The Depiction of Individual Impact on History in Midnight’s Children
India – a subcontinent defined by its exceptional diversity, caused by its outstanding history. It has always been a country easy to love, but hard to describe. Salman Rushdie is said to be one of the first authors to have truly written from the heart of India’s people. In Midnight’s Children, the first book to win the prize of the “Best of the Bookers” (Weatherby 20), he successfully narrates the biography of Saleem Sinai, who is inextricably linked to his nation, as a commotion of disasters and triumphs that mirrors the course of modern India at its most impossible and glorious. One of the author’s many attractive qualities as a writer is his clever use of humorous images and metaphors to explain and discuss incredibly controversial and painful issues. He describes various debatable topics, stressing the theme of how of much impact one person can have on history. As the protagonist is born on the stroke of midnight at the precise moment of India’s Independence, he insists that his life is irrevocably connected to India’s post-colonialist journey to create its own history. August 15, 1947, the night of India’s Independence, is probably the most important date this century has contributed to the subcontinent. But can a character – fictional or not – be represented by a nation’s history? By making it the heart of the story, the author speaks the voice of India through his novel. In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie arouses the question of the individual’s role in history, simultaneously depicting India’s diversity through the usage of the narrative form of magical realism when portraying historical and political events.
The novel is a unique Anglo-India blend of fiction and imaginative autobiography. Its story is set at the moment that India and Pakistan achieved independence from Great Britain, covering the whole of that vast country and its history according to the author. One of the main reasons why the book was the first winner of the Booker was its usage of magical realism, describing India as a subject and not merely as a background. The fantastic and the magical, the exaggerated and the almost unreal are used to imaginatively portray controversial subjects, especially in societies that have converted from colonies to independence. Therefore, the novel is commonly labeled “magical realism” to “emphasize its juxtaposition of two normally incompatible frameworks” (Kortenaar 17).
Magical realism disrupts the normal schemes of causality and time, the laws of physics, and the conventional relationship between the object and its symbolic meaning. The narrative form as a genre comes from countries where the political scene is judged by the standards of a western democracy, that only a sense of magic can do justice to it (“The Lectern”). Furthermore, the novel can be labeled as an epic book, as the story is centered on heroic characters and the action takes place on a grand scale (“Magical Realism and Post-Colonialist Device”).
The outstanding narrative form is a characterizing device in Midnight’s Children. The author tends to apply a very traditional Indian form of passing on history: the oral narrative. The events in the novel refer to the world outside the text and to a familiar narrative of history relying on conventions of verisimilitude, yet much that occurs is frankly fantastic, involving superpowers, a divinely mandated destiny, a wildly implausible personal connection to the events of history (Weatherby 17). Nevertheless, Rushdie’s dense and delicate style complicates analysis: moments of humor turn serious in an instant. Therefore, he did not want to call his novel a political novel – because “it is capable of multiple interpretations”, as he claims at an interview with the Times (Weatherby 48). Within the larger frame of the novel’s narrative, the author tells many smaller stories, a technique that Rushdie uses time and again in his fiction works. Stories are culturally important, but they are also deployed here for specific purposes, intended to convey particular lessons, and to do so through metaphor, symbol, and image (“Spit and Memory”). This way, Rushdie offers the reader a wide range of possible interpretations to each one of the stories.
The protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is portrayed as having an outstanding magical existence. Many aspects of his life do not make much sense. Some of these, such as the magical powers enjoyed by the children of midnight, can be read as symbols of the inherent promise of the generation born into a free country. In other cases, though, Rushdie gives details that do not easily correspond to any larger message. These details, which are notable but not necessarily meaningful, help to heighten the reader’s sense of the absurdity of Saleem Sinai’s world: “Can you believe (…) that I was a heavy child? Blue Jesus leaked into me; and Mary’s desperation, and Joseph’s revolutionary wildness, and the flightiness of Alice… all these made me, too” (146). These multiple references to the Bible may let the reader assume there is a religious coherence, which the author proves to be a wrong expectation in the following chapters. Midnight’s Children is a novel that is fragmented, making frequent and abrupt transitions of place, time, and character. Far from being a careless mistake of the author, the fragmentation serves vital psychological functions, reflecting the divisive experiences of colonialism and post-colonialism. The extreme fragmentation may cause difficulty for the reader, thrusting him or her into the same feeling state experienced by exiles and the characters Rushdie portrays.
Furthermore, time plays an important role in the autobiography: “Time, in my experience, has been as variable and inconstant as Bombay’s electric power supply” (142). The main characters oral narrative begins 30 years before Independence and symmetrically ends 30 years after. Practically, the novel covers his whole life in order to come to meaning with his identity. The magical realism especially highlights the absurdity of the political scene in post-Independent India (“The Lectern”). However, factual errors and dubious claims are essential aspects of Saleem’s fantastic narrative. Because of the falseness of Saleem’s historical events, the reader may wonder how much he can trust Saleem’s account. “’I told you the truth,’ I say yet again, ‘Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent versions of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.’” (309). For instance, the fact that the narrator is omniscient through his telepathic abilities makes the reader question if the protagonist is inventing things.
Other than that, the memory is a very important characteristic in the novel. Saleem remembers things from before his birth, recalls how his grandparents met and unfolds how even his ancestor enjoyed the privileges of having a gigantic nose. He portrays the road to his birth as if it were completely normal, defending his knowledge by the irrevocable loss of faith his grandfather bequeathed on him. Only later does the reader find out that this is not possible, as Saleem Sinai is not the grandchild of Aadam Aziz (see below). This, once again, calls the reader to doubt the protagonists’ reliability on telling the truth.
Yet, throughout the story, Saleem explains that his memory is intensified by his special ability of smelling, which was caused by an operation of his nose to ease his respiratory system. But at a certain point of his life, Saleem Sinai loses his memory. This is when the famous spittoon appears as an important device of the story. Memory, truth, and storytelling are entwined into the motif of the spittoon. It allows the narrative to circle back on itself without losing its forward momentum. By reintroducing the spittoon in different contexts, Rushdie builds meaning into the image and provides the reader with a reference point and familiar angle of insight into the meaning of his tale. One particular spittoon, an extraordinary silver spittoon inlaid with lapis lazuli, becomes a link to reality for Saleem: “What I held on to in that ghostly time-and-space: a silver spittoon. Which, transformed like myself by Parvati-whispered words, was nevertheless a reminder of the outside . . . clutching finely wrought silver, which glittered even in that nameless dark, I survived. Despite head-to-toe numbness, I was saved, perhaps, by the glints of my precious souvenir.” (456). It is a point of return, a lovely but monotonous reminder of truth in a world that threatens to overwhelm with the sheer volume and variety of its voices and experiences (“Spit and Memory”). By the ending of the novel, Saleem loses his spittoon, as Indian bulldozers sent by Indira Gandhi bury it. This is another irony of his life: The nation that held together his memory ultimately destroyed it.
Moreover, the novel makes a distinction between lies and fictions. “Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems—but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems incredible” (Rushdie 189). Again, in this case magical realism is applied as a device for defamiliarising the familiar (“An Overview”). The birth switch, for example, represents a lie that is only revealed to the reader after the beginning of Part Two. Born on the stroke of midnight of India’s Independence, the family maid Mary Pereira switches nametags of the two children born simultaneously (Shiva and Saleem). This way, Saleem has the fortune of growing up in a rich, Indian family. Actually, he is born to common parents, so poor that the man who is his natural father would have broken the legs of the boy he thought was his son, in order to make him a more effective beggar. For the first ten years of his life, though, neither Saleem nor his family knows of his humble roots, and so he is raised as the son in an educated and wealthy family. In couple with this, the reader is thrown into a state of ignorance: If the baby Saleem is not a Sinai, how can his whole life reflect on the actions of his “grandfather”, Aadam Aziz? How is it possible, that the explanation of a magical existence based on familiar connections is nevertheless so logically entwined in the story? The fiction is not arbitrary but meaningful, and concurrently the meaning is not changed, because after all, the baby switch is discovered (Kortenaar 40). On account of these particularly absurd situations, the reader never knows the deeper truth of what might be happening, and at the same time, so much conjuring going on in the hero’s imagination could bewilder a reader, but as a tour de force his fantasy is irresistible (Weatherby 42). This is exactly what characterized magical realism; the effect of its unpredictability concerning occurring events can be intensified by building up a story on false events – in a sense only to prove the absurdity of the protagonist Saleem’s life.
Because he is torn by conflicting evidence that his is either a special, magical existence or quite an ordinary one, Saleem Sinai portrays the story of his life, trying to find his true identity. “Please believe that I am falling apart (…) this is why I have resolved to confide in paper, before I forget. (We are a nation of forgetters.)“ (176) He sees himself and his family as a microcosm of what is happening to India. His own life seems so bound up with the fate of the country that he has the impression of having no existence as an individual; yet, he is a distinct person. One of the main questions raised in the book is if the main character mirrors India: “I mean myself, in my historical role, of which prime ministers have written (…) ‘It is, in a sense, the mirror of us all’” (112). His birth conditions show a paradox of rich and poor, which is an actual emerging problem in India. Through the midnight’s children Saleem represents the diversity of India. On top of that, his lack of identity portrays the problems of a country that recently gained Independence. But can a whole subcontinent be summarized by one boy, yet a magical existence?
“There is no just explanation for why one person is born into wealth and another doomed to poverty” (Kortenaar 45). Saleem is constantly affected by his birth conditions, and the reader can find a typical western snobbism Saleem portrays throughout the story. Rushdie goes out of his way to show that the opportunities for self-fulfillment that give the citizens a stake in the nation are a question not of merit but of the class one is born into. Because the choice in Midnight’s Children is posed in terms of faith and doubt, it is actually weighed in favor of history and the nation (Kortenaar 45), as to prove that not everything depends on the birth conditions. Rushdie successfully writes about how, despite Saleem’s familiar wealth, he too is touched by fate in a devastating way, when he is sent to war after he loses his whole family.
In addition, his mother Mumtaz (Amina) Sinai has to face various incidents of racial discrimination in the course of her life. This is also a very intense but actual problem in the subcontinent. “But then, one night, [Reverend Mother] entered the dreams of her daughter Mumtaz, the blackie whom she had never been able to love because of her skin of a South Indian fisherwoman” (69). She is the only one out of four children that is black. Because of her skin color, her mother Naseem Aziz is incapable of loving her and thinks that she is damned to living a horrible future: “How awful to be black, cousinji, to wake every morning and see it staring at you, in the mirror to be shown proof of your inferiority! (…) Of course they know, even blackies know white is nicer, don’t you think so?” (89) This represents the racial discrimination even within the borders of a family. Directly, this has no effect on Saleem, yet it is another example of how Saleem’s life can be reflected to India’s quotidian life.
Ironically, Mumtaz is the one to give birth to a midnight’s child. The mothers of this achievement are promised a high reward in form of money and a short period of fame. The child was born at the exact stroke of midnight of the night of India’s Independence, on August 15th 1947, and the family even received a letter of the Prime Minister Nehru, complimenting on the birth of Saleem. From this point on, he claims to be responsible for the course of history: “At the end of 1947, life in Bombay was as teeming, as manifold, as multitudinously shapeless as ever… except that I had arrived; I was already beginning to take my place at the centre of the universe, and by the time I had finished, I would give meaning to it all” (173).
Saleem frequently voices anxiety concerning the “solipsism of arriving at an understanding of the individual’s role in history”, especially when history is unsettlingly permeated by what can only be understood as magic (“The Lectern”). Saleem has placed himself at the centre of his world – his significance confirmed by a prime minister’s letter, a newspaper photo, and the predictions of a holy man. The fact that his birth was actually anticipated by a guru underlines Saleem’s understanding of the importance of his existence:
Newspapers shall praise him, two mothers shall raise him! Bicyclists love him, but crowds will shove him! Washing will hide him- voices will guide him! Friends mutilate him- blood will betray him! Spittoons will brain him- doctors will drain him- jungle will claim him – wizards reclaim him! Soldiers will try him- tyrants will fry him. He will have sons without having sons. He will be old before he is old… And he will die… before he is dead. (96)
Obviously, as the narrative form of magical realism dominates the story, the predictions become real. But at the moment of hearing the prophecies, his mother was afraid to death, which highlights the relevancy of superstition in India; this tradition to let a guru or a shaman predict the future is a practice still commonly applied to solve delicate issues in the Subcontinent.
Another central project of the novel is to answer this question: “How, in what terms, may the fate of a single individual be said to impinge on the fate of a nation?” Salman Rushdie uses magical realism to expose the complex nature of the relationship between the individual and their position in history (“The Lectern”). Saleem’s birth, at the exact moment India gained her Independence, was his first direct connection to his country. “(…) I had been overwhelmed by an agonizing feeling of sympathy for the country which was not only my twin-in-birth, but also joined to me (so to speak) at the hip, so that what happened to either of us happened to us both” (538). Over time, his presence seems to influence important decisions, which makes him believe that he is responsible for the occurring events in his country. From his father’s alcoholism to the petty affairs of the estate, Saleem wants to claim it all as his, no doubt in part to fulfill the enormous weight and prophecy placed on him since birth. With “If I hadn’t wanted to be a hero” (387), Saleem starts an inner monologue rehearsing the curse of his life, claiming how every situation preceded the next. He ends his discourse with the assassination of the Prime Minister: “Nehru’s death; can I avoid the conclusion that that, too, was all my fault?” Saleem constantly lives with an enormous weight of responsibility on his shoulders, which in great part is caused by his enormous self-esteem that makes his believe his fate is directly connected to his nation’s. Nevertheless, the preeminent use of magical realism convinces the reader to think likewise.
During his childhood, Saleem shows enormous pride in thinking that things just happen because of him. It makes him arrogant and presumptuous, believing himself greater than others. Subsequently, this is one of the main factors why the midnight’s children conference came to an end. “Why, alone of all the more-than-five-hundred-million, should I have to bear the burden of history?” (534). When Saleem grows older, he understands the amount of responsibility he has to face and learns how to deal with guilt, although he does have his moment of doubt.
