For writing The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie has been accused of many things, but cowardice isn’t one of them; and such a notion cannot be seriously maintained after reading it. Rushdie’s early novels are fearless, and the targets of his satire, like those of Pope and Swift (the comparison with the eighteenth-century style here is apt), were justifiably unnerved.
Rushdie’s form, along with many other Indian writers of his generation, is essentially comical, a form which seems, perhaps, unfitting for what was a newly independent nation. For when a nation is reborn after a long period of colonial rule, wrote Franz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, there is a creative urge for songs and epic stories; ‘comedy and farce,’ on the other hand, ‘disappear, or lose their attraction’. We are all grateful that India has proved an exception to this dreary predilection. From G.V Desani’s All About H Hatterr (1948), which appropriated ‘goodly godly’ English and stained it with a ‘rigmarole’ style, to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), the subcontinental novel has been a space for anarchic comedy, crowded with myth and history and satire and romance – and Indians. For, as Rushdie has often noted, the great fact of India is the crowd. The country is simply too wide – and too crowded – for a single vision to take hold of it.
The trouble begins with Midnight’s Children (1981), Rushdie’s second novel. It is a novel so well-known, so widely purchased, that it is available from at least one charity shop near you. Written in bejewelled prose, it is hilarious and playful, a true blockbuster; and it almost single-handedly brought the narrow world’s attention to literature of the subcontinent. Yet it is a misconception of the novel, and perhaps of Indian novels in general – perhaps of India itself – that it is harmless celebration of Indian colour and magic. Rushdie’s novel is also dark: after all, of the two Midnight Children of greatest power, born at the moment of the country’s independence from colonial rule, it is not the gentle Saleem – who hears the voices of midnight’s other children – but the violent, resentful Shiva, ‘midnight’s darkest child,’ who seeds India’s forthcoming generations. Saleem, impotent, Kashmiri, the son of Muslim parents, witnesses the destruction of his own cultural heritage under the Widow’s (that is, Indira Gandhi, then India’s Prime Minister) ‘Civic Beautification’ programme. The Prime Minister, three years after the novel was published, sued Rushdie for defamation of character.
With his next novel, Shame (1983) Rushdie made his target more explicit when he examined the nation of Pakistan (here named Q.), ‘a failure of the dreaming mind’. He depicts the court of Iksandar Harappa, the ‘radical’ Prime Minister of Q., who is and is not the Pakistani politician Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, and his rival, General Raza Hyder, who is and is not General Zi-ul-Huq – who mounts a coup against Harappa (against Bhutto) and executed him. What follows is the Islamisation of the country (I am of course now talking about Q.) under the guidance of a crazed mystic, and which results in a family tragedy. The novel is a satire as much as it is a morbid fairy-tale, on the fanaticism and dictatorship of a make-believe country with an acronym for a name. It recommends to Pakistan the values of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment over that of Sharia; it refers to Benazir Bhutto as ‘Virgin Ironpants’; and it was banned in Pakistan.
About halfway through the novel, the narrator recalls an East London murder case in which a Pakistani father ‘butchers’ his daughter for making love to a ‘white boy’ What alarmed the narrator – a barely disguised Salman Rushdie – about the case was his realization that he understood the killer’s motives: ‘We who have grown up with a diet of honour and shame can still grasp what must seem unthinkable to peoples living in the aftermath of the death of God and tragedy: that men will sacrifice their dearest love on the implacable altars of pride’. Here is a culture in which ‘shamelessness, shame’ are the roots of violence. As with all authors worth reading, traces of the next work are to be found in the previous one, and the seed of The Satanic Verses can be found here, in Rushdie’s intimation that there requires a certain degree of compromise and even repression in the act of emigrating. But compromise with other belief systems can be a dangerous temptation, while repression has untold consequences. ‘If you hold down one thing’ said Saul Bellow’s Augie March, ‘you hold down the adjoining’. Rushdie is fond of this line and deploys it Shame, but dramatizes the idea on a vast, global scale in Verses.
The opening premise is simple enough. A hijacked aircraft explodes above English shores. Two passengers, Bollywood film actors Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, descend from the sky and, in the tradition of magical realism, they sing songs to each other. This is the terrible beginning of their migration, of their compromises and repressions: ‘Mingling with the remnants of the plane, equally fragmented, there floated the debris of the soul, broken memories, sloughed-off selves, severed mother-tongues, violated privacies, untranslatable jokes, extinguished futures, lost loves, the forgotten meaning of hollow, booming words, land, belonging, home.’
