Seventeen is a difficult age to be for anyone. Even the numeral is awkward, without the relatively rounded comfort of an 18 or 16. Because of what life has dealt them, 17 is more difficult for some people than for others. And so it must have seemed for Salman Rushdie in 1964. He’d been taken out of Bombay’s Cathedral School, where he was something of a star, and sent off to boarding school at Rugby, where he faced racism, bad food, worse weather, bullying and loneliness. As he would later recall, the problem was he was “foreign, clever and bad at games”; you could be two out of the three and get away with it, but he, unfortunately, was all three.
At Rugby, Rushdie came under the influence of inspirational teachers, cast in the Dead Poets’ Society mould, who encouraged his intellectual growth. He was also exposed to new cultural influences, like the music of Bob Dylan, with its extraordinarily surreal lyrics, and The Lord of The Rings (a cult even in those days). Rushdie became so obsessed with Tolkien that he says he neglected his studies and ultimately learned to even speak Elvish reasonably fluently. Tolkien’s fantasies obviously stoked the creative imagination Rushdie had been known for from his childhood, when he thought up fantasy stories and invented bizarre schoolboy games. At age 17, Rushdie was also incubating one of his earliest pieces of serious fiction, titled Terminal Report, that he would write shortly after. It dealt with racism and, rediscovering it many years later, he says he found it “incredibly sophisticated”: that teenaged boy somehow seemed to know everything the older Rushdie knew, except he knew it more painfully, because it had just happened to him.
Soon, Rushdie would turn 18, pass out of Rugby and go on to Cambridge, where, defying his father, who wanted him to study something “useful” like Economics, he insisted on studying history. Which is how, one day, he stumbled upon the infamous Satanic verses.
Anvar Alikhan is a Hyderabad-based advertising professional and writer
Geographic and cultural dislocations seem to have shaped his oeuvre.
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