The jumbo jet Bostan spontaneously explodes over the English Channel (as a result of a terrorist attack, as we later learn). Two of its passengers survive the long plummet down into the water. Both men are Indian actors who were traveling to London: Gibreel Farishta is jubilant and carefree, while Saladin Chamcha is “buttony, pursed” (4).
The narrator focuses on their descent. As they fall, both sing aloud, competing to be the loudest. The narrator explains that each man is undergoing a transformation. On the way down, Gibreel sees a vision of Rekha Merchant, an old lover who has died. We get few details about her here, though the narrator implies that Gibreel feels guilty over having jilted her. Now, she curses him.
As they plummet, Saladin begins flapping his arms to fly, and urges Gibreel to do the same. The flapping seems to slow their descent, and they land unharmed in the water. Soon, they wash up on an English beach. The narrator speculates about which man is responsible for the miracle of their survival, and whether their powers are angelic or satanic.
The narrator next focuses on back story for the two characters.
Gibreel Farishta had been the most in-demand actor in the Indian film industry until he grew sick with a life- and career-threatening illness shortly before his fortieth birthday. He recovered, but suddenly disappeared from India before returning back to work, thereby leaving leaving his directors and co-stars in a lurch. He had been having an affair with his married, well-to-do neighbor, Rekha Merchant, and when Rekha saw the enigmatic farewell letter he sent to the newspaper, she murdered her children and committed suicide by throwing herself and the children from the roof of the apartment building that she and Gibreel shared.
As an actor, Gibreel specialized in playing religious figures, including Buddha and the Hindu god Krishna. Perhaps because of this, he is fascinated with reincarnation and rebirth.
As their plane was being hijacked, Gibreel told his life story to Saladin, who was sitting next to him. Gibreel was born Ismail Najmuddin, in Pune. He would eventually choose the stage name Gibreel Farishta because his mother had always called him her little angel. (Gibreel is the name of an angel in the Muslim tradition, a version of the name Gabriel, and Farishta simply translates to ‘angel.’) At age thirteen, he moved to Bombay, and became a lunch-porter like his father. Shortly after he began working, his mother died; when Gibreel was twenty, his father died too. The General Secretary of the lunch-porters’ guild, Babasaheb Mhatre, then invited the boy to live with him and his wife.
As it turns out, the Mhatres never had children, and Mr. Mhatre hoped that an adopted son would help dilute his wife’s stifling attention. This did not happen – Mrs. Mhatre felt uncomfortable babying a twenty-year-old – but Mr. Mhatre did encourage Gibreel’s interest in reincarnation and the supernatural. Once, Gibreel idly daydreamed about being in a gay relationship with Mr. Mhatre, and immediately felt ashamed. A year after adopting him, Mr. Mhatre kick-started Gibreel’s acting career by calling in a favor with a film studio executive to get Gibreel cast as a movie extra.
After four years of playing secondary comic roles, Gibreel finally got his big break playing Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god. He had never had much romantic success before landing this role, but his success as Ganesh in a series of films resulted in a libertine life as a prolific playboy. (He managed to keep this fact from Mr. Mhatre, who on his deathbed was still urging Gibreel to marry). The affair with his neighbor Rekha proved to be the most intense - they constantly fought and made up. All of Gibreel's success was women was in spite of his remarkably bad breath.
One day, Gibreel began internally hemorrhaging while filming a fight scene. No logical cause was discovered for his affliction, and he nearly died. Though he eventually recovered, the incident caused him to lose his religious faith and to doubt God. The first thing he did after leaving the hospital was stuff his face with pork at a fancy restaurant – being a Muslim, eating the unclean pork constituted a great transgression. He only stopped when a white mountain-climber, Alleluia Cone, insulted him as being selfish for not celebrating his miraculous recovery. He fell immediately in love with her, and broke off the affair with Rekha. Although his affair with Alleluia only lasted three days before she left India, it inspired him to depart for London under his real name, in hopes of reconnecting with her and starting a new life.
Saladin Chamcha sits on the doomed airplane as it departs from Mumbai, where he was visiting his family after having performed a play in India. Having been long established in London, he regrets having returned to India, especially since he finds his sculpted English accent being replaced by the Indian accent he had worked hard to overcome.
Saladin thinks back on his childhood. He remembers finding a wallet full of British pounds one day when he was a boy, only to have his father Changez rapidly snatch it away, suggesting he had not earned the money. Changez was an accomplished businessman and politician, but his harshness alienated his son. He also recalls an "avatar of Aladdin's very own genie" lamp which his father owned. Though the boy coveted it, Changez refused to let him either rub it or play with it, but insinuated he might one day allow Saladin to have it.
