Analysis of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses | Ambivalence of Migration
The Satanic Verses Summary | Analysis of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses
Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses portrays migrancy in general and South Asian immigration to Britain in particular. It focuses on the ambivalence of migrancy and hybridity and it presents the dualism of cultures and South Asian Community’s need for political engagement against forces of the position of solidarity with the mainstream in Britain to the South Asian community. The novel presents stress and transformations from the point of view of migrant are people from the Indian subcontinent to Britain. It brings to the fore, the class tensions that pre-existed in the Asian community in Britain and serves that to highlight different aspects of immigrant life , migrancy and differences that have long been ignored.
Ambivalence of Migration in The Satanic Verses
Rushdie situates himself in a position of perpetual in-betweenness, a migrant caught between three countries, unable to exist comfortably in any one. The trajectory of his work (including his essays and journalism) shows an increasing concern with metafictional issues of representing peripheral histories and experience through a combination of modernist metropolitan and Third World narrative styles adequate to the postcolonial experience. More problematically, his work is often concerned with locating himself in relation to the diaspora culture in Britain, which is reflected most clearly in the pattern of his novels that mirror his own migration and settlement – India, Pakistan, and Britain.
Even though Rushdie’s characters fall together, their difference is clearly established during the fall and also, by the different paths they choose, they are unmistakably defined. One of these paths of difference is the figure of the enigmatic Rosa Diamond, the eighty-year old woman who finds Gibreel and protects him while Saladin is taken away by the police. This old lady lives on her distant memories, visited every night by the ghost of the Battle of Hastings. The unnamed narrator mentions that she lived in Argentina with her husband, Henry Diamond, until they had to flee the country to avoid scandal. Rosa could very well be a crossroads, the encounter between past and present; between different cultures but for Gibreel she represents the mystique, the seduction of the foreigner by the imperial center. Rosa’s stories represent the fact that life-saving stories are not the exclusive property of the periphery but that the center can also use them to maintain their hegemony in place. Rosa uproots Gibreel, leading him astray from his path/story and pasting him in her own story and disrupting his identity. By taking him out of context, Rosa disseminates his social being while creating a condition of acceptance towards the new self and rejection towards his own. Gibreel does not contaminate Rosa’s stories with his foreignness because her stories, set in an exotic locale, have established the role that he is set out to play. Only when Rosa dies he is free to recover his path. As a victim of Orientalism there are only limited roles for him to play and the narrator comments this situation as follows: … in an ancient land like England there was no room for new stories …,” suggesting a closed canon. His personality is struggling between what he is (immigrant) and what he represents (Hindu Deity) and the exotic roles Rosa had for him. Any attempt of Gibreel to reconstruct his self is now contaminated by his encounter with the Canon:
‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Take-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won’t cry? How to win the darling’s love, mister, without a sigh? Baba, if you want to get born again …’ Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky. (3)
After his exhausting encounter with history and tradition Gibreel suffers a series of metamorphoses that reflect his inner turmoil and conflicts. Back in his homeland, Gibreel was a famous actor. He starred in several “theologicals.” A theological is a film based on the life of Hindu deities. When the identity crisis starts, the diving line between his own self and the characters he plays become blurred.
As being about the Indian Diaspora in the metropolis, Rushdie literarily and politically, in the immigrant communities to whose experiences he gives fictional flesh. This situation, of necessity, involves an unfair absence of attention to his cultural and literary connections to the subcontinent. A debate about different versions of cultural authority in a Britain has to deal with a diasporic population’s political coming of age.
The Satanic Verses, the concern with British racism toward its ethnic minorities takes over and overwhelms the narrative that in a sense is its progeny, the story of Mahound/Gibreel; Ellowen Deeowen casts its shadow on both Jahilia and Peristan:
Chamcha’s metamorphosis and the echo of his name immediately bring to mind Kafka’s Samsa. According to Paul Brains, the name Saladdin Chamcha is an oxymoron because Saladin is a traditional heroic name and to create contrast this sublime name is paired with spoonseller (8).
Chamcha in a way reflects the position of a foreigner when he is initially confronted by the ruling class. “… he crouched down in his little world, trying to make himself smaller than smaller, in the hope that he might eventually disappear altogether and so regain his freedom”. In the eyes of the immigration officer, this transformation is not fantastic. This is a simple case of a foreigner showing his true self.
