Friday, February 21, 2014

283. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses (Viking, 1988; 547) by Salman Rushdie has been one of the most controversial books ever written. On February 14, 1989 a fatwa was declared on its author by the late Ayatollah Ruholla Khoneini. All across the world there were news of book burning and banning, and demonstrations against the author and his works, including some liberals who thought Rushdie overstretched the limits of free speech in his book. Even as the book celebrates its 26 years of publication and the author 25 years of the invocation of the fatwa, emotions have not yet completely fizzled out. In fact, the author had to live incognito and had to move about with bodyguards paid for by some governments. He lived under the assumed name of Joseph Anton - from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov - which became the title of his memoir.

The Story: At over 500 pages, this is no small book and if one read the hardcover with the thick leaves one would feel the physical torment of this book. However, this is not the only torment one would go through reading The Satanic Verses. The task of unravelling the layers of symbols and different narrative styles is more daunting than that of carrying the book. Filled with numerous characters, which is the trademark of Rushdie - at least in reference to his popular (and rightly so) Midnight's Children, the book is a compendium of Indian symbolism and an omnium-gatherum of events. One's complete appreciation is a function of his ability to decode these symbols and the subtle and layered meanings of Rushdie's writings.

This is not Rushdie's best. And definitely not be his worst. But had the book not sparked the controversy it did - knowing that popularity thrives on controversies - it would have not been this famous and would have been assessed based on its merit instead of fallout. Critics would not have been swayed, consciously or unconsciously so, by the tides; for in such exuberance and bursting of emotions at its threadbare seams, everyone wants to take a side. The so-called progressives, who are rather individuals caught in the frenzy of progressivism - which is nothing other than just the feeling of being described as one with no social, cultural, or religious threshold; one who tolerates and accommodates everything and can provide justification for people's choices: they are pro-abortion, pro-gay, pro-weed, atheists - truly, they are a congeries of individuals with the belief that the individual's choice is his choice and are therefore in no position to oppose this choice, these folks did not critically critique the book for fear of being described as being against 'free speech', of being anti-liberals (or retrogressive). Thus, instead the book was either overly praised by the 'progressives', even those in academia; or burnt by its opponents - those who felt slighted by its contents. There is no middle ground when it comes to The Satanic Verses. You are either with it or you are against it, Bush-style. But this is an over-generalisation. Some did. As someone said, commenting or writing about it became the route literary fame by academicians. However, what I really do mean is that the fallout clouded or swayed judgement. Interpretations were based on or linked to the fallout.

But The Satanic Verses is not all about religion and about that definite The in its title. There is more to it. In fact, someone has estimated that the thread of story that gives this book its title is just over 70 pages, less than fifteen percent, of the entire book. The book contains three clearly interwoven strands of stories imbued with magical realism and narrated in dream sequence. Some parts are written in the style of a religious text.

The first thread of story is about Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta and their survival of the bombed AI-420 Jumbo Jet en route to London and their subsequent transmogrification into supernatural beings - Satan and angel, respectively. The second identifiable story is about a prophet named Mahound and his founding a religion in a water-scarce region of Jahilia. The final story is about the mass walk of all the inhabitants of Titlipur - men, women, children, old, young, animals - on a pilgrimage to Mecca at the insistence of Ayesha, a girl who was suddenly transformed and claimed had been commanded by the angel Gabriel. How Rushdie thought he could knead such a melange of stories, of varied meanings and implications, into one complete story is what is wrong with this story; however, each story could have stood on its own merit. Together, it is like eating rice and coming across strands of hair, though he skilfully managed to bring them tightly together so that the surprise of seeing a temperate fauna in a tropical rainforest was minimal.

Migration and (Mal)adjustment: This is the story. It is about migration, racism, acculturation, home, identity, realisation, and forgiveness. It is also the 'mother' story, for it carried the other two along. All the others could be described as subplots and are subsumed within its vast cavernous interiors. It is a fantastic story even with its religious connotations and magical representations or it is fantastic because of these.

