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On The Satanic Verses
Thinking of Rushdie this Independence Day.
Rushdie never explained India in his writing. Rushdie never explained. It is what makes his fiction so frustrating — some will say rewarding — to read. There is an expectation that you come to his text educated, illuminated on issues, say Jodha and Akbar and Niccolò Machiavelli in The Enchantress Of Florence, say the history of India in The Midnight’s Children. He will then then twist this knowledge into satire, batter it into puns, and salt its rims with irony, none of which you will get if you walk in un-lettered.
In college, I decided to buckle up and take a class in the notorious Comparative Literature department, “Religious Heretics And Sexual Deviants In Islam”, for one of the first texts referenced in the course description was Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, banned in India, among other countries, a novel so noxious it sent its author into hiding and exile, and its translators into a cold sweat; some were threatened, attacked, even murdered. So much bile in the air there is, that even a reclusive act like writing spills blood.
On the first day of class the professor — a beautiful woman, bright red lipstick smeared a little careleassly, flecks on her teeth — smirked at us. It was supposed to discourage those who thought the sensational title would translate into something more glamorous. The reading load was intimidating and dense. Many of the research papers assigned made no sense, I read their titles a few times, trying to count the number of words whose meaning eluded me. But there was something about my professor’s personality that I found exciting. She had this provocative style, as though she walked into every room hoping to make most people inside it quake. When studying in Morocco, she had adopted a cat and named it Iblis — meaning Devil — to morally disturb her religious neighbourhood. I didn’t know it then, for I hadn’t yet read a Rushdie, only buying his books to let them gather dust, but my professor, too, was built like a Rushdie protagonist, designed to be unlikeable but those who latch on, derive from it a sense of boundless, cackling joy.
Warning us of Rushdie’s capacity to reference history, literature, and myth with such a dense, swirling ease, she assigned us over 200 pages of secondary sources to read, smirking again, that if we were to understand this 500+ page book, we must read the 200+ page course reader first — essays on the origin of Islam, of the pagan roots it overwrote, on the architecture of the Kaaba, of the Satanic Verses in the Quran that reference pagan goddesses, of questions on Prophet Mohammed’s mental health, on the hijr, on Thatcher. What kind of novel needed its own packet of reference material?
Released in an atmosphere of vicious contention and debate in 1988, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie is heralded as a book that posed ripping questions, unmasking notions that had been swept under the rug. His book is also kind of a dick, the kind that derives pleasure from being notorious. The devil that Rushdie is — and when I say devil, I say it playfully, so you, too, read it playfully — his protagonists are culturally and morally hazy figures, stuck as they always are, as we always are, between trying and being. They are twisted and so are allowed the laxity of tongue to lash whatever it wants.
Literarily, Rushdie defies all laws of simplicity and natural progression in literature by providing a plotline that oscillates between London in the 1980s, the age of migration and 7th Century Arabia, with the advent of Islam under Prophet Muhammad, where another kind of migration was taking place. This frantic oscillation is a Rushdie-ism, one he has held close to his chest since Midnight’s Children where the narrator pokes fun at the demands of linearity, “Here is Padma at my elbow, bullying me back into the world of linear narrative, the universe of what-happened-next.” “Next” is not a temporal lunge forward in his world, but like the finger that falls on a rotating wheel of fortune, swirling, it’s a matter of chaos. If studied, then controlled chaos. If read casually, then just chaos.
In these geographically, temporally, culturally different settings he crafts characters that refuse to fit into conventional molds of good or bad, a departure from the morally toxic and taut ideas of a ‘hero’ and a ‘villain’, protagonist and antagonist, a complexity that is further tumbled when seen in the context of racial and religious identities and aspirations, against the backdrop of growing immigration — and resentment of immigrants — in London and an unveiling of the protagonist Gibreel’s dreams in the present, a retelling of the origin of Islam. In an immigration drama, do you not want your readers to root for the immigrant? To wish him well? To want people to wish him well?
Nope, Rushdie smirks.
Both modern and medieval events hopscotch through the thickly referenced novel that isn’t interested in selling the idea of India or an Indian to the West. India, for him, was never an idea but always a broken, building, fumbling yet unfolding story, and stories don’t need to explained, only unfurled.
When Rushdie was stabbed by a 24-year-old, my first reaction was — and this is extremely pathetic — inconvenience; that I had left my copy of Midnight’s Children at Madurai with my parents. Wouldn’t it have been lovely to read passages I had marked from the book before going to bed? Remembering not the man but his words? Not the tragedy but the art that rumbled the tragedy into being?
Instead, imagining the riot Rusdhie will have writing about this stab in an upcoming novel — novel, not essay, for we now know Rushdie is a terrible essayist, a gifted novelist — I wished him a speedy recovery, his family a good night’s sleep, while I dozed, drunk, thinking of some unfinished lover and my sore calves which were hurting since I did not warm down after a run. One among many thoughts, central here only because this is an essay, Rushdie grumbles about sharing space.
