Jason R. D’Cruz: Death, Mutation, and Rebirth

Death, Mutation, and Rebirth:

The Migrant in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie

Jason R. D’Cruz <infinity@astral.magic.ca>

Alternately called “wog”, “snotnose”, and “sniffer” by his English schoolmates (Hamilton 94), the once conspicuously dark-skinned boy is now heralded as a representative figure of contemporary British literature: supreme irony, poetic justice. Whether one adores or detests the work of Salman Rushdie, he is difficult to ignore. After Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, the revered Imam and Supreme Guide, called a fatwa on his head on Valentine’s Day, 1989, Rushdie gained the notoriety that he was dying for; ironically, the price of his fame may indeed be death. In a recent edition of ‘The New Yorker’, Salman Rushdie was quoted as writing: “A poet’s work…To name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep. And if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his verses inflict, then they will nourish him.” (Hamilton 112) Rushdie has always been concerned with giving a voice to the voiceless, with giving the power of description to the disenfranchised, and today, Rushdie is renowned for his brilliantly vicious political satire. However, on a deeper level, his books far transcend the ephemeral relevance of political satire. Rushdie aims to give the power of description to the migrant, a personage who is often described into a corner by those around him (Rushdie, The Satanic Verses 167), a character with whom Rushdie can easily identify. Three of Rushdie’s most important works, Midnight’s ChildrenShame, and The Satanic Verses, draw heavily on the theme of migration. By examining the life of the migrant, Rushdie explores the universal mystery of being born and the puzzle of who one is. One can understand Rushdie’s quest for identity by examining his life, his deliberately chosen style of prose, the theme of “double identity”, “divided selves” and the “Shadow figures” in his novels and in his personality, and the benefits that many characters reap from being migrants.

It is important first to study Rushdie’s life because many of his life experiences tend to seep into his works. Salman Rushdie is the quintessential migrant and has gained a unique perspective from his rather unique life. Rushdie was born in India, schooled in England, forced by his parents to move to Pakistan, and finally exiled back to Britain (Hamilton 95). Rushdie has never been truly accepted in any of his ‘homes’: in England he was considered very foreign and ‘exotic’ at Rugby public school and subsequently at Cambridge; back in India he was ridiculed by his peers for his perfect British accent and considered brainwashed and corrupted by the materialistic West; in Pakistan he is still considered an infidel and a blasphemer (Hamilton 96). In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie weaves one of his schoolboy experiences into the plot of his novel. He recounts how on the first day of school he was given a kipper for breakfast and not told how to eat it:


He sat there staring at it, not knowing where to begin. Then he cut into it, and got a mouthful of tiny bones. And after extracting them all, another mouthful, more bones. His fellow pupils watched him suffer in silence; not one of them said, here, let me show you, you eat it in this way. It took him ninety minutes to eat the fish and he was not permitted to leave to rise from the table until it was done. By that time he was shaking, and if he had been able to cry he would have done so. Then the thought occurred to him that he had been taught a valuable lesson. England was a peculiar tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones, and nobody would ever tell him how to eat it. He discovered that he was a bloody-minded person. “I’ll show them all,” he swore. “You see if I don’t.” The eaten kipper was his first victory, the first step on his conquest of England. (The Satanic Verses 137)

Despite the trials Rushdie had to undergo, he maintains that there are distinct advantages to being a migrant for both the writer and the person as a whole. In a BBC taped interview, Rushdie stated: “To migrate is to experience deep changes and wrenches in the soul, but the migrant is not simply transformed by his act, he also transforms the new world. Migrants might well become mutants, but it is out of such hybridization that newness can emerge.” (BBC “Conversations” series). He explains in “Imaginary Homelands” that migrant writers have a “double perspective” (19): they are both insiders and outsiders in the worlds they describe. He believes that redescribing the world is a necessary first step to changing it (14): in all three of his novels, this redescription is the prerogative of the migrant narrator. Migration is a painful but emancipating process: “To be reborn, first you have to die” (The Satanic Verses 6). Finally, Rushdie explains that the literary migrant is able to “choose his parents.” Rushdie’s own include Cervantes, Kafka, and Melville along with reams of Muslim and Hindu poets and Eastern oral myths (Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands” 21).

Rushdie admits that after leaving one’s homeland for a long time, one has a tendency to romanticize, over-emphasize, or even forget completely, certain details. However, Rushdie also maintains that there is an advantage to this filtering of experience. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie uses the metaphor of a movie screen to explain the perception of a migrant: “Suppose yourself in a large cinema, and gradually moving up, …until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars’ faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions;…it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality” (394). Although migrants may not be able to determine the precise historical truth of their past, they are able to ferret out what is important in the shaping of their lives.

