Salman Rushdie reflects on the attack that nearly killed him in 'Knife' Rushdie was onstage at a literary event in 2022 when he was attacked by a man in the audience: "Dying in the company of strangers — that was what was going through my mind." His new book is Knife.

Two nights before the attack, Salman Rushdie dreamed he was stabbed onstage

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. I'm grateful to say that Salman Rushdie is my guest because I love his new memoir, and because I'm grateful that he's alive. Even the doctors didn't think he'd survive after he was stabbed over and over two years ago. The attack was shocking. It had been 33 1/2 years since Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, a religious ruling, calling for Rushdie's death. To the ayatollah, it was a righteous way to punish Rushdie for having written the 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," which to the ayatollah was blasphemous in its treatment of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

Rushdie grew up in India, in a secular Muslim family. He has never been religious. At the time of the fatwa, Rushdie had been living in London for a long time. The fatwa was an invitation to would-be assassins. Faced with this threat, Rushdie was surrounded by security and stayed out of public view for years. Eventually, Rushdie reclaimed his life. So why, all these years later, was he attacked, and why by a 24-year-old man who wasn't even born when the fatwa was issued? These are some of the questions Rushdie asked himself in his new memoir, "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder." He writes about the attack, the damage to his body and more existential questions about facing death and finding his identity in an altered body and state of mind.

As he describes in the book, he was attacked onstage at the amphitheater of the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, known for its events with thoughtful guest speakers. This event was about keeping writers safe from harm. Just after Rushdie got seated onstage, his assailant came at him. What happened was horrifying. As he describes it in his book, Rushdie put up his left hand in defense. The assailant stabbed that hand, severing all the tendons and most of the nerves. Then the knife plunged into Rushdie's cheek. There were two deep wounds in his neck, several down the center of his chest, two more on the lower right side and a cut on his upper right thigh. The stab wound in his eye left it permanently blinded. Rushdie says that after finally escaping the narrative of the writer with the death sentence hanging over him, he fears he's now known as the writer who got knifed. But his memoir, "Knife," is a book he says he had to write before he could write anything else.

Salman Rushdie, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm so grateful to have you here and grateful that you're well enough to do this and alive.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, you and me both.

GROSS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I want to be sensitive to any ongoing PTSD symptoms you have, so if I ask anything that's too triggering in any way, I hope you'll let me know. How are you feeling now?

RUSHDIE: I'm not too bad. Thank you. I think this army of specialists who had to examine various bits of me have all signed off. So they've declared me to be healed.

GROSS: So I'd like you to kind of read the whole book out loud, because sentence by sentence, it's so good. But I'd rather interview you right now. But I would like to start with a reading from Page 6. And at this point in the book, you're onstage at the Chautauqua Institution in the amphitheater, and you've just gotten seated.

RUSHDIE: I remember raising a hand to acknowledge the applause. Then in the corner of my right eye, the last thing my right eye would ever see, I saw the man in black running towards me down the right-hand side of the seating area. Black clothes, black face mask. He was coming in hard and low, a squat missile. I got to my feet and watched him come. I didn't try to run. I was transfixed. It had been 33 1/2 years since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's notorious death order against me and all those involved in the publication of "The Satanic Verses."

And during those years, I confess, I had sometimes imagined my assassin rising up in some public forum or other and coming for me in just this way. So my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing towards me was, so it's you. Here you are. It is said that Henry James' last words were, so it has come at last, the distinguished thing. Death was coming at me, too, but it didn't strike me as distinguished. It struck me as anachronistic. This was my second thought. Why now? Really? It's been so long. Why now after all these years? Surely the world had moved on and that subject was closed. Yet here approaching fast was a sort of time traveler, a murderous ghost from the past.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that. That's Salman Rushdie reading from his new memoir, "Knife." You write that you didn't try to run, that you were transfixed. And you wonder why you didn't fight back. You wonder why you didn't try to run. I mean, he attacked you for 27 seconds, and once he stabbed your hand, you were probably in shock. And then he just kept stabbing. Like, what do you think you could have done?