Gibreel Farishta was from a poor family. Through a series of circumstances he became an orphan and was adopted by a family who introduced him to a movie producer and he became an actor. Even when he was young, and an orphan, he had dreams of sleeping with his benefactor's wife and sometimes compared his circumstances in life with that of the prophet. As an actor in Bollywood, Gibreel Farishta, born Ismail Najmuddin, played all the gods and angels roles in the movies. He became the physical embodiment of what is good. But he also became a discreet philanderer. When he miraculously survived a near-fatal fall during a movie shoot, he lost his faith because he had earlier prayed for a sign from God and had received nothing and though he was healed, it came after he had decided that there is no God. He manifested his faithlessness in a pork-eating spree at the posh Taj Hotel. It was there that he met Alleluia Cone, mountain climber and conqueror of Everest. And after a brief encounter, the gauntlet was thrown: the world was real, what was possible was possible and what was impossible was im-- Then one day,  Gibreel disappeared, leaving behind unfulfilled movie contracts. He left in search of Alleluia Cone, to be reborn and live a life anew, one un-entangled with religious roles he no longer believed in. His disappearance was to become the story of the tabloids.

Saladin Chamcha on the other hand was from a wealthy family. He was the son of a wealthy philanthropic and philandering father and a quiet mother, who died on a fish bone. Saladin had always had different views of life as an Indian. To him, being an Indian was not his part in this life. Everything Indian seemed useless, backward, and negative. He could not wait to escape that backwater that was Indian and his father, whom he regarded less. Later, Chamcha would leave the country, go to England for education and would break relations with his father, hating him more for marrying another another woman (another Nasreen) less than a year after his Nasreen Chamcha's death from the fishbone choking. Chamcha, to complete is anglicisation, in Britain would marry an English woman of whom he could hardly understand and their relationship would grow cold over time. Chamcha had done everything possible to shed off his Indian exoskeleton, and when he returned to play Bernard Shaw's The Millionaires he was surprised and embarrassed of how quickly and reflexively his tonal inflexion regressed to their Indian origin. Unable to fit into Zeenat and her company, Saladin left as early as he could but not before there was an affair with her.

The two - Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha both escaping India for different reasons - met on the AI-420 and became its only survivors after the plane was bombed by a woman terrorists after days of hijacking and the authorities' refusal to grant their (the terrorists') requests. But Chamcha and Farishta fell through space and descended onto the shores of London and this is when their transfiguration and their ordeals began.

Whereas Gibreel was transforming into an angel, Chamcha was gradually transmogrifying into a hoofed-and-horned-and-furred man. They two found themselves in a woman's room but their landing been spotted and soon Chamcha was arrested, for he was poorly dressed and could not, or was not allowed to, prove his citizenship. When his citizenship was verified, he was sent to a hospital where several severely and weirdly transformed humans were kept, perhaps for experimental purposes. Later, when he turned up at their home after an escape from the hospital, his wife - Pamela Chamcha nee Lovelace, who had taken up with Jumpy Joshi - Saladin's friend - rejected his presence and his transformed self and sent him away, because he was and had been confirmed dead. Gibreel on the other hand found himself possessed by the old woman Rosa Diamond who had saved him from the immigration officers, when Chamcha was arrested. And because Gibreel showed no sign of knowing Chamcha upon the latter's arrest, Chamcha felt betrayed and this betrayal would lead to a revenge that would be the doom of one.

The subtle racialism of British culture and behaviour are read within the lines of the Chamcha's life in Britain. For instance, though Chamcha was a well-known actor, he was known only for his voice on radio. According to his employers, the people were not ready to accept his Indianness on television. And even though he appeared in The Aliens Show, he did so in mask. One of the things that, perhaps, Salman Rushdie sought to do was to expose the inconsistencies and contradictions that exist in situations or places where they are not supposed to exist or are deemed not to exist. For instance, inconsistencies of abuse in developed countries; inconsistencies in religious teachings; inconsistencies in citizenship and acceptance etc.

The story is also about foreigners seeking to fit into a culture the autochthons are rejecting and their gradual realisation that have lost it all - they belong nowhere: at home they are strangers per their obvious transformations, in England they are not English per their incompleteness and overly English per their absurdities and excessive attachments that is characteristic of people seeking to belong to a place. In this way, it is a story of migration and acculturation. For instance, Saladin Chamcha had spent his entire life becoming un-Indian. He had repudiated his country, his father, and the people of India - they were not what he aspired to be; they were not civilised enough and were stuck to the old ways. The English way was his way to getting out of that den. However, after his sudden transfiguration he was rejected by his English wife and taken in by the Indian family of Sufyan. However, even in his hideousness the Indian family tolerated and kept him until such a time that the reversal of his condition, which was also sudden, occurred. In all this Chamcha did not consider them his people, he was English.

