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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 22, June 1, 2024

Review of Salman Rushdie’s Knife | Rishav Sharma

Saturday 1 June 2024


Je Suis Salman

On 12.08.2022, Salman Rushdie was at the amphitheater in Chautauqua, New York to talk about the censorship and security of writers in their country. In a harrowing incident at the venue, he was brutally stabbed multiple times by a religious fanatic, whom the author chooses not to name but call him A. The attack must not be gauged as an isolated incident of violence but an act to terrorize an artist.

In the words of Salman Rushdie why writing ‘Knife: Mediation After an Attempted Murder’ was of great significance to him he says, “To write it (the memoir) would be my way of owning what had happened, taking charge of what had happened to me, refusing to be a victim, I would respond to violence with art”.

In an interview with the journalists of the New York Post, A had admitted the premeditated nature of his act. Also, the reason for the attack was equally banal that Rushdie was a “disingenuous” man and it was ostensible that the intelligence of ‘A’ was “non-rocket scientific”, and meeting ‘A’ would not elicit any interesting response. Perhaps the attack was because of ‘The Satanic Verses’ but Rushdie has made it clear that he no longer feels the urge to defend it. He has defended it appropriately in essays and memoirs and is proud of his writings. Moreover, he wasn’t afraid of the consequences which is a common characteristic of being free.

The memoir is succinct and unfolds in two parts, ‘Angel of Death’ and ‘Angel of Life’, both parts are further divided into four chapters. The first chapter goes by the name Knife, the inception of meditation. Here a young man wielded not just a weapon made of steel but prejudice and ignorance. Even in the near-death experience, Rushdie unearths the duality of human nature and writes, “I experienced both the worst and best of human nature” - “motiveless malignity” and “courage, selflessness, the willingness to risk oneself to help that old stranger lying on the ground”.

Amidst the backdrop of adversity, it would be reductive to characterize that the memoir solely reflects on hostility at the event. It is more about love and finding happiness at unexpected turns that life takes. For instance, meeting Racheal Eliza Griffith, especially when Rushdie was refraining from it, in his words “it (love) came up behind me and whacked me behind the ear and I was powerless to resist”. It is also about happiness, happiness which before he met his wife was the insanity of a simpleton to the author. He had perceived the world as horrendous and happiness a mere “lie”. But the pandemic and the attempted murder altered his perception. These situations unveiled the improbability of perfect happiness as well as perfect unhappiness.

The crucible of the trauma center and the aftermath are inspiring. The man who had escaped death and had lost an eye to the attack is inspired by Mansoor Ali Khan aka Tiger, who had lost an eye in a car accident before taking over the captainship of the Indian cricket team. Drawing from the resilience he reflects with wit and writes “If he (Mansoor Ali Khan) could face up to the ferocious speed of Hall and Griffith (pace bowlers of West Indies), I should be able to manage to pour water into a glass without spilling it, cross sidewalks, without colliding with other pedestrians, and in general succeed at being functional as a one-eyed man in a two-eyed world”. Crucially, “A”, wasn’t the angel of death, but Eliza, their family, friends, and collective support rallying for him were the angels of life.

About the attack, it would be erroneous to suggest that the attack was fuelled by the Fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini or perceived blasphemy. Instead, it was a chilling manifestation of cultural terrorism, to cull free speech and intellectual inquiry. For instance, Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz for his fiction ‘The Children of the Alley’ survived a similar ordeal. In the aftermath of the infamous fatwa of 1989, he rose for Rushdie and wrote “The veritable terrorism of which he is a target is unjustifiable, indefensible. One idea can only be opposed by other ideas. Even if the punishment is carried out, the idea as well as the book will remain.”

In the memoir, the ingenious incorporation of his internal dialogue with “A” infuses the narrative with captivating depth. Spanning four sessions Rushdie dialogues his assailant, who in twenty-seven seconds impaled the author fifteen times. He wants to convey to the young man that violence is pale compared to art. That art is not a luxury but the essence of humanity, without which the ability to envision this world would wither away.

In the tumultuous journey from the brink of death, where the light at the end of the tunnel failed to appear, to being confined to a ventilator and the humbling dependence on others for even the simplest of tasks, Rushdie had a second chance at life. Despite the narrative that he was saved by some divine intervention, his logic couldn’t let him shed his atheistic convictions. About life hereafter, the author has decided to eschew the allure of long-term plans for the spontaneity of the present.

‘Knife: Meditation After an Attempted Murder’ is uniquely life-affirming and remarkably witty in many measures. The beauty of this literary work lies in the master craftsmanship of the wordsmith who has forged the knife upon the anvil of thought and reflection that cuts through the thickest of dogma and fanaticism. The spirit of perseverance is magnificent in this literary offering and leaves an indelible imprint upon the psyche of the readers

(Author: Rishav Sharma, a legal practitioner by profession based in Delhi)

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