The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

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I'm a peace-loving married Indian male on the right side of '50 with college-going children, and presently employed under government. Educationally I've a master's degree in History, and another in Computer Application. Besides, I've a post graduate diploma in Management. My published works are:- (1)"In Harness", ISBN 81-8157-183-5, a poetry collections and (2) "The Remix of Orchid", ISBN 978-81-7525-729-0, a short story collections with a foreword by Mr. Ruskin Bond, (3) "Virasat", ISBN 978-81-7525-982-9, again a short story collection but in Hindi, (4) "Ek Saal Baad," ISBN 978-81-906496-8-1, my second Story Collection in Hindi.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: A Quintessential Indian Novel


Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: 
A Quintessential Indian Novel
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I had earlier read Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” way back in 2011 and then recapitulated the story in the shape of a blog post [available at this link ]. Looking back, it was not an academic review as such, rather an act of jotting down my reader’s impression, at best. And, now, after reading it for a second time in four years, I feel I should ask myself a question: Is the opus, so voted by the readers as the Booker of Bookers in 1993, engrossing enough to guarantee reading pleasure even for a second reading? And my answer is a big ‘yes’. Here, in this second review of the book, let me try to articulate why I feel so.

To begin with, let me say, it is a quintessential Indian novel, one that demands a kind of intimate familiarity with Indian issues and myths from its readers. Anybody with just passing knowledge about the country would not enjoy the book in a way an Indian reader would do. It is among the few must-read books on India—one that guarantees the value for time and money spent. And despite author’s choice of words from a vast range of vocabulary, there is something truly enchanting and genuinely magical about it. It is dense, gripping despite being garrulous, and rereading it is as much a refreshing experience as rereading the immortal classics of Panchatantra or Vetaal Pachisi or even the witty stories of Birbal and Tenaali Ram. It is one where history is churned and fictionalized, mythology is dug and sprinkled as condiments of narratives to the relish of the readers, heady and sometimes controversial doses of contemporary politics is mixed for an effect, sententious punchlines are left to philosophize and generalize…and all these done with one motive: to tell a story in an inimitable style, to leave the readers marvel, to delight in something qualitatively different, to transport them to a different world with or without willing suspension of disbelief.

In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie tries to stuff the Indianness in the entire course of his narratives. Look, how copiously he uses the Hinglish! In other time one would be conscious of the fact that he is writing something in English and the scope of such use is only limited. Don’t they say Italicize a foreign word if it is absolutely necessary to use it without translating? And don’t they say too much of italicization would go to turn your writing trash-like? But Rushdie uses them with impunity, with auctorial license...and, that too, with resounding success. Kudos for his boldness! There are words like kasundi which even many people in India would have to be told that it is a type of mango pickle; and there is another word, vimto, that refers to the home-made soda that is sold on a pushcart in a small town. He has not explained them nor used any appositives to simplify, and these are only two examples out of a plethora. Not only by the bold use of such sub-continental expressions that Rushdie has added native flair to Midnight’s Children, he has also made use of a style that can be used either by the most talented of the authors or by those that are most uninformed about the grammatical rules of standard English. Look, how many tense shifts he makes—in the same paragraph, in the same sentence, sometimes to the utter confusion of a reader who expects to read stuffs composed of correct English only! If any other writer leaves such things unedited in the final version of his book, the critics, before saying anything else about the work, jump to the easy nitpicking starting from the grammatical mistake! This happens especially when an Indian critic is critiquing a work written by an Indian--so much so that such reviews simply reek of the inferiority complex of the critic.