Even though Chamcha has British nationality, he is considered a foreigner by the officers: “You’re all the same. Can’t expect animals to observe civilized standards”(159). Interestingly, at the beginning of the novel, Chamcha detests his roots. He is a privileged immigrant with a recognized position and prestige; he rejects his roots to the extent of shortening his name from Chamchawalla to a more acceptable (or western) Chamcha. Or as Michael Gorra states: “An Indian-born professional mimic, a man of a thousand voices, who in private life has remade himself as an Englishman-accent, bowler hat, member of the Garrick Club” (87). This is why, when he is kept captive, he claims that he is not a “fishinboat sneaker in.” Later on, even when he is enjoying the hospitality of the Shaandaar café he angrily retorts, “I’m not your kind, you’re not my people.I’ve spent half my life trying to get away from people like you” (290). Chamcha is not pleased when he is linked to the Indian community living in England but when pressed by the police to reveal his true name he is confronted with a terrible reality that destroys his idea of his English self: “What kind of name is that for an Englishman” (163). In this particular case a wrong name creates a series of events that change forever the life of the characters.
Another character-defining instance in the novel occurs in the hospital scene. This scene is of a great importance since it shows how an imperial center treats postcolonial subjects. Chamcha is sleeping in the hospital when he is suddenly awakened by someone. This mysterious being is a manticore: half man, half tiger. During his conversation with the manticore, Saladin discovers that the hospital is full of fantastic hybrid beasts, such as chimeras and satyrs. According to the manticore these mutations are the responsibility of “someone.” Certainly they are the result of contact between a foreigner and the powerful renaming machine of the Empire. Chamcha is interested in knowing about the process employed in the transformations. The manticore is quick in providing an answer: “They describe us … they have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct” (168). This statement captures the power of stereotype over a subjugated mind.
The one that controls the describing discourse and language controls the subject. Later on, when Chamcha escapes from the hospital authorities, he receives shelter from Hindu restaurant, The Shaandaar. It is fascinating to see how Chamcha, a proud Englishman in his own eyes, has to escape from his fellow citizens and can ony find refuge with the people he rejects. Even there his metamorphosis continues. He keeps on growing, so much that his figure transcends the world of physical reality and starts invading the world of dreams.
This is essentially how “newness enters the world.” The hybrid, consciously or unconsciously, starts absorbing characteristics from the surrounding cultures, growing to such extent that no single culture can contain the cultural cross-references that inhabit this new being. This rupture not only habilitates the hybrid but also enables him/her to inhabit the time/space zone that is created, akin to what Homi Bhabha called the “third space” (36). Rushdie foregrounds the schism within the Asian community in Britain between the upper-class, educated expatriates or emigrants and the petty bourgeois or working-class immigrants who arrived after decolonization in response to opportunities in the British labor market. For the most part these factions existed separately from each other but in the wake of the controversy over The Satanic Verses, they stood clearly opposed. The ostensible cause of this opposition was religion. The weary binaries of secularism vs. religion, progress vs. traditionalism, and enlightened elite vs. uneducated masses were dutifully invoked, and underlying them all were the stereotypes of West vs. East, the determinedly Orientalist character of the diatribes:
He burst into sudden and unexpected tears. ‘There, there, ‘said Saladin Chamcha, automatically. ‘Everthing will be all right, I’m sure of it. Have courage.’ The creature composed itself. ‘The poit is,’ it said fiercely, ‘some of us aren’t going to stand for it. We’re going to bust our of here before they turn us into anything worse. Every night I feel a different piece of me beginning to change. I’ve started, for example, to break wind continually … I beg your pardon … you see what I mean? By the way, try these,’ he slipped Chamcha a packet of extra-strength peppermints. ‘They’ll help your breath. I’ve brided one of the guards to bring in a supply. (168)
One of the most challenging moments for the establishment of Chamcha’s new identity occurs when he finds out the success of Gibreel in England. A powerful hatred consumes him. He finds an outlet for releasing his anger in the destruction of the wax figures in the Hot Wax Club; a local discotheque. These effigies of English political leaders are burnt anyway by the Indian Pinkwalla during disco nights.
Similarly, Sufyan’s political activities, which he keeps secret from his wife (ironically, she thinks that he is visiting prostitutes while he is out at meeting), lead to their sudden and rapid more to England, where all of his school-teacher’s knowledge counts for nothing, while her cooking in the meantime becomes their saviour. In the role reversal that ensues, however, Hind discovers her position of power to be empty, where ‘[e] verything she valued had been upset by change; had in this process of translation, been lost’ (249). What is it that she values? The list includes: language, familiar surroundings, customs, social position, and security. These things have either been lost entirely, or radically transformed; the process in the novel which describes this transformation is ‘translation’.