However, his son (who was not really his son) has to face the same type of destiny his father involuntarily lived through. Parvati the Witch, who is married to Saleem at the time Aadam Sinai is to be born, who was conceived with Saleem’s archenemy Shiva, was in labor for twelve days. In these twelve days, “public discontent with the Indira Congress threatened to crush the government like a fly” (582), as she was accused of two courts of campaign malpractice during the election of 1971. Then, “at the precise moment of Emergency he emerged. (…) And owning to the occult tyrannies of that benighted hour, he was mysteriously handcuffed to history, his destinies indissolubly chained to those of his country. “ (586) As the story ends with Saleem still being the center character, the reader never finds out what happens to the mysterious son.
According to V.S. Pritchett, “The book is really about the mystery of being born and the puzzle of who one is” (Weatherby 43). Coupled with the immense responsibility the boy Saleem has to face are his identity issues. Like any other child in puberty, the protagonist is confronted with problems concerning his individuality. Later in the novel, the conflict of the Pakistani and the Indian nationality emphasize this issue. In search for his identity, his narrative discusses aspects such as orality and hybridism in order to “metaphorically” understand his relation to the nation (Kortenaar 41). He exists, as a person and as a narrative voice, within spectra composed of these four poles: Active-literal (how Saleem impacts on history directly), passive-metaphorical (how the growth of the state is symbolizes by the growth of the baby Saleem), passive-literal (how the events of history impact Saleem’s family) and active-metaphorical (how the things that happen to Saleem are shown to be symbolically at one with the events of history). Magic realism lays in the outer two: the subverting of causality with time and object with metaphor (“The Lectern”). In general, the first half of the novel is characterized by the magical literalization of metaphors (active-metaphorical) and the second by the bathetic metaphorization of the literal (passive-metaphorical) (Kortenaar 57).
He realizes that his words have a small amount of meaning, especially when confessing his love to his sister: “But even as he spoke he could hear his words sounding hollow, and realized that although what he was saying was the literal truth, there were other truths which had become more important because they had been sanctified by time” (451). Knowing that what he has to say will not be heard as the truth deeply hurts his self-esteem. He openly asks a question about his existence, and what sense life makes if the truth is said to be a lie. “Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. (…) I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world” (535). Saleem realizes that his existence is determined to be a special one; one that is created only through everyday occurrences.
But Saleem is not the only one to be born of the stroke of midnight of India’s Independence. Another central motif of the novel is that of omniscience which, made literal, becomes a science-fiction clich? of telepathy (Kortenaar 35). Being born on the exact moment India gained her Independence, every midnight’s child was endowed with a special ability, including supernatural forces. “Understand what I am saying: during the first hour of August 15th, 1947 (…) one thousand and one children were born within the frontiers of the infant sovereign state of India. What made the event noteworthy (…) was the nature of these children, endowed with features, talents or faculties which can only be described as miraculous.” (271) He comes to find that he has supernatural powers too, which he uses to communicate with the other children born on the same day he was, finding that they are all gifted, but not as gifted as he is, except for Shiva, the child with whom he was switched at birth. He sees himself in them, especially in Shiva. He understands his powers through their powers, and he lacks the personal attributes, which Shiva, whom he understands to be his opposite, has, particularly aggression (“Spit and Memory”). Saleem briefly characterizes a few during the first chapters, to summarize: Parvati-the-witch, his closest alliance with actual witch powers, Shiva, who was born with two destructive knees that are able to demolish a human head, aside from children with time-transcendent-, flying-, disappearing-, gender-changing and other abilities. Consequently, as he is only ten years old, the exposure of the voices of the midnight’s children threatens to drown out his sense of himself as an individual human (“Spit and Memory”). Therefore, he soon destroys the conference and forbids the children to enter in his thought process.
The magical powers enjoyed by the children of midnight can be read as symbols of the inherent promise of the generation born into a free country. “Midnight’s Children: who may have been the embodiment of the hope of freedom, who may also have been freaks-who-ought-to-be-finished-off” (422). As the novel is characterized by heteroglossia, the presence of many voices and many languages at the same time, make the reader feel as if he was locked into one single head (Kortenaar 46). Also, it suggests that the conference could be a symbol for India’s diversity. The midnight’s children conference is a model for pluralism (“Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence were not all human. Violence corruption poverty (…) I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight were more varied that I had dreamed” (405)) and a testimony to the potential power inherent with coexisting diversity, which is a natural and definite element of Indian culture.
“Shiva and Saleem, victor and victim; understand our rivalry, and you will gain an understanding of the age in which you live” (604). The essential competition of Saleem and Shiva dominates the story. It reflects the ancient, mythological battle between the creative and destructive forces in the world. The reader usually chooses Saleem over Shiva because we cannot but apt for order over chaos (Kortenaar 45). In the story, Saleem is mortally afraid of Shiva and tries to block him out: “Shiva, whom I cold-bloodedly denied his birthright (…) but his existence, somewhere in the world, nagged away the corners of my mind” (415). Eventually, fate clamps down on Saleem and he is forced to face his arch-rival, which brings more infelicity to his life. Consequently, the battle between the two magical existences about fighting over who is in the better position to rule the world continues.
Named after the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva is Saleem’s rival and counterpart. He represents the alternate side of India: poor, Hindu, and as aggressive as Saleem is passive. “There are ironies here, which must not pass unnoticed, for had not Shiva risen as Saleem fell? Who was the slum-dweller now, and who looked down from commanding heights? There is nothing like a war for the re-invention of lives…” (569) At the end of the novel, Shiva is the one who successfully demands the destruction of the midnight’s children. For Saleem, this is inexplicable, as he has always been the good one and this example clearly shows how malice in the world can easily dominate. Another irony of the situation is Aadam Sinai, the son. Parvati-the-witch had an affair with Shiva, trying to make Saleem jealous. Knowing of his impotence (which was invented from Saleem), she hoped for a pregnancy, expecting Shiva to run when he hears of his child. Successfully, she grossed Shiva out of her life and leads Saleem into a marriage with her. Saleem wonders how cynical life can be, allowing him to raise a son that is not his but whose grandparents are simultaneously the people he knew as parents.
Portraying Saleem’s life, Salman Rushdie cleverly incorporates his own vision of India into the story. Also, the novel depicts many similarities to the author’s life. For instance, Rushdie missed being a midnight’s child by two months, as he was born in Bombay in June 1947 (Weatherby 10). He related many events from the novel to his own life. In his infancy, he imagined himself as a “mild mannered Clark Kent”, protecting his secret identity as Superman (“Spit and Memory”). In comparison, Saleem wants to be a great mythical Indian hero that saves his nation. Rushdie also had his own reception from Britain in mind when the main character of Midnight’s Children described himself as “variously called Snotnose, Stain face, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon” (Weatherby 16). The hundreds of pages that slowly accumulated contain thoughts and dreams going back to the earliest childhood. There are satirical reflections he had never confined to anyone. “It is as if the novel containes his whole life” (Weatherby 41). In addition, Rushdie felt his books filled what he called a “great, gaping hole” in Indian literature (Weatherby 93). India, he said, was a colonial corner for English literature and he thought it was time that was stopped. He tried to give his novel voice and fictional flesh to the immigrant culture to which he himself is a member. He was also pleased to learn that readers in Bombay had found his book to be full of revelations about their city (Weatherby 76).
Furthermore, by presenting actual political disputations, Salman Rushdie evokes the conflict of an individual and their personal influence in historical events. To prevent it from being a “kind of oracle book,” he introduced some trivial historical events on the part of his narrator, Saleem, including getting the date of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination wrong (Weatherby 48). But these multiple uses of lies incorporated into the story make the reader doubt factual events. The first time something absurd happens, Saleem claims that even though “reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it less real” (278). This way, the author tricks the reader. It is Rushdie’s message conveyed in the most dramatic terms: “Doubt, it seems to me, is the central condition of a human being in the 20th century” (Weatherby 102). Saleem offers the reader the choice between faith in the nation and doubt.
Many post-colonial works of literature call into question the very nature of history. By juxtaposing local history with world events, or by contrasting two or more versions of the same events, a post-colonial author sometimes presents a story with so many facts that it becomes slightly unclear (“Magical Realism and Self-Conscious Writing”). Therefore, the use of magical realism is crucial to constructing the parallel to the country’s history. “You can even believe that the entire book is a lie and that Saleem may be reinventing history for his own purposes” (Rushdie). The errors in Saleem’s story point out to one of the novel’s essential claims: that truth is not just a matter of verifiable facts.
Namely the Independence of India on August 15th 1947. It brought partition, the splitting up of the subcontinent into two nations, India and Pakistan, and with it misery for both (Galbraith 126). The fact that Saleem Sinai’s life begins just as the era of Britain’s colonial control of India ends links the life of the novel’s protagonist to India’s post-colonial growth. As the novel’s narrator, looking back over the events of his life, Saleem proclaims himself to be dying of the same problem that can be seen of any country that has been thrust abruptly from immaturity to maturity: he is, he says, “falling apart.” At first, newly independent India is strong and thrives, enjoying inherited wealth the way that a child like Saleem, born into a prosperous family, might enjoy a secure sense of privilege.
This partition of the subcontinent did not occur without bitter fighting between Hindus and Muslims. As Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus to India, millions were killed on both sides (Areas consisting of 75% or more Muslims were to become Pakistan and the rest of the territory India (“Background to India”)). The division of the religion is also very accurate in the novel. Saleem, the protagonist, and his family are Muslims. Concerning Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, an important fact is the religion of the murderer. “’Thank God,’ Amina burst out, it’s not a Muslim name’. And Aadam, upon whom the news of Gandhi’s death had placed a new burden of age: ‚This Godse is nothing to be grateful for!’ (…) Why not, after all? By being Godse he has saved our lives!“ (125) On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was shot while he was walking to a platform from which he was to address a prayer meeting. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a Hindu nationalist with links to the extremist Hindu Mahasabha, who held Gandhi responsible for weakening India by insisting upon a payment to Pakistan.
Right after Gandhi’s assassination, many revolutions occurred in India. Saleem describes them through the eyes of his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, as they were taking place in Kashmir. When a revolution occurs, the people’s next and perhaps even more difficult step is to find or create an authority that means loyalty and obedience. Fortunately, after 1947, this worked out well; as Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the overwhelmingly popular congress party, was voted to be India’s first independent Prime Minister in 1947 (Galbraith 124). On the other hand, after his death, the subcontinent had to suffer: “In 1964, my grandfather Naseem Aziz arrived in Pakistan, leaving behind an India in which Nehru’s death had precipitated a bitter power struggle” (454). India is a land of political up’s and down’s: its independence from Great Britain, then Nehru’s policy which was appreciated around the country, and then the manipulating gove
The Potrayal of Saleem as an Allegory in Midnight’s Children
“To understand just one life you have to swallow the world” – Explore the presentation of Saleem as an allegory for India in ‘Midnight’s Children’
The peculiarity of the title ‘Midnight’s Children’ makes it immediately obvious that this novel is out of the ordinary. Perhaps its most extraordinary aspect is the allegory of the character Saleem, of just one human being, for the downfall of postcolonial India. Yet Rushdie does not make it as simple as this; combined with the allegorical nature of Saleem are autobiographical and fantastical aspects. And our narrator’s distinctive wit and morals give him an identity, arguably one that’s too narrow to conceivably represent an entire country, the thing which is a conglomeration of people, politics, geography, religions, languages, and cultures. Simultaneously, obvious aspects such as Saleem sharing his birth with that of the independent Indian state, and ultimately his breakdown, mirror that of his homeland. Such associations are superficial however, because it is the depth and style of Rushdie’s narrative which really creates the parallel between Saleem Sinai and postcolonial India. But in terms of the reader’s understanding of Saleem’s life and therefore his world, a solipsistic critic would claim that a life cannot be proved to exist, let alone understood, certainly not within the parameters of a novel and therefore one cannot swallow the world – it is precisely this which needs to be explored.
Despite Saleem’s clear purpose of reflecting the events in India, some factors perhaps make it impossible to fully comprehend both person and country. There is the unreliability of Saleem’s narrative, in which he draws attention to his flaws calling himself, “an incompetent puppeteer”, and his memory which “selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies…creates its own reality.” In the essay ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ Rushdie says, “The interior space of the imagination is a theatre that can never be closed down.” On one level this serves as an epistemological idea that the reader can neither know nor understand the truth of contemporaneous India, emphasising the omniscience of Saleem as narrator. On quite another level it shows that history is put together, invented, just like a person invented by circumstance, or a character in a novel. This tells us that perhaps there is also more to the India which we have been taught of, that the facts were overwhelmed by lies, propaganda, agendas. In fact, the moment of independence, a historical fact, is called a “mass fantasy”, a “collective fiction” and coincides with the birth of the midnight children who possess magical powers, a juxtaposition of truth with falsehood, imagination and reality.
Rushdie’s narrative mode seeks to convey a coexistence of fantasy and reality. Parvati, who has turned Saleem invisible so he can return to Bombay, fallen in love with him, but endured the impossibility of consummation because her husband “superimposed upon her features the horribly eroded physiognomy of Jamila Singer”, endures a painful labour: “The cervix of Parvati-the-witch, despite contractions as painful as mule-kicks, refused to dilate.” Her role in the novel is magical, yet her troublesome labour coincides temporally with the time between Mrs Gandhi’s guilty verdict and consequent seizure of emergency powers. Likewise, the “grasping, choking” magical power of Shiva’s knees has such significance, as the return of this violent figure into the narrative is at a similar date to that of India’s first nuclear explosion. Of course there are other examples of the overlapping of fiction and fact, but in these, Rusdhie shows how strange and unstable was the political reality of the time. It may also be an ironic suggestion, that despite the novel being written for a Western audience, its magical realism, together with Saleem’s memory confusion, has an alienating effect, perhaps Rusdhie implying that the Western reader is distant and ignorant of India’s past, unable to empathise with the problems of ex-colonial victims but rather feel a sense of shame.
This sense of strangeness and instability of the politics and problems of the time becomes associated with Saleem. It seems he is unable to live a personal, independent life, but only one that is occupied with the country’s and other people’s problems, possibly representative of them. His birth being simultaneous with that of ‘new India’ prompts Mr Nehru to write him a letter saying, “It will be in a sense the mirror of our own.” His downfall is simultaneous with that of India, highlighted by his awareness of his bad memory and importantly, the employment of the triple end-stops “…” and a complex, perplexing syntax, “I don’t want to tell it! – But I swore to tell it all. – No, I renounce, not that, surely some things are better left…? – That won’t wash; what can’t be cured must be endured!” This pattern of cracks and splitting of Saleem’s language and psyche increases, which creates incoherence, symbolic of Saleem’s and therefore India’s own ‘cracking up’. This is significant because it again displays Saleem’s lack of individuality, how he is “handcuffed to history” – the macro-scale of history is constantly referred back to the micro-scale of the individual. Ultimately, it is a statement that not only is it possible, but perhaps necessary to observe one particular life in order to try to understand the whole world.
