Category Archives: Salman Rushdie

Literary potshots

In Fury, a Salman Rushdie character (Prof. Solanka) flays Hemingway, calling him the “most effeminate” of novelists, or something to that effect. It suits Rushdie, his writing leaning towards the opposite spectrum of literary style.

A few years down the line, Rohinton Mistry writes in Family Matters –

“…Yezad felt that Punjabi migrants of a certain age were like Indian authors writing about that period, whether in realist novels of corpse-filled trains or in the magic-realist midnight muddles, all repeating the same catalogue of horrors about slaughter and burning, rape and mutilation, foetuses torn out of wombs, genitals stuffed in the mouths of the castrated.”

– obvious references to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Mistry makes up for it when Yezad is immediately penitent:

“…He knew they had to keep telling their story, just like Jews had to theirs, about the Holocaust…”

 

It is interesting to see some mudslinging between authors, through their own medium, a license to criticize one of the small pleasure’s of a writer’s life.

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Fury by Salman Rushdie

 Professor Malik Solanka, a man in his mid fifties, scholar and dollmaker extraordinaire, is having a rather belated mid life crisis. “Fury”, which he sees around him, in the rage of destruction, or the fire of creation, overwhelms him suddenly, when he leaves his wife and three year old son in London. He travels to New York, to resolve his existentialist dilemma, but gets entangled in the “fury” of the city, and the people he meets there, in the dawn of the new millennium.

 

Rushdie’s world is chaotic as ever, his penchant for sarcasm undiminished. There’s also the arbitrary, even whimsical, emerging from time to time. Who would name a character Krzysztof Waterford-Wajda, and mention Kieszlowski in the same book? It seems Rushdie had been into Polish directors at the time of writing the book (Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrjez Wajda. two of Poland’s most famous directors ). 

There are perhaps echoes of his own life in the Solanka character, how he befriends and falls in love with head turning beauty Neela Mahendra in NY.  For a while, it is not difficult to put Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi in their shoes. 

 

Things seem to be coming together well in the Rushdie world, the angst of the disenchanted professor, the lunacy of modern living – personification of fury itself, love, incest, sexual obsession, even a little of fashionable anti Americanism here and there. But things really begin to tumble when Rushdie jumps into hyperspace, with Solanka’s venture into the Internet (remember, this book was written around the time of the Internet bubble, talk of cashing in) – with his sci fi dolls and the world of Akasz Kronos, Baburia and what have you. The latter half of the book, as we quickly enter the political crisis in Lilliput-Blefuscu via the imagined life of space age puppets, thus deteriorates into mindless prattle. It is a huge letdown.

 

There’s no question of Rushdie’s intellect, but when great minds wander, it is not difficult to foresee that illusions of grandeur persist in all. A disgruntled reader begins to question: To whose benefit is the writing, so devoid of the possibilities of social satire or poignant introspection with which it begins, but the kitsch waste into which it eventually degenerates? The outcome is thus the loss of trust between the reader and writer, originating not only from the question of whether the reader has been wasting his precious time behind the book, but whether the writer has been wasting his, disguising something fickle in a seemingly profound package. Whatever the answer, it is certainly not a win-win.

East West by Salman Rushdie

eastwest East West is a short story collection. The nine tales are grouped in three, by the flavour of their origins, the third being the mixed one of book’s title. That also happened to be the one I liked the most, with “The Courter” beating the rest by far.

This was a second read of “The Courter”, after Storywallah and undoubtedly more enjoyable. There’s humour, love and sadness mixed in the story, but none (not at least in a high dose) of the Rushdiesque satire. Its also easily the most personal of the stories, with Rushdie drawing seemingly from his own experience as an immigrant, growing up in London.

Humour opens the story, with Certainly-Mary and her queer English and is sprinkled throughout. The narrator’s regard for Certainly-Mary, the family ayah who accompanies them to England, is poignant, as is the chess playing, Flintstone watching, tea drinking romance between Certainly-Mary and Mixed-Up Mecir, the tenement porter mangled befittingly to “courter” by the ayah’s eccentric accent.

The narrator reminisces growing up in the sixties with his sisters, in popular songs, school and teenage infatuation with the opposite sex. His veneration for Certainly-Mary is not merely because “she did as much as their mother to raise the kids”, but also since Mary’s presence brought sanity to a dysfunctional family. When Mary is unwell after Mecir is stabbed in a heroic attempt to rescue the ladies from local goons, the family comes together to cheer her up, or at least “play acts” to raise her spirits.

