Salman Rushdie

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James Harrison (essay date spring 1990)

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SOURCE: Harrison, James. “Reconstructing Midnight's Children and Shame.University of Toronto Quarterly 59, no. 3 (spring 1990): 399-412.

[In the following essay, Harrison examines the structure, scope, and thematic unity of Midnight's Children and Shame.]

In Midnight's Children and Shame Salman Rushdie has presented the world with certainly the most talked about and probably the most incisive treatments in English fiction of the Indian subcontinent since A Passage to India. He has also presented the academic world with what seem almost textbook examples of all that postmodernist criticism tells us should be found in any self-respecting contemporary novel.1 And who am I to bite the hand that feeds me? Whatever needs illustrating, whether it be reader-response theory or metafiction or the tendency of language to deconstruct, Rushdie obliges. But these features alone cannot account for the widespread acceptance of his novels by a more general readership. And it does seem as if those more traditional attributes of fiction which he also contrives to incorporate are in danger of being overlooked by his scholarly apologists. Of such attributes, the enthusiasm with which he grinds his political axes to so keen an edge is something I shall for the most part assume ‘needs no bush.’ What will principally claim my attention is the ingenuity with which, out of material which is amorphous as a consequence both of its quantity and of its postmodernist presentation, Rushdie nevertheless creates structure, cohesion, and unity.

The first thing that strikes one about Midnight's Children is its sheer size and scope. For over four hundred crammed pages the novel deploys a named cast of more than seventy, occupies a stage stretching from Kashmir south to Bombay and from Karachi east to Dacca, and encompasses the history of India from independence to the state of emergency decreed by Indira Gandhi. Rushdie himself has said of the novel:

One reason the book is so long is … the idea of the novel being something that includes as much as possible. It seems to me really that there are only two kinds of novel. There are novels which proceed on the basis of excluding most of the world, of plucking that one strand out of the universe and writing about that. Or there are novels in which you try to include everything, what Henry James called ‘the loose baggy monsters’ of fiction.2

He also has his narrator, Saleem Sinai, ask of an artist whose paintings start as miniatures but catch elephantiasis, ‘is this an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality?’3 And Richard Cronin, in a study of Midnight's Children and Kim, replies that ‘only those like Rushdie [and Kipling], who write about India in English’ (still, ironically, the nation's only true lingua franca), are likely to catch the disease and have the temerity to tackle India in its entirety.4

Rushdie's prose style alone shows both the effort involved and the strains inherent in such a task. The penultimate paragraph of the book, for instance, from ‘I will have train tickets’ to the end, foresees the remainder of Padma and Saleem's marriage day, recapitulates for the last time the preceding events of the story, and closes with the ‘fission of Saleem … bones splitting breaking … bag of bones falling down down down’ as Shiva and the Widow close in on him from either side, all forty-five lines of print without a period (462-3). Earlier and similar passages capture ‘the confusion inside [Saleem's] head’ when he first discovers his telepathic powers (170-1), the conflicting points of view expressed at a typical...

(This entire section contains 6534 words.)

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session of the Midnight's Children's Conference (MCC) in the ‘parliament of [Saleem's] brain’ (228), and the tension-filled thirteen days of Parvati's labour and the Widow's refusal to resign (417-19). But much the most complex is the paragraph devoted to the bomb explosion that kills Saleem's family (342-3). A change from past to present tenses, the more striking for occurring midway through a single sentence, marks the crucial turning point of Saleem's amnesia. And no other passage in the book incorporates so much important ongoing action, so detailed a recital of past events, and such a wealth of implication for the future, all interwoven within a single syntactic unit. All such instances of recapitulation and/or foreshadowing, moreover, considered singly and collectively, are among Rushdie's most frequently used and effective devices for creating unity out of a diversity that often verges on chaos.5

And yet, unlike the extended sentences of Proust or James or even Faulkner, Rushdie's retain their spoken quality by being largely typographical—breathless for lack of periods that the fastidious reader adds silently, but lacking in any sustained structural complexity. The example on pages 180-1 acknowledges as much by supplying capital letters without preceding periods to mark where new sentences might begin. In effect, therefore, Rushdie is creating, stylistically, the coherence which he is simultaneously acknowledging, stylistically, may be unattainable.

Two further purely syntactic or typographical expedients can be seen as performing similar functions. There is, in the first place, Rushdie's fondness for running words together, whether adjectivally, as in ‘Talldarkandhandsome,’ or merely in commaless asyndeton, as in ‘their heads were full of all the usual things, fathers mothers money food land possessions fame power God’ (101, 228-9). More interestingly, there is his use of the colon to call attention to a grouping of items requiring emphasis. ‘What leaked into me from Aadam Aziz: a certain vulnerability to women, but also its cause, the hole at the centre of himself caused by his (which is also my) failure to believe or disbelieve in God. And something else as well—something which, at the age of eleven, I saw before anyone else noticed. My grandfather had begun to crack’ (275).6

Thus all such syntactic efforts to hold things together also imply, by their very presence and nature, the centrifugal force of the diversity that makes them necessary, as do the equally frequent foreshadowings and recapitulations. And the same applies to imagery and events implying fragmentation and reassembly. Aadam Aziz must put together his bride-to-be from successive circular installments glimpsed through a hole seven inches in diameter. Amina sets about loving her entire husband by concentrating her affection separately and successively on ‘every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioural’ (68). Ahmed dreams of reassembling ‘the Quran in accurately chronological order’ (82). And Lifafa Das strives desperately to achieve universality by adding more and more disconnected pictures to his peep-show (75-6).

More important than any of the factors hitherto considered, however, is Saleem Sinai himself. His role as a narrator will be considered later. But his multiple personality and the frequently asserted metaphoric equivalence of his life story to that of India constitute, surely, the novel's most extraordinary bid for unity. He is, in the first place, the biological son of William Methwold and Vanita, the unwittingly adopted son of Ahmed and Amina, and the subsequently presumed son of Wee Willie Winkie and Vanita—i.e. the joint product (as is India) of Hindu, Muslim, and English influences. In a quite literal sense, moreover, he is Shiva as Shiva is he. And subsequently he acquires, as further father figures, Nadir Khan the might-have-been father, Dr Schaapsteker who brings him back from death, General Zulfikar who disowns his own son in Saleem's favour, and Picture Singh who adopts a reincarnated Saleem after his annihilation to invisibility by Parvati. As Saleem puts it, ‘my inheritance includes this gift, the gift of inventing new parents for myself whenever necessary’ (108).

Even more strikingly, once he discovers his unifying role vis-à-vis the five hundred and eighty-one surviving members of the MCC, he becomes the living embodiment of this symbol of young hope—hope too soon to be crushed—in a young country. Only through him, the forum in which they are able to talk to one another, can the collectivity of the MCC exist. And when he first learns to use his telepathic powers he even believes ‘that I was somehow creating a world; that the thoughts I jumped inside were mine, that the bodies I occupied acted at my command’ (174).

On the very first page, moreover, he asserts: ‘I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you'll have to swallow the lot as well.’ Later, claiming that ‘I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine’ and, more humbly by this stage, that ‘each “I”, every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude,’ he repeats ‘for the last time: to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world’ (383).

This insistence on Saleem's multiple personality is perhaps a development of, or shares a common origin with, a feature of Rushdie's first novel, Grimus. A blend of science fiction, fantasy, and fable, the story has, as an informing hypothesis, the potential of an individual human being to exist simultaneously in a multiplicity of different ‘dimensions,’ though in none of these incarnations is he aware of his other selves. The idea is irresistibly reminiscent of the multitudinously bifurcating existences, two for each choice in life, which are led by the characters in the massively chaotic manuscript novel described in Borges's ‘The Garden of Forking Paths.’ The concept is also uncannily close to Hugh Everett's ‘many worlds’ gloss on the paradoxes of indeterminacy in quantum physics, according to which, when a quantum may do either of two things and seems to do both, it does both, one in this universe and one in another, though none of these ‘many worlds’ can communicate with another.7 Rushdie acknowledges knowing and loving the Borges story when writing Grimus, but denies having encountered Everett on quantum theory,8 though he has since shown himself aware of other bizarre possibilities in the subatomic world.9 What is of much greater interest than the source of such parallel ‘dimensions’ or universes, however, is Rushdie's sense that ‘novels are parallel universes,’10 and the carry-over of the concept into Midnight's Children. For in Saleem, Rushdie has created a ‘unidimensional’ equivalent of the multidimensional lives led by the characters in Grimus, and thereby fashioned a figure who embodies and to a degree unifies the multiplicity of both the country and the novel he inhabits.

Is it fanciful to go a step further and argue that Saleem is a simultaneous equivalent of reincarnation? And would this imply that Midnight's Children is in some implicit way a Hindu novel? Rushdie himself certainly sees a similarity between his kind of novel and the spire of a Hindu temple, ‘a representation of the world mountain’ which ‘is crowded … swarms with life, all forms of life. So the idea, the purpose of the temple is to include as much life as it can.’ Subsequently he identifies such inclusive pluralism with India rather than with Hinduism.

The … nature of Indian culture has always been multiplicity and plurality and mingling. Indians have always been good at taking from whoever comes in. … They assimilate the elements that are interesting and reject the rest. So Indian culture is not purist; the people … who talk most violently about purism in Indian culture tend to be Hindu religious extremists, and in Pakistan, similarly, the people who talk about a pure culture tend to be Muslim religious extremists.11

But this pluralism of Indian culture is to a large extent the product of pluralism in Hinduism, whose multiplicity of deities and avatars bears witness to the number of other religions it has been able to incorporate and reincorporate,12 in contrast to the exclusive nature of Islam and other monotheisms. ‘It is this synthetic vision of Indian philosophy,’ argues Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan,

which has made possible the intellectual and religious tolerance which has become so pronounced in Indian thought and in the Indian mind throughout the ages. Recent squabbles between religious communities, bred of new political factionalism, are not outgrowths of the Indian mind but, instead, are antagonistic to its unique genius for adaptability and tolerance, which takes all groups and all communities into its one truth and one life.13

So Midnight's Children, as a novel that tries ‘to include everything,’ is broadly Hindu in spirit up to where Saleem loses his memory. Thereafter the novel becomes more and more like Shame. Indeed, even before that loss the doomed but nonetheless touching idealism embodied in the MCC is nullified by the mere act of Saleem's crossing the border into Pakistan. Almost immediately the book takes on a more political, and correspondingly more satiric tone. ‘And maybe this was the difference between my Indian childhood and Pakistani adolescence,’ says Saleem, ‘that in the first I was beset by an infinity of alternative realities, while in the second I was adrift, disorientated, amid an equally infinite number of falsenesses, unrealities and lies’ (326). The account of the war in East Pakistan is as horrifying as anything in Shame. And things do not improve on Saleem's return to India. His fate at the hands of the Widow out-Swifts Swift. On both sides of the border we are already in the world of Shame.

As already noted, the struggle to unify implies diversity, just as the reassembling of fragments implies fragmentation. And further factors which contribute to the unity of Midnight's Children do so even more paradoxically than those already considered. Far more pervasive than efforts at reassembly, for instance, is the drift towards disintegration throughout the novel. True, all three Rushdie novels end in disintegration. The island which Grimus constructs literally deconstructs, ‘slowly unmaking itself, its molecules and atoms breaking, dissolving, quietly vanishing into primal, unmade energy.’14 And Shame ends in language (‘the fireball of her burning,’ ‘the cloud, which rises and spreads and hangs over the nothingness of the scene’ [286]) which is clearly meant to evoke a nuclear holocaust. But the disintegration of Saleem, with which Midnight's Children ends, is foreshadowed throughout the book. ‘Please believe that I am falling apart,’ he pleads as early as page 37—a fate he continues to remind us of until it finally takes place. Aadam Aziz's bones disintegrate until his legs give way; Amina disintegrates less specifically under the ministrations of Alia; Ahmed is discomfited by djinns, tetrapods, frozen financial and reproductory assets, post-independence pallor, and a stroke; and all three are dispatched by the same bomb. Parvati appears to begin to ‘rot,’ and Picture Singh collapses like a fallen tree. To be noted in passing are the dismemberment of Hummingbird by assassins and assassins by dogs, the odorously decomposing antiquity of Tai the boatman and Tai Bibi the prostitute, and the self-inflicted leprosy of Musa.

What constitutes the chief agent of ‘deconstruction’ in the novel, however, is its narrative mode and tone. Admittedly the very fact that everything is transmitted to us through a single narrator, omnipresent and obtrusive, makes for a kind of unity. And even the achronological and fragmentary nature of what he tells us lends a kind of authenticity to its disorderly inclusiveness. This effect is magnified, moreover, by the presence of Padma, from whose naïve insistence on ‘what nextism’ all sophisticated readers clearly dissociate themselves. But none of this can gainsay the fact that Saleem is one of literature's most consummately unreliable narrators—a factor which would seem to add discontinuity rather than cohesion to the book. He openly acknowledges misdating Gandhi's death and the election of 1957. He admits, equivocally, ‘To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva's death’ (443). His analysis, Polonius-like in its absurdity, of the passive-metaphorical, passive-literal, active-metaphorical, and active-literal links between India's history and his family's (238-9) undercuts the reliability of his version of both. Most ostentatiously of all, of course, he lies to us, or rather, refrains from telling us the truth, about his parentage for close to a quarter of the book. That his disclaimer to Padma that ‘I provide clues’ (118) won't wash is all too obvious from this panegyric to his grandfather's nose.

I wish to place on record my gratitude to this mighty organ—if not for it, who would ever have believed me to be truly my mother's son, my grandfather's grandson? …

On Aadam Aziz, the nose assumed a patriarchal aspect. On my mother, it looked noble … the Brass Monkey escaped it completely; but on me—on me, it was something else again. But I mustn't reveal all my secrets at once.


As John Stephens shows, we have no idea who the Brass Monkey is as yet, no reason to think that ‘who would have believed … ?’ is a real rather than a rhetorical question, no cause to see a literal rather than a purely idiomatic meaning in ‘something else again,’ and therefore no grounds to suspect that ‘all my secrets’ implies more than a narrator's normal concern to create suspense (196-7). Such hints can only operate retrospectively.

More serious, in Stephens's view, is the dual account of Saleem's amnesia. First we are told he is hit on the head by a flying spittoon. But later Saleem apologizes retrospectively for the apparent exploitation of a cinematic cliché in this episode.

With some embarrassment, I am forced to admit that amnesia is the kind of gimmick regularly used by our lurid film-makers. Bowing my head slightly, I accept that my life has taken on, yet again, the tone of a Bombay talkie; but after all, leaving on one side the vexed issue of reincarnation, there is only a finite number of methods of achieving rebirth.


‘The relationship between these two accounts of Saleem's amnesia is a microcosm,’ insists Stephens, ‘of the operation of retrospectivity and deconstruction in Midnight's Children’ (195), and the same could be said of the whole paragraph in which Saleem later asks: ‘would Mary's confession have come as a shock to a true telepath?’ (460). Yet does allowing a first-person narrator to indulge in discussions of fictional strategy do more, in fact, than blur the distinction between him and his author in an interesting, perhaps revealing way? We should not forget that, in rewriting his mammoth first draft, Rushdie switched from third- to first-person narration.15 And certainly, before reading a full-blown, self-consciously post-modernist, deconstructive intent into the second version of Saleem's amnesia, we should recall Rushdie's claim that the narrative technique used in Midnight's Children is owed in far greater measure to an Indian tradition of oral narration, complete with frequent metafictional comments on the course of events, than to ‘Garcia Marquez, Gunther Grass,’ et al.16 Should we suspect, moreover, that like Saleem he is withholding at least part of the truth, confirmatory evidence exists that Rushdie is not the first Indian author to employ metafiction.17

On the basis of such unreliabilities and inconsistencies, however, Stephens proceeds to call in question the final castration, and to draw from the novel the implication that ‘History is meaningless’ (206). Yet even if we accept that Saleem's castration is all in his mind—a mere extension of the ‘Saleem-equals-India metaphor’—does this imply that the Widow did not castrate India, or that Rushdie has no political point to make? Surely, moreover, to cavil over such details in a work of magic realism like Midnight's Children is to strain at the gnat of inconsistency and swallow the camel of magic. For the more willingly we suspend it, the more palpable remains our underlying disbelief. That so persuasively improbable a tale be told by so patently implausible a narrator is of a piece; the former virtually necessitates the latter. And so far from fragmenting the novel further, the combination adds to its unity—a unity of tone that incorporates the incredible and the inconsistent into the very texture of the writing.

That Shame should exhibit many of the same characteristics as Midnight's Children is no surprise. Both deal with the political history of India and Pakistan; both are written in the magic realist mode; both have narrators who do not hesitate to comment on the story they tell; both treat temporal sequence cavalierly and include extensive metafictional foreshadowing; and both employ a flexibly informal, not to say colloquial, prose style which on occasion runs to unusually long sentences.

Yet even in this last respect there are differences. The two longest sentences in Shame are much more tightly structured than any in Midnight's Children, the second and longer one being a veritable pièce de résistance. I refer, of course, to the description of Rani Harappa's eighteen embroidered shawls (191-5), collectively entitled ‘The Shamelessness of Iskander the Great.’ External scaffolding, as it were, is provided by the shawls’ being introduced individually as ‘the torture shawl,’ ‘the swearing shawl,’ ‘the allegorical shawl,’ and so on. And within this overall unity, phrases and clauses create structures of discrete parallelism, rise to periodic climaxes, and cohere in identifiable sub-units the length of normal sentences and paragraphs. Consider, for instance, the following brief extract.

… and the election shawls, one for the day of suffrage that began his reign, one for the day of his downfall, shawls swarming with figures, each one a breathtakingly lifelike portrait of a member of the Front, figures breaking seals, stuffing ballot-boxes, smashing heads, figures swaggering into polling booths to watch the peasants vote, stick-waving, rifle-toting figures, fire-raisers, mobs … it was an act of accusation on the grandest conceivable scale, and of course he'd have won anyway, daughter, no question, a respectable victory, but he wanted more.


Note the cohesion achieved by ‘shawls, one for the day of … one for the day of … shawls … figures … figures … figures … figures,’ and the variety achieved by ‘figures breaking seals, stuffing ballot-boxes, smashing heads,’ as opposed to ‘stick-waving, rifle-toting figures,’ these two similar yet dissimilar grammatical units being kept apart by one of roughly equal length in which ‘figures’ is qualified by a single participial phrase.

Finally, a kind of dramatic structure for the whole gigantic sentence is supplied by the interpolated and italicized asides to Rani's daughter. They also serve to remind us that this is a prose translation, if you will, of the language in which Rani writes her shawls. And these expressions of her silently accumulated anger she has spent many careful years composing. So it is only fitting that Rushdie's prose style should reflect that care. The two qualities of coherence and anger, moreover, characterize the novel's other long sentence, in which Rushdie lists the absurdities he would be obliged to satirize if his subject were the real Pakistan rather than his ‘fairy-tale’ one (69-70). And coherence and anger are what, in large measure, distinguish this novel from its predecessor.

Coherence is enhanced not so much despite as because of the lack of a central first-person narrator. True, the author's comments (on his visits to Pakistan, on Pakistanis living in London, on a London production of Danton's Death) are much more intrusive, much less integrated within the novel, than Saleem's commentary. But at least, though fact and fiction overlap in the book, they do not contradict one another, thanks to the distinction between the real country and the fictional one—between Pakistan and Pecavistan. This enables the authorial narrator to comment on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the one and on Iskander Harappa in the other, or to have Raza Hyder die in one and leave General Zia Ul-Haq alive in the other. In addition, authorial narrators are by definition reliable. They may write ironically and run the risk of being misunderstood. They may choose not to know why a character behaves in a certain way, and we may not agree (indeed, may not be intended to agree) with their best guess in such circumstances. This is perhaps the case when Omar Khayyam falls in love with Sufiya. But they may not mislead us when they claim to know the answers. Thus there is no call for major retrospective reassessments in reading this novel. Nor is there any role that a tentative, wait-and-see attitude on the part of the reader can play, since the author's tone is both clear and coherent throughout—an angry, Juvenalian one, as exemplified in the two super-sentences already cited.

It is this singleness of purpose and tone which, more than anything else, makes a single, central character unnecessary as a unifying factor. For the structural unity which Saleem lends Midnight's Children is by and large a picaresque one, whereas in Shame many characters combine to create a tight satiric pattern. Raza and Iskander are compared and contrasted throughout in their rivalry, and demonstrate the potentially equal dangers of stupidity and intelligence when combined with ambition. Bilquis and Rani resemble and differ from one another in their wifely eclipses and their final wifely offerings of shawls and shrouds. Naveed and Arjumand meet with equal disillusion in their search for fulfilment through a man, whether husband or father. And Omar Khayyam is the perpetual onlooker—not the wise bystander who sees more of the game than the players, but the voyeur, the passive confidant in turn of Iskander and Raza, the done-to rather than the doer. That he is paired with Sufiya underlines her even more passive role for much of the book; that it should be he rather than Raza whom she finally beheads distinguishes his passivity from hers. They are the Mr and Mrs Everyone of the book, guilty party as we all are by association, by our condoning acquiescence, and innocent victim as we all are by association—by our merely being there. Finally Chhunni, Munnee, and Bunny, like the three fates, are the alpha and omega of it all.

In a similar way the magic of the book is distributed among a number of characters rather than being concentrated in one, and is far more strictly functional, in the sense of furthering the satire, than that of Midnight's Children. Most obviously satiric is Talvar Ulhaq's clairvoyancy, which ‘made it possible for him to arrest a future traitor before he committed his act of treason, and thus save the fellow's life’ (184). Almost equally if less amusingly so is his ability to ‘plant the seed’ annually from which would grow Naveed's arithmetically progressive multiple pregnancies, ‘until she felt like a vegetable patch whose naturally fertile soil was being worn out by an over-zealous gardener’ (207). Sufiya is far from the only woman in the novel to suffer from oppression. She is the key one, however. And both her blushing, beginning at her birth and intensifying till her bath water could scald her ayah's hands (121), and the subsequent growing power of the Beast within her, are symbols of all that the title of the novel, and the use of that same word over a hundred times in the text, stand for.

The remaining example of magic is the triple but not quite immaculate pregnancy of the three sisters. The function of this is less to satirize than to set Omar Khayyam apart from his fellow men. To have the three of them join forces with Sufiya, however, as she topples a dictatorship by ‘goblinish, faery means,’ not only completes the magic circle by letting the story end where it begins, but emphasizes that to achieve as much in real life is another matter altogether. ‘You try and get rid of a dictator some time’ (257), says author to reader.

The final element contributing to the cohesion of the book and helping to express its anger is a disease—or rather, the scientific concept that helps us to diagnose a number of diseases, including Sufiya's fictional one. Even had Everett's ‘many worlds’ hypothesis informed Grimus and, indirectly, Midnight's Children, the immune system hypothesis would still have been far more central and important to Shame. In the first place, and on a realistic plane, we are presumably to see this rejection of Sufiya by her own defence forces, as if her whole body were a gigantic transplant, as a psychosomatic enactment of the lack of self-esteem, the self-loathing even, felt by a child so fiercely rejected by her mother. And in the second place, on a metaphoric level, Rushdie presents it as a turning inward of the destructive potential resulting from her having taken unto herself all the shame that belonged to others but for which they had no use—a destructive potential that later turns outward to attack turkeys and, eventually, both herself and the regime that shamed her.

