but will awake in a different one.
Major Literary Sources and Characters Quoted / Mentioned Repeatedly or Significantly
The Bible, especially sections dealing with Abraham and his sacrifice
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland
Cyrano de Bergerac
Hans Christian Anderson’s story about the Snow Queen
El Cid Campeador/Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar
Indian Holy Books
Marvell’s poem, On a Drop of Dew
John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained
Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Inferno
Myths & Legends Website
Section Author: Frederick (John) Bailey, Fall 1997
Women As Matriarchs
In both The Moor’s Last Sigh and Shame, Rushdie depicts prominent female characters (Epifania da Gama and Bariamma Ryder) as the matriarchs of their families. Although this may seem odd in such a male-dominated society, in southern India matriarchy is actually a common family organization, and women even own property jointly with men (Visram 11). Historical records dating back to early south Indian people frequently include metronyms, perhaps signifying “a lingering influence of the old Dravidian mother right in an otherwise patrilineal ordering of society” (Singh 226).
Due to Hinduism’s strong influence in Indian society, a woman’s foremost role in life is becoming a mother; moreover, her value depends upon her ability to give birth to sons (Contursi 48). Any power she wields comes from her ability to procreate, not from her dominance over men (Contursi49). An example of this attitude is evidenced in Shame when Bilquìs Hyder laments over her inability to produce a male child: “He wanted a hero of a son; I gave him an idiot female instead . . . I must accept it: she is my shame” (Rushdie 101). (See Gender and Nation)
Rushdie also toys with the nature of mother-son relationships in Indian and Pakistani society, emphasizing the perversion of their closeness. In Shame, for example, the three Shakil mothers dote over their only son Omar, keeping him”excluded from human society by [their] strange resolve”(Rushdie 29). Furthermore, the stereotypical mother resents her son’s new wife for monopolizing his affection and tries to disrupt any opportunities for intimacy in the new marriage (Adler 135). Both Bariamma’s nocturnal segregation of the married couples in Shame (Rushdie 71) and Flory Zogoiby’s demand for Abraham’s firstborn son in The Moor (Rushdie 111) exemplify this unusual attachment.
According to J.P. Singh in her book The Indian Woman: Myth and Reality,one of the most notable developments of recent times has been “finding refuge in the age-old Indian wisdom: for the most part ignore your husband. Live your life as if he were not there” (305). Arranged marriages necessitated such sentiment, especially in order to withstand a husband’s physical abuse, cruelty, or apathy. Carmen da Gama, in The Moor, privately deals with her husband’s secret homosexual liaisons, as does Rani Harappain the face of Iskander’s long absences and sexual disinterest.
Indian and Pakistani wives also become part of their husband’s family when they marry; in this arrangement, wives must obey the older women in the family and comply with all their demands (Adler 135). Living under the matriarchal rule of Bariamma Ryder, Rushdie writes that Bilquìs Ryder”was given more than her fair share of household duties and also slightly more than her fair share of the rough edge of Bariamma’s tongue”(Moor 73).
As Public Figures
As noted in the book Women and Politics in Islam, which covers the trial of Benazir Bhutto, the Quranic stand on women leaders is in staunch opposition: “‘A nation that appoints a woman as its ruler shall never prosper’” says the Bukhari commentary on the Quran (Zakaria 97). Yet a number of women have attained high political positions in both Pakistan and India. Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan, is the model for the character Arjum and “the Virgin Ironpants” Harappa in Shame. Although Rushdie portrays her as a woman resentful of her female body — “it brings a person nothing but babies, pinches, and shame” (107), Bhutto herself told Donna Foote of Newsweek it is “‘the people who resent me [that] do so because I am a woman’”(Zakaria 7).
By following her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto into political leadership, Benazir and her literary counterpart “the Virgin Ironpants” highlight an interesting trend in South Asia politics: the family connection. According to Rozina Visram in her book Women in India and Pakistan, the reason women have been able to overcome social obstacles and reach high political offices may be family relationships (54). Both the prime minister of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (Sirimavo Bandaranayake and Khaleda Zia, respectively) came to power after the murders of their husbands, for instance (Visram 55). In The Moor, Rushdie mentions another woman who followed in the footsteps of her father: Indira Gandhi, who was prime minister of India from 1966-77 and 1980-84 before she was assassinated.
The central female character in The Moor’s Last Sigh is Aurora Zogoiby, a talented painter who depicts complexity and history of India in her art. She has been linked to the artist Amrita Sher-Gil, who created “a vital, living India ‘of dark-bodied, sad-faced, inevitably thin men and women’, silent, silhouette-like, with an indefinable pathos” (Rao36). Like Aurora, Sher-Gil was often misunderstood and unappreciated in her time, although her work was of huge significance to modern Indian painting.
- Adler, Leonore Loeb, ed. International Handbook on Gender Roles.Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1993.
- Feldhaus, Anne. Images of Women in Maharashtrian Literature and Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
- Rao, Ramachandra. Modern Indian Painting. Madras: Associated Printers, Ltd., 1953.
- Rushdie, Salman. The Moor’s Last Sigh. New York: Pantheon, 1995.
- —. Shame. New York: Holt, 1983.
- Singh, J.P. The Indian Woman: Myth and Reality. New Delhi: Gyan, 1996.
- Zakaria, Rafiq. Women and Politics in Islam: The Trial of Benazir Bhutto. New York: New Horizons Press, 1990.
Section Author: Laura Moyer, Fall 1997
Last Updated: May 2017
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