Salman Rushdie's Knife: A brave, unflinching chronicle of the attack on a writer

In his new book, Rushdie's pen is mightier than the knife

Salman Rushdie Portrait Session AP

Five is a life-changing number for Salman Rushdie. The Satanic Verses was his fifth book. The Satanic Verses―which, he said, was his least political―changed his life forever. His second book, Midnight’s Children, had only changed the world of English literary writing. And after four divorces, Rushdie is married again. Rachel Eliza Griffiths is his fifth go at the fuzzy feeling. But with Griffiths, the feeling is very much the 'print it on a T-shirt and wear as a slogan' kind. (He was not looking for love, he says).

A poet, Griffiths often goes by her second name. Like him. Rushdie's first name is Ahmed. (Nobody has ever called me Ahmed except my mother when she was cross with me, he writes in Knife, his much-awaited memoir after the attack on his life in 2022.) He is in love. And this time it is happiness.

KnifeMeditations After an Attempted Murder is a brave, unflinching chronicle of the attack on a writer. It is his most accessible book and certainly his most important work. Rushdie is out of hiding. He lays himself bare. He has survived, and has lived to tell the tale. There is the detailed, vivid chronicling of his own recovery. (Griffiths has a documentary, too.) Details include finding a bump during his prostate examination. (Not cancer, though they thought it was.) Then there were the urinary problems, fears of going blind, and pain. And this book about almost dying is his most life-affirming work.

His attack lasts 27 seconds. The same time it would take to recite the Lord’s Prayer, if you were religious, he writes. Or read out his favourite Shakespeare’s sonnet 130. “Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, octave and sestet,’’ he writes. He describes sitting in an amphitheatre in Chautauqua on that fateful day to talk about the importance of keeping writers safe. “My first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing towards me was: “So it’s you. Here you are,’’ he writes.

US-LITERATURE-WRITING-GALA The writer with his wife, Rachel Eliza Griffiths | AFP

He escaped, but not unscathed. He has lost vision in his right eye. The dark glass that covers it gives him a rakish look. (Very rockstar-writer-gladiator). The wound in his neck caused a partial paralysis of the right side of his lower lip, which an $18,000 prosthesis clipped on to his teeth attempts to hide. It is not obvious when you see him smiling defiantly out of the book cover; but it is, when he speaks.

Like the weapon used on him―a knife―the tender, deeply-felt memoir tells of his fight back, of his survival, of family, of the staggering courage of a man who made his home in literature, and more importantly, love.

This is not Rushdie’s first memoir. In Joseph Anton: A Memoir, which came out in 2012, he writes about living a hunted life in the shadow of the fatwa. Written in the third person, Anton offers insights into his life, his relationship with his father, the drinking and the fits of rage fuelled by it―but at a distance. Knife, however, is personal and political, almost an all-access pass to his private world.

It is a book of survival―urgent, heartbreaking, witty and unforgettable. Rushdie writes with abandon about being in love, his sons, his sister Sameen and, of course, Griffiths. She “literally knocked him out’’, as he likes to say to his friends. Their “meeting cute’’ involves Rushdie walking through a glass door and bruising his nose. The sheer rush of love, delightfully bubbly like the best champagne, is infectious. The trial by blood―this time an extended hospital stay and a rehab―continued for Griffiths as she became the rock by his side after the attack. The dedication in her debut novel, Promise, reads, “Let our love show this impossible world that nothing is impossible. I love you with every heart and story that has ever lived in me and every story to come.’’

Rushdie said at PEN America in 2022 that a poem will not stop a bullet. “A novel cannot defuse a bomb. Not all our satirists are heroes," he said. But Rushdie is. And he has. He still writes. We must then read.