Considered as part of the novel as a whole, however, Sufiya's self-rejection is equally important as something which is echoed by rejection after rejection elsewhere. For example: the East and West wings of the country reject each other; secessionists in Baluchistan reject and are rejected by the central government; Ayub Khan, Shaggy Dog, Iskander Harappa, and Raza Hyder are rejected in turn by the country they rule; Sufiya is rejected by Bilquis; Raza is rejected by Pinkie Aurengzeb; Rani and Pinkie are rejected by Iskander; Haroun is rejected by Naveed; Arjumand is rejected by Haroun; Farah Zoroaster rejects both Omar Khayyam and Eduardo, and Omar Khayyam is also rejected by Barbar, by Iskander (in a manner reminiscent of Falstaff's rejection by the new Henry v), and by Sufiya. The whole atmosphere in Shame is thus the antithesis of the inclusiveness that characterizes most of Midnight's Children.

Finally, there is the rejection of a body by its own defenders, the treason of those whom the body most trusts and depends on for its health, the corruption there must be in high places for such a thing to happen. It is impossible to avoid thinking of such a disease in political terms. So one has only to sense how intimately terrifying and humiliating it must be to suffer from such a complaint for the strength of the metaphor, when reversed and applied to the body politic, to become apparent. And, throughout the novel, just such treachery is taking place within fictional Pakistan.

Thus on the one hand we have a novel held together by patterns of similarity and contrast between the characters, by the single word of its title, and by a single minor character who becomes a metaphor for the theme announced by that word—a book which, for all that its cast is large and its scope the entire history of an entire nation, is driven relentlessly to its conclusion by one overriding message. It is, in a word, a Muslim novel. And on the other hand we have a novel which, like Hinduism, tries to contain everything—a novel perilously held together by a variety of stylistic and thematic devices and an unreliable narrator who is turning his life into a piece of fiction and discussing the process as he does so.

Small wonder that many have seen Midnight's Children as preoccupied primarily with that most fashionable of fictional themes, the nature of fiction. Keith Wilson has pointed out, for instance, the number of failed, would-be, or quasi artists in the novel (25-6). They include Nadir Khan the poet, his painter friend whose pictures grow and grow, Lifafa Das and his expanding peep-show, Hanif the film director, Picture Singh the snake charmer, and Jamila the singer. And the lesson to be learned in most cases is the unattainability of either universality or the kind of perfection that Hanif aims at in playing rummy. Similarly, when Saleem first discovers his telepathic powers, he feels he is ‘creating a world,’ falls into ‘the illusion of the artist,’ and thinks that ‘the multitudinous realities of the land,’ raw and unshaped, are the product of his gift (174).

In contrast there are the humble skills of cooking and chutney making, raised to the level of an art by sundry characters, not least of whom is Saleem himself, whose thirty years of life are captured in thirty chapters and thirty different flavours, each in its own jar. And it is in relation to the ‘pickling process’ that he enunciates his aesthetic credo.

To pickle is to give immortality, after all: fish, vegetables, fruit hang embalmed in spice-and-vinegar; a certain alteration, a slight intensification of taste, is a small matter, surely? The art is to change the flavour in degree, but not in kind; and above all (in my thirty jars and a jar) to give it shape and form—that is to say, meaning. (I have mentioned my fear of absurdity.)

One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates … I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth … that they are, despite everything, acts of love.

(461; the first ellipsis is mine, the second is Rushdie's)

He first expresses this fear of absurdity on the very first page of the novel. ‘I must work fast, faster than Scheherazade, if I am to end up meaning—yes meaning—something. I admit it: above all things, I fear absurdity.’ The objection may be raised, of course, that, even if Saleem thinks he is being honest, Rushdie may be using his protagonist's self-deception ironically. But there are no ambiguities concerning those other practitioners of the culinary arts, whether Mary Pereira, who stirred her guilt into her chutneys so that those who ate them became ‘subject to nameless uncertainties and dreams,’ or Naseem, whose ‘curries and meatballs of intransigence … salans of stubbornness and … birianis of determination … filled Amina with a kind of rage’ (139), or Alia, who destroyed Ahmed and Amina by ‘the impregnation of food with emotions’ (330). Nor are we in any doubt as to Saleem's intent when his own green chutney rescues him from yet another visit to the hospital—yet another attempt to save him from the madness of his storytelling (211). Clearly Rushdie sees such art, when hard won and aware of its limitations, as hearteningly or terrifyingly meaningful, and not at all absurd in relation to life—as possessing, at its best, ‘the authentic taste of truth’ and issuing in ‘acts of love.’

It seems that the controlling metaphor of Midnight's Children, the equivalent of self-rejection by the immune system in Shame, is the making of chutney. Only through the lengthy, painstaking ‘pickling process’ can the bewildering variety of ingredients which demand inclusion in the thirty jars be preserved. Only through the use of repeated stylistic devices, recurring images, and unifying themes can the impossibility of including everything, and the impossibility of knowing what is the real truth about anything (an impossibility Saleem's narration constantly underlines) be overcome sufficiently for the novel to have ‘shape and form—that is to say, meaning.’

And Midnight's Children does have meaning—meaning other than a solipsistic preoccupation with the nature of its own fictionality. To attempt to summarize this—whether as the tragicomic Bildungsroman of Saleem and the family which discovers that it is not, yet still is, his, and that love is thicker than blood, or as the essential Hindu Indianness (the inclusiveness and the ultimate impotence) of the MCC, as opposed to the intolerant war of partition in Pakistan and the equally intolerant Indian emergency decreed by the Widow—is to oversimplify things to the point of caricature. Nevertheless, this is a third-world novel, and readers from India and Pakistan are in much less doubt than those from Europe and North America that, like Shame, it has a satirically didactic meaning. But meaning deriving from shape and form has to be much more than can be reduced to moral or political platitudes. And meaning in the case of Midnight's Children includes, though it does not consist exclusively of, the nature and function of the act of narration.

For it seems that Rushdie must subject his art to the prolonged interrogation entailed in having Saleem as his first-person narrator, and in acknowledging thereby all the pitfalls of human fallibility that such a role is heir to, in order to discover that it is nevertheless possible to create a meaningful work of literature. Only then can he be sure that, despite the unreliability of language it took no Derrida returned from the dead to reveal, language can still communicate. Only then can the first-person narrator he found so invaluable when revising the manuscript of his third-person first draft be dispensed with. (It is Saleem's disintegration rather than his castration that we may discredit, except as symbolizing his no longer being needed and as supplying a sense of closure.) Only then is Rushdie able to mount as direct an attack as he does in Shame.

For many, however, reading Midnight's Children will still prove a richer if, or because, more confusing experience than reading Shame—an experience during which we witness and participate in the creation of unity and meaning which incorporates and uses, without ever denying, such confusion. To say that language and meaning crumble, disintegrate, deconstruct themselves, only endlessly and phoenix-like to reconstruct themselves, is merely to say that they partake of and reflect the human condition, and do so the more convincingly when they openly acknowledge, indeed when they exploit, such limitation.


  1. See Keith Wilson, ‘Midnight's Children and Reader Responsibility,’ Critical Quarterly, 26:3 (1984), 23-37; John Stephens, ‘“To Tell the Truth, I Lied. …”: Retrospectivity and Deconstruction as (Contributing) Strategies for Reading Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children,’ in The Given Condition: Essays in Post Colonial Literature, ed. Peter Simpson, SPAN, no. 21 (Christchurch, New Zealand 1985), 193-208. Future page references to both are included in the text.

  2. Salman Rushdie, ‘Midnight's Children and Shame’ (lecture given at the University of Aarhus, 7 Oct 1983), Kunapipi, 7:1 (1984), 10.

  3. Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (London: Pan Books 1982), 75. Future page references are included in the text.

  4. Richard Cronin, ‘The Indian English Novel: Kim and Midnight's Children,Modern Fiction Studies, 33:2 (1987), 201.

  5. See also, among others, pages 19, 45, 87-8, 106-9, 238, 278-9, 342-3, 349-50, 364-5, 382, 384, 405, and 452.

  6. See also Midnight's Children, 211, 330, 377, and 402, and Shame, 99.

  7. Hugh Everett III, ‘“Relative State” Formulation of Quantum Mechanics,’ Reviews of Modern Physics, 29:3 (1957), 454-62, reprinted, together with an epigraph from ‘The Garden of Forking Paths,’ in The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, ed Bryce S. Dewitt and Neill Graham (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1973), 141-9.

  8. Personal letter from Rushdie.

  9. ‘But no, ends must not be permitted to precede beginnings and middles, even if recent scientific experiments have shown us that within certain types of closed system, under intense pressure, time can be persuaded to run backwards, so that effects precede their causes.’ Salman Rushdie, Shame (London: Pan Books 1984), 22. Future page references are included in the text.

  10. Letter.

  11. Rushdie, ‘Midnight's Children and Shame,’ 10-11.

  12. Since the almost complete reincorporation of Indian Buddhism into Hinduism, for instance, the Buddha has been widely accepted as the eighth avatar of Vishnu.

  13. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, ed Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1973), xxviii.

  14. Salman Rushdie, Grimus, (London: Panther Books 1977), 253.

  15. Rushdie, ‘Midnight's Children and Shame,’ 2-3.

  16. Ibid, 6-8.

  17. ‘For me, the special interest in this work is the role the author himself plays in the story. Vyasa not only composed the narrative, but being aware of the past and future of all his characters, helps them with solutions when they find themselves in a dilemma. Sometimes he may see into the future and emphasize the inevitability of certain coming events, making his heroes resign themselves to their fate.’ R. K. Narayan, Introduction to his The Mahabharata: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic (New York: Viking 1978), xii.

The bulk of this article will form part of the chapters on Midnight's Children and Shame in the author's study of Salman Rushdie, to be published by Twayne later this year.


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Salman Rushdie 1947-

(Full name Ahmed Salman Rushdie) Indian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, editor, children's writer, playwright, and travel writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Rushdie's career through 2004. See also Salman Rushdie Criticism (Volume 23), Salman Rushdie Criticism (Volume 31), and The Moor's Last Sigh Criticism.

Rushdie, a controversial and prominent author, has explored such themes as exile, cultural dislocation, and metamorphosis through his writing. Best known for The Satanic Verses (1988), he has continued to write criticism, essays, reviews, and novels that stress the importance of free speech and religious tolerance. Through a blend of magic realism and commentary on contemporary issues, Rushdie has secured a place among the most provocative of modern writers.

Biographical Information

Born on June 19, 1947, into a middle-class Muslim family in Bombay, Rushdie attended the Cathedral Boys' High School. His education continued in England at the Rugby School, and later at King's College, Cambridge. After earning an M.A. with honors in 1968, he acted for one year at an experimental theater, and then worked as a freelance advertising copywriter during the 1970s. His first novel, Grimus, was published in 1975, and was followed by Midnight’s Children (1981). The latter received wide critical praise and earned Rushdie the Booker McConnell Prize. Rushdie gained international notoriety in 1988 with the publication of The Satanic Verses. Devout Muslims, outraged by a perceived belittling of Islam within the novel, staged public demonstrations and placed bans on its importation. Eventually, a fatwa, or decree, was issued by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruholiah Khomeini, calling for the execution of Rushdie. It was not until a public pardon of sorts by the Iranian government in 1995 that Rushdie felt he could safely emerge from hiding. Despite lingering death-threats, the author returned to the public stage with a determination to use his work as a platform for the exposure and denouncement of institutional violence and intolerance. Rushdie's Midnight’s Children was named the best novel to win the Booker Prize during the award's first quarter century. The Satanic Verses and The Moor's Last Sigh (1995) both received the Whitbread Prize, and were also short-listed for the Booker Prize. In 2003, Midnight's Children was voted by the British public as one of the nation’s 100 best-loved novels.

Major Works

Grimus was first noticed primarily by science-fiction enthusiasts due to the fantastic nature of the story, in which a young Native American embarks upon a quest to ascertain the meaning of life after having become immortal. This journey through new dimensions portrays human contact with other universes and alien life, and an underlying fable employs social satire typical of Rushdie's work. This aspect of Rushdie's style has often prompted critics to compare him with authors of the magic realism school, such as Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez. Midnight's Children, also a fable, centers on the historical development of India. Rushdie's protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is switched at birth with another male child born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. This is India's first hour of independence from Britain, and the trading of infants' saves Sinai from a life of poverty at the bottom of the country's caste system by landing him in the home of an upper-class Muslim couple. The story weaves events from Sinai's life throughout many of India's crucial historical moments, and he is finally pitted against Shiva, the child of midnight whose privilege he had claimed at birth. The novel was adapted to the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2002. In Shame (1983), Rushdie used a similar method of mixing fantasy and history to examine abuses of power in a dream-like depiction of Pakistan. The concept of sharam (an Urdu word which encompasses both shame and entitlement) is explored throughout the wildly elaborate narrative. The Satanic Verses has been interpreted as commentary illustrating both the good and the evil inherent in religious devotion. When two Indian expatriates, Gibreel and Saladin, survive the explosion of their airplane over England, their perceptions of and experiences within the world below reflect the nature of their respective attitudes toward Islam. Gibreel sustains visions of the majestic rise of his religion, while Saladin sinks into the demonic realm of flesh and vice where society is devoid of justice. In 1990, Rushdie published a fairy tale for children titled Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Written after Rushdie had endured persecution under the Ayatollah's fatwa, the plot involves a thinly veiled claim for free speech and imagination. In 1991, Rushdie released Imaginary Homelands: The Collected Essays, including discussion of topics ranging from Indian history, social injustice, literary criticism, and the widely publicized threat against his life. Combining his preoccupation with cultural displacement and a fabulist narrative, Rushdie's critical work for the British Film Institute, The Wizard of Oz: BFI Film Classics (1992), has been considered as an ideal pairing of subject and author. In this book-length essay, Rushdie lavishes high praise on The Wizard of Oz for telling a universal story with a strong emphasis on the imagination. The Moor's Last Sigh again details the national character of India through a fantastic tale reminiscent of fable. In order to delay his execution, the Moor enchants his captor with the details of his family history, thereby exposing the destruction and wonder contained within the narrative's social context. Rushdie employed a more modern concept for The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999). Using two rock and roll stars as protagonists, Rushdie provides a new interpretation of the ancient myth of Orpheus. Although the story contains wild and fantastic elements similar to those used in previous works, the language of this novel is filled with references to contemporary popular culture. In Fury (2001), Rushdie delves into the themes of mass media and celebrity. Malik Solanka, an Indian philosopher, finds himself at the center of pop-culture hysteria after his invention of an intelligent doll called the “Little Brain.” Fame propels him into a mid-life crisis marked by fits of rage and adulterous affairs with younger women, and eventually lands him in a situation of mistaken identity concerning a serial killer. Step across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002 (2002) contains essays written during Rushdie's years in hiding, as well as satirical pieces on the current American political climate.

Critical Reception

While most of Rushdie's works have been generally admired for their fusion of myth, history, politics, and fantasy, some reviewers have derided his most recent novels as being pretentious and unfocused. Others have praised Rushdie’s exuberant narrative and his far-ranging thematic development of alienation, exile, political strife, and the dehumanizing effects of popular culture. His scathing indictment of American society has garnered a mixed critical reaction, and some commentators have traced the further development of this attitude in essays and fiction toward America after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Autobiographical elements have also been a recurring topic of critical discussion, and commentators have underscored the effect that the fatwa has had on Rushdie's literary imagination. Despite these trends toward critical disfavor, Rushdie's work continues to elicit widespread response and recognition.

Patricia Merivale (essay date July 1990)

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SOURCE: Merivale, Patricia. “Saleem Fathered by Oskar: Intertextual Strategies in Midnight's Children and The Tin Drum.ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 21, no. 3 (July 1990): 7-21.

[In the following essay, Merivale investigates the influence of Günter Grass's The Tin Drum on Midnight's Children.]

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) is characterized throughout by a “translation,” as flamboyant as it is skilful, of themes, topoi, events, characters, images, and above all rhetorical and metaphorical strategies from “western” fictions—of which Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959) are the two most significant—into the “Indian” terms of Rushdie's own narrative. “Magic Realism” is a shorthand term for many of these strategies: Midnight's Children owes its “magic,” one could say, to García Márquez and its “realism” to Günter Grass, even though such a formulation smacks of that somewhat primitive version of intertextuality employed by Grass's hero, Oskar, when he “shuffle[s] the loose leaves of Rasputin and [Goethe's] Elective Affinities like playing cards, so creating a new book” (Drum 86).1

Midnight's Children asks to be categorized as Magic Realism, if only because of its obvious and often-noted indebtedness to García Márquez, the fons et origo of Magic Realism for the present generation. In its multiplied fantasies, its introductions of the supernatural into the everyday, its hauntings and its “traffic of the dead” (Márquez 378), its characters fatally crushed by their obsessions, and above all in its apocalyptic vision of the extinction of a family from the earth, standing synecdochally, at its conclusion, for a more general apocalypse, it is indeed a most “Márquezan” book, and its magic is largely a “Márquezan” magic. But insofar as its “mimetic quotient” can be seen for the most part as an imitation of history,2 its “realism,” in the sense of its literary strategies for imitating history, owes more to The Tin Drum. In books where ambiguous paternity forms a large part of the search for origins (and in a metafiction where “origins” must also be metatextual ones), the putative father of Rushdie's hero-narrator, Saleem Sinai, must be (by a somewhat subtler genealogical model of intertextuality) Grass's dwarf, Oskar, even though, metaphorically speaking, Saleem thinks of himself as “fathered by history” (Children 118).

Both Grass's and Rushdie's heroes are, in the phrase used in Midnight's Children, “handcuffed to history” (420), obliged to bear witness to their times, with “no getting away from the date” (9) for either of them. Year by year, event by event, the “times” build up their selves as well as their stories; “myself, in my historical role” (86) links self and story through comic zeugmas of synchronicity, like Oskar's observation that “Kurt's whooping cough, simultaneously with the Afrika Korps, came to an end” (306), and hyperbolic assertions of responsibility, like Saleem's comment that “Nehru's death … too, was all my fault” (279).

Saleem and Oskar share grotesque physical deformities: by the end of the book they are both impotent and suffering the excruciating pains of physical dissolution; Saleem has become, in his own eyes, “a big-headed, top-heavy dwarf” (Children 447). They share, further, an alienated perspective on their world, and the picaresque life-journey appropriate to a trickster/artist-hero with a thousand and one faces and several names; but, above all, they share the artistic compulsion to seek their own identity through, in Stephen Kellman's phrase, a “self-begetting” novel, one which will, synecdochally, also account for the history of their time and place. Saleem's face is “the whole map of India” (231) and his thirty years of life are a microcosm of India's thirty-year course from Independence through Emergency (1947-78). Like Oskar, “the real lead [who] had been cast in the role of an extra” (Drum 276), Saleem, this “perennial victim [of history], persists in seeing himself as [its] protagonist” (Children 237).

At the very beginning of his story, Rushdie pays conspicuous though oblique tribute to Grass in his account of the German connections of Saleem's supposed grandfather, Aadam Aziz. He spent five years in Germany; his nose yields three drops of blood (Children 10) in seeming echo of the three Parsifalian drops on the snow (Drum 459); his German anarchist friends, Oskar—who, incidentally, “died … like a comedian” (Children 29)—and Ilse unsettle his Muslim and Indian presuppositions, yet at the same time distance him with their “Orientalist” notion “that India—like radium—had been ‘discovered’ by the Europeans … that he [Aziz] was somehow the invention of their ancestors” (Children II). Thus Rushdie, although he valorizes many of Grass's literary strategies throughout, makes clear that he will “transpose” or “translate” them on his own terms. Since he sees “‘Magic Realism,’ at least as practiced by García Márquez, [as] a development of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness” (Rushdie 1982, 3; emphasis added), it is not surprising that he finds its techniques helpful in making such transpositions. Rushdie might well agree with Stephen Slemon that read “as post-colonial discourse … magic realism can be seen to provide a positive and liberating response to the codes of imperial history and its legacy of fragmentation and discontinuity” (21). As Srivastava has pointed out (66-72), Rushdie poses an ideological, postcolonial opposition to that linear, imperialist history which represses and distorts India's own sense of its history; thus Saleem both suffers and reports on a “disease of history” in need of Nietzschean, Foucauldian, perhaps especially (Mahatma) Gandhian, medicines.

“To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world” (Children 109). It is legitimate to see this—as Srivastava does (65)—as a specifically Indian urge to encapsulate the whole of reality. And I have not forgotten that Ganesh, the elephant-headed Indian “patron deity of literature”3 is the patron deity of Midnight's Children, that Saleem has one Indian parent (H. Hatterr of G. V. Desani's wonderful novel “all about” him, perhaps?), and that Midnight's Children as metafiction is, among other things, as Timothy Brennan tells us, a specifically postcolonial metafiction, a “novel … about Third-World novels” (85; emphasis added). But for my immediate purpose I need to stress that Rushdie, like Grass and García Márquez, is writing an “encyclopedic” fiction; he is deploying strategies adapted largely from these two major western models; this adaptation Brennan describes quite accurately (albeit somewhat pejoratively), as Rushdie's “overt cosmopolitanism,” his “Third-World thematics as seen through the elaborate fictional architecture of European high art” (27).

Each book is shaped encyclopedically, in the first instance, as the Family Chronicle of an extended, claustrophobic, ingrown, quasi-incestuous, matriarchal, and doomed family. But Grass and Rushdie, unlike García Márquez, want us, having swallowed the world and the family, to go on to “understand one life.” These two “autobiographical” novels are, of course, Bildungsromans—indeed Künstlerromans—as well as genealogical allegorizings of historical and metatextual particularities. Both autobiographies start, Shandeanly,4 well in advance of the hero's birth; Saleem's listener fears, indeed, that he will never reach it: “You better get a move on or you'll die before you get yourself born” (38). Both are much concerned with tracing origins, and particularly with establishing paternity, for the Name of the Father is multiple in each: Oskar, sure at least that he knows who his mother is, has a choice of two fathers; Saleem collects fathers throughout the book and has at least three mothers. They pass their ambiguity of origins on to the next generation: Kurt (he of the whooping cough) is probably the son of Oskar's probable father rather than Oskar's own son; Kurt, the black marketeer, the quintessence of the normal and ordinary in postwar Germany, inevitably and from the beginning rejects Oskar's paternal claim upon him—a taste for drumming, Oskar has to admit, is not inheritable. Aadam Sinai, on the other hand, although certainly not Saleem's son, has the elephant ears that go with Saleem's elephant nose to assert a clear affinity of Ganesh-like temperament; it seems likely that Aadam will acknowledge Saleem's paternal claim upon him. The sexual aspects of family life are similarly convoluted, although Rushdie's incestuous patterning of confusion between sisters and non-sisters, between sisters and aunts, is explicitly narrated in the García Márquez mode.

Oskar and Saleem are both “thirty-year-old heroes,” in Theodore Ziolkowski's sense; they retreat, at thirty, to “the fringes” of life (Drum 138), an insane asylum and a pickle factory, respectively, to reckon up an individual as well as a collective past, to come to grips with their own share of collective responsibility and guilt for “those who had come to grief on the shoal of [our] existence” (Drum 569). Then, facing the indestructible principles of evil in their lives, Oskar's “Wicked Witch / Black as pitch!” and Saleem's Widow (a “Black Angel” whose historical manifestation was Indira Gandhi), having written these books as testaments, turn towards death. They are “human being[s] to whom history could do no more” (Children 447).

These two heroes are both freaks with, for much of their lives, a pair of uncanny powers: Saleem's telepathy and sense of smell; Oskar's impossibly expressive drumming and glass-shattering voice. They are both clairaudient from birth: “I lay in my crib and listened, and everything that happened, happened because of me” (Children 133; cf. Drum 40). Born under strange circumstances, surrounded by omens and prophecies, endowed with ambiguous talents, these child-voyeurs learn too much, for “the grownups lived their lives in [their] presence without fear of being observed” (Children 129).

