Review of ‘Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder’ (Penguin Random House, 2024) by Salman Rushdie

The literary world was shaken on August 12, 2022, when the news of Salman Rushdie being stabbed on stage in upstate New York started to pour in. Ironically, he was all set to talk about his involvement in a project to create a refuge in the USA for those writers who are not safe in their country. I have a few fans of Rushdie in the family so it was natural for me to exchange text messages with them as I kept one eye (ironically, again) on the TV, trying to gulp down the latest on this incident. As images of a helicopter and a stretcher being carried inside kept playing, I was anxious (like multitudes of others, I'm sure) about whether he would make it or not. Keeping his religious sentiments or lack thereof aside, Rushdie is one of the greatest authors of our times with an unparalleled sense of humour, keen observation, boundless imagination, and a sharp voice for satire. He's a wordsmith par excellence with the gift of crafting the funniest words and puns in English and Urdu. Therefore, it came as a slight relief when, on the next day of the attack, the news came that he was alive—although he was likely to lose an eye and the use of his left arm.

After being stabbed 15 times in different parts of his body, it was a miracle that he lived to tell the tale in his latest book, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder. At its core, the book is a cathartic process that helps the author take stock of what ensued, recognise it, come to terms with it (somewhat), and use it to put the past behind and begin a new chapter. It is a testament to Rushdie's resilience, determination, and steel-strong willpower to use his talent and intellect to claw his way back into regular life. An emotional and personal account, Knife is a recounting of the 77-year-old author's account of what went on just before, during, and after the horrific incident.

The book is also a standing ovation to the people, especially his wife, immediate family members, doctors and other members of the medical profession, and friends from the writers' community and otherwise, who sat, stood, and slept by him and literally held him through this difficult stage to nurture him back to life. Rushdie shares chunks of his personal life, dedicating one full chapter to his wife, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, an American poet, author, photographer, and visual artist. He describes lovingly and in his usual humorous way where and how they met and how their relationship blossomed. Knife is coming to terms with a new reality for both Eliza and Rushdie. An emotional rollercoaster, it traces the upheavals in their lives and how they overcome the trauma and anger to live a life of peace and love.

Besides his marital bliss, Rushdie shows glimpses into his past turbulent relationship with his father, touches upon the famous fatwa, and shares his close relationship with his sister, nieces, and sons. For someone who has mostly read his works of fiction, it's hard to imagine what the author is like in real life. Knife gives a good portrayal of him—he's just like any other human being who's concerned about his Ralph Lauren suit at the time of the attack. Never before have I seen the man behind the works of award-winning fiction like I've done here.

Detailed depictions of Rushdie's physical and psychological suffering during his hospitalisation and rehabilitation, the loss of his freedom of movement, and his dependence on others are heart-wrenching, but the pain for the reader is a bit dulled through the dry humour—which is his forte; he does make us smile even through the worst pain imaginable. However, when it comes to the loss of his eye, it's an agony he can't get over and in his words, it's "an absence with an immensely powerful presence". The silver lining in all this is the miraculous recovery of his left hand through rigorous and painful hand therapy, proving that where there's a will, there's a way.

Rushdie is unapologetically himself in Knife. He reaffirms his belief in not believing in any religion and voices his strong opinion on a politicised and weaponised religion that causes more harm than good. By the end of the book, we see him as a strong man who revisits the place of the attack in a new Ralph Lauren suit, is not afraid to speak out, is determined to stay true to his way of storytelling with grit and gumption, and is very much basking in the love of his wife and family. He promises that the knife attack will not change his writing style or make it appear weak or smell of defeat. Through this book, Rushdie rises from the ashes like a phoenix from a life-threatening 27 seconds, once again free to do what he does best while his attacker languishes in prison.

Steering away from the memoir a little, we recently got a further glimpse into Rushdie's mode of thinking especially in light of the ongoing carnage in Palestine. As has been widely reported in various news sources including The Guardian, Rushdie has added his two cents on the genocide in Palestine and the student protests across in Western university campuses. He justifies the "emotional reaction" to the situation but questions the viability of a Palestinian state "right now" under the Hamas leadership, which, in his opinion, would lead to a "Taliban-like state" under the tutelage of Iran. Being the subject of an extremist's brutal attack himself, we may try to understand his apprehension and aversion toward another potential terrorist/religious fundamentalist nation. However, his opinion that the terrorist organisation Hamas should be mentioned in the university campus protests because "that's where this started" comes across as a bit off-key. October 7, 2023 was not when it started. And there's plenty of debate on who created the Taliban in the first place but that's a story for another day.

In The Guardian piece, Rushdie mostly walks the middle path when he opines that student demonstrations are okay as long as other students are not made to feel unsafe. He is sympathetic to the Palestinians and their cause but feels that not enough voices are being raised against Hamas. In my opinion, this is not the time to issue "safe" statements. The horrific and exponentially increasing statistics in Palestine cannot be compared to anything that we have witnessed since the persecution of the Jews almost a century back. We expect a stronger opinion from writers, artists, musicians, film makers, actors, poets, or someone who practises any form of art and has the weapon (not necessarily a knife) to make their voices count. Keeping the art separate from the artist is our job.

Zertab Quaderi is an SEO English content writer and social media marketing consultant by day and a reader of fiction and nonfiction books by night. In between, she travels and dabbles in watercolour painting.


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