At the other end of the continuum were those immigrants who are unable to adopt or accept the cultural differences and the more discrimination they face the more the hold onto the nationality of their home countries. To them the city of London was the Visible but Unseen City. These folks, like Mrs Sufyan (Hind), try as much as possible to keep track of life and the going-ons in their home countries (what they consider as the 'real world'), whilst pretending that their migration is temporary and that they will go back home or that where they live does not exist.

Rehka Merchant is Gibreel's nemesis. She was tormenting him into insanity in fulfilment of her promise. Rehka Merchant was married to a wealthy man but was in a relationship with Gibreel Farishta. When Gibreel went missing and the newspapers headlines screamed Farishta Dives Underground and Gibreel Flies Coop. Rehka saw in them a divine message from Gibreel - the actor who played gods and angels in movies - to her, and unable to separate reality from fiction, Gibreel became a god or the embodiment of the gods he played in his movies. Rehka took her two daughters and a son up the roof of their high-rise home and together jumped to their death. As she was falling, perhaps metaphorically through the tunnel of death, she met Gibreel flying downwards from their bombed plane onto earth and there she realised her mistake and the perceived deceit - that Gibreel was no Farishta (angel) at all - sought to take her revenge. After her death and his survival, she became an apparition visible only to him and from whom he fled. And it was Rehka's curse that inundated his senses with these visions and voices. Yet, it was these same hallucinations (or dreams) that transported him to Jahilia and made him both Mahound the Prophet and Gibreel, the Farishta.
When the nocturnal story changes, when, without warning, the progress of events in Jahilia and Yathrib gives way to the struggle of Imam and Empress, Gibreel briefly hopes that the curse has ended, that his dreams have been restored to the random eccentricity of ordinary life; but then, as the new story, too falls into the old pattern, continuing each time he drops off from the precise point at which it was interrupted, and as his own image, translated into an avatar of the archangel, re-enters the frame,, so his hope dies, and he succumbs once more to the inexorable. [216]
When Gibreel finally met Allie (Alleluia Cone) he had lost hold of his senses and had to be worked upon. The two would begin a therapy of trust and would go through times of good and bad, until the voice - Chamcha's - and the lie aptly told. This would separate them and lead them both to doom.

Though Saladin was hiding away, unwilling to be Shaitan, his form still seeped into people's dreams and people became afraid of him, even though they had not seen him or knew of his existence. He need not convince the people that he was the devil. He was believed and when he people saw his form a terrible havoc ensued. Unlike Gibreel, whose angelic transformation was not so obvious and as such was not believed. Clearly people believe more in the presence of evil than in the presence of good; or better still the presence of evil is more a reason to believe in good than the other way round.
How astonishing, then, that of all the drivers streaming along the Embankment - it was, after all, rush-hour - not one should so much as look in his direction, or acknowledge him! [336]
It really was incredible. Here appeared a celestial being, all radiance, effulgence and goodness, larger than Big Ben, capable of straddling the Thames colossus-style, and these little ants remained immersed in drive-time radio and quarrels with fellow-motorists. 'I am Gibreel,' he shouted in a voice that shook every building on the riverbank: nobody noticed. Not one person came running out of those quaking edifices to escape the earthquake. Blind, death and asleep. [337]
Finally, Saladin Chamcha's transfiguration was complete when he accepted Lucretius view of change - whatever by its changing goes out of its frontiers...that doing so brings immediate death to its old self - over Ovid's. Thus, Chamcha submitted to the power and became what he was claimed to have become, the Devil. By this time his fame had spread all through the country through dreams.
I am, he accepted, that I am. [289]
This acceptance also led to his reversion to his old self and his sudden healing. Gibreel, on the other hand, considered his 'angelic' representation as a madness he must overcome and through this overcoming instead created multiple personalities: the Gibreel of everyday life, working to suppress the angel-possessed Gibreel. In his transformation, Gibreel began to question the story of creation and why God put man in a garden with a ban on eating the fruit of knowledge. Why will a God demand blind submission? And why will a God punish or ship off dissidents to 'Siberia'? That is, he began to doubt God, or himself.

