Who am I?
Let’s put it this way: who has the best tunes?
The cliche is that you have to find your voice. Creative writing students think this means pick a style and stick with it. They don’t read fiction because they worry that exposure to different styles will corrupt and distill the unique voice they are struggling to achieve. (By the way, kids, it’s the other way about; the way to become distinctive is to read as far and wide as possible.)
In his interview with the Paris Review, Salman Rushdie found depths in the question that I never thought existed. But I do remember that terrible feeling of selflessness that strikes you at various points in your youth – that sense James Hawes identified that you stop existing when you’re alone.
All novelists seem to have at least one [book] in the drawer that’s just garbage.
I have three. Until I started writing Midnight’s Children, which would probably have been about late ’75, early ’76, there was this period of flailing about. It was more than a technical problem. Until you know who you are you can’t write. Because my life had been jumbled up between India and England and Pakistan, I really didn’t have a good handle on myself. As a result the writing was garbage—sometimes clever garbage, but garbage nonetheless.
He later theorises that fiction may be tougher for an immigrant. People who live rooted lives can write about a particular place with confidence. They have grown up there and know the territory. However:
I wanted to write about arrival. I didn’t want to pretend that I was Don DeLillo or Philip Roth or anyone who’d grown up in these streets. I wanted to write about the New York of people who come here and make new lives, about the ease with which stories from all over the world can become New York stories. Just by virtue of showing up, your story becomes one of the many stories of the city.
The Satanic Verses was supposed to be a novel about identity and the immigrant experience. A flight to London is hijacked by terrorists and explodes thousands of feet over the English Channel. Incredibly, there are two survivors: Indian actors Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. Farishta is a movie star who has made it big in Bollywood theologicals. Chamcha is a comic actor and voiceover artist. He is a Westernised man who has renounced his Indian roots, and annoys his liberal friends by supporting Thatcher in the Falklands war. ‘Of material things, he had given his love to this city, London, preferring it to the city of his birth or to any other.’ If the book had been set today (it was published in 1989) Chamcha would have been called a decentist or neocon or Uncle Tom. In this, his outlook is different from Gibreel’s: walking around London together, Chamcha sees ‘attractively faded grandeur’ while Gibreel irritates his fellow survivor by damning the adopted metropolis as ‘a wreck, a Crusoe-city, marooned on the island of its past’.
But Chamcha’s convert’s zeal does not save him. Despite having lived and worked and been educated in the UK, on arrival in London he is beaten up by border control thugs, who assume that he is an illegal immigrant. Having lost his identity documents in the fall, Chamcha hits on a potential out: ‘Ask the Computer!’ The officers get worried, and talk amongst themselves… but Chamcha’s record in official databases doesn’t necessarily mean that the beating will end. He overhears the men: ‘We could say, – one of the nine suggested, – that he was lying unconscious on the beach… Then he resisted arrest and turned nasty and in the ensuing altercation he kind of fainted.’ This is a moment of real darkness, a glimpse into state brutality.
And it’s not his last encounter with the side of the UK that hates everything different. Casual racism abounds. There are riots, fit-ups, suspicious custody deaths (‘It appears that…’) deportations, racial assaults. Rushdie refers in a throwaway line to the practice of immigration officials checking the vaginas of female refugees for contraband. Chamcha, the great assimilationist, travels through an England that rejects the Other with all its heart.
A further problem for Saladin Chamcha is that he is metamorphosing into a weird Pan-goat devil creature. Horns rise and twist from his head, his feet are replaced by cloven hooves, his penis swells to a lustful-god caricature of an erection, and he grows a tail, which he must conceal inside baggy pantaloons. TV work having trailed out, and appalled by his own freakish appearance, he shelters inside a migrant hostel ‘of the type that borough councils were using more and more owing to the crisis in public housing, lodging five-person families in single rooms, turning blind eyes to health and safety regulations, and claiming ‘temporary accommodation’ allowances from the government.’ He is exiled with his own kind in a city visible but unseen. There he reflects on this literal demonisation:
Could it be, in this inverted age, that he was being victimised by – the fates, he agreed to call his persecuting agency – precisely because of his pursuit of ‘the good’? – That nowadays such a pursuit was considered wrong-headed, even evil? – Then how cruel these fates were, to instigate his rejection by the very world he had so determinedly courted; how desolating, to be cast from the gates of the city one believed oneself to have taken long ago!
