Ahmed Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, on June 19, 1947, less than two months before the end of the British Raj. His father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, and his mother, Negin Butt Rushdie, were Muslims with ties to the region that would become Pakistan. The family did not at first join the Muslim exodus to Pakistan that began after partition in September, 1947. Even so, they became increasingly aware of their minority status as Muslims in a predominantly Hindu state.
Although the Rushdies were nominally Muslim, they also identified with India and with Great Britain. Rushdie’s father had been educated in England, at Cambridge University, and had determined to rear his son and three daughters to appreciate their multicultural background. As a result, Rushdie had, from boyhood, access to a variety of works in his father’s library. It became a recurring argument between father and son, however, that the boy did not make adequate use of this wealth of books. His private reading during boyhood was generally limited to an English translation of the fifteenth century collection of stories known as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (or The Thousand and One Nights). His mother, considered “keeper of the family stories,” regaled young Rushdie and his sisters with a wealth of anecdotes on their family history; he remembered them all and would later adapt many of them in his writings.
Rushdie was sent to the Cathedral and John Connon School, a British-administered primary school with Anglican affiliation located in Bombay. As his sister Sameen has recalled, “He mopped up all the prizes,” was not very adapt at games, read extensively in both serious and popular literature, and loved both American B films and Hindu hit films. In 1961, at the age of thirteen, he was sent to the prestigious Rugby public school in England. At Rugby, however, although the masters were generally fair-minded, Rushdie felt alienated from his classmates, the “old boys” from British established families, who subjected him to cruel pranks. Rushdie compensated for the pranks and racial taunts by excelling at debates, appearing in theatrical productions, and thriving in academic areas, winning the Queen’s Medal for history and securing (but refusing) a scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford.
In 1964, the Rushdie family had emigrated to Karachi, Pakistan, and while Rushdie was not enthusiastic about returning to England, he had been offered a scholarship at his father’s university, King’s College, Cambridge, and amid the India-Pakistan war in 1965, his father literally pushed him onto an airplane bound for the United Kingdom. Rushdie’s attitude toward his father was often argumentative, and there was a serious rupture in their relationship when he entered Cambridge. Shortly before the elder Rushdie’s death in 1987, there was a rapprochement between the two men.
At Cambridge, Rushdie decided to read for a degree in history, and he eventually attained a 2.2 (that is, “second-rate”) degree, but he thrived in the social atmosphere of the mid-1960’s. “It was a very good time to be at Cambridge,” he has stated. “I ceased to be a conservative snob under the influence of the Vietnam War and dope.” He continued his involvement in theater, and upon his graduation in 1968, he attempted to work in the entertainment industry in Pakistan. He found that censorship was inescapable there, however, and returned to London, where he worked in amateur theatricals and supported himself as a copywriter at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. He had already begun to think of himself as a writer, however, and he completed a never-published novel in 1971, “The Book of the Pir,” which he has described as “post-Joycean and sub-Joycean.”