“I was linked to history both literally and metaphorically, both actively and passively,” says Saleem (238). His and Oskar's passive roles as witnesses and their magical capacities for witnessing provide a pseudo-realistic rationale for their accounts of both private and public history, in which their more active role usually takes the form of strange influences over crowds and individuals. They both play at being messianic: Oskar as leader of the gang of Dusters, for whom his glass-shattering voice makes him a mock-Christ; Saleem as the leader of the Pakistani army tracking team, for whom the guiding power of his remarkable nose makes him a mock-Buddha. They are both at times part of small collectives of similar freaks: Oskar's friendship with his fellow-dwarfs anticipates both Saleem's uneasy fellowship, by way of the telepathic linking between him as human radio receiver and the “gang” of Midnight's Children (the thousand and one children born at the midnight of India's independence), and his later and easier one with his fellow-entertainers, the Magicians of the New Delhi ghetto. Both heroes lose their primary powers under similarly dramatic circumstances: Saleem at first from a misguided sinus operation on his titanically overstuffed nose, the apparent source of his telepathic powers, and then when hit by a “silver spittoon” at his “parents' funeral pyre” (343); Oskar from the blow of a stone at his putative father's funeral, which blow (echoing his original fall downstairs as Saleem's loss echoes his original nasal episode and his concussion) prompts Oskar, like a tiny Prospero, to bury his drum and start growing again. Note that here, as often, Rushdie multiplies episodes from Grass; in this case he is doubling the events which first provide and then take away their special magic powers.

They are witnesses to their places as well as to their times. García Márquez's Macondo is a landscape of the soul, one shifting phantasmagorically over time in size, status, and culture, while Rushdie's Bombay and Grass's Danzig are utterly specific, time-bound, mappable urban topographies, to which we are given city guides, as well as bird's-eye views with both spatial and temporal perspective:

Our Bombay, Padma! … grew at breakneck speed, acquiring a cathedral and an equestrian statue of the Mahratta warrior-king Sivaji which (we used to think) came to life at night and galloped awesomely through the city streets—right along Marine Drive! On Chowpatty Sands!


Saleem can never be as inward as this with the places of his exile, in Pakistan—“I won't deny it: I never forgave Karachi for not being Bombay” (Children 307)—any more than Oskar can render the specific actuality of Düsseldorf with the same passionate attention which has been squandered on every stone and corner of Danzig. Their visions of their respective cities are small-scale versions of their synoptic visions of Europe, India, and the world:

I have made the Vistula and the Seine flow and set the waves of the Baltic and Atlantic dashing against coasts of pure disembodied string … the resulting landscape … I call Europe for short.

(Drum 408; cf. 373, 378, 384)

The world as discovered [telepathically] from a broken-down clocktower [like Oskar's view of Danzig from the Stockturm (Drum 96)]: … in Calcutta I slept rough in a section of drain-pipe. By now thoroughly bitten by the travel bug, I zipped down to Cape Comorin and became a fisherwoman … standing on red sands washed by three seas. …

(Children 173)

Oskar's vision of the world is also a vision of world war:

[A]t my feet I saw not only Europe but the whole world. Americans and Japanese were doing a torch-dance on the island of Luzon. … Mountbatten was feeding Burmese elephants shells of every caliber … while rain fell in Ireland, [Koniev and Zhukov] broke through on the Vistula.


The thirty years of history to which, and for which, these heroes feel responsible include partitions, shifting of boundaries, transfers of population, “ten million refugees” (Children 357), racism, atrocity, and war. German currency reform, leading to the “economic miracle” for the sole benefit of the “bourgeois-smug,” has its analogies in the years of the great land reclamations which gave Bombay its hollow golden age. These two postwar prosperities are sharply satirized for their frauds, fakes, and complacencies. Youth gangs (similarly nicknamed) are proleptic for adult gangs in each book, as the child-hero falls victim to his contemporaries. A certain Mian Abdullah, Oskar-like, shatters glass by his high-pitched humming: a glass eye, and one (key) window (Children 48). Small- and large-scale firebugs destroy godowns and mills, synagogues and cities; Oskar's catalogue of Danzig's millennium-long history of arson suitably culminates in the Russian invasion (Drum 378). The dictatorship of Indira Gandhi, who bulldozes slums and ensures, with vasectomies and castrations, that India's hope, the Midnight's Children, will have neither progeny nor future, is an historical climax in Rushdie's fiction that has equivalent status to the persecutions of Jews in Danzig and to other, remoter, horrors of the Third Reich, as Oskar perceives them. “Fascinated by an immediate reality that came to be more fantastic than the vast universe of [their] imagination,” as García Márquez puts it (44), Oskar and Saleem find the historical actualities “fantastic” to the point of horror, and often past the point of endurance. They are indeed human beings “to whom history could do no more.” But they are not deconstructing the historical in favour of the mythical, as García Márquez usually does, finding, because of the falsity of history, that atrocities can only be truly remembered in legend: “sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts” (Children 47). Rather, for Grass and Rushdie, the historical has a clear ontological status; but it may be perceived, described, and interpreted in such a way as to show the marvellous and grotesque inherent in the actual.

The events of history and the nature of history coalesce in that region where both are made of words. Choice and change of nationality go with the juggling of boundaries; so do choice and change of language. “The old folks had been turned into Germans. They were Poles no longer and spoke Kashubian only in their dreams” (Drum 289). The consequences of the Indian language riots, triggered off, in the story, by Saleem's inadvertently mocking Gujarati jingle, are as inflammatory as are many of Oskar's drumming exploits:

But the boundaries of these states were not formed by rivers, or mountains … they were instead, walls of words. Language divided us. … I am warming over all this cold history, these old dead struggles between the barren angularity of Marathi … and Gujarati's boggy, Kathiawari softness. …

(Children 189)

These riots “ended,” as it happened, “with the partition of the state of Bombay” (192), a major historical event clearly (post hoc ergo propter hoc) brought about by Saleem's seemingly trifling intervention.

The linguistic causes and consequences of history, which are given such emphasis in these accounts, may serve to remind us that Magic Realism is not only, as it is so often described, out of partial tribute to the painterly origins of the term,5 a way of seeing—“reality is a question of perspective,” says Saleem (165)—but also a way of saying: on a larger scale it is a way of telling a story; on a smaller scale, it is a way of showing “reality” more truly with the aid of the various magics of metaphor.

Both Rushdie and Grass (unlike García Márquez) tell a first-person, seemingly episodic story in a sequence of chapters, grouped in each case into three books: of eight, fifteen, and seven chapters respectively in Midnight's Children, of sixteen, eighteen, and twelve chapters respectively in The Tin Drum. In Rushdie, the chapters, which correspond to pickle jars (of which, as Saleem would say, more later), explicitly add up to Saleem's age as he ends the book: thirty. In Grass, the last of his forty-six chapters is called “Thirty,” for the same reason. Each chapter in both books has a title which captures pithily and emblematically a key object or situation, and many of Rushdie's titles are sufficiently similar to Grass's to remind us of some thematic resemblances. (I give the Rushdie title first in each pair). Titles like “The Perforated Sheet” and “The Wide Skirt,” “Accident in a Washing Chest” and “In the Clothes Cupboard,” and “Under the Carpet” and “Under the Raft,” suggest, among other similarities of plot, the womb-like retreats suited to the voyeurism and escapism of these largely passive heroes; “All-India Radio” and “Special Communiqués” suggest the metaphor of telecommunications as the means by which “news” makes itself known, available for turning into “history.” “Mercurochrome” and “Disinfectant” suggest the key role of hospitals in each hero's life, and Oskar subtitles his penultimate chapter “Adoration of a Preserving Jar.”

Saleem and Oskar are writing, telling, or reading out their stories within a frame narrative, to a clearly delineated listener, a “narratee,” who is a stand-in for the implied reader and a perpetual reminder of the present tense of narrating time. Bruno, Oskar's warder in the insane asylum, and Padma, Saleem's fellow-pickler in the pickle-factory, eventually his fiancée, but chiefly his “necessary ear” (149), are both permitted to interrupt and even to contribute short sections of their own; both provide—as Padma does through her “paradoxical earthiness of spirit” (150)—some Panzaic “realism,” some reader-responsiveness from within the text, to keep the narrator's tale on track and his Quixotic feet on the ground.6

Critics have praised Grass for his “sensitivity to the magic qualities of things” and for his “realistic precision [in the] pursuit of fantasy as part of reality”;7 they are already rightly praising Rushdie for the same qualities. But further keys to mimesis in Grass and Rushdie may be found in their (largely epic) figures of speech.

The two authors share an encyclopedic taste, like García Márquez, for “swallowing the world” through inclusiveness and exactness of description, especially in the form of lists—the tables of contents are the first “lists” in each book to establish a sense of “the supremacy of the inanimate.” Sometimes such lists provide cryptic anticipations of the story to come, as in the prophetic verses uttered just before Saleem's birth: “Washing will hide him—voices will guide him / … Spittoon will brain him—Doctors will drain him” (87). Often they serve as a recapitulation of the plot thus far, as in Oskar's Hamletic rumination in the graveyard:

My grandmother's four skirts … the maze of scars on Herbert Truczinski's back, the blood-absorbing mail baskets at the Polish Post Office, America—but what is America compared to Streetcar Number 9 that went to Brösen?


His final peroration to the shadow of the Black Witch has a similar function:

The Witch, black as pitch, … had always been there, [in] all words … and all stones … and all the shattered glass. … and all the groceries, all the flour and sugar in blue pound and half-pound bags … cemeteries I stood in, flags I knelt on, coconut fiber I lay on …


Such Rabelaisian catalogues are largely made up of talismanic objects, like Saleem's spittoon or Oskar's drum, constantly recurring leitmotifs, in both their descriptive roles and their symbolic references, synecdochally mimicking all-inclusiveness by a canny selection of apparently random items. The telepathic catalogue of Saleem's vision from the Bombay clocktower (Children 173) becomes an olfactory catalogue of his experience of Karachi:

Formlessly … the fragrances poured into me: the pustular body odours of young men in loose pajamas holding hands in Sadar evenings … the aroma of contraband cigarettes and ‘black-money’ … Mosques poured over me the itr of devotion. …


Then his “overpowering desire for form assert[s] itself”: synesthetically, Saleem classifies the scents by colour, then shapes them into a “general theory of smell” and then into a “science of nasal ethics” (318), a key set of Rushdie's rhetorical strategies for making the moral and emotional concrete. Saleem's marvellous nose can identify “the nauseating odor of defeat” (317) and “the old aroma of failure” (202), or detect that “unfairness smelt like onions” (370). “Smells assail [Oskar]” throughout as well (568); again Rushdie multiplies a Grassian trope.

All three authors are linked through such figures of speech as the hyperboles of amnesia, or of Rushdie's charming variation on a theme by García Márquez: “for forty days, we were besieged by the dust” (Children 271), characteristically testifying to an aesthetic of abundance, the feature which most clearly distinguishes their work from the sparer imaginings of Kafka and Borges, their immediate predecessors in the interweaving of the tangible and the marvellous. One of Rushdie's minor characters encapsulates this aesthetic destiny: “a painter whose paintings had grown larger and larger as he tried to get the whole of life into his art … wanted to be a miniaturist and … got elephantiasis instead!” (Children 48).

Perhaps the most concentratedly “magical” of such metaphors are those of abstractions reified: the infectious weeping in Oskar's Onion Cellar, the objective correlative of the collective pseudo-remorse (following the collective amnesia) of the Germans, is like the “pigmentation disorder” (Children 179) which occurs among those prosperous Indians who turn white upon inheriting Colonial prerogatives from the departing British, each ailment serving as a compact moral allegory for a collective historical phase.

Oskar's “carnival make-believe” (Drum 452), the telepathic connections among the Midnight's Children, the games that the Delhi Magicians play with illusion, all suggest in context that “Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it less real” (Children 200), but rather, in terms of Magic Realism, more real:

[T]he magicians were people whose hold on reality was absolute; they gripped it so powerfully that they could bend it every which way in the service of their arts, but they never forgot what it was.

(Children 399)

Saleem seems to contrast an Indian Magic Realism, like that exemplified by these magicians, with a Pakistani fantasy, devaluing the latter:

[In my Indian childhood] I was beset by an infinity of alternative realities, while in [my Pakistani adolescence] I was adrift, disorientated, amid an equally infinite number of falseness, unrealities, and lies.


Such an attitude has political consequences:

Karachiites had only the slipperiest of grasps on reality, and were therefore willing to turn to their leaders for advice on what was real and what was not. [They were] beset by illusionary sand-dunes and the ghosts of ancient kings. …


What seems to be Saleem's description of his own style likewise suggests a commitment to Magic Realism:

Matter of fact descriptions of the outré and bizarre, and their reverse, namely heightened, stylized versions of the everyday—these techniques … are also attitudes of mind. …


“Heightened, stylized” descriptions can be found, for example, in insertions of refrain-structured prose poems (very similar in form to some of Oskar's incantatory flights) into Saleem's first-person narration, already crammed with matter of fact descriptions of the outré and bizarre.

The Magicians who are, like Saleem but in their different medium, bending reality without ever forgetting what it is, are Magic Realists and thus evidently artists. But so, in a more humble way, is Saleem's foster-mother, Mary Pereira: “nobody makes acharchutney like our Mary … because she puts her feelings inside [it].” She does so with the feelings of others also: very early in his life “she stirred [Saleem's] guilt into green chutney” too (458). She resembles in this respect Oskar's supposed father, Matzerath, whose epitaph is that “he, an impassioned cook, had a knack for metamorphosing feelings into soup” (Drum 36). These several parent figures supply our artist-heroes with a method for metaphor based on the emotional significance of material things, on food as art, the homeliest yet the most pervasive of the innumerable metaphors in these books for the operations of the creative imagination.8

The primary self-reflexive image for the creative imagination in Midnight's Children seems to be Saleem's telepathic powers, but it is quickly replaced by the more widely diffused (although non-eponymous) olfactory image, which, in turn, modulates into the gastronomic images of his jars of chutney, which constitute, lined up, the chapters of the book itself. Similarly, Oskar, who can create an art work simply by coughing and sneezing (349), is chiefly known for his drumming; it is mirrored in Herbert Truczinski's historical back-scars (a tip of the hat to Kafka's “In the Penal Colony”?), which are, in turn, reproduced in Bruno's string constructions, a mise en abyme, like the “ever so fragile house of cards” (Drum 232), literally exchangeable with Oskar's own storytelling: “every time I tell him some fairy tale, he shows his gratitude by bringing out his latest knot construction” (9).

Speaking more abstractly than usual, Oskar says, “inevitably the thread of events wound itself into loops and knots which became known as the fabric of History” (373); evidently Bruno can, with his string art, like that later artist, Eddie Amsel, in Grass's Hundejahre, who turned History into scarecrows, reify the metaphoric “fabric of history” into the concrete loops and knots of “a figure, which in accordance with Mr. Matzerath's [Oskar's] story … I [Bruno] shall call ‘Refugee from the East’” (408). And there follows a recapitulation of Oskar's adventures in the familiar catalogue form—all turned into string, that is, History. It climaxes in Bruno's attempt to delineate, in the form of “a single [string] figure which, moreover, should present a striking resemblance to himself [Oskar]” (emphasis added), that Goethe-Rasputin dialectic—“how many miles of string I have tied into knots, trying to create a valid synthesis of the two extremes” (412), Bruno complains—which has shaped Oskar's “new book,” The Tin Drum, itself the synthesis of Oskar's two sacred texts. And Rushdie has multiplied, like so much else in the patterns adapted from Grass, his allegories of intertextual origins.

The two chief avatars of the Artist in these books are those of the Artist-as-Entertainer (their chief role within the action of each book) and of the Artist-as-Historian (their chief role in the narration of each book). The two roles overlap in an image like Oskar's painting of “the blockade of Berlin on the table-top with champagne” (454). Both heroes are aware of themselves in motley, as court jesters, as fools in the Carnival tradition (see, for example, Drum 452). Their most direct influence upon history is in such scenes as the incitements of the Language Riots in Rushdie and the Pied Piping of the Onion Cellar in Grass, where their enacting of their “historical role” (Children 86) is chiefly manifested in their role as entertainers; Art is powerful. Such power implies responsibility (in both senses), which further implies the possibility of guilt.

“Entertainers would orchestrate my life” (101), says Saleem. Bebra, the master-entertainer of the troupe of dwarfs with whom Oskar is briefly affiliated, likewise orchestrates Oskar's. Both heroes make their living largely as entertainers, though again art and history overlap in Oskar's employment as a carver of epitaphs upon gravestones. As narrators they are also entertainers; they are very conscious of the need to hold their audience, which consists, in the first instance, of their reader-surrogates, Bruno and Padma. Saleem, as Nancy Batty has emphasized, is particularly struck (as is García Márquez) by the analogy of his role as storyteller to that of Scheherazade and of his story to the frame narrative of the Thousand and One Nights.

The “literal” connections between the heroes and history are deliberately strained; it is a necessary fiction for both narrators to see themselves as “protagonists,” yet, paradoxically, also as “victims.” But however remote or indirect Saleem's “first attempt at rearranging history” (260) or however strained the “metaphoric” grounds for supposing that (for instance) the 1965 Indo-Pakistani “war happened because I dreamed Kashmir into the fantasies of our rulers” (339), and, conversely, that “the hidden purpose of the … war was … the elimination of my benighted family from the face of the earth” (338), that they both see themselves acting upon history, while synchronously being its central victims, is a self-delusion appropriate to Magic Realism, empowering the subjective distortions and the grotesque shifts of perspective that touch the Historical with the Marvellous.

“My [glass-shattering] number was conceived along historical lines” (Drum 318); their obligations as historians override in the end their obligations as entertainers. The gastronomic metaphors for art become metaphors for history, as Saleem finally puts his whole “number” together. “Pickle-fumes … stimulate the juices of memory” (166), and it is an almost Proustian taste of chutney that brings Saleem back to his Bombay heritage, very much as Oskar, in the asylum, must re-collect his life, through the process of re-drumming its events, in order to compose his story. The making of art or story is thus a perfect image of the operations of Magic Realism: “It happened that way because that's how it happened” (461) is Saleem's final—historian's—justification for whatever most strains credulity in his account. But what is true is also “what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe” (Children 270-71), and thus, if you are skilled at incorporating “memories, dreams, ideas” into your chutney, and possess “above all a nose capable of discerning the hidden languages of what-must-be-pickled,” you may, like Saleem, create magic through the mimetic, in a “chutnification of history; the grand [pseudo-Proustian] hope of the pickling of time!” (459-60).

In this essay, I have only touched on the variety of Rushdie's intertextual strategies and the astonishing density of allusions to and echoes of The Tin Drum in Midnight's Children. And I have just hinted at Rushdie's bricolage of other texts, both Western and Indian. To what purpose or effect is his voraciously appropriative pastiche (I adapt Jean Franco's terms here) of Günter Grass, amounting to, in Bader's pithy, non-judgemental formulation, “an Indian Tin Drum”? Given that, as Franco puts it, there “is no innocent relationship between discourses” (105), what are we to make of Rushdie's totalizing intertextuality? A satire or critique of Grass is not in evidence. Is Rushdie inverting the processes of “colonial” domination, or is he displaying the “overt cosmopolitanism” of which Brennan, more judgementally, speaks? His mimicry seems, rather, to be a celebration, with Grass's help, of “people who had been translated, who had … entered the condition of metaphor,” of “writing … at the frontier between … cultures” (Grass 1987, 63, 59). Perhaps Grass, by now well-travelled in the East, will soon repay Rushdie's intertextual compliment with a German Midnight's Children.


  1. A version of this paper was read at an MLA section on “The Mimetic Quotient of Magic Realism,” 1983. Rushdie has acknowledged his deep interest in Grass in “Salman Rushdie on Günter Grass,” an introduction to Grass's own essay, “The Tin Drum in Retrospect,” I use the Manheim translation of Grass because Rushdie, knowing no German, used it: “In the summer of 1967 … when I was twenty years old, I bought from a bookshop in Cambridge a paperback copy of Ralph Manheim's English translation of The Tin Drum … there are books which give [writers] permission to become the sort of writers they have it in themselves to be …” (180). (Rushdie's introduction also appears in Grass's On Writing and Politics: 1967-1983. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Harcourt, 1985.) The Grass-Rushdie connection has been briefly noted by several reviewers, by Lasdun (72), Wilson (23), and more extensively by Bader, who provides many additional points of similarity. Only Brennan has grappled with any subtlety with this relationship—though briefly and from an explicitly “post-colonial” perspective (27, 39, 66, 81). Brennan also points to the “direct influence” of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which seems, clearly, to be another book that gave Rushdie “permission to become [his own] sort of writer.” Allusions to both its rhetorical strategies—“Many years later, when …” (11)—and to details and incidents from it—“the magicians … having forgotten everything to which they could compare anything that happened …” (444)—occur throughout Midnight's Children.

  2. “If history is composed of fictions, then fiction can be composed of history,” says Nancy Batty pithily (64). González Echevarría develops, with much subtlety and detail, similar propositions on the relationship of myth, history, and literature in Latin America as a whole and in Cien años in particular.

  3. See C. Kanaganayakam on Ganesh and on Rushdie's many comic inversions and variations of Indian mythic intertexts, as well as on Rushdie's position among Indo-Anglian authors generally; G. V. Desani's All about H. Hatterr (1948) seems a particularly promising analogue, as well as an influence Rushdie acknowledges (see also Couto). Again Brennan gives the strongest and fullest account of Rushdie's crucial (yet “critical”) relationship to the “Indo-Anglian” tradition.

  4. Wilson (23 ff.) establishes numerous parallels between Midnight's Children and Tristram Shandy, one of Rushdie's most commented-upon intertexts. Rushdie (Grass 1987, 59) “found, in novels like Tristram Shandy … a very similar spirit” to that of his own work. Miles (51), however, emphasizes Grass's debt to Sterne; intertextuality is multi-foliate.

  5. See Menton (1983) on the history of the term, making a strong yet rather static case for its visual and painterly connotations, one which does not materially assist the critic attempting to use the term to categorize narrative and action. His earlier paper on Borges and Magic Realism (1982), however, adapts the painterly context to a more narrative one. See also Slemon's bibliography (21-24).

  6. Wilson (25) makes the case for Padma's strengths and limitations as a reader-surrogate; he employs the useful formula that Rushdie is to Saleem as the reader is to Padma. Batty privileges Padma even further in her narratological analysis of Rushdie's Scheherazadean strategies, which, in her view, make Midnight's Children an act of sedition against (Indira Gandhi's) Indian state, with Gandhi herself as the ultimate “implied reader” of the book. This distinctly appealing interpretation is indeed corroborated to a degree by Gandhi's considerable annoyance with both the book and its author. She was, however, notably less vengeful than the Islamic Republic has been in respect to Rushdie's recent, and more explicit, (alleged) blasphemy against the Muslim faith.

  7. Thomas (80) is translating from Günter Blöcker's review of Hundejahre 1963); Miles (49) quotes Grass himself (Interview, 29), who is specifying the influence on his work of Melville's Moby Dick.

  8. See Batty on Rushdean metaphors for narrative: “narrative is a perforated sheet, concealing the whole while revealing a part” (61); it can also be, among other things, an episodic cinema, a symphony, and a labyrinth.

Works Cited

Bader, Rudolf. “Indian Tin Drum.” International Fiction Review 11 (1984); 75-83.

Batty, Nancy. “The Art of Suspense: Rushdie's 1001 (Mid) Nights.” ARIEL 18.3 (1987): 49-65.

Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1989.

Couto, Maria. “Midnight's Children and Parents: The Search for Indo-British Identity.” Encounter 58.2 (1982): 61-66.

Desani, G. V. All about H. Hatterr. 1948. New York: Lancer, 1972.

Franco, Jean. “Pastiche in Contemporary Latin-American Literature.” Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature 14.1 (1989): 95-107.

García Márquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. 1967. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Avon, 1971.