 

Mecir is a chess grandmaster, before a stroke paralysed his career. He teaches Mary the game, and it draws them closer.

“Chess had become their private language”

The game of chess is also used metaphorically, when the narrator recalls an account of a classic game between Mecir and an opponent in a 1950 championship. Mecir the master strategist of the past is driven to helplessness in the real life threats he has to face in fending off vindictive troublemakers.

The narrator’s family also faces racial abuse, with the goons threatening mother and ayah, assuming them to be linked to another Indian they were looking for:

“Fucking wogs…You fucking come over here, you don’t fucking know how to fucking behave…”

 

There’s a chord of nostalgia binding the piece, ending in a similar note, with the dispersal of Mary and Mecir from the narrator’s life.

 

The book is worth buying just for this story alone. The others aren’t lacklustre either, and I was hoping to span some of those in this post. But it is night and tomorrow is Monday. So I can see a part II coming, if I’m up to it later.

Shame by Salman Rushdie

shame.jpg Though the characters and events are cast in a fable like fashion, “Shame” is clearly a portrayal of post independence Pakistan, with some of its main characters replicating prominent political figures in real life, albeit loosely. Iskander (a vairant of Sikander/Alexander) Harappa is the liberal Zulfikar Bhutto, Raza Hyder, his subverter and subsequent president, the autocratic General Zia. Iskander’s daughter, Arjumand the virgin Ironpants is Benazir, though the work never spans beyond to that chapter of Pak political history. Though names are altered and lives coloured, the resemblances are unmistakable.
Rushdie takes potshots at Religious fanaticism, through Maulana Dawood and Hyder. In real life, it does seem Gen. Zia’s rule saw the revival of religious extremism. Rushdie notes:
…Islam might well have proved an effective unifying force in post-Bangladesh Pakistan, if people hadn’t tried to make it into such an almighty big deal…
Few mythologies survive close examination, however. And they can become very unpopular indeed if they’re rammed down people’s throats.

He is also critical of Pakistan’s high handed attitude towards Bangladesh – all through fictitious representation of real characters and incidents. His satire, for instance the left right dialectics tormenting Raza Hyder, is also effective.

The book has five sections, the first three serving to explore the origins of the heroes. I found them (the first three sections, that is) too elaborate, especially the one dealing with Omar Khayyam Shakil. He, though dubbed as the main hero, mostly serves as an eyepiece to view others, running into their lives. Of course, Hyder’s end comes due to Omar Khayyam’s choice, in the hands of his mothers (he had three).
It becomes gripping from part IV, titled “IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY” and continues that way till its conclusion.

Overall, it is a great read, accept don’t accept. Rushdie’s prowess as a literary artist is evident page after page, bringing great order to seeming chaos. Rich and fluid writing, full of delirium of the characters, yet carefully choreographed from start to finish, is the novel’s highlight. Magic Realism, though not as profuse as in Midnight’s Children, is nonetheless present – in the psychotic Hyder daughter Sofia Zinobia who transforms into a mythical panther and tears off people’s heads with bare hands, and Talvar Ul Haq’s clairvoyance.

Midnight’s Chlidren by Salman Rushdie

Introduction and Theme

midnights_children1.jpgBefore disbursing trite compliments and proposing it as a masterly work of postmodern literature, it must be explained what sets this book apart and why one must attempt to read it. I deliberately use the word “attempt”, since it is not an easy book to read. Not for everyone. A category of readers, and this by no means reflects on their depth or level of erudition, will drop the book after a few pages or chapters, or even doggedly complete it despite finding it painstakingly difficult, to never return to another Rushdie work again. The reason is mainly due to the narrative style, which takes the reader on a journey through the twisted alleys and grimy side streets of the narrator’s perception. Through these murky and sometimes unreliable paths one must piece together the events and characters that surround his topsy turvy, magical life – a life that came to being at the same time an ancient country was split into two by forces of greed and opportunism.

