The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie’s “love –song to our mongrel selves”- I
Posted on January 7th, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

Courtesy The Island

‘A poet’s work. To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.’

  • Nonconformist satirical poet Baal, a character in The Satanic Verses

The publication of Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel The Satanic Verses very nearly cost him his life. This was because he was trying to live up to his ideal of asserting his freedom in thinking, saying and doing things through the medium of his art. Rushdie holds that literature is not ‘a purely aesthetic enterprise; the use of form is not purely technical, but it has meaning’. Before briefly looking at the form and the meaning of the initially controversial novel (not that it is not controversial now!), I would like to begin by sharing with my readers an outline account of the violently hostile reaction it provoked among people who, unfortunately, didn’t seem to understand it for what it really is and the ‘long-term chilling effect’ that that reaction produced on Rushdie. This is in order to put the subject of my essay into perspective.

The Satanic Verses was published in the United Kingdom by Viking/Penguin on September 26, 1988. By then, Rushdie had become a fairly well  established popular writer. The book was given the Whitebread Award for Best Novel in November the same year. The recognition it thus earned among the reading public was soon bedimmed by controversy. It was alleged that the novel was blasphemous: it charged with insulting the founder of  Islam and ridiculing his revelations. (In the novel, the fictitious name Mahound is considered analogous to Muhammad, the name of the prophet of Islam). Some British Muslim groups started giving vent to their anger against the book with protests and book burnings in Bolton, Bradford and London.  Similar demonstrations, sometimes murderously violent, swept the Islamic world that lay mostly outside of Europe. The Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa on February 14, 1989, demanding the execution of author Salman Rushdie and the publishers of the novel, and the next day an Iranian cleric by the name of Hassan Sanei offered a reward for the person who would carry out the execution. The UK and Iran broke off diplomatic relations over what came to be known as ‘The Satanic Verses Controversy’ or the ‘Rushdie Affair’. Reputed senior Indian journalist Khushwant Singh who reviewed the book for the Illustrated Weekly of India proposed a ban on it fearing the passionate reaction he thought it might provoke among the people. In the period 1988 to 1989, the offending book was banned in a number of (both Muslim majority and non-Muslim majority) countries around the world including India, Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

Rushdie went into hiding with his wife Marianne Wiggins, who soon left him for  reasons not difficult for us to guess. He was forced to  live under police protection for the next nine years. But he continued his writing, producing such works as the children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), the essay collection Imaginary Homelands (1991), both these works having been published by Granta, the short story collection East, West (1994) and The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995); the last two books were published by Jonathan Cape . Some of these books won awards. The seriousness of the assassination threat gradually wore off, though it was manifestly still there revealed in intermittent bursts of menacing fury here and there. And in 1997, the fugitive writer entered into marriage with Elizabeth West, who gave birth to his son Milan the same year. The pressure of the murder threat on Rushdie considerably eased with the statement on September 24, 1998, following long diplomatic negotiations, by Iran’s foreign minister of the time Kamal Kharrazi, that his government had no intention of pursuing  the death sentence. This enabled Rushdie to emerge into a more conspicuous public life. But the fatwa’s faint shadow hasn’t still left him, for nothing like a final closure of the Rushdie affair seems to have been announced, nor such an explicit settlement to have been deemed necessary. I nostalgically remember how we (my friends and I) followed the interesting episodes of the evolving Rushdie affair on the BBC World Service Radio right through that decade.

Much later, in an interview with BBC’s William Gompertz on December 17, 2012, Salman Rushdie said: “The only way of living in a free society is to feel that you have the right to say and do stuff….my view was and is that nothing is off limits when you are writing about the stuff which is the central experience of your life…..(but)…free expression is being attacked by religious extremism….blasphemy, apostasy, insult, offence……this kind of medieval vocabulary (is being used, even) at the turn of the second millennium..”. By writing The Satanic Verses Rushdie asserted his right to freedom of speech, but was horrified and disoriented by the murderous hostility it provoked against him among religious extremists. I am proud of that book,” Rushdie declared in the same interview, Maybe it is one of the best books I wrote…I would like to talk about it as a work of art”. He felt that a book like that would be difficult to publish then (2012). It would not be surprising if we felt that something of the ‘climate of fear and nervousness’ (Rushdie’s phrase) that built up in the wake of the book’s publication twenty-seven years ago still persists, considering the current goings on in Syria and elsewhere, in the context of which freedom of expression is an inevitable casualty. But there is no reason for despair. Rushdie suggested during the above interview that the solution to the issue of threats to free speech (from extremist or fundamentalist challenges) was for its defenders (writers, publishers, and other activists, obviously) to be braver”. He was hopeful that he could probably emerge from the ‘climate of fear’ because he had noted that on the 20th anniversary of the death penalty on him some of the protestors ‘seemed to accept the free speech argument and understood if they had the right to say what they felt, it was wrong to prevent people who felt differently from having their say’.

To broach the subject of The Satanic Verses may not be as risky an affair today as it used to be in the recent past; neither should it be considered a waste of time. The novel is a noteworthy product of a literary genius of great intellect, who, with his extraordinary linguistic legerdemain, is putting to good use his rare creative powers for dealing with themes that touch our lives on both physical/material and psychological/spiritual levels. Rushdie achieves this through a faultless fusion of the real and the imaginary in the novel.