RUSHDIE: I mean, probably nothing. But I just felt like a bit of a fool to just stand there, as I said in the book, like a pinata and let him just slash away. I mean, as everybody, starting with my family, have pointed out to me, he was 24 with a knife and I was 75 without one. And there isn't a whole lot I could have done. So I guess I'm just beating myself up unfairly.

GROSS: Also, he had this planned. He knew what he was doing.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

GROSS: You had no idea this was coming.

RUSHDIE: And it took me completely by surprise. And everything happened very fast.

GROSS: You did imagine similar scenarios over the years because there was a death sentence on your head for so long.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, but I'd kind of stopped imagining them, you know? I mean, I'd been living in New York City for close to 24 years. And during that time I'd done, I mean, hundreds of literary events, readings, lectures, you know, festivals, etc. And there had never been the faintest trace of a problem. So I'd kind of told myself that that time had gone, but sadly, I was wrong.

GROSS: So onstage, as you were getting stabbed and after, you thought you were dying. But you say that it was very matter-of-fact. You didn't feel dramatic or particularly awful, just that you would probably die. There was no tunnel of white light, nothing supernatural about it. But you describe it as an intensely physical sensation. I have often wondered - it always seems people know when they're dying, or they often know when they're dying. How did you - I mean, obviously, you didn't die, but that was only because of a tremendous amount of intervention. And your body didn't know that it was going to receive all that intervention in just the nick of time. How did you know you were dying?

RUSHDIE: Well, you know, first of all, I was lying in an enormous amount of blood. I mean, it was a quite shocking sort of lake of blood spreading out around me and growing. I could see it growing as I looked. And I thought, well, that's really a lot of blood. And it probably means that I don't have very long to go, you know? And it really - at the time, the first feeling was like that. It was sort of completely emotionally neutral. The second feeling was actually not emotionally neutral. It was a feeling of loneliness, a feeling of loneliness because of dying far away from everybody I loved and who loved me, dying in the company of strangers. That was what was going through my mind.

GROSS: When you say that your first thought was matter-of-fact - you know, that you're dying - outside of wishing that you were with people who you loved - your wife, your family, close friends - did you feel, like, resignation, regret? Were there memories you were having?

RUSHDIE: No. I wasn't having any flashback memories, and I wasn't really thinking about resignation or regret. I was just thinking, OK. This is where I am. This is what's about to happen. And it was - I mean, I've - ever since that attack, but starting with the attack, I felt enormously joined to my body. You know, I felt very, very conscious of my physical being. And that's continued to be the case ever since. You know, I have a - I have, if you like, a new relationship with my body because we went through this together.

GROSS: That's a good feeling, to feel united with your body. A lot of people don't.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. And I don't think I particularly did before, you know? But this was such an intensely physical moment that I felt myself in every tiny piece of my body.

GROSS: Did you previously feel more like a mind in a body?

RUSHDIE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So did this experience change your understanding of death or your fear or feelings about death?

RUSHDIE: I think what it did is two things that it, first of all, gave me a kind of familiarity with death. You know, I kind of know how it goes now. I mean, I didn't get to the final note of the music, thank goodness, but I kind of understand how the tune goes. But also, what it did - what it has done is to give me an enormously increased appreciation of life. You know, the reason I quote at one point a poem by Raymond Carver written when - after he was told he had almost no time to live, and then he lived another 10 years and did some of his best work. And he said he felt like all that time that he wasn't supposed to have he describes it as gravy. You know, every day is gravy. And I kind of feel like that now. I feel like this - these are days I wasn't supposed to have. And yet here I am having them. And, you know, every day is a blessing.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Salman Rushdie. His new memoir is called "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN SONG, "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Salman Rushdie. He's written a new memoir called "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder," and it's about the attack on his life by a Muslim fundamentalist extremist two years ago, while he was about to speak at a festival at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York.