As Frantz Fanon asserted in The Wretched of the Earth, violence is sometimes an effective method used to release the frustrations of the colonized mind but the type of violence presented in Rushdie’s text does not exactly fit the form of Chamcha’s hatred is repressed and only released against wax figures, not only against the political effigies mentioned before but surprisingly against the figures of important immigrant leaders. The result of this melting is one solid mass, formed out of the remains of the different set of bodies; once again, this incident is an apt metaphor of the hybrid condition. After the Hot Wax episode, the bestial transformation stops and Saladin returns to his human form. But a different metamorphosis now ensues. He starts reevaluating his cultural contexts. He relinquishes his rejection of his cultural background and his love of the imperial center. He reaches ground zero. Or as the narrator explains: “he would have to construct everything from scratch, would have to invent the ground beneath his feet, before he could take a step”(132). This is the station of the hybrid. This new cultural begining builds an innovative time/space continuum because after the transformation he or she can no longer inhabit a traditional discourse. He or she sets out to rebuild his self and along the way, write a new history quite removed from the previous models of history. Now that he knows who he is, Chamcha can make peace with his past and face his future.
In order to lay to rest the ghost of his previous history, Chamcha must make peace with his dying father. He decides to return “home” although the whole way he questions where home is supposed to be. “What strange meanings words were taking on? Only a few days ago that back home had rung false”( 514). He also finds the sounds that his words were supposed to have and that he meticulously hid away while living in England. Among the words that savors again the sound of his original unabridged name leaves him a confusing and yet satisfying sensation: “began to find the sound of his full, un-englished name pleasing.” Later on he meets an old friend, Zeeny, who delivers the coup de grace to his reconstructing bid:
If you are serious about shaking your foreignness … then don’t fall into some kind of rootless limbo instead … you should really try and make an adult acquaintance with this place, this time … try and embrace this city … the actual existing place. Make its faults your own. Become its creature. (541)
This hybrid stae is not a “rootless limbo” and the hybrid dows not lack roots. It is the other way around. The hybrid selects his roots. In order to do so, he or she must make peace with his origins and select what he or she wants to use as materials for his/her new being. Chamchas’s final turn around is the exact opposite of Gibreel who, even when he flirted with his angelic powers, could not find enough elements to construct a solid suicide-proof personality.
Two men fall from the London sky. One of them flirts with history and confused his path along the endless forest of symbols, acting out in order to achieve acceptance. The other one rejects his roots but through a series of painful experiences is able to come through as a different version of his old self:
A scream, that it scream that had fluttered in his guts when Gibreel swam across the sky, burst from Chamcha’s lips; a shaft of sunlight pierced his open mouth and set it free. But they have fallen through the transformations of the clouds, Chamcha and Farishta, and there was a fluidity, an indistinctness, at the edges of them, and as the sunlight hit Chamcha it released more than noise. (8)
Both represent stations of the hybrid, because both choose similar ways to try to adapt but they are caught in the machine and in the end only one of them is able to see the light.
Chamchawal’s last thoughts define the closure of The Satanic Verses: “if the old refuse to die, the new could not be born” (547). This statement right at the end of the novel connects with the first “To be born again … first you have to die” (3). Saladin died and was reborn is Salahuddin, hybrid citizen, craftsman of the space/time zone, the interstice of the hybrids.
The Satanic Verses contains a labyrinthine world of multiple locations and characters, in which radically different modes of writing – political satire and religious fable; realism and fantasy- are combined. One way of grouping the many characters is around the central figure of the prophet, in tension with three clusters of paired characters: Chamcha and Salman the Persian; Gibreel and Baal:
Three immigration officers and five policemen feel silent as the foul-smelling creature sat up and hollered at them. ‘What’s he on about?’ asked the youngest policeman – one of the Tottenham supporters, as it happened – doubtfully. ‘Shall I fetch him another whack?.’ ‘My name is Salahuddin Chamchawala, professional name Saladin Chamcha,’ the demi- goat gibbered. ‘I am a member of Actors’ Equity, the Automobole Association and the Garrick Club. My car regestration number is such and such. Ask the computer. Please.’ ‘Who’re you trying to kid?’ inquired one of the Liverpool fans, but he, too, sounded uncertain. ‘Look at yourself. You’re a fucking Packy billy. Sally-who? – what kind of name is that for an Englishman?’(163)
The characters are counter-selves if Rushide himself, and all four are partially or entirely flawed mortally, negative figures who implicitly seem to lampoon and ridicule the author for his unprepossessing appearance, his cowardice in the face of adversity, his betrayal or jealousy of woman, his skepticism, his arrogance, and his vindictiveness.
