“Damn you, India ... To hell with you, I escaped your clutches long ago, you won’t get your hooks into me again, you cannot drag me back.”
Early in the novel, Saladin Chamcha makes this vehement proclamation as he prepares to return home to London from his acting stint in Bombay. However, much of The Satanic Verses is devoted to exploring how a person can never truly 'escape the clutches' of his native culture, try as he might. It is also worth noting Rushdie's use of personification here. To Saladin, India is not just a frustrating place, but is in fact a malevolent presence that tries to harm him. A person's history and culture is in fact an active presence towards defining him. Finally, Saladin's references to hell and damnation foreshadow his transformation into a devil later in the story.
“It isn’t easy to be a brilliant, successful woman in a city where the gods are female but the females are merely goods.”
Abu Simbel’s vicious wife Hind is generally not portrayed sympathetically. However, Rushdie gives us some insight into her psyche at the beginning of the Jahilia plotline. His pithy wordplay – typical of this novel’s style – reveals a contradiction in how women are treated in Jahilia. However, Rushdie’s observation applies to many of the places and situations in the novel. In London, Bombay, and Titlipur, women are revered but repressed, just like in Jahilia. This influences the behavior of characters like Alleluia, Zeeny, and Ayesha, all of whom resort to drastic acts – be it climbing mountains, organizing demonstrations, or leading pilgrimages – to prove that they are more than ‘mere goods.’
“Higher Powers had taken an interest, 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.”
In The Satanic Verses, Allah never appears, but other “Higher Powers” meddle in the characters’ lives. There are the archangels and the goddesses we meet in Gibreel’s dreams, but the narrator is perhaps the most potent higher power of all. In some sense, he replaces Allah; after all, he explicitly reminds us that as the narrator, he has absolute power over the characters and the story. Here, the narrator’s self-reference reminds us that we are reading fiction. In the real world, Rushdie seems to suggest, people’s lives are influenced by external forces like politics, history, and perhaps even the gods. In the realm of the novel, though, the narrator reigns supreme. All in all, this quote reminds us that we do not always have as much control over ourselves and our identities as we would like to pretend.
“The humiliation of it! He was – had gone to some lengths to become – a sophisticated man! Such degradations might be all very well for riff-raff from villages in Sylhet or the bicycle-repair shops of Gujranwala, but he was cut from different cloth!”
Saladin is arguably the most dynamic character in The Satanic Verses. Unlike Gibreel or any of the secondary characters, his personality changes in response to the things he learns. His description of South Asians in this passage is typical of his worldview early in the novel: he feels superior to other Indians because he has succeeded in making a life in London, and thereby distancing himself from his heritage. Saladin's condescending attitude toward the less privileged classes contrasts starkly with the views of other characters, like Zeeny, Jumpy, or Pamela, all of whom participate in left-wing political groups. Saladin's experiences – being turned into a demon, and losing many of his London friends in the Brickhall fires – teach him to embrace his Indian identity and respect those who are less fortunate. He comes to realize that one does not have nearly as much control over his life as he might think, and thus is he more tolerant of the complications he encounters in both people and society.
“The body of Al-Lat has shrivelled on the grass, leaving behind only a dark stain; and now every clock in the capital city of Desh begins to chime, and goes on unceasingly, beyond twelve, beyond twenty-four, beyond one thousand and one, announcing the end of Time, the hour that is beyond measuring, the hour of the exile’s return, of the victory of water over wine, of the commencement of the Untime of the Imam.”
In the Jahilia and Titlipur plotlines, Rushdie rarely favors one religious faith over the other. Despite his strident criticisms of Islam, he presents Hindu and pagan faiths as equally dogmatic. Because of this, some readers might be confused by this passage, in which Rushdie suggests that Al-Lat’s death will result in Desh being enslaved by the Imam. However, it is important to remember that Al-Lat is also portrayed as tyrannical and violent in her fight with Gibreel. This passage, then, is less an elegy for Al-Lat than a requiem for religious freedom in general. Every god or religion deserves an elegy when it fades, but likewise does it deserve censure when it oversteps its bounds. Like people themselves, religion is capable of both angelic and satanic potentials.
“While non-tint neo-Georgians dreamed of a sulphurous enemy crushing their perfectly restored residences beneath his smoking heel, nocturnal browns-and-blacks found themselves cheering, in their sleep, this what-else-after-all-but-black-man, maybe a little twisted up by fate class race history, all that, but getting off his behind, bad and mad, to kick a little ass.”