This selective filtration of memory is made most apparent in Midnight’s Children. Much has been made by critics of the unreliable narration of the protagonist, Saleem, in this novel. Saleem gets numerous historical events and dates muddled up as he tries desperately to convince his readers that he is at the centre of India’s history (Rushdie, “Errata” 24). In an essay subsequent to the book, Rushdie reveals that these mistakes were inserted on purpose. He claims to have chosen to insert ‘remembered truth’ rather than ‘literal truth’ (24). The theme of blurred remembrances builds upon that of the “perforated sheet” (Midnight’s Children 15) in the same novel. At the beginning of the story, Saleem’s grandfather, Aadam, falls in love with his future wife only by seeing her piece by piece through a perforated sheet. This theme of the fragmentation of vision recurs throughout the novel. Although his perception is somewhat unreliable in apprehending literal fact, the migrant is able to gain truth from this illusion; migrants can find meaning in existence by situating themselves in history.

Indeed, it is quite clear in Rushdie’s novels that migrants gain insight from their plight. Unfortunately, however, such insight is often silenced and devalued. By successfully blending English and Indian voices, Rushdie manages to empower the migrant. In “Imaginary Homelands” Rushdie writes; “We can’t simply use the language the way the British did; it needs remaking for our own purposes…To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free” (17). In Rushdie’s fictionalized immigration office “a woman is by now mostly water buffalo, businessmen from Nigeria have grown sturdy tails, a group of holidaymakers from Senegal…have been turned into slippery snakes…” (Harrison 92). When asked how this can be, Saladin answers, “They describe us…That’s all. They have the power of description and we succumb to the pictures they create.” (The Satanic Verses 167-168). In his books, Rushdie attempts to give a voice to the voiceless. The theme of multitudinous voices is pervasive in many of Rushdie’s novels (Bardolph 210). In The Satanic Verses Saladin becomes a radio celebrity and is known as the “Man of a Thousand Voices and a Voice” (60). The psychic conferences of Midnight’s Children contain one thousand children with a plurality of different languages, cultures, and beliefs.

Rushdie’s most powerful tool for redescription, and hence, recreation, is his magnificent prose. With his brilliant word plays and supreme command of the language he fuses his Indian childhood with his Cambridge education. Rushdie recreates the English language by combining it with Indian colloquialisms and Urdu and Hindi words. One of his techniques is to “[insert] Indian vernacular habits into flawless English intoned sentences…” (Dhawan 191). An excellent example of this occurs inShame: “Barbs were flung through the same lattice: ‘Ohe, madam! Where do you think he gets your grand grand clothes? From handicraft emporia?” (67) Another technique is the literal translation of Indian vernacular idiom (Dhawan 192): “May your grandsons urinate upon your pauper’s grave” [italics added] (Shame 17). Rushdie displays his erudition with the use of numerous literary allusions in his novels. By way of parody, Midnight’s Children contains the line: “Telepathy set me apart: telecommunications dropped me down.” (118) This parodies the lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (Dhawan 187): “Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew / Undid me” (III 292-293). By combining the oral and literary traditions of East and West, Rushdie legitimates the migrant experience and allows the migrant the opportunity to “describe himself back out of the corner” (“Imaginary Homelands” 16).

The duality, and eventual fusion, in Rushdie’s prose is mirrored in his migrant protagonists. The identity of the migrant is such that he is torn in two opposing directions: in all of Rushdie’s novels the protagonists have alter-egos, or what Jung would refer to as Shadow figures. In Midnight’s Children, the introspective prophet, Saleem, is paired with the evil and Machiavellian Shiva . These two characters are switched at birth at the beginning of the novel and live with the each other’s families for the rest of their childhood. In Shame, the army general, Raza Hyder, is paired with the civilian politician, Iskander Harrappa: “Hyder and Harappa, my leading men. Immigrant and native, Godly and profane, military and civilian” (283). In The Satanic Verses, the vulgar, self-important Gibreel Farishta, who believes he is the next prophet, is paired with the stiffly Anglophile Saladin Chamcha. The lustful and hedonistic Gibreel annoys Saladin to no end with his resolute Indianess: “Mera joota hai Japani / Y? patloon Inglistani / Sar p? lal topi Rusi / Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani” (“Imaginary Homelands” 11) which translates roughly as: “O, my shoes are Japanese / These trousers English, if you please / On my head, red Russian hat – / My heart’s Indian for all that.” (The Satanic Verses 10). Each of these paired characters is chained inextricably to his alter-ego throughout his life.

