In the autumn and early winter of 1988, I spent some months in England. I was an assiduous reader of the British press, taking in three or four newspapers a day in the common room of a Cambridge college. Scarcely a week seemed to pass when Salman Rushdie was not in the news. A documentary film on India, The Riddle of Midnight, had just been made for Channel 4 by Geoff Dunlop with Rushdie as narrator, and there was some discussion of it as well as of Rushdie's vision of India's future as a democracy. But Rushdie-bashing was also a low form of journalistic sport, including unpleasant puns on his name ("Salmonella" Rushdie and so on). Weekend newspaper supplements retailed gossipy accounts of how The Satanic Verses had failed to win the Booker prize, with malicious claims regarding Rushdie's tantrums when this happened. (Suspiciously similar stories had circulated with regard to Shame, which had also been shortlisted.)
I recall a dinner at an Italian restaurant in London with journalist friends at which Rushdie occupied a good part of the conversation, since he had appeared on TV a night or two before and made a series of acid remarks regarding racism in Britain. The argument grew so vigorous that some of the restaurant staff, who as it turned out were mostly Portuguese from Madeira, joined in. Several of those at the table declared that, even as liberals, they had found Rushdie's remarks "over the top". One of the British journalists was of South Asian origin and became deeply annoyed because the Portuguese waiters refused to accept his claim that he, like me, was "Indian". "Just listen to his accent: more English than that and you'll die," was their judgment. It seemed that whether we liked it or not, the predicaments of some of Rushdie's protagonists were ours, too.
This meal took place some time between 5 October, when The Satanic Verses was banned by the Indian government under its Customs Act, and 19 October, when Rushdie wrote his celebrated open letter to the prime minister of India at the time, Rajiv Gandhi, declaring that "your government has become unable or unwilling to resist pressure from more or less any extremist religious grouping". But the ban was not lifted, and the protests spread to Britain. In mid-February, Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa against the book and its author, and Rushdie went into hiding. It is now 20 years since that Valentine's day message from the imam to the writer, and today there are literally dozens of books and thousands of essays and articles that deal with The Satanic Verses. No postcolonial literary critic can seemingly make a career without a comment on the matter.
The book weighs in at a little under 600 pages, and it is no easy read. The wordplay, involving two and sometimes three languages, is relentless and it sometimes feels like reading a particularly cryptic crossword puzzle. There are "in-jokes" too, many of which need to be glossed for those who have not grown up in South Asia. These - as the critic Srinivas Aravamudan has noted - include the flight number (420: an Indian shorthand for "conman") of the Air India jet whose mid-air detonation by bungling Sikh terrorists called Dara Singh, Buta Singh, Man Singh and Tavleen opens the book. But the intertextual references also take us to 19th-century romantic authors and the Elizabethan dramatists as well, giving the impression at times that it should have been published with endnotes.
It seems futile to sum up the plot, but here goes: The Satanic Verses is constructed around a pair of South Asian Muslims - Gibreel Farishta (meaning the Angel Gabriel), born into poverty as Ismail Najmuddin in Poona "at the empire's fag-end", but who takes up his other name as part of his transformation into a Bollywood star; and Saladin Chamcha (meaning Saladin the Toady), born Salahuddin Chamchawala to a rich and somewhat crass Bombay-based industrialist and his delicate wife. Chamcha, whose trajectory is apparently meant to be an arch commentary on the circumstances of Rushdie's own life, migrates to Britain young, becomes an actor and marries an Englishwoman called Pamela Lovelace. However, since racism will not allow him to appear as a face (save in Peter Sellers-type roles), his fortune is made through his voice, first on the radio and later wearing a mask in a children's programme called The Aliens Show. The fates and stories of Farishta and Chamcha are intertwined through the novel as they delve into their pasts. After they both miraculously survive the explosion on board the hijacked Air India jet, Farishta seems to acquire angelic characteristics and Chamcha devilish ones, but this is just an illusion. In reality, it is Chamcha who is destined to survive at the book's end, along with his Bombayite lover Zeenat Vakil, while Farishta eventually commits suicide by blowing his brains out in Chamcha's recently deceased father's Bombay mansion. He has already caused a series of gory deaths from the outset of the book, and is wanted for multiple murders by its end. There is a clear paradox here. Chamcha, the inauthentic, uptight and elitist migrant to London, constantly mocked for these qualities while in Bombay, is allowed to redeem himself, while the indigenously rooted and social-climbing villain cannot escape the deserts of his villainy.
At one level, this novel is indeed - as Rushdie defensively claimed - "about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay". It is stylistically closer to the sprawling masterpiece that is Midnight's Children than to the briefer and more tightly written Shame, but it can also fruitfully be read in relation to one of my favourites of Rushdie's books, The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), after which he seems to have largely fallen out of critical favour. His brilliant talents for pastiche and gaudy and garrulous characters, at times bordering on cruelty, are in full evidence here. We also find echoes of other genres, including juvenile ones, which is not surprising from an author who has recently described himself as the "world expert on superhero comics".
Had this been solely what the novel was about, it might never have been the object of great controversy. The problematic sections appear within this external frame, in the form of a parallel (but also at times intertwined) narrative concerning a place called Jahilia where a prophet called Mahound has arisen. This second narrative is a sort of dream-sequence in two equal parts, and was defended by Rushdie as such. It was, he stated in his letter to Gandhi, "the fictional dream of a fictional character, an Indian movie star [Farishta], and one who is losing his mind, at that. How much further from history could one get?" It is evident, however, that in order to construct Jahilia and its prophet, Rushdie drew on medieval and early modern European polemics regarding Islam. Several traditions of this sort existed, some of which were simply anti-Islamic, while others from the time of the radical Enlightenment in the 17th and early 18th century were in fact equally critical of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, treating all three as no more than "impostors".
