Yet Another Controversial Work

The Pantheons of literature permeates with works that has stirred controversy. Of all these controversial works, the chain of events that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has set into motion is nonpareil. Immediately after its publication in 1988, accusations of blasphemy were hurled against Rushdie. It instigated angry, and often times, violent Muslim demonstrations all over the world. The Rushdie Affair, as it would famously be referred to, reached its boiling point when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. In fear of his safety, Rushdie deserted the mob and went incognito for a couple of years, waiting for the controversy to die down.

In the world of literature, these are unprecedented. Despite being published three decades before, it holds the power to pique one’s interest and curiosity. Was everyone spellbound by the magic of Rushdie’s prose? What power does The Satanic Verses hold that it would percolate such unconscionable reaction from a third of the world’s population? These are questions that tickle the reader’s imagination. The book’s title itself is enough to make a reader pause before proceeding to the text.

The Satanic Verses follows the story of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, two actors who both have Indian Muslim backgrounds. The former is a celebrated Bollywood superstar renowned for playing Hindu deities while the latter emigrated to England and works as a voiceover artist. Their stories converged on their flight from India to Britain. Their plane was hijacked and exploded over the English Channel. Farishta and Chamcha, however, were magically saved. As they fall back into the ground, a radical transformation took place – Farishta took on the personality resembling archangel Gabriel (Jibril) while Chamcha turned into a cloven-hoofed devil.

“When a great idea comes into the world, a great cause, certain crucial questions are asked of it. History asks us: what manner of cause are we? Are we uncompromising, absolute, strong, or will we show ourselves to be timeservers, who compromise, trim and yield?” ~ Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

The Visions

Accentuating the story are semi-magic dream visions in which Farishta takes on the person of his namesake, the angel Gibreel – Gabriel, in English. In these dreams, Farishta encountered Mahound, who is a representation of the founder of the Islam faith, Prophet Muhammad. Prophet Muhammad was believed to be visited by angel Gibreel. For over a 22-year period, the angel recited God’s teaching to the prophet, which he, in turn, delivered to his followers. These teachings and verses eventually became the foundation of the Quran/Koran.

In these provocative sequences, Rushdie challenged long-standing Islamic beliefs, earning the ire of the devout. Through the lenses of the devout, Rushdie’s version of the story of Muhammad was viewed as an indignant mockery of the Prophet’s, and consequently, God’s words. Through this novel, Rushdie posited that the Islamic Holy Book could have been influenced by the devil. By talking the form of Gabriel, the devil could have easily tricked Mahound and supplied him not with God’s words but with the devil’s words, hence, the book’s title.

The dreams sequences also explored a plethora of themes surrounding divine revelation, religion, and extreme fanaticism. The novel touches on the subject of fake Messiahs who present themselves as purveyors of the Lord’s words. In another dream sequence, Rushdie introduced an Indian peasant girl named Ayesha. She claims to receive revelations from angel Gibreel. “Protected” by butterflies, Ayesha managed to convince her fellow villagers to embark on a pilgrimage to Mecca; they must complete the exodus by walking all the way through.

Taken on a different context, The Satanic Verses is a satire about the politicization of religion, and, on another side, an attempt to challenge the dogmas. Throughout the course of history, religious texts and personas have always been critically studied and challenged in literature; a writer’s literary license affords them that much. The ideas embedded in these narratives are rarely straightforward. It is then left to the readers to interpret or define these ideas. For a magical realist work, The Satanic Verses painted a whole tapestry brimming with religions images that can take different shapes and forms.

“An iceberg is water striving to be land; a mountain, especially a Himalaya, especially Everest, is land’s attempt to metamorphose into sky; it is grounded in flight, the earth mutated–nearly–into air, and become, in the true sense, exalted. Long before she ever encountered the mountain, Allie was aware of its brooding presence in her soul.” ~ The Satanic Verses

Beyond the Controversy

The Satanic Verses will always be observed under the lenses of the controversy that it has inspired. The elements of religion and fanaticism, however, were not the most pervasive facets of the novel. Whilst they sparked the controversy that the narrative is eternally wrapped in, The Satanic Verses doesn’t reduce itself into a mundane commentary about these sensitive subjects. If one looks beyond its more controversial elements, the reader is bound to unravel the other layers the narrative was wrapped in.

Of its several layers, the immigrant experience in the United Kingdom is the backbone of the narrative. It is a subject which Rushdie knows a thing or two about. Born in India to Kashmiri Muslim parents, he immigrated to the United Kingdom, before finally settling down in the United States. In intricate and evocative details, Rushdie captured the downside of immigration – the disorientation one feels in a strange setting, and how it feels to be alienated by a society that one yearns to be a part of. The story tackles the idea of the divided self, the notion of nationalism and of royalty to one’s country.