Despite his existence as an allegorical device and his lack of individuality, Saleem does have his own personality, and is clearly human. His creativity is displayed in his language, ranging from the colloquial slang of “goonda”, “Sahib”, “nakkoo”, to the eloquent, poetic descriptions like “incomprehensibly labyrinthine salt-water channels overtowered by the cathedral-arching trees”. There are page-long sentences, passages riddled with compound words. His impressionability and cultural diversity are illustrated in the neologisms, “twoness”, “overtowered”, “Godknowswhats”. And his childlike humour is shown, with his account of Zafar’s enuresis: “I awoke in the small hours in a large rancid pool of lukewarm liquid and began to yell blue murder,” and his love of “Snakes and Ladders”, symbolic of his rather cheeky fascination of sex. In creating this image of Saleem, Rushdie has employed a plethora of techniques and styles, such as magic realism, Western, Bollywoodian, and modernism. It’s as if old literary techniques are insufficient in describing the newly independent India with its newfangled diversity. It is appropriate that a postcolonial novel in English tries to create a typically Indian voice and that in its very character, and that of Saleem, displays the plurality of voices that make up the country.
Indeed, the idea of plurality is one of the novel’s most important features. The concept that a single person could symbolise a multitudinous, diverse country encapsulates the tension between the one and the many, so relevant to the multilingual, interdenominational, cultural hybrid that was India. “Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me.” This exclamation excellently summarises Saleem’s narrative; in starting his story thirty-two years before his birth, he shows his belief that the past was related to his life in some way. There is a connection between past and present, the individual and the state. As history has shaped what is present, Saleem is shaping the world around him, particularly with his “Midnight Children’s Conference”. Telepathy lets him break barriers of language, barriers which caused categorisation and violence. Rushdie makes his point of view clear giving violent associations to such uniformity, and the peaceful ones to the pluralism of the conference. Saleem’s English blood, poor background, wealthy childhood, different religious influences and “the nose of a grandmother from France” form a cultural composite, that again reflects India’s diversity. A similar illustration is Lifafa Das, who causes Saleem to wonder, “is this an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality?” A postcolonial interpretation is that Das promotes the multiculturalism that was spawned by colonialisation and the effect it had on imagination and art. Furthermore, the Midnight Children’s Conference is a construct for pluralism; the magical powers of the different members serve to empower ‘the many’. This remains an ideal however, as the conference, their magic, and ultimately Saleem, completely disintegrate, a socio-historical parallel for the demise of India.
It is only right that a novel should be as large as it its subject matter, and probably the crucial feature of ‘Midnight’s Children’ is the expansive allegory of Saleem, and the importance of the narrative. An understanding of India is certainly achieved through Saleem’s character and language. The most important themes of ‘unreliability of memory’, and ‘the one and the many’ are paramount in achieving the overall illustration of postcolonial India through our narrator. Interestingly, it is often speculated that the novel is autobiographical. Arguably, this shows Salman Rusdhie as quite vain and dislikeable due to Saleem’s egotism, his self-display of being high-and-mighty. This is not the case; any possible self-portrait is not made explicit at all, but what is very clear is how Rushdie expresses himself through Saleem Sinai, the most important example of which is his promotion of pluralism, and the vitality of cross-cultural fertilisation.
Secret Weapon of Rushdie: Metaphor
As easy as it is to take advantage of simplicity, some authors understand the depths of the complex world enough to transcend boundaries and speak to both the fruitful guiltlessness of youth and the world’s seeds, hardest to swallow. In 1990, renowned British-Indian novel writer and essayist, Salman Rushdie published Haroun and the Sea of Stories, following the controversy of his last novel The Satanic Verses, (which earned Rushdie a fatwa from the spiritual leader of Iran- Ayatollah Khomeini- ordering his execution) The Story involves a boy named Haroun- the son of a famous story teller-who, after his parents split up and his father loses his storytelling skills, escapes to another planet where stories come from. Aided by a water genie named Iff and a bird-machine named Butt the Hoopoe, Haroun finds himself at the center of a war waged by an evil figure called Khattam Shud who pollutes stories and language. Almost every aspect of the story can be read into more deeply than just its literal function within the book. The relationship between Haroun and his father mirrors the way that the fatwa affected Rushdie’s family. The character of Khattam Shud and his demand for silence serve as commentary on the role that power and religion have on freedom of speech. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is an artistic response to the universally relevant topics of free speech and oppression as they affect Rushdie personally and the world as a whole.
A huge theme in Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the influence and power of politicians and how they affect art and free speech. After Rashid loses his skills, he is hired by two politicians to campaign for them. He finds himself unable to speak to the crowds and uninspired by any feelings of positivity which is all the politicians want to hear. This metaphor almost speaks for itself, voicing the concept that many governments claim to allow free speech under the unspoken guideline that art can only be propaganda. Rushdie dared to challenge this and was silenced and oppressed for it. By showing how Rashid is not allowed to voice his sadness, Rushdie expresses his own lack of inspiration and frustration, being silenced by his government. These themes are further expanded upon later in the novel when Butt the Hoopoe questions the restrictions of speech that are placed on the Chupwallas who are at war with the Gups. Butt asks, “What is the point of giving persons freedom of speech if you then say they must not utilize them same? And is not the power of speech the greatest power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full” (Rushdie, 119). Rushdie’s voice comes through here, criticizing the fatwa and all limitations on freedom of speech in the real world. This shows how Rushdie tells a story about a broken family, a sad allegory for Rushdie’s emotional state and the way he had been personally affected by real world issues.
Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses lead to the infamous fatwa, placed by Ayatollah Khomeini, demanding Rushdie be killed. Rushdie writes about this through metaphor in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The character of Khattam Shud is an evil powerful figure who is against all use of expression and language. He has waged war on the Gups who tend the Sea of Stories and foster imagination and creativity. His menacing reputation is given a dark context in the novel. “Khattam Shud is the enemy of all stories, even of language itself. He is the prince of silence and the foe of speech” (Rushdie, 92). By portraying Khattam-Shud as such a profoundly evil character in the novel, Rushdie harshly criticizes oppressive leaders and ‘enemies of speech’. In the end of the novel the Chupwallas are defeated by the Gups because they cannot communicate with each other due to their anti-speech practices. Rushdie narrates, “Many of [the Chupwallas] had to fight their own shadows! And as for the rest, well, their vows of silence and their habits of secrecy had made them vicious and distrustful of one another…The upshot was that the Chupwalas did not stand shoulder to shoulder, but betrayed one another, stabbed on another in the back, mutinied, hid deserted” (Rushdie, 185). The things that made Khattam Shud strong, made the Chupwalas weak, in turn making Khattam Shud weak when it really counted. This scenario can be applied to real world leaders, specifically the Ayatollah. Critic Alison Lurie of The New York Times expands upon Rushdie’s real-life connections to the fictional Khattam-Shud in her review of the novel. “[Rushdie] has survived death threats from his own Khattam-Shud”(Lurie). Lurie directly compares the story to the real world, asserting that Rashid represents Rushdie and Khattam-Shud represents the Ayatollah. She further illustrates the connections, adding, “If there is one encouraging conclusion to be drawn from the recent fate of Salman Rushdie, it is that literature has power- so much power that it is dreaded by dictators” (Lurie). Lurie speaks of Rushdie’s fatwa as a recent event, giving a first hand reaction to history. In the novel, the Gups won the war because the Chupwallas feared speech. This parallel’s Lurie’s claim that literature has won because the Ayatollah fears speech.
This shows how Haroun and the Sea of Stories conveys beliefs and emotions deeper than what is literally written by using metaphors to depict universal real world issues and how they affected Salman Rushdie personally. Rashid and Haroun’s relationship represents that of Rushdie and his son and Khattam Shud and his cult of anti-speech worshipers depict, not only the Ayatollah but all oppressive leaders with excess power and control. In fiction and in reality, freedom of speech and the ability to express are always necessary for a society to function properly and stealing them from a person is like polluting their creative sea.
Lurie, Alison. “Another Dangerous Story From Salman Rushdie.” NYTimes, The New York Times, 11
Nov. 1990, www.nytimes.com/books/99/04/18/specials/rushdie-haroun.html.
Rushdie, Salman. Haroun: and the Sea of Stories. London, Granta Books, 1991.
Indira Ghandi as Potrayed in Midnight’s Children
In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie uses witch imagery to depict Indira Gandhi as the Widow. Critics have discussed the historical context of this decision, with some finding it problematic. However, by interpreting the Widow as an element of political satire, we can see that Rushdie’s gendered portrayal of Indira Gandhi reveals a valid critique of her political leadership without blaming her for all of India’s problems. Additionally, Rushdie’s use of witch references for other female characters indicates a more contemporary view of powerful women in India.
Nicole Weickgenannt accuses Rushdie of misogyny in “The Nation’s Monstrous Women, Widows, and Witches in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.” Criticizing his portrayal of female characters, Weickgenannt considers Indira Gandhi and “her dictatorial Emergency rule” as the “target of [Rushdie’s] misogynist trajectory” (Weickgenannt 77). She takes issue with Rushdie’s accusation that Indira Gandhi destroyed her father’s vision of India “in the form of the midnight’s children conference.” Her argument focuses primarily on the archetypes Rushdie utilizes to characterize Indira Gandhi as a villain in Midnight’s Children. To Weickgenannt, Rushdie “demonizes” Gandhi through the “derogatory connotations of widowhood and witchcraft” (76). Though accurate, Weickgenannt’s criticism of Rushdie ignores the valid arguments raised in Midnight’s Children. Unable to delegitimize Rushdie’s criticism of Indira Gandhi, her argument is so lacking in substance that it inadvertently categorizes the Gandhi’s rule as “dictatorial,” rather than “allegedly dictatorial.”
Even her criticism of the other female characters is flawed. Weickgenannt discusses how Rushdie’s depiction of Indira Gandhi is based on Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, citing an essay where Rushdie refers to the Widow as a “coming together of the Wicked Witches of the East and the West” (79). In this essay, Rushdie refers to the Wicked Witch as a symbol of “powerful womanhood.” Although he considers the Wicked Witch more powerful than Glenda the Good Witch, the Wizard of Oz analogy reconciles his depiction of other female characters as witches. In fact, Rushdie’s characterization of women can be considered feminist. Building on the Wizard of Oz references, Rushdie’s portrayal of women as witches demonstrates the power of women. Like Saleem, Parvati-the-witch is also one of midnight’s children. By referring to Parvati as a witch, Rushdie indicates that “witch” isn’t an inherently negative word. This is no different from The Wizard of Oz, which draws a distinction between good witches and bad witches.
Upon marrying Parvati-the-witch, Saleem demonstrates reverence toward women by stating that “women have made me; and also unmade. From Reverend Mother to the Widow, I have been at the mercy of the so-called (erroneously, my opinion!) gentler sex” (Rushdie 465). With this in mind, Weickgenannt’s accusation of misogyny seems hollow. Yes, the Widow is characterized with gendered stereotypes, but upon further analysis, powerful women are clearly depicted in both positive and negative light. Padma echoes this sentiment by reassuring Saleem that “a little uncertainty is no bad thing,” since “cocksure men do terrible deeds. Women too” (243). Still, other critics interpret the Widow as an indication that women have taken over the state. In Self, Nation, Text in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Neil Ten Kortenaar argues that “the widow, Indira Gandhi, quite literally threatens men with the loss of their manhood…in the form of forced sterilizations” and “castrations performed on all the Midnight’s Children” (Kortenaar 138). This is a somewhat flawed argument, since there are female Midnight’s Children. Either way, Kortenaar argues that these castrations reduce all of the Midnight’s Children, “male and female alike” to women.
Rama Lohani-Chase offers a more objective analysis of Rushdie’s witch trope. In “Political (W)holes: Post-Colonial Identity, Contingency of Meaning, and History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children,” she discusses the historical context of Rushdie’s Indira Gandhi character. She argues that the Widow’s role in the Midnight’s Children Conference is “one of the most important aspects of the book” since it offers “commentary on the rule of Indira Gandhi, who gave up the values of secularism espoused by her father Nehru…to gain Hindu votes” (Chase 42). Giving additional credence to Rushdie’s parody of Indira Gandhi, Chase discusses the events referenced by Rushdie’s allegory. She mentions how Indira Gandhi’s administration “forced sterilization on slum dwellers and conjured a state-of-emergency to consolidate power against increasingly popular communist factions” (43).
Thus, characterizing Indira Gandhi as a witch for the latter political decision can easily be considered misogynistic. But the act of sterilizing slum dwellers is a human rights violation that justifies Rushdie’s parody of Gandhi as a witch who sterilizes the midnight’s children. To criticize Rushdie rather than Gandhi in this scenario demonstrates the facile nature of Weickgenannt’s argument. Moreover, the historical context of Chase’s argument debunks Kortenaar’s psychoanalytic analysis of Indira Gandhi as a threat to Saleem’s manhood.
Despite his scathing critique of Indira Gandhi as the destroyer of hope for a secular and diverse India, Rushdie doesn’t place all of the blame on her. Commenting on the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Saleem notices that it “occurs, in these pages, on the wrong date” (Rushdie 190). Saleem mentions his inability to identify “the actual sequence of events,” arguing that “in [his] India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time.” This observation demonstrates the opinion that Gandhi’s assassination deprived an independent India of proper leadership, shifting some of the blame away from Indira Gandhi and toward Nathuran Godse. The conflict between Muslims and Hindus is exemplified by the revelation that Godse had killed Mahatma Gandhi. When Godse is named as his murderer over the radio, Amina exclaims “thank God…it’s not a Muslim name” (163). Aadam tells her that “Godse is nothing to be grateful for.” Rushdie features a play on words in this passage by mentioning how “Gandhi’s death had placed a new burden of age” on Aadam.