The story is told by Saleem Sinai, the narrator, to Padma, who takes care of him and eventually proposes marriage. Saleem, born at the stroke of midnight of August 15th, 1947, possesses a remarkable gift – an extra sensory nose – which imparts upon him telepathic powers. He uses it to commune with the other children born with the nation, each with preternatural qualities of their own. One is a sorcerer with saucer like eyes, one an alchemist, one a time traveler, yet another a master of the vanishing trick and so on – the magnitude of their versatility increasing with the closeness of their time of birth to the midnight hour of that fateful night. Saleem and Shiva(in some ways his rival) are both born at the stroke of midnight, one with the gift of “noses” and the other, of “knees”. Saleem forms a league with these extraordinary children through a weekly meeting that he conducts in the head. He calls it M.C.C (Midnight’s Children’s conference) – where all the children(five hundred something) tune in and talk to each other. He suffers from the “optimism disease” of foreseeing a new India, a truly democratic country where secularism is supreme and poverty is eradicated. Instead he is greeted with wars and personal tragedy that tears his life apart. His life, along with those of the children, is tied to that of that nation. They are “both masters and victims of their times”.

 

Political Context

The novel spans the time from India’s independence(although there’s a significant portion attributed in the beginning to Aadam Sinai, Saleem’s grandfather, and his descent from Kashmir) till the period just after the emergency(1977) under Indira Gandhi. A reader with no background of India’s political history in the twentieth century is at a serious disadvantage and will fail to put things in perspective. In fact, knowledge of the partition and formation of Pakistan is also crucial to truly appreciate the book. Rushdie visits the Indo-China war of 1962 and the two wars with Pakistan, the first over Kashmir(1965) and the second which led to the liberation of Bangladesh(1971). The events leading to the second Indo-Pak conflict, during which the narrator’s family had emigrated to Pakistan and taken Pakistani citizenship – is dealt with in details, from Pakistan’s tactical ploy to undermine the subversive Awami League leader Mujibur Rehman to the actual war itself, through the perspective of Saleem and a band of young soldiers as part of the ludicrous “canine unit”.

Rushdie is bitterly critical of the emergency(1975 – 1977), lashing out at both Indira Gandhi(referred throughout as “The Widow”) whose desperation for power led to a virtual totalitarian state, and his son, the “labia-lipped” Sanjay Gandhi who, although unelected, undertook extreme measures to drive his mother’s “garibi hatao” movement – uprooting the helpless poor and forcefully implementing vasectomies in the name of birth control. He is equally critical of the supine opposition in the Janata Party and it’s senile, urine drinking leader Morarji Desai. who eventually became the Prime Minister of India after Indira Gandhi is swept out in the post emergency elections.

 

Literary Aspects

The language is rich with vivid metaphors and pregnant imagery. There are farcical elements that makes one laugh at their ridiculousness when used with such apparent sincerity. Can you imagine a game of hitting a spittoon with betel juice squirted from the mouth, or a person killing people with immensely powerful knees? Saleem’s own face has a fiercely cartoon like semblance – with a bulbous nose (I was reminded of Rastapopoulos, the Tintin villain), missing hair(“baldy”) and discolorations(“map face”). There’s also great irony forming the backbone of the story – Saleem himself is not what the real Saleem and Saleem’s son is not a true son but a true grandson (I will not dispel the vagueness of these statements here for fear of giving away crucial parts of the plot). Symbolisms are inlaid throughout the work. Saleem and others of the M.C.C are the children of hope, of a newly independent India. Yet twenty something years later when the nation reels with war, corruption and despotism, Saleem’s son is born in stupor, a mute spectator to the stifled world around him. There’s the “black mango” leading to Saleem’s discovery of his telepathic abilities, the jar of pickles in Mary Pereira’s pickle factory, Saleem’s extra sensory olfactory skills, Tai Bibi’s smell recreation – the book is replete with such evocations. There are nostalgic recollections of Bombay, Rushdie’s (and Saleem’s) home town, where our hero returns in the end to find his fond reminiscences of the city – their estate, hoardings and shops – replaced by flyovers and skyscrapers.

Reading this work is like taking a bumpy ride in a dark tunnel, guided only with a glimmer bright enough to reveal the tracks underneath. While the tunnel is solid like the historical facts, one is unsure of what to expect in the journey, just as Saleem’s own life throws one off balance. Rushdie employs magic realism, a literary device that freely blends supernatural and real events, to a tremendous effect. Orotund words are sprinkled effusively yet efficaciously. And there are gems of aphorisms waiting to be discovered, such as this one:

“Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.”

Style and syntax is effortlessly bent to suit the flavor of Indian-English. Such masterly control of the language over such an extensive length(Knopf’s hardback Everyman’s Library edition is 589 pages) is a feat befitting one awarded the “Booker of Bookers”. Yet it is arguable if such a style can really wield the magic of reaching the very depths of one’s emotions. The heaviness of the language and complexity of the narration, no matter how great the literary accomplishments, circumvents the direct path to one’s heart.

© 2007 mystic-wanderer