From a young age, Saladin dreamed of moving to London, far away from his father and his native Bombay. At age thirteen, he was molested by an old man while walking on the beach. He never told anyone about this incident, though it intensified his desire to leave the country. He finally got his wish when his father offered to send him to boarding school in England. At this time, Saladin still went by his given name – Salahuddin Chamchawala. He would later shorten it to Saladin, partially to accommodate his classmates, who could not pronounce Salahuddin. As an adult, he would change his last name to Chamcha, based on the advice of his acting agent. Though leaving India was exciting for him, it was heartbreaking for his mother Nasreen, to whom he was very close.
When Changez and Saladin arrived in London to establish him at the school, Changez returned the wallet to the boy, but insisted he pay for everything on the trip. For the entire week before school started, Saladin was anxious about having enough money for the hotel and food. He resented his father for this, and swore he would become the one thing his father could never be: a true Englishman. On his first morning at school, Saladin struggled for ninety minutes to figure out how to correctly eat a herring, and no one offered any help. This only strengthened his determination.
When Saladin returned from school at eighteen, his criticisms of India caused a rift with his parents. Shortly after his return, India went to war with Pakistan. One night, his mother Nasreen was hosting a party when the bomb sirens went off. Everyone hid except her, and she choked on a piece of fish, dying because everyone was hidden and did not see her struggle. Less than a year later, Changez married another woman named Nasreen, which infuriated Saladin. He severed all ties to his father. Over the year, Changez continued to write Saladin, accusing Saladin of being
possessed by the devil. These letters – along with reports that his Muslim father had grown excessively religious – unsettled Saladin, who was now living independently as an actor.
In the meanwhile, Saladin married a beautiful English woman named Pamela Lovelace. Their relationship was turbulent: Pamela was deeply troubled because her parents killed themselves when she was a girl, and Saladin’s inability to have children only exacerbated their problems.
When he traveled to Bombay to perform in a George Bernard Shaw play, he started an affair with Zeeny Vakil, a controversial writer whom he had known from childhood. Her work concerned Indian identity, and she insisted she would reclaim Saladin for India. She introduced him to her Marxist friends, George Miranda and Bhupen Gandhi. One night, they were all drinking together when Bhupen got involved in a heated political debate. Although Zeeny believed the debate reminded Saladin about his Indian heritage, the incident only highlighted how detached Saladin feels from his native culture.
However, Saladin was not entirely happy in England, either. He had become very successful as a voice actor, but his current situation was precarious because his main role, as the voice of an alien on a sitcom, had become controversial for its implicit commentary on race and immigration. Although he had long been secular, his religious background had nevertheless discouraged him from starting a relationship with a Jewish colleague, Mimi Mamoulian. He and Mimi were considered the foremost voice actors in England.
While in India, Saladin made arrangements to visit his father and his stepmother, Nasreen the Second. He brought Zeeny with him. When he arrived at his childhood house, he was disturbed to discover that the housekeeper's wife, Kasturba, was wearing his dead mother's clothing. He realized that Changez was having an affair with her, but his indignation was ignored by Kasturba, Changez, and the housekeeper Vallabhbhai, all of whom argued that Saladin had no right to judge after leaving for so long.
Changez showed Saladin and Zeeny some of his antique Mughal tapestries. One of his artifacts is an old genie's lamp, which Saladin had always coveted but Changez refused to part with until his death. They all discussed art together, and Zeeny kissed Changez on the lips right in front of Saladin. Incensed, Saladin broke up with her and left for London on the doomed airplane.
On the jet, Saladin idly watches a beautiful woman carrying a baby. He also chats with Eugene Dumsday, an oblivious American missionary. Suddenly, the beautiful woman and three male hijackers run up the aisles and take the passengers hostage. The woman’s name is Tavleen, and it turns out that her baby was a concealed bundle of dynamite. She is more vicious than her male partners - Dara, Buta, and Man Singh. Their terrorism seems to be about fame and adventure, which contrasts with her religious and political extremism.
The hijackers land the plane in a desert oasis, and allow some passengers to leave before they make political demands (about which the narrator is vague). Eugene is allowed to leave after he provokes Tavleen into breaking his jaw. Gibreel then takes Eugene’s seat next to Saladin, and the two men talk. (This is when Gibreel tells Saladin his life story, as related in Chapter 2.) While there, the narrator explains for the first time that Gibreel is haunted by recurring serial dreams, in which certain stories continue to haunt him each time he sleeps. These dreams make up the content of several sections to follow.