Gandhi’s assassination takes place a few months after India gains independence, implying this “burden of age” was present from the beginning of India’s independence. India needed to find a way to cope with its religious diversity, and without Mahatma Gandhi, this would be difficult. By pandering exclusively to Hindus, Indira Gandhi abandons her father’s secular view of government. This can be interpreted as the catalyst of India’s problems, rather than their cause.
The witch tropes utilized by Salman Rushdie have sexist connotations, but Midnight’s Children is not a misogynistic text. Instead, it clearly indicates Rushdie’s opinion that women can be just as powerful as men, whether they be good or evil. Rushdie doesn’t slander Indira Gandhi for being a threat to manhood; he criticizes her tyrannical policies, religious demagoguery, and human rights violations.
Kortenaar, Neil Ten. Self, Nation, Text in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. McGill-Queen’s, 2004.
Lohani-Chase, Rama. “Political (W)holes: Post-Colonial Identity, Contingency of Meaning and History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.” Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry, vol. 4, no. 10, 2009, pp. 42-43.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Random House, 2006.
Weickgenannt, Nicole. “The Nation’s Monstrous Women: Wives, Widows and Witches in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 43, no. 2, June 2008, pp. 76-79.
The Promise of the Magic Lamp: Submission and Sacrifice in the Satanic Verses
In The Satanic Verses, it seems that no relationship is a relationship between equals. Everyone is paired with an opposite: dominant and submissive, god and worshipper, angel and devil, faithful and adulterous. This inequality creates toxic, even dangerous situations, in which one person sacrifices much for the sake of someone else, or for the sake of religion, with nothing in return. Salman Rushdie plays with notions of faith and faithfulness to critique the concept of sacrifice in both religion and in personal relationships. Through both subverting the idea of blood sacrifice and portraying toxic relationships, Rushdie suggests that religion itself can be a toxic relationship, when a person gives up everything for a promise of a future they have no reason to believe in. This idea is epitomized by “the promise of the magic lamp,” and so I will begin with that, a part of the character Saladin Chamcha’s backstory.
When Saladin was growing up, his father was a formidable presence in his life. He is described as always spying on him or coming up right behind him, even ripping off Saladin’s bedsheet in the middle of the night to “reveal the shameful penis in the clutching, red hand (36).” The father is omniscient, omnipresent, and seemingly omnipotent to young Saladin, much like a god. In fact, he is described as “more godlike to his infant son than any Allah,” and a “profane deity (49).” When Saladin finds a wallet filled with British money, his father, sure enough, is there to snatch it away. To add to the father’s cruel nature, on a bookshelf in his study is a “magic lamp,” just like something out of A Thousand and One Nights. But of course he does not permit his son to rub it in the hope of letting a genie out. He does promise, however, that one day Saladin will come to possess it for himself. This “promise of the magic lamp” convinces the young Saladin that “one day his troubles would end and his innermost desires would be gratified, and all he had to do was wait it out (37).” This presents a structure that one sees time and time again throughout reading the novel: Someone desires something, but is unable to get it. In the meantime they suffer and are punished. They hold onto the hope that in the end they will get what they desire. This pattern, found throughout many different storylines in the novel, is a critique on faith that Rushdie is trying to make.
Saladin is not the only character with faith in something that may or may not cause all his troubles to end. Outside of this father-son relationship, the novel is full of romantic relationships and other interpersonal relationships that follow the same pattern, a pattern that is clearly toxic, even abusive. Religion, too, follows a similar structure in the novel. The “promise of the magic lamp” is depicted as similar to the “promise of the afterlife.” Characters place their faith in something that may or may not come after they die, and this faith becomes detrimental to the life that they have. Rushdie’s critique of blind faith in religion, especially Islamic extremism, is apparent even in the word he chooses to call it. Rather than calling it “Islam” in the Jahilia sections of the book, which feature the life of Mahound, or Muhammad, and his founding of the religion, Rushdie calls it by its literal English translation: Submission. This is a conscious choice on his part, meant to highlight the fact that Islam, one of the world’s dominant religions, literally means submission, a word that suggests its followers must allow themselves to be dominated, to surrender to the will of something or someone else. Of course, to submit to something is not always a bad thing—it encourages humility and can remind someone that they are only human. But taken to an extreme, submission can be deadly. The Supreme Leader of Iran at the time Rushdie wrote this book, Ayatollah Khomeini (coincidentally the same man who issued the fatwa against him), said, “What could be better in the service of Islam and the noble Islamic nation than to drink the beverage of martyrdom and proudly meet God (Hatina 123)?” With powerful religious leaders so accepting of the notion of martyrdom and suicide, it is no wonder that suicide attacks in radical Islam were, and still are, such an issue.
Submission means to give up something to someone else, and when a person has faith in an afterlife guaranteed to them if they become martyrs, then they might give up their lives and/or the lives of others in order to do so. The concept of self-sacrifice for the sake of religious faith is an extreme version of the magic lamp idea, a magic lamp worth dying for. This is seen in The Satanic Verses on a number of occasions. “Martyrdom is a privilege,” says Tavleen, the woman who hijacks the plane and goes on to blow it up midair. “We shall be like stars; like the sun (88).” This is an example of faith turned toxic. Tavleen has no evidence that murder and suicide will bring her to heaven, but she firmly believes in it. What she says at that moment certainly echoes Khomeini’s words above. When she kills the first hostage, she used the word “sacrifice,” and Rushdie emphasizes the use of that particular word (87). To sacrifice is to give something to a god in the hopes of gaining something in return. But it is not exactly an even trade—someone gives a sacrifice and then waits for their reward, hoping it will come. They “wait it out,” like Saladin for the magic lamp. The word calls to mind ancient rituals on the stairs of temples, blood being spilled for the sake of a good harvest. But this example is a thoroughly modern one, meant to show that the concept of blood sacrifice is not obsolete. It is done with a gun to the head rather than a dagger to the heart, but the idea is the same. Later, Tavleen sacrifices herself to her god, taking her fellow hijackers and the passengers on the plane with her.
Rushdie includes another example of a kind of blood sacrifice involving many people in the sections of the novel about Ayesha, whose rhetoric, like that used by Tavleen and Khomeini and found often in religious texts, advocates martyrdom. “Everything will be required of us, and everything will be given to us also (232)” becomes her refrain. She repeats it often until she has an entire village following her on a pilgrimage to the depths of the Arabian Sea. Rushdie complicates the concept of blind faith here—it is not entirely blind. The villagers have some sound reason to put their faith in Ayesha. Hers is a seemingly holy presence: wherever she goes she is followed by a mass of butterflies, the insects so drawn to her that they clothe her naked body. She also correctly diagnoses Mishal Saeed’s breast cancer (240). These are both valid reasons for the villagers to think she is some kind of prophet. However, when she promises that the sea will part for them just as it did for the Israelites fleeing Egypt, the villagers instead are drowned. By providing an example of faith that isn’t totally unwarranted, Rushdie shows that his critique is not faith itself, but the willingness to sacrifice everything for it. The fact that they believe in Ayesha as a prophet is not the issue here; in fact it is shown as a positive thing when Mishal first discovers she has cancer. The issue is the complete submission of self to this faith. As Frans Ilkka Mäyrä writes, “Rushdie’s text … does not address the total opposite of religious faith, it is not indifferent or unsympathetic towards the religious tradition. Instead, it articulates a middle ground between secularism and religiosity by exploring the religious elements with an involved but critical attitude.” When the villagers enter the water, “none of them reappear … not a single gasping head or thrashing arm (517).” To go far enough into the ocean after its unwillingness to part that the people drown, without so much as a struggle, is the most shocking part of the Ayesha story.
It should be noted that Rushdie is not depicting Islam exclusively as a dangerous kind of faith; his critique is of any extreme sacrifice to any extreme religion. As Meir Hatina and Meir Litvak write in their book Martyrdom and Sacrifice in Islam, “The idea and ideal of martyrdom for the sake of one’s beliefs has been viewed in most religions as the epitome of devotion to God (3).” They go on to explain the evolution of the concept of martyrdom in Islam, which has its roots in the other two Abrahamic religions; all three faiths have a history of being taken too far. Rushdie illustrates as well that martyrdom is not exclusive to religious faith. The novel portrays a number of martyrs within their personal relationships. Toxic relationships run rampant throughout The Satanic Verses, featuring inequalities of godlike proportions. Notable examples are the relationships women have with Gibreel. It is not insignificant that Gibreel had no luck whatsoever with women until he started acting in the roles of deities. Until he did, in fact, he “failed to kiss a single woman on the mouth (23).” As soon as he is cast as an elephant-headed god, however, he starts having sex with so many women that he cannot keep track of their names. Plenty of these women even want him to keep the elephant mask on while they make love (25). This is problematic, especially within a patriarchal religious culture, in that it shows women as wanting to give themselves to a godlike figure. Gibreel becomes their religion. Though he is abusive, unfaithful, and uncaring, they love him anyway and remain faithful to him. While Gibreel falls from the airplane, he has a vision of one of his lovers, Rekha, who killed herself because of heartbreak by falling from a skyscraper, calling to mind a fall from God. In the vision, Rekha says: “but afterwards you punished, you used it as your excuse to leave, your cloud to hide behind … now that I am dead I have forgotten how to forgive. I curse you, my Gibreel, may your life be Hell. Hell, because that’s where you sent me (8).” This quotation requires close analysis. First, by describing him as “punishing” and hiding in a cloud, it cements the idea that Gibreel is like a god to her, and she his worshipper. As long as she was alive, her faith was in him. She always had the hope of him returning to her, until the moment when he falls in love with Alleluia Cone: Gibreel’s version of a deity-like lover. It is then that she begins to doubt the power of her love for him, the idea that he will ever return just because she continually gives of herself for him. Doubt, as Rushdie points out, is the opposite of faith (94). Only when she dies and has no hope at all left for a future with him is she able to confront him and stop forgiving him. She is in Hell, not Heaven, which is significant. She chose Hell over life without Gibreel, making an unusual kind of martyr of herself, not out of faith but out of losing faith. However, it is the faith she put in Gibreel in the first place that led to her despair and suicide. “Everybody always forgave you … you got away with murder … God’s gift … (26)” she accuses him.
Gibreel is successful in being a godlike figure to women because he has the attitude that he is God’s gift to the world. This is what makes women give so easily to him. In The Satanic Verses, a person becomes godlike when what someone gives to them becomes a kind of sacrifice—sacrifice being, again, something that is given out of a false hope of getting anything in return.Saladin, the other main character in the novel, also has his share of toxic relationships, though he is often on the worshipping end of them, rather than the godlike one. Faith and faithfulness are inherently intertwined when it comes to his relationships. He is faithful to someone until he loses faith in them. Returning to the relationship with his father, when he goes to London he complies with his father’s request to pay all his bills for him. When he decides to become an actor against his father’s will, however, his father takes away Saladin’s hope of ever getting the magic lamp, saying he will never inherit it “now that you have your own bad djinni (48).” This is the thing that destroys their relationship until his father is on his deathbed. Saladin seems to replace this relationship with another toxic one, a rather unequal one with Pamela Lovelace. Though she does not love him, he pursues her, “need[ing] her so badly, to reassure himself of his own existence (50).” Though he tries his best to have faith in a “happy future” for them—a new promise of a magic lamp—he begins to doubt. This lack of faith leads to infidelity. Immediately afterwards he sleeps with Zeeny. Saladin eventually does inherit the lamp by the end of the novel, and when he rubs it, Zeeny appears; her name does in fact sound like genie, of course. But the lamp has more in store than that. Gibreel arrives at Saladin’s house after going on a killing spree, and when he rubs the lamp he finds inside of it a gun, shoots himself, and “is free (561).” The lamp that Saladin believed in so much ends up causing him trouble in the end, leaving a bloody body and police knocking at the door of his apartment.
Rushdie, through his narrative, combines religious extremism with romantic extremism, and extreme faith in all kinds of relationships. Whether one’s faith is in God, or in another person, Rushdie illustrates the problems that arise when one submits to that faith entirely. A healthy balance in faith is the key that Rushdie seems to suggest, a balance that is nowhere found within the novel. Instead, Rushdie depicts people who give up everything for nothing, a sacrifice that is sure to generate grim situations, from unfaithfulness in marriage to religious suicide attacks.
Beers, William. Women and Sacrifice: Male Narcissism and the Psychology of Religion. Wayne State University Press, 1992. .Hatina, Meir and Meir Litvak. Martyrdom and Sacrifice in Islam: Theological, Political, and Social Contexts. I.B. Tauris, 2017. Mäyrä, Frans Ilkka. “The Satanic Verses and the Demonic Text.” 2005.Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. Henry Holt, 1988.
The Challenges of Multiculturalism in India: Analyzing Sidhwa and Rushdie
Cosmopolitanism is defined in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “the idea that all human beings, regardless of their political affiliation, are (or can and should be) citizens in a single community”. This belief not only applies to political affiliation but also to religious beliefs, which, in the case of the formation of India and Pakistan, proves to be a difficult challenge to overcome. The utopian ideal of cosmopolitanism is addressed in both Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, Cracking India, and Salman Rushdie’s, The Moor’s Last Sigh. Both novels discuss the difficulty with nation building in India and Pakistan after the departure of the English. Cosmopolitanism is addressed by both narrators in similar ways. Through both novels, one can see major challenges in the implementation of this ideology. These challenges include a lack of identity, a holding on to previous loyalties to political and religious parties, and the violence that ensues when unity is severed.
A cosmopolite is a citizen of the world, in the sense that they do not necessarily belong to a certain nation, religion, or political party, but to the human species itself. This leads to an identity problem when self-proclaimed cosmopolitans realize that those who do not believe in cosmopolitanism have outcast them from their previous groups. Certain groups in India, the so-called Macaulay’s Minutemen, neither belonged to India or England; instead they were a class of their own. In Cracking India, Colonel Bharucha upon giving a speech to the Parsee community stated, “We have to be extra wary, or we’ll be neither here nor there” (26). In this quote he is warning the community that because of their service and faithfulness to England, they must be careful to stay neutral because they are minorities. The Parsee’s have survived by staying neutral in time of strife and conflict, which is ever more important at this instance with the English’s possible departure. To throw in their support with the English, they would never be welcomed in India or Pakistan, and to support one of the Hindu or Muslim groups vying for power, they would be outcast by both. Since the Parsees had no official nation of their own, they had to remain neutral and blend in with their surrounding communities, thus making them cosmopolitans in a sense, and also, a group without an identity of their own.