González Echevarría, Roberto. “Cien años de soledad: The Novel as Myth and Archive.” Modern Language Notes 99.2 (1984): 358-80.

Grass, Günter. Interview. Encounter 35.3 (1970): 26-29.

———. The Tin Drum. 1959. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Fawcett, 1966.

———. “The Tin Drum in Retrospect.” Granta 15 (1985): 187-93.

——— and Salman Rushdie. “Writing for a Future.” Voices: Writers and Politics. Ed. Bill Bourne, Udi Eichler, and David Herman. Nottingham: Spokesman, 1987.

Kanaganayakam, C. “Myth and Fabulosity in Midnight's Children.Dalhousie Review 67.1 (1987): 86-98.

Kellman, Stephen G. The Self-Begetting Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.

Lasdun, James. “Life's Victims: Recent Fiction.” Encounter 62.1 (1984): 69-73.

Menton, Seymour. Magic Realism Rediscovered: 1918-1981. Philadelphia: Art Alliance, 1983.

———. “Jorge Luis Borges, Magic Realist.” Hispanic Review 50 (1982): 411-26.

Miles, Keith. Günter Grass. London: Vision, 1975.

Parameswaran, Uma. “‘Handcuffed to History’: Salman Rushdie's Art.” ARIEL 14.4 (1983): 34-45.

Rushdie, Salman. “Angel Gabriel.” London Review of Books 16 September 1982: 3-4.

———. Midnight's Children. 1981. London: Picador, 1983.

———. “Salman Rushdie on Günter Grass.” Granta 15 (1985): 179-85.

Slemon, Stephen. “Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse.” Canadian Literature 116 (1988): 9-24.

Srivastava, Aruna. “‘The Empire Writes Back’: Language and History in Shame and Midnight's Children.ARIEL 20.4 (1989): 62-78.

Thomas, R. Hinton, and Wilfried van der Will. The German Novel and the Affluent Society. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1968.

Wilson, Keith. “Midnight's Children and Reader Responsibility.” Critical Quarterly 26.3 (1984): 23-37.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. “The Novel of the Thirty-Year-Old.” Dimensions of the Modern Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969. 258-88.

Principal Works

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Grimus (novel) 1975

Midnight's Children (novel) 1981

Shame (novel) 1983

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (travel writing) 1987

The Satanic Verses (novel) 1988

Haroun and the Sea of Stories (juvenilia) 1990

Imaginary Homelands: The Collected Essays (essays and criticism) 1991

The Wizard of Oz (criticism) 1992

The Rushdie Letters: Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Write (letters) 1993

East, West (short stories) 1994

The Moor's Last Sigh (novel) 1995

Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing, 1947-1997 [editor; with Elizabeth West] (short stories and essays) 1997

The Ground beneath Her Feet (novel) 1999

Fury (novel) 2001

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children [adaptor; with Simon Reade and Tim Supple] (play) 2002

Step across This Line: Collected Nonfiction, 1992-2002 (essays and criticism) 2002

Edward Blishen (review date 28 September 1990)

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SOURCE: Blishen, Edward. “A Pudding of Puns.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 120 (28 September 1990): 32.

[In the following review, Blishen reads Haroun and the Sea of Stories as an allegory for Rushdie's life.]

It really isn't possible (I've tried) to read or judge this book [Haroun and the Sea of Stories] without regard—not in detail, but in general—to its author's plight. It is dedicated to his son, Zafar. The acrostic in which the dedication is cast ends with the lines: “As I wander far from view / Read, and bring me home to you.”

The exuberantly magical tale is of a professional storyteller, Rashid, known as the Shah of Blah, who lives in the sad city of Alfibay, and loses his wife (“What are these stories? Life is not a storybook or a joke shop. All this fun will come to no good”): she runs away with a miserable rag of a man who “has no imagination at all. This is okay by me.” Rashid then loses his gift.

He and his son (Haroun, of course) set out to fulfil a storytelling engagement in the Valley of Kosh-Mar, which has more than punning resemblance to Kashmir. (The book is a great pudding of puns.) Rashid's stories, which he seems horribly likely to be incapable of telling, are to serve the purposes of a particularly nasty politician, who holds that happy tales will spread their happiness to the people, who will accordingly vote for him. But in the night, on a houseboat, Haroun wakes to find a Water Genie at work with a Disconnector: a sort of magical monkey wrench. He is formally cutting off Rashid's access to the Sea of Stories.

The Genie talks like a turban-topped Roget. When Haroun confiscates the Disconnector, he cries: “Hand it over, return to sender, restore to rightful owner.” Refusing to obey any of these variants of command, Haroun earns the right to visit Gup City, from which the Sea of Stories is managed. And here he finds that fiction is under fire from worse enemies than the wives of wily politicians: the sinister Khattam-Shud (the glossary says that's Hindustani for “over and done with”) is engaged with his shadowy henchmen in poisoning the Sea of Stories. Haroun is the hero of the struggle that follows, and solutions brought about in Gup City turn out to be solutions back home.

It's a tale that springs clearly enough out of the predicament of a writer who, by elaborate chance, has taken upon his shoulders the whole implicit peril of the storyteller's trade. The wonder of it lies in its quite uncrushed gaiety. Written into it is the best answer to those who would emasculate and enslave the human imagination: and that lies in the pure health and happiness arising from its exercise.

There has always been a sense in which Rushdie has drawn on a certain clumsiness of invention, a sort of over-strenuousness, in order to generate the energy that sets him writing at his best. Here you sometimes feel that a runabout has been provided with an engine suitable for a heavy-duty vehicle: or that displays of fireworks are occurring in dangerously cramped areas. But the liveliness is constant, the morals merge with the magic as in the best children's stories, and the author's valuable irreverence touches much that is the better for being touched.

So a romantic prince is more than half daft, and his beloved has the worst singing voice in the world. The difficult image of the Sea of Stories, with its coloured streams, stands up to the wear imposed upon it. The relation of father and son is tenderly managed—especially Haroun's embarrassment at being constantly discovered by his parent to have more in him than meets the eye. And in the last pages all the puns fall into each other's arms, and the people of Alfibay remember the real name of their city. It is Kahani: and that's Hindustani for (of course) “Story”.

D. J. Taylor (review date 29 March 1991)

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SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “Exiles.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 144 (29 March 1991): 32.

[In the following review, Taylor surveys the wide range of essays in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1990.]

Nostalgia is a fatal reviewer's trick, but it must be ten years almost to the month since I first found out about Salman Rushdie, when the TLS printed a review of Midnight's Children. Later, in the autumn of 1981, I can remember sitting in a gloomy, panelled room in Oxford reading the account of Saleem Sinai's custody of the pickled eggs with a sort of astonished fascination, initial wariness quickly replaced by complete awe. At a distance of a decade, it is impossible to convey the effect that a book like Midnight's Children had on someone brought up on a diet of good/bad Amis-and-water English novels, the excitement that one felt at this whiff of dense exoticism blowing over the drab domestic landscape. If, at 20, I possessed a literary idol, then it was Rushdie.

One of the advantages of this lengthy collection of essays and occasional journalism is to demonstrate the complexity of what it was, even then, that one was idolising. For, as Imaginary Homelands demonstrates, there are several Salman Rushdies, their juxtapositions often uneasy, the whole apparently called into question by a final essay in which the former secularist and unbeliever proclaims his commitment to Islam. There is the novelist writing about literary technique; the sad, rather exasperated chronicler of modern India; the pitiless exposer of racial injustice; the dutiful anti-Thatcherite; the slightly pedestrian book reviewer; and, finally, the dead sober analyst of the anguish visited upon him by the Satanic Verses affair. There is a way in which it helps to see the collection as an exercise in teleology, each piece taking its place as a landmark on the journey to notoriety.

Inevitably, there is something random and miscellaneous about ten years' worth of journalism. Looking for a focus, you find it in Rushdie's declared status as an exile, emigrant or expatriate, somebody caught irrevocably between two linked but disparate cultures who regards each of them with a wary scepticism. The best pieces emerge out of this migrant's tension, the sense of a pontoon bridge extending from the subcontinent to the west, the traffic scuttling endlessly back and forth: essays on Kipling, on the English view of India, on the racism and moral equivocation of what he calls “The new Empire within Britain”.

What is most impressive, perhaps, is Rushdie's refusal to toe any particular political or cultural line, seeing merit, for instance, in Kipling, admitting that the historical travesty of Gandhi might, in the long-term, have helped with consciousness-raising, taking the film Handsworth Songs apart on the grounds of tokenism.

This sense of balance has its limits. Considering more specific questions of British politics, he seems on shakier ground: the Guardian piece written before the 1983 election seems particularly tired and strident eight years on. Here Rushdie falls into the depressing liberal trap of not even trying to comprehend the basis of Mrs Thatcher's attraction or appreciate the concerns of the constituency that brought her repeatedly to power. Until Labour woke up to her wide appeal, it did not have the slightest chance of forming another government. Such lessons were not so easily learned in those bright, bitter days.

The question of tone hangs over this assemblage. There is a sense in which Rushdie tailors his style to the particular medium he happens to be attached to. Some of it is sonorous and oracular, a little more scrappy and colloquial. One or two literary pieces degenerate into simple book-speak. And always that slight air of distance … There are certain writers to whom one extends an immediate personal sympathy, with only a paragraph or two producing that queer sensation Orwell ascribes to Henry Miller: “He knows all about me. He wrote this for me.”

I feel this very strongly about a writer like Thackeray, or to a certain extent James Joyce. I do not feel it about Salman Rushdie, who in those parts of the book that predate The Satanic Verses comes across as vain, touchy and more than a little pleased with himself. But it is despite this, or rather because of it, that we should go on defending him against varied opponents. He has managed to unite Sir Peregrine Worsthorne and Max Madden MP against him: only a genuine irritant, you feel, could have done this.

Predictably enough, the most powerful section of Imaginary Homelands are the essays written since Rushdie's self imposed sequestration. Moving, poignant, conspicuously devoid of hauteur, they reach their apogee in “Why I Have Embraced Islam”, written a few months ago, in which the man who in 1990 had so scornfully stated “I am not a Muslim” reaches out to “enter into the body of Islam after a lifetime spent outside it”. It is an extraordinary doubling back, in which the author's motive is impossible to gauge.

After all, it can never be stated too strongly that this is a man who was condemned to death for writing a book. Which of us, put in Rushdie's position, would have acted differently? Which of us, whatever we might feel about the less agreeable aspects of the Rushdie persona, could say that we were not on his side?

Further Reading

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Arana, Marie. “Shake, Rattle & Roll.” Washington Post Book World (25 April 1999): 1, 3.

Arana deems The Ground beneath Her Feet to be a “hugely ambitious, deeply satisfying, considerably flawed piece of work.”

Ben-Yishai, Ayelet. “The Dialectic of Shame: Representation in the MetaNarrative of Salman Rushdie's Shame.Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 1 (spring 2002): 194-215.

Ben-Yishai offers a feminist reading of Shame, focusing on the novel's theme of self-pity.

Clark, Roger Y. Stranger Gods: Salman Rushdie's Other Worlds. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001, 226 p.

Clark explores the concept of other worlds in Rushdie's novels.

Foran, Charles. “Mad and Bad.” Far Eastern Economic Review 164, no. 40 (11 October 2001): 81.

Foran characterizes Fury as a “slapdash attempt at the Great American Novel.”

Gane, Gillian. “Migrancy, the Cosmopolitan Intellectual, and the Global City in The Satanic Verses.Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 1 (spring 2002): 18-49.

Gane considers The Satanic Verses to be “a novel about a world in motion, about the postcolonial migrant condition, about the coming together of incompatible realities in the global city.”

Gorra, Michael. “The Novel in an Age of Ideology: On the Form of Midnight's Children.” In After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie, pp. 111-48. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Gorra provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Midnight's Children.

Hassumani, Sabrina. Salman Rushdie: A Postmodern Reading of His Major Works. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson, 2002, 154 p.

Hassumani presents a full-length critical study of Rushdie's novels.

Hawes, Clement. “Leading History by the Nose: The Turn to the Eighteenth Century in Midnight's Children.Modern Fiction Studies 39, no. 1 (spring 1993): 147-68.

Hawes explores the intertextual relationships between Midnight's Children and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

Leonard, John. “Rushdie as Orpheus, on Guitar.” Nation 268, no. 17 (10 May 1999): 25-32.

Leonard examines the myriad of mythological, cultural, and historical allusions in The Ground beneath Her Feet.

Parks, Tim. “Gods & Monsters.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 8 (6 May 1999): 12-16.

Parks delineates the defining characteristics of The Ground beneath Her Feet, focusing on the cultural, mythological, and historical allusions in the novel.

Sage, Lorna. “The First Bacchante.” London Review of Books 21, no. 9 (29 April 1999): 17-18.

Sage discusses Rushdie's mythological allusions in The Ground beneath Her Feet and finds the novel to be a bizarre and disorienting book.

Syed, Mujeebuddin. “Warped Mythologies: Salman Rushdie's Grimus.ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 25, no. 4 (October 1994): 135-51.

Syed argues that Rushdie's first novel, Grimus, incorporates thematic and stylistic elements that would recur in his later fiction.

Turbide, Diane Ian Mather. “Hide and Speak.” Maclean's 103, no. 8 (19 February 1990): 51.

Turbide assesses the profound impact of the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses on Rushdie's life and career.

Wilson, Keith. Review of Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, by Salman Rushdie. ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 23, no. 2 (April 1992): 138-39.

Wilson contends that Rushdie's authorial voice in Imaginary Homelands “is both salutary and resonant.”

Additional coverage of Rushdie's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:3; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 108, 111; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 56, 108; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 23, 31, 55, 100; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers, Ed. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 194; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 4; World Literature Criticism Supplement; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.

John Lahr (review date 29 May 1992)

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SOURCE: Lahr, John. “No Way Back to Kansas.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 204 (29 May 1992): 39-40.

[In the following review, Lahr regards The Wizard of Oz to be a “shrewd and joyous assessment of a film that has played such a large part in the imaginative landscape of America, and in [Rushdie's] own.”]

Anybody who hates Toto in The Wizard of Oz is my man. In his witty and vivacious appreciation of the film, [The Wizard of Oz,] Salman Rushdie gives the little terrier a severe dressing down. “Toto,” he writes with self-evident glee, “that little yapping hairpiece of a creature, that meddlesome rug!”

It's about as negative as Rushdie gets in his shrewd and joyous assessment of a film that has played such a large part in the imaginative landscape of America, and in his own. Rushdie's first short story, aged ten, was called “Over the Rainbow”, and the movie's faith in the value of taking up residence in the imagination certainly parallels his own creative philosophy. After the technicolour wonders of Oz, return to the drab black and white of Kansas looks to Rushdie like sloppy seconds: “This is the home that there's no place like?”

Rushdie's intellectual antennae for the film are finely tuned to the originators' inspiration. “Over the Rainbow,” he writes, “is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world's migrants, all those who go in search of a place where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. It is a celebration of Escape, a grand paean to the uprooted Self, a hymn—the hymn—to Elsewhere.”

To the man who wrote the songs in The Wizard of Oz, E Y Harburg, the rainbow symbolised “the heaven of the imagination”. Harburg was from a family of migrants. He told me that “to be a Jew in New York at the turn of the century was a terrible adventure. From a very early age, I was aware of the power of the imagination to make people better, more peaceful, and friendly. How to make people decent? How to soften them up so they'd have more compassion? These questions were very important to my life. It was part of my psyche which songwriting finally answered.”

The film enacts the mission of the songs: man being coaxed out of his misery and into his best self. To Harburg, who was writing his Academy Award-winning lyrics when two million Americans were out of work and industrial production had lost two-thirds of the gains made during the previous years of the New Deal, the film was a paean to Roosevelt's vision of a better world: “FDR pleaded for learning and for the arts, so the scarecrow—longing for knowledge—sang: ‘I would not be just a nuffin / My head all full of stuffin’. FDR's Good Neighbour Policy became the Tin Man hoping ‘That I could be kinda human / If I only had a heart’ and the Cowardly Lion heard FDR's message that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself when he sang: ‘But I could change my habits / Never more to be scared of rabbits / If I only had the nerve.’”

Harburg really was writing about home; but not the metaphoric home that Rushdie brilliantly winkles out of the scenario. “The real secret of the ruby slippers is not that there's no place like home,” he says. “But rather that there is no longer any such place as home; except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began.”

Among Rushdie's many pleasures are “the scrubbed, ever so slightly lumpy unsexiness of [Judy] Garland's playing which makes the movie work” and “the fully-realised comic masterpiece” of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion. The “Jitterbug” sequence, where bugs bit the foursome who begin to dance with the trees and flowers, was cut from the film because, according to Harburg, “it slowed the pace and gave too much of the picture to Bert Lahr”. This accounts for the absence of music from the last quarter of the film.

“The heretical thought occurs: maybe the Witch of the East wasn't as bad as all that,” Rushdie says. “She certainly kept the streets clean, the houses painted and in good repair … and again, unlike her sister, she seems to have ruled without the aid of soldiers, policemen or other regiments of repression. Why, then, was she so hated? I only ask.”

Rushdie also floats the notion that The Wizard of Oz, with its three credited writers and four directors, “is as near as dammit to that will-o'-the-wisp of modern critical theory: the authorless text”. Tell that to Harburg and Harold Arlen, who wrote the music. Whoever was the film's auteur, the film's subject and structure seem to have liberated the talents of those who contributed to it.

For all the stars, except perhaps Garland, and for the Harburg/Arlen musical collaboration, it was the high point of their movie careers. In fact, soon after finishing The Wizard of Oz, Lahr left Hollywood for Broadway, explaining to the press: “How many lion parts are there?”

The Wizard of Oz was sui generis. How the movie got made is somehow not as important as the fact that its fun and its solace are still here to help us along our own journeys. Rushdie's lucid and puckish monograph is a re-viewing of the film through his own mischievous imagination. It adds to the movie's wonder, which is saying a lot.

Rufus Cook (essay date winter 1994)

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SOURCE: Cook, Rufus. “Place and Displacement in Salman Rushdie's Work.” World Literature Today 68, no. 1 (winter 1994): 23-8.

[In the following essay, Cook considers the theme of cultural displacement in Rushdie's work, noting that “all of Rushdie's novels can be read as an acknowledgment that reality takes precedence over art, that ‘the unchanging twoness of things’ can never be reconciled to ‘the universe of what-happened-next.’”]

Salman Rushdie is not only an “almost textbook example” of a self-reflexive postmodern novelist;1 he is also—not coincidentally—one of the most persuasive spokesmen we have for the benefits, in increased tolerance and moral understanding, of cultural displacement. Because he has been forced “to find new ways of describing himself, new ways of being human,”2 Rushdie argues, the immigrant or expatriate is in a better position than the rest of us to appreciate the pluralistic, contradictory nature of contemporary experience: to accept the fact that “reality is an artefact,” for example, or that “meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved” (IH [Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991], 12). Particularly in this “century of wandering,” in this age when traditional cultures are being drawn more and more into conflict and confrontation, it is the immigrant writer who is best equipped, by the kind of “double vision” attributed to Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha in The Satanic Verses,3 to come up with the corresponding new literary forms: “the mingling of fantasy and naturalism” (IH, 19), say, or the patching together of a narrative out of the “shards of memory” (IH, 11-12). Indeed, in Rushdie's view, the immigrant has become “the central or defining figure of the twentieth century” (IH, 177), dramatizing “in an intensified form” the sense of alienation, of cultural discontinuity, to which, as “immigrants from the past,” we are all increasingly prone (IH, 12).

Of all Rushdie's books, it is probably in Shame that the effects of cultural displacement are most fully discussed, that the benefits of an alienated “off-centering” perspective are most persuasively argued. Not only is the book narrated primarily from the point of view of its “peripheral” or repressed or rejected characters, “its ‘male’ plot refracted, so to speak, through the prisms of its reverse and ‘female’ side.”4 Not only does it return, over and over again, to the theme of cultural dislocation, to the sense of “a world turned upside-down”: “the fear that one is living at the edge of the world, so close that he might fall off at any moment: (S [Shame], 15). But it also attempts, through what Aruna Srivastava describes as “acts of reader estrangement,”5 to infect its audience with this same sense of cultural “vertigo”: jolting us (for example) with its unexpected shifts from the Western to the “Hegiran” calendar (S, 6), with its casual introduction into a realistic modern narrative of fairy-tale motifs long ago “consigned to peripheries by conventions of disbelief” (S, 219), with its teasing “metafictive” asides on the novel that it might have become instead of this one (S, 70-72)—with, above all perhaps, its superbly incongruous metaphors: its description of Isky Harappa's death cell as an “inverse womb” (S, 254) or of battered women and children as “janitors of the unseen,” vessels for all the “unfelt shame” in the world, “their souls the buckets into which squeegees drip what-was-spilled” (S, 131-32).

Although he is obviously aware of the pain and disorientation involved, Rushdie seems to regard cultural displacement as essentially a positive and liberating experience, one of the best ways in the world “of seeking freedom” (S, 90). To people “living in the aftermath of the death of God and of tragedy,” for example, it must seem inconceivable “that men will sacrifice their dearest love on the implacable altars of their pride”: that they will physically abuse and humiliate their daughter for having been born female or murder her “because by making love to a white boy she has brought such dishonour upon her family that only her blood can wash away the stain.” Such behavior is conceivable only to people brought up in traditional patriarchal or authoritarian societies, to people raised “on a diet of honour and shame” (S, 123-24). In helping to free us from such a society, therefore, in offering us an “anti-belonging” pill that will allow us to “float upwards from history, from memory, from Time” (S, 91), Rushdie feels that he is performing a positive moral and intellectual service. As Mark Edmundson has observed concerning The Satanic Verses, homelessness in Rushdie's view seems to be a condition “to be affirmed, because it allows for more metamorphosis, change, the ability (and the need) to be other than one was.”6 In The Satanic Verses in particular, one of the central questions is how “newness” comes into the world: “Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made?” (SV [The Satanic Verses], 8).

Helpful as such an alienated “off-centering” perspective can be in understanding Rushdie, however, it is equally illuminating to take the opposite approach: to consider his work from the point of view of someone like Wendell Berry, who is a critic of our “‘pluralistic,’ displaced global economy,” a defender instead of “all rooted, locally adapted cultures that know what works and what doesn't work in a given place.”7 Far from simply advocating the benefits of cultural dislocation, it can be seen from this perspective that Rushdie is just as concerned with its social or psychological dangers. In the same passage in Shame in which he equates migration with freedom, in which he speculates on the possibility of an antigravity pill that “would make migrants of us all,” he goes on to reflect, more soberly, on the price of such mobility: on the loss of moral meaning, the lapse of cultural continuity. If the best thing about “migrant peoples and seceded nations” is their “hopefulness,” he concedes, then the worst is “the emptiness of [their] luggage. I'm speaking of invisible suitcases, not the physical, perhaps cardboard variety containing a few meaning-drained mementoes” (S, 91). In Midnight's Children Saleem Sinai's displacement from his “Bombay roots” results in a “haze of unreality,” in his being completely “emptied of history” and plunged, like India itself, into a state of moral amnesia.8 “Nothing was real; nothing certain,” Saleem observes of the “diseased reality” of his Pakistani years (MC [Midnight's Children], 406).

