The Satanic Verses: Salman Rushdie’s ‘love song to our mongrel selves’ – II
Posted on January 11th, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

Rushdie is a perfect master of his medium and his message. The two elements define and shape each other. Those who attack the work purely on religious grounds totally miss the point, for they trivialize the book’s meaning to the point of absurdity. The real importance of the novel lies elsewhere, that is, in its broader as well as more profound thematic engagement. This is not to say that Rushdie shows no interest in religious or truly spiritual values. But his attitude to traditional religious beliefs is that of a secular free thinker. His approach to Islam is historical. To him Nothing is sacred”. Rushdie believes, as he has stated in a number of discussions, that Islam is ‘the only great religion that was born within recorded history’. This means that the facts of its founder’s life and character are known; the ideologies, controversies, and the social conditions that existed at that time are also known, and these things are related to what is said in its holy book. Andrew Teverson (Salman Rushdie, Viva Books, New Delhi, 2010) sums up very briefly Rushdie’s position in this regard (implicit in the ‘visions’ and other relevant parts of The Satanic Verses):

The Verses returns the Qur’an to the historical conditions of its making, in order to show that it reflects a historically contingent set of ideological belief systems that ought to be open to critique as ideological systems. It is only by recognizing such historicity, in Rushdie’s view, that it will become possible for Islam ‘to move beyond tradition’ and ‘bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age’. (p.157)

(The emphasis on ‘as’ in the above is by Teverson.) If properly understood  and acted on accordingly by those who ought to consider it with due attention, Rushdie’s view will prove a clarion call for world peace in the current global context.

The other major aspect of his message is less controversial, though equally political: The Satanic Verses may be read  ‘as a migrant’s view of the world’ in Rushdie’s own words. He writes: (as quoted in ‘Notes for Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses by Paul Brians, Washington State University, 2004.)

Standing at the centre of the novel is a group of characters most of whom are British Muslims, or not particularly religious persons of Muslim background, struggling with just the sort of great problems that have arisen to surround the book, problems of hybridization and ghettoization, of reconciling the old and the new……. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by- fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves.

The Satanic Verses is a postmodernist work. It is characterized by critical self-reference: The laughter is directed at the author himself sometimes; some characters may be authorial self-projections to some extent; the migrant community are not depicted as saints to the racist devils that some indigenous British (of the Thatcherite era) are made out to be. The novel is postmodernist in an ideological sense, too, for it represents a reappraisal of modern assumptions about identity, language and religion.

Another most striking feature of The Satanic Verses is its intertextuality. The numerous echoes of and allusions to the wide range of literary and other texts that the author is familiar with (as in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land about ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy’ that was contemporary history in his eyes) richly contribute to the expressive power of its prose. Rushdie’s description of his novel as ‘a love-song to our mongrel selves’ itself (where ‘mongrel’ means ‘of mixed descent’) is an allusion to Eliot’s The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which, I think, is thematically significant: For, at one level, the novel may be interpreted as an Odyssey of self-discovery that the Prufrockian character, the sycophantic Indian immigrant Saladin Chamcha, is made to undertake.  He, at the beginning, unconditionally sucks up to the British despite their barefaced racist prejudice against him, but, in the end, he returns to his father, no matter in the final days of the old man’s life, and resumes his affair with his former Indian sweetheart Zeeny Vakil.

In addition to being postmodernist and intertextual, The Satanic Verses is multicultural, for the narrative involves a multiplicity of cultures, religions, languages, and ethnicities. Rushdie’s general multiculturalism lends his works a special appeal. This is the case for Sri Lankans of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. The Satanic Verses is conspicuous in this quality. Its text makes frequent use of Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic words and phrases, echoes names of Bollywood stars, film songs, etc, mentions Indian foods, and so on. Gibreel Farishta may have been modeled on the South Indian actor Rama Rao, or the legendary Bollywood actors Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bacchan, etc; but Gibreel Farishta has much of the last mentioned actor in him. Amitabh, in fact, had been Bollywood’s biggest star for over 15 years by 1988, the year the book was published. Reading about Gibreel Farishta (lit. Gibreel Angel) falling from the sky when the plane blows up, few Sri Lankans of my generation (the same as that of Rushdie) would fail to remember the song ‘Aasman se aaya farishta’ (An angel has descended from the sky) from a scene in Indian film director Shakti Samantha’s 1967 Hindi movie An Evening in Paris’ (Paris Ki Ek Shyam) where a helicopter-borne Shammi Kapoor, swinging by a rope from its landing skid, hovering above, serenades a seductive water-skiing Sharmila Tagore!