This lack of identity is also expressed in the Moor’s Last Sigh. Moraes’s first love, Uma Sarasvati, could be described as a cosmopolitan. Her past was unknown to the narrator and she belonged to no particular group. She was simply a citizen. This plurality of her background however proved to be her downfall, as Moor describes, “a defeat in the pluralist philosophy on which we had all been raised…it had been the pluralist Uma, with her multiple selves…who turned out to be the bad egg” (272). Despite Aurora’s belief in cosmopolitanism, she is the one who orchestrated the events which led to Uma being found out as a liar, using this ideology to gain a foothold in a wealthy family to bring about its demise. Uma is just one example of how a cosmopolite cannot survive in a community which does not recognize cosmopolitanism, the Moor himself also struggles with his own identity. Much like the Parsees in Cracking India, the Zogoibys could be classified as Macaulay’s Minutemen in the sense that they adopted much of the Western ways and attitudes toward Indian culture. Vasco Miranda explicitly called them such in his drunken outburst at a party. Throughout Moor’s life he has struggled to fit in to the community, not just due to his physical malformation, but his lack of belonging to a certain culture due to his family’s cosmopolitan views. Upon his departure from India he states, “There was nothing holding me to Bombay any more. It was no longer my Bombay, no longer special” (376). This distance described by Moor to his hometown can be viewed as the end of his
cosmopolitan community. Since the battle for power over the city between Muslims and Hindus, and economic power versus political power has shattered his community, he is no longer welcome. Had he attached himself to a religious group or political party, one doubts whether he would leave. One can assume he would feel a sense of belonging to his city and opt to stay and help his affiliates gain control once more despite his family ties, which were frayed from the start.
When unity is severed, a cosmopolitan society reacts with violence. It is impossible to maintain this ideology without some unifying force or common moral understanding. The religious differences of India between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs give way to different moral beliefs and obligations. Only with something tying them together can these differences be overcome. As stated before, the country did not view itself as cosmopolitan, therefore, not everyone shared the belief that they were citizens of the world trying to get along in peace. In Cracking India, the departure of the English ruptured a unity between the people of India. While striving for independence, each religious community shared a common goal and a common enemy: the English. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Parsees would all assimilate in the park together, citizens of a common goal. Once independence was sought after, Hindus and Muslims began vying for power in order to place their own people in position to prosper. The narrator, Lenny, saw this change and states, “I became aware of religious differences. One day everybody is themselves-and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh Christian” (101). No longer were the people that of a common community, but instead members of one religion or another. This inability to separate oneself from their religion is one of the hardest challenges of a cosmopolitan worldview.
It is only those few people, unified by their love of Ayah, which remains for a short period of time, cosmopolitan. Lenny notices this after being dragged away from the Sikh group in the park, “Only the group around Ayah remains unchanged. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsee are, as always, unified around her” (105). Once this unity is severed, even this group of friends turn to violence. The love of Ayah becomes a quest for power and dominion in much the same way as the quest for power in India. Ice-Candy Man assumedly kills Masseur to further his quest for the love of Ayah. Sikhs and Hindus in the group leave to escape the violence in the community that is entrenching itself in their tight-knit group. This group of cosmopolitans cannot withstand the effects of segregation by religion and violence becomes commonplace. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, violence between the people also occur when unity is shattered. To a small extent, this can be seen in the Zogoiby household after the death of Francisco da Gama. This clash was inevitable because “the family was already plunging towards that catastrophic conflict, the so-called ‘battle of the in-laws’” (33). When the patriarch of the family dies, the sons inherit the business and the matriarch’s greed drives the family to divide and turn on one another. The family unity was held together by Francisco and his successful trade business, when he dies, the family’s lust for greed and power turns them on one another and they resort to violence in order to inherit.
While the family feud in the Zogoiby household shows the eruption of violence when unity is severed, it is merely a smaller representation of what happens to Bombay after the death of Mainduck. When the explosion at Mainduck’s house goes off, the whole city of Bombay begins to explode. Hindu against Muslim, Abraham’s group against Mainduck’s group, everyone becomes a victim or perpetrator. When the delicate balance of power between Abraham and Mainduck crumbles, the society around it crumbles. There was a sense of belonging to the people of those groups, a sense of unity. When these opposing fronts are confronted they violently react to their opposition. This division directly challenges cosmopolitanism because these groups are vying for power instead unifying in the face of adversity. Much like the character’s loyalties to their religion in Cracking India, the characters in The Moor’s Last Sigh cling to their loyalties to both religious and political parties. The cosmopolitan ideology faces many challenges in both Cracking India, and The Moor’s Last Sigh. Through reading these two novels, one finds that it is much harder to forfeit one’s previous loyalties to religion, political party, and to family. To be a cosmopolite, one has to belong as a citizen of the world, not just their community. Often times, cosmopolites struggle with identity issues as seen in Moor and Uma. These identity issues and loyalties to past affiliations often result in violence against opposing factions when unity is severed and the balance of power is shifted. Both novels represent these challenges and show the reader that not only can cosmopolitanism not occur during this time period in India/ Pakistan, but that it is a utopian ideal that often ends with much more negative results than positive.
Review of Salman Rushdie’s Book, The Ground beneath Her Feet
Chapter fifteen explores the meaning behind the title of this book, I enjoyed this chapter the most since it really gives you a look at what Rushdie is saying, and what his meaning is. The ground beneath her feet symbolizes so many things; an image of Vina’s last day, what Rai and Ormus worship about Vina, the angry gods, smell of hell, and it is the final good bye from Ormus to Vina. Rushdie uses great imagery in this chapter to really put the picture in your mind of what it looks like. It is also the time in the book where Rushdie starts to wrap things up, and the reader is taken to a different level. Instead of all the constant problems these characters have, Ormus and Rai now have to deal with saying goodbye to the one they both loved, Vina. Each character deals with their problem individually, Rai takes pictures, and Ormus writes her a song, but both convey the same image of the ground beneath her feet.
“In my last photograph of Vina the ground beneath her feet is cracked like crazy paving and there’s liquid everywhere. She’s bending left to compensate. Her arms are spread wide, her hair is flying, the expression on her face is halfway between anger and fear. Behind her the world is out of focus. There is a sense of eruptions all around her lurching body: great releases of water, terror, fire, tequila, dust”(466). Rai’s last picture of Vina is something that he will cherish forever, while she is the one that is in focus, the one that he loves, everything else is just exploding all around her, how Rai really feels inside whenever he sees her. It is not hard to vision this scene in the novel; Rushdie’s words are full of meaning, symbols, and visions. This helps in relating to the characters, being able to imagine their faces, their pain, and their feeling. The same thing happens with Ormus when he writes his finally goodbye to Vina. “All my life, I worshipped her. Her golden voice, her beauty’s beat. How she made us feel, how she made me real, and the ground beneath her feet. And now I can’t be sure of anything, black is white, and cold is heat; for what I worshipped stole my love away, it was the ground beneath her feet. She was my ground, my favorite sound, my country road, my city street, my sky above, my only love, and the ground beneath my feet. Go lightly down your darkened way, go lightly underground, I’ll be down there in another day, I won’t rest until you’re found. Let me love you true, let me rescue you, let me lead you to where two roads meet. O come back above, where there’s only one love, and the ground’s beneath your feet”(475). Similar to Rai, Ormus spills all his feelings right out for the reader to see, while Rai is taking pictures Ormus just tells it, both these characters have experienced Vina in an intimate way and how they express their feelings is on the contrary but yet it is also parallel.
Besides Ormus and Rai the ground beneath her feet was brought out in different situations in this chapter, “earthquakes, I point out, have always made men eager to placate the gods” (457), “Sulfur with its stench of Hell” (465), these two lines are relating the earthquakes to the Gods, and the Devil, taking the meaning to an imaginary image only, somewhere where it can only be understood, since the Gods and the Devil are considered myths. While at the same time you have this already made vision of Vina, Ormus, and Rai, who could be imposed as the Gods and the Devil. It is interesting how Rushdie works with this all throughout the novel. He sets up scenes with the Gods and imposes Vina, Ormus, and Rai into situations that relate his meaning visually.
Beneath her Feet had different associations with the title, mostly it talked about the earthquake that ended Vina’s life, “then the ground simply opens and eats her, like a mouth” (472). The Ground Beneath Her Feet surrounded Vina, and her life, even though there was not much of her thoughts put into the book, the two men that loved her spoke their mind of her almost every page and finally you realize how important the ground beneath her feet is. Vina is a God to these men and they worshipped every step she took, and followed her great distances, even when she was a completely mean to them. After her death when “these fallen boulders are her tombstone, this brokenness her grave”(473), every one shouts her name some place or another besides Rai: Vina, Vina, just to console their hearts and release the pain that is built up inside by her, and by her death. The ground will never be the same with out Vina Apsara, the music is different, lives are different, and the ground is different.
Sympathy for the Devil: The Narrator’s Argument in The Satanic Verses
“Please allow me to introduce myself, / I’m a man of wealth and taste, / I’ve been around for a long, long year / Stolen many man’s soul and faith / … / Pleased to meet you / Hope you guess my name” sings the gravelly voice of Mick Jagger at the beginning of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” After admitting responsibility for the temptation and death of Christ, the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family, and the German Blitzkrieg of World War II, the narrator argues that all humans contain a mixture of good and evil, and that even he, the narrator, should receive some sympathy. He sings, “Just as every cop is a criminal / And all the sinners, Saints / As heads is tails, / Just call me Lucifer…”
Unlike Jagger’s Lucifer, the narrator of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses never explicitly reveals his identity. Most of the novel is narrated in a multiple third-person style, in which the narrator follows various different characters, and has access to all of their thoughts and everything they perceive. However, the narrator periodically inserts himself into the story, in a series of very short passages that are written in the first person. In these passages, the narrator not-so-subtly hints that he is the devil himself, Satan. This changes the tone of the entire novel. The devil is the complete opposite of an objective narrator; traditionally, he cannot be trusted. In the New Testament, he even goes so far as to tempt Jesus, the son of God, to suicide: “Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…’” In the Koran, the devil, when cast down, says, “I will surely make all fair seeming to them on the earth; I will surely beguile them all,” and the Koran says of those who are beguiled, “And verily, Hell is the promise for them one and all.” In these holy texts, the devil is not to be believed; he seeks the downfall of humanity. This reputation casts doubt upon everything that the narrator of The Satanic Verses says. Moreover, it suggests that the narrator of the novel has an agenda in telling this particular story.
Satan, the narrator of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, through the story of the novel, and especially through a comparison of himself with his double, Saladin, is trying to prove to his human readers that he deserves redemption. This is not an easy task – this Satan must overcome the reputation he has gained through centuries of religious texts and literature and even pop songs such as Jagger’s. Satan does this by orchestrating the action of the novel, and, through the figure of Saladin Chamcha, who resembles Satan both in name and, temporarily, in visage, the narrator argues that even those who commit truly evil acts should be able to redeem themselves.
Although the narrator never names himself directly, it is suggested from the very beginning of the book that he is the Devil. The first thing the narrator does to bring himself into the story is to raise the question of his identity. He asks, “Who am I? Who else is there?” This might suggest that the narrator could be God, or Allah, himself. However, this is revealed to be untrue. Only a few pages later, the narrator says, “I know the truth, obviously. I watched the whole thing. As to omnipresence and potence, I’m making no claims at present, but I can manage this much, I hope… Who am I? Let’s put it this way: who has the best tunes?” (10). According to the online notes for the novel, this is “an allusion to a reply of John Wesley when he was reproached for setting his hymns to popular tunes to the effect that the Devil shouldn’t have all the best tunes.” The allusion might work both ways; however, even without the obscure reference, the passage clearly insinuates that the narrator is Satanic – God would certainly be able to make claims to omnipotence.
In the third section of The Satanic Verses it is made even clearer that the narrator is Satan. He says:
“Higher Powers had taken an interest [in Saladin and Gibreel], it should have been obvious to them both, and such Powers (I am, of course, speaking of myself) have a mischievous, almost a wanton attitude to tumbling flies. And another thing, let’s be clear: great falls change people. You think they fell a long way? In the matter of tumbles, I yield pride of place to no personage, whether mortal or im-. From clouds to ashes, down the chimney you might say, from heavenlight to hellfire … under the stress of a long plunge, I was saying, mutations are to be expected, not all of them random. Unnatural selections (133).
The narrator is acknowledging the connection between Gibreel and Saladin’s fall from the exploding Bostan and Satan’s fall from Heaven in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s epic poem begins with Satan in Hell, after “Him the Almighty Power / Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky / With hideous ruin and combustion down / To bottomless perdition…” Satan’s appearance is changed by his fall, although not drastically at first, “he above the rest / In shape and gesture proudly eminent / Stood like a tow’r; his form had yet not lost / All her original brightness.” Satan is indeed a higher power, and the greatest of the fallen archangels; in his rebellion he fell the farthest. By claiming “In the matter of tumbles, I yield pride of place to no personage,” the narrator of Rushdie’s novel is slyly admitting that he is the Devil himself.
