Book Box | Why we must read Knife by Salman Rushdie - Hindustan Times

Book Box | Why we must read Knife by Salman Rushdie

Apr 28, 2024 12:09 AM IST

A different Rushdie, raw and vulnerable in his new memoir

Dear Reader,

Knife by Salman Rushdie(Author) PREMIUM
Knife by Salman Rushdie(Author)

Read Knife because it is a survival story, with all the power that such survival stories have – it is the ultimate hero’s journey, the template for our most powerful stories, from Ernest Shackleton exploring the Arctic to Wonder Woman rebuilding the multiverse.

Read Knife for the debt we owe to a truth-teller. You may disagree with Salman Rushdie’s politics, you may dislike the allusive complexity of his prose, his long sentences and his slow-paced plots. But whatever your aesthetic inclinations, this is one book you will find powerful, provocative, and paradoxical. And it is painfully easy to read.

We’ve read the story of Salman Rushdie living with death threats for decades, with the Damocles sword of a fatwa hanging over his head, as documented in the brilliantly written memoir Joseph Anton. After his death sentence is lifted and he finally lets himself relax, he is attacked at an event in the lake resort community in Chautauqua, New York, in what, ironically, is a "safe space" for refugee writers. Standing on stage, this writer is subjected to fifteen crazed stabs of a knife that damage his liver, and his arm and blind him in one eye.

Read Knife because it takes us into the mind of a brilliant man. Standing outside the guest house where he is staying, by the Chautauqua Lake, on what Rushdie calls the last innocent night of his life, he looks up at the moon. We witness the free associations of his mind as he thinks about a short story called The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino, about Tex Avery’s cartoon Billy Boy where a little goat eats the moon and Georges Méliès’s fourteen-minute silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune, the classic from 1902 about the first men to reach the moon, travelling in a bullet-shaped capsule fired from an immensely long cannon.

Read Knife for the trial scene, held in Rushdie’s head. The writer tries to understand his assailant, his would-be assassin, whom he calls an ass and refers to as A.

“Do you have a girlfriend?", Rushdie asks his twenty-four-year-old attacker. "How did the father who lived in Lebanon receive you? Why did you come back and stop talking to your mother and sisters and retreat to the basement to play video games, watch Netflix and listen to Imam Yutubi videos? And did you read any of my writing? What did you find offensive about it? What if I said to you, that I once wrote a book which sympathetically portrayed the condition of Kashmiri Muslims and the story of a young Kashmiri man who turns to jihad? In a way, I wrote that book, Shalimar the Clown, about you before I knew you", he tells his attacker.

Read Knife because it shows us the human side of writers whose works we love – we meet Paul Auster in his Brooklyn home, frail and struggling with cancer of the lung, we see Martin Amis die before us and Hanif Kureishi continue writing despite a paralysing stroke.

Read Knife for its mathematical precision – its ability to spot patterns and make connections. We encounter the knife in different contexts. We go back thirty years to Cairo, where eighty-two-year-old Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz leaves home to walk to his favourite café and is knifed in the neck by a religious fanatic. There are knives in favourite movies, Polanski’s Knife in the Water, a fable about violence and infidelity. Knives in favourite books. Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife can cut openings between worlds and allow the bearer to traverse multiple realities. The butcher’s knife with which the protagonist of Kafka’s The Trial is killed. "9/11 taught us that an aircraft can be a knife too," says Rushdie.

Read Knife to see how literature intersects with life. On every page. Recently, I heard the Chilean novelist Benjamin Labatut talk about the power of magic, intuition and storytelling and how narrative is our way to make sense of the world. You see this everywhere in the pages of Knife, in the writer's forebodings and imaginings, in his connecting with the great body of world literature to make sense of reality. Everywhere he searches, and he interprets.

Early on, Rushdie tells us about a nightmare he had before he left for the writer's event where he was attacked. “I had a dream about being attacked by a man with a spear, a gladiator in a Roman amphitheatre. There was an audience, roaring for blood. I was rolling about on the ground trying to elude the gladiator’s downward thrusts and screaming. It was not the first time I had had such a dream.” When Rushdie awoke, he didn’t want to go. But people were depending on him, the event had been sold out and Rushdie himself was getting paid, money much needed for some big domestic bills.

Read Knife to see how trauma changes the soul and style of a writer. Here is Rushdie at his rawest, his most elemental, his least polished. Knife is different from any other Rushdie book. For the very first time, the writer talks a LOT about the woman in his life - his wife Eliza Griffiths, a Black poet and photographer, about her family and her friends and even recommends the memoir written by her friend, the poet Safiya Sinclair called How to Say Babylon. It’s a book that reminded me a lot of Educated. Both books share the damaging effects of growing up with dictatorial and even demented dads, dads under the fanatic influence of a cult. Where Educated is set in the mountains of Idaho, and How to Say Babylon is set in Jamaica in the Caribbean.

Knife is spare, and closer to life and living than Rushdie's other books. It deals with the writer's pain of an eyelid stitched, the humiliation of a catheter inserted in his penis for urine, and the gratitude of being looked after by family. There is so much here in this slim book that I have to stop every few pages to simply take in the power of Rushdie’s words and ideas.

I read Knife to witness words rehabilitating the body, the mind and the spirit. To read Rushdie on literature and language. He’s spoken of this earlier and eloquently, in his Languages of Truth.


Languages of Truth(Author)
Languages of Truth(Author)

Here we come closer to the cutting edge. “Language, too, was a knife.” Rushdie reflects. “It could cut open the world and reveal its meaning, its inner workings, its secrets, its truths. It could cut through from one reality to another. It could call bullshit, open people’s eyes, create beauty. The language was my knife. If I had unexpectedly been caught in an unwanted knife fight, maybe this was the knife I could use to fight back. It could be the tool I would use to remake and reclaim my world, to rebuild the frame in which my picture of the world could once more hang on my wall, to take charge of what had happened to me, to own it, make it mine.”

Afterwards, if you would like poetry to celebrate April as National Poetry Writing Month, check out A Poem a Day. Also, read these four must-reads on caste and inter-caste love to commemorate Dalit History Month. Today, Saturday, April 27, is also independent bookstore day. Visit these amazing independent bookstores all over the world, virtually or in person, in Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Benaras, Chicago, San Francisco and London.

And until next week, happy reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

The views expressed are personal

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