The plane crash affects Gibreel in a different way. A actor who plays mainly Hindu gods, Farishta becomes convinced that he is the Archangel Gabriel. Just as Chamcha, in his new form, can generate infernal smoke when he gets angry, so Gibreel, when he deplanes, is surrounded by a benign and powerful light that impresses the border patrol so much that they leave him alone while taking Chamcha into the van for a kicking. But that is the only external verification of Gibreel’s fantasy. To the rest of the world he’s a madman. Gibreel’s delusions unnerve his girlfriend, and he is put on antipsychotics. His attempts to heal London’s damned citizens become farcical. He believes that he can fly, and transform the climate itself. In a brilliant riff Rushdie outlines Gibreel’s plan to ‘tropicalise’ the city:
Gibreel enumerated the benefits of the proposed metamorphosis of London into a tropical city: increased moral definition, institution of a national siesta, development of vivid and expansive patterns of behaviour among the populace, higher-quality popular music, new birds in the trees (macaws, peacocks, cockatoos), new trees under the birds (coco-palms, tamarind, banyans with hanging beards)… Disadvantages: cholera, typhoid, legionnaires’ disease, cockroaches, dust, noise, a culture of excess.
The book’s most ‘blasphemous’ passages, therefore, take place as hallucinations in Gibreel’s disentegrating mind. As the Archangel, Gibreel believes he is speaking directly to Mohammed (‘Mahound’) as he begins a new religion in the desert cities. Rushdie’s Mecca has a multiplicity of gods. It’s a town of brutal hedonism teeming with poets, dancers, mystics and prostitutes. Mahound, with his insistence on monotheism, is a ridiculed heretic. ‘Never more than fifty in the audience when I speak,’ the Prophet says in rueful tones, ‘and half of these are tourists.’ He quotes derisive graffito:
Messenger, do please lend a
careful ear. Your monophilia,
your one one one, ain’t for Jahilia.
Return to sender.
Yet the Grandee, ruler of Jahilia, fears Mahound. He sees something coming. The natural impulse is to have the upstart merchant tortured into pieces, but the Grandee is smarter than that. He knows that martyrs have a way of replicating, and instead seeks to neutralise the adversary. He offers Mahound a deal: guaranteed recognition, and freedom from persecution, plus representation on the city council, if the Messenger will in turn recognise the Jahilia goddesses Lat, Uzza and Manat. Mahound is a pragmatist. ‘It is not even suggested that Allah accept the three as his equals,’ he tells his followers, trying to sell the deal. ‘Only that they be given some sort of intermediary, lesser status.’ But the big selling point for Islam is the one-god thing: the thought of accepting other gods – woman gods! – is too hard for the faithful to take.
What is blasphemous about this book? The idea of the devil dictating parts of the Koran, posing as an Archangel (the ‘satanic verses’ of the title)? The implications for revealed religion? The extended comic disgression where the poet Baal, on the run from Mahound, hides out in a Jahilia brothel where the prostitutes name themselves after the Prophet’s wives? I think it’s more the general tone.
There’s a wonderful American idiom: to clean his clock. It’s a colloquial term of conquest, meaning a decisive and total victory. When you clean a clock you reduce it to its component parts. This is what Rushdie does to religion. And not even in a particularly aggressive way. The voice is playful, reasonable, open-handed and persuasive, even as it devastates. A voice of Indian wit and warmth that has picked up the best of Western oratory and run with it, yaar: above all it is a voice that listens.
Here is Rushdie on Genesis:
In the case of human persons, the issue had been morality. Of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they shouldst not eat, and ate. Woman first, and at her suggestion man, acquired the verboten ethical standards, tastily apple-flavoured: the serpent brought them a value system. Enabling them, among other things, to judge the Deity Itself, making possible in good time all the awkward inquiries: why evil? Why suffering? Why death? – So, on they went. It didn’t want Its pretty creatures getting above their station.
Have you ever read a better analysis of our foremost creation myth than that?
But Rushdie’s novel goes beyond God. The opposite of faith, he writes, is not disbelief, but doubt. Saladin Chamcha – a kindly and perceptive man under the veneer of tweedy cynicism – sees this from the beginning. Held in mass hostage on the hijacked plane, he feels an urge to argue with one of the terrorists, the only woman and the one who seems the most serious and self-aware. Chamcha wants to tell her that ‘unbendingness can also be monomania… it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last.’
This is it: that which is liberal and diverse is not only nicer but also more durable, better able to defend itself than (or from) the fundamentalist alternative. The book’s cacophony of wordplay, legend and reference is a stylistic tribute to this diversity. Though rooted in a particular time, it does not appear dated, and parts appear to foretell the world we live in. The novel is a powerful cry for cosmopolitanism, secularism, hipsterism, urbanity and difference: it speaks to those of us who contain multitudes and against the parochial, the insular, the political and spiritual elite and their dreams of changelessness and power.
In a later essay Rushdie summed up what he was trying to do:
The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world… The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love song to our mongrel selves.
We’re not there yet, but there will come a time when people will be in a room or a bar discussing this novel and someone will say: When this was published, didn’t he get in trouble, wasn’t there some shit, from like Hindus… or the Tea Party?
When the ayatollahs have died, the ashes dispersed and the demonstrators packed up their placards and gone home, the story remains.
The story is imperishable.