What is the theme of the story "In the South" by Salman Rushdie?

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Salman Rushdie ’s short story “In the South” documents an elderly man called V. Senior on the last day of his best friend V. Junior’s life. In less that 15 pages, Rushdie grapples with the meaning of life, the nature of death, and the passage of time as V. Senior...

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Salman Rushdie’s short story “In the South” documents an elderly man called V. Senior on the last day of his best friend V. Junior’s life. In less that 15 pages, Rushdie grapples with the meaning of life, the nature of death, and the passage of time as V. Senior processes the loss of his friend.,who, in retrospect, he considers his shadow. One theme that overarches Rushdie’s discussion of these broad concepts is the idea that life and death are senseless. Although it is part of human nature to develop a schema that makes sense of our lives, there is no set of choices or beliefs that will protects us from unhappiness, heartbreak, and ultimately death.

This theme can be seen in Junior’s reflection on the golden shower tree outside the men’s apartment complex:

“It has stopped growing now," Junior said, approvingly, "having understood that eternity is better than progress. In the eye of God, time is eternal. This even animals and trees can comprehend. Only men have the illusion that time moves.”

Again, we encounter the same theme: humans lack the understanding of events outside of their control. Rushdie explains that men have tried to give this tree many names, but ultimately they have no control over its growth or what that growth represents. The tree's existence represents the passage of time.

Rushdie addresses life’s senseless course at the end of the story. He details a tsunami that sweeps the south of India. He writes that

Senior did not like the Japanese word everyone used to name the waters of death. To him the waves were Death itself and needed no other name. Death had come to his city, had come a-harvesting and had taken Junior and many strangers away. In the aftermath of the waves, there grew up all around him, like a forest, the noises and actions that inevitably follow on calamity—the good behavior of the kind, the bad behavior of the desperate and the powerful, the surging aimless crowds.

Rushdie describes death and its aftermath as “inevitable.” He uses personification to give Death a sense of strength and intentionality. In the face of such a formidable and all-powerful Death, the categories that compose our identities and worldviews seem small and insignificant.

As nihilistic as this viewpoint may seem, Rushdie seems to find a certain beauty in life’s inexorable march into oblivion. Throughout the story, characters make unexpected connections between youth and senility and between life and death. The smell of talcum powder, for instance, reminds one character that “babydom is not only our past, but our future too.” It seems that Rushdie does not see death as a full stop, a big bang, or a “last little puff of vapor” when our souls leave our bodies. Rather, death is connected to life in ways that are simple and complex, material and abstract. He sums up this view by explaining this in terms of the story’s two main characters and their favorite place to bicker. He writes that

Death and life were just adjacent verandas. Senior stood on one of them as he always had, and on the other, continuing their tradition of many years, was Junior, his shadow, his namesake, arguing.

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