I finally finished reading Salman Rushdie’s much controversial work, ‘The Satanic Verses’. I must go on record to say that it is one of the densest texts I have read with such rich imagery, a plethora of references relating the present to the history to mythology, and an abundance of subtext.
Even if you haven’t read the book, I am sure you have heard enough of it, though it was written and published more than 20 years ago. The reason it is banned in many countries, including India, was ofcourse the most compelling motive for me to get my hands on it.
Having read Midnight’s Children, I was prepared for the characteristic Rushdie, complete with magical realism, frame narrative and the allegories. In terms of sheer literary technique, it cannot be doubted that The Satanic Verses proves Rushdie’s virtuosity and catapults him to the highest league of writers that have been and will ever be.
There are umpteen references on the WWW, including Wikipedia, as to what the book is about, what are the blasphemous references, and what has been the take of various peoples and countries over the decades. So, I won’t delve into that.
My personal take is that an organized thwarting of any work is not correct in a free, civilized society. Let people write, paint and say what they what, and you decide whether you want to read, see or hear it. Why should you give that power of choice to state machinery?
In the case of The Satanic Verses, from the very title to some key chunk of the text is quite obviously blasphemous. There is no denying that some conservative groups must have found it genuinely offensive but then there is no claim made that this is a religious text. It should be evaluated for its literary worth. Anyways, each one to his and her own but what I feel is that a lot of people are missing on the other larger and very poignant points that Rushdie makes in his novel. In all this hullaballoo, the main text and motive seem to have been lost on the masses. And that is a real tragedy for The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie so evocatively weaves words together to bring out the serious danger the society faces due to closed and absolutist belief systems (call it, religion, if you may); the identity crisis that is brought not only by physical immigration but an alienation from within even though you may be “close” to your roots; how we conform and compromise as we live through the years, and how the reality of all of it strikes at the time of death.
“…… mingling with the remnants of the plane, equally fragmented, equally absurd, 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.”
One can’t help feel but awe at the way in which Rushdie begins the book, with an existential question, “How does newness come into the world? How is it born?” And then a sort-of-resolution at the closing, “If the old refused to die, the new could not be born”.
The schizophrenic character of the good, the salvaged being of the bad, and the complete subversion of “essentials” provides, throughout the novel, an interesting interchanging play of good and bad, write and wrong, farishta and shaitan – that surely is the overarching binding (and winning) theme.
Finally, the aspect of the novel that reached out to me most forcefully was how Rushdie brings in the universal angst and skepticism of “today”. There is a famous Greek saying, “Character is destiny”. And we all would like to believe that. And it should be true if we were living in utopia. However, we all have learnt directly and indirectly that life isn’t fair and ideal; and Rushdie beautifully sums it up in this paragraph from The Satanic Verses:
“In this century history stopped paying attention to the old psychological orientation of reality. I mean, these days, character isn’t destiny anymore. Economics is destiny. Ideology is destiny. Bombs are destiny. What does a famine, a gas chamber, a grenade care how you lived your life? Crisis comes, death comes, and your pathetic individual self doesn’t have a thing to do with it, only to suffer the effect”.
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