The event at which you were stabbed was in an amphitheater. Two nights before that event, you had a nightmare that you were in an amphitheater. Would you describe the dream?

RUSHDIE: Yeah. I knew that the place I was going to speak was called an amphitheater. So in that way, the dream can be explained. But I - the amphitheater in my dream was more like an ancient Roman - like the Colosseum or something. And there was a gladiatorial figure looking like something out of a movie about ancient Rome with a spear stabbing downwards. And I was rolling about on the ground trying to avoid the spear, and therefore, I was rolling about in bed and thrashing around, and my wife had to wake me up. And I said, well, this is what's just happened. And it's about me being attacked in an amphitheater, and I'm just about to go to an amphitheater, and I don't really want to go. That was my immediate response.

GROSS: You write the dream and your feeling that you didn't want to go, that it felt like a premonition. Even...

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Though premonitions are things in which I don't believe.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. There's a lot of things in which I don't believe that have happened. I mean, one is that I also don't believe in miracles, but everybody I know has described my survival as a miracle. So I kind of maybe have to rethink.

GROSS: Well, let's start with premonitions. Do you believe in premonitions now?

RUSHDIE: Well, I'm...

GROSS: Do you believe that that was a premonition?

RUSHDIE: With hindsight, yes, but I'm not sure that hindsight is the best way to judge these things. I mean, it certainly felt very vivid and very actual and very scary, and I said, I don't want to go, which means I must have thought of it as some kind of warning. And then I kind of rationalized it and I said, you know, it's a dream. People have dreams. You don't run your daily life because of having a bad dream. And so I decided I would go.

GROSS: So you don't believe in miracles - or you didn't believe in miracles. But you write that when you were attacked, you wanted to believe that a miracle could happen in the life of someone who didn't believe in miracles.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

GROSS: So what are your thoughts about miracles now?

RUSHDIE: Well, I think I seem to have been the beneficiary of one, because I don't know whether it's like a supernatural miracle or a medical miracle. What I know is that many of the doctors who I have been involved with in the last year and a half are not only surprised that I survived, which they are, but they're surprised that I have recovered to the degree that I have, which they say is very, very unexpected. The - just to give one example, the repair of my left hand. The kind of hand specialist here in New York who I had to see from time to time said you have to understand that what has happened to your hand is a miracle. You've got movement back that would not be expected given the scale of the injuries. So yeah, miracles are all around me, it seems.

GROSS: You're a lifelong atheist, and I'm sure a lot of people are wondering if you turned to prayer when you were close to death, when you were getting stabbed.

RUSHDIE: I did not.

GROSS: I'm wondering if that thought even would have occurred to you.

RUSHDIE: It did not occur to me.

GROSS: You want to say anything in addition to that?

RUSHDIE: No, and if I did that, though, who would I be praying to? You know, there's - if I'd ever thought there was anybody to pray to, I would have been praying long before. But I didn't suddenly occur to me that there was somebody with a white beard up there in the sky.

GROSS: You write you don't believe in miracles, but your books do.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

GROSS: So explain why you don't believe in miracles, but there's a place for them in your literature, in your books. I mean, you're really drawn to magical realism, to reading books...

RUSHDIE: Well, you know, I...

GROSS: ...Written in that way and to writing them.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. I mean, I think it's partly to do with the fact that growing up in India and being surrounded by a literature composed of fantastic tales - you know, things, compendiums of stories like but not only the "The Arabian Nights," "The Thousand and One Nights," but also Indian collections like that. You grow up with a sense of literature as being a place of amazing things. And I came to believe that two things - one was that that kind of writing, the fabulism, was in some ways a better way of getting to the heart of human nature then what gets called realism. And the second thing was that the world has gone crazy, you know? And realism seems to me often to be inadequate to describe the surrealism of the world. And so my writing goes in that direction.

GROSS: Do you see religious texts - you know whether Jewish, Christian, Islam - do you see religious texts as being similar to magical realism?

