Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Satanic Verses: On Migration And The Duality Of Existence As A Migrant

“These days,” she insisted, “our positions must be stated with crystal clarity. All metaphors are capable of misinterpretation.”
From The Satanic Verses

Rushdie knew it. He knew his metaphor about immigration and living in perpetual duality will be misinterpreted. Metaphors can be made to represent religious faith, but making a metaphor on religion for some other idea, is what I believe, costed Rushdie dearly.

I started reading The Satanic Verses when the news of him being attacked reached me. Having read a couple of his books previously and having read a great endorsement of The Satanic verses by Milan Kundera in his collection of essays Testament Betrayed, I was prepared for the roller coaster ride that was ahead...

And it proved to be just that. I had to re-read many chapters to comprehend what I was reading and after reading around 100 pages, I was forced to start again. The narrative parallels between eons and continents, with several characters sharing names, several themes repeating in parallel narratives and most of the happenings in the plot nowhere close to the reality experienced in our normal life. In short, it was an epic read. (Spoilers ahead.)

When a plane crashes above English Channel, two men fall from it and miraculously escapes. Gabriel Farishta is a famous Hindi movie star who is revered for his roles in mythologocal dramas. Saladin Chamcha who had escaped Bombay and his father's clutches, is determined to become a proper Englishman, doing voiceover works in London. The fall ties their fates together and from now onwards they have to enact two opposing characters of the eternal moraIistic drama- that of an angel and the demon.

I believe the novel is a parable about alienation caused after migrating to a strange land. I would like to think both Gabriel and Saladin as two faces of the same coin. They aren't separate persons and their struggle is not at all about good or evil. Gabriel is the part of us who are attached to our homeland and Saladin is the one that want to break the ties with it.

The decision to run away and start anew causes the immigrant to live a dual life in which he is perpetually confused of his roots, his place in the larger history and his allegiance. His eventual destiny is to fight this duality and establish himself. This causes tensions within oneself, within family, within community and every social structure he is a part of. It doesn't help that the natives of the land is totally unsympathetic to his struggle and refuses to acknowledge him. This in turn accelerate his alienation process and eventual rebellion.

The struggle between Gabriel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, which essentially is the experience of the duality of oneself due to migration, is tied to the eternal struggle between the duality of good and evil, of light and darkness, of oneself and others. This is done through the many dreams that Gabriel Farishta experience when he dons the angelous mantle and unsuccessfully struggle to save the others.

Mahound, Hind, Ayesha, Baal and all others are part of his self discovery, where his primal instinct connects to the primal history and tries to identify and tie up his struggles with those of distant past. But none of the old struggles reaches a conclusion and finally devolves into utter confusion and chaos. Singular truth is challenged and historic ambiguity prevails in everyone of them when scribes alters texts and witnesses gives false testimony.

Saladin exacts his revenge on Farishta by a bunch of wrong testaments that causes Farishta to doubt his lover, leading to his eventual tragedy. But decision of Saladin to make peace with his past and forgo his desire to be the other (Englishman), puts and end to the struggle.

A complex behemoth of a novel, The Satanic Verses is richly rewarding to a reader who is ready to indulge in some subtextual reading and who is ready to appreciate the subtle humor of the whole enterprise.

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