Forget correct English…and don’t get bogged down in the quagmire of standard English! There is one explanation why, despite such rampant tense shifts, the narratives do not cease to be attractive. It is not say that the compulsions of storytelling alone make the author move from past to present and from present to past at will. That in any case will be there, but then only to an extent. What Rushdie does here is to emulate Indian descriptive style, nay the very ethos of Indian languages. How? It is like this. In the chapter captioned as “Tick, Tock”, the author says: …no people whose word for ‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for ‘tomorrow’ can be said to have a firm grip on the time. The context he uses these words could be different, yet what he postulates here is reflected in his style—throughout the entire thirty-chapter, along the length and breadth of the book. In Hindi or, for that matter, in many other Indian languages, we do not observe the tense rule as meticulously as we do in English. Say, for example, let me construct a sentence in Hindi, वह सोच रहा था कि कब घर पहुंचेगा और अपनी आँखों से देख कर खुद को तसल्ली दिलाएगा कि बच्चा उसका ठीक-ठाक है [mark the tense shifts at the underlined words]. Translated into English this will be something like this: He was wondering as to when he would be home to see for himself and get relieved that his child was safe. So, what is important in Indian language is the sense: and if that is conveyed even by jumping across the artificial boundary lines of past-present-future temporal segments, then so be it. This is how I think Rushdie has broken the rules of grammar to enhance the mobility of sense throughout his novel.

And look how frequently he makes the POV shifts. Say from first person to third person. The narrator himself is telling his stories, everything that he has undergone during his thirty-one years of life from childhood to early youth. That is mostly in first person. But then again, there are occasions when he shifts from that…and it is only too abrupt, too facile. When the first-person narrative is in the thick of its development, when the story unfolds and keeps unfolding, he starts saying it all of a sudden Saleem is so and so, instead of I’m so and so; Saleem has done such and such instead of I’ve done such and such—a context mismatch that immediately plunges the reader into confusion. He or she has quickly to readjust the roll of character-cast and their relationships in his or her mind in the light of the POV shift to follow the story. Now, having pointed it out, let me say that such POV shift is also the result of Indian linguistic ethos, very much like the aforementioned tense shifts. In our day-to-day parlance, don’t we equate ‘I’ with ‘We’, say ‘मैं with ‘हम?  हम is the respectable ‘I’. I’m told, once upon a time even English people used to follow this type of self-adoring convention in their banal communication. Sometimes we can substitute first person by second person while we are to address ourselves. Let me construct an example to underscore the point, one where I can address myself in second person and still make sense: अब तुम्हारा क्या हो गया नन्द जी? अपना हक़ जताने में शर्म क्या? So, I can address myself as though I am addressing a second person. Likewise, Rushdie has crossed that Lakshmanrekha of POV immutability in his narratives. I think I will be more material if I cite at least one example of such POV shift from Midnight’s Children. Refer to the chapter captioned “Jamila Singer” and go to the twelfth paragraph that starts with, Saleem’s parents said, “we must all become new people”…. Should he not have said ‘My parents said, we must…’? Is it not a POV shift? I felt so, and there are many like that throughout the book. And despite that the story flows, at least for an Indian reader who knows that I = we or you, it is not a big deal.

Is the narrator the same person as Saleem? One should find the answer in the text. In the chapter captioned as “Jamila Singer” at its thirty-first paragraph, it gives an impression as if the narrator is a person different from the protagonist Saleem whereas in the previous paragraph it says that both are one and same persons. To quote,…jerking my narrator’s eyes away from the described past, I insist that Saleem, then-as-now, succeeded in turning his attention towards the as-yet-undescribed future. Escaping, whenever possible, from a residence in which the acrid fumes of his aunt’s envy made life unbearable, and also from a college filled with other equally dislikeable smells, I mounted my motorized steed and explored the olfactory avenues of my new city. So, let us read I = he = Saleem. There are many, many such examples of such interchangeable use of first person with third person in the entire text; a careful reader can see through them.