The phenomenon of dual identity which is so prevalent in the migrant protagonists of Rushdie’s novels also occurs in Rushdie’s own personality. There is a clear discrepancy between Rushdie, the angry, vitriolic, blasphemous enfant terrible, and Rushdie the introspective, sensitive, and vulnerable migrant (Harrison 105). Also, Rushdie has always considered the writer’s role as antagonistic to that of the state. In 1986, however, he found himself backing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua (Hamilton 107): yet another contradiction.

Despite the confusion and ambiguity that the migrant’s existence entails, in Rushdie’s novels it forces the character to search for self-identity, to search for the things that made him: this is the blessing of the migrant. Each of the migrant protagonists has a very special talent that allows him to clearly view himself and the world around him. In Midnight’s Children, Saleem is born on India’s independence day and hence has powers of telepathy. In The Satanic Verses Gibreel believes he is a prophet and is blessed with foreknowledge of future events. In Shame, although Omar complains bitterly that he is a “peripheral man”, he is able to connect many different characters and becomes what Robertson Davies might term ‘Fifth Business’. Indeed, Rushdie himself embarks on a journey of self-discovery when he writes and the talent that propels him toward self-knowledge is his brilliant creativity and skillful writing.

Many migrant writers seem to experience the same emancipation and insight that Rushdie does. In Borderlands, Gloria Anzaldua writes:

It is not a comfortable place to live in, this place of contradictions. However, there have been compensations and certain joys. Living on borders and in margins, keeping in touch with one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity, is like trying to swim in a new element, an ‘alien’ element. […] I have a sense that certain ‘faculties’ […] and dormant areas of consciousness are being activated and awakened” (unpaginated preface)

Rushdie’s message does not apply solely to the literal migrant. It is universal insofar as we are all, in a way, migrants. In “Imaginary Homelands” Rushdie writes: “It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of- country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form….This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal.” Just like the migrant protagonists in Rushdie’s works, all human beings have hidden sides to their personalities: we must all search for the roots and meaning of our existence.

In conclusion, ShameMidnight’s Children, and The Satanic Verses all deal with the death the migrant dies, the agony of mutation, and the emancipation and self- knowledge of rebirth. One can understand this unifying theme in Rushdie’s works by examining his life, his deliberately chosen style of prose, the theme of “double identity” in his novels and in his personality, and the benefits that many characters reap from being migrants. In order to appreciate fully the work of Salman Rushdie, one must look past the politics surrounding his novels and study Rushdie the artist. Only then can the reader develop an appreciation his brilliance and examine his universal insights into the human experience. Anything less is denying his work the credit it deserves.


Works Cited

  • Ahsan, M.M., A.R. Kidwai. Sacrilege Versus Civility: Muslim Perspectives on The Satanic Verses Affair. Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1993.
  • Anzaldua, Gloria, Borderlands. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987. Qtd. Needham.
  • Bardolph, Jaqueline. “Language is Courage.” Reading Rushdie. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.
  • Dhawan, R. K. Three Contemporary Novelists. New Delhi: Classical Publishing Company, 1985.
  • Engblom, Philip. “A Multitude of Voices: Carnivalization and Dialogicality in the Novels of Salman Rushdie.” Reading Rushdie. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.
  • Hamilton, Ian. “The First Life of Salman Rushdie.” The New Yorker. Dec. 1995: 90- 113.
  • Harrison, James. Salman Rushdie. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
  • Jones, Peter. “The Satanic Verses andthe Politics of Identity.” Reading Rushdie. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.
  • Needham, Anuradha. “The Politics of Post-Colonial Identity in Salman Rushdie.” Reading Rushdie. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.
  • Rao, Madhusudhana. Salman Rushdie’s Fiction. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1992.
  • Rushdie, Salman / ICA Video. Northbrook, Ill. : Roland Collection of Films on Art, BBC, 1989. [videorecording]
  • Rushdie, Salman. “Imaginary Homelands.” Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London: Granta Books, 1992.
  • Rushdie, Salman. “‘Errata’ or Unreliable Narration in Midnight’s Children.” Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London: Granta Books, 1992.
  • Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York: Penguin Books, 1980
  • Rushdie, Salman. Shame. New York: Random House, 1984.
  • Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. Dover: The Consortium, 1988.
  • Weatherby, William. Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death. New York: Carol & Graf Publishers, 1990