The question then arises as to whether, in the world of The Satanic Verses, the devil can also be God. When “God” appears sitting on Gibreel’s bed, Farishta asks, “‘Who are you?’ … ‘Ooparvala,’ the apparition answered. ‘The Fellow Upstairs.’ ‘How do I know you’re not the other One,’ Gibreel asked craftily, ‘Neechayvala, the Guy from Underneath?’” (318). To answer the question, Gibreel’s visitor creates a massive storm and says, “Whether We be multiform, plural, representing the union-by-hybridization of such opposites as Oopar and Neechay, or whether We be pure, stark, extreme, will not be resolved here” (319). This passage suggests that God and Satan may be one and the same. But the apparition does not definitively answer the question of his nature, as Rekha Merchant points out to Gibreel, saying, “I wouldn’t trust that Deity of yours either, if I were you, … he hinted as much himself, fudging the answer to your Oopar-Neechay question like he did” (323). Rekha tries to tell Gibreel that the Devil and God are one being, but she is lying. She says,
This notion of separation of functions, light versus dark, evil versus good, may be straightforward enough in Islam O, children of Adam, let not the Devil seduce you, … but go back a bit and you see that it’s a pretty recent fabrication. Amos, eighth century BC, asks: “shall there be evil in a city and the Lord hath not dine it?” … It isn’t until the Book of Chronicles, merely the fourth century BC, that the word shaitan is used to mean a being, and not only an attribute of God. (323)
Rekha’s point is a strong one, and she isn’t alone in making this point. Early in the 2nd Century CE, a philosopher named Valentius established a school that speculated that “the origin of darkness, and thereby of the dualistic rift of being” was located “within the godhead itself.” However, I would argue that Merchant’s argument, although based in the real doctrine of certain religions, is ultimately false. We already know that Rekha is a demonic spirit; as Gibreel falls from the Bostan at the beginning of the novel, she says to him that she comes from “Hell, because that’s where you sent me” (8). Because she is demonic, nothing she says can be trusted. But the Rekha who makes the point about the separation of functions is not the true Rekha; Gibreel realizes that the “speech was one of which the ‘real’ Rekha would plainly have been incapable” (323). This Rekha, the apparition, is an entity designed to test Gibreel. Shortly after her speech on the nature of good and evil, he realizes she is false, and says, “It’s a trick. There is no God but God. You are neither the Entity nor Its adversary, but only some caterwauling mist. No compromises” (335). Rekha vanishes, defeated along with her lies.
Yet Rekha’s argument still seems to have potency because the narrator himself, when he appeared to Gibreel, claimed to be God. It is eventually revealed that the “Deity” who visited Gibreel on Alleluia’s bed was indeed the narrator of the novel. He admits it, saying:
I’m saying nothing. Don’t ask me to clear things up one way or the other; the time of revelations is long gone. The rules of Creation are pretty clear: you set things up, you make them thus and so, and then you let them roll. Where’s the pleasure if you’re always intervening to give hints, change the rules, fix the fights? Well, I’ve been pretty self-controlled up to this point and I don’t plan to spoil things now. Don’t think I haven’t wanted to butt in; I have, plenty of times. And once, it’s true, I did. I sat on Alleluia Cone’s bed and spoke to the superstar, Gibreel. Ooparvala or Neechayvala, he wanted to know, and I didn’t enlighten him; I certainly don’t intend to blab to this confused Chamcha instead. I’m leaving now. (408-9)
In this passage, the narrator, like Rekha, tries to suggest that he is God as well as Satan, but he never takes credit for creation, and this narrator has a penchant for bragging about all of his deeds, from the metamorphoses of Saladin and Gibreel to the above apparition. When the narrator says he “didn’t enlighten” Gibreel, he means that he lied to him – the apparition said that it was from Heaven, and he was not; he was from Hell.
The narrator is not God, he is Satan, the Devil, Lucifer, by any name God’s adversary. The narrator cannot be God, because in his opening statements, he admits that he is not omnipotent or omnipresent, and presumably not omniscient either. These traits would certainly be present in the one true God. With his “I’m making no claims at present,” the narrator hints that he, Satan, the angel who would be but is not God, still desires these things. In Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, if there is a single God that is opposed to the Devil, he never shows himself. The narrator says, “From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable. Small wonder, then, that women have turned to me” (95).
The narrator could have told the story of Gibreel and Saladin without revealing his identity; he chooses not to. Satan chooses to almost confront his readers with his identity, challenging us to believe him despite his reputation. In the Gospel, Jesus describes the devil, saying, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Milton’s Satan says, “For only in destroying I find ease / To my relentless thoughts…” Rushdie’s Satan does not deny any of these accusations – instead he tries to overcome his past through a simple inductive argument: if a human being, who rejects his father and commits unspeakable acts, can receive forgiveness from those he has harmed, why should the Devil not be given that same redemption? To make this argument, he takes the charismatic and likeable Saladin Chamcha, turns him into a monster, and lets us watch as the world allows Saladin to atone for his misdeeds.
Saladin begins the novel as a likeable and understandable figure. He is first described, when falling from the exploding Bostan, as “buttony, pursed Mr Saladin Chamcha” (4), a description which, although not exactly flattering, is certainly easier to identify with than Gibreel, who is gyrating and singing almost unintelligibly as he falls. The narrator constantly emphasizes Saladin’s humanity in extraordinarily physical terms; when he lands safely on the ground, “Saladin Chamcha coughed, spluttered, opened his eyes, and, as befitted a new-born babe, burst into foolish tears” (10). Saladin’s childhood, although privileged, managed to evoke pity in the reader. When the ten-year old Salahuddin loses the “fabulous hoard” (35) of the found wallet, when he imagines his “dream-city, ellowen deeowen … London” (37), when the thirteen-year-old Chamchawala is molested on the rocks outside of his house, we sympathize and identify with him in an extremely visceral way. Saladin never disgusts us like the womanizing, halitosis-infected Gibreel. Saladin’s loves, revealed to us in the seventh book, allow us to understand the very essence of his being: “Culture, city, wife; and a fourth and final love, of which he had spoken to nobody: the love of a dream… his imagined son” (400). We understand Saladin; we know and see in ourselves his hopes and dreams.
Of course, even before he is transformed into a satanic form, Saladin is not perfect. He is married, and claims to love his wife, but he “went to bed with Zeeny Vakil within forty-eight hours of arriving in Bombay” (51). But perhaps what is most alienating about Saladin is his rejection of his past. The narrator admits that this can be seen as odious, saying, “A man who sets out to make himself up is taking on the Creator’s role, according to one way of seeing things; he’s unnatural, a blasphemer, an abomination of abominations.” But even this is not really despicable, Satan goes on to say immediately, “From another angle, you could see pathos in him, heroism in his struggle, in his willingness to risk: not all mutants survive. Or consider him sociopolitically: most migrants learn” (49). Saladin’s faults, although not insignificant, are understandable; he is not a strange and disgusting Bollywood idol like Gibreel.
Even before he transforms, Saladin shares several traits with Satan. Both Satan and Saladin reject their fathers. Satan, rebelling against his God, created such strife that he was cast out of heaven: “And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” In Milton, the faithful angel Abdiel reminds Satan, “As by his Word the mighty Father made / All things, ev’n thee,” and Satan responds, “Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw / When this creation was? Remember’st thou / Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being? We know no time when we were not as now.” Satan denies that his father is responsible for him, and in doing so, is cast out of heaven.
Saladin’s rejection of his father comes in a different form. At first, Saladin distances himself from his father. He rejects his father’s second wife without meeting her, obtains British citizenship, becomes an actor, directly against his father’s wishes, and eventually stops communicating with his father. But then, when he first returns to India, instead of denying the importance of his father in his life, Saladin blames all of his faults on his father:
Of what did the son accuse the father? Of everything: espionage on child-self, rainbow-pot-stealing, exile. Of turning him into what he might not have become. Of making-a-man of. Of what-will-I-tell-my-friends. Of irreparable sunderings and offensive forgiveness… Above all, of magic-lampism, of being an open-sesamist. Everything had come easy to him, charm, women, wealth, power, position. Rub, poof, genie, wish, at once master, hey presto. He was a father who had promised, and then withheld, a magic lamp. (69).
Saladin, after his attempt to escape his father, now tries to blame his life upon Changez Chamchawala. Changez, years earlier, had loved his son infinitely, in his own way. He had sent his son to England for the best education possible. Before the plane took off, Changez made a superstitious motion that Saladin would later repeat when flying, “trying not to let his son see him doing it, [Changez] crossed two pairs of fingers on each hand, and rotated both his thumbs” (41). I see this as a prayer for safety; Changez seemed afraid of the dangers of flying and wanted to protect himself and his son however he could. Changez cared, above all else, for his son’s safety and growth into a man. Forcing Saladin to pay for the first time in London was intended as a life lesson that would benefit the young man for the rest of his life. But because of Saladin’s continued rebellion, Changez is eventually forced to sever his ties to his son. “Face it, mister:” he says, “I don’t explain you any more” (69). Like God, Changez is forced to cast away his brightest star.
Once he returns to England from India, fallen from his father’s grace, Saladin begins to resemble the Devil physically. He becomes hairy, his feet turn into hooves, he develops horns that grow “both thicker and longer, twirling themselves into fanciful arabesques” (275), he sprouts a thick beard, a tail, and a permanent, giant erection. His breath becomes as foul as Gibreel’s had been. In the final stages of his physical transformation, he grows to massive height, and “smoke began to issue from [his] pores” (294); he breathes fire. However, the real change comes when Saladin acknowledges the evil that exists within him.
In the first half of the book, even when he divorces himself from his father and from his country, even when he is cheating on his wife, Saladin is, in his own way, trying to do the right thing, whether for himself, or for some concept of “the good.” He genuinely believes that England is better than India; this motivates his denial of his earlier self. But when his form has finally changed completely into that of a devil, he also acknowledges that many of his impulses are evil. The narrator says of Saladin, “I am, he accepted, that I am. Submission” (289). Saladin admits that evil does lurk in his heart, and makes the decision to act upon that evil by revenging himself upon Gibreel; the narrator comments, “who should the Devil blame but the Archangel, Gibreel?” (294). This passage is very similar to Satan’s sentiment in Paradise Lost, “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, / Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost; / Evil be thou my good.” Saladin also sounds very much like Shakespeare’s greatest villain, Iago, who says of his commander Othello, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him… / …I am not what I am.” Saladin, like Iago and Satan, has completely fallen from grace, and in this moment is restored to his human form, because he has learned that, even as a man, he contains evil.
Once Saladin has completed his descent by admitting his own evil impulses, he seeks a way to injure Gibreel. Saladin believes that he wants to revenge himself on Gibreel for, “his treason at Rosa Diamond’s house; his silence, nothing more” (427). The narrator, though, claims that Saladin’s true motives go beyond revenge. Satan says:
Let’s rather say an even harder thing: that evil may not be as far beneath our surfaces as we like to say it is. That, in fact, we fall towards it naturally, that is, not against our natures. And that Saladin Chamcha set out to destroy Gibreel Farishta because, finally, it proved so easy to do; the true appeal of evil being the seductive ease with which one may embark upon that road. (427).
At first, Saladin is not sure what exactly he wants to do to Gibreel. At Billy Battuta’s lavish party, he approaches Gibreel, looking for some way to attack him. All Chamcha does, at this point, is to tell Gibreel how Pamela became pregnant, “‘Congratulate her lover,’ Saladin thickly raged. ‘My old friend, Jumpy Joshi. Now there, I admit it, is a man. Women go wild, it seems. God knows why. They want his goddamn babies and they don’t even wait to ask his leave” (429). Saladin unwittingly excites the jealousy of Gibreel; after Saladin points out Jumpy, Gibreel chases down the unfortunate karate instructor and knocks him cold with an oar. The first time Saladin propels another towards an evil act it is unintentional, but it teaches him Gibreel’s weakness, and begins his journey down the path to becoming an Iago. As he “grows closer” to Gibreel, Saladin more thoroughly understands Farishta’s insane jealousy, and how to capitalize upon it. He thinks, “You poor bastard, … you really are going off your wretched head at a rate of knots. Don’t imagine that means I’ll let you off” (436).
Having discovered his enemy’s weakness, Saladin begins to attack Gibreel. He starts small, making an offhand comment about Allie: “She’s certainly a very attractive woman” (438). Gibreel’s response, a glance full of rage, tells Saladin that he has chosen the right Achilles’ Heel to attack. Saladin’s later attempts to incite Gibreel’s jealousy become more and more insidious, cruel, and unforgivable. The narrator even says, “There is the moment before evil; then the moment of; then the time after, when the step has been taken, and each subsequent stride becomes progressively easier” (438-9). Chamcha tells Farishta the story of Strindberg’s wife, who left him because he was too jealous, and then watches as Gibreel verbally abuses his lover. Then, Saladin finally begins to make phone calls to Gibreel and Alleluia. He calls the lovers, using his thousand-and-one voices to raise Gibreel’s jealousy past the boiling point. Saladin becomes a poet, speaking his lines to Gibreel with the voice of a child, creating a new set of Satanic Verses:
I like coffee, I like tea,
I like things you do with me.
Tell her that.
***Rosy apple, lemon tart
Here’s the name of my sweetheart.
***Roses are red, violets are blue,
Sugar never tasted as sweet as you.
Pass it on.
***When she’s down at Waterloo
She don’t wear no yes she do
When she’s up at Leicester Square
She don’t wear no underwear;
Sis! Boom! Bah!
Rah! Rah! Rah!
***Violets are blue, roses are red,
I’ve got her right here in my bed.
Goodbye, sucker. (444-6).
With these verses, Saladin completes his metamorphosis into a demon, although his outward form remains human. He destroys Gibreel’s sanity, causing Farishta to commit an “Unforgivable Act” upon Allie. Gibreel does not smother Allie as Othello killed Desdemona; he is much more cruel, destroying her past in the form of all her miniature Everests, including the priceless one made by her guide. Ironically, the first person Alleluia calls to find sympathy and tell of her break from Gibreel is her false friend and destroyer, Saladin.
Saladin has ruined Gibreel utterly, he has abandoned the good, he has become a new Iago, a new Satan, but very soon thereafter he is forgiven, both by his discarded father and the man he has destroyed. As London burns, Gibreel races through the city with his trumpet Azraeel, breathing fire upon people and buildings. He sees Saladin, whom he has discovered to be the author of his fall from Alleluia’s grace, trapped underneath a fallen beam in the Shaandaar Caf, surrounded by flames. Gibreel could leave the fallen Chamcha to die, but he:
lets fall his trumpet; stoops, frees Saladin from the prison of the fallen beam; and lifts him in his arms… Gibreel Farishta steps quickly forward, bearing Saladin along the path of forgiveness into the hot night air; so that on a night when the city is at war, a night heavy with enmity and rage, there is this small redeeming victory for love. (468).
