The author of Midnight’s Children is no stranger to threats and controversies. One of his earlier novels, The Satanic Verses, was published in September 1988. Although it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom, the response that it received from the rest of the world was antithetical, to say the least.
The novel’s reference to the Satanic Verses of the Holy Quran sparked a controversy that spread like wildfire. At first, then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government in India banned The Satanic Verses ahead of a national election. This censorious fury continued to grow as the Iranian press reviewed the book and religious authorities in many countries including Saudi Arabia opposed it vehemently. It even led to riots, marches, and book burnings across the globe. The Iranian religious and political leader Ayatollah Khomeini went as far as to issue a fatwa, or a ruling, that called for Rushdie’s execution. These events lay the groundwork for debates related to censorship and religious violence.
The knife attack on Salman Rushdie that took place on 12th August 2022 at the Chautauqua Institution in New York City, was in a similar vein. The assailant, Hadi Matar, said during one of his interviews with The New York Post last year, "I don’t like the person. I don’t think he’s a very good person ... He’s someone who attacked Islam, he attacked their beliefs, the belief systems." While dislike for a person and criticism of their work is to be expected in a democracy, it is the violent attempt at silencing the author’s voice yet again that is concerning. It forces one to wonder whether the freedom to explore even remotely religious topics in ways other than the ones preordained by authorities exists any longer.
As for Salman Rushdie himself, he told The Daily Mail and The New Yorker, "I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim... It hurts. But … that’s [not] what I want people reading the book to think. I want them to be captured by the tale, to be carried away."
The incidence of violence that Rushdie survived created major ripples in the literary world. Salman Rushdie is revered as a free speech icon who continued to push back against intolerance in the face of death threats. In the aftermath of the attack, many of his fellow writers and cultural figures expressed outrage by holding vigils in his honour. They see the release of Victory City as a moment to celebrate not just the author’s literary excellence but also the fact that he is around to cherish it. Some of them also believe the book’s core message — that stories will outlast political clashes, wars, the collapse of empires and civilizations — resonates more with his global audience in light of what Rushdie has endured.
Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, told The New York Times, "They failed to silence him. The publishing of this book is a very powerful demonstration of that."