Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Satanic Verses

Book: The Satanic Verses
Author: Sir Salman Rushdie
First Published: 1988 by Viking Press
No.of Pages: 561
Genres: Magical Realism, Fiction
Literary Awards: Booker Prize Nominee (1988), Whitbread Award Winner (1988)

 It was 14th February, 1989 when the Tehran Radio blasted:

"The author of the 'Satanic Verses' book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content are sentenced to death," said Ayatollah Khomeini, whose word was considered as law by those millions of Shiite Muslims. "If someone knows them but is unable to kill them, he should hand them over to the people for punishment." 

Salman Rushdie with the novel The Satanic Verses
Salman Rushdie holding a copy of The Satanic Verses

It was the whole "Rushdie Fatwa Affair" which triggered my curiosity to read this novel which contrary to what you might expect (considering the ban, bombings, and the death threats) was the proud recipient of the 1988 Whitbread Award and the finalist for the Booker of the very same year. The Fatwa was issued on February 14, 1989 by the Grand Ayatollah 'Ruhollah Khomeini' (the supreme religious and political leader of Iran during that time) because of the publication of this book which contained certain derogatory and sacrilegious passages about the life of Prophet Muhammad. The book was classified as a blasphemy to Islam and Khomeini issued the fatwa declaring that it was the "moral duty of every God fearing and self-respecting Muslim to kill Rushdie."

'The Satanic Verses' is not just a novel about two men and their transmogrification into the very fantastic and classical versions of the Angel and the Devil; this book interspersed with the magical realism that the master craftsman is so fond of, is both a vehement cry of the migrants against the discrimination and the helpless sense of belonging to a nowhere land (as migrants feel the stark differences between their and the English culture), and an appeal to the thinking mind of the common man to break the age old chains that religion binds one with and realize that nothing and nobody is above reproach and everything can be questioned.

The story basically deals with two Indian Muslims, a superstar Gibreel Farishta, and a voice-over expatriate artist Saladin Chamcha (Spoono) who has a deep love for the English and all things anglicized. The novel begins with the miraculous fall of the two from a hijacked plane, and it is while they are experiencing the law of gravity that they both undergo a kind of mutation. While Saladin Chamcha literally becomes a "Devil" with horns, Gibreel Farishta becomes an "Angel". Anglophile Spoono with a big burly body and tail undergoes humiliation at the hands of the British police and the people from his own community. This degradation reaches its peak when his English wife Pamela (thinking Saladin to be dead in the airplane bomb-blast) fucks his friend Jumpy Joshi. This episode acts as the precursor of their eventual divorce. Gibreel who has come to this foreign land to meet his beloved Alleluia Cone (the "Everest" or "Ice queen" as she has been called in the novel) like his namesake mutates into a haloed angel. He develops some sort of schizophrenia. In the highly disturbed dream sequences which ensue, Gibreel starts thinking of himself as the Archangel Gabriel who revealed to Prophet Muhammad (called as Mahound in the book) the Qur'an.

Besides the stories of these two protagonists, the fabric of the tale is composed of several parallel short-stories narrating the lives of people at the Shandaar Cafe (who support and keep Saladin during his transmutation into the Devil and back to human), and Ayeesha - the woman who commands the people of Titlipur to gather en masse so as to make their pilgrimage to Mecca. Ayeesha (named after the Prophet's beloved wife) leads the people of Titlipur to their eventual demise (because the waters of the Arabian Sea do not part as had been promised by the angel Gibreel).

The Satanic Verses are not fictional lines or ideas propounded by Salman Rushdie but refer to these specific verses in Surah an-Najm (Star) 53:19-22:

"Have ye thought upon Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzzá
and Manāt, the third, the other?
These are the exalted gharāniq, whose intercession is hoped for."

There was a time when Muhammad and his followers went through a rough phase in their lives. They were thoroughly shunned and persecuted by the pagan Meccans. It is suspected that Muhammad succumbed to their pressure during this time and declared the above revelation from angel Gibreel. According to this revelation Muhammad acknowledged the existence of the three Goddesses (Al Lat, Al Uzza, and Manat) along with Allah, and diverted from his monotheistic worship of the Allah. Hearing Muhammad's acknowledgement of their deities, the pagans immediately accepted Muhammad and his followers into their fold.

However, Muhammad realized his folly and reverted to his sole worship of Allah. The so called "Satanic verses" were later removed from the Qur'an and replaced with the following:

Surat an-Najm (Star) 53:19-22 in Qur'an:
"Now tell me about Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat,
The third one, another goddess.
What! For you the males and for him the females!
That indeed is an unfair division."

It is said that Angel Gibreel came to the Prophet that evening and told him:

Hajj (Pilgrimage) 22:52-53 in Qur'an:

"Never did We send a messenger or a prophet before thee, but, when he framed a desire, Satan threw some (vanity) into his desire: but Allah will cancel anything (vain) that Satan throws in, and Allah will confirm (and establish) His Signs: for Allah is full of Knowledge and Wisdom:

That He may make the suggestions thrown in by Satan, but a trial for those in whose hearts is a disease and who are hardened of heart: verily the wrong-doers are in a schism far (from the Truth)."

The controversy about 'The Satanic Verses' issue is this:
If Prophet Muhammad himself was unable to distinguish Satan's voice from God's voice, then could there be more verses in the Qur'an which Muhammad assumed were of "divine "origin but in reality were demonic inspirations or figments of his own imagination.

The book definitely is controversial because it speaks boldly what one might only conjecture but never speak aloud. The Satanic Verses is a tale that charts with brutal honesty the character development of its two protagonists. From the moment they fall from the hijacked aircraft, Rushdie paints in detail the transition of their mind, body, and spirit, highlights their fears and insecurities, and shows how both the characters handle their new lives and situations all the while trying to seek love and acceptance.

Needless to say that it has been written brilliantly, the dialogues and language so par excellence that you feel you're watching a motion picture replete with grand images of the ordinary and the extraordinary. 
The book begins at a good pace, slows down in the middle, but picks up speed and moves fast towards the end. Yes, it might hurt one's sensibilities at times because of the unexpected attack of a person who calls a spade a spade. If you decide to give this book a read, be patient with it. 

Despite the intertwined stories, it must be said that Rushdie tied every loose end with finesse. Savour the stories for they have been written with a realistic approach and show the human fears and frailties, hidden and underhanded motives, the petty jealousies, selfishness, infidelity, discrimination, rebellion, rejection, and the need to seek acceptance, approval, love, and forgiveness with a crystal clarity. 

Do not rush with this novel and to be frank you can't (There are a quarter million words here!). This novel does make for a tedious reading at times, but all in all the book will give you so much to think about. It's a great book but only for the liberal of mind.
The book is not for those who do not think, do not question, and keep themselves much too attached to orthodox religious and communal roots which then sow discord and dissension.

Remember it is "The Satanic Verses" and not "Satanic Verses."

This book is a brilliant piece of literature. 

I give it 9/10

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