Far from embracing the “simplistic idea of “freedom’” attributed by Berry to alienated modernists and romantics like Shelley—the belief that “the human place is any place,” that “we can fulfill a high human destiny anywhere, any way”9—Rushdie seems in passages such as these to be as concerned as Berry himself about whether, having been uprooted from its native soil, having been “driven into the mind” by the conditions of modern “careerism and specialization,” it is possible for a cultural heritage to survive: “The mere memory of a place cannot preserve it, nor apart from the place can it long survive in the mind.”10 Even when migrants pack their past “into bundles and boxes” and try to take it with them, Rushdie points out, “on the journey something seeps out of the treasured mementoes and old photographs, until even their owners fail to recognize them.” What from one point of view seems to be an opportunity for change and moral transformation is form another a process of cultural dispossession and degradation, for “it is the fate of migrants to be stripped of history, to stand naked amidst the scorn of strangers upon whom they see the rich clothing, the brocades of continuity and the eyebrows of belonging” (S, 64). Saleem Sinai's grandmother is not unusual at all among Rushdie's characters in feeling that, “for all her presence and bulk, she was adrift in the universe” (MC, 42).

One indication of Rushdie's ambivalence about the ultimate value of cultural alienation is his preoccupation throughout Shame with the relationship between the imaginary country of his novel, his “fairyland” or “looking-glass Pakistan,” and its real-life counterpart. Writers and politicians are alike, he maintains—they are “natural rivals” of one another—because they are both always trying to impose their vision on reality, “to make the world over in their own image” (IH, 14). Pakistan, in particular, is an example of a country which, instead of evolving naturally out of a local native culture, was dreamed up by expatriate Muslim politicians in London and then “was borne-across or trans-lated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past.” Instead of accommodating itself to existing cultural realities, instead of incorporating “parts and relics of its own history,”11 it was invented precisely in order to suppress and conceal that past, in order “to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface of Pakistani Standard Time.” That is why today Pakistan can be described as a “peeling, fragmenting palimpsest, increasingly at war with itself,” as a country in which the repressed element is always struggling to force “its way back through what-had-been-imposed” (S, 91-92).

What is the difference, though, between an alien political idea like Pakistan that has been imposed by outsiders on an indigenous local culture and the “imaginary countries” which, according to Rushdie's own account, expatriate writers like himself are always trying “to impose on the ones that exist”? If one can be criticized as a “palimpsest on the past,” as a political fiction designed to conceal and suppress the truth, why can the same objection not be made to the other, to what Rushdie himself candidly describes as “my story's palimpsest-country”? (S, 92). This is the question that seems to nag Rushdie from beginning to end in Shame, that has him brooding in one passage over the adequacy of his language (“this Angrezi in which I am forced to write and so for ever alter what is written”) to his central theme—“Sharam, that's the word. For which this paltry ‘shame’ is a wholly inadequate translation” (S, 34)—and has him squirming in another over imagined challenges by indignant native critics to his authority as a writer, to his right (as an “Outsider! Trespasser!”) to his subject matter: “you, with your foreign language wrapped around you like a flag: speaking about us in your forked tongue, what can you tell but lies?” (S, 23). What if it is really the case, Rushdie seems to be wondering in passages such as these, that as an emigrant writer he is nothing but a fantasist, cut off by his “physical alienation” from telling the truth about his subject and condemned to the fabrication of fictions, “not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind” (IH, 10)? How is he any better than the repressive political leaders attacked in Shame or Midnight's Children for their efforts to abolish history, to impose political and moral amnesia on an entire nation?

Broadly considered, the question to which Rushdie keeps returning in Shame as well as in his other novels is that of the mimetic or referential function of art: whether the literary work can be regarded more plausibly as being about external reality or about its own internal literary or linguistic or semiotic processes. Considering the position he takes on cultural displacement, it is probably not surprising that, on the surface at least, Rushdie seems to endorse the familiar postmodern belief that the literary work is “an autonomous, self-sufficient ‘world’ or law unto itself, independent of the external world.”12 “The migrant intellect roots itself in itself,” he observes approvingly, “in its own capacity for imagining and reimagining the world” (IH, 280), and from the way he talks about “imaginary homelands” and “Indias of the mind”—from the way he conjures up fanciful “Peccavistans” (S, 93) or “Peristans” (MC, 486)—it seems likely that he might say the same thing about the artistic imagination in general.

Not only does Rushdie like to emphasize the extent to which real people and places have been imaginatively “off-centered” in his work in order to satisfy the requirements of art—the fact that his fictional country is “not quite” Pakistan, for example, or that Omar's hometown is “not really” Quetta (S, 23-24)—he also likes to emphasize the fallibility of the human intellect or memory, describing it as a “broken mirror” or “cracked lens,” capable only of “fractured perceptions” (IH, 10-12). Instead of being concerned primarily with his subject matter or themes, he is often more preoccupied in his novels with what he refers to as “the process of filtration itself”: with the way in which memory “selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies,” in which “in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events” (MC, 253). At times, in fact, Rushdie seems to have taken what Gerald Graff regards as the inevitable next step for an antimimetic postmodernist:13 that of deciding that reality itself is a construct or fiction, “that it does not exist until it is made, and that, like any other artefact, it can be made well or badly” (IH, 280). He seems to have succumbed to what Saleem Sinai describes as “the temptation of every autobiographer, to the illusion that since the past exists only in one's memories and the words which strive vainly to encapsulate them, it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred” (MC, 529).

Though the self-reflexive, antimimetic strain in Rushdie should not be ignored, however, neither should the emphasis in his work on “the communal nature of the artistic process”—on the obligation of the writer “to preserve memory against disintegration, ‘to save a nation from amnesia,’ by creating a repository of the past.”14 Everywhere in Rushdie's books we find indications of his continuing attachment to “the East”: Saleem Sinai's joy on returning to Bombay from Pakistan and rediscovering “the rainbow riot of the city” (MC, 356), Saladin Chamcha's frustration on coming back for a visit and finding that the city “isn't home” any more (SV, 58), Rushdie's own reported feeling of outrage on hearing that his father had sold his boyhood home (S, 90). “What to do?” he asks about such feelings of estrangement and alienation: “Shrug. And pickle the past in books” (IH, 277).

One of the most compelling motives for any expatriate writer, Rushdie maintains, is the “urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt.” Like James Joyce or Günter Grass or Milan Kundera—“like many people who have lost a city”—the reason he turned to writing to begin with was his love of place, his need to “restore the past to [himself], not in the faded greys of old family album snapshots, but whole, in CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor” (IH, 10). This is why he refers to his books as “novels of memory”—because they are designed to fulfill basically the same function that Wendell Berry assigns to the writer: that of reminding us of “what is remembered and ought to be remembered.”15 Far from treating the world simply as a construct, in fact, Rushdie's books should be read as indictments of those forces in modern politics and economics that threaten to subvert our sense of reality. It is necessary for writers to resort to their “pickling of Time” in the first place, after all, only because “in a country where the truth is what it is instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist” (MC, 389).

If it really is Rushdie's view that the function of the writer is to preserve or reclaim the past, however, then what are we to make of the belief, evident throughout his work, that one “version” of the past is just as valid or defensible as another—that the writer and the politician are perfectly equivalent in their desire “to make the world in their own image”? Can Rushdie really believe, when he focuses in Shame on the experience of the “peripheral” or repressed characters, for example, that the resulting “version” is no more balanced or complete than the “official, politicians' version” that it was designed to correct—that it is “no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions” (IH, 10)? If he does believe this, then how can he turn around, in the same passage, and attack the state for “distorting reality, altering the past to fit its present needs”? How can he characterize the writer's resistance to state power as being, in Milan Kundera's phrase, “the struggle of memory against forgetting”? (IH, 14). Surely either of these descriptions implies a distinction of some sort in the truth or adequacy or coherence of different “versions.” Surely it implies some standard of reference, independent of any particular “version,” by which its adequacy or truth could be determined.16

One indication that Rushdie does in fact believe in a reality independent of our minds, to which the literary work might be thought of as in some sense referring, can be seen in the form of Shame: in the way in which, instead of concealing its internal consistencies beneath a “palimpsest” of stylistic coherence or unity, the book deliberately presents itself as a product of conflicting inspirations, as the result of revision and reconsideration. By its nature, Rushdie points out, the decision by a writer to tell one particular story, to employ one point of view or one specific set of stylistic conventions, tends to function as a “kind of censorship,” precluding the telling of any other story, the exploration of all other formal or stylistic possibilities (S, 72-73). Like the physicist or sociologist, the writer tends to become a victim of what Kenneth Burke refers to as the “impulse to perfection”:17 the temptation, inherent in all language, to reduce a complex, multifarious reality to the dimensions of a single metaphor or model, to pretend (as Wayne Booth puts it) that “all life, the entire world, is like this piece of it.”18 It is because he is so sensitive to this danger, of course, that Saleem Sinai agonizes throughout Midnight's Children over the demands imposed on him as a storyteller by “the world of linear narrative, the universe of what-happened-next” (MC, 38).

One method employed by Rushdie to combat this “terministic compulsion”—to introduce into Shame a “sense of the complexity, the cross-graining, of real experience”19—is that of preserving in the final form of the book many of the earlier or alternative “versions” normally discarded in the process of revision, many of the “ghosts of the stories” that it might have become. Instead of letting the work become a palimpsest in the sense applied to Pakistan, in other words, he has turned it into a palimpsest as Wendell Berry defines the term: something which (like a handwritten page or a “well-crafted table or cabinet”) “contains parts and relics of its own history—erasures, passages crossed out, interlineations, suggesting that there is something to go back to as well as something to go forward to.”20 To use Saleem Sinai's favorite analogy for the self-conscious narrator, he performs in the novel “like an incompetent puppeteer,” always revealing “the hands holding the strings” (MC, 72).

In one characteristic passage, for example, Rushdie speculates at length on some of the “real-life material” that he might have felt compelled to include if, instead of the present book, he had decided to write a realistic novel about Pakistan: the subterranean water pumps installed in his parents' Karachi suburb to steal water from their neighbors; the sign in front of the Sind Club in Karachi that reads “Women and Dogs Not Allowed Beyond This Point”; “the film censor who took his red pencil to each frame of the scene in the film Night of the Generals in which Peter O'Toole visits an art gallery, and scratched out all the paintings of naked ladies hanging on the walls” (S, 71-72). The only problem with such material, Rushdie points out after a couple of pages, is that the book would almost certainly have been banned in Pakistan—“banned, dumped in the bin, burned. All that effort for nothing!” It is for this reason, he coyly concludes, that he decided on writing a “sort of modern fairy-tale” instead: “nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously. No drastic action need be taken, either. What a relief!” (S, 72).

Meanwhile, though, Rushdie has succeeded in smuggling into his “fairy-story” whole pages of a book which, since it is almost the exact generic antithesis of this one, ought logically to have been completely suppressed. Rather than following the option attributed by Wendell Berry to Hemingway in “Big Two-Hearted River” of sacrificing depth and scope of understanding for the sake of “literary purity,”21 he seems to have adopted precisely the opposite approach: that of incorporating into the fabric of his work a suggestion of “the doubleness, the essential mysteriousness” of human experience itself.22 In doing so, of course, he has imaginatively reaffirmed that skepticism—that suspicion of “all total explanations, all systems of thought which purport to be complete” (IH, 280)—which he maintains is the principal legacy of the immigrant's “double vision.”

Even more important perhaps than the passages in which he speculates on the books he might have written instead of this one are those in which Rushdie discusses the real-life sources or inspiration for his novel. The passage, for example, in which he tells us about his friend, the Pakistani poet, who was “hung upside-down by the ankles and beaten” in Zia's prison “as if he were a new-born baby whose lungs had to be coerced into action so he could squeal” (S, 22). It is this friend, Rushdie feels, who probably should be telling the present story (“or another one, his own”), and in one of his first important passages emphasizing the “off-centering” effects of the poetic imagination, he goes on to point out some of the parallels between his friend's experience and that of his fictional hero Omar Khayyam Shakil: the fact that the latter has also been “ankle-hung” as a baby, for example, or—though “no quatrains ever issued or will issue from his pen”—that he bears the same name as a famous poet (S, 23). Though Rushdie likes to emphasize the extent to which it has been fictionally “off-centered” or “displaced”—to which it now exists, “like [himself], at a slight angle to reality” (S, 24)—in passages such as this one he seems to be reminding us that in fact his “looking-glass Pakistan” is firmly rooted in real experience,23 that in contrast to the autonomous “word-worlds” of Berry's “specialist-poets” it actually does represent “a point of clarification between [himself] and the world … an adventure into [the] reality or mystery outside [himself].”24 The same sort of reminder is provided in Midnight's Children by the references to parallel political events going on simultaneously with Saleem Sinai's life.

The most obvious exploration in Shame of the relationship between fiction and reality is probably the passage in which Rushdie describes the real-life origins of his heroine Sufiya Zinobia, beginning with the case—“not so long ago, in the East of London”—in which a young Pakistani girl was murdered by her father “because by making love to a white boy she had brought such dishonour upon her family that only her blood could wash away the stain” (S, 123). Interested in writing a story about shame, Rushdie recalls, he found himself “haunted by the imagined spectre of that dead [girl's] body, its throat slit like a halal chicken, lying in a London night across a zebra crossing.” At first, apparently, he thought he could write about her realistically: her East London accent, her jeans (“blue brown pink”), her contempt for her parents' native language. “Anna Muhammad: lively, no doubt attractive, a little too dangerously so at sixteen. Mecca meant ballrooms to her, rotating silver balls, strobe lighting, youth.” Eventually, however, the girl eluded him—“she became a ghost”—and Rushdie decided that “to write about her, about shame, [he] would have to go back East, to let the idea breathe its favorite air.” That is how his character came to be “deported, repatriated to a country she had never seen,” how she “caught brain-fever and turned into a sort of idiot”—in response not so much to the exigencies of art, apparently, as to those of place (S, 124-25).

Not that the process of fictional “off-centering” ended there, of course, for Rushdie goes on to tell the stories of at least two other “phantoms”—from “Proper London” instead of “spectral ‘Peccavistan’”—who also “haunt” his book, who, as he describes them, are also “inside my heroine” waiting to “pop out”: that of a boy found burning in a parking lot one day who, as the experts were forced to conclude, must “simply [have] ignited of his own accord, without dousing himself in petrol or applying external flame”; and that of an “Asian” girl “set upon” in a late-night subway by a gang of white boys, whom Rushdie gleefully imagines lashing back at her assailants, “breaking arms legs noses balls, without knowing whence the violence came, without seeing how she, so slight in figure, could command such awesome strength” (S, 125-26). The purpose of such stories, of course, is to illustrate the way in which, as they are refracted through the “cracked lens” of art, the facts of experience wind up being imaginatively “displaced”: in Rushdie's own novel, for example, the way in which the fury of the rioters rampaging across his television screen has been displaced, first to the “Asian” girl humiliated in the subway and then, through her, to Sufiya Zinobia as “shame's avatar”; or the way in which Anna Muhammad's ignominious death by stabbing has been deflected, first to victims like Sindbad Mengal or Little Mir Harappa and then, in one of the supreme ironies of the novel, back to the tyrannical father who originally perpetrated it and who, in the fictional guise of Raza (“Razor Guts”) Hyder, is finally sliced to ribbons by the spring-release stiletto blades concealed in the Shakil sisters' dumbwaiter (S, 312).

Even if Rushdie's main purpose in telling such stories is to emphasize the difference between art and reality, however—even if he is interested primarily in the “off-centering” or “defamiliarizing” effects of the artistic imagination—it is still the case that, every time he interrupts his narrative with one of these illusion-shattering, self-reflexive asides, he is directing our attention back to the real-life sources of his work, reminding us that, for all his talk of “fairylands” or “looking-glass Pakistans,” his book is still basically mimetic or referential in nature. Perhaps there are writers, like Jean Genet in The Balcony or John Barth in Chimera, who make use of such passages mainly in order to dramatize the autonomous, convention-governed nature of the literary work—or, even more radically, the fictive nature of reality itself, what Gerald Graff refers to as “the functionality of everything.”25 If so, however, Rushdie is clearly not one of them. In his work there always seems to come a recognition, at some point, of the larger, extraliterary context of the work, a recognition of its dependence, for meaning and value, on some sort of nonverbal reality. In other words, there always seems to be a release at some point from “the prison-house of language,” a return to what Rushdie himself describes as the “existential question: How are we to live in the world?” (IH, 18). Far from antimimetic, in fact, one of Rushdie's obvious purposes as a writer is to warn against the breakdown of reality in contemporary society, to expose the promoters like Hal Valence (SV, 267-70), the tyrants like General Zulfikar or Indira Gandhi, who manipulate and subvert history for their own ends.

Having cautioned us, for example, that the country in Shame is “not quite” Pakistan, that Omar's hometown of Q. is “not really” Quetta, Rushdie goes on to acknowledge the limits of this sort of fictional “displacement.” “But I don't want to be too precious about this,” he concedes. “When I arrive at the big city, I shall call it Karachi. And it will have a Defence” (S, 24). Ultimately, the issues we are confronted with in Rushdie's work are not epistemological or semiotic at all; they are political or social or moral issues: problems like child abuse or sexual exploitation, like censorship or political assassination—all the real-life consequences of shame or shamelessness (S, 71-72).

This is hardly surprising, of course, when we recall that Rushdie makes use of his self-reflexive, “off-centering” narrative technique in the first place mainly in order to make his work more responsive to the complexities of real experience, in order to satisfy what Saleem Sinai describes as “an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality” (MC, 84). As Rushdie sees it, all of life can be described in the same terms that he applies to Pakistan (or, in Midnight's Children, to India): as a “peeling, fragmenting palimpsest” or as “a picture full of conflicting elements” (S, 92). Instead of being like Robespierre or Danton from Büchner's play, either a puritan or an epicurean, a real person is always an internally divided, self-conflicted amalgam of such tendencies, a sort of “Robeston” or “Danpierre” (S, 267). In The Satanic Verses, for example, Saladin Chamcha is aware of dozens of “old, rejected selves,” “alternative Saladins … which had split off from himself as he made his various life choices but which had apparently continued to exist, perhaps in the parallel universes of quantum theory” (SV, 523). Similarly, in Midnight's Children, Saleem Sinai is aware that, “inside himself,” he is “anything but a whole, anything but homogeneous; all kinds of everywhichthing are jumbled up inside him, and he is one person one minute and another the next” (MC, 283).

It is in order to mirror this fact—in order “not to falsify reality with patterns too neat, too inclusive”26—that Rushdie has infused Shame with an element of the same complexity, that he has turned it, in fact, into the same kind of “peeling, fragmenting palimpsest” as the country that it describes. Formally, in fact, all of Rushdie's novels can be read as an acknowledgment that reality takes precedence over art, that “the unchanging twoness of things” can never be reconciled to “the universe of what-happened-next” (MC, 38), to “the narrow one-dimensionality of a straight line” (MC, 178).


  1. James Harrison, “Reconstructing Midnight's Children and Shame,University of Toronto Quarterly, 39:3 (Spring 1990), p. 399.

  2. Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991, New York, Viking Penguin, 1992, p. 287. Subsequent references use the abbreviation IH.

  3. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, New York, Viking Penguin, 1989, pp. 351, 416. Subsequent references use the abbreviation SV.

  4. Salman Rushdie, Shame, New York, Random House, 1983, p. 189. Subsequent references use the abbreviation S.

  5. Aruna Srivastava, “‘The Empire Writes Back’: Language and History in Shame and Midnight's Children,ARIEL, 20:4 (October 1989), p. 76.

  6. Mark Edmundson, “Prophet of a New Postmodernism,” Harper's Magazine, December 1989, p. 70.

  7. Wendell Berry, “The Art of Place,” New Perspectives Quarterly, 9:2 (Spring 1992), p. 29.

  8. Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children, New York, Viking Penguin, 1981, pp. 419-20. Subsequent references use the abbreviation MC.

  9. Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, Berkeley, Ca., North Point, 1983, p. 57.

  10. Ibid., p. 58.

  11. Wendell Berry, What Are People For?, Berkeley, Ca., North Point, 1990, p. 193. Berry's view is that “[all] good human work remembers its history. The best writing is full of intimations that it is the present version of earlier versions of itself, and that its maker inherited the work and ways of earlier makers.”

  12. Gerald Graff, Literature against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 13.

  13. Ibid., pp. 60-62.

  14. Kelly Hewson, “Opening Up the Universe a Little More: Salman Rushdie and the Migrant as Story-Teller,” Span: Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language, 29 (October 1989), p. 88.

  15. Berry, What Are People For?, p. 89.

  16. See Graff, pp. 70, 90.

  17. Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays in Life, Literature, and Method, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1966, p. 17.

  18. Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Berkeley University of California Press, 1988, pp. 340-41.

  19. Berry, Standing by Words, p. 35.

  20. Berry, What Are People For?, p. 193.

  21. Ibid., p. 69.

  22. Ibid., p. 67.

  23. Helen Watson-Williams, “An Antique Land: Salman Rushdie's Shame,Westerly: A Quarterly Review, 29:4 (December 1984) p. 38.

  24. Berry, Standing by Words, p. 7.

  25. Graff, p. 15.

  26. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, New York, Oxford University Press, 1966, p. 130.

Bruce King (review date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of The Moor's Last Sigh, by Salman Rushdie. World Literature Today 70, no. 3 (summer 1996): 694-95.

[In the following review, King offers a mixed review of The Moor's Last Sigh, contending that Rushdie “always manages to write powerfully about the defining issues of our time.”]

At the conclusion of The Moor's Last Sigh Moraes Zogoiby flees an apocalyptic Bombay of gang wars, bombings, and communal violence and heads for Spain. There he is imprisoned by an enemy who forces him to write his personal and family history. The reader then turns back to the start of the novel, which continues the narrator's flight and story, as Moraes nails pages of his tale to trees in an act which he sees as equivalent to Luther's theses while recalling his mother's remark that he is full of feces. Moraes is the Moor of the title, although he is Jew, Christian, and Indian. His mother's side of the family is descended from the Portuguese who settled Goa, and his father's side can trace its lineage to the Christian Reconquest of Spain when both Moors and Jews were expelled. They have been Indian for many centuries.

The Moor's Last Sigh is thus another version of Midnight's Children, which used an improbable, fantastic family history as a way to retell the story of modern India from, in the earlier novel, the penetration of Western rationalism and science in the North during the late nineteenth century through major events of the independence movement until the progressive vision of Nehru was destroyed by the emergence of a nativistic, dynastic feudalism during the Emergency under Indira Gandhi. In the new novel Indian history is told from the perspective of the South, with its many minorities, rather than the Hindu-Islamic North, and Indira's dynastic perversion of nationalism is supplanted by fanatical nativist thugs who violently destroy whatever they regard as non-Hindu. So, the wandering Jew has become the wandering Moor, symbolic of India's threatened minorities and the rejection of the westernized elite who founded the nation. The narrator has become a homeless expatriate.

World, national, and family history in Rushdie's novel have autobiographical and literary foundations. Like Scheherazade, the narrator has staved off execution by telling, or inventing, his Thousand and One Nights. He has descended through an Inferno until at the end he had a co-prisoner, an art restorer, who, also faced by death, became a deconstructionist carefully picking away at the surface of a painting by Moraes's mother to reveal what was painted over. A masterpiece entitled The Moor's Last Sigh about the mother's death was formerly a painting offering erotic self-display to her lover. Art, like history, culture, and identity, is palimpsestic.

Such motifs suggest something of the imaginative landscape, power, and ideas in The Moor's Last Sigh. In themes, symbols, scenes, and ironies, it is the richest of Rushdie's novels. It is at times unsatisfying in the way that his writing can be. That larger-than-life narrator, the cartoonish characters, the nonstop punning, the self-conscious allusions, the lack of other voices, the tricks in plotting repeated from Rushdie's previous novels (the narrator has another father, he and the nation are cracking up), and the often clichéd language have become too familiar. Rushdie can be dense. When he was parroting trendy ideas about revolution, did he not see that Fanon's criticism of neocolonialism could apply to the class of which he is part? When he attacks Naipaul's defense of Bombay fundamentalists, can he really not see Naipaul's point that such radicalism is how groups outside of power organize themselves and find a voice?