The February 1989 Viking Press edition of The Satanic Verses (which I managed to read in the early 1990’s despite the ban on it where I was working then) ran to 560 pages. What I am looking at now is the Amazon Kindle version of the book; I read the book through to the end recently without any of the feeling of drudgery-induced boredom I had experienced while plodding through the first few pages of the book for the first time (a common experience, as I learned later). But even on that earlier occasion, after the few opening pages, I found myself launched into the irresistible magic of it for the whole rest of the fairly long story that delights the reader with its scintillating humour. We Sri Lankan readers find much to enjoy in Rushdie because of the deep cultural links we share with him.

The narrative is in nine parts. In Part I, four Sikh nationalist activists highjack Air India jumbo jetliner Bostan, Flight AI-420, and have it landed in the middle of the desert and hold it there for 111 days. They take off from there, demanding to be flown to London. While flying over the English Channel the hijackers have some dispute among themselves and there is a scuffle, and a bomb they are carrying explodes accidentally, blowing the plane up. Two Indian actors – the famous Bollywood star ‘prancing Gibreel’ and the obscure voice impersonator from London ‘buttony, pursed’ Mr Saladin Chamcha who are among the passengers – fall into the sea together ‘like titbits of tobacco from a broken old cigar’ and are rescued.

Now, Gibreel Farishta, orphaned as a child after his parents’ death, was raised by a foster family; he had a difficult childhood and worked as a delivery boy. His foster father helped him to become an actor. He achieved the status of ‘for 15 years the biggest star in the history of the Indian movies’. Not long before the flight, he suffered a mental breakdown, but recovered. The experience caused him to lose his faith in God. He met and fell in love with an English mountain climber named Alleluia Cone. Gibreel’s former Indian love Rekha Merchant commited suicide in anger. Gibreel is haunted by Rekha’s ghost for the rest of the novel. He follows Alleluia Cone to London hoping to start a new life, but their affair does not last long.

Saladin Chamcha, who grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai), was sexually abused as a child by an older man. He disliked his father Changez Chamchawala. Saladin was dreaming of moving to London. His dream was fulfilled when he was sent there by his father for his studies. He became more estranged from his father because he married again. Saladin was particularly incensed when he found that the new wife had the same name as his dead mother Nasreen. Chamcha was obsequious towards the whites. He wanted to forget his Indian roots, and become like one of the native English. After university, he became a voice actor. He married a beautiful, but mentally disturbed white woman named Pamela Lovelace. Shortly before the doomed flight, he had returned to India to perform in a George Bernard Shaw play. There he started an affair with an old friend, Zeeny Vakil. He fell in with her friends George Miranda and Bhupen Gandhi. But Chamcha broke up with Zeeny because he found that she was too sympathetic to his father.

In Part II, during the fall from the plane, Gibreel has the first of his four visions or dream sequences which alternate with actual happenings in the story. The other three visions are found in Part IV (second and third visions), and in Part V (fourth vision). The visions parody scenes from the early history of Islam. It is these visions that upset Muslim believers. But Rushdie justifies these as the harmless fantasies of a fictional character, a demented Indian actor named Gibreel Farishta.

Part III describes the strange transformations that Gibreel and Saladin undergo during their descent from the sky, taking on respectively the personalities and physical characteristics of archangel Gibreel and Satan. They are picked up on the English coast by a kindhearted old woman named Rosa Diamond. But the two men are mistaken for illicit immigrants by the police. They want to arrest Saladin who is turning into a goat. He asks his fellow survivor for help, but Gibreel does nothing to help him. The police don’t want to arrest Gibreel because he is dressed in the clothes of the white woman’s dead husband.  While Saladin is being taken to London, he is mercilessly beaten up by the police, kicked in his testicles, made to eat his own excreta, and so on. They refuse to believe that the bleating goat-man is actually a British citizen. Somehow, he is later cleared and taken to a hospital for treatment. When he manages to call home, instead of his wife Pamela, his friend and rival Jumpy Joshi answers the phone. Pamela has an affair with the latter….

The long, rambling narrative, part (plausible as) real, part (purely) imagined, ends with the two principal characters it started with, going their separate ways. Hearing that his father is dying, Saladin returns to India, forgives him, and tenderly cares for him. He also makes up with his stepmother, Nasreen. Saladin gives up the earlier anglicized form of his name and changes it back to the original Salahuddin Chamchawala, and resumes his friendship with Zeeny, George, and Bhupen. He even joins a Communist Party demonstration, something that would have been unthinkable for him before. Gibreel also returns to India after making two of his dream visions into films, which both fail. S.S. Sisodia, the Indian  filmmaker  tries to bring about a reconciliation between Gibreel and Alleluia Cone, hoping that a happier love life would enable the actor to regain his box office appeal. But Gibreel murders them both. He goes to Saladin, confesses his crime to him, and ‘before Salahuddin could move a finger, Gibreel put the barrel of the gun into his own mouth; and pulled the trigger; and was free’. ‘My place’, Zeeny offers. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here’. Saladin follows her.

To be continued

One Response to “The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie’s “love –song to our mongrel selves”- I”

  1. Christie Says:

    An Indian vermin, the day he dies or killed a lot of people will be happy.

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