RUSHDIE: Well, I mean, I'm - you know, I actually - I have to say, I really like the Old Testament because it's full of good stories. And many of them are completely made up. You know, the Book of Job fairly - is fairly well established to be a work of fiction. I like the New Testament too, but I like the richness of the stories in the Old Testament. And I do think that these ancient texts are very useful to, whether you're religious or not, as a way of understanding how people have tried to tell themselves the story of themselves, you know? I mean, that's one of the functions that religion has had since ancient times. It's been a way in which we've tried to explain two questions. The question of origins - you know, how did we get here? How did here get here? And secondly, the question of ethics. And now that we're here, how shall we live? What is good, and what is bad? What is right action? What is wrong action? And religions have been - all over the world have been attempts to deal with those questions. And so that's interesting. Of course that's interesting.

GROSS: It sounds like you know a lot about the great religious texts.

RUSHDIE: I know enough, yeah. I mean, like most atheists, I'm obsessed with it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And, now, you say, like, you have nothing against religion. Like you're not religious. You're just against religion when religion does harm. And it certainly has done harm to you.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. I'm against a kind of politicized version of religion, whatever the religion might be.

GROSS: Or a warlike version.

RUSHDIE: Or a warlike version. Yeah. I mean, it's irrespective of what particular theology we might be talking about.

GROSS: So moving on down the list of things that you didn't believe in or don't believe in that you've actually done.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You don't believe in writing as therapy, but you knew you had to write this new memoir about the stabbing and its aftermath. Before you could write anything else, you had to write about what happened. So why was it so essential that you write about this? And do you think that it was therapeutic, even though you don't believe in writing as therapy?

RUSHDIE: Well, initially I didn't want to write about it. And then when I got to the point where I was well enough to sit at a desk and consider writing something, I looked at my - the notes I had made before the attack about ideas for what might - I might write in the aftermath of my novel "Victory City," which I had just finished. And the notes all just looked stupid. I just thought, this is all silliness, you know, for me to try and write one of these stories right now, people would think, what's he doing? You know, he's just not paying attention to the most obvious thing in the room.

And I remember, you know, one of the things I've said often to students is only right the books you can't avoid writing. If there's some way you can avoid writing a book, then don't write it. There are plenty of books already, and I think this became for me in an unusual way, a book that I couldn't avoid writing. I had to do it in order to deal with it, and in order to be free to do other things. Whether it was therapy, I don't describe it exactly as that. But what it was, was it changed my relationship to the event. Let's just say instead of just being the person who got stabbed, I now see myself as the person who wrote a book about getting stabbed. And so it feels like it's back in my own authorial space and I feel more in charge of it, you know? And that feels good.

GROSS: Instead of being a victim, you're controlling the story.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here again, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Salman Rushdie. His new memoir is called "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "ISN'T THIS MY SOUND AROUND ME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Salman Rushdie. Two years ago, he was nearly killed at a festival about keeping writers safe from harm. He had just come on stage when an assailant ran onto the stage, came at him with a knife and kept stabbing Rushdie for 27 seconds. There was so much damage and blood loss, it's remarkable he survived. It had been over 33 years since Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, a religious ruling, calling for Rushdie's death as a righteous punishment for having written the novel "The Satanic Verses," which the ayatollah considered blasphemous. Rushdie's attacker is a Muslim extremist who wasn't even born when the fatwa was issued. Salman Rushdie's new memoir is called "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder."

You know, part of the problem that I think writers face is that so many of the essentials of life, the essential feelings about love and death and wrestling - whether you have faith or not, and all of that - so much of it has been reduced to cliche...

RUSHDIE: Yes.

GROSS: ...That it's hard to find the words that aren't cliches. Those feelings aren't cliches, but the way we typically describe them are. And I think it's part of a writer's job to find the ways to describe those things and rescue those things from the cliches that we use to describe them. Is that one of the things you had to wrestle with in writing this book?

RUSHDIE: Yeah, for sure, because one of the things I most wanted to write about was love and happiness. And, you know, famously, it's been believed that happiness is almost impossible to write about.

