June 19, 1947
Mumbai, , IN
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Though an acclaimed and prize-winning novelist for nearly three decades, Sir Salman Rushdie's work was overshadowed in popular culture by a death sentence issued by the Iranian government in 1989 following the publication of his book The Satanic Verses (1988). The novel, which made suppositions about several passages deleted from the Koran, was met with outrage by members of the Muslim world, which forced Rushdie into hiding for nearly a decade. Though the edict was never formally lifted, he eventually emerged from seclusion at the end of the 1990s to resume his celebrated career with such novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) and Shalimar the Clown (2005), as well as Joseph Anton: A Memoir (2012), which recounted his life under the Iranian decree. Rushdie's literary accomplishments, as well as the travails he endured in the pursuit of his career, made him one of the late 20th century's best-known figures in popular culture.
He was born Ahmed Salman Rushdie in Bombay (now Mumbai), India on June 19, 1947, just months before the British Partition, which created modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The only son among four children by lawyer-turned-businessman Anis Rushdie and his wife, Negin Bhatt, a teacher, Rushdie fell in love with literature and popular entertainment at an early age, when he counted The Wizard of Oz, "Superman" comics and the vibrant Bollywood musicals of his native country among his favorites. These and other influences would spur him to write his first story at the age of 10. Four years later, he left India to attend the Rugby School in England, an experience he later described as unpleasant due to his race and lack of athletic ability, which set him apart from the other students. Rushdie then studied history at King's College, Cambridge, where his father had also gained his education. After graduation in 1968, he worked briefly as an actor before toiling for the next two years as a copywriter for various advertising agencies.
During this period, Rushdie wrote and published his first novel, the science fiction-tinged Grimus (1975), which earned little response from readers or critics. However, his second book, Midnight's Children (1981), was an unqualified success, winning the prestigious Booker Prize in the year of its publication and critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Its story, about a young Indian man born at the moment of his country's separation from Britain who possessed telepathic powers, served as a template for Rushdie's subsequent work, which frequently blurred the division between fantasy, historical fiction and commentary on the Indian experience. His third novel, Shame (1983), took a similar route in its thinly veiled story of Pakistani president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was ousted by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq before being executed in 1979. It received France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (Best Foreign Book) in addition to being short-listed for the 1983 Booker Prize.
After writing The Jaguar Smile (1987), a non-fiction book about his experiences while traveling in Nicaragua, Rushdie penned his most famous work of fiction, The Satanic Verses, which irrevocably changed his life for both the better and the worse. Immediately upon its publication, the book generated a firestorm of anger among conservative elements of numerous Muslim countries for its reference to the titular, highly debated sections from the Koran. The book was banned in 12 Muslim countries before Iran's spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, issued a fatwa, or sentence, condemning Rushdie to death for blasphemy and placing a sizable bounty on his head. The author was forced to go into hiding while violence erupted across Europe against the book's translators, publishers and even merchants who sold the book. Relations between Great Britain and Iran broke down as a result of the fatwa, and were not reinstated until 1998, when then-president Mohammad Khatami announced that his government would neither pursue nor hinder attempts to collect the bounty. The proclamation allowed Rushdie to end nine years of seclusion, though Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reaffirmed the death sentence in 2005.
Despite this lethal environment, Rushdie continued to write, penning the children's novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories in 1990 and a collection of shorter work, titled East, West, in 1994. He also appeared in public on several occasions, including book signings in London and even a much-publicized 1993 visit to Wembley Stadium where he showed up on stage with U2. Rushdie also apologized to Muslims who were offended by The Satanic Verses, which led to a schism in the world community, with large numbers of followers supporting the author in addition to those who called for his death. In 1994, he returned to novels with The Moor's Last Sigh, a fantasy-romance concerning four generations of a family's history. Five years later, he published The Ground Beneath Her Feet, an alternate history of world culture as viewed through the prism of rock-n-roll and a reinterpretation of the Orpheus myth. Rushdie also continued to reap major literary awards with his work, most notably his 1999 ordainment as a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France and Hutch Crossword Book Award for Shalimar the Clown (2005), which was also nominated for the Whitbread Book Award and International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
The new millennium was also noteworthy for Rushdie's surprising marriage to Indian model Padma Lakshmi, who would later go on to host the American reality television series "Top Chef" (Bravo, 2006- ). Rushdie left his third wife, Elizabeth West, to marry Lakshmi in a 2004 ceremony, but the union lasted less than three years prior to their divorce in 2007. Reports varied as to the cause of the split, with Lakshmi citing the challenges of being wed to a controversial world figure like Rushdie. The author took a less tactful route, blaming Lakshmi's alleged narcissism and mood swings as the root cause of their divorce. He was subsequently linked to Indian actress and model Riya Sen. In 2007, he was knighted for services to literature, the same year he began a five-year term as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. During this period, Rushdie also dabbled in acting, filming a cameo as himself in "Bridget Jones' Diary" (2001) and appearing as Helen Hunt's gynecologist in "Then She Found Me" (2007), which marked the actress' directorial debut. In 2010, Rushdie published Luka and the Fire of Life, a sequel to his first children's novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which received mixed reviews. He then followed this with Joseph Anton, a memoir of his life under the fatwa which took its title from the pseudonym he assumed during the period. A long-gestating project to bring Midnight's Children to the screen began production in 2012, while Rushdie also began work on a science fiction television series for Showtime.
By Paul Gaita