In Midnight’s Children Rushdie presents humour aplenty, the exclusive Indian brand of it. Look, how he chooses names, viz., Lifafa Das meaning Envelove Das, Rani Cooch Naheen meaning the Queen of Nothing! He has even one Picture Singh, the snake charmer a.k.a. the Most Charming Man In The World because once Kodak company included his picture in its ad. In fact one needs to know the meaning of such names to appreciate the humour. But that is not to say he only restricts the department of humour only to that. He has irony to serve to that purpose. A Muslim praying hits his nose on a tussock of earth and bleeds; a Muslim lady diagnosed and treated by the doctor through the peephole of a bed sheet; the surrogate kissing scene through a flower;  the beggar pretending lame his entire life running away as an able-bodied person seeing the truth-loving Hanif falling from upstairs; a half-gnawed hand of a Parsee falling from the sky to slap Ahmed Sinai; the funny belief of Naseem Aziz that photos can make the person photographed a transparent object; pregnant ladies visiting moored American ships to try their luck if they can give birth to their children on the ship to easily secure American citizenship for their kids, the rainfall in the Sundarbans making the tears of Ayooba Baloch unnecessary; Durga the wet-nurse having continuous supply out of her inexhaustibly colossal breasts—these are a few examples of light narratives strewn throughout the opus. Even the idea of making the act of spitting on the spittoon a competitive sport is hilarious and childlike. It reminds the bucolic charm of kids competing at roadside spots to send the jets of their urination to the farthest they can and one of them coming out the champion urinator—a scene one can find in Indian villages being practised among the playing kids even to this day. Zulfikar’s fantasy to have a swimming pool beside his bed or even portraying his son an incorrigible enuretic, Saleem a.k.a Buddha while on CUTIA mission painlessly urinating on a charged wire—all these are highlights of lightheartedness.

Indians need humour to be intensified: the form could be anything but in order to get the best out of humour the element of intentional intensification should be apparent. It is unlike the brand of British humour—the wry sense of humour, the puns, the witty interjections or deliberate insinuations they serve are only for the intelligent people; it is for others to either not to understand or have a belated understanding of it to laugh when the context has long disappeared. But Indian brand of humour aims at a greater audience—more the merrier—to take everybody along the flow of the lightheartedness. Hence, there is intensification. Salman Rushdie has not ignored this essential fact in his novel. He even narrates a defecator’s boasting about his ability to extrude turd that’s whooping fifteen inches long, the champion defecator! Both the glory and ignominy of defecation and incontinence are intensified to serve humour—the Indian brand of it!

Indians tend to generalise a lot, whether they handle a banal issue or an esoteric phenomena, whether they talk or think or dream. It's their search for the hidden pattern in everything, the cause and effect of natural phenomena, the individual idiosyncrasies, they are inevitably attracted to the lure of theory building. Look, how many proverbs we still preserve! And we have not stopped from inventing new ones! The purpose of writing stories in the past was to teach, to disseminate the insight, to make the connections between events and phenomena more understandable. Story is just a means to an end. That was how Panchatantra was written. That was how the Ramayan was written. I'm reminded of Vyas's Mahabharat. His commitment to mention a cause of everything was so much that even the theory of determinism was not sufficient. While explaining why Gandhari, the mother of Kauravas, had to suffer the loss of all her hundred sons, Vyas says that it was the result of her misdeed in the past life--a misdeed she unknowingly committed by pouring hot water on the ground that led to the death of hundred centipedes. Mother of such hapless centipedes had cursed Gandhari in her previous birth. How fantastic! The tradition continues even to this day. Salaman Rushdie in his Midnight's Children resorts to a lot of such punchlines, nay theory building. And this alone guarantees permanence to his work. Let me quote a few such punchlines. Nobody can face the world with his eyes open all the time.--What grows best in the heat: fantasy, unreason and lust.--Americans have mastered the universe, but they have no dominion over their mouths; whereas India is impotent, but their children tend to have excellent teeth--Indians grow larger and more powerful as they age but Europeans fade away with the years, and often completely disappear--No city that locks women away is ever short of whores--Family reunions are more delightful in prospect than in reality--We all owe death a life--Most of what affects our life takes place in our absence--Children are the vessels into which adults pour their poison--If one wishes to remain an individual in the midst of the teeming multitudes, one must make oneself grotesque--There is nothing like war for reinvention of lives and so on.

