Twenty years ago, today, Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t like a book he hadn’t read. In what became the most devastating review in modern times, he considered Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, blasphemous, and called for his assassination.
India had already silenced him. In late 1988, the customs had banned the book’s import after India Today published extracts. In a comment I wrote for the magazine (where I worked then), we criticized the ban. The day after the fatwa, I saw police on Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road shoot at Muslim demonstrators determined to march to the British Council and raze it because they believed its library kept copies of the novel (it didn’t).
Since then, the author and the book have become a metaphor for artistic freedom. Many of those against the novel haven’t bothered to read it, lazily claiming that it is unreadable, or that they don’t need to read what they know is obnoxious. There are non-readers among its supporters, too—civil liberties fundamentalists on the one hand, but also politicians who see an opportunity to bait Muslims (in 1990, a BJP MP asked to borrow my copy so that he could brandish it in Parliament. I declined; I did not want it burnt by those who opposed my freedom to read what I wanted, nor did I want it to be made into an icon by a politician who wanted the Babri Masjid destroyed, and whose followers, years later, would attack M.F. Husain.)
Freedom’s enemy: Protests against Rushdie in New York in 1989. AFP
It was a novel, and its literary merit was being ignored. Today, it is invoked whenever Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen gets attacked, or if Jyllands Posten publishes cartoons many Muslims find offensive, when Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh gets murdered on the streets of Amsterdam, or when Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders is threatened with prosecution for making that forgettable documentary Fitna, and when the London office of the publisher of Sherry Jones’ novel, The Jewel of Medina, gets firebombed.
What about the novel itself? Let this be said: The Satanic Verses is the finest novel about the transformed nature of our lives, encapsulating our divided selves and reminding us that, at a deep level, all of us are migrants or refugees drawn to some place or fleeing another. It captures the dislocations modernity brings about, destabilizing the moral certainties of a universe set in stone, permitting alternative possibilities and what-ifs. It celebrates imagination.
If a classic is a novel in which you discover new meanings upon a fresh reading, which lets you reinterpret the world, which reveals a different perspective, and which opens you to a world view that’s at once provocative, challenging, exciting and even
exhilarating, then The Satanic Verses has earned its place on that permanent bookshelf of great works. Its sprawling narrative encompasses our distorted histories, intermingled pasts, mixed-up identities, mind-altering confusions, and the hybrid nature of modern existence.
The Sataniv Verses: Penguin / Viking, 547 pages.
The novel begins with terrorists blowing up an aeroplane called Bostan, Persian for garden (of paradise). Two protagonists, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, descend singing a Raj Kapoor song, surviving the fall, landing on a windswept English coast, alluding to the Miltonian loss of paradise. Gibreel is the renowned Bollywood star of “theological” films. Saladin is the dubbing genius, the man with 1,001 voices. A devout Anglophile, when he falls his bowler hat is held intact, like in that Magritte painting. How does that happen? Rushdie has warned us; we are firmly in magic realism territory.
The fallen angels part: Gibreel is convinced he is the archangel Gabriel, once sent to Daniel describing his visions, who tells Mary that her child would be the son of God, and who will reveal to Mohammed the message that will become the Quran. Saladin, on the other hand, develops horns and tails. He is picked up as an illegal immigrant, escapes the detention centre, and finds comfort in Shandaar Café in the immigrant’s ghetto of seedy streets of Thatcherite Ellowen Deeowen (“proper London yaar, no bloody less”) where racists spit upon the brown-skinned.
An odd sort of angel he is, this Gibreel, not necessarily devout: He loads his plate with “the pork sausage from Wiltshire, and the cured York hams and the rashers of bacon from godknowswhere with the gammon steaks of his unbelief and the pig’s trotters of secularism”. He hallucinates often: His dreams are violent and lurid, they strike him any time, day or night, and there are dreams within his dreams, like in a labyrinth.
The nightmares “leak into his (Gibreel’s) waking life”, taking him to Jahilia, the imagined city of ignorance, “built entirely of sand”, which Rushdie brings to life as Italo Calvino did with Venice. Rushdie describes the hedonistic, carnival-like atmosphere of Jahilia’s scent-filled bazaars with delightful verve.
Here, the novel enters its controversial terrain. Two historians from the ninth century—al-Waqidi and al-Tabari—recorded an incident that later scholars have vigorously challenged: In his early years, seeking followers in Jahilia, Mohammed found resistance to monotheism. The not-yet-prophet was offered a deal: Accept three local deities—Lat, Uzzah and Manat—as angels, and be allowed to preach. According to Waqidi and Tabari’s version, Mohammed agreed to the compromise, only to renounce it later, saying it was the devil, and not the angel, who had given him the message temporarily accepting the three deities.
Rushdie retells the story with gusto, revealing Gibreel’s foibles. Gibreel is frightened; he even admits, “Being God’s postman is no fun, yaar!” But for the believer, retelling that incident is in itself blasphemy, because the Quran is infallible, the word of God.
Gibreel and Saladin return home to Bombay (Mumbai), in the end. Gibreel takes his own life; Saladin’s first love, Zeeny Vakil, helps him leave. She has told him once: “If you’re serious about shaking off your foreignness, Salad baba, then don’t fall into some kind of rootless limbo instead. Okay? We’re all here. We’re right in front of you. You should really try and make an adult acquaintance with this place, this time. Try and embrace this city, as it is, not some childhood memory that makes you both nostalgic and sick.”
Many years later, writing about The Wizard of Oz, Rushdie will write: “The truth is once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that ‘there’s no place like home’, but rather that there is no longer any such place as ‘home’: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began.”
With The Satanic Verses, Rushdie delved deep into the abiding mystery of the origin of faith, and asked questions which, as J. Alfred Prufrock would say, “disturb the universe”. Indeed, in the novel, Baal, the mischievous poet tells Jahilia’s grandee: “A poet’s work…to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”
In an interview for The Indian Post in 1987, Rushdie told me and my colleague Dina Vakil that his new novel would be about “angels and devils and about how it’s very difficult to establish ideas of morality in a world which has become so uncertain that it is difficult to even agree on what is happening. When one can’t agree on a description of reality, it is very hard to agree on whether that reality is good or evil, right or wrong. Angels and devils are becoming confused ideas… What is supposed to be angelic often has disastrous results, and what is supposed to be demonic is quite often something with which one must have sympathy. It (the novel) is an attempt to come to grips with a sense of the crumbling moral fabric or at least for the reconstruction of old simplicities. It is also about the attempt of somebody like myself, who is basically a person without a formal religion, to make some kind of accommodation with the renewed force of religion in the world; what it means, what the religious experience is.”
In other words, doubt. Faith provides simplicity and certainty; reason questions those certainties. Rushdie wants to imagine that which has not yet been imagined, even if it is that which should not be imagined. Shoulds and oughts limit an artist’s freedom to take wing. And Rushdie wants to fly.
With The Satanic Verses, he soars, and offers a glimpse of a universe that’s bewildering and ennobling; and as we go on that journey, we learn more about ourselves.
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