Knife by Salman Rushdie: Chronicle of a death foretold—and foiled

The book cuts through Rushdie’s many worlds of darkness and of light, bringing with it the sea of stories that will survive.

Published : May 29, 2024 17:04 IST - 5 MINS READ

Salman Rushdie displays his entry in the Golden Book in the city hall, Hamburg, Germany on May 13.

Salman Rushdie displays his entry in the Golden Book in the city hall, Hamburg, Germany on May 13. | Photo Credit: Christian Charisius/dpa via AP

The cover has the eloquence of the Turin shroud.

The word “Knife” of the title slices through the parchment-coloured whiteness of the book’s cover, obscuring the “i” at its centre. In that moment you experience the shock of the assassin’s blade as it entered the whiteness of Salman Rushdie’s right eye. The rest, as they say, is a memory of a murder foretold but miraculously foiled.

Both the horror of the repeated stabbings onstage and Rushdie’s meticulous recreation of the attack through his many interviews and online appearances, eyepatch in situ, tends to elevate him into the pantheon of tragic American-style icons. He could be the Charles Lindbergh, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, or even the Elvis J. Presley of the literary world, the secular saint of free association, if not free speech, which might be a more desirable term from his point of view. There is one dramatic difference. He has lived to burnish his own halo. He does so in such style, with such immense gusto, that love him or leave him, he has proved once again that he is a star.

Meditations after an Attempted Murder
By Salman Rushdie
Penguin Random House
Pages: 320
Price: Rs.699

Since the fatwa on him by Ayatollah Khomeini for the imagined heresy in The Satanic Verses that led Rushdie into years of exile in the UK, Rushdie has found himself catapulted into a space uniquely his own. As described in a third person narrative in the novel Joseph Anton: A Memoir, parts of which feature in Knife, Rushdie’s ordeal in the wilderness serves to sharpen his vision to an extent that is unnerving. Dare we say it is an Auschwitz of the mind where the victim and the guards are trapped in the klieg lights of their own making?

To us, of course, he will always be Midnight’s Child. A nomad born on the cusp of a fabled subcontinent’s history at the very moment that it was being cleaved into blood-soaked segments. Saleem Sinai lives in a Bombay that crackles with the raw intensity that Rushdie brings to his vision of the city of his birth and with it his evocations of family life long after he abandoned both to live in permanent exile in the cities of the West, and post his underground years, opting finally for New York, where he now lives. He is a nowhere man who is also everywhere in his mind and in his books.

Invoking Naguib Mahfouz

Amongst the many writers Rushdie invokes during his meditations that take on a serial quality as his rehabilitation progresses is Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), the Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize winner. The magnificent cycle of stories that make up the Cairo Trilogy shows Mahfouz to be a passionate family man like Rushdie but also qualitatively different.

When Mahfouz watches how the three great religions stalk the streets in Children of Gebelawi, inspired perhaps by the Coptic scholar Salama Musi, he explores the different strands that make up Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The one phrase that occurs repeatedly in Rushdie’s oeuvre like a mantra is the line from Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To which the wiser older Mahfouz would reply: “I believe in life and in people.”

Also Read | Attack on Salman Rushdie demonstrates the resilience of hate

Rushdie reports with a deep sense of retroactive regret that late in his life Mahfouz was stabbed in 1994 in a street in Cairo, possibly for opposing the Khomeini fatwa against Rushdie. Yet one of the characters in the Mahfouz trilogy asks: “Kamal had long wondered what was true and what was false, but perhaps doubt was as much an evasion of responsibility as mysticism and a passive belief in science.” A little later he asks: “Could you be a model teacher, an exemplary husband and a lifelong revolutionary?”

One thing that appears evident through the pages of Knife as against Joseph Anton, even a Rushdie can become an exemplary husband given the right circumstances. After having made unkind remarks about his second wife, he goes on to describe one of his more famous wives as being graced with “majestic narcissism”, which could be seen as complimentary. She returned the compliment after they split by stirring a sweet-sour dish of kumquat chutney so glorious it can be watched online.

It is Rushdie’s uxorious references to his current wife who stood by him as he lay nearly dead of multiple stab wounds that merits attention. If there were an index to the book, she would occupy two-thirds of it. That must surely signify a step further in the sainthood category if not for him, at least for her.

Also Read | The long reign of Khattam-Shud

At one point in Joseph Anton, Rushdie recognises that to remain a lifelong revolutionary in the Mahfouz sense of the term, one has to accept change. He writes: “In this new world, in the dialectics of the world beyond the communism and capitalism confrontation, it would be made clear that culture would be the primary too. The culture of central Europe was asserting itself against Russianness to unmask the Soviet Union. And ideology as Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts were insisting would certainly be primary. The wars of ideology and culture were moving to the centre of the stage. And his novel unfortunately for him would become a battlefield.”

In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, that most enchanting collection of stories written for his son Zafar after the trauma of banishment, he becomes a child again, named Haroun. It evokes the time when Rushdie would be put to sleep in his old bedroom by his Father Anis, about to fly out of his window like Peter Pan. After many fantastical adventures Haroun and his father Rashid return to the City. It has changed. It is still raining. Its name has changed. It is called Kahani, the story where life begins.

Salman Rushdie’s Knife cuts through his many worlds of darkness and of light, bringing with it the Kahanis that will survive. 

Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer, critic, and cultural commentator.

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