The search for one’s identity is a theme that is prevalent in Rushdie’s works. In The Satanic Verses, identity crisis was vividly portrayed through Saladin Chamcha’s earlier experiences, when he was on his first phase of his metamorphosis. His disdain for his roots made him pivot towards Western thoughts, escape towards the West. In the end, he fully metamorphosed into an Anglophile, a lover of everything that his country of birth is bereft of. It was also the representation of Western materialism and British colonialism.

“What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world.” ~ Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

The Semblance of an Idea

The Satanic Verses is a rich narrative that packs a lot of punch. The narrative is wrapped up in many complex layers. In all these layers, what prevails is Rushdie’s provocation of the readers’ minds. Deeply embedded in the migrant narrative are the themes about about compromise and conformity. On the grander narrative, the novel is asking us who we are, or in the terms of the narrative, “what kind of idea are you?”. The biggest allegory in the novel is the story itself. It permeates with various ideas that touches on a bevy of subjects like religion, immigration, mental health, and even love and romance.

With these many profound subjects, Rushdie is asking his readers to be more critical. In a world filled with different views and ideas, we often forget our own and we end up conforming to the general view. We let ourselves be molded by other’s image of us. There is no singular idea that one must subscribe to. One must conceive a firm idea of one’s self that one is neither willing to waver nor compromise. Not only is it applicable to the narrative, it is applicable to life in general. Worldview and social constructs form a mantle of one’s identity but one should remain an individual and be a product of one’s own ideas, not of others’.

Rushdie packs a lot in The Satanic Verses. His writing was descriptive and thought-provoking. Through his powerful language, he evoked powerful images. What weighed down on the narrative is the prevalence of subplots and information which, on the overall context, were unnecessary. His exploration of ideas were sometimes disjointed and he pours in pages of unnecessary background information. A handful of editing on the fringes can tighten up the narrative. He made up for this with his scintillating and colorful characterization.

“Emboldened by the lights and the patient, silent lens, he goes further. These kids don’t know how lucky they are, he suggests. They should consult their kith and kin. Africa, Asia, the Caribbean: now those are places with real problems. Those are places where people might have grievances worth respecting. Things aren’t so bad here, not by a long chalk; no slaughters here, no torture, no military coups. People should value what they’ve got before they lose it. Ours always was a peaceful land, he says. Our industrious island race.” ~ Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

Rushdie’s brand of magical realism is inimitable and his imagery is evocative; his literary ensemble prove that much. He scurries the fine line between fact and fiction. In The Satanic Verses, he grappled with several ideas which that tickle the imagination. It leaves so much room for interpretation. In this multilayered and multidimensional text, Rushdie proved himself resolute. He is a character on his own, an ambitious but critical writer unafraid of challenging conventions and sharing to the world his views.

The Satanic Verses will always be remembered for the controversy it has instigated; it is but one more book in a long list of controversial works. Its reputation may always precede it but it is more than this controversy. The Satanic Verses is a critical narrative with many facets and elements that crystallizes into a grander narrative that challenges and studies not only religion but also the way we view ourselves and the world. In the end, the reader is left to grapple with a different reality. “What kind of idea are you?”

Ratings:

75%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Of all the Rushdie novels I have read so far, I must admit that The Satanic Verses is, by far, the most challenging and most difficult read. In this novel, his brand of magical realism is at its most overwhelming, most vivid and at the same time, most confusing. Whilst the religious insinuations weren’t lost on me, I felt like it was secondary to what the narrative is all about – that of identity and the migrant narrative. However, these real objectives were lost in the abstract text. Rushdie was his usual ambitious self that the novel was too loose on some portions. Although it tickles the mind and the imagination, I find the story a little too overwritten.

Book Specs

Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Viking
Publishing Date: 1989
Number of Pages: 547
Genre: Magical Realism

Synopsis

Just before dawn one winter’s morning, a hijacked jumbo jet blows apart high above the English Channel. Through the debris of limbs, drinks, trolleys, memories, blankets and oxygen masks, two figures fall toward the sea: Gibreel Farishta, India’s legendary movie star, and Saladin Chamcha, the man of a thousand voices, self-made self and Anglophile supreme. Clinging to each other, singing rival songs, they plunge downward, and are finally washed up, alive, on the snow covered sands of an English beach.

Their survival is a miracle, but an ambiguous one, as Gibreel acquires a halo, while, to Saladin’s dismay, his own legs grow hairier, his feet turn into hooves, and hornlike appendages appear at his temples.

Gibreel and Saladin have been chosen (by whom?) as opponents in the eternal wrestling match between Good and Evil. But which is which? Can demons be angelic? Can angels be devils in disguise? As the two men tumble through time and space toward their final confrontation, we are witness to a cycle of tales of love and passion, of betrayal and faith: the story of Ayesha, the butterfly-shrouded visionary who leads an Indian village on an impossible pilgrimage; of Alleluia Cone, the mountain climber haunted by a ghost who urges her to attempt the ultimate feat – a solo ascent of Everest; and centrally, the story of Mahound, the Prophet of Jahilia, the city of sand – Mahound, the recipient of the revelation in which satanic verses mingle with the divine.

About the Author

To know more about Salman Rushdie, click here.