This quote discusses how immigrants rally behind the goatman as a symbol of their persecution. In the London plot, Rushdie explores the immigrant experience in detail. According to the novel, one of the most poignant and problematic aspects of life as an immigrant is dealing with the frustration of being insulted and excluded by white society. The immigrant characters are justifiably angry at the way they are treated by both authorities and the general population. However, they also want to uphold the Indian tradition of peaceful protest, to avoid playing into the stereotype of violent Eastern people. Younger immigrants find a solution to this complicated problem by embracing Satan, the biggest outsider in Western culture, as a symbol of their plight.
“Information got abolished sometime in the twentieth century, can’t say just when; stands to reason, that’s part of the information that got abolish, abolished. Since then we’ve been living in a fairy-story. Got me? Everything happens by magic. Us fairies haven’t a fucking notion what’s going on. So how do we know if it’s right or wrong? We don’t even know what it is.”
Alleluia’s drunken explanation of the modern human condition has several possible interpretations. It can be read as a criticism of the ‘information overload’ that occurred as mass media became more prominent in the second half of the twentieth century. As scholars like Christopher Butler have written, the concept of information overload is an important theme in the work of postmodern authors like Rushdie. The abolition of information, then, does not mean that there is no information; on the contrary, it means that there is so much information that people cannot process it all. Certainly, one can see in Rushdie's style how he is intrigued by the concept of overload. The passage can also be read as a justification of the novel’s magical realist aesthetic. Rushdie’s fabulism, the passage suggests, is a metaphor for the moral confusion that people experience in response to the late twentieth century’s violence and ethical relativism.
“Whores and writers, Mahound. We are the people you can’t forgive.”
Baal’s comment to Mahound offers specific insight into the Jahilia plotline, as well as into theocracies more generally. The theocratic Muslim regimes that Rushdie criticize treat women and dissident writers especially harshly, so Baal’s words resonate with modern politics. However, the comment also refers to Mahound’s biggest flaw – his pride. Mahound is able to forgive Salman and Abu Simbel relatively easily when he comes to power in Jahilia. However, he cannot forget the humiliating verses Baal wrote about him twenty-five years before. The artist has a unique power because he can affect people without them realizing it. The whores also hurt Mahound’s pride by adopting the personalities of Mahound’s wives to please their clients. Because they are malleable, willing to take on different identities, they pose an implicit challenge to the rigidity of Mahound's ideology. By pointing out these two vendettas, Baal reveals Mahound’s narcissism, and suggests the danger of fixed ideas.
“ – Or are there deeper resentments here, gripes for which this so-called Primary Cause is, in truth, no more than a substitute, a front? – For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other’s shadow? – One seeking to be transformed into the foreignness he admires, the other preferring, contemptuously, to transform; one, a hapless fellow who seems to be continually punished for uncommitted crimes, the other, called angelic by one and all, the type of man who gets away with everything.”
One of the central contradictions in The Satanic Verses is the fact that although Gibreel and Saladin transform into an angel and a demon, their moral status remains ambiguous. Saladin is continually victimized by everyone from the Police to his unfaithful wife, Pamela – a quality not traditionally associated with Satan. Likewise, Gibreel is portrayed as loutish and inconsiderate, and his transformation into an angel only makes him even more narcissistic. Although the men are opposites on the surface, their transformations also bring them closer together. Thematically, the sense is that they both have the potential for angelic and satanic behavior, even when they take the explicit form of one or the other. This passage brings this contradiction to the surface, and makes explicit the transformation’s double meaning.
“In this century history stopped paying attention to the old psychological orientation of reality. I mean, these days, character isn’t destiny any more. Economics is destiny. Ideology is destiny. Bombs are destiny. What does a famine, a gas chamber, a grenade care how you lived your life? Crisis comes, death comes, and your pathetic individual self doesn’t have a thing to do with it, only to suffer the effects.”
Alleluia’s mother Alicja is a tertiary character, but her experiences during World War Two give her a unique perspective on modern politics. She suggests that the atrocities of the first half of the century have irrevocably altered the psychological and moral aspects of the human condition. This helps explain why politics, which might have seemed abstract to members of Alicja’s generation, have such an impact on characters like the Sufyans and Zeeny Vakil. It also helps explain Saladin’s transformation into a devil. Rushdie eventually makes it clear that the Goatman is a symbol of the outsider status that South Asian immigrants experience in London. By transforming into Western culture’s most feared outsider, Saladin is “suffer[ing] the effects” of his people’s oppression in the most literal way possible. The entire novel presupposes a synthesis of politics, history, culture, and personality, and Alicja here suggests that this is all the more true in the new century.
The Satanic Verses Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Satanic Verses is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.