Chamcha receives news of his father’s impending death, and, instead of ignoring the passing of the father he chose to reject, decides “it was imperative that he reach Bombay before Changez left it for good” (511). Salahuddin discovers that he has “recovered from the past” (515), from his evil. Changez forgives his son; Salahuddin shaves his father’s face. He carries the weak old man to the bathroom; his father says, “you get the lamp, after all” (529). Salahuddin inherits from his father the magic lamp that is grace and salvation, “He took the lamp from its shelf and sat at Changez’s desk. Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he rubbed briskly: once, twice, thrice. The lights all went on at once. Zeenat Vakil entered the room” (533). When Gibreel confronts Salahuddin at the end of the novel, Chamchawala is truly repentant; facing death at the hands of a gun, he thinks, “he was going to die for his verses, but could not find it in himself to call the death-sentence unjust” (546). Gibreel, once an angel, commits suicide, Salahuddin, once the devil Saladin, rediscovers the love of his father, finds new love, and is given a new lease on life. He learns that “in spite of all his wrong-doing, weakness, guilt in spite of his humanity he was getting another chance” (547).
The narrator tells the story of Saladin Chamcha to raise a specific question: does Saladin deserve redemption? There is no way that any reader with a heart can say no. Certainly, Saladin’s evil destroys the greatest love affair in the book, and results in the deaths of Gibreel, Sisodia, and Alleluia. But because he seeks redemption, because he admits his fallibility, we do not begrudge him his salvation. Saladin does not end like Iago, the demi-devil whose last words are “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.”
The narrator is making a subtle argument through the action of the novel: if Saladin deserves a second chance, then perhaps all those who commit evil should be allowed to redeem themselves. The narrator may be Satan, he certainly has fallen from heaven, but he is not the Satan of the Bible, the Koran, or even of Milton. The traditional Satan does not seek redemption, or readmittance into heaven he seeks to mar God’s works on Earth, and, “wills the Bad, and always works the Good” (417). This narrator is not that Satan. He does not seek to destroy God’s creatures, men, simply to change them, to argue through them for his own redemption. His is not deductive; the Devil cannot prove that he deserves to be saved. It is an inductive argument, an argument by examples; if Saladin, as evil as the devil himself, can be saved, why not the Devil himself? Saladin has discovered that “even the most unforgivable crime of being one’s father could be forgiven, after all, in the end” (513). Can Satan forgive his father?
There is a major flaw in the narrator’s argument: Satan is a higher power, a fallen archangel; Saladin is human. Saladin is saved because of and in spite of his humanity, a quality that the narrator tells us repeatedly that he does not possess. This point would seem to suggest that the Devil, once an angel who should have known better than humans not to fall into evil, does not deserve redemption. But even against this point, Satan acquits himself. Throughout his tale, the narrator displays a very human understanding of true emotion whether the love of Alleluia Cone and Gibreel Farishta, Rosa Diamond and Martin de la Cruz, Jumpy Joshi and Pamela Lovelace, or especially, Salahuddin and Changez Chamchawala. This Satan understands the transcendence of climbing Everest and of sex, the overwhelming emotion and charisma of Ayesha, the butterfly girl, the unbreakable bond between father and son. The narrator made me cry with his tale of Changez’s funeral, “The grave. Salahuddin climbs down into it, stands at the head end, the gravedigger at the foot. Changez Chamchawala is lowered down. The weight of my father’s head, lying in my hand. I laid it down; to rest. The world, somebody wrote, is the place we prove real by dying in it” (533). No heartless demon could be capable of such affecting prose.
Satan succeeds. He wins, through Saladin, redemption, or at least understanding, in our eyes. The third set of Satanic Verses revealed by the novel is the narrator’s verses. Paradoxically, these Verses are the novel, all 547 pages. These verses do not destroy, like Saladin’s, they create, and allow us to forgive. And it is heartbreaking that, for the narrator, there is no forgiveness from his father, the ever-silent God, who never speaks once in the novel, never offers his fallen angel-son forgiveness, a magic lamp, or even sympathy.
Brians, Paul. Notes on Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988). Online at http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/anglophone/satanic_verses/
Jagger, Mick and Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones). “Sympathy for the Devil,” Beggar’s Banquet. London/Decca Records: 1968.
Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion. Boston, Bacon Press: 1958.
The Koran. Transl. J. M. Rodwell. London, Guernsey Press Co: 1983.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York, W.W. Norton & Company: 1993.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Ed. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger. New York, Oxford University Press: 1977.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York, Viking: 1988.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. From The Tragedies. Ed. Peter Alexander. New York, The Heritage Press: 1958.
A Comparison of the Women’s Swimming Pool by Hanan Al-shaykh and the Perforated Sheet by Salman Rushdie
In western culture, it is taboo to be covered head to toe, excluding the face, in the middle of the summer heat, but this is a reality that Muslim women are quite familiar with in their everyday lives. The Muslim religion is very strict and governed by the Quran. Many view it as oppressive but those who practice it see it as a religion that frees them from the temptations of the world. The modest dress is to protect the Islamic people who practice it faithfully from adultery and other forms of illegal sexual relations that lead to the breakup of families and corruption of society. “The Perforated Sheet”, written by Salman Rushdie, humorously addresses this very concept of wearing a Hijab in Islamic culture told from a male’s perspective, while “The Women’s Swimming Pool”, written by Hanan Al-Shaykh, brings about a serious point of view on the treatment and practice of veiling women, from the perspective of a Muslim Indian woman.
“The Perforated Sheet” is a short story told from a male’s point of view. The story of the sheet starts when Aadam Aziz, a doctor, breaks his nose praying to Allah. Allah is the name of God in the religion of Islam and requires Muslims to pray five times a day. Also, when Islamic people pray, they sit on their knees on a mat and bow to kiss the ground. While Dr. Aziz is praying, he leans down and hits his abnormally large nose, thus breaking it. After doing this he has “resolved never again to kiss earth for any god or man” in a rage of anger and renounces his religion (Rushdie 1712). This absence of religion creates a lasting “hole” that leaves the good doctor vulnerable and gives him an intense need to fill it. The story continues, and Dr. Aziz starts to treat a young woman named Naseem Ghani. The downside, however, is that he is only allowed to treat her through a sheet, and “in the very cente of the sheet, a hole had been cut, a crude circle about seven inches in diameter” (Rushdie 1721). This sheet was demanded by Naseem’s father Ghani to keep her covered and modest. This sheet symbolizes the Hijab, since this it hides the entire body except for the face, which is roughly seven inches in diameter in women. Naseem honors her father, family, and God by keeping her body covered and following her father’s wishes so that she may marry off to a doctor. Although this seems like a positive thing, this analogy pokes fun at the idea of wearing a Hijab, seeing that it would be silly for a doctor to treat his or her patient through a small hole. The irony of the situation is the fact that Naseem is very religious and is considered by her father as a “good” and “decent” girl while Dr. Aziz is more than likely an atheist (Rushdie 1721). This is a plausible idea since Salam Rushdie is an atheist who was a Muslim and a student of Islam.
This sheet is very symbolic in another way. It is stained with blood which represents the line in the Quran, “Recite, in the name of the Lord thy Creator, who created Man from clots of blood” (Rushdie 1712). Rushdie humiliates Muslims by continuing to poke fun at the Hijab by making it a comedic relief for Rushdie’s audience, as shown when Dr. Aziz comes into Naseem’s room and the sheet is held up by three “lady wrestlers [who]…tightened their musculatures, just in case he intended to try something fancy” which was confusing to Dr. Aziz and made him frantic about how he was going to do his job, but he was reassured by Ghani that this way would keep her “modest”. Over the course of three years, Dr. Aziz treats Naseem through the sheet and “[falls] in love”, yet not with her mind, morals, or values but he cared her for in a different way. He longs for her in parts of the body he has seen and parts he wishes to see. He is enthralled with the mystery that the sheet provides, as many people do with religion. Many people follow a religion because of the mystery it provides. It gives a possible explanation to what happens when we die and give us rules and guidelines on how we should conduct our everyday lives. Dr. Aziz is held captive to the thought of what lies behind the sheet and what could be his own type of heaven. Aadam Aziz journeyed many times to the Ghani’s house to see Naseem and he would carefully and thoroughly examine her body in seven-inch sections, working his way from the bottom to the top of her body, excluding a few sensitive areas. Aziz began “to think of the perforated sheet as something sacred and magical” satiating his thirsty desire to fill in the hole he inflicted on himself by the abandonment of religion (Rushdie 1723). This shows an objectification to Naseem by Dr. Aadam Aziz, since he has fallen in love with her in how she smells and with the softness and beauty of her skin, not for her intelligence or thoughts-which is what makes us human. It was a love for parts of a body and mystery but not to a whole person and not to how Naseem Ghani thinks or acts. This all leads to Rushdie’s last stab at the Hijab which was the exclamation, “what a nose!”, made by Naseem Ghani when she finally is able to see the doctor who has treated her all these years (Rushdie 1723). The doctor was a very ugly man and was not comparable in looks, mind, or power to Naseem since she was a very beautiful, young, and sweet girl.
In contrast to the previous male view on a Hijab, the short story written and told from a female perspective, “The Women’s Swimming Pool” shows the struggles that many Indian Muslim women face. The story begins out being told by a narrator, of age to work in tobacco fields, who is “exasperated” and had to “wear [a] dress with long sleeves, [and a] head covering” in the intense summer heat of Lebanon (Shaykh 1728-30). Her grandmother is her guardian and is very devoted to Islam, yet she is against the trip to the all women’s swimming pool by the sea but goes anyways to keep an eye on her granddaughter. The narrator wants to go so bad and it intensifies as she recites in her head “I can’t wait, I shan’t eat, I shan’t drink, I want to go now, now”(Shaykh 1732). Then the narrator rushes her grandmother to leave so they can go to the woman only pool, located in the city of Zeytouna. This idea of an all-female pool is a culture shock to the grandmother. She views swimming in public with the chance of being seen it too big of risk to take. When being held to Muslim women standards that they are to be covered such that only her face, hands, and feet are revealed, and the clothing must be loose enough so that the shape of her body is not evident, which is not possible to be compliant with if a woman wishes to go swimming. The grandmother insisted she go with the narrator to the all women’s swimming pool instead of her friend Sumayya. Sumayya was the one who told the narrator about this pool and got it in her head that she needed to go visit it by expressing how amazing it was. The grandmother in this situation stands for the strict Muslim rules in this story and does not want to see the narrator go down the wrong path. She wants the narrator to stay faithful to Islam and not alter her future path.
Once they arrive at Zeytouna by a cab driver, the narrator goes on a hunt to find her long-lost swimming pool by walking around the city inquiring about the about its location. Throughout their adventure, the narrator’s grandmother tries to keep up along the way, but ends up tiring herself out. The narrator finally comes across the pool by the sea and confirms that is just for women. The women outside the pool, taking in the one lira it cost to enter, looked at the narrator with “contempt” and she thought it may have been from her accent and in the way she dressed. Either way, she felt a judgment against her and showed the difference in cultures. As the narrator walked back to her grandmother, excited to have located the pool, she came across her kneeling on the pavement in prayer to Allah in the middle of the busy street. This is when the narrator makes a big self-discovery about herself. She notices how the world has grown and how you can have the best of both worlds by being individualistic, keeping her faith in Islam, and still be able to experience life. She sees this in the behavior and reactions people have to the grandmother. She unglorifies her grandmother when she says she “felt sorry for her [and] for the first time her black dress looked shabby to [her]” because she will never understand that it is ok to go outside your comfort zone and still being faithful. The narrator now knows that it is ok to be Muslim and do what you are comfortable with, in this new progressive world. Although the Islamic religion is very demanding with the rules concerning behavior, ideals, dress, and conduct of its people, women who follow this religion feel that the veiling of their body brings honor to their God by keeping his rules and is empowering to them by showing individuality. This is exactly what the narrator learns from the trip to the all women’s swimming pool.
To some people, a Hijab is something to be made fun of or to think of as silly. To others, it is a sign of prevailing faith in the Qur’an and shows power in individuality. From the male perspective as told in “The Perforated Sheet”, covering women seems silly and degrades the values of women by breaking them down into parts and not for the value of the whole woman. Dr. Aziz falls for a younger, beautiful, powerless woman he has only seen in parts. He also falls in love with the mystery and not with Naseem herself. This shows a man’s fetish and desire for a mystery bigger than himself. When compared to the female perspective of wearing a full body covering like in “The Women’s Swimming Pool”, which showed that wearing a Hijab is a sign of a strong Islamic faith and powerful individuality, you can see how vastly different viewpoints on veiling women are in the eyes of different sexes. In this short story, the woman Indian Muslim narrator goes on a journey to discover that being Muslim and having a strong faith does not have to get in the way of enjoying life. The two stories are comparable in aspects such as both have women being veiled and both have the discovery of something big in the end, yet there are key differences between the two. In “The Perforated Sheet”, Rushdie makes a clear analogy throughout the story that a Hijab is nothing more than a sheet with a hole in it and tells the story from the male’s perspective. Compared to “The Women’s Swimming Pool”, which was told from a female point of view, this short story tells a journey of self-discovery and individualism in being a strong Muslim woman and embracing your differences.
The Dangers of Forming Realities: Perspective and “Orientalism” in the Satanic Verses
In Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, ideas about man creating his own reality are explored in ways that intricately involve a series of relationships and themes that, in the end, create a dense meaning behind the idea of reality and how it differs in each character’s life. As defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, reality is “the true situation that exists”. There are problems, however, with this definition. One definition of reality cannot accurately apply to each individual around the world. ‘True situations’ vary from person to person, depending on the background, origin, religion, culture, language, and class status of each person, so who is to say what reality is the true reality? Salman Rushdie, Edward Said and Chinua Achebe are among the multiple writers who have studied conflicting realities, especially between countries, leading into a more complex analysis of themes such as privilege, power, and nation. With a plethora of perspectives comes numerous realities, and with numerous existing realities come conflict, competition, and doubt. Examining all of these themes under the one idea about how each man forms his own reality, the works of these scholars bring out thought-provoking ideas that lead the readers to consciously doubt their own realities and how they were formed.