Even if at times Rushdie lacks bottom, I still would not want to miss any of his novels. His style is as unique and influential as Picasso's, and he always manages to write powerfully about the defining issues of our time.

Joel Kuortti (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Kuortti, Joel. “‘Nomsense’: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.Textual Practice 13, no. 1 (1999): 137-46.

[In the following essay, Kuortti underscores the significance of language—particularly the power of naming—in The Satanic Verses.]

Jean-François Lyotard, in establishing clear distinctions between different genres and discourses, argues that the rules of language games within the distinct and different areas of discourse are modifiable, although ‘even before he is born, if only by virtue of the name he is given, the human child is already positioned as the referent in the story recounted by those around him’ (emphases added).1 This observation is part of a major turn in the history of ideas, a turn which Richard Rorty describes as ‘the linguistic turn’,2 a turn towards the perceived dominance of language, illustrated here by Lyotard's example of the linguistic sign of a person, the name, being prior to that person's birth.

This linguistic turn is not simply a single turn, towards the specificity of a certain theory or concept. The diversity of this turn is overwhelming, although the importance, indeed priority of language, is crucial to all these lines of thought: take, for example, French structuralism, Russian formalism, poststructuralism, feminist criticism, transformational grammar, semantics, speech-act theory. What might be stressed here is that the turn now being taken on the problem of naming in/of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is not towards language as a separate universe, a structuralist ‘langue’, but towards a universe, a ‘reality’, perceived as dominated, sustained and created by language.

The stories to which Lyotard refers, the master narratives, the language games, are especially powerful in the naming process. This is illustrated in The Satanic Verses when a character speaks of the British having the power of description over the migrants to Britain by naming: ‘They describe us. … That's all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct’ (p. 168). Another character protests: ‘Why should there be a good, right way of being a wog?’ (p. 52). If anything, the unavoidable plurivocality, multiplicity of voices, is a governing theme in Rushdie's writing. This description works through the language game of imperialism, and Rushdie writes elsewhere against this hegemony within the English language:

The language, like much else in the newly independent societies, needs to be decolonized, to be remade in other images … English, no longer an English language, now grows from many roots; and those whom it once colonized are carving out large territories within the language for themselves.3

Just like Rushdie's protest against the hegemony of the imperial English, Lyotard's manifesto, too, represents a call to ‘wage a war on totality … let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name’.4 A proper name, by definition, should be void of meaning; it is only appropriate and literal that it should remain the property of the bearer, a single signifier for a single signified, something to sign with. Lyotard argues that the master or grand narratives should be displaced by ‘little narratives’, heterogeneous stories.5 This kind of little narrative ‘determines on its own how the various elements it contains or refers to will be interrelated’.6 To allow the name to determine its own story would thus, in the context of this article, help to save the ‘honour’ of the proper name. It is not being suggested that this is a project which The Satanic Verses is trying to complete, that it is this that Salman Rushdie means to do in the novel, but that the novel is certainly allowing space for the proper name. What does Salman Rushdie mean, anyway? What does ‘Salman Rushdie’ mean?

The name Salman Rush-die is open to a paronymous play which might scare (or encourage) some superstitious minds: ‘(It is) peaceful to die in a rush.’ There are many occasions where this play on the name has been seen as the author's compulsion to fulfil ‘the meaning’ of his name, in the prophetic invoking of Rushdie's own death sentence, through parallels in the narrative:

‘Salman Farsi,’ the Prophet begins to pronounce the sentence of death, but the prisoner begins to shriek the qualmah: ‘La ilaha ilallah! La ilaha!’ Mahound shakes his head. ‘Your blasphemy, Salman, can't be forgiven.’

(p. 374)

This oft-quoted passage has certainly been decisive in many readings of the novel and it therefore renders the question of proper names even more significant.

Paul de Man, examining the paronomastic function of language, the convergence of sound and meaning also important for puns, draws a historical line from Plato's ‘Cratylus’7 to the works of Hegel, Jakobson and Barthes, and concludes that the link between the name and the thing named, the coincidence between sound (sign) and meaning is ‘not phenomenal but conventional’.8 Similarly Lyotard has pointed to the contract involved in defining the rules of language games,9 but whereas Lyotard, ostensibly more concerned with immediate political questions, seems to accord the power to redefine the contract to the users of a language,10 de Man maintains that it is the language itself which has this ‘autonomous potential’: this conventionality ‘gives language considerable freedom from referential restraint’.11

Now, if names are arbitrary signifiers which a reader can freely associate a meaning with, ‘cut off from their referent’, as Peggy Kamuf has argued,12 there is in language at least something undecipherable, undecidable. The name is the place of ultimate, or initiatory, undecidability; if not the initials of language. Thus, for example, Jacques Derrida treats the name ‘Babel’ as ‘not only a proper name, the reference of a pure signifier to a single being’ but also as ‘a common noun related to the generality of a meaning’.13 A name is doubly bound to be untranslated and at the same time to demand translation: it is impossible to decide whether names belong to one, or to several, if to any of a whole range of languages. Names, like any ‘untranslated passages’, shine in the text ‘like the medallion of a proper name’.14 In The Satanic Verses London is transformed both as a name and a city. It is tropicalized and multiculturalized. This Babel, or ‘Babylondon’, is ‘no Proper London’ with its confusion of languages (p. 459; emphasis added). The city, Saladin's elowen deeowen (p. 37), loses its proper reference and gains a new meaning, multiple meanings in the confusion of languages. A proper name, ‘at the edge of the language’,15 precisely because of its inscription in language, always has ‘a potential for meaning, and for no longer being proper once it has a meaning’.16 The name is, then, what might be called ‘nomsensical’: It is at the same time with and without sense, senselessly carrying its inescapable capacity for sense, for meaning, or meanings: ‘[I]t's a slippery word, Jerusalem, it can be an idea as well as a place’ (p. 212).

In an essay on metaphor in philosophy, ‘White mythology’, Derrida also discusses the problem of naming as that which is situated between the referential and the metaphorical. If a proper name can be used with a meaning, or metaphorically,17 it is no longer ‘the proper name of a unique thing’,18 just as ‘the sun’ not only refers to that specific heavenly body, but also to ‘the nonmetaphorical prime mover of metaphor, the father of all figures’.19 In the same way as the sun is always, already metaphorical,20 the name is always, already metaphorical, too. The name signs the initials of language: the double bind between proper and common, untranslatable and demanding translation, being present and absent at the same time. And the metaphor evaporates in the always-already; the distinction is also a non-distinction, the metaphor is also a non-metaphor. The Being named in a discourse can always not be present and thus escape natural, sensory reference. The tautological sentence ‘Salman Rushdie is the man called Salman Rushdie’ would not yield in discourse the rigid, proper ‘essence’ of the sentence, that is ‘Salman Rushdie’, but some metaphorical-non-metaphorical signification, and it would not yield anything else. The nomsensical nature of names posits them on the edge of language, and on the borderline between a person and language. This evoking of sense in names does not belong to anything extra-linguistic, in the sense that somebody ‘does’ this evoking, but is inherent in the language, for ‘one doesn't disseminate or play with one's name. The very structure of the proper name sets this process in motion’.21 A name is at one and the same time both the general in command, and general, at command: the user and the used; it is inescapably capable of having both sense and signification. A name is something ‘which cannot be summed up in a self’.22 I-and-the-other-in-the-name.

At this point it seems necessary to consider the problem of naming in relation to the question of literary referentiality. The ontological, epistemological and institutional questions concerning names are inevitably thought to be much the same within the arts, in literature especially, as in everyday use, and the same kinds of answers are offered to these questions. It must first of all be made clear that it is not a matter here of arts in general but of literature, not least because the concepts of art and its functions (aesthetic, political, moral and so forth) are both heterogeneous among themselves and in other respects, too, deeply problematic.23 This restriction to the field of literature is imposed knowing that this ‘confinement’ is not self-evident or clear (‘[i]t is an institution which tends to overflow the institution’24) but also knowing that the same questions cannot be asked about all forms of art, because they would not be the ‘same’ questions. The proper name in literature does not work in the same way as within the spheres of music, architecture, theatre, painting, dance, performance, film, sculpture and so on.

The difference between literature and other art-forms is due, at least in part, to (the forms of) its institutionalization. This implies that there are certain rules and conventions for literature, but also that literature is ‘a fictive institution which in principle allows one to say everything’.25 This authorization of literature to say everything is undoubtedly linked to the Western idea of democracy, of permitting dissent and opposition, and the principle of freedom of speech and of expression. There have been strong calls, for example by Lyotard, for the autonomy of art and literature; claims that art is ontologically different from the social and political. Rushdie describes the function of the novel thus: ‘[T]he novel has always been about the way in which different languages, values and narratives quarrel,’ but he also points out that ‘[t]he novel does not seek to establish a privileged language, but it insists upon the freedom to portray [emphasis added] and analyze the struggle between the different contestants for such privileges.’26

De Man boldly equates ‘the rhetorical, figurative potentiality of language with literature itself’,27 so that fictionality is not a structure or form of literature, but an effect of the language. This effect of fictionality is not excluded from other modes of discourse, and Hayden White, for example, has sought to explain historical writings as ‘verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found’.28 Derrida's ‘White mythology’ works in a similar way with the notion of metaphor in the text of philosophy. The questions of referentiality and fictionality are no longer sufficient to establish boundaries between different kinds of writing,29 and the fictional and the serious (or the non-fictional), within this theoretical perspective, after this ‘linguistic turn’, are not separable.

Alongside this stress on the ‘democratic’ force of literature as an institution there have been and there also are institutions to determine the boundaries for art: censors have executed their office more or less efficiently throughout history, in countries which claim the principles of democracy, as in others. The institution of censorship is, in fact, central to an understanding of the idea that the notion of the author only became possible ‘when it was necessary to find somebody to blame’.30 Michel Foucault, in his essay ‘What is an author?’, argues that it was at the moment when the questions of ownership of texts were first asked31 that the transgressive property always intrinsic to writing ‘became the forceful imperative of literature’.32 It is interesting that Rushdie ends his quote from ‘What is an author?’ with an omission: ‘Historically it [i.e. discourse] was a gesture fraught with risks.’ Interesting, because this omission (‘before becoming goods caught up in a circuit of ownership’33) carries on with one of the accusations levelled against Rushdie in the debate on The Satanic Verses. For example, Ali Mazrui, commenting on Rushdie's insincerity in his conversion to Islam,34 claims that ‘Rushdie is still gaining from commercialized blasphemy’. Mazrui's view is that ‘[i]t would be difficult to dispute his sincerity if he was indeed to forgo millions of earnings from The Satanic Verses’.35 This is a terrible way to link capital and capital punishment. Is it, after all, property, and not propriety, which is sought in this, in the name of Salman Rushdie?

Foucault goes on to demonstrate the differences between ordinary proper names and the author's name. The ‘paradoxical singularity’ of the author's name tends ‘always to be present, marking off the edges of the text’ and is at the same time ‘in the break’ with the text.36 Rushdie describes this singularity as a ‘secret identity’, where the writer and the reader merge ‘to become a collective being that both writes as it reads and reads as it writes’.37 How this ‘marking off the edges’ takes place, how this ‘collective being’, the author, is born, is inscribed in the text. Even though both the writer and the reader occupy their singular places in time and space, even though they exist in their own specific cultural contexts, they somehow merge. The author's name serves as a culturally decoded sign(ature) which, inevitably, is read as a contextually determined meaning. But to what extent? Where does one draw the line regarding this contextual determination? The narrator in Midnight's Children draws a line: ‘[T]o understand me, you'll have to swallow a world’.38

In his communication ‘Signature, event, context’ Derrida demonstrates ‘why a context is never absolutely determinable’.39 This is because the iterability or repeatability of a written sign (here especially the signature of a writer, and the author's name) cannot be enclosed by any given context.40 Furthermore, de Man writes that the plurality of contexts will always, in all texts, surpass our will to meaning: ‘There are elements in all texts that are by no means ungrammatical, but whose semantic function is not grammatically definable, neither in themselves nor in context.’41 What is even more important is that this break with any context also includes breaking with the presence of any reader: ‘All writing must be able to function in the radical absence of every empirically determined addressee in general.’42 The author's name is inevitably read in a context, but as it is iterable in an indefinite number of contexts, it subverts all determinable or saturable reading, thus radically breaking with the reader as well as with the author:

For the written to be the written, it must continue to ‘act’ and to be legible even if what is called the author of the written no longer answers for what he has written, for what he seems to have signed, whether he is provisionally absent, or if he is dead, or if in general he does not support, with his absolutely current and present intention or attention, the plenitude of his meaning, of that very thing which seems to be written ‘in his name.’43

Derrida, unlike Barthes in ‘The death of the author’, does not remove the author's power to define the text in favour of the power of the reader, but leaves open the ‘plenitude of meaning’ of the work, ‘that very thing which seems to be written “in his name”’. For Derrida it is in the necessary possibility of the absence of any definite reader or author that writing takes place. It is, however, customary for readers, and authors alike, to ‘give a text an Author’ as Barthes formulates it.44 In the case of Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses, this has been extensively so. It seems absurd to talk about ‘the death of the author’ in this context, which is precisely the death sentence of an author. This text has been given an Author on several occasions, one of which was the pronouncement of the death sentence, the deadly sentence, by Ayatollah Khomeini:

[T]he author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses, which has been compiled … in opposition to Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been sentenced to death.45

This amounts also to the context in which Rushdie's ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ takes place, that being inevitably linked with the nomsense, the rhetoric of the Satanic Verses affair.

The problematizations of contexts and names above are themselves problematic, for, as Barthes anticipates, readers and authors tend to authorize texts and readings. Socrates, in Plato's ‘Cratylus’, granted the legislator the post of ideal namer, though the philosopher, ‘διαλεκτικóς’, was above the legislator in judging whether the name was rightly, naturally accorded.46 The shari'a, the Islamic Law, was indeed what was used in Khomeini's naming-without-naming death sentence. And in effect the situation is similar in modern Western societies today; law prevails over the name. Could there be some ‘διαλεκτικóς’ to judge whether the name is rightly accorded? The ‘non-Cratylian’ strategy seems to be a promising one for such a judge.

Foucault's essay begins by examining the link between writing and death,47 in ways that may be usefully compared with the Khomeini death sentence. In the old (Greek) tradition narrative was a guarantee of the hero's immortality. A hero's life was magnified by his death and was redeemed by the narrative. Story-telling was a way of postponing death, as in Scheherazade's stories from the Thousand Nights and a Night: it was ‘an effort … to keep death outside the circle of life’ (‘a desperate inversion of murder’). Foucault's argument is that this position is inverted in our culture, and that writing has become a sacrifice of life itself, a voluntary effacement (obliteration of self). It is already, in the writing, that the writing subject ‘cancels out the signs of his particular individuality’. Now, in our Western culture, a work possesses (attains) ‘the right to kill, be its author's murderer,’ so that an author can be known only through ‘the singularity of his absence.’ Thus, it is the work itself which attains the position of judging how the names are accorded, by ‘creating a space’ (opening) ‘into which the writing subject constantly’ (endlessly) ‘disappears’. The work is that which pronounces the death sentences. To look from this kind of an angle at the different ways in which one has tried to find a father, an author, for The Satanic Verses, then, gives a special tone to the following words from a review of Rushdie's novel from 1990, Haroun and the Sea of Stories:

In this tale … sorrow causes one to forget one's name and lose the ability to speak; and no wonder, considering the recent life of its author: under how many false and forgettable names, in how many sad cities, one wonders, has Mr. Rushdie had to conceal himself in the past two years.48

The two years have turned into nine and still the last word, or last name, is not said in the debate over The Satanic Verses, or over Salman Rushdie. There have only been a large number of ‘afterwords’ to The Satanic Verses and/or Salman Rushdie. Afterwords which tend to promise a closure for the text/author. This evoking of ‘the last word’ and ‘an afterword’ serves as a link to ‘nomsense’, for just as a name is untranslatable and at the same time demands translation, a text cannot and still must have an afterword, the last word.49 The last word will not last, it is the edge of a (s)word; going beyond, cutting off. ‘What a limiting thing is a weapon’ (p. 546). And how limited, when compared with the word, the name.


  1. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester, 1984), p. 15. Lyotard is developing Ludwig Wittgenstein's idea about language games, that names have meaning only in the context of a proposition; see proposition 3.3 in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (London and New York, 1986 [1922]), p. 51.

  2. Richard Rorty, ‘Metaphilosophical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy’, introduction to The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method, ed. Rorty (Chicago and London, 1967), pp. 1-39.

  3. Rushdie, ‘The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance’, The Times (3 July 1982), p. 8.

  4. Lyotard, ‘What Is Postmodernism?’ Postmodern Condition, p. 82.

  5. See David Carroll, Paraesthetics (New York and London, 1987), ch. 7: ‘The aesthetic and the political: Lyotard’, esp. pp. 156-8.

  6. Carroll, p. 158.

  7. This is a classical study of naming, subtitled ‘On the Justification of Names’. In ‘Cratylus’ the element of language which attached a word to a thing was the name, since a name has reference but not sense; see Platon [Plato], ‘Cratylos’, Dialogi, Graece et Latine, ed. Immanuel Bekker, Vol. 2, part 8, rt 2 (Berlin, 1817). See Outi Pasanen on de Man's ‘rhetorical reading strategy’ and its relation to ‘a non-Cratylian understanding of language’ in her essay ‘Gasché on de Man and Derrida: Forgetting the Moment of Crisis’, Afterwords, Tampere English Studies, Vol. 1, ed. Nicholas Royle (Tampere, 1992), pp. 96-124.

  8. Paul de Man, ‘The Resistance to Rheory’, in Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis, 1986 [1982]), p. 10.

  9. Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, p. 10.

  10. The relevant section here is: ‘Great joy is had in the endless invention of turns of phrase, of words and meanings, the process behind the evolution of language on the level of parole. But undoubtedly even this pleasure depends on a feeling of success won at the expense of an adversary … : the accepted language, or connotation.’ Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, p. 10.

  11. de Man, ‘Resistance’, p. 10.

  12. Peggy Kamuf, Signature Pieces: On the Institution of Authorship (Ithaca and London, 1988), pp. 2-3.

  13. Jacques Derrida, ‘Des Tours de Babel’, trans. Joseph F. Graham, Difference in Translation (Ithaca, 1985), p. 166.

  14. Derrida, ‘Babel’, p. 177.

  15. Ibid., p. 185.

  16. Derrida, Signéponge/Signsponge, trans. Richard Rand (New York, 1984), p. 118.

  17. In Aristotle's sense of giving one thing a name of the other, see Poetics, 1457b6, On Poetry and Style, trans. G. M. A. Grube (New York, 1958), p. 21; see also Derrida, ‘White Mythology’, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Brighton, 1982), p. 231.

  18. Derrida, ‘White Mythology’, p. 244.

  19. Ibid., p. 243.

  20. Ibid., p. 251.

  21. Derrida, ‘Roundtable on Autobiography’, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation; Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida, ed. Christie V. McDonald, trans. Avital Ronell (New York, 1985), p. 76.

  22. Derrida, ‘Otobiographies’, The Ear of the Other, p. 7. Derrida's emphasis.

  23. See Carroll, Paraesthetics, Chapter 2, ‘Aesthetic Antagonisms: Lyotard’, pp. 23-52. Here Carroll discusses Lyotard's views on art's function as privileged critical activity which is ‘simultaneously transcendent and critical, constructive and deconstructive, apolitical and radically … political … art and anti-art at the same time’ (p. 27).

  24. Derrida, interview, ‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York and London, 1992), p. 36. Similarly Rushdie, refusing the definitions of literature in ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’, Granta, 31 (1990) cites Herbert Read: ‘Change is the condition of art remaining art’ (p. 101).

  25. Derrida, ‘This Strange Institution’, p. 36. Derrida's emphasis.

  26. Rushdie, ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’, p. 7. It is interesting how the metaphorical language pervades all discourse, disseminating itself, like here ‘the novel portraying’.

  27. de Man, ‘Semiology and Rhetoric’, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust (New Haven and London, 1979), p. 10.

  28. Hayden White, ‘The Historical Text as Literary Artifact’, Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore and London, 1978), p. 82. White's emphasis.

  29. See Derrida, ‘The Law of Genre’, trans. Avital Ronell, rev. trans. D. Attridge, Acts of Literature, pp. 221-52. In this study of Blanchot's ‘The Madness of the Day’ Derrida argues that transgression of genre-boundaries overwhelms and severs ‘the boundaries between literature and its others’ (p. 252).

  30. Rushdie, ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’, p. 107. Rushdie's emphasis. Rushdie refers here to Michel Foucault's essay ‘What Is an Author?’ in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-structuralist Criticism, ed. and trans. Josué V. Harari (London, 1979), p. 148. Further references to this Foucault text are specified as H (Harari) or B (Bouchard), because there is a different translation in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. D. F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, 1986 [1977]).

  31. Foucault places this ‘at the end of 18th, and beginning of the nineteenth century’, Foucault, H, p. 148.

  32. Foucault, B, p. 125.

  33. Foucault, H, p. 148.

  34. See Rushdie's account of this in ‘Why I Have Embraced Islam’, The Times (28 December 1990), repr. in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 (London, 1991), pp. 430-9; not included in later reprints.

  35. Ali A. Mazrui, ‘A Testimony: Rushdie's Commercialized Blasphemy’, in Sacrilege versus Civility: Muslim Perspectives on ‘The Satanic Verses’ Affair, eds. M. Manazir Ahsan and A. R. Kidwai (Leicester, 1991), p. 313.

  36. Foucault, H, pp. 146, 147, 148 respectively.

  37. Rushdie, ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’, p. 109. Paul de Man's argument in such a context would no doubt be to understand ‘the distinction between author and reader’ as false; see ‘Semiology’, p. 17.

  38. Rushdie, Midnight's Children (London, 1982 [1981]), p. 383.

  39. Derrida, ‘Signature, Event, Context’, Margins of Philosophy, p. 310.

  40. Ibid., p. 317.

  41. de Man, ‘Resistance,’ pp. 15-16.

  42. Derrida, ‘Signature, Event, Context’, pp. 315-16.

  43. Ibid., p. 316.

  44. Barthes, Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York, 1991 [1977]), p. 147.

  45. A radio announcement from Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, on Radio Tehran (18 February 1989). Reported in the Observer (19 February 1989), repr. in The Rushdie File, eds Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland (London, 1989), p. 84.

  46. Plato, 388:25, 389:1, 390:17.18.

  47. There are different beginnings; the one referred to here is the one in Foucault, H, pp. 142-3. The one in Foucault, B begins by exploring the position of the essay and Foucault's own use of the names of authors in his The Order of Things. The quotations in this paragraph are from these two translations. Where there are parentheses they display quotations from Foucault, B, pp. 116-17, and they indicate differences and extensions in the two versions.

  48. Alison Lurie, ‘Another Dangerous Story from Salman Rushdie: Haroun and the Sea of Stories’, The New York Times Book Review (11 November 1990), p. 59.

  49. Derrida's treatment of ‘afterword’ and ‘the last word’ is here employed in a different context from the original trilingual essay/letter ‘Afterw.rds: ou, du moins, moins qu'une lettre sur une lettre en moins’/‘Afterw.rds: or, at least, less than a letter about a letter less’, trans. Geoffrey Bennington/‘Afterw.rds: eli vähintäänkin vähemmän kuin kirje yhdestä kirjaimesta vähemmän’, trans. Outi Pasanen, Afterwords, pp. 196-217; and in ‘Racism's Last Word’, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Critical Inquiry, ‘Race’, Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr (Aut, 1985), pp. 290-9.

Pankaj Mishra (review date 9 April 1999)

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SOURCE: Mishra, Pankaj. “The Emperor's New Clothes.” New Statesman and Society 128, no. 4431 (9 April 1999): 42-5.