In The Satanic Verses, Sufyan and Hind’s daughters embody the ongoing in-between hybrid production and simultaneous disruption of identity. When the house is visited by Saladin Chamcha, one of the novel’s main protagonists, they are described as two teenage girls, one spike-haired, the other pony-tailed, and both relishing the opportunity to demonstrate their skills … in the martial arts … Sufyan’s daughters, Mishal (seventeen) and fifteen-year-old Anahita, leapt from their bedroom in fighting gear, Bruce Lee panjamas worn loosely over T-shirts bearing the image of the new Modonna; – caught sight of unhappy Saladin; – and shook their heads in wide-eyed delight (244-5). The girls are literally ‘dressed to kill’ with the symbolic wearing of ‘Bruce Lee’ martial arts outfits over the iconic image o pop-star Madonna. Subverting their mother’s preferred notion of them as subservient girls-in-waiting-for- (an arranged)-marriage, they instead represent a newfound autonomy and the breakdown of traditional gender values. Instead of’mimicry’ of the authority figures in her life, the younger sister ‘mimics’ (initially) the elder’s rejection of expected decorum. As Chamcha looks disapprovingly at the icons on the girls’ clothes, Mishal reads his mind (‘Scrap head Youths’ Criminal Idon’s’) and then, laughing at his disapproval, translated it into yellow press headlines, while arranging her long, and, Chamcha realized, astonishing body into similarly exaggerated cheesecake postures … Her younger sister, not to be outdone, attempted to copy Mishal’s pose, with less effective results’ (263). But as much as they reject their parents’ homeland, they still do not appear to have effaced their newly produced immigrant identities; the girls’ rejection of an immigrant immigrant identity divetails with Chamcha’s own rejection of his ethnicity (he has had an extreme Anglophile upbringing), although he fails to realize this: ‘… he tried to explain that he thought of himself, nowadays, as, well, British’ (258-9). The girls react with a parody of their parents: ‘”What about us?” Anahita wanted to know. “What do you think we are? – And Mishal confided: “Bangladesh in’t nothing to me. Just some place Dad and Mum keep banging on about”‘ (259). Anahita supplements Mishal’s statement with her name for Bangladesh: ‘Bungleditch’, but Chamcha, in another moment lacking self-awareneess, thinks; ‘But they weren’t British, he wanted to tell them: not really, not in any way he could recognize’ (259).
Water began to drip steadily through the dormer window, outside, in the treacherous city; a thaw had come, giving the streets the unreliable consistency of wet cardboard. Slow masses of whiteness slid from sloping, grey slate roofs. The foot prints of delivery vans corrugated the slush. First light; and the dawn chorus began, chattering of red-drills, chirrup of burglar alarms, trumpeting of wheeled creatures clashing at corners, the deep whirr of a large olive-green garbage eater, screaming radio-voices from a wooden painter’s cradle clinging to the upper storey of a Free House, roar of the great wakening juggernauts rushing awesomely down this long but narrow pathway. From beneath the earth came tremors denoting the passage of huge subterranean worms that devoured and regurgitated human beings and from the skies the thrum of choppers and the screech of higher, gleaming birds .(254)
In this urban space, the rhythms of the working day override the natural rhythms of the seasons: the snows may just be melting, but contractors are painting the outside of a pub, the street-cleaners are removing the debris of the previous day’s business in preparation for the next, and the commuters are already traveling in their subterranean, gloomy world, while ‘juggernauts’ pollute above-ground with their noise and smell. The demands of market capitalism override any ‘organic’ or more community based existence, and this both displaces the past lifestyles of diverse immigrant groups, and provides the potential for gaining the cold hard cash needed to reinvent themselves and their fortunes. The problem for Chamcha is the fickleness of the market, and its racist effacement of ethnicity, which also ties in with the representation of institutionalized racism in Britain:
What puzzled Chamcha was that a circumstance, which struck him as utterly bewildering and unprecedented – that is, his metamorphosis into this supernatural imp- was being treated by the others as it were the most banal an familiar matter they could imagine. ‘This isn’t England,’ he thought, not for the first or last time. (158)
Rushdie’s treatment of this topic can be put in the context of the roots of 1981 (especially in Brixton), insofar as these were a response to Thatcher’s British Nationality Bill’, The letter Bill was a powerful intervention in the redefinition of identity, which conflicted with, and disrupted, new groups of immigrants who had made a vital contribution to their new homeland.