The only thing of his I had access to was a pan I had written of his collection of essays, Languages Of Truth, and a short analytical piece on The Satanic Verses I had submitted for the Comparative Literature course with the Rushdie protagonist. It would be terribly vain, would it not, terribly Rushdie-esque to remember Rushdie by reading not Rushdie, but my words on him. I thought of downloading Joseph Anton on my kindle, but my kindle had no charge and I knew that if I bought the book and plugged the kindle, by the time it charged into function, I would have lost interest. I dug through my archives instead, quickly, before the next trend caught my sympathies and attention. Found a draft of the essay on my e-mail with my professor’s comment, “I do think you could, in general, slow down a bit and spend more time exploring some of the ideas you mention, but very good overall,” feeling proud again read what was perhaps the last time I paid such invasive attention to his words. Some heavily edited shards below.
The problem with identity, as seen in The Satanic Verses, is the multiplicity of it; the unfathomable complexity in which the reader is unable to place a finger on exactly what forces are at play. What part of us leads to what action? As though it were that simple. Saladin and Gibreel — who tumble from the sky into 1980s London — keep trying to untie the threads of their inherited cultural legacy, of Islam, of Indianness, from the fabric of their present lives. A fray, at best.
While Pamela, Saladin’s wife, perceives him as an Indian, despite his constant efforts to wean away from his Indian roots, the British policemen see him as an illegal immigrant despite his pleas, his reassurance, which they do not bother to verify until much later. This isn’t so uncommon a problem, in life as in literature. That you and your perception in the eyes of people, to be and to be seen, never see eye to eye. Rushdie gives this uncommon disjunct, this universal friction, a flash of magic realism.
There is a manticore, a human body with a head of a tiger and three rows of teeth, that Saladin sees in the hospital he finds himself in after a brutal experience with the British police in the anti-immigrant haze in London. The animals around him at the hospital were all at one point immigrants who succumbed to the transformative powers of British discriminatory description — they become what the British described them as, becoming their perception. The manticore tells Saladin — who transforms into a bleating goat with horns representative of Satan — that his transformation into the grotesque goat is a reflection of how the English see him and other minorities, “They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct.”
In the last chapter, after murder and mystery, Saladin return to Bombay, disenchanted with London. He changes his name back to Salahuddin and joins Zeeny, with whom Saladin had an affair. This is in stark contrast to the Saladin we see in the beginning of the novel, serenading Gibreel with old British songs and his rejection of his father and by extension, his Indian roots. But what is it that Salahuddin is coming back to? What is this Indian-ness that he is craving, but that he can only define in opposition, where to be Indian is to not be British? These watertight compartments have nothing in common and it is the migration from one to another that causes the cultural crisis within him. His idea of an Indian, of India has a homogenous smack of rigidity.
Zeeny, commenting on the Indian artistic tradition, is on the other hand more comfortable with instability, incoherence, “The Mughals had brought artists from every part of India to work on the paintings; individual identity was submerged to create a many-headed, many-brushed Over-artist who literally, was Indian painting.”
This self-discovery that Saladin is craving becomes an unending process because it is not the result of a singular characteristic, but it is to be found where the eddies of both the past — history, religion, ancestry — and the present — upbringing, childhood memories and the tumbling down from an exploding plane — meet. To negotiate the self is to keep negotiating until flesh fumbles into fertilizer, until death.
From individual identity if we double-click and zoom out to more universal categories of identity like morality or immorality, satanic or angelic, Rushdie’s cultural commentary suddenly becomes blasphemous. He takes what we consider angelic, holy, the pinnacle of moral maturity, and shades it grey, stipling it with his sharp pencil.
Mahound, a clear parallel to the Prophet Muhammed, in bouts of megalomania decides to make sure no aspect of the lives of his followers remains unregulated. That even Prophet Muhammed — considered the ideal man by Muslims — could be vulnerable to mortal weaknesses. By pitching his divinity as doubtful, Rushdie asks a revealing question. If the seers, poets, prophets we pray to were to exist today, would not our faith be less certain? What is the role of death and time in divinity?
We see Mahound transform from the ideal spiritual master of a few loyal and modest believers into a person who manipulates even his own self to become popular by accepting the three goddesses and, thus, idol worship, “Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza and Mannat, the third, the other? ... They are exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.” Idol worship is, today, considered sinful in Islam, but its history speaks of this uneasy tension in the dogma, which is why the verses in the Quran which refer to these goddesses have been called “The Satanic Verses”, inserted by the devil himself possessing the Prophet.
Mahound’s character is also a direct reference to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic cleric who led the movement of mass protest, and eventually lodged a death warrant in Rushdie’s name after this book was published.
Initially starting out as a movement for more freedom, the outcome of the revolution was far from what was desired, for when idealism requires faith, every revolution will turn to vials of acid. Rushdie knows this which is why he does not ask for your faith as a reader, but just fucks, enough fucks for you to write into the night, bleary eyed about him, his work, keeping him hot and happening, the uncle that he is. But I am too tired, Rushdie. Let me sleep. Happy Independence Day.