[In the following negative review, Mishra asserts that “with its banal obsessions and empty bombast, its pseudo-characters and non-events, its fundamental shapelessness and incoherence, The Ground beneath Her Feet does little more than echo the white noise of the modern world.”]

Early in Salman Rushdie's new novel, [The Ground beneath Her Feet,] the narrator, a photographer called Umeed Merchant, confesses to having once believed the “world to be unworthy of me”. It makes you pause. By then you have already been run a bit ragged by his self-important, all-knowing, portentous voice, and are becoming anxious about his intention to give us, as the blurb puts it, nothing less than “the whole of what is and what might be”. Merchant has been going on, among other things, about the advantages of expatriation. He has been showing off his multicultural take on life and the world. Tolkien, Back to the Future, Gluck, Dumezil, Max Müller, Hawthorne, Ava Gardner, the Norse Sagas, Aristotle and Vico are casually dropped in just a few pages. The man is a prig, you suddenly realise, and wonder if Rushdie knows this, too.

The worrying answer is that he emphatically doesn't: if he did he wouldn't have made Merchant deliver, over 448 closely printed pages, the low-down on what the dust jacket calls our “shaken mutating times”. As it turns out, in Merchant's hands, our times are shaken and mutated beyond recognition. This is primarily because he is excitably prone to crazy, cult-like visions of the world's end; and his outlook, for all his wide experience and learning, is narrow—our mutating times are represented for him, in essence, by the celebrity netherworld of drug-and-porn addictions, secret derangements, religious rebirths, suicide and murder. Elton John, Bob Dylan and Versace are all here, shaken and mutated.

In between, Merchant keeps referring to the story of the love between the rock stars, Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, a great love spanning several continents but which isn't actually shown in any detail, in spite of the teaser-trailers: “For even as the German poet Novalis … Ormus Cama, the most handsome young fellow in Bombay, fell for 12-year-old Vina, fell flat, as if someone had pushed him in the back.”

We don't hear of Novalis again. He has been deployed in the same manner as the Flower Duet from Lakme in the British Airways advert: the glamour and prestige of a highbrow name used to varnish kitsch, such copywriter's phrases as “the most handsome young fellow in Bombay”. Merchant carries on in this vein, nimbly and shallowly adapting other people's stories, now invoking Bakhtin, now Panofsky. “At my worst,” he claims, “I have been a cacophony, a mass of human noises.” Actually, even at his best, he remains a marvel of clotted sententiousness: “Death is more than love or is it. Art is more than love or is it. Love is more than death and art, or not. This is the subject. This is the subject. This is it.” “The past is not less valuable because it is no longer the present. In fact, it's more important, because forever unseen.” “Time drips, floats, stretches, shrinks, passes.”

What else does it do? The utter fatuity of these formulations seems not to bother Rushdie, nor that much of the novel proceeds by hearsay. “All this is well-known” is one of the lazy phrases used for glossing over a crucial event; the empty label “famous” is often clamped on to characters and events as the narrator fast-forwards to some more Great Thoughts on what is and what might be. At one point, the narrator, caught within the coils of one of his own spiralling digressions, starts reciting the news bulletin of the day in order to place the action, or lack of it. Such famous historical events as the Kennedy assassination are tossed in for no apparent reason other than to give a frisson to the news-weary reader alert enough to spot the clues.

Inserting fictional protagonists into world events is one of the gimmicks Rushdie picked up from Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. But whereas Midnight's Children and Shame were idiosyncratic private histories of the sub-continent—lefty Forrest Gumps in prose—The Ground beneath Her Feet is a garish collage of tabloid headlines about the lifestyles, as distinct from the lives, of the rich and famous.

According to the narrator, tragedy attends the lives of Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama, but we don't see or feel it: it lies trapped in the maudlin unauthorised biographies of John Lennon and Freddie Mercury from which Cama has been assembled. He and Vina, as well as the assorted globotrash of band managers, record company owners, bodyguards and groupies, occupy hundreds of pages, but all of them are in the end about as vivid as the grainy paparazzi pictures in the News of the World.

The tabloid sensibility is also at work behind the diffused weirdness of the main events. There are unexplained supernatural happenings, doomsday millenarianism, freak births and twins, a mysterious fire. People have extra-sensory powers; they fall in love and hate at great speed, for no discernible reason; and before you can figure out who they are, they kill themselves, or are killed in spectacular accidents, when not murdered (serial murderers, suicides, mutilations, fratricide and parricide are an interesting feature of Rushdie's fiction, along with nymphomaniacs and ball-cutting women). Characters change their settings and identities as often as you turn the page (on one page we are told that Vina Apsara was a deconstructionist professor at a “chic” East Coast college; on another she is a vegetarian food activist in the mould of Linda McCartney, and so it goes on).

The one thing that remains constant amid this bewildering gallimaufry is the narrator's belief in the value of his story and ideas. But since it is only rarely shared by the reader it tends to be, at best, a one-sided affair. So The Ground beneath Her Feet is not so much a novel as a monologue, the culmination of a bad old habit, which has been exalted—through the dictum “go for broke”—into an artistic programme by Rushdie. The chief points, as once elaborated by Rushdie, of this peculiar strategy, inspired by Günter Grass, are: “Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world.”

Rushdie has produced much of this kind of writing, which is easy to do but hard to read, and has spawned among Indian writers in English several facile imitations, novels blithely liberated from such considerations as economy, structure, suspense, irony, plausibility of events, coherence of character, psychological motivation, narrative transitions: in short, everything that makes the novel an art form. To read Midnight's Children now is to read it without the excitement and novelty of finding the narrative techniques of Grass and Gabriel García Márquez adapted to India; and it is to realise that the problems of Rushdie since then have been the problems of a novelist unable to break away from his own imitations and imitators.

In later novels, where Rushdie was still trying to pull off the same stylistic coup of Midnight's Children, social setting, character and human connections were subordinated to poster-bright themes: the ordeal of immigration, the death of the past, the encounter between the east and the west, the postmodern condition. In Shame, he first assumed the now familiar tone (“May I interpose a few words here …”) and inaugurated the tub-thumping that makes it hard to recall, beyond the controversial bits, anything of The Satanic Verses or The Moor's Last Sigh—they were miscellanies rather than novels, with authorial interpositions on the various problems faced by mankind filling up the hollow centre. The Ground beneath completes the process: here, the authorial interpositions are the centre, and everything else—story, characters, drama—has come to resemble aborted sublimations of the author's obsessions, his prejudices and biases.

Examining these leads one to unlikeable conclusions. For instance, belonging and non-belonging, the one theme Rushdie returns to obsessively, as if to some perennially unfinished and urgent business. Well, in so far as every writer presents an individual case, Rushdie is the colonial child who has had to reinvent himself for the west. He is not alone in this: all of us, growing up in colonised societies and cultures, and working with the imported form of the novel, all of us who have known the damaged and damaging modernity of colonialism, have had to become mimics of sorts. These adjustments, made at so many levels of our private and public lives, can be traumatic, especially for people forced by various deprivations to relocate themselves to the western metropolis. V S Naipaul, an example of such displacement, has alchemised the trauma of early poverty and unbelonging into a bristly but always accessible humanism, into an unsentimental concern with the condition of similarly displaced men.

With Rushdie there had always seemed something too self-dramatising about his frequently bemoaned “loss of the east”, about the repeated invitations to feel—this, when he was still an expatriate—the exile's pain. This kind of rhetoric in later novels reached the point where homelessness ceased to be the grievous condition it is for millions; it turned into a slick metaphor for the human condition, which on closer examination turned out to be the Rushdie condition, that is, the various social-psychological conflicts and disorientations of the colonial in the imperial metropolis.

It is hard now not to see Rushdie's enlisting in what he calls “the great traditions of secular radicalism” as part of the same private drama of the self. The solitary and heroic figure of the metropolitan expatriate is inseparable from all the different avatars of this radicalism, which first took its cues from a trendy anti-orientalism and then from an equally trendy DIY postmodernism that celebrated hybridity, impurity, the uncertainty of the modern, the virtues of expatriation. In all cases, it hardly went beyond some vehement personal dislikes and denunciations. As Merchant puts it, “Freedom to reject is the only freedom. Freedom to uphold is dangerous.” Ditto, Rushdie who wrote in an essay defending The Satanic Verses (the tone and rhetoric of Rushdie's fiction and non-fiction are remarkably similar): “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

So Zia-Ul-Haq and Indira Gandhi were demonised, Mrs Thatcher turned into “Mrs Torture”, David Lean and Paul Scott got it in the neck for their allegedly misleading representations of India, and even poor old George Orwell received a tongue-lashing for not being radical enough. In recent writings, Rushdie's targets seem to be people who belong some place and who, perversely, have no interest in developing the cosmopolitan outlook of an expatriate. Merchant keeps wondering if home and kinship are a “scam”, a “piece of brainwashing”. “Life is elsewhere. Cross frontiers,” he exhorts, “fly away.” This echoes the refrain in The Satanic Verses: “To be born again you first have to die.”

As radicalism, this is essentially adolescent stuff. In a strange inversion, it seeks to understand the world—few radicals want to change it any more—by shunning most of it, and thus cannot accommodate such a simple fact as this: that expatriation to the west is a luxury few people in the “east” can afford; and that most people there have no choice but to stay within the many frontiers they know from birth. If the lack of nuance makes you uneasy, you begin to feel acute discomfort when the expatriate's glee over having successfully crossed frontiers degenerates into something approaching contempt, even hostility, for the people he has left behind him. In one of the many disquisitions on belonging/unbelonging in The Ground beneath, Indian society is likened to a “squirm of germs on a glass slide”, and people who live in it are pitied as “moronic micro-organisms”. Vina and Ormus are commended for fleeing India, for not being like “slaves voting for slavery, brains voting for lobotomy”; and Indian complaints against American pop culture are marginalised as the “noisome slithers of the enslaved micro-organisms, twisting and hissing as they protect the inviolability of their sacred homeland”.

Once again, it's hard not to notice, behind such strident upholding of the traditions of secular radicalism (of which American pop culture is clearly a sturdy new pillar), an unattractive egoism, whose unchecked growth has much to do with the critical tenderness offered to Rushdie in the aftermath of the fatwa. It is beginning to seem as if Rushdie cannot define himself as a radical writer or intellectual except through extremities. “Something in me wants the dreadful, wants to stare down the human race's worst-case scenarios,” runs one confession in The Ground beneath.

In one of his essays, Rushdie describes eating a ham sandwich to “prove one's new-found atheism”, and concludes that “no thunderbolts arrived to strike me down”. His recent record is marked by more re-enactments of this kind of petulant bad-boy behaviour. In Rushdie's introduction to his recent anthology of Indian writing, he accused literatures in Indian languages of “parochialism”—a false and arrogant presumption, if there ever was one. In the same introduction—ridiculed in India for its many blunders—Rushdie recommended world travel for all writers and claimed that “literature has little or nothing to do with a writer's home address”. The trouble with this, as with many other of Rushdie's aphorisms, is that they sound equally valid when turned upside down.

What's more interesting is that Rushdie's uncontrollable urge to denounce both the idea and praxis of “belonging” invariably leads him back to India, to which his farewell is announced after every book he has published. At the same time, he exerts an oddly proprietorial claim over India before his audience in the west.

In The Ground beneath, Ormus and Vina left India because they couldn't tolerate being slaves voting for slavery. Merchant, the narrator, offers a more tortured explanation for his own departure: that he loathes the new politics of India. This is fascinating since nothing in Merchant's beau monde background hints at any kind of political anxiety about his country. As with Rushdie's other novels set in the sub-continent, the politics remains merely the pretext for exotic stories about crime and corruption, with shrill slogans masquerading as analysis and insight. The unequal distribution of novelistic attention—always revealing of the novelist's true sympathies—turn the Indian characters in The Ground beneath into contemptible figures. Full humanity is offered only to western or west-bound characters.

So there are long descriptions of the grotesqueries of a rustic new Hindu politician, Piloo Doodhwala, who for Merchant represents the “Caligulan barbarity” of India, and who speaks the kind of English that was previously only heard in Peter Sellers' The Party. Such crude and witless buffoonery is how the Indian chi-chi class—which serves as “India” in Rushdie's fiction—responds to the unwashed millions staking a claim to political power. What startles is that it comes from someone who once complained about orientalist representations of India; the embarrassment we feel while reading it is mostly on the writer's behalf. The strong blast of snobbery hints at a writer not in control of his writing self, of indeed someone who has been overpowered by it.

Towards the end, as random and gratuitous violence dominates, the narrator talks compulsively of earthquakes (the world whose destruction is inevitable exists everywhere in Rushdie's writings, and partly accounts for their peculiarly claustrophobic quality). “Maybe this time it's the Big Crunch,” he intones, “and we are the ones who won't make it.”

Then, abruptly on the last page, he lapses into a kinder, gentler tone, as if wanting to leave us with a less minatory impression of himself. “The mayhem continues,” he tells us, but he at least has found peace in “ordinary human life”. He has always been keen on America and he has settled down with a woman and a child in a posh New York apartment—his “islands in the storm”. He celebrates the “goodness” of “drinking orange juice and munching muffins”; he stresses the importance of “ordinary human love”.

But it's too late by then; and the invocation of love and family values and freshly squeezed orange juice as a shield against the uncertainty of the modern takes its place with the cartoon-like simplicities of the rest of the book. As for ordinary human life, the novel has already arrived there by a different route, by repudiating the order and logic of its form, by approximating instead the senseless disorder of life outside art.

With its banal obsessions and empty bombast, its pseudo-characters and non-events, its fundamental shapelessness and incoherence, The Ground beneath Her Feet does little more than echo the white noise of the modern world. In doing so, it not only ceases to be literature but invites scrutiny as an alarming new kind of anti-literature.

David Caute (review date 10 April 1999)

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SOURCE: Caute, David. “Going Unsuccessfully West.” Spectator 282, no. 8905 (10 April 1999): 37-8.

[In the following review, Caute faults The Ground beneath Her Feet for its uneven and “boring” narrative.]

East-West is of course a central theme in Rushdie's work—alongside literary hit contracts for regicide and deicide—and this time [in The Ground beneath Her Feet] his trajectory runs from upper-crust Bombay in the 1950s to rock'n'roll in the heyday of the Western counter-culture. At the centre of the epic narrative is a passionate love affair between two superstars of the rock music scene, Ormus Cama and Vina Aspara, characters whose virtually mythical status signals a reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, though I was left scratching my low brow over the parallel: Eurydice, it will be recalled, could be lost forever because Orpheus is unable to resist a single backward glance at her. Gluck's opera is introduced on an early page in Rushdie's much favoured tone of facetiousness: ‘Such a downer, I should send folks home with their faces long like a wurst? Hello? Happy it up, ja!, Sure, Herr Gluck, don't get so agitato.’

Ormus Cama falls in love with Vina Aspara when she is 12, and nobly refuses to lay a finger on her until she's 16. There is ‘a single night of love, and then at once she vanished’. Ten years later they are briefly reunited in bed, but then she is off for another ten years; not offshore, merely off limits sexually—their professional collaboration could continue. Of Ormus Cama we are told: ‘What a figure he cut in public! He glittered, he shone … His smile was a magnet, his frown a crushing defeat.’

Most of the action—there is little dialogue—is recounted by the book's nominal narrator, the born-in-Bombay photographer Umeed ‘Rai’ Merchant. ‘Many youngsters leave home to find themselves,’ he explains. ‘I had to cross oceans just to exit Wombay … I flew away to get myself born.’ Late in Vina's short and hectic burn through world fame, dispensing dogmatic but contradictory opinions on how women should lead their lives, we are told by Rai: ‘For all her fooling with Buddhist wisemen (Rinpoche Hollywood and the Ginsberg Lama) and Krishna Consciousness cymbalists and Tantric gurus (those kundalini flashers) and … Zen and the Art of the Deal, the Tao of Promiscuous Sex …’ and so it spins on, a narrative that constantly reduces the characters to playthings of their creator's incontinent genius while the Great Names of World Fiction, a Don de Lillo, a Toni Morrison, stuff extravagant quotes of praise into the great maw of Publicity.

Addicted to word-association, linkage and listing, Rushdie often seems to be solving competitions of his own devising. Say ‘broken’ and he will serve up ‘broken plates, broken dolls, broken English, broken promises, broken hearts’. These endless listings! The narrator's Indian mother, Ameer, described as ‘the family's great word-gamester’, ruminates from Bombay on the names of American villages. ‘Who knows what-all kind of crazy names they have there? Not just Hiawatha-Minnehaha but also Susquehanna, Shenandoah, Sheboygan, Okefonkee, Onondaga, Oshkosh, Chittenango, Chikasha, Canandaigua, Chuinouga, Tomatosauga, Chickaboom.’ Fans of magical realism will not feel let down. Not quite assassinated in 1963, JFK dies of the same bullet as his brother, ‘President’ Bobby, in 1968. As for rock music, born when Rushdie's main characters were still children,

This was the music that was allegedly first revealed to a Parsi Indian boy named Ormus Cama, who heard all the songs in advance, two years, eight months and 28 days before anyone else … The music came to Ormus before it ever visited the Sun Records studio or the Brill Building or the Cavern Club.

The narrative is discursive, often dandling itself on its own self-regarding knee. Why not? I have rarely found a page of Midnight's Children,Shame, or The Moor's Last Sigh, too slow—likewise the offending oriental passages in The Satanic Verses. Rushdie can go as slow as he likes in India or Pakistan and I'm still asking for more, spellbound. But when his fiction goes west, to England or America, a strained satirical stridency, a constant cartoon quality, induces periodic weariness and boredom.

By contrast, Rai Merchant's reflections on photography and the ethics of a professional news photographer are enthralling. ‘When my mother died, I photographed her, cold in bed … she resembled an Egyptian queen.’ A further coup follows: ‘When my father died I took his picture before they cut him down.’ Rai used a roll of film on his hanging dad: ‘Most of the shots avoided his face. I was more interested in the way the shadows fell across his dangling body …’ He concludes: ‘I thought of these acts as respectful.’

Rai, also in love with Vina, returns from a photographic assignment in Vietnam sounding rather American. Rushdie is a professional foreigner in every corner and at every intersection of the planet, carrying with him a raft of websites, vocabularies and a fine inner ear for vulgarity. Locations resemble film studios dripping with arrowed signs. On pages 380-81, set in mid-Seventies Manhattan, we get ‘the fall of Saigon’, ‘powdered happiness pashas clustered on the stoops of the brownstones of St Mark's’, a ‘three-run homer’, ‘Peace Ballads’, ‘peace juice, bliss pills’, ‘Happy Valley’, and ‘First Amendment rights’—it often reads like early notes for a travel piece in Vanity Fair. Fairly regular ‘fucks’ and ‘fuckings’ remind one of those upset Muslims who plucked them out of The Satanic Verses like lice from infested hair. On page 468 there are 14 ‘fuck you's in nine lines. Ormus's music, meanwhile, conquers America:

The earth begins to rock and roll, its music dooms your mortal soul, and there's nothing baby nothing you can do. 'Cause it's not up to it's not up to it's not up to you.

Vina's dramatic death by earthquake and landslip, heralded on the first page of the novel, is said to have occurred on St Valentine's Day, 1989, which must have been precisely when the ayatollah launched his fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I found this megastar heroine distinctly unappealing. ‘You're nothing in my life, Rai,’ she says, ‘you mean even less than this punk, so do me a favor, fuck off and die.’ Even so,

Overnight, the meaning of Vina's death has become the most important subject on earth … the Vina supperclub/cabaret lookalikes, the underground, heavy metal and reggae Vinas, the rap Vinas, the Vina drag queens, the Vina transsexuals, the Vina hookers on the Vegas Strip, the Vina strippers … the porno Vinas on the adult cable channels

—and more. Can Vina be condemned for her imitators? The question doesn't even deserve a fair trial.

Ormus and his VTO band are excluded from India shortly before he is shot like John Lennon in Manhattan. Star-struck, fame-struck, wealth-struck, our narrator Rai seems to despise what he adores in the West and to adore what he despises: showbiz, hype, PR, merchandising, fame, wealth—subjects about which he writes cigar-in-cheek, like some permanent Jewish joker, all jargon, slang and yeah. And who might Rai remind us of? Somewhere in these pages one reads that ‘success breeds excess’.

Brooke Allen (essay date 17 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “Mister Multiplicity.” New Leader 82, no. 6 (17 May 1999): 16-17.

[In the following essay, Allen notes the excess of showy technique, clever references, and mythological allusions in The Ground beneath Her Feet and contends that the novel lacks depth.]

The story of the lyre-player Orpheus and his beloved Eurydice, whose death lured him to the underworld in an attempt to recover her, has retained surprising power through the millennia. Now Salman Rushdie has fashioned a contemporary rock version of the tale in his newest novel, The Ground beneath Her Feet. Rushdie's Orpheus is Ormus Cama, a supernaturally gifted musician and composer whose meteoric career takes him from Bombay to London to New York. Eurydice is an Indian-Greek-American rebel named Vina Apsara, a luscious, raunchy, in-your-face performer with the voice of an angel or, rather, of Love itself.

About midway through his ascent to superstardom, Ormus begins to understand the nature of his talent, and is able to articulate his thoughts to the novel's narrator, a childhood friend and his rival for Vina's love. This is what Ormus tells Rai:

What I want the music to say is that I don't have to choose. … I need it to show that I don't have to be this guy or that guy, the fellow from over there or the fellow from over here, the person within me that I call my twin, or whoever's out there in whatever it is I get flashes of beyond the sky; or just the man standing in front of you right now. I'll be all of them, I can do that. Here comes everybody, right? That's where it came from the idea of playing all the instruments. It was to prove that point. You were wrong when you said the problem wasn't technical. The solutions to the problems of art are always technical. Meaning is technical. So is heart.

These words sound singularly unconvincing coming from a laconic high school dropout who purposely rejected the intellectual pursuits of his failed, pathetic father. Whose artistic philosophy are we really talking about here? Rushdie's own, of course; the well-known credo of Mr. Multiplicity himself. It has been lavishly praised throughout his career, negative or even indifferent reviews of his work are few and far between.

True, Rushdie is dazzlingly clever, and I do not use the term in a pejorative sense. But details, however scintillating, are only as good as the whole they add up to. To put it in architectural terms the integrity of a building depends on structure, not ornament. A novel, to be the “big” work he has always aspired to write, must have not only ideas but also emotion and geometry if all the smart touches are to mean anything.

Rushdie's previous effort, The Moor's Last Sigh, fell short of that standard. The only real theme of the novel (and in this case the medium really was the message) was that multiplicity—racial, cultural and by extension artistic—is a good thing. This is a notion few of Rushdie's readers would be inclined to disagree with. Fawning critics greeted the novel with phrases like “a joyful celebration of diversity,” and it was unarguably that. But that is all it was.

The esthetic of plurality became the novel's raison d'être, subsuming everything in its path. For despite its thousands of rococo flourishes and rhetorical feints, there was no emotional truth to The Moor's Last Sigh, nor any character who added up to more than a mouthpiece for its author. The work positively wallowed in its showy technique, and for all the multifarious, voluble people who inhabited its pages there was only one actual voice in it, and that was Rushdie's own.

The Ground beneath Her Feet is equally full of what might be called encyclopedic exuberance—or show-offy overkill, depending on how you respond to Rushdie's particular brand of excess. It is jam-packed with myth, metaphor and allusion. Not only Orpheus and Eurydice, but Cinderella, Dionysus, Helen of Troy, Mowgli, Proteus, Cassandra, Cronus, Pinocchio, Lorelei, Jason, Medea, the Indian deities Kama and Rati, and many, many others have their fictional counterparts in the novel. Do all these mythical parallels give purpose and depth to the story?