GROSS: What's that quote that they have about white page on white ink? Yeah.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. It's the French writer Montherlant who said happiness writes in white ink on a white page, so it doesn't show up on the page. But I was in a situation where I was in love and I had been happy for many years. And when I started thinking about writing this book, you know, I asked myself, OK, there's - obviously there's this attack, and I want to talk about that. But beyond that, what's the book about? And I came to feel that it was about myself being in between two forces. One is a force of violence and hatred, and the other is a force of love and healing. And that was - that second - the first force was obviously embodied in my assailant. And the second force was embodied in my wife Eliza, the writer Rachel Eliza Griffiths. And I mean, since I didn't die, I'm able to say that the force of love and healing overcame the force of violence and hatred. But I felt that that triangle was what the book was about, that the book was about three people. It was about me and him and Eliza. And so I wanted to write about love and in a more open and direct way than maybe that I've ever done before.

GROSS: The assailant who tried to kill you left a bag of knives right near the stage. And I know you've asked yourself...

RUSHDIE: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Why'd he need like a whole bag of knives? Like, wasn't one good knife, like, sufficient? But the larger question is, how did he manage to get that bag of knives through security? And the answer is there was no security...

RUSHDIE: There was no security.

GROSS: ...Which is just remarkable to me. I mean, I'm sure the people who set this up feel extraordinarily guilty and bad and everything, so...

RUSHDIE: I think they're very embarrassed. And I think since the attack on me, they have now instituted the kind of security precautions that had they been in place on that day, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

GROSS: Right. But like, I mean, you're Salman Rushdie. Even though the fatwa was at that time 33 years in the past, and even though you were living your life, you know, normally...

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...As if there was, you know, never a death threat against you. Nevertheless, you're Salman Rushdie.

RUSHDIE: It might have been a good idea to have one or two people around.

GROSS: Yeah. And how are you dealing with that? I mean, if it was me, I would just be just choking on my anger.

RUSHDIE: Well, one of the things that I think has been very strange for me is that the emotion that I haven't really had in the aftermath of all this is anger. And it's as if something in my head tells me that anger would be a way of being stuck in the moment. You know, it would be a way of not being able to get past it. And so I don't have anger. I mean, you - if you - I guess if somewhere deep down I am pretty furious with various people, notably the gentleman with the knife. But it doesn't seem productive to me to linger on anger. And I think what happened in Chautauqua is that, you know, it's a very innocent kind of place. It's green and leafy and sweet and with an older retiree kind of residents in the neighborhood and the people who come tend to be older as well and liberal and steeped in a long tradition of openness and discussion. And I just don't think they ever thought that something like this could happen on their turf.

GROSS: All right. We need to take another short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Salman Rushdie, and his new memoir is called "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Salman Rushdie. His new memoir is called "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder." You asked the question in the book, you know, when you're given a second opportunity at life, as you were, how do you use it? So I want to ask you, what did you want to stay the same from your life? And what did you want to change? And did those ideas change as time went by and as you healed more and more from the wounds?

RUSHDIE: Well, initially I was very worried about being able to resume anything like an ordinary life. And, you know, I had to find out a lot. I had to talk to security experts and so on. I mean, at the moment, my view is that that side of things is not that big of a problem. I do have some security concerns, and I do have ways of handling that. But the bigger question is the one you ask about how now to live, you know, and what I think is I actually quite like the life I had and I'd just like more of it, please. And if I'm given this extra lease of life, the thing is to live it as intensely and richly as you can. You know, treat each day as a miracle, if you like, and as a thing to be relished and to - as an artist, as a writer, to just try and plunge your hands even more deeply into the matter of life and try and bring out good stories. All I ever wanted to do, Terry, was to write stories. And if I've got a few more years left to write a few more good stories, then that'll do for me.

GROSS: Do you feel like you have nothing left to lose?

RUSHDIE: Oh, yeah, I'm not - what are they going to do? You know? They've already done everything they could do. My view is I'm just here doing my stuff, and I'm too old to be bothered with what other people think of it.

