“Putting down roots in memory,” Rushdie wrote in Grimus, “is the natural condition of exile.” People in this position, he says elsewhere, “are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt.” An exile suspects reality: “Having experienced several ways of being, he understands their illusory nature. To see things plainly, you have to cross a frontier.”
Since Midnight’s Children, Rushdie has become the voice of those who have crossed that frontier, of all the migrants, such as himself, who have been torn from their place, their language, and their social norms, and who have been forced to reshape and root themselves in a strange new world. He suggests the instability of their identities by giving his major characters more than one name and, often, uncertain parentage; a physical fall—from the sky in Grimus and The Satanic Verses, or from a bicycle in Midnight’s Children—is his recurring symbol of their loss of the firm footing of home and self. Since the self is, above all, a narrative—a construction of memory—each of his novels is built of the stories that characters tell to define themselves and their worlds. Yet like most products of memory, the stories that fill his novels are flawed, unreliable, skewed by the obsessions and blind spots of their tellers. In such stories, there can be no externally verifiable reality, so Rushdie’s novels cannot be contained by the conventions of the realistic novel.
Instead, Rushdie’s books are a unique and fascinating blend of literary genres and religious and cultural traditions. To be true to his own sense of reality, his own layered consciousness, he has had to develop a novelistic form that allows him to bring together the widely disparate parts of his own experience—East and West; secular humanism and religious fundamentalism; sacred and profane; Hindu, Muslim, and Christian history and myths; First, Second, and Third Worlds; Bombay cinema and English television; India, Pakistan, and Great Britain. “We are here,” Rushdie has said, “and we’ve never left anyplace that we’ve been.” He once described the perspective that is required to capture this plural experience as “stereoscopic vision,” a vision that allows him to look simultaneously at two societies from both the inside and the outside.
This stereoscopic vision is supported by Rushdie’s spendthrift imagination. His is essentially an aesthetic of excess—of piling episode on episode, character on character, plot on plot, pun on pun, comic name on comic name, digression on digression. Mixing the narrative energy of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, the playfulness of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), and the political and psychological ambition of Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), this aesthetic has provided Rushdie with the formal space that he needs to treat the multitude of subjects that press themselves upon him.
First published: 1981
Type of work: Novel
This saga depicts modern India, told through the eyes of Saleem Sinai, a changeling born at the same moment as his country during the midnight hour of August 15, 1947.
The central conceit of Midnight’s Children is that 1,001 children were born during the first hour of India’s independence, that all of them were born with magical powers, and that the extent of the powers that they were given decreased as the hour unfolded. Two boys were born at the exact stroke of midnight, and they had the greatest powers of all. One of them, Saleem, is the novel’s narrator; the other,...
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Shiva, is his alter ego and nemesis. Saleem is the illegitimate child of a poor family; Shiva, the legitimate son of the wealthy Sinai family. Secretly switched at birth by a nursemaid in love with a man who opposed the caste system, they grow up with each other’s names, living each other’s lives.
“I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country,” Saleem says at the beginning of his tale. A self-consciously postmodern Scheherazade, Saleem relates the story of his ancestors and his life to his housekeeper, Patma, over thirty-one Indian nights. In the process, he shares his version of sixty-four years of Indian history: the years under the British, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the religious and language riots following partition, the conflict between secular nationalism and religious fundamentalism, the wars between India and Pakistan, the birth of Bangladesh, the rise and fall of Sanjay Gandhi, and Indira Gandhi’s “emergency.” All these events and more tumble onto the page from his faulty memory, with dates jumbled and facts twisted into falsehoods.
Like Tristram Shandy, Saleem Sinai is not born until midway through the novel in which he tells his story. His most important feature is his nose. At age nine, Saleem learns that he has both the power to hear the voices and thoughts of others—including all the other children of midnight—and the power to transmit the thoughts of each to all the others, like a radio. His “antenna” is his long nose. How he suddenly learns that he has this power and how he loses it are two of the novel’s most hilarious and inventive scenes.
Rushdie’s treatment of Saleem’s nose is a perfect example of his literary method and “stereoscopic vision.” It is, first of all, outrageously comic and bawdy—as is so much in his fiction. In the Western literary tradition, it connects Saleem to Pinocchio (thereby undermining Saleem’s veracity), to author Nikolai Gogol (highlighting Saleem’s monomania and calling his sanity into question), and to Cyrano de Bergerac (forecasting Saleem’s fate in love). Yet it also links him to the elephant-headed god Ganesh in the Eastern literary and religious tradition. Ganesh is a comic figure, the patron deity of literature, and is supposed to have sat at the feet of the poet Valmiki to copy down the Ramayana (c. 350 b.c.e.) In the myths, Ganesh is both the child of the gods Shiva and Pavrati—names Rushdie assigns to other important characters in Saleem’s story—and of uncertain parentage like Saleem. Thus, like so much in Rushdie’s fiction, Saleem’s nose functions on several levels at once: as a comic device, a plot element, and a literary and religious allusion to the several traditions that Rushdie sets out to blend in his work.
The Satanic Verses
First published: 1988
Type of work: Novel
This exploration of good and evil, sacred and profane, faith and doubt, fiction and scripture, and home and exile is told through two actors who fall from the sky and land in England.
The Satanic Verses begins with its two heroes falling to earth on New Year’s Day after terrorists blow up the plane on which they were traveling to London. Is it any surprise that what follows is one of the most extraordinary novels ever written? Although it can be compared to the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Günter Grass, Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, and Vladimir Nabokov, only Salman Rushdie could have written it, and it stands as a compendium of all the themes and techniques of his career.
