There have been very few writers who have been dogged by controversy throughout their careers. Some have been persecuted in less enlightened times such as Mark Twain, and some have been ridiculed by the press like Edgar Allan Poe. Yet, Salman Rushdie was the first author in the free world to have been pursued from across continents and forced into hiding because of a death sentence by a foreign government. To say Salman Rushdie is a very controversial writer in today’s society would be a gross understatement. Rushdie in fact could be considered the ideal poster boy for absolute freedom of the press.
It is not that Rushdie prides himself on being rebellious, he simply presents his ideas bluntly and it just so happens that his ideas address extremely volatile topics such as the Islam religion. Rushdie’s philosophy was eloquently put when he wrote, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
Contrary to many great authors, Rushdie did not endure a traumatic childhood, suffer from alcohol addiction, or live with chronic depression. Instead, Rushdie actually had what many would view as a close to perfect upbringing. Rushdie was born in 1947 to a middle-class Moslem family in the great city of Bombay, India. His paternal grandfather was an Urdu poet, and his father a Cambridge educated businessman. At the age of fourteen, Rushdie was sent to Rugby School in England where he excelled in his studies. Rushdie went on to continue his studies at King's College, Cambridge, where he studied history. After graduating in 1968 he worked for a time with television in Pakistan as an actor with the theatre group at Oval House in Kennington. Then, from 1971 to 1981 Rushdie earned his living by working intermittently as a freelance advertising copywriter for Ogilvy and Mather and Charles Barker.
Rushdie eventually began his literary career in 1975 when he made his debut with Grimus, a sort of fantastical science fiction novel based on the twelfth century Sufi poem “The Conference of Birds”.
Grimus however received little fame and Rushdie truly broke into the literary world with his second novel Midnight’s Children, in 1981, which won him the Booker prize and international fame. This novel began his controversial persona as well. The novel is a comic allegory of Indian history that revolves around the life of its narrator, Saleem Sinai, and the one thousand children born after India’s Declaration of Independence. The reason this novel arose so much controversy though, especially in India, is because of his “unflattering” depiction of Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister, and her son Sanjay, also a former Prime Minister. Indira actually sued Rushdie following the books unveiling and won.
The next two books Rushdie wrote seemed even bolder, Shame (1983), centered on a well-to-do Pakistani family. Rushdie used this family’s history as a metaphor for Pakistan’s own tainted history. Shame was actually banned in Pakistan shortly after its release. The second book titled Sea of Stories, was written for children and created a story of an affable robot, talking fish, dark villains, and an Arabian princess in distress. Although not “classic Rushdie”, it was certainly a sign of Rushdie’s versatility.
In 1989, Rushdie released a book that has brought him more fame than any of his other works combined. The book is entitled Satanic Verses and may very well cost Salman Rushdie his life even today. Many people say Satanic Verses perhaps went too far. Fearlessly, Rushdie portrayed one of its characters as the prophet Mohamed and quoted scriptures from the holy Islam Quran. This would be all good and well, had Rushdie omitted his own personal “alterations and interpretations” of these scriptures. This was viewed as the ultimate blasphemy, a direct offense to all Muslims. This “action” was received as such too, and the Muslim Church retaliated by placing a million-dollar bounty on the head of Rushdie. Although this forced Rushdie into hiding and presented him with numerous sleepless nights, this reaction also gave Rushdie a new podium to shout from. As Balaji Venkateswaran said so perfectly,” It also made him a demi-god among litterateurs, an icon to be brandished in support of free speech, a metaphor in the fight against censorship.”