GROSS: Can I talk to you a little bit about pain? You must have been plenty of it after so many parts of your body getting stabbed, your eye, your neck, your chest, your cheek. Your liver was damaged. Your intestine, you needed to get some of it removed. You were blind in one eye and remained so. So the pain must have been pretty intense. I'm sure you were on painkillers, and I think you wanted to get off of them pretty quickly. What was your approach to dealing with pain? And the pain was so spread out in different parts of your body. You can't just, like, ignore your arm or your foot. It's like - it's all over.

RUSHDIE: What is strange is that at the moment of the attack, people who - people around me who were afterwards quoted in the media said that I was screaming with pain. And talking about the pain in different parts of my body, like my hand. I myself - I don't know, I was in some kind of shock, I think, because I have no actual memory of doing that and no real memory of pain at the moment of the attack. And I think that's some kind of trauma issue, that overwhelming shock can get in the way of one's perception of pain. But later on in the long, almost seven weeks of hospitalization, there were a number of moments of extreme pain. And I'm not great with pain. I'm not particularly proud of my handling of pain. I dislike it a great deal and I'm not brave about it, so I squealed a lot.

I mean, when I, for example, when my eye - my eye was initially very swollen because of the attack, the injury. And when the swelling reduced, I was told that one way of keeping it safe would be to stitch the eyelid shut so that the eye could go on moisturizing itself. And I thought, OK. And I said, well, that sounds like it's going to hurt. And they said, no, no, we'll give you a local anesthetic. And when they arrived with the needle, I said, well, where's the local anesthetic? And they said, well, the local anesthetic is in the needle. And all I can say is if the local anesthetic was in the needle, I dread to think how much it would have hurt if the local anesthetic had not been in the needle, because it hurt like hell.

GROSS: It being in the needle seems a little late.

RUSHDIE: A little late, I thought.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Typically, first you numb it, then you do the needle thing.

RUSHDIE: Exactly, you don't try to do it at the same time.

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSHDIE: But so, yeah, that was an unforgettable moment of pain. And my wife, Eliza, who was in the room, said she finds it difficult to forget the noises of pain that I was making.

GROSS: Right.

RUSHDIE: And there were other moments like that. Having a catheter inserted, that's pretty bad.

GROSS: Yeah, and you were on a respirator for a while - a ventilator.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. Ventilator for 24 hours or so, yes.

GROSS: Yeah, so did you wake up on the ventilator?

RUSHDIE: Yes.

GROSS: Did you know what was going on?

RUSHDIE: Very dimly. I was on very heavy medication.

GROSS: Yeah. Were you hallucinating?

RUSHDIE: I was sort of hallucinating. I was hallucinating palaces made out of alphabets.

GROSS: Out of - (laughter) God, that's like a description of a great novel, right?

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUSHDIE: But literally, I was seeing architecture, palatial architecture of which the building blocks were all letters.

GROSS: Wow, that just says so much about you as a writer. I mean, like, you're hallucinating, you've nearly died and you're just seeing letters (laughter).

RUSHDIE: Yeah, exactly. And there were letters floating in the air between me and the other people in the room. I remember, when the ventilator got taken out, I said to Eliza and her family, I said, why are all these letters on your clothes?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do you think that part of you was, like, trying to write?

RUSHDIE: Well, certainly, it was being a writer. It was - it does seem to indicate to me the extent to which the world of books is the world in which I live.

GROSS: I want to ask you about your wife, Rachel Eliza Griffiths. She's a poet, and judging from the photo of you on the book jacket, which she took, she's a really good photographer, too.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, and she's a novelist.

GROSS: And she's a novelist.

RUSHDIE: And she's a videographer.

GROSS: All right.

RUSHDIE: It's disgraceful.

GROSS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'm envious already. So you'd been together since, like, 2016, is it?