From the beginning of The Satanic Verses (1988), characters are constantly questioning their identities and their realities. On page 10, the question “Who am I?” is first presented. As the book continues, each character struggles to answer this question and to form their reality in such a way that will bring happiness and success to his/her life. Each character’s attempt to form their reality is based on many factors. First of all, humanity’s reliance on stability leads people to form their realities partly based on what makes them feel the most secure, confident, and in control. The religious aspect of a human’s reality is often extremely crafted in ways that benefit that individual. Often times, people discover feelings of confidence and control within their realities through religious entities. In The Satanic Verses, a religiously focused text, there ironically exists a feeling of an absence of any sort of god. Many characters take determining the path of their lives and their realities upon themselves, using a self-created higher power to justify their actions and decisions. For example, in Part III of the novel, Archangel Gibreel serves not God, but Rosa Diamond. He obeys her requests and bows down to her needs, which are not the expected actions of an archangel. In most stories, you would expect that an angel would be higher in power and status than an old, crazy, ghost-seeing woman, like Rosa Diamond would. However, in this section Rosa completely controls Gibreel, using him as a tool in order to feel comfortable in taking her life and her reality into her own hands. Gibreel is Rosa’s godly source of affirmation and stability. Now confused about the difference between reality and dreams, true love and forced love, and life and death, Gibreel cannot find a route to escape the control of Rosa Diamond. “What the hell am I doing here?”, Gibreel asked himself, “But he stayed, held by unseen chains.” (Rushdie 148). The power in this section lies not in the godly figures, like Archangel Gibreel, but in the common people, like Rosa, because it is people themselves, not their religious gods, who craft their realities. Each man has the power to form ideas and perceptions in creating his individual and unique reality.
Rushdie introduces this relationship between Rosa Diamond and Gibreel as an example of how humans use religious entities as a source of stability and reassurance. The existence of gods and higher powers becomes the foundation of reality for many individuals. People create gods because gods are easy to control and come to know. God is different to every individual because people have the ability to shape their god into whatever they need in order to feel the stability that humans crave in order to be confident and comfortable in their own skin and in their own reality. “A man who invents himself needs someone to believe in him.” (Rushdie 49). In order for humans and for characters like Rosa Diamond to believe that what they want to do is the right thing to do, they must have a higher power that reassures them that they are in the right. Their actions are good, their opinions are reasonable, and the reality that they have shaped for themselves is logical. If an individual succeeds, then they can pat themselves on the back for their grand idea, but if they fail, they have that godly entity to blame for ‘telling’ them to do it. Mortals can never feel stable within their own beliefs, unless there is some sort of supernatural being there to fulfill man’s desire for “nothing left unregulated” (Rushdie 376) and unstable. In Rushdie pointing out such ideas about religious entities, he provokes doubt in the reader’s mind about the validity of religion and about religion as simply a source of comfort in a human’s construction of his own reality. Rushdie discredits religion as simply an instrument of man’s will to power. Religion, however, is not the only factor that affects the molding of an individual’s concept of reality. Another factor that affects one’s perception of reality is what he/she believes constitutes power in an individual.
In The Satanic Verses, the reality that Saladin subscribes to is the one that grants the English people all of the knowledge, power, and privilege over neighboring inferior countries. Because this is his perception of the English, and therefore, the truth by which he has chosen to live, he strives throughout the novel to literally become English in every aspect of his life. He tries to alter the reality that he is Indian by changing his accent, moving to England, and becoming romantically involved with an English woman. Saladin strives to alter his identity by becoming a new individual who satisfies his reality about what is socially accepted as powerful. This is driven by a sort of pressure to become the best person that one is able to become, and the idea that this achievement cannot be met in one’s home country and culture. Happiness comes with success in Saladin’s mind, and in order to have this success, he must recreate himself in a new place, where the people are supposedly born with talent and power. Saladin, therefore, is constantly depicted as putting on masks in order to become someone else, as he struggles to rid away his Indian culture in order to become a classy Englishman. In his mind, if this goal is accomplished, then the reality will be that he, now among the rest of the Englishmen, will suddenly have power and privilege. For Saladin, ‘becoming an Englishman’ requires many steps. In the beginning of the novel, as Saladin was growing up, he began to dream about his hopeful future in England. He wasn’t happy following in the footsteps of his father, and he didn’t feel like he could reach his potential in pursuing his Indian culture.
Later, we see Saladin’s name and accent change, which for him began the process of his acceptance into the English culture. In one scene, Saladin is literally wearing a mask in his new English job, as he works as a voice-over actor, a job in which he hides his Indian appearance, but shows off his new English accent. In Part I, Zeeny tries to convince Saladin that his job as a voice-over actor is degrading, as she tells him that “even now, they only let you on the air after they cover your face with rubber and give you a red wig.” (Rushdie 64). In addition, on pages 50 and 51, Saladin ignores the struggles in his life with Pamela by pretending that their marriage is filled happiness and love. Her love is something that he needs. It makes him feel as if, now that he has an English lover, other Englishmen will accept him as fellow man of their culture. “He needed her so badly, as if to reassure himself of his own existence.” (Rushdie 50). All of these examples depict Saladin’s struggle to form his reality into one of English success and power. It is an idea that clearly creates struggle within a character’s life, including struggles with culture, power, privilege, identity, and race. Regardless of these hardships, characters, such as Saladin, strongly fight these themes in their daily lives in order to create a life for themselves that satisfies their idea that power only exists in certain countries and cultures; in this situation, that powerful country is England. Simply altering one’s identity, however, cannot successfully alter the reality that he/she is truly not the person they are forcing themselves to become. Saladin, for example, may truly believe that he has transformed into a noble and respectable Englishman, but the reality in other people’s minds remains that Saladin is an Indian, no matter where he lives or what his voice sounds like. Conflicting realities suddenly become a source of competition and struggle. Contradictory realities among different individuals often lead to conflict. Since humans have the tendency to form personal realities—based on factors such as religion and the need for power—there is inevitably going to exist numerous realities, and the majority of them will not exercise authority over the few realities that have become strong stereotypes engrained in societies across the world. Not everyone can win. This idea is strongly expressed within Saladin. After making so many efforts to become English, Saladin didn’t realize that even after all of these efforts, he would still be scrutinized and degraded by the English. For example, when encountering the English officers, Saladin tried to claim that he was English—because he truly believed he has transformed into a proper Englishman—by giving the officers a London phone number which would supposedly lead them to Saladin’s “lovely, white, English wife” (Rushdie 145). Still, however, because Saladin looked Indian, the English officers treated him with disrespect and disgust, because the reality to which they had subscribed is one that labels Indians, like Saladin, as repulsive and beastly. People like Saladin exist all over the world—people who are stripped of their potential success simply due to the false realities that surround their culture’s identity. It is a deeply rooted and complex system of beliefs created by the human mind’s natural instinct to judge and to stereotype, but it is something that desperately needs to be untangled and uprooted. Because Saladin’s idea of reality conflicted with and was overcome by that of the English officers, he was abused and degraded.
Situations similar to that of Saladin exist all across the world. Edward Said, author of the text Orientalism (1978), shares parallel ideas with Rushdie about degrading stereotypes and false realities that the majority of the people around the world succumb to. Said invents the terms “Orient” and “Oriental” to describe what he calls “Orientalism”. Said argues that the Orient’s identity is based on a series of refined European misconceptions. Asia and the Middle East are portrayed through the European imagination, and nothing else, whether or not the Europeans’ knowledge is credible and/or even accurate. These frequently inaccurate and bias perceptions bind Orientals into an inescapable, inferior position, in which they are subject to foreign rule, religious oppression, powerless roles, and unjust and ignorantly conceived stereotypes. Whether the Orientals succumb to this superior force is irrelevant, as the English’s self-acclaimed ‘superiority’ and ‘knowledge’ gives them the power to draw the lines and make the decisions in all of the Oriental countries. On page 56 of Orientalism, Asia is represented by ideas formed only by outsiders, and more specifically by Orientalists. Rushdie explored this idea with Saladin and the British officers. Saladin was defined metaphorically as a monstrous goat-like animal by the British officers due to his birthplace and heritage and nothing else. Similarly, Asia “speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination” (Said 56). Whatever the European Orientalists view Asia as is what Asia will be. Supposedly, as a superior nation, Europe has the power to create and enforce these descriptions and stereotypes upon the Asians, no matter how absurd and crude the descriptions may be. Through ideas passed on in literature and through word of mouth, Asia is depicted as unknowledgeable and powerless, while the Europeans are the opposite. This deeply rooted description is hard to escape and therefore, it is almost required that the Asians accept and succumb to it. All of these ‘realities’, however, are invented by simply the Orientalist imaginations, so how can a large portion of the world justify subscribing to such degrading so-called realities?
Said’s ideas about Orientalism directly relate to the theme of forming one’s own reality explored by Rushdie. Orientalist views are all created by nothing more than imagination. “The Orient was a scholar’s word, signifying what modern Europe had recently made of the still peculiar East” (Said 92). This quote describes the essence of Orientilism well. The European Orientalists are a group of people who publish facts that aren’t necessarily even researchable—facts about culture, religion, language—all things that one must experience to truly understand. Therefore, most of the knowledge on which the study of Orientals is based contains information made up by the Orientalist perception and by the reality that the Orientalists have formed about the Orientals. In this quote, it points out that the word “Orient” is even a scholar’s word. The actual noun that describes this group of Asian and Middle-Eastern people was even invented. What does this say about the rest of the information that the Orientalists have come up with? This quote clearly indicates the likelihood of all it being bogus. Nothing is completely accurate, as it is almost all simply a false reality created on a foundation of opinion and perception, including the name ‘Orient’ itself. The Orientalist imagination is limited by what they actually know. This knowledge does not include the knowledge about what Oriental culture is truly like because the Orientalists have never actually experienced Oriental cultures. Therefore, the misleading realities and stereotypes that we subscribe to are all formed by unquestioned, false information. Many realities exist around the world, as each individual creates his/her own reality based on their opinions, perceptions, and experiences. However, only certain realities are viewed as powerful and credible, whether or not they deserve to be. The reality created by Orientalism is an example of an acknowledged and dominant perspective. Dominant realities are those that are circulated the most across the world. To prove this point, Said refers to the authority that humanity gives to books. Humans doubt themselves so much that they do not trust humanity as a source of information. Humans need books or texts to assure them that certain truths are, in fact, true. Texts lay out laws and say how things should be done, and once texts are published, the words cannot be changed. The words are tangible and irrevocable. A person’s opinion, on the other hand, can change, and their spoken words are not tangible. Humans, therefore, have a “tendency to fall back on a text when uncertainties of travel in strange parts seem to threaten one’s equanimity” (Said 93). This fact works in the favor of the Western nations because with English as the dominant language in many areas around the world, it the English books and films that are the most frequently circulated and recognized worldwide. If humans have the tendency to trust the information in books simply because words are comforting in that they are tangible and if the majority of the books are English, than the majority of the words that individuals across the world will be trusting will be words of the Western English nations.
African writer Chinua Achebe has similar ideas about stereotypes created by imperialist Britain. In The African Writer and the English Language (1975), he investigates ideas explored by both Said and Rushdie—ideas about Western perspectives as influences on others’ views of citizens of potentially less powerful nations. “These nations were created in the first place by the intervention of the British, which I hasten to add, is not saying that the peoples compromising these nations were invented by the British” (Achebe). Achebe makes a great point that the British did, in fact, construct Orient countries, but that they didn’t literally invent the people of these countries. Using Said’s terms, the actual Orients—or in this case, Nigerians—constructed themselves through the natural process by which culture is born. Because the British didn’t ‘invent’ the Nigerians, and because the British don’t share an identical or even similar culture with the Nigerians, the British have no right to claim to understand the culture. This is where Achebe and Said’s points come together. The British may have instigated the birth of the Nigerian culture and of their many colonized nations. However, the British did not experience this birth of culture firsthand. Therefore, to categorize and to scrutinize these nations by attempting to define their culture is wrong. And to subscribe to the false reality that we, as Westerners, are better than or superior to all of them, as Orients, is wrong. It is important to understand Achebe’s statement about the role of the British in the development of the Orient countries. And it is important to accept their role only as it exactly is. When Westerners define these Eastern cultures in books and in films as ‘in need of guidance’, ‘inferior’, or as ‘dependent on our strong and incredible nation” is when the line is crossed. No culture can be defined by any simple explanation. No country or individual should be scrutinized because of being from his or her country. And no country should try to analyze, categorize, or dissect the culture of any country besides its own. It doesn’t matter that the Westerners influenced the development of the Orient countries. Having a role in the development of these countries or not, the Westerners will never relate to or begin to understand all of the wonders, advances, and even the hardships and failures of other countries. It is impossible to write accurately about a culture that you are not a part of, yet Westerns continue to do exactly that, and with success, as their audiences subscribe to the inaccurate information simply because the words are ‘tangible’. It is reasons such as these why certain people, as exemplified by Rushdie’s character Saladin, are treated unjustly due to nothing except the realities associated with their skin color and nationality.
Together, the ideas of Rushdie, Said, and Achebe come together to focus the attention of our world’s readers not on the inaccurate realities published in many Western books, but on the idea that doubt is important, especially when reading about cultures beyond that of one’s own country. Because every individual’s reality is formed—by their religions, by their personal goals, by their perception of power, and by many other important factors—there is no single reality that can be described as entirely factual and applicable to every individual around the globe. The only reality that one can fully understand is their own. Because it is impossible to experience the thoughts and witness the events of any other human besides yourself, it should not be reasonable or just for anyone to act as if he/she does, in fact, understand the reality of another being. The ideas of Rushdie, Said, and Achebe are important to consider when judging another culture or when considering whether a single, universal reality or truth exists. These writers’ ideas are relevant and worth considering because the false realities, which they refer to in their texts, exist all over society. Stereotypes exist in the news, in Hollywood movies, in novels—they exist everywhere. Because stereotypes are so prevalent, it is inevitable that each individual subscribes to at least some of them. Often times, placing stereotypes upon other nations is overlooked. They are embedded deeply into our culture, so much that referring to and believing in certain stereotypes becomes natural.
Saladin in The Satanic Verses, the so-calledd Orientals in Orientalism, and the Nigerians in Achebe’s The African Writer and the English Language, provide our society with examples of nations and individuals scrutinized and degraded based on the stereotypes associated with their nationalities. As these writers’ works have circulated and joined the millions of texts recognized worldwide, their readers hopefully attempted to open their minds to these stereotypes in order to acknowledge their absurdity and falsity. Because creating false realities is among the many natural human instincts, it is, of course, unrealistic to hope that one day, these stereotypes will not exist at all, but it is certainly reasonable to attempt to introduce awareness of such tendencies to the creators of these false realties themselves.
Achebe, Chinua. “The African Writer and the English Language.” Morning Yet on Creation Day. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1975.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York, NY: Viking, 1989. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.