Examples of Rushdie’s mastery of his medium occur on every page. I opened my Kindle version of the book at random and found the following (It’s a description of Gibreel Farishta transmogrifying himself- like the above mentioned Rama Rao – in a film studio for playing different deity roles):

……Gibreel had spent the greater part of his unique career incarnating, with absolute conviction, the countless deities of the subcontinent in the popular genre movies known as ‘theologicals’. It was part of the magic of his persona that he succeeded in crossing religious boundaries without giving offence. Blue-skinned as Krishna he danced, flute in hand, amongst the beauteous gopis and their udder-heavy cows; with upturned palms, serene, he meditated (as Gautama) upon humanity’s suffering beneath a studio-rickety bodhi tree. On those infrequent occasions when he descended from the heavens he never went too far, playing, for example, both the Grand Mughal and his famously wily minister in the classic Akbar and Birbal. For over a decade and a half he had represented, to hundreds of millions of believers in that country in which, to this day, the human population outnumbers the divine by less than three to one, the most acceptable, and instantly recognizable, face of the Supreme. For many of his fans, the boundary separating the performer and his roles had long ago ceased to exist.

Rushdie’s writing here has the characteristic fluidity and quickness of verbal delivery in the speech of the typical Indian-language speaker, something that reminds us of Raja Rao’s words in the Foreword to his 1937 novel Kanthapura: We, in India, think quickly, we talk quickly, and when we move we move quickly”. Rao also wanted to fashion, out of the ‘alien’ English language, an idiom that suited the ‘emotional make-up’ of the Indian indigene. Rao’s Indian admirers tell us that the language of his novel embodies the spirit of traditional Indian folk-epics, the puranas. That must be true. But we can also see in his writing signs of his familiarity with the English language and its literature, including evidence of the influence of the English Bible (such as the repetition of words and ideas, avoidance of the literary in favour of the familiar and simple in vocabulary, etc) on the style of his writing. Rushdie too draws upon both sources for the same advantages. But whereas Rao, perhaps typical of his time, was intent on laying the foundation for an Indian style of writing in English, Rushdie exemplifies the most widely prevalent ‘Globish’ variety of the language we find today, enriching it with linguistic and cultural elements from the repertoire of his own unique lived experiences, and this suits the globally vital themes he deals with, that transcend narrow national boundaries.

Incidentally, though they are separated from each other by at least five decades, the two novels have a number of similarities. Both are landmarks in the history of Indian/South Asian fictional writing in English. (Rushdie is actually British; he is a migrant, like those in the novel. He arrived in Britain in 1961 for his schooling, at the of 14, and has been domiciled there since,  except for a brief period in Pakistan in 1968. The catchment area of his creative reservoir, as it were, is his memory of his childhood in Bombay (today called Mumbai) and his (not altogether pleasant) experience as an immigrant British citizen of Indian origin, which justifies his categorization as an Indian or South Asian writer in English.) In the sense of the protagonists being cast in the roles of strugglers against or victims of racist oppression/discrimination, the novels articulate ‘patriotic’ themes (though the adjective ‘patriotic’ runs the risk of sounding pejorative when applied to a writer like Rushdie). In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie exposes the slavish mindset of some immigrants that include some Black Africans, just as much as he critiques the racism of the British host community.

Raja Rao, in his Kanthapura, describes how the inhabitants of the typical South Indian village of Kanthapura, belonging to diverse castes and living in their own separate quarters, nevertheless unite under the leadership of the inspired young Gandhian Moorthy, who has left his college studies for the pursuit of his patriotic cause, to struggle against the British. Raja Rao was only twenty- six when he wrote that novel. Naturally, he seems to have invested Moorthy, the central character, with his own youthful enthusiasm in the same national cause in his real life. Just as, in Moorthy, we may detect a self-projection of the author in Kanthapura, we can see a shadow of Rushdie himself in the form of Saladin Chamcha in The Satanic Verses.

Like Rushdie, Rao was a socially engaged writer. The fabric of his story can be said to have three strands: political, religious, and social which receive the same emphasis, like the Gandhian movement itself that fired the patriotic resolve of the villagers of Kanthapura. This village, in the story, is actually a microcosm of India. The same thematic threads are in evidence in The Satanic Verses, but these are more inextricably interwoven than in the other.


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