RUSHDIE: Yeah, just about. Yes - end of.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So she took on, like, everything, every role that she could while you were incapacitated.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

GROSS: She dealt with the FBI. She dealt with the doctors and nurses. I'm sure she was on top of, like, making sure you got your medications. There's so much you have to keep up...

RUSHDIE: Yeah. Now, she was...

GROSS: ...On in the hospital.

RUSHDIE: She just went and - yeah, she just took over everything.

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSHDIE: At a point where I was helpless, or close to helpless.

GROSS: Now, a catastrophe like that can really change a marriage, because suddenly, you know, two partners who were equals in their relationship, their relationship changes.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

GROSS: One of the partners is a patient and one is a caregiver and supervisor. Can you...

RUSHDIE: And also, one of them didn't sign up for that.

GROSS: Well, neither did you.

RUSHDIE: No. But, I mean, she could quite naturally have thought...

GROSS: She could have walked. You couldn't (laughter).

RUSHDIE: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: So, can you - I don't know. It's a very personal thing. But can you talk about what the shift was in the relationship when it - during the period when it was like patient and caregiver.

RUSHDIE: The most extraordinary thing I think that she did, as well as taking over all the day-to-day, was that she didn't let me see her sorrow. She didn't let me see her grief and her fear and all that. She was just always when she was in the room with me, she was always there being loving and supportive. And she had to let that stuff out when I wasn't there in places that I was not. And I can't imagine how hard that was to do.

GROSS: When you talk about her grief and her loss, are you talking about what happened to you, or are you also talking about how it affected the rest of her life?

RUSHDIE: No, I'm just saying this is a trauma that doesn't just happen to the attacked person.

GROSS: Right, right.

RUSHDIE: It happens to everybody around you. And so it was very traumatic for her. I mean, we were and are very deeply in love. And so she was also, you know, what happened was that when she was in - she was not with me at the amphitheater. She was in New York City. And when she found out about this attack and was trying to get up to where I was, somebody - she doesn't even remember who it was - somebody called her. It could have been somebody from the hospital or somebody from the institution, that Chautauqua Institution. But somebody said to her on the phone, you better get up here fast, because he's not going to make it. And so she had to get up there fast, carrying that - those terrible words with her all the way. And when she got there, she thought she might be being brought to see my dead body. Because people in - she was - there was a huge security operation at the airport when she landed, and people in the vehicles who were transporting her wouldn't talk to her. And so she thought, oh, he's already dead. And they're just not telling me.

GROSS: That's so terrible.

RUSHDIE: And so she had to go through that, you know, and if you imagine the trauma of that. Otherwise, you know, she's a very strong woman, as would be obvious from what I've just been saying, but we had just such a strong bond that we did this together, you know. And it didn't actually - I mean, yes, it was obviously - I was helpless. And she was doing a lot of stuff for me, but - the - I mean, the love proved to be strong enough, is what I'm saying. And that's what we both held on to. And then there was a - there were extraordinary moments, like the moment at which I finally left hospital and was able to be in a private space, that again renews your relationship, because suddenly there aren't doctors and nurses and orderlies and endless numbers of people prodding and poking and measuring and so on. And that felt like a moment of rebirth. And the first time that I saw her cry was when we got there, when we got out of the hospital and I was in bed. We had borrowed a friend's apartment to stay in for a bit because our house was beset by paparazzi. But I was in like a normal bed and she came down and came to be with me, and she just collapsed into floods of tears. And she kept saying, my husband's home - repeated that.

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSHDIE: And that was the first time I saw the incredible stress that she had been under.

GROSS: During the period when you were helpless, was helplessness a new feeling for you?

RUSHDIE: Yeah, it drove me mad.

GROSS: Talk about that some more. About how you coped with feeling helpless.