In October 1988, Rushdie defined himself as a "secular man for whom Islamic culture has been of central importance all his life", but it is clear that his secularism was marked by certain strands of the Enlightenment and its attitude of irreverence towards religion as such. This is evident not only in the sections regarding Jahilia but in a scene of comical intent in which Farishta visits the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay after a near-fatal illness in order to stuff his mouth with all sorts of pork products, including "the gammon steaks of unbelief and the pig's trotters of secularism".
Reading the book in 1988, I will confess that I found my attention flagging periodically, but I could not put my finger on the cause. Was it the language? Was it sheer fatigue at having to keep up with endless twists and turns? Rereading the novel now, I have some serious doubts regarding its structure. Are the sections regarding Jahilia, which account for a bit more than 70 pages, essential? Rushdie also claimed, in his open letter to Gandhi, that in these pages he "tried to offer [his] view of the phenomenon of revelation and the birth of a great world religion", but was this novel really the appropriate location for what looks more like the title of a dissertation? To be sure, these pages have echoes with other sections in the book, including in the names of characters which mirror those in the dream; this is an effect that folklorists have sometimes termed the "braided frame".
Still, my impression is that, just as with the dream-sequences of Bollywood cinema, the pages describing the dreams of Farishta regarding Jahilia and its prophet are some of the weakest and most schematic in the book and considerably enfeeble its effect. The pastiche of the early Islamic narrative tradition - for that is what it is - is surprisingly literal-minded and uncomfortably close to what it is seeking to be ironical about. Also, it is here that one finds the references to the "satanic verses" that produce the title of the book.
Inevitably, by mid-1989 - and with the atmosphere of terror let loose by the fatwa - these 70 pages, rather than the remaining 500-odd, had become what the novel was "really" about. In Rushdie's view, those who criticised The Satanic Verses in India and elsewhere had never read it at all; but I know a good number of people who read only those pages and not the rest of the book. These included many Indian Muslim intellectuals who would be shocked to hear themselves described as "extremists, even fundamentalists", as Rushdie termed two Indian Muslim politicians who asked for the ban, Syed Shahabuddin and Khurshid Alam Khan. The latter was in fact a middle-of-the-road politician, with many close relatives in the Indian communist parties, and his backing of the ban was more significant than Rushdie seems to have realised at the time. Even the historian Mushirul Hasan, who defended Rushdie's right to express his artistic views (and was physically attacked in his own university for this), agreed that he was offended by the pages in question. The pastiche was perceived by such figures as much too close to the real thing, despite the author's claim that "the book isn't actually about Islam".
As a consequence, it has become well-nigh impossible to discuss The Satanic Verses in terms other than those of politics. As Edward Said wrote very acutely, "the debate about Salman Rushdie was never really about the literary attributes of The Satanic Verses but rather about whether there could be a literary treatment of a religious topic that did not also touch on religious passions in a very, indeed in an exacerbated, public way". Said, who was apparently a friend of Rushdie, went on to add in the same essay (titled "The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals") that "even to assert that Rushdie's freedom of expression as a novelist could not be abridged ... was in fact to debate the issue of the literary freedom to write within a discourse that had already swallowed up and occupied (in the geographical sense) literature's apartness entirely".
It is here that we come to the heart of the matter: it is not clear to me that many of those who have supported Rushdie any more than those who attack him have a clear sense of what Said terms "literature's apartness". After all, those who give the Booker prize, Prix Goncourt and other such awards frequently defend them using all sorts of instrumentalist social and political arguments rather than ones that centre on the literary merits of the work. It is no mystery that literary production as a commercial enterprise has little place for a discussion of literary quality as such. It would therefore be mistaken to imagine that this lack of autonomy granted to literary space is some peculiar attribute of the Islamic world - as right-wing Hindu fundamentalists have usually claimed in India, using The Satanic Verses as evidence. It may also arise, as the Telugu critic and poet "Nara" recently wrote, "If a poet has the delusion that his poetry is meant to change society [when] the business of a poet is to write poetry".
• Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the first chair in Indian history and culture at the University of Oxford, now teaches at UCLA.
Upon its publication, The Satanic Verses elicited the harshest of reviews, a death sentence, from Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose familiarity with the novel was apparently limited to secondhand reports of Gibreel’s “blasphemous” dreams. The fatwa, or decree, of death, which was issued on February 14, 1989, had less to do with Salman Rushdie and his novel than it did with the power struggle then going on in Iran between hard-liners such as Khomeini and moderates. The author and his book suffered greatly as a result. Rushdie was effectively made a hostage to a new form of international terrorism backed by the promise of financial and heavenly rewards for the assassin. He had to go into hiding. His novel, when not either burned or banned, was initially discussed almost exclusively with reference to the fatwa.
In its intricate and provocative exploration of postmodern and postcolonial sensibilities, The Satanic Verses celebrates and extends what one character calls “the eclectic, hybridized nature of the Indian artistic tradition.” Its multiplicity of styles and stories, its blurring of the boundaries separating reality from dream, fact from fiction, its “pitting levity against gravity,” and its allowing characters’ names to migrate, as it were, from one narrative to another, do more than confuse some readers and entertain others. Metaphorically, such techniques work much the same way as the novel’s intertextuality does in drawing on a wide variety of ceaselessly metamorphosing texts—the Qur՚n, the Bible, the Mahabharata (200 b.c.e.-200 c.e.), and Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) on one hand and Hindi films and British television shows on the other....
(The entire section is 753 words.)