When they miraculously land on the English coast alive, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha find that they have been reborn and transformed. Gibreel, an amoral Indian film star who has been known to play as many as fifty different gods in a single week in the Bombay cinema’s theologicals, has lost his faith and had a breakdown but lands with what appears to be a halo around his head. Saladin Chamcha, an actor who has rejected his Indian roots to become as English as possible, and who has achieved great success in London because he has the chameleon-like power to create exactly the right voice to advertise every product, lands and immediately begins to turn into a cloven-hoofed devil.
The novel that tells their story moves from London to India and the Middle East, from the time of Muhammad to the era of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the ayatollah, from the day’s headlines to the farthest reaches of fantasy. Saladin becomes an outcast. He is rejected by his wife and friends, protected by the immigrants whom he had earlier despised, and transformed into their hope of revenge on the racism of the English before he returns home to India, reconciliation with his father, and a happy ending. Gibreel goes mad; imagines himself as both the Angel Gibreel and the Prophet Muhammad’s scribe; rewrites the story of Muhammad, whom he calls by the derogatory medieval name of Mahound; and imagines another prophet, the young girl Ayeesha, whom he leads to destruction. Along the way, both have love affairs, fantasies, memories, and adventures that keep the novel whirling like a dervish from one plot to another. As one critic said, The Satanic Verses is several of the best novels that Rushdie has written.
Islam prohibits images of Muhammad and holds the words of the Qur՚an to be sacred. Early commentators have described an episode of The Satanic Verses, in which Muhammad was tempted to accept three local deities in order to win over the people to his new religion of Allah, then renounced the verses that permitted that as dictated by Satan rather than the Angel Gabriel. Modern Islam, however, has rejected this episode as apocryphal and blasphemous. By depicting his prophet as subject to human frailties and giving him an offensive name, by inventing a character who changes the words that the prophet dictates, thereby suggesting that the holy book may not be the sacred word of God, and by inventing an episode in which prostitutes assume the names of the wives of Muhammad in order to improve their business, Rushdie committed unforgivable acts of blasphemy in the eyes of true believers. His explanations that this work was one of fiction, that all the offending passages were the dreams and delusions of a god-obsessed madman, and that he was not a believer and so could not be a traitor to Islam all fell on deaf ears. The fact that Rushdie had also viciously satirized an exiled imam, who returned in triumph to his country to stop time and tyrannize the people, did not help his case.
Yet the novel deserves to be read as what it was intended to be. It is an exploration of the deepest religious and personal conflicts within its author and many others. It is an attempt to capture the sense of rootlessness and alienation that comes with the displacement and migration. It is, finally, an effort to encompass the extremes of contemporary experience in a form that would allow the freest possible range to its author’s talent and imagination.
Shalimar the Clown
First published: 2005
Type of work: Novel
Like The Satanic Verses, this novel is a transcontinental tale of worlds in collision. As much a fable for contemporary times as a novel, it also embodies the forces that shape and divide East and West in a gallery of extraordinary characters.
At the center of Shalimar the Clown are Max Ophuls, “one of the architects of the postwar world,” a charismatic, larger than life former hero of the French Resistance in World War II, the United States’ ambassador to India, head of the American effort to support the mujahadeen during the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, and world-renowned power broker; Boonyi, the beautiful young Kashmiri dancer he seduces and abandons, who returns to her village in disgrace; Noman Sher Noman (alias Shalimar), Boonyi’s childhood sweetheart and husband, who is transformed from a popular entertainer into a terrorist and murderer by their affair; and Max and Boonyi’s illegitimate daughter, India, who is raised by Max and his wife and living in Los Angeles when the story begins. The typically rich and eccentric supporting cast includes Olga Volga (“the last surviving descendant of the legendary potato witches of Astrakhan”), Firdaus Begum Noman (Shalimar’s mother, a snake sorceress), the “Iron Mullah” (a Muslim terrorist leader), Colonel Kachhwaha (leader of the Indian armed forces in Kashmir), a Gujar prophetess, a Filipino terrorist leader, and an Indian film star.
On the second page readers learn that “the ambassador was slaughtered on [India’s] doorstep like a halal chicken dinner, bleeding to death from a deep neck wound caused by a single slash of the assassin’s blade.” Over the next 394 pages readers learn why, how, and by whom. To answer these questions, Rushdie takes his readers to Kashmir, the novel’s paradise lost, and the idyllic village of Pachigam, where Hindus, Muslims, and Jews have lived for centuries in peace; to the Indian army and Muslim terrorist camps, where the forces that will tear Kashmir and Pachigam apart are trained, equipped, and ideologically indoctrinated; to World War II France, where the Resistance fights another occupying power through an insurgency of its own; and to polyglot Los Angeles, where race riots erupt in the streets.
“Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else,” Rushdie has his character, India, think. “Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another’s, were no longer our own, individual, discrete. This unsettled people. There were collisions and explosions.” There are also murders, rapes, and decapitations; family curses and a flying man; love affairs and betrayals; media frenzies, a televised trial, a “sorcerer’s defense,” and a prison break; puns, pop culture references, and loving descriptions of Kashmiri culture; Magical Realism and vivid attention to the actualities of the distant and near-at-hand; and fiction, history, and fictional history. In other words, the mixture of comedy, seriousness of purpose, and multicultural imagination that are exactly what readers have come to expect from the fiction of Salman Rushdie.