Salman Rushdie

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The Little King

Rushdie, Salman

Last Updated: Dec-19-2019

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story


Dr. R. K. Smile, MD, founder of Smile Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (SPI), enjoys a sudden lurch into fortune and celebrity. Dubbed the ‘Little King’ by his Atlanta-based Indian community, Dr. Smile is a towering medical authority, philanderer and philanthropist, known to be both generous and avaricious. His pinnacle pharmaceutical coup, the patent that has earned him billionaire status, is InSmile™, a sublingual fentanyl spray designed for terminally ill cancer patients. Dr. Smile’s entrepreneurial vim, however, hardly stems from benevolent medical research, but rather an ‘excellent business model’ that he observed on a visit to India during which a Bombay ‘urchin’ handed him a business card that read, ‘Are you alcoholic? We can help. Call this number for liquor home delivery.’ The blunt practicality of building a market around sating addiction strikes the doctor as entirely sensible. Often wistful about India’s ‘old days,’ Dr. Smile fondly recounts the insouciance of neighborhood dispensary hawkers, their willingness to ‘hand out drugs without a doctor’s chit.’ Though admitting that ‘it was bad for [their] customers’ health but good for the health of the business,’ Dr. Smile yearns to replicate a similar culture of delinquent pharmacology, an unregulated market capable of profiting from supply-and-demand forces but indifferent to the wellbeing of its patrons. 

In the meantime, Dr. Smile’s wife, Mrs. Happy Smile, a simpering and daft socialite, envisions grand branding prospects that will globalize the Smile name through ostentatious publicity—inscribed name placards at the ‘Opera, art gallery, university, hospital […] your name will be so, so big.’ She refers to the worldwide reputation of the OxyContin family, the proliferation of the family’s name and esteemed place among prestigious cultural institutions: ‘So, so many wings they have,’ she says, ‘Metropolitan Museum wing named after them, Louvre wing also, London Royal Academy wing also. A bird with so, so many wings can fly so, so high.’ 

InSmile™ sales drive Dr. Smile’s burgeoning drug trade, as his prescription becomes preferred to conventional OxyContin highs due to its ‘instant gratification’ in the form of an oral spray. While SPI fulfills special house-calls for American celebrities and customers in ‘gated communities from Minneapolis to Beverly Hills,’ it also ships millions of opioid products to places such as Kermit and Mount Gay, West Virginia—communities, outside fictional contexts, that bear real-world vestiges of the opioid epidemic (West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdose in the United States). Through a lecture series scheme, Dr. Smile bribes respected doctors to publicize and prescribe the medication, further entrenching the dangerous drug in medical circles.

As the SPI empire collapses following a SWAT-led arrest of his wife, Dr. Smile muses indignantly on his reputation and the ingratitude of his clients. Tugged again by nostalgia for the old country, he justifies his drug trafficking by likening it to quotidian misdemeanors, instances when one could circumvent the inconveniences of India’s law by knowing how to pull the venal strings of corrupt systems—like cutting a long ticket queue at the rail station, he says, by paying a little extra at a backyard office; or bribing government officers to stamp customs papers required to ship restricted antiques abroad—‘We know what is the oil that greases the wheels.’ With this deleterious mindset, combining nostalgia and entrepreneurial greed, Dr. Smile’s future is uncertain, but he is resolved to return—after all, he says, ‘I have lawyers.’

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Annotated by:
Wear, Delese

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


In this essay on the spirit and the sacred, Rushdie examines the importance of language and literature in a secular, rationalist, materialist culture. He makes a case for literature as a privileged arena so that we can, "within the secrecy of our own heads . . . hear voices talking about everything in every possible way."

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