It is also the beginning of their metamorphoses. In their separate journeys into ‘Proper London,’ contrasting in Dickensian extremes, it is Gibreel who, as his name foretells, becomes the archangel himself, even growing a halo, while Saladin morphs into a satanic-like goat and undergoes the trials of a bigoted UK immigration system. This is a structure that those familiar with the postmodern novel will recognise. The transformations into archetypal figures are both allegorical (Saladin becomes a goat partly because he is a demonised immigrant) and ironical (Gibreel, prior to the plane crash, had lost his faith). The roles, in the end, reverse themselves, as Gibreel becomes a crazed, jealous, and violent fanatic with a ‘Nameless Ailment’ that causes him to have elaborate and blasphemous dreams; and Saladin regains his shape as well as the Islamic faith, returning to India and making a reconciliation, in what are some of the best passages of the novel, with his dying father.
The two situations, splitting into two different strands of the novel, provide an outlet for Rushdie’s own particular talents. First, that of recollecting his own personal suffering, sighing for his long-lost home, and dramatizing the pathos of the immigrant in clear, lucid imagery:
‘[Saladin] stood at the window of his childhood and looked out at the Arabian Sea. The moon was almost full; moonlight, stretching from the rocks of Scandal Point out to the far horizon, created the illusion of a silver pathway, like a parting in the water’s shining hair, like a road to miraculous lands’.
And, resting in his father’s bedroom, having returned home:
‘Grotesque heads in painted terracotta glowered down at him from the walls: a horned demon; a leering Arab with a falcon on his shoulder; a bald man rolling his eyes upwards and putting his tongue out in panic as a huge black fly settled on his eyebrow. Unable to sleep beneath these figures, which he had known all his life and also hated, because he had come to see them as portraits of Changez [his father], he moved finally to a different, neutral room’.
For Saladin, nostalgia an ambivalent experience; a fading dream but also a haunting experience, and both emotions having their roots in childish terror and a childish longing for miracles. Rushdie’s novel speaks to — and for — the displaced peoples of those worlds.
With Gibreel Farishta, meanwhile, the burning and tormented archangel, Rushdie permits himself his other talent: that of the fearlessly anarchical – nay, apocalyptic – style, which is a feature of the postmodern novel but also peculiar to modern Indian fiction – the rigmarole style. In this mode, the language is full of puns (one of the plane’s hostages is an evangelical Christian callled Eugene Dumsday) coinages (‘angelicdevilish,’ ‘Ellowen Deeowen’), song lyrics (‘How to win the darling’s love, mister, without a sigh?’), questions (‘Do angels have wings? Can men fly?’), Indian and Pakistani dialect (‘Spoono, is this not a bloody fine thing?’), and cartoonish imagery (‘he began to eat as fast as possible, stuffing the dead pigs into his face so rapidly that bacon rashers hung out of the sides of his mouth’).
I have taken these quotations from the first thirty pages of the novel, by which point readers might have closed the book or else sent it windmilling across the room. Many find Rushdie unreadable. Others argue that such a style breaks free from the confines of English fiction as it was in those prevailing decades: the 250-page novel, that is, about class and adultery.
The first party has a point. At times, Rushdie’s style seems like an evasion from facing his subjects with the slower, more gradual pacing of a serious novelist (it is telling, for instance, that this novel marks a preference for punctuated equilibrium over slow, Darwinian gradualism). Throughout much of Rushdie’s fiction, he seems only to be able to express ideas through images, and their allegorical implications. His characters have no character; things around them are described, and things happen to them, but they themselves have no inwardness to speak of. If this is a weakness of Rushdie’s, then his strength lies where his fabulous and vibrant imagery seems to take on a life of its own. As Gibreel’s hallucinations become increasingly frightening, he is convinced that London is a living Hell in which he will meet Saladin, chief adversary:
‘As he roamed the metamorphosed city he saw winged imps sitting on the corners of buildings made of deceits and glimpsed goblins oozing wormily through the broken tilework of public urinals for men. As once the thirteenth-century German monk Richalmus would instantly see clouds of miniscule demons surrounding every man and woman on earth, dancing like dust-specks in the sunlight, so now Gibreel with open eyes and by the light of the moon as well as the sun detected everywhere the presence of his adversary, his – to give the old world back its original meaning – shaitain.’
In this marvellous passage, here is the fear and shame of the immigrant, viewing the new city full of temptation and terror. Indeed, Rushdie’s achievement is to invest English-language fiction, in bristling, crackling sentences, with imagery from far other worlds and other seas, restoring fantasy to the streets of London. Yet it was in traversing the ‘emptier, darker, more terrifying space’, as he puts it, between two much smaller, neighbouring villages that Rushdie’s fiction proved to be notorious, even deadly: when Rushdie turned his gaze towards Islam.
In the final part of this essay, I will treat Rushdie’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in the context of the novel – where it rightly belongs.