The answer, unfortunately, is that they don't. Rushdie is merely spreading and shaking his gaudy peacock's tail. The novel is at its strongest when, especially toward the end, it adheres most closely to the simplicity of the Orpheus story. But when Rushdie frosts the cake with layer upon layer of myth—as he does most of the time—he renders the whole exercise pointless. Eurydice means something; Eurydice combined with Cinderella, with Helen of Troy, with Persephone—that means nothing at all.

Like most of Rushdie's novels The Ground beneath Her Feet bristles with subplots and minor characters. Ormus belongs to a well-off family of Bombay Parsis. His twin brother, Gayomart, is stillborn. On the day of their birth, his father accidentally injures an older brother (known as Virus), making him mute for life. Cyrus, Virus' twin, associates Ormus with the accident, and his harred leads him to become a mass-murderer, known to the world as the Pillowman. (All of this is echt Rushdie.)

Early on the author has a lot of fun with the eccentric and oh-so-emblematic parents of Ormus and of Rai. Things pick up for the reader after the teenaged Ormus meets 12-year-old Vina, a waif who has already been rejected by three families. They fall in love, a love, as Rai assures us, that is more than the mere mortal variety. (One of the novel's conceits is that Rai, skeptical and unmystical, is slowly persuaded that in Ormus and Vina he has known the divine.) Ormus vows that he won't touch Vina until her 16th birthday. On that magical evening, they enjoy one night of love, then Vina, thanks to a silly plot machination, runs away and they don't see one another for the next 10 years.

Ormus makes his way to England and becomes a musician. Injured, he lapses into a coma for three and a quarter years and is ultimately awakened by Vina's kiss. The Orpheus/Eurydice situation is thus reversed and turned into that of Kama and Rati, with a little Sleeping Beauty thrown in. The two vow, for some cooked-up reason, 10 more years of abstinence. During this period they become rock music immortals. Finally they marry, but Vina will never be faithful; she has many other lovers, most notably Rai himself. At age 44 Vina is swallowed up in a Mexican earthquake. Ormus fails to retrieve her, but she eventually returns long enough to attract him back to the underworld.

All this is mixed up with lots of earthquake imagery and intimations of Armageddon. There is a lot of play, too, with the fact that the world of the novel is very slightly different from the world we ourselves know. In Rushdie's version of history the assassination attempt in Dallas, for example, fails (though another would succeed several years later), and England, like America, is fatally entangled in Indochina. Popular writers of the moment are named Zuckerman, Yossarian, Herzog, and Sal Paradise. Carly Simon sings “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and Lou Reed is a woman. It's clear that Rushdie is enjoying himself, but what exactly is the point?

As for the people, are we supposed to respond to Ormus, Vina and Rai as characters, or as archetypes? Even Rushdie doesn't seem to know. It is certainly possible to create a real character who is also a mythical archetype. Leopold Bloom was one. A more recent example is Inman, the Odysseus of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. Rushdie, however, is always more interested in his metaphors than in his people; and test a single one of these escape the reader, he intrudes into the narrative to hammer in his point: “Death is more than love or is it. Art is more than love or is it. Love is more than death and art, or not. This is the subject. This is the subject. This is it.” Get it?

It is as if he is afraid to let his story make its impact in the oblique, insidious way that fiction must. He assumes no subtlety or wisdom on the part of the reader, no intrinsic power of the story. He himself will tell us what is significant, and why. At one point, for instance, he has Rai deliver a little lecture on his reasons for writing about Vina:

We all looked to her for peace, yet she herself was not at peace. And so I've chosen to write here, publicly, what I can no longer whisper into her private ear: that is, everything. I have chosen to tell our story, hers and mine and Ormus Cama's, all of it, every last detail, and then maybe she can find a sort of peace here, on the page, in this underworld of ink and lics, that respite which was denied her by life. So I stand at the gate of the inferno of language, there's a barking dog and a ferryman waiting and a coin under my tongue for the fare

Aside from its sheer rhetorical baloney (the inferno of language, indeed!), isn't this the sort of thing that should be left for the reader to find, or not to find, for himself?

Ormus, according to Rai, “used to say that music could be either about almost nothing, one tiny strand of sound plucked like a silver hair from the head of the Muse, or about everything there was, all of it, tutti tutti, life, marriage, otherworlds, earthquakes, uncertainties, warning, rebukes, journeys, dreams, love, the whole ball of wax, the full nine yards, the whole catastrophe.” Again, Ormus speaks directly for his author. And the author is jumping into an old debate on the nature and function of the novel that goes back to the famous quarrel between Henry James and H. G. Wells. Rushdie is taking, in fact extending, Wells' position. The issue, it goes without saying, is not as simple as Ormus/Rushdie would have us believe. “Nothing” and “everything” are not straightforward terms, and some writers who specialize in “almost nothing”—Rushdie's image of the silver hair is a good one—manage, through the alchemy of art, to make it seem like almost everything. Henry James. Thomas Hardy, E. M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf performed this feat, to name only a few.

Rushdie himself is too impatient for such fine, close work. It is his grandiose ambition to encompass all of life, and all of myth, in his fiction. The problem is, it simply can't be done. A narrative can only support so much in the way of mythical and metaphorical freight. When the author piles it on as indiscriminately as Rushdie does, all meaning vanishes.

Robert L. McLaughlin (review date fall 1999)

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SOURCE: McLaughlin, Robert L. Review of The Ground beneath Her Feet, by Salman Rushdie. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 3 (fall 1999): 173.

[In the following review, McLaughlin offers a favorable assessment of The Ground beneath Her Feet.]

Rushdie's funny and rich new novel [The Ground beneath Her Feet] uses the history of a fictional rock band—from difficult beginnings to superstardom through the inevitable legal problems and breakup to a nineties reunion tour—to look at the stories of our time and to examine the role of art in expressing who we are and how we understand our world. Ormus Cama, musician and songwriter, and Vina Apsara, singer extraordinaire, are the driving force behind the band, and their playing out of a variation of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth, as narrated by Rai, photographer and friend to both, is the focus of the story. The thematic focus is on the clashes of competing versions of reality and art's part in articulating them. The novel is set in an alternative reality. The world Rai describes shares much with ours but in many places goes in its own direction: JFK escapes assassination in Dallas; the Nixon presidency and Watergate exist only in a political novel; Stephen Dedalus is the great novelist of the twentieth century. Ormus's genius and eventually his obsession result from his being able to see into another, competing world (clearly, our world), which he foresees invading and shaking apart his world.

Knowledge of these worlds, any world, is mediated through art. Rai tells his story via a plethora of artistic references and allusions: from myth, Western and non; music, classical and pop; literature, highbrow and low. (N. B. Pynchon fans: Rushdie even supplies an ending for the notoriously inconclusive The Crying of Lot 49.) But the sheer pleasure one takes in the wealth of knowledge displayed here is countered by an undercutting of art's ability to make new worlds possible. Ormus's revelations become routinized as they are explicated and critiqued by reviewers and commercialized as the band's fame grows. Moreover, the novel's anticipated apocalyptic moment is deferred as the mundane asserts itself and takes over.

The Ground beneath Her Feet is a brilliant novel, delighting us with the many worlds it contains and the stories they're told through, challenging us to think about how stories can help to make and unmake worlds.

Simona Sawhney (essay date fall 1999)

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SOURCE: Sawhney, Simona. “Satanic Choices: Poetry and Prophecy in Rushdie's Novel.” Twentieth-Century Literature 45, no. 3 (fall 1999): 253-77.

[In the following essay, Sawhney applies Georg Lukacs's and Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the novel to The Satanic Verses and discusses Rushdie's book as a hybrid of the novel genre.]

That such an episode could actually have been mentioned and treated by ancient Muslim authors whose authority is not doubted merely proves that at the heart of the foundation of Islam, what we have here called the textual question, that of divine-human “construction” … had already been settled satisfactorily for that time. In fact, great debates took place on the subject; … the Mu'tazilites went so far as to deny the uncreated origin of the Koran. … What can be said is that this text was at one and the same time human, all-too-human, as well as divine—at times excessively divine.

—Fethi Benslama 84-85

In one of the shorter dream narratives in The Satanic Verses, Gibreel Farishta dreams of an imam in exile and his spokesman Bilal. The imam's life is guided by only one desire: to return to his homeland and effect the revolution that will deliver his people to the divine expanse of eternity and liberate them from the chains of historical time. The imam says: “Human beings who turn away from God lose love, and certainty, and also the sense of His boundless time, that encompasses past, present and future; the timeless time, that has no need to move” (214). His contempt for his archenemy, the Empress Ayesha, is expressed in similar terms:

She is nothing: a tick, or tock. She looks in her mirror every day and is terrorized by the idea of age, of time passing. Thus she is the prisoner of her own nature; she, too, is in the chains of Time. After the revolution there will be no clocks; we'll smash the lot.


The greatest enemy of the imam, we learn, is not Ayesha but history itself. “We will unmake the veil of history,” says Bilal, “and when it is unraveled, we will see Paradise standing there, in all its glory and light” (210-211).

The imam's desire succinctly expresses what is perhaps essential to the idea of the sacred in most cultures: the sacred resists history; it resists temporality itself. Insofar as the sacred belongs to the realm of the transcendent, it relies on positing a radical and hierarchical difference between the timeless and the temporal: the temporal always derives from, or veils, the timeless.1 Thus, as opposed to the unchanging purity or the self-existent nature of the timeless, history is illusion—the illusion of change and decay, life and death, progress and destruction. But perhaps history is also perceived as illusory insofar as it presents itself as an inconclusive narrative that can be endlessly interrogated: the meaning it yields wavers and shifts, a fickle flame. A susceptibility to narrative as such, however, does not distinguish the historical from the sacred, for the idea of the sacred may also be presented as a narrative—as it is, for example, in the Koran. But such texts differ from other narratives not only because they are believed to be revealed rather than humanly written but also because they appear to carry an incorruptible kernel of significance. They wish to establish the same relationship with all their readers: a relationship, one might say, of submission—the dictionary translation of the Arabic word islam.

The Satanic Verses seeks to negotiate a relationship with such an idea of the sacred. On the one hand, it presents the sacred as a space that resists both history and textuality—the indeterminacy of meaning. On the other hand, it also questions this idea of the sacred by suggesting that such a trope might itself be a historical and literary creation. The sections of the novel that narrate Gibreel Farishta's dreams of being transformed into his namesake, the angel Gabriel, represent this complexity most vividly, although other sections, staged in a less apparitional context, also engage with the world of belief. Farishta's dreams cast doubt on what one might call the apparatus of institutional religion: the link between God and His messenger, the integrity of the prophet, the absolute uniqueness of divine speech. Some of the other sections of the book—for instance, the one describing the hijacking of the protagonists' airplane—similarly call into question the universal sacralization of categories authorized by the world of belief. Here we note that the Sikh terrorist Tavleen and the prophet Mahound share the same concept of history—for both of them, history becomes assimilated in the project of revelation. History is an interrogator who judges, chooses, and condemns with the certainty of a transcendent authority. In the airplane, Tavleen murmurs:

When a great idea comes into the world, a great cause, certain crucial questions are asked of it. … History asks us: what manner of cause are we? Are we uncompromising, absolute, strong, or will we show ourselves to be timeservers … ?


Insofar as the conflict between the sacred and the profane informs every aspect of the novel, it is this tension that gives the book its distinctly self-conscious texture. A recurring concern with the status of words, the authority of narratives, the impact of verses shapes the twists of the plot. Indeed, the transformations and amputations that characterize the postcolonial and postmodern world are not only represented thematically but are also reflected in the text's consciousness of its own narrative mode. Rather than assuming the familiarity and stability of the novel as a genre, The Satanic Verses dramatizes the relationship of the novel to older forms of narrative such as epic, myth, and romance. It juxtaposes the language of the novel against the language of revelation to show that perhaps nothing is more characteristic of the novel as a genre than its ambivalent relation to other genres. The text's focus on the confusion between prophetic and poetic utterance points toward the hidden force of desire that informs all utterance. It illustrates, among other things, that the death of God has left us haunted by a bewildering ghost whom we can no longer name.

In its depiction of the hybrid, tension-fraught world of British immigrants, and of Farishta's helpless captivity in a magical landscape, the novel presents itself on many levels as a reader of myth. It recounts the stories of Saladin Chamcha, a Bombay-born stage actor who lives in London, and Gibreel Farishta, a superstar of the Indian film industry who decides to give up his sparkling career in order to go to London and join the woman he loves. Having miraculously survived a hijacking and plane crash, the two main characters begin a series of adventures as they attempt to come to terms with their respective histories.

Saladin Chamcha's confusion about his identity stems from his inability to escape his cultural past, embodied, most fittingly, in the figure of a perversely powerful father. On arriving in England, Chamcha devotes himself to an adoration of all things British, caught in the thrall of an absurd if touching romance with an imagined island—an occidentalist fantasy. The problem begins when, instead of becoming the perfect Englishman, he changes into a monstrous beast, the “native” devil of the colonial and Christian imagination, complete with hoofs, horns, tail, and a certain embarrassingly prominent member. Gibreel Farishta's anguish is also caused by a severance with tradition—in his case, the religious tradition of Islam—which he rejects suddenly and violently after years of unquestioning belief. Once again, it is not a clean severance. Unable either to embrace or renounce belief, Farishta is haunted by a series of dreams in which he finds himself playing the role of a skeptical and powerless Angel Gabriel.

Not only does the novel reorient and re-present Islamic lore and the Koranic text, it also confronts and unravels the mythic constructions of home and community, of England and India, of rational modernity and the triumph of secular thought. By relentlessly exposing the enshrined icons of the past to the violating gaze of the present, it thus attempts to historicize both the icons themselves and the gaze that views them. In that sense, one might read The Satanic Verses as performing one of the distinctive functions of its genre, at least as this genre has been understood and theorized in the West. Reading the work of Lukacs or Bakhtin on the novel, for instance, one is immediately struck by the power of their desire to read the novel not only as a mirror of modernity, of the condition that is proper to our time, but also as an agent that performs the task of rendering the world historical. Other critics have also written about the novel's privileged relationship to history,2 but in many ways, Bakhtin and Lukacs seem to be exemplary in their insistence on this connection. A closer examination of some of their ideas might therefore prove to be a useful detour on our way to understanding some of the questions that Rushdie's text proposes.


History is a deviation from the Path, knowledge is a delusion, because the sum of knowledge was complete on the day Al-Lah finished his revelation to Mahound.

—Rushdie, The Satanic Verses 210

Although Bakhtin's and Lukacs's respective theories of the novel are finally quite different, they concur in their perception of the novel as a genre that confronts the loss of transcendent meaning and is therefore characteristic of a world that speaks to us in many voices at once. But more importantly perhaps, they both understand the novel as a genre that renders our world historical in a manner that is quite unprecedented: if the epic gave us tradition, the novel gives us history. Thus Bakhtin writes of the epic:

By its very nature, the epic world of the absolute past is inaccessible to personal experience and does not permit an individual, personal point of view or evaluation. … It is given solely as tradition, sacred and sacrosanct, evaluated in the same way by all and demanding a pious attitude toward itself.


In the context of the furor over Rushdie's work, one might note that the defenders of the Islamic tradition have relied on precisely the same attitude toward the Koran in order to express their outrage against The Satanic Verses. Quite apart from how the book actually portrays the prophet Muhammad or his wives or the scene of revelation, in their view it is already heretical because it approaches the Koranic narrative with audacious familiarity and propels it into the irreverent realm of the intimate.

Unlike the epic, the novel speaks from the locus of the present, and therefore, according to Bakhtin, it also gives us the possibility of a future; it liberates us from the absolute mortality to which the epic condemns us:

when the present becomes the center of human orientation in time and the world, time and world lose their completedness as a whole as well as in each of their parts. The temporal model of the world changes radically: it becomes a world where there is no first word (no ideal word), and the final word has not yet been spoken. For the first time in artistic-ideological consciousness, time and the world become historical: they unfold, albeit at first still unclearly and confusedly, as becoming, as an uninterrupted movement into a real future.


The narrative mode of the novel, then, is fundamentally attentive to the relation between time and the world; it exposes that relation as being constitutive of both temporality and existence. Time and the world become historical when they are no longer perceived as being governed by a recognizable trajectory, when they acquire the possibility of a “real” future—that is, of a future that would not be the projected, anticipated, or revealed continuation of a story that has already been written. According to Bakhtin, the world of the epic cannot possibly allow access to such a future, not only because it has already constituted an origin and valorized it as ideal in such a way that all movement away from it is inevitably a movement of decline, but also because it so firmly encloses the past within the impermeable citadel of tradition that such a past cannot then be reinterrogated or reoriented toward the future. Thus Bakhtin writes:

Through contact with the present, an object is attracted to the incomplete process of a world-in-the-making, and is stamped with the seal of inconclusiveness. … But meanwhile our present has been moving into an inconclusive future. And in this inconclusive context all the semantic stability of the object is lost.


The novel renders the world historical because it participates in this erosion of semantic stability and because it recognizes time itself as an agent of such erosion. In order for an object or an image to come into contact with the present, it must encounter our “unpreparedness” (Bakhtin 30); we must not approach it as something that is already entirely known to us, or conversely, as something that already knows us. One might almost say, then, that in order to give ourselves the possibility of a future, we must first encounter the past as a stranger with whom we might once again begin a relationship without trajectory. The novel thus brings to our attention a link between history and interpretation that allows us the hope of an uncharted and hence “real” future.

This concept of historicity is crucial to Bakhtin's reflections on the novel, although perhaps Lukacs explains more lucidly how time becomes essentially constitutive for the narrative mode of the novel. “Time becomes constitutive,” he says, “only when the bond with the transcendental home has been severed” (122). In other words, the work of time as a performative agent, liberated from or depleted of essence (and Lukacs's work, I think, preserves that ambivalence), can become constitutive only when the temporal appears as the mark of a disjunction between meaning and life; it is unable to do so in the world of the epic which is already saturated with meaning or essence. The temporal emerges as a fluctuating and unreliable player—a player in its own right—when it no longer follows the path marked out for it by a valorized origin and thus makes possible a concept of history that is antithetical to Tavleen's and Mahound's. For Lukacs, the novel “tells of the adventure of interiority” (89); thus it can make manifest both the way in which an object or an experience is transfigured over time and the way in which the perceiving subject itself is transformed. It is only in the novel, Lukacs says, that we encounter hope and memory as “creative” forces that act upon and transform the object of experience. This is not very far from Bakhtin's claim that “an eternal re-thinking and re-evaluating” (31) is characteristic of the novel.

The Satanic Verses explicitly presents itself as a rethinker and a critical reader—not only of the Koran but also of Ovid, Lucretius, Joyce, Melville, Blake … identifying all the literary allusions would itself be a formidable task. Although the Koran may not be an epic, the tale of its revelation and of the origin and rise of Islam might well have something in common with the structure of epic tales. A fantasy of the epic world—a world of heroic battles, perilous journeys, and archetypal struggles—surfaces in several episodes in the novel and in fact becomes a driving force of the text. The Satanic Verses responds to this imagined world in two ways: it shows us how much that world is still a part of our world, and conversely it shows us how a certain “modernity”—or at least an irony or skepticism that we generally identify with modernity—was already a part of the epic world.3


But if you are in doubt as to what We sent down to Our slave, then produce a Sura the like thereof, and summon witnesses of yours other than God, if you are truthful.

The Bounteous Koran 6

The composition of the Qur'an is not a miracle. Human beings are capable of the same, and of better.

—Nazzam the Mu'tazilite, qtd. in Adonis 41

We remember that Gibreel's sequential dreams about the life of Muhammad/Mahound begin after he recovers from a long illness and that the recovery itself begins exactly at the moment when he confronts his own loss of faith. The illness has been for him a period of constant prayer and pleading—the plea for recovery slowly changing to the more desperate plea for an interlocutor. From questioning the nature of God (“Are you vengeance or are you love”), he now begins to question the very existence of God: “Ya Allah, just be there, damn it, just be.” It is at that terrible moment of isolation, when he realizes “that there was nobody there at all,” that his illness gives way to recovery. The narrator calls this a “day of metamorphosis” (30), and thus records this as one among the several scenes of metamorphosis that occur in a text that, on one level, is constituted as a conversation between Ovid and Lucretius.

Metamorphosis thus becomes a guiding trope of the novel: a metaphor that responds at once to the lives of migrants, the transformations of tales, and even to the sly slippage between desire and intention, the hidden and the acknowledged, that becomes crucial to Mahound's story. The connection between migrancy and metamorphosis is fairly obvious.4 It surfaces in the novel's distinction between exile and migrant: the exile guards against change, stubbornly holding on to the dream of return, “frozen in time” (205); the migrant becomes invaded, transformed, metamorphosed. Thus on a thematic level, the drama of metamorphosis is enacted in the stories of various migrants whose lives (and bodies) are transfigured in postcolonial cities, while on a formal plane, this drama is played out in the mutations of literary traditions and genres that produce the gargantuan and wildly allusive body of the cosmopolitan text.

After Saladin's ordeal at the hands of the British police, when he finds himself suddenly transformed into a bestial creature, the change is explained in terms of a loss of identity that has left him vulnerable to the power of description vested in his captors, the police, and more generally, in the entire state apparatus. The text suggests that Saladin's transformation is partly the result of his having succumbed to that power of description, and also that he was particularly vulnerable to it because he had already lost a refuge or home that a more stable sense of identity would have provided. Saladin himself ruminates on a version of this explanation when he reflects on the two theses on metamorphosis that his friend Sufyan recounts to him: Lucretius's idea that change necessarily entails a kind of death—the death of the old self—and Ovid's belief that souls themselves remain constant even as they “adopt in their migrations ever-varying forms” (277). Saladin chooses Lucretius over Ovid: “A being going through life can become so other to himself as to be another, discrete, severed from history” (288). His transformation thus becomes a sign of both a prior and a future homelessness: now that he has become an other, he has been splintered from history itself. The novel does not quite endorse his reading of his own situation, for by the end of the book, not only has Saladin regained his human appearance but he has also returned to a life and a land that he thought he had entirely forsaken.

In some ways, Gibreel's metamorphosis appears to be more violent, especially in terms of its final consequences. Perhaps the violence of the change—from believer to skeptic—registers more deeply with Gibreel because he is someone who wishes to remain the person he always was: “continuous—that is, joined to and arising from his past … at bottom an untranslated man” (427), as the narrator says much later. Despite his avowed renunciation of faith, he finds that he cannot dissociate himself quite so easily from the passion that has hitherto sustained his life and now manifests itself in the extravagance of his dreams. Through the final implicit victory of Saladin, the novel suggests that Gibreel's greatest error might well lie in his overriding desire for continuity and authenticity.

The thematic resemblances among all the different dream narratives are quite apparent. They are all narratives of departure and return, of lost homelands, and most obviously, of struggles with faith; and their connection to Gibreel's waking life is easily established. Gibreel's own appearance in the dreams as a confused and helpless Angel Gabriel, a nonknower or nonbeliever who finds himself forced to be a messenger of faith, is also clearly related to the roles he plays in theological movies, or more accurately to the roles he will play after his crisis of faith. What is perhaps more interesting is the way in which this crisis manifests itself in the dreams: a crisis of will that presents itself most strongly as a crisis of utterance. For it is his absolute inability to fathom the mystery of his own utterances in the dreams that causes him the greatest discomfort of all. The problem is not merely that he is perceived as a messenger of divine utterance, but that in some inexplicable way, he becomes such a messenger—he is, in fact, able to say exactly what his listeners wish to hear, although he does not know whence such speech appears:

All around him, he thinks, as he half-dreams, half-wakes, are people hearing voices, being seduced by words. But not his: never his original material.—Then whose? Who is whispering in their ears, enabling them to move mountains, halt clocks, diagnose disease?