The hostages are held in the desert for 111 days. At one point, Tavleen strips to show the passengers the explosives that are strapped to her body. Gibreel rambles with increasing incoherence about reincarnation, and confides to Saladin that he only took the flight out of love for Alleluia. On the 110th day of the hijacking, Tavleen murders a passenger named Jalandri. The next day, they take off for London. However, one of the male hijackers gets into a fight with Tavleen over the English Channel, and they lose control of the aircraft.
The Satanic Verses is famous for its fanciful – and at times, controversial – portrayal of organized religion. The opening section, which details the back story of the two main characters, illustrates the uneasy interplay between Islam and secularism in their lives. Gibreel and Saladin grew up Muslim – albeit not particularly observant – and each abandoned his faith at some point before the hijacking. Their moral convictions are full of inconsistencies: before his religious crisis, Gibreel was extremely promiscuous; even after becoming secular, Saladin refused to date a Jewish woman. Further, they both have relationships with religion regardless of their personal beliefs. For instance, Gibreel became famous for embodying deities. If this section has a thesis about religion, it is that far from being purely theological, religion is bound up in cultural identity and cannot be escaped simply by becoming agnostic.
Zeeny’s comments on Indian identity introduce one of the novel’s major thematic issues. Gibreel and Saladin have both turned their back on their homeland, but their rationale and impulses are hardly pure and simple. Zeeny suggests that Indian culture is nothing more than a “take-the-best-leave-the-rest” amalgamation of other cultures. While looking at Changez’s Mughal tapestry, she elaborates: “individual identity was submerged to create a many-headed, many-brushed Over-artist who, literally, was Indian painting” (71). In other words, to be an Indian is to be a hybrid of several other cultures and histories. Saladin seems to believe that he can trade one identity for another, whereas Zeeny's understanding of identity is more multi-faceted. Not only can one not simply rid oneself of an identity, but an identity is also not a simple entity.
Indeed, Rushdie raises the question of whether it is possible to truly leave behind one’s culture. For example: in a moment of anger, Saladin urges his father to cut down his walnut tree, a reference to the North Indian tradition of planting a tree when a child is born and cutting it down or selling it when he is an adult. Although Saladin is trying to demonstrate his independence from his father and his native culture, his means of accomplishing this dovetails with the tradition’s original purpose –cutting down the tree is supposed to signify adulthood and independence, which is exactly what Saladin is trying to accomplish. Rushdie gladly embraces contradictions in his characters and their cultures, allowing them to embody two ideas at once, because that is precisely the point he wishes to explore. We can never be simply an expression of a clearly-articulated identity, because the complications of history demand we too are complicated. Our attempts to pretend otherwise only caus trouble.
Names and language are closely tied into this section’s theme of reincarnation. Gibreel and Saladin both change their names when they become adults. Their new names hint at the angelic and satanic roles that the narrator assigns them in the first chapter. Gibreel Farishta literally means ‘the angel Gibreel’ (or ‘Gabriel’), and Zeeny reveals that Saladin Chamcha means ‘Mister Toady” (55). Interestingly, although both men give up Islam as adults, their names continue to have Muslim connotations: ‘Gibreel’ is a direct reference to the Qur’an, and Saladin is a traditional Arab name. In the same way that our identities are never simple, neither can a name contain a simple answer. The characters will continue to reflect both angelic and satanic qualities, in a way that complicates the seeming obviousness of their names.
The men’s occupations also play into the novel’s preoccupation with rebirth. Acting is a profession that requires constant ‘reincarnation’ to adopt the personality of a new character. As a voice actor, Saladin relies entirely on language to create a character; this resonates with the fact that in this book, language forges identity - consider Saladin’s panic when his Indian accent starts to return. Although Gibreel is a film actor, there are certain parallels between his career and Saladin’s; for example, the Ganesh mask he wore in his first major role evokes the mask that Saladin wears in the television show about aliens. Because these characters are involved in an industry that requires an ever-shifting identity, they are perfect people through which to explore the idea that nobody is ever simply the person they profess to be.
Interestingly, Rushdie does not simply suggest these ideas and then explore them abstractly. Instead, he insists that the characters are literally transforming. Throughout the novel, they will take on distinct forms and guises, which both elucidates and complicates the concept of shifting identity. Not only are his characters shifting their identities, but they actually become other entities. He establishes this device even in Part I, by suggesting they will embody both an angel and a devil.
Finally, it is worth noting Rushdie's unique authorial style. His barrage of language is as notable for its erudition as it is for its casualness. The mixture of both banal cliche and heightened, stylized language only serves to reinforce the idea that everything contains within it a contradiction. Further, the narrator plays something of a deity himself, acknowledging that he has control of the narrative and willfully choosing which details to reveal and which to keep secret. This fanciful and profuse writing style not only establishes the voice as singular, but also reinforces many of the themes that the story explores.