Sixteen Valentine's Days ago, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa, an Islamic edict, calling for the death of Salman Rushdie -- and made the Indian-born British author of The Satanic Verses the most famous writer in the world. Yet the extent to which this controversy has dominated our perception of his work is itself an injustice. Mention Rushdie, and some see a stirring symbol of the cause of freedom of expression in the face of intolerant dogma; others, particularly in the Islamic world, find a blasphemous crusader for secularist social subversion. Neither image may be inaccurate, but reducing him to this emblematic figure has only served to obscure his true literary contribution -- as, quite simply, one of the best and most important novelists of our time. As an Indian novelist, I can only repeat what Waugh said of Wodehouse: he is the head of my profession.
For Salman Rushdie has brought an astonishing new voice into the world of English-language fiction, a voice whose language and concerns stretched the boundaries of the possible in English literature. His heritage is derived from the polyglot tumult of multiethnic, postcolonial India; his intellectual convictions owe as much to Nehruvian nationalism and the eclecticism of the Sufi mystics as to any source west of the Suez; his style combines a formal English education with the cadences of the Indian oral storytelling tradition, the riches of Latin American magic realism, and the extravagant fabulism of the Arabian Nights. Both in his life and in his writing, Rushdie has stood for intermingling and interchange, displacement and transfiguration, migration and renewal. He recalled and reinvented his roots while thriving in his own uprootedness. With Midnight's Children he brought a larger world -- a teeming, myth-infused, gaudy, exuberant, many-hued, and restless world -- past the immigration inspectors of English literature. And he has enriched this new homeland with breathtaking, risk-ridden, imaginative prose of rare brilliance and originality.
In eight novels Rushdie has developed his characteristic concerns with the great issues of our time. Themes of migration, innovation, conversion, separation, and transformation suffuse his work: exploration and discovery, faith and doubt, pluralism and purity, yearning and desire, infuse his fiction. And with all of Rushdie's novels, his story is also about the telling of stories. Above all, it would seem, of Indian stories, for Indian history, society, and contemporary politics are a rich lode he has profitably mined in all his books. India is, as ever, the intersection of the many strands of Rushdie's intellectual heritage, the womb of his imagination.
-- From Shashi Tharoor's recently published collection of essays, Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers (Arcade, $25).