While writing a novel in English but based on or set in India, writers often tend to take the easy recourse to stereotypes. They highlight snake charmers and rope-walking magicians in the street as though nobody in India does anything else worth mentioning. They give long and witty narratives of pathetic beggars to show that India is a land of beggars in various forms—from religious mendicants to shrewd conmen in the garb of beggars. The scene of roadside defecation, the instances of uncleanness, the crowd inside railway coach, the exploitation and sufferings—these are the staple agenda. We may start the list of authors from Rudyard Kipling: not to speak of his infamous “white man’s burden”, for him even a European ghost is far superior to an Indian ghost! [see his story “The Strange Ride of Marrowbie Jukes”] The list may go on and on. One can read “The Area of Darkness” by Naipaul or the novel of Adiga “The White Tiger”. Some sort of India-bashing makes the book readable, likeable by the Western readers. The most recent one is the novel “Q & A” filmed as “The Slumdog Millionaire” wherein there is a scene showing an Indian child falling into a boggy pit, his body dripping of filthy night soil. No wonder the West liked it picturised in excruciating details; no wonder The Slumdog Millionaire got an Oscar award! Even changing the name of the title from “Q & A” to “The Slumdog Millionaire” has something to do with their search of catchy name to describe the poor in Indian slums: the Slumdog. Is their any dictionary meaning of the word? Or is it left to the film-goers of the West to understand the word recalling their already-understood meaning of dog? So writing about India is, more often than not, an exercise in collecting and presenting such stereotypes. The more vehement the narratives are the more is the book’s chance of getting a Booker or an Oscar.

Now let me test Midnight’s Children against the above xenophobic generalization of mine. Rushdie’s grasp of Hindu mythology leaves a lot to be desired. Look: at the chapter entitled as “Accident in a Washing-chest” he writes, When Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, dictated his masterpiece to elephant-headed Ganesh,…. Is he not confusing it with the story associated with Vyas dictating to Ganesh his masterpiece the Mahabharat? But then Rushdie knows his magic and fantasy well…and, also, does not hesitate to infuse into his narratives a bit of the stereotypes that all novelists penning about India so facilely depend on. So he has not entirely eschewed Indian turd in favour of describing Indian something to make India proud. In fact this is a story about a bunch of unlettered hapless Indian magicians and snake-charmers that have unknowingly got some connections with the contemporary political happenings. Of course while narrating about the beggars of Indian origin, Rushdie has shown a compensatory gesture by bringing a white beggar in their midst. That is all about his departure from stereotypes.

Now, let me explore another aspect. That is the timeliness of the novel. After India got her independence in 1947, the next great things to have happened on Indian soil were the events of ‘70s. First to come was the victory of India against Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh: 1971. And then the Silver Jubilee of India’s independence: 1972. And then to come was Smiling Buddha, the testing of nuclear device: 1974. The Green Revolution, the promulgation of emergency and then its revocation leading to restoration of democracy—all these went on to stir the Indian hearts, from the north to the south. At that point of time India’s achievement slowly began to command the respect of the West. Or at least India was able to draw the attention of thinking minds of the West. So the authors made a beeline to write about India. Larry Collin and Dominique LaPierre’s Freedom at Midnight (1975) tried to say something, but ended up eulogizing Lord Mountbatten. Zeitgeist in the air affecting other creative minds, Salman Rushdie came forward. He completed Midnight’s Children in 1979. He worked for a different genre, with a belief that if something about India was to be celebrated, it was magic. So, he took the course of fantasy. By that time the potential of Indian poverty as a hot theme was waning after its overdone glorification in various award-winning films. With Green Revolution turning India away from begging bowl to bread basket, India was getting an image makeover. So for a change, Salman Rushdie took fantasy course. That is how things developed…perhaps. That is how Midnight’s Children could match the zeitgeist.    
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By
A. N. Nanda
Shimla
11-07-2014
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