In the end there was the destruction of Gibreel - the angel; he who was of God could not cope with his parallel universes. He killed himself without realising the role of Saladin (Shaitan) in his final destruction. For Saladin's revenge against his friend, for his silence when he was arrested by the immigration officers, was such that it destroyed him completely. They had all come to India, for different purposes. Gibreel to recover, Chamcha to meet his dying father, Alleluia Cone - whom Gibreel believed had cheated on him - the consequences of the multiple-voices of Chamcha - to climb Everest again, and Sisodia to make movies. Sisodia took Alleluia to see Gibreel. Gibreel, who had already committed a series of murders in London in his hallucinations, killed Sisodia in his room. And Alleluia Cone was found to have jumped from the top of Gibreel's Everest highrise home, where Rekha had jumped to her death. Gibreel later committed suicide in front of Chamcha.

Unlike what the books usually say, God did not win this one. The Devil won. Chamcha reconciled with his father before his death, accepted India, his Indianness and accepted his full name: Salahuddin Chamchawala.

The Founding of a Religion: But there is more and it is this more which makes this story controversial and contestable. This is the dream-sequence of Mahound founding a religion in the town of Jahilia, the Jahilia of many gods. Like a movie, they paused when he woke and continued when he slept. In this dream, Mahound visited Gibreel. But the two were one.

Though Gibreel's new religion was monotheistic, Abu Simbel - a member of the Jahilia Council - asked if Mahound would allow three of his gods - Lat, Uzza, and Manat - to be added to his God in a kind of three-for-one arrangement in return for a position on the Jahilia council. When Mahound decided to ask the angel Gibreel if it was the will of Allah for this to be done (Mahound had been visiting Coney, a place where he received messages from Gibreel) his followers argued that Simbel's request was a trap, for
if you go up to Coney and come down with such a Message, he'll ask, how could you make Gibreel provide just the right revelation? he'll be able to call you a charlatan, a fake. [106]
But according to Mahound he had learnt to listen to Gibreel and that Gibreel always spoke from within his heart as if he knew exactly what he wanted.
You know, Salman, that I have learned how to listen. This listening is not of the ordinary kind; it's also a kind of asking. Often, when Gibreel comes, as if he comes from within my heart: from within my deepest places, from my soul. [106]
Unfazed by their leader's explanation, the followers argued further that this definitively was a trap. For was he not the one who came from Coney with the message there is no god but God? And that there is only one God? What would happen if they should accept Simbel's gods? But Mahound countered that already they have fewer followers, only 50, and half are tourists and that the people love their gods; hence this was a means to get followers.

However, when Mahuond's acceptance of Uzza, Manat, and Lat as angels led to fights and deaths because Al-Lat claims to be equal to Allah and could not be a daughter or less to him, Mahound visited Mount Cone to consult and receive messages from God through Gibreel. There he struggled with Gibreel (with himself rather, for he was Gibreel and Mahound) and Gibreel won. On his return he claimed that the last message he was given was from Shaitan - the Devil, and must be expunged from the texts his scribe were compiling.
'It was the Devil.' ... 'The last time, it was Shaitan.' This is what was heard in his listening, that he has been tricked, that the Devil came to him in the guise of the archangel, so that the verses he memorized, the ones he recited in the poetry tent, were not the real thing but its diabolic opposite, not godly, but satanic. [123]
These texts which Mahound decried were deceptions from Shaitan were together referred to as the the Satanic Verses. Thus, it is clear that though Rushdie was writing an immigration story, this part of the story was important to him. Else, he would not have drawn the title of an over 500 page story from a subplot of about 70 pages.

