Places: The Satanic Verses

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1988; in United States, 1989

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy

Time of work: Late twentieth and early seventh centuries

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed<i>Bostan</i>

BostanSatanic Verses, The. Fictional Air India flight from Bombay to London that is blown up by Sikh terrorists over the English coastline. This airplane, named after one of the Islamic gardens of paradise, is the novel’s opening setting, acting as a metaphor for the migrants’ movement between cultures. With the onset of the hijacking, the flight gradually loses its empirical reality, launching Gibreel and Chamcha into a world of illusion. The journey initiates their metamorphoses into their angelic and demoniac incarnations, which solidify in the home of Rosa Diamond, an octogenarian Englishwoman who repeatedly sees the specters of Norman invaders from nine hundred years earlier. These two locations mark the main characters’ entry into England in their metamorphosed states as desirable and undesirable immigrants.

*London

*London. Great Britain’s capital city has two distinct faces in the novel. Superficially, it is the capital of British culture and civilization, the dream destination of immigrants from former colonies. As an educated, financially secure immigrant, Chamcha sees London as prosperous and accommodating, a place where he is accepted as a proper Englishman with an English wife, a successful career in television, and a mansion in Notting Hill. This rosy veneer, however, belies the city’s dark underside, characterized by racial discrimination and police brutality.

When Chamcha lands in England following the plane explosion, penniless and unable to prove his British citizenship, he finds the nation transformed into a horrible fantasy, “some counterfeit zone, rotten borough, altered state.” In this negative aspect of London, immigrants are literally transformed into animals and demons, tortured by officials, incarcerated, and forced to flee at night into a hellish underworld. The immigrant community, centered in the racially diverse neighborhood called Brickhall, modeled on the real London suburb of Brixton, lives with fear, intimidation, and poverty. The Shandaar Café in Brickhall, where Chamcha is concealed after his metamorphosis into a devil, symbolizes both the vitality of the immigrant community and its exploitation by outsiders and by its own members. In the Brickhall disco Club Hot Wax, immigrants vent their frustration against their oppressors by melting wax effigies of English politicians, especially Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

While Gibreel does not experience the immigrant’s nightmare version of London, his perception of the city mirrors his disintegrating sense of reality as he struggles with the divine visions that cast him as the archangel in search of his adversary, Shaitan (Satan). In Gibreel’s view, the city becomes a hallucinatory labyrinth that constantly changes shape, a cosmological battlefield populated with ghosts and monstrous creatures. He alters the city’s temperature with his will, turning it into a tropical hothouse primed for racial conflagration.

*Bombay

*Bombay (now called Mumbai). Large city on the west coast of India. As it also does in Salman Rushdie’s other works, Bombay in this novel symbolizes both the best and worst of modern Indian society. A creation of British colonial power, the city prides itself on its European sophistication and eclectic multiculturalism. While the city’s diversity is celebrated in the novel, it is also made clear that disasters such as the Assam massacre result from internecine racial and religious tensions. Like London, Bombay in the novel is divided between rich and poor, between the luxurious lifestyles of those at Scandal Point and the high-rise Everest Villas and the poverty of Gibreel’s childhood as a tiffin, or lunch, carrier. Unlike London, Bombay is depicted largely in realistic terms, though it too is suffused with questions of illusion and identity, as suggested by the dominance of the “Bollywood,” or Indian, film industry.

For both Gibreel and Chamcha, Bombay is the home that they are trying to put behind them by going to England. In Gibreel’s case, the city is associated with the Islamic heritage he wants to deny; for Chamcha, it is the crystallization of a culture he deems uncivilized and a father he rejects. At the end of the novel, though, Chamcha’s return trip to Bombay represents his successful integration of his past and present and Indian and English selves.

Jahilia

Jahilia (jah-HEEL-ee-ah). Fictional depiction of the city of Mecca, birthplace of the Islamic religion, in the early seventh century. This city, which appears only in Gibreel’s dream sequences, is presented in somewhat caricatured, ultimately controversial terms, which underscore the novel’s interrogation of the viability of faith based on literal interpretation. Jahilia, which refers to the period of ignorance that preceded the Islamic religion, is also believed to be the name of the desert location where Ibrahim (Abraham) heeded God’s command to abandon his wife Hagar and child Ismail, who were then saved by the archangel Gibreel’s (Gabriel’s) revelation of the Spring of Zamzam. The word thus connotes both devotion and doubt, the latter of which is symbolized by the city’s total construction from sand, “the very stuff of inconstancy.”

With its temples devoted to 360 different deities, Jahilia is a favored destination for pilgrims, and its citizens benefit financially from markets and festivals attended by the faithful. Mahound, the novel’s parodic depiction of the prophet Muhammad, opposes his new religion of submission (Islam), with its one god (Allah), to the city’s polytheistic decadence. On nearby Mount Cone, he wrestles with the archangel Gibreel while receiving the Recitation (the Qur’an), whose divine authority is presented as questionable. Although Mahound is driven out by his enemies, his eventual return marks a new period of austerity in Jahilia, which is temporarily undermined by the creation of a town brothel, The Curtain, in which prostitutes masquerade as the prophet’s twelve wives.

Titlipur

Titlipur. Fictional twentieth century Muslim Indian village. This village, whose name derives from the butterflies that proliferate in the area, serves as the starting point for Gibreel’s second dream sequence, also dealing with questions of absolute faith. The impoverished inhabitants of the village are persuaded by Ayesha, a local girl with miraculous qualities, that the archangel has commanded them to make a foot pilgrimage to Mecca. They are joined by Mishal, the fatally ill wife of the local zamindar, or wealthy landowner, Mirza Saeed, a secularist, who lives nearby in a colonial mansion called Peristan (Fairyland). This test of faith terminates in a parting of the Arabian Sea, perceptible only to believers, which results in the drowning deaths of the pilgrims.

BibliographyBrennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Discusses both the strengths and weaknesses of Rushdie’s cosmopolitanism and the ways in which his fiction draws on Third World materials but does not adequately represent Third World concerns.Harrison, James. Salman Rushdie. New York: Twayne, 1992. A good general introduction to Rushdie; separate chapters on the novels, Rushdie’s biography, and India.MacDonogh, Steve, ed. The Rushdie Letters: Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Write. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. In addition to the letters to Rushdie written by twenty-seven prominent writers, the volume includes essays by Rushdie and Tom Stoppard and Carmel Bedford’s compilation, “Fiction, Fact, and the Fatwā.”Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. New York: Penguin, 1991. Several essays deal specifically with The Satanic Verses and the fatwā; many others, no less relevant, deal with various postcolonial topics.Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993. Although it includes no extended discussion of Rushdie and his novel, Said’s book is required reading for anyone hoping to understand The Satanic Verses in the postcolonial context.
Categories: Places