Salman Rushdie, Knife and “time traveler”

By Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chhaya

In describing the near-fatal knife attack on him about two years ago, author Salman Rushdie has described the 24-year-old attacker as a sort of “time traveler”.

The alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, whom Rushdie pointedly refuses to name in his latest book ‘Knife’ about that very attack and its aftermath, could have come from any time starting February 24, 1989.

“I say in the book something to the effect that it felt like he was a time traveler, somebody emerging out of the past,” the author said in an interview with NPR.

That date February 24, 1989, is important to my personal reminiscence because when I first heard about the attack my mind instantly traveled back to that day in Bombay when rioting broke out in against Rushdie’s fateful book ‘The Satanic Verses’.

It was barely ten days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the “Supreme Leader” of Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, issued a fatwa against Rushdie, essentially offering a ‘supari’ (in the Bombay underworld’s parlance) on his head. Supari, incidentally, is like a contract for killing someone.

Khomeini offered a generous bounty then which had grown to $3.3 million as of 2012. Although the fatwa had seemingly lost much of its momentum after over three decades of its issuance, going by what happened to Rushdie some two years ago, its lethality has not waned at all.

While reporting on the Bombay riot, I came across a frenzied and raging young man who referred to himself by his rather generic first name, Hussain. He was incoherently abusing Rushdie before he found out that I was a journalist. He dropped his act a bit and started calling the author all sorts of specific profane names of the kind one hears on the streets of the city.

I asked him why he was so angry without reading the book which was in any case not yet available in Bombay then. He said something to the effect that Rushdie looked like a qafir or infidel. Given the level of discourse, I did not see any sense in asking him how he knew what infidels looked like or, for that matter, why anyone was infidel at all.

He then showed me a garden-variety vegetable knife that one might find in any kitchen in India and said that if he ever met Rushdie, he would stab him without qualms. “But you have not even read the book,” I persisted. Not that having actually read it and not liked it would have even remotely mitigated what he wanted to do.

I ended my conversation with Hussain at that point recognizing the absurdity of it.

By a remarkable coincidence some 33 years later, another young man, not having read Rushdie at all, and in the same age group as Hussain as well as employing the same sort of lunatic rationale, allegedly attacked him. The “time traveler” that Rushdie spoke of in jest was perhaps partly true. What Hussain wanted to do then, Matar allegedly did.

On January 3, 2024, the Associated Press reported that jury selection in the Matar case then had to be put on hold because was allowed to seek material from Rushdie’s memoir that became the book ‘Knife’. His lawyer had argued that Matar was entitled by law to see the manuscript before standing trial. It is not known whether he saw the manuscript.

The book’s publisher Random House describes it in a blurb thus: “Knife is Rushdie at the peak of his powers, writing with urgency, with gravity, with unflinching honesty. It is also a deeply moving reminder of literature’s capacity to make sense of the unthinkable, an intimate and life-affirming meditation on life, loss, love, art—and finding the strength to stand up again.”

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