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Salman Rushdie: “My son’s whole childhood was shaped by the fatwa”

Celebrated author Salman Rushdie on suffering racism at school, the swinging ’60s – and what his ex-wives think of him

I came from India to Rugby in England [for boarding school] when I was 13. By 16 I was a pretty conventional public school conservative from a well-off conservative family. With one exception – I had no idea when I came to school that I would be judged as someone who was different to the others because I wasn’t English-white. It really was a harsh awakening. It gave me a difficult time in those early years. I had been happy until I came to school in England. I’ve often thought if I’d been good at games my background wouldn’t have mattered. There were a few other Indian/Pakistani boys who were outstanding cricketers and they didn’t seem to have the same experience. But I was lousy at games.

I was very worried when I went to university in England that it would be a continuation of the same racist treatment. But my father convinced me it was a very good thing to go to Cambridge. Now I’m glad he did – it turned out to be a very happy time and undid a lot of the damage of school.

I have no regrets about writing The Satanic Verses. It’s one of the best things I ever did.

I went to Cambridge in the mid-1960s, when it was at the epicentre of that decade’s social change. It was a very good time to be 18 to 21. They were very political years, the period of protest against the Vietnam war. That was a political awakening for me. It was also the age of the counterculture. Someone called it the youthquake – young people were having an influence on society for the first time. Being part of that made me see everything – myself, my generation, the sexes, society – in a different way.

I didn’t see it then but now I recognise how much of the way I see the world came from my father. His interests have become my interests. Even my family name was invented because of my father’s philosophical interests [his father adopted the name Rushdie in honour of the philosopher Ibn Rushd]. If I could get back some of the time when my father was still alive, I’d like to talk to him about how much his ideas came to influence mine, and express my gratitude. As for my mother, I understand much more clearly now how much she gave up to send me to school, and how understanding she was, though the separation was very painful for her.

I’m actually rather proud of my younger self. He had guts and enormous will power. I left university in 1968. Midnight’s Children was published in 1981. It took me almost 13 years to find my way as a writer. I’d go back and tell my younger self, well done for sticking at it. The idea you have 12 years of your life trying to do something without any guarantee you’ll be any good or have any success. That takes tremendous desire and will.

I often wobbled in those 12 years before Midnight’s Children. I had doubts that whole time. Much of that early writing was completely unsuccessful, much of it wasn’t published. My first published novel Grimus was very poorly received – there are huge chunks of it I’d rather hide behind the sofa when I read them now. I was working part-time in advertising and my colleagues were constantly telling me not to be stupid. They told me if I focused on advertising I’d make an enormous amount of money and who did I think I was kidding? Everybody in advertising has a fantasy of writing a book or a TV show but most of them never do it. But something in me made me keep going and going.

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Obviously if I could go back and talk to the teenage Salman I’d have to tell him there’s big trouble ahead. Prepare for 10 years of… not the best time of your life. But I have no regrets about writing The Satanic Verses. I think it’s one of the very best things I ever did. And I’m glad we were able to fight to defend the book and we were successful in doing so… And now that the fuss has died down, that book is being read a lot, it’s on a lot of university courses. And most people like it. So the book has survived the attack of those who didn’t like it and is now left in the hands of those who do. It’s finally able to be a novel again.

You could ask my ex-wives what they think… but I think I’m a perfectly nice, cheerful person to be around. I do have great regret about the end of my first marriage to the mother of my oldest son, Zafar. She sadly passed away when he was 19 years old and, actually, by then we had managed to rebuild a good friendship. On the last day of her life I was in the hospital holding her hand. The marriage ended but the relationship didn’t. We were incredibly young when we got together and over the course of a decade and a half we grew into different people. But we managed a very amicable break-up. I think generally I’m a thoughtful husband but my wives might not agree. I’ve just been abused by one of my ex-wives in a book [fourth wife Padma Lakshmi’s salacious tale on their life together] so there’s clearly some difference of opinion.

It’s very, very important to me to be a good father to my sons. I think they would both tell you we’re very close. On the case of Zafar it was particularly important, first of all because his mother died when he was so young, and secondly because he had to grow up during the years of the attack on his father. He was nine years old when [the fatwa] began and his whole childhood was shaped and marked by it. I tried to explain what was happening because I thought the worst thing would be him just hearing about it and being terrified. Of course I was afraid for his security – his mother and I tried our best to make sure he had a vaguely normal childhood but it was a very tough time for him. He could have become a very messed-up person but he has great strength and grace and is very calm and good-natured.

If I could go back and relive any time in my life, I’d start in 1979. I was just finishing Midnight’s Children and my first son was about to be born. In fact, I remember telling his mother to just sit still and cross her legs while I finished writing. I think that time, when I was 32, 33 years old, between becoming a father and two years later, when the book was published to great success… that was probably the best time of my life.

Salman Rushdie’s new book Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (Vintage, £8.99) is out now

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