Coincidentally, the traitor who revealed the Prophet's secret, or who discovered the pattern of the Prophet's messages from Gibreel, was Salman Farsi the Persian. Is there any relationship to the author? Even the last name has the two syllables of Rushdie. Salman described how he changed the words proffered by Mahound, the Prophet (which, by the way, is what he was accused of by the protesters). If the Prophet said one thing, he wrote another and the Prophet noticed not the difference. In this way he tested his authenticity - the authenticity of God's words as delivered by Mahound. Besides, when one of Mahound's wives - Ayesha - would not succumb to the rules, Mahound - loving her exceedingly - allowed her to do as she wanted.
What finally finished Salman with Mahound: the question of the women; and of the Satanic Verses. [366]
This discovery occurred during Mahound's return to Jahilia to proselytise and to kill all apostates and pagans in the city, whilst forgiving and accepting any anyone who recanted the old gods and submitted Mahound's God into his fold.

There is a space-time defiance in this story. As the angel who appeared to Mahound and who was himself Mahound, Gibreel Farishta was in an epoch where the existence of a plane is an anachronism. As a survivor of the a plane crash struggling to remain sane and make sense of all the voices and visions that inundated him, Gibreel Farishta was in the now, in the 1960s.

The Foot-Pilgrimage: The third strand of the story had to do with a young orphan girl - Ayesha - who was suddenly transformed into a religious figure with butterflies shrouding her from nakedness. When the zamindar's - Mirza Saeed Akhtar's - wife Mishal had breast cancer, Ayesha claimed to have received a message from Gibreel that the only way she would be healed was when the entire village of Titlipur walked on a pilgrimage to Mecca through the Arabian Sea, no concessions for age or health. This revelation was debated upon and the entire village decided to go.

Mirz Saeed Akhtar, a self-professed skeptic, whose lust for Ayesha morphed into a stronger love for his wife Mishal, only to see his place beside his wife completely taken by Ayesha, sought to prevent his wife from embarking on this deadly foot-pilgrimage. However, Mirza was hopeless in stopping his wife or any of the inhabitants of Titlipur from following the seemingly crazy Ayesha. As a result of this, Mirza left his Peristan residence to follow his wife - whose father was the governor of the Central Bank - and his mother-in-law with an air-conditioned Benz in an attempt to entice them to change her mind. But Mishal was not one to be easily dissuaded especially when her healing was at stake. Ayehsa's relationship with Gibreel - the angel - was similar to Mahound's. They were both accused of hearing what they wanted the angel to say. Several individuals perished on the way, others were convinced by Mirza (including his mother-in-law) but not Mishal. Mishal became the right-hand man of Ayesha. He was the one who understood her. When they got to the sea, some lost hope but most jumped into the sea and saw it opened up for them. The experience of death was transformed into a spiritual experience of a parting sea. However, the few who survived were eager to claim of the spirituality of the experience.

Subplots: There are several subplots within the story though none as developed as these three. There was one about an Imam who was in exile and whom the angel Gibreel, in Gibreel's dreams, transported to the town of Desh to witness the death of Ayesha (not the Ayesha of Titlipur) and her god Al-Lat (one of the three goddesses who had sought equality with Mahound's God). This part of the story was, perhaps, based on the Iranian Revolution.

Repetitive Characters: Ayesha was not the only one whose name or character was repeated. There were several of such repetitions of characters or character names. For instance, Hind was the woman - wife of Abu Simbel - who did not accept Al-Lat as a daughter or angel of Allah. In the first strand of the story, Hind was the wife of Mohammed Sufyan, a relative of Jumpy Joshi and a friend of Saladin - the family who housed the hideous Saladin Chamcha. Hind's daughters included one called Mishal. Ayesha was repeated three times, one of which was Mahound's favourite wife.

Interrogation: Rushdie really did interrogate some religious axioms and rules. For instance, he showed clearly that parts of the Bible had been misrepresented in its daily retelling. He also discussed how people's lives have become entrapped by religious rules, which control everything including approved sex positions; which animals are blessed for eating and which are not; how to cook and prepare food; how to slaughter an animal (cutting its head slowly so it will understand its purpose in life) and others.

Symbolism: Whether it was the symbolism that requires a certain amount of foreknowledge or an understanding of the cultural setting to appreciate or that Rushdie was piecing together things he had always wanted to say and thought this was the right place to do so, this book is a difficult one. Unless you love reading for its own sake, or you are inquisitive enough, you may not enjoy this dense novel.

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