RUSHDIE: I don't like it. You know, I'm - it's against my nature. And yet - and so I kind of - I think I was a pretty good patient most of the time. But some of the times maybe I wasn't, because I wanted things to go faster than they were going. Also, hospital is really not a great place to be, and I kept wanting to have an exit date and they wouldn't give me one. And then they did give me one. And then I got excited about that. And then they said, no, your things have not come back to normal enough. You've got to stay longer. And I did have that one moment of explosion. So it was just - but on the other hand, I could see that not everything in my body was working properly, you know? And particularly in the rehab hospital, you know, I was doing a lot of physical therapy.

And there's a particular - I can't remember the name of it, but there's a particular test in which they asked you to perform a whole series of actions in order to see whether you've regained the ability to be safe to release into the general environment, that you can - you won't be a danger to yourself. And I took that test several times in the rehab hospital, and I failed it a couple of times. And then I finally reached the moment when I was told I'd passed it. And that meant that I was releasable, you know, that the physical therapist could sign a document saying it's safe for him to be released. And that felt like a triumph. They did say to me, which I'm proud of, that they thought I was very determined and that that had really helped.

GROSS: Oh, I'm sure they're right.

RUSHDIE: So I was - I really wanted to get better. I really did.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Salman Rushdie. His new memoir is called "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Salman Rushdie. His new memoir is called "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder."

So, you know, the world seems to be moving further and further toward religious fundamentalism, including in two of the places where you've lived, India, where you're from, and the prime minister there, Modi, is - he's Hindu, and the way the country is being run now is very pro-Hindu and kind of anti-Muslim.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

GROSS: I haven't really kept up with what the laws are. And certainly here in the United States, there's - you know, fundamentalist beliefs seem to be becoming more and more a part of the American justice and political system. I'd be interested in hearing your reflections on that.

RUSHDIE: Well, it's - you know, I think it's a great - it's one of the great surprises of my life, that religion became such a powerful public force again. And obviously, historically, it has been. But, you know, I'm a child of the '60s. And back then, the '60s and '70s, it would have been absurd to think that we would have to worry about religion. That just wasn't - we could worry about lots of other things. You could worry about the Vietnam War. You could worry about the civil rights movement or whatever it might be, but religion didn't seem to be on the agenda. And then it made this amazing comeback.

I don't have a sort of full, coherent theory of why that might be. But I do think that one part of it is that we live in a world that is changing at incredible speed and in very radical ways, almost overnight, all the time. A world that people could think of as stable and constant no longer exists. What happens is constant transformation. And I think for quite a few people that's bewildering and something they find themselves uneasy in. And so maybe they turn towards religion as being a constant and eternal and unchanging thing in a very rapidly changing world. That's one explanation. Another is that it's historically also, not just now, it's always been a great way to create a totalitarian state.

GROSS: You mentioned in the book that you have a lot of friends who have died or have gotten cancer or died from cancer, and then referred to that a whole generation of writers is leaving. And you, of course, remember when the friends who you were talking about and you yourself were, like - they were the new emerging writers. They were the exciting new writers on the team. And I'm wondering what it feels like on the other end where people are exiting as opposed to the new, exciting writers.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, it doesn't feel that great (laughter). I'll tell you that. I mean, it's happened to me twice, really. Once when I was much younger. There was a group of writers who were very close friends of mine, who all died around the age of 50 - Angela Carter, Raymond Carver, Bruce Chatwin. And then everything seemed to stabilize for a while. And now the curtain's coming down on a lot of people. And I feel sad, you know? It just feels like there are holes in the world where my friends used to be. And what it does for me is just gives me a sense of not wasting time. You know, if you - if the time left is shortening, then use it the best way you can. You know, that's the only way to live.

GROSS: Well, Salman Rushdie, I'm so glad to have had the chance to talk with you again. Thank you so much and congratulations on the memoir. I hope everything continues to improve and look forward to the next book.

RUSHDIE: Thank you very much. It's been great to have the conversation.

GROSS: Salman Rushdie's new memoir is called "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be death doula Alua Arthur. She helps people plan for their deaths in an intentional and meaningful way. Arthur says that living your life through the lens of death can actually make you happier. Her new book is called "Briefly Perfectly Human." I hope you can join us.

To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Stephen Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

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