“The Satanic Verses” and “Midnight’s Children”

Salman Rushdie—Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses

The publication of The Satanic Verses brought on a fatwa (Islamic judicial decree) from the Iranian religious ruler Ayatollah Khomeini that Rushdie as well as anyone involved in the publication of the book be killed. This death threat was based on the perception that The Satanic Verses mocked the prophet Mohammed.

Rushdie had to go into hiding for many years. Though his book was published worldwide, a few of its publishers and translators were killed for it. As the consequences of its publication and its banning were so great, I decided this had to be my banned book for the fall. But as it is long, I decided to start early. I was so enthralled with the book that I then read another by the same author—Midnight’s Children. So—this brought me past the ‘banned books week’ deadline and into a new month.

I’m not sure that Rushdie’s books will appeal to many students. This isn’t because they aren’t good—they’re great—wonderful, imaginative, vast works that cover important history, human frailty, that combine a sense of real events with magic. In short, these are two of the best books I’ve ever read. So before I comment on them individually, let me say this: if you try them while in high school and they don’t appeal to you—too long or too confusing or you don’t care about the British in India—try them later in life. There are books that I hated in high school which became favorites of mine once I had lived a bit and was able to grasp their meaning. (Moby-Dick by Herman Melville comes to mind.) Rushdie’s books are too good to miss entirely. And there will come a point when all this magical storytelling, all the reality cast in absurdity, will mean a great deal to you.

All right—for the fearless among you, the college-bound, serious readers:

Midnight’s Children is the story of Saleem Sinai, a pickle-factory worker, born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, at the very moment India became independent of Great Britain. His life is a mirror to the life of India—he is himself, but he represents the country as well. He is telling his story to an uneducated woman named Padma (Saleem refers to her as his ‘dung goddess,’ because of her name) at the same time that he writes it each evening. Padma comments on the parts she likes and on when she thinks the story is getting off track.

In order to tell his story, Saleem starts with his grandfather and how he met his grandmother (a funny, sweet story, although their marriage turns out to be a trial). He also discusses his parents’ marriage, but the real center of the story is Saleem himself and of his incredible destiny, as he is a mirror to the newly born India.

When Saleem is born, the attendant switches him with the real baby—also born on the stroke of midnight—of the parents who raise him. Saleem is actually the child of a poor woman and Wee Willie Winkie, an itinerate singer, who becomes an alcoholic when his wife dies in childbirth (Saleem’s actual mother, but he doesn’t know this for many years). Meanwhile, the nurse who switched the babies, Mary Pereira, becomes Saleem’s nanny. Saleem is an odd-looking kid, with a huge nose, and people are always making fun of him.

The other child born at midnight is Shiva. He becomes the nemesis of Saleem and the two will do combat—both physical and mental—for the rest of their lives. In fact, Saleem discovers that he has great powers—he can get into the minds of others and he starts to communicate telepathically with all the other children in the country who were born in the hour between midnight and one AM on August 15, 1947. (Thus, the title of the book Midnight’s Children.) In this way, he finds out that all of them have some sort of great power. The most important of these children will be Parvati-the-witch, who has the power to make things disappear, and Shiva, the natural son of Ahmed and Amina Sinai who has knees powerful enough to kill a man. (Yes, this is one of the wacky, funny-but-not things in the book.)

Shiva and Saleem work their destinies, often against each other. Throughout the book, parents raise fortunes and lose them; they fall in love with the wrong people; Saleem himself is tormented by his love for his sister (who, he argues, is not really his sister because he was switched at birth). Wars spring up intermittently; significant characters suffer and are killed. And through it all, there’s magic and coincidence. It’s a wild ride to get to the 1960s when Saleem is raising Shiva’s child (love that irony) with the boy’s mother, Parvati-the-witch, and finally descends to pickle-factory worker with a great nose for sniffing out flavor.

NOTE: Since this book does deal with a number of factual, historically significant events, it would be great for the Chaffey High senior project if you’d like to give it a try.

The Satanic Verses is a brilliant book about the relationship between Great Britain and India; racial prejudice and politics; cultural misunderstanding; an exploration of reality and a questioning of truth. Thematically, it seems to be about most everything important in the world. It takes places in the 1980s and moves between London and Bombay.

I was hooked from the moment that Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, both Indians with British ties, fall miles through the air from an exploded plane, land in the English Channel, and live. Immediately, we know we’re in a world of magic, so when we find out that Gibreel has tried not to sleep for 110 days while terrorists have control of the plane, we believe it.

Gibreel’s problem is that when he sleeps, he dreams about the prophet Mohammed and of his many wives. In these dreams, people close to Mohammed question the veracity of his visions. Pretty much everything that Gibreel dreams or imagines is heretical to Islam.

Yet once the pair is rescued by an old English woman, Saladin starts to take on the features of a devil or satyr—he grows horns and hoofs and coarse hair everywhere. His appearance causes him to be brutalized by the police and hated in general. He can’t understand why this is happening to him. He is very British in thought and manner and can’t conceive of himself as an animal. He appears to be much worse off than Gibreel—at least for awhile.

Gibreel comes to believe that he is an archangel (Azraeel) and is destined to destroy cities. Later, when Gibreel, who is an Indian movie star, tries to come back to reality, he will try to make movies about his dreams and visions. He is treated for insanity.

Again, the two main characters’ lives are interconnected and they are often at odds with one another, even in epic battle. One of the great things about the book is that with all the bizarre incidences in the lives of these men, we often fall into that ‘suspension of disbelief’ necessary to enjoy fairy tales and tales of magic. Is Gibreel an angel after all, and is Saladin a devil because he is betraying his Indian roots and culture? What are their responsibilities in the race riots and how will they treat one another in crisis after they have each sought revenge on one another?

What of the four Ayeshas in the book—the empress that Gibreel destroys in a dream? The prophet who eat butterflies? Mahound’s (Mohammed’s) beautiful wife? The prostitute?

And what of the pilgrims who walk hundreds of miles to the Arabian Sea? Are they really drowned or are they taken up to paradise? Why does Saladin’s lover, a married woman who took her children and leaped to her death when Saladin rejected her, keep coming back in visions to taunt Saladin and give him advice? Is the battle between Gibreel and Saladin really a battle between good and evil? (It doesn’t seem that easy. . . )

If you’re a fan of the fantastical story, give The Satanic Verses a try. And if you need to interpret a novel as well as find out what the professional critics say—as you do for Colony High’s senior project—you couldn’t pick a better piece of fiction.


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
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