Banned Books Week: Deepanjana Pal reviews The Satanic Verses

“I actually started re-reading The Satanic Verses well before I’d got my hands on a copy of Joseph Anton, all because of Mihir Sharma who wrote in a column that The Satanic Verses is Salman Rushdie’s “most unreadable” work. Once I’d stopped hissing indignantly, I wondered whether Mihir was right and a particularly potent attack of youthful adoration had made me love the book when I’d first read it. So, after years, I started reading it again.
In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi writes about an Iranian film censor who was blind. Those of us who have had the chance to read banned books are a bit like the censor’s assistant whose job was to describe the films to the blind man. It’s a terrible responsibility because it falls upon us to not only depict the work, but to also presume how a work may be interpreted. We shouldn’t have to do this, but here’s the silver lining: it gives us the opportunity to reinterpret a work of art, to wave the fan of our opinions at the miasma around it. Re-reading The Satanic Verses, I realised that I was swept along the whirlpool of Gibreel and Saladin’s adventures, rather than getting stuck at controversial bits. It was the snap-crackle-pop of Rushdie’s storytelling that I was enjoying and not a banned book. And so, for a few days, there was no controversy, there was no fatwa; there was just a big, fat British-Indian novel that’s loads of fun.”
~Deepanjana Pal
       Speak of the DevilPublished 24 years ago, The Satanic Verses had, among other things, a writer called Salman who was forced into hiding because he fiddled around with holy text. Deepanjana Pal remembers the novel that started the whole mess.

There are some slights that Salman Rushdie does not intend to forget, if Joseph Anton is any indication. One of them is the Indian government’s decision to ban The Satanic Verses four months before Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini rapped out the fatwa that forced Rushdie into hiding. The ban on The Satanic Verses remains in place in India, making it one of the few books considered objectionable not for its content, but because of the mysterious economics of distribution. (The Satanic Verses is banned under the Indian Customs Act.)

Published in 1988, The Satanic Verses is Rushdie’s fourth novel. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Award for novel of the year. Divided into nine parts and riddled with sub-plots, the overarching story stars a Bollywood matinee idol named Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, a confused British-Indian. Fittingly for a tale narrated by the devil (Rushdie drops pointed hints about the identity of the narrator), it’s full of magic, madness and carnivalesque characters.

The Satanic Verses opens with Gibreel and Saladin clinging to each other — Gibreel singing “Mera Joota Hai Japani” — as they plummet towards London and away from an exploding airplane. The effects of this disaster include a halo for Gibreel and for Saladin, halitosis, horns and hooves. In the course of the novel, Gibreel becomes increasingly convinced that he is, in fact, the archangel Gabriel (Gibreel is the Arabic version of the name). Saladin, transformed into a diabolical goatish form, is forced to take refuge in a Bangladeshi café-owner’s home, which is agony for him because he’s spent years cultivating a genteel (read: Caucasian) Englishness and distancing himself from what he’s considered migrant riff-raff. While the two men come to terms with their evolving selves, Rushdie takes the reader to the imaginary city of Jahilia where a businessman-turned-prophet named Mahound is trying to establish a new religion that asks its followers to submit to one god. The parallels with the history of Islam are unmistakable and this is the section that has raised the hackles of devout Muslims.

There’s another strand set in which a beautiful young girl, shrouded by butterflies, is hailed as a mystic when she says an angel speaks to her (through the lyrics of hit Bollywood songs). Connecting all these snaking tales is Gibreel, who sees them unfold in his dreams where he is the archangel after whom he is named. Meanwhile, Saladin comes to terms with the fact that his beloved London is a savage city and, despite all his attempts to mimic Britishness, his roots are in India, a culture that is more comfortably syncretic than 1980s’ London, which was violently oppressive towards migrant communities. That is The Satanic Verses, in a rather large nutshell.

The novel has its weaknesses. There are a few episodes, like one about an imam in exile, that feel superfluous. The last few chapters lack energy, as though the batteries of The Satanic Verses were dying. But most of it is a dazzling read. The language is full of pyrotechnics. Take, for example, the title of the third part: “Ellowen Deeowen”. It looks like gibberish. Say it out loud, and you know where this section of the book is set. Rushdie’s sentences are often elaborate, tangled with fragments and jam-packed with ideas and electric imagery.

“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 flight, the earth mutated — nearly — into air, and become, in the true sense, exalted.”

Read it out, because unless you hear the crackle and cadence of the words, the language may seem unwieldy and you won’t realise the mischief and beauty of the prose.

It’s chilling to read The Satanic Verses today and spot Rushdie as the devil, which would be how many haters would depict him later. He also casts himself in the part of Salman the Persian, one of Mahound’s first followers. Salman becomes Mahound’s scribe and later starts to doubt Mahound. So Salman begins to tweak the text he’s asked to transcribe and this ultimately forces him into hiding.
The Satanic Verses is a modern fable. Here, it rains men; there are improbable names like Alleluia and secret sanatoriums filled with migrants that are animal-human hybrids. Here, the ridiculous is normal. Yet, despite the surreal, the sentiments and dilemma of the characters in the novel are rooted in basic and real human emotions. Many in The Satanic Verses are consumed by a desperate need to be loved, for example. If home is where the heart is, then what happens to those who are homeless?

Rushdie’s migrants are not typical. For instance, his Bangladeshi café owner can churn out quotes by famous thinkers like he’s a human quote generator. This is not an unseen and impoverished lot, but a privileged and anglicised set that is rendered invisible because of racism. Characters like Saladin embody the confusion and anxiety about identity that troubled so many first and second-generation immigrants. That feeling of unbelonging and the struggle to create a sense of self that incorporates the indigenous past as well as a more globalised present hasn’t become any easier in the past two decades.

For all the wicked humour, the novel bleeds with violence, both emotional and physical. The police repression of the 1980s and the resulting disruptions appear in all their blazing anger. Near the end of the novel, a delusional Gibreel believes he has, with his angelic wrath and an ordinary trumpet, unleashed the forces of destruction upon London. He sees around him flames and “eddying debris: shards of broken doors, doll’s legs…shattered job prospects, abandoned hopes, lost illusions, accumulated bitterness, vomited fear, and a rusting bath.” He’s actually in the middle of a race riot. Rushdie alternates between descriptions of Gibreel’s hallucinations and the unmagical explanation, giving the reader a vivid portrait of the chimera of power that has Gibreel and the rioters in its grip.

At the heart of The Satanic Verses is ambivalence: “…an idea of the self as being (ideally) homogenous, non-hybrid, ‘pure’ – an utterly fantastic notion! — cannot, must not, suffice. No! Let’s rather say an even harder thing: that evil may not be as far beneath our surfaces as we like to think.” Good is evil, and evil is good. To quote the lines from Faust that Rushdie uses in the novel, “Part of that Power, not understood,/ Which always wills the Bad, and always works the Good.”

In our turbulent age when the aphorism “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” has become almost a mantra, Rushdie’s novel about the shifting quality of intentions and ideas remains as relevant as ever.

(Carried with the author’s permission; first published in DNA. Deepanjana Pal is a books editor, art critic and writer.)

More posts from Banned Books Week, here.






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