Rushdie was particularly outraged by the British Nationality Act of 1981, which, building on earlier legislation, sought further to erode the automatic right of British citizenship for people of the former colonies: to be British one had to prove one’s descent from an ancestor born in Britain (being born in Britain oneself was now insufficient). This attempt to shore up a national identity (for this was really about Englishness) on the basis of biology flew in the face of the migrant hybridity that the end of Empire brought with it:
The talk of surveillance techniques had reunited immigration officers and policeman, healing the breach caused by Jockey Stein’s words of puritanical reproof. Chamcha, the insect on the floor of the van, heard, as if through a telephone scrambler, the faraway voices of his captors speaking eagerly of the need for more video equipment at public events and of the benefits of computerized information, and, in what appeared to be a complete contradiction, of the efficacy of placing too rich a mixture in the nosebags of police horses on the night before a big march. (162)
What is perhaps most ‘uncanny’ about the portrayal of London in the light of the Conservatives’ attempts at excluding vast swathes of former colonized peoples is the ways in which Thatcher’s Britain unleashed a new wave of extremist thought and behavior on behalf of a society that would later deny its own ‘fundamentalisms’.
Rushdie’s is one method of writing migration by reveling in his multiple languages and belongings and by playing each off the other. Rushdie points out ambiguous and shifting ground may be a fertile territory for a writer to occupy (“Imaginary Homelands” 18). But is in The Satanic Verses that Rushdie chooses as his literary territory the in-between space of the immigrant, with the bilingual, bicultural baggage this involves. Many critics have claimed that the novel’s underlying theme is the questioning of established pieties and traditions, that Rushdie explores religious doubt as part of the larger pattern of interrogating hegemonic version of authority, whether of state, ideology, or culture. The Satanic Verses is a text that takes as its central concerns the lives of (predominantly) subcontinent Asians in contemporary Britain. Even though Rushdie interchangeably calls them “migrants,” exiles,” or “immigrants.”, he refusing to entertain notions of class difference that these terms generally imply, his characters in the text are identically members of the post independence immigrant communities in urban Britain. Their different relationships to British society, against the background of tense race relations in 1980s Britain, form the stuff is migrancy part of the punishment for sins committed, as the epigraph to The Satanic Verses seems to suggest, or is it a chance at a better, free life, as the American myth maintains and Chamcha persists in thinking. His eventual return to India might suggest the former, but then again, there are numerous other characters in the novel whose experience suggests otherwise. The seductive nature of Rushdie’s prose and his overextended use of myth, metaphor, symbolism, and parallelism make it easy to slip into a metaphysical way of thinking where migrancy and travel become the tropes of twentieth-century life.
The Satanic Verses |Chamcha and Hybridization
When Gibreel and Chamcha are yielded up to England by the broken halves of the airplane Bostan, their method of arrival, in all its transmogrifying, reincarnating character, is carefully set beside the usual humiliation of immigrant arrival at Heathrow:
Quite a quantity of wives who had been grilled by reasonable doing-their-job officials about the length of and distinguishable moles upon their husbands’ genitalia, a sufficiency of children upon whose legitimacy the British government had cast its ever reasonable doubts … (4)
As they fall through the air, their range of expression sets up the initial opposition between the good and the bad immigrant. Gibreel, the angle, sings an old Hindi film song whose patriotic text insists on the cosmopolitan’s “inviolately subcontinental heart” (6), while Chamcha, the more British-than-thou toady, counters this blasphemy over England by singing the verses of one James Thompson (1700-1748).
The Satanic Verses actually features a number of such human-beast hybrids, the most striking of which is the mysterious metamorphosis of Chamcha into a devilish goatlike beast. And when the transformed Chamcha participates in a mass escape from the hospital where he is confined, he enters a nightmare vision inhabited by all sorts of similarly metamorphosed creatures: “Chamcha glimpsed beings as he could never have imagined, men and women who were partially plants, or giants insects, or even, on occasion, built partly of brick or stone; there were men with rhinoceros horns instead of noses and women with necks as long as any giraffe” (171).
In Sladin Chamcha, Rushdie draws the figure of the ideal immigrant, the kind held up as an example of what all immigrants ought to be. Upwardly mobile, imperially hanging, his Indian accent hidden not just under a British accent but under a “Thousand Voices and a Voice” (60), he inherits and marries money and he assimilates, where assimilation means the deliberate forgetting of other existences. At the beginning of the book, “home” to Chamcha is associated with feelings of shame, with the threat of losign the stash of cultural capital that makes him a proper Englishman. Thus when his initial rejection of Zeenie’s suggestion of a return to India (“When you have stepped through the looking-glass you step back at your own peril. The mirror may cut you to shreds” (58) gives way uncontrollably to a return of the repressed (“The black fellow creeping up behind” (53). Saladin, actually Salahuddin Chamchawala, panics at the prospect of multiple mortifications:
How had the past buddle up, in transmogrified vowels and vocab? What next? Would he take to putting coconut-oil in his hair? … What further, diabolic humiliations were in store? He should have known it was a mistake to go home, after so long, how could it be other than a regression; it was an unnatural journey … (34)
In the metamorphosis from Saldin Chamcha to unnatural goat-man, Saladin tries his best to retain the vestiges of his bowler-hatted, English self with his tweedy-voiced wife, but fails. This degeneration renders the manticore’s analysis perfectly comprehensible: “They describe us.That’s all they have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct” (168). It is proper, then, that in the loss of his class and caste in a society where these things matter, Chamcha should end up in the mirror image of his life with Pamela, at Shaandaar (glorious) café, which to him is anything but.
A hangout of radicals and Lefties such as Jumpy Joshi and Hanif Johnson and of working-class Asians in search of a cheap meal, run by an ex-schoolteacher from Bangladesh who rents out rooms to groups of illegal immigrants hiding from the authorities, the café is the antithesis of what Chamcha has always stood for M. Muhammand Sufyan, ex-communist, who like Chamcha has lost class, at least in the eyes of his wife Hind, by coming to England, welcomes Chamcha home “among your own people, your own kind.” To which Chamcha, rejecting the double degree of declassement, replies, “I’m not your kind. You’re not my people.I’ve spent half my life trying to get away from you” (253). Two opposing models of integration in a foreign country thus lock wills: Chamcha, a determinedly apolitical, upper-class man who wants to be adopted as part of Britain, and Sufyan, whose business interests turn this ex-radical into a cheerful exploiter of fellow immigrants but whose sense of community unites in victimhood and resistance with people of his “own kind.”
Hind’s attitude in the face of her daughters’ remarkable adaptation of British life (Bangladesh, Anahita decides, is nothing more for her than “Bungleditch”) reflects some of the same paranoia and xenophobia that marks the Imam. The Imam of Desh (country) is the character who most strenuously resists any degree of adjustment to Britain, seeing his stay thrre as strictly functional. His presence in Britain is due not to immigaration but to exile. His efforts are directed at not knowing where he is, “ignorant and therefore unsullied, unaltered, pure” (207). In exile, his thoughts are directed at his eventual return, and Britain, while being present, is strictly marginal. “The curtains, thick golden velvet, are kept shut all day, because otherwise the evil thing might creep into the apartment: foreigners, Abroad, the alien nation” (209). The binaries through which he invokes his location, Desh vs. Abroad, are structured to signity what Bhabha calls the Heimlich pleasures of the hearth vs. the unheimlich terror of the other (Bhabha 23). In Abroad, the Imam does not see, cook, furnish. “Exile,” he say, “is a soulless country … In exile all attempts to put down rrots look like treason: they are admissions of defeat” (208). The Imam’s refusal to acculturate or assimilate is but an extreme version of the voluntary cultural ghettoization that is an aspect of immigrant communities.
England, according to Imam, is a hospitable country: “they take all types” (208). Since England is populated by a diversity of people, this encourages in its inhabitants a susceptibility to the rhetoric of nativism and true belonging. In the section titled “A City Visible but Unseen.” Chamcha protests against being fed Indian food instead of “cereal complete with toy silver spacemen” (258). Ever the proper Englishman, he tries to explain “that he thought of himself, nowadays, as, well, British.” The humor in this self-characterization is perhaps not entirely a result of his “nowadays” state as a devil incarnate. It also has to do with the colonial stereotype of the “brown sahib” and the impossibility of a reviled “Paki” thinking he was more British than the Bangladeshis, who were, after all, his “own people.” He rejects Mishal and Anahita’s claim to be equally British, based largely on his belief that being British entails a certain class attitude that they lack: “But they weren’t British, he wanted to tell them, not really, not in any way he could recognize” (259).
Although at the beginning to Chamcha’s fall, he counters vulgar Hindi film songs with the religious fervor of James Thompson, later in the novel he thinks or listens in the various tones of an Eliot, Joyce, or Beckett, the three high-modernist exiles non pareil, Paraphrasing Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot and Malone Dies, Mimi sums life up for Chamcha in its absurdist totality: “Age, Chamcha: it’s all humiliations. You get born, you get beaten up and bruised all over and finally you break and they shovel you into an urn” (260). Like Prufrock, Chamcha struggles to dissociate his sensibility from his surroundings, even himself: “I have become embroiled, in things, in the world and its messes, and I cannot resist, the grotesque has me, as before the quotidian had me, in its thrall. The sea gave me up; the land drags me down” (260). That the mermaids refuse to call Chamcha, the immigrant trying to be British, as he paces his room in the Shaandaar Cafe is hardy a surprise to the Western or subcontinental reader to TheSatanic Verses, but it is a source of frustration for him. “Abandoned by one alien England, marooned within another” (270). Chamcha takes no comfort from the surprisingly prescient analysis of his state by Mr. Sufyan: “Your soul, my good poor dear sir, is the same. Only in its migration it has adopted this presently varying form” (277). Migration, then, has a lot to answer for.
Cultural capital, based in most cases on financial capital and class privilege, spreads its tentacles both on the Left and the Right. On the Left, the character Hanif Johnson, a blue-eyed, fair-skinned Labour party young hopeful. Mishal Sufyan’s lover, joins radical chic with his command over language: “Hanif was in perfect control of the languages that mattered: sociological, socialistic, black-radical, anti-anti-anti-racist, demagogic, oratorical, sermonic: the vocabularies of power” (281). Jumpy Joshi Cogitates in his Joycean diatribe against the Hanif’s privileges: “The real language problem: how to bend it shape it, how to let it be our freedom, how to repossess its poisoned wells, how to master the river of words of time of blood: about all you haven’t got a clue” (281). Chamcha, of course, is the character who starts out on the Right and ends up being attracted to both Mishal and zenie, women on the left, more importantly. As the Shaitan (devi) incarnate, he becomes a symbol of resistance for black British youth fighting against racism. Through Chamcha’s metamorphosis and its appropriation by the antiracists, Rushdie ironically plays off the stereotyping of immigrant youth as antisocial criminals:
“Chamcha,” Mishal said excitedly, “you’re a hero, I mean, people can really identify with you. It’s an image white society has rejected for so long that we can really take it, you know, occupy, it, inhabit it, reclaim it and make it our own.” … “Go away,” cried Saladin, in his bewilderment, “This isn’t what I wanted. This is not what I meant at all.” (287)
The stuff of Gibreel’s dreams on the other hand, is more ambitious: he wants to transform London itself. In yet another reversal of the post-colonial immigrant experience, Gibreel, instead of fitting in, decides to “fix” London to suit himself in a marvelously portentous and bathetic scene. A vengeful postcolonial angel, he flies over London personifying the return of the repressed. “Did they not think that their history would return to haunt them? … Native and settler, that old dispute, continuing now upon these soggy streets, with reversed categories” (353). At the conclusion of his analysis, Gibreel decides: “the trouble with the English was their … In a word, gibreel solemnly pronounced, their weather.” His task is then to turn London into a tropical city, which will achieve a number of other effects:
Increased moral definition, institution of a national siesta, development of vivid and expansive patterns of behaviour among the populace, higher quality popular music, new birds in the trees, new trees under the birds … Emergence of new social values, friends to commence dropping in on one another without making appointments, closure of old folks’ homes, emphasis on extended family. Spicier food; the use of water as well as paper in English toilets; the joy of running fully dressed through the first rains of the monsoon … Standing upon the horizon, spreading his arms to fill the sky, Gibreel cried: “Let it be.” (354)
This effort by Gibreel to “tropicalize” London draws on a familiar list of a charges laid at the door of immigrant peoples by the British: large, informal families; lax work ethics; flashy clothes and music. In Gibreel’s list, however, these “faults’ become desirable qualities that the British lack . this messianic zeal on the part of Gibreel comes to a sad and realistic end when he finds himself back at Alleluia Cone’s door.
An example of the latter in the novel is the character Hal Valance, the epitome of the Thatcherite new ‘classless’ class, with his mantral of ‘Follow the money’ (265). Valance expresses amazement at the Thatcherite project in 1980s Britain, the invention of ‘a whole goddamn new middle class in this country’ (270) as he says to Chamcha, Thatcher wants ‘new’ people, ‘without background, and without history. Hungry people. People who really want, and who know that with her, they can bloody well get’ (270). Valance is himself an expression of this newness, but one which is parodied for its vacuity and excess; even his name is a joke at the expense of the new Thatcherite middle class, a ‘valance’ being a piece of soft-furnishing or fabric that covers unwanted structural detail in a house, this being the favourite mode of interior decoration in 1980s Britain. For example, the privatization of public housing in Britain was matched by the sudden appearance of ghastly floral valances that adorned and transformed every humble dwelling into a postmodern fantasy of gracious living.
While this surface dressing reached its apogee in the homes o ‘Essex’ man and woman, much parodied at the time, it also represented a desire to belong to another indeterminate class through an expression of new-found wealth. In the novel, Hal Valance has made his money from one of the great engines of Thatcherism: advertising. He subsequently becomes his own most fantastic ‘self-created image’ smoking ‘absurd, caricature cigars’, wearing and flying the Union Jack flag while associating with Thatcher, or “Mrs Torture’ (266). Valance is ‘[t] he personification of philistine triumphalism … one of the glories of the age, the creative half of the city’s hottest [advertising] agency, the Valance & Lang Partnership’ (266). Yet Valance also expresses the great irony at the heart of the Thatcherite vision of ‘newness’: it is a vision based upon an old-fashioned British racism, or, to put this way, the people of Great Britain could reinvent themselves under Thatcher, as long as they were white. As Valance says to Chamcha: Within the last three months, we re-shot a peanut-butter poster because it researched better without the balck kid in the background. We re-recorded a building society jingle because T’Chairman thought the singer sounded black … We were told by a major airline that we couldn’t use any blacks in their ads’ (267). The Thatcherite project, then, fails to realize its greatest resource: the immigrant communities and peoples who were, and still are, building a genuinely new Britain.
A recurrent associated question is how far Rushdie knew what he was doing as he wrote the novel, i.e., how far his awareness of Islamic historical developments coincided with his awareness of the level of critique and/or offensiveness of his own text. Rushdie had a visionary awareness of the risks that he was running, it must also be added that his position within the literary field cut him off both from the Indian and Pakistani migrants in Britain and from the masses in the subcontinent. Despite his claim to speak for these publics in a form of secular critical prophecy, Rushdie could not overcome this distance. Rushdie’s novel is said to engage with universal and historical themes:
They describe us,’ they other whispered solemnly. ‘That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct. ‘It’s hard to believe,’ Chamcha argued. ‘I’ve lived here for many years and it never happened before …’ His words dried up because he saw the manticore looking at him through narrow, distrustful eyes. ‘Many years?’ it asked. ‘How could that be? May be you’re an informer? – Yes, that’s it, a spy? (168)
The question of hybridity, in other words, can be dangerously abstracted away from the mundane existence of ‘migrancy’. Adding issues of class to the migrancy debates is a way of once more problematizing and complexifying binary thinking in relation to Rushdie.
While Rushdie’s literary and, no doubt, political sympathies lie with British minorities and immigrants, his class position allows him choices that they might not have (witness his recent move to New York). This allows him gestures of solidarity but not solidarity itself. When the Rushdie affair broke, it was certainly the perception that Rushdie was not one of them that exposed him to the charge of being unrepresentative of the immigrant community a charge repeated on many occasions by Muslim scholars and anti-Rushdie spokespeople.
The deliberately hybrid, mongrel, multi referential nature of the literary and experiential inheritance that Rushdie claims, not just from East and West but from all corners of the world, is an exciting guide for detecting literary footprints in his work, but obstructs any attempt to define a national or literary influence for it. Rushdie himself is scarcely my help. In the essay “Imaginary Homelands,” he suggests that migrancy, either as a literal or literary (imaginative) experience. Rushdie claims similar experiences of displacement and minority status, thus losing the political charge and demographic scale that marks twentieth-century migration from the periphery to the metropolitan world:
Let me suggest that Indian writers in England have access to a second tradition, quite apart from their own racial history. It is the culture and political history of the phenomenon of migration, displacement, life in a minority group. (20)
The troublesome issue of race in immigration has been elided entirely by Rushdie in this ode to the pleasures of migrancy. The freedoms of the literary migrant, as Rushdie calls them later in the same essay (21), scarcely include defining the process of race relations in Britain as a matter of cultural transplantation or the discovery of common cause between an Indian grocer and long-dead lights of English literature. What Rushdie is doing is arrogation to himself a cultural tradition based on an elite education system, both in Britain and India, and using this tradition to speak prescriptively for a very diverse set of people.
The experience of immigration, or more generally, postcolonial, is often fostered by first World critics eager to sacrifice ideological differences to easy definitions. Rushdie, whose entire career is based on the questioning of historical givens and beliefs, invokes the metafictional trope of migrancy to invoke an absolute of rootlessness and hybridity. Conversely, one must recognize that it is precisely Rushdie’s free wheeling use of hybridity, particularly linguistic hybridity that gives his work its iconoclastic, transgressive edge. On the level of language, Rushdie translates Hindi and Urdu demotic speech patterns feely into English and inflects the language of his characters with dialect patterns particular to the class, region, or community they belong to. For example, the frequent use of interjections such as “yaar” in the speech of Gibreel Farishta, or Ameena Sinai’s use of terms such as “whatsitsname,” are direct translations from the spoken Hindostani.
Rushdie represents, in some unproblematic way, the experience of immigration, or more generally, postcoloniality, is often fostered by the First World critics eager to sacrifice ideological difference to easy definitions. This myth hides the fact that Rushdie writes primarily for a metropolitan readership from a relatively secure position within the metropolitan intellectual. Reopening debated about migrancy in relation to Rushdie’s writing and socio historical background can lead to a more informed notion of class operating within Muslim Britain.
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