In Knife, author Salman Rushdie movingly reflects on the attack that cost him an eye

In Knife, author Salman Rushdie movingly reflects on the attack that cost him an eye

Salman Rushdie’s recurring fear appears to not come so much from the attack as from the possibility that he will be more known for the mishaps in his life than the books he wrote.

It must be human nature, to think longingly of a day or time just before a catastrophe had occurred, recollecting such ordinary moments as standing outside your room and watching the full moon. You’d want to extend your hand to the past and pat that self that is so blissfully unaware of what’s to come, going on innocently about the day’s business. In his book Knife, a meditation on the attempt on his life, Salman Rushdie calls the night of August 11, 2022 his last innocent night, when he watched the full moon as a man in love and thought of his just-finished novel Victory City

The next day, he would stand on a stage in Chautauqua Institution, near New York, and watch a young man from the audience rush towards him with a knife – a scene he had imagined several times in the past when a fatwa was issued in Iran to assassinate him for his work The Satanic Verses. He would think, “So it’s you, here you are.” Yet, Salman would not move away as the young man reached him, only block his face with the left hand and take the first stab, before falling bloodied on the floor as the knife struck him 14 more times. 

You are reading it one and a half years after the attack, so you know the writer, like in a story that he might have written, would survive. But you could not help feel the panic of the people around him, the gasps let out by a world of fans and well wishers, the misery of the family and the state of his wife Eliza’s mind when she hopped on an expensive private plane to reach his side, fearing he might have died. Salman’s retelling snatches you from the present and puts you on the Chautauqua stage with him while he, like a man roaming outside his body, appears to watch it unfold and present it to you matter-of-factly. There is a calm undertone that makes you wonder if he did not stop between sentences to scream his lungs out at the memory of every single stab and the long months of getting back on his feet. 

He did not, at first, want to delve on it, he writes, but takes the advice of his agent and friend Andrew Wylie, when he realises that he can’t write anything else until he gets this off his chest. He knows that language is his knife and if he is caught in an unwanted knife fight, “this was the knife I could use to fight back.” But for a long time, he did not even know if he would write again. All he wanted, he stresses several times, was to survive. “Live, live,” he writes like a mantra. 

After the crucial early days, when it became clear that Salman would live – every little discovery (“I could talk, I could remember”) a milestone – priorities went to parts of him that should be saved: his hand that took the first blow, his one remaining eye. Of all that he lost, Salman rues the loss of his right eye the most, blindness, he admits, being one of the worst fears of his life. 

Victory City, Salman's novel released in 2023
Victory City, Salman's novel released in 2023Facebook

In every such rumination – from the fear of blindness to the thoughts of a full moon – Salman’s mind would hop from the work of one author to another, recollecting stories and passages about blindness or the moon like a true reader. It is at once adorable and relatable to the reader in you that he, a writer no less than a winner of the Best of the Booker prizes, dots on the books he read and the phrases he loved and goes back to them from time to time. You imagine that maybe these little excursions help ease the pain and struggle he has been through, before some harsh event of the present would bring him back to reality. It is heartening to see him not lose his sense of humour through all this, as he describes his hospitalisation and his many appointments with the many doctors (like a child he names them Dr Hand, Dr Neck, Dr Stabbings) healing him. 

What makes hospitals happiest is when the patient says he is having bowel movements. 

If you are curious about his feelings towards his attacker – a 24-year-old New Jersey man, apparently sympathetic to Shia extremism in Iran – Salman lets you in on it at every step of his recovery. Nowhere do you spot anger, but there is at first the marked interest in meeting his almost-murderer, his ‘A.’ as he calls the man. There is a whole section in the book devoted to an imagined conversation that takes place between the two men. A year after the attack, Salman also realises the change in his attitude towards the A. But what intrigues you more is the glimpse into the writer’s mind and the way his thoughts spiral, much like your own. His writing is easy to engage with, his narrative first person, because, he writes, “when someone wounds you fifteen times it definitely feels very first-person.”

An old photo of Salman
An old photo of SalmanFacebook

The author’s recurring fear appears to not come so much from the attack as from the possibility that he will be more known for the mishaps in his life (the fatwa, the knife attack) than the books he wrote. After the fatwa was issued in 1989, he had taken a call to not let his writing be governed by it in any way, to go on in the literary path he had chosen. He wants to reiterate the same reasoning after the knife attack. “I don't believe it has, or should, or will, impact my writing style in any way at all,” Salman said, when he was asked about it. “I don't see what an act of violence such as the one I experienced has to contribute to art,” he added.

The violence changed neither his beliefs (he continues to be an atheist) nor his voicing of opinion against all that he believed was unjust - from the religious sectarianism and political authoritarianism in India to the Charlie Hebdo shooting in France (that he continues to decry). 

If you are afraid of the consequences of what you say, then you are not free. When I was making The Satanic Verses, it never occurred to me to be afraid. 

It has to tug at your heart when he writes, “My poor maligned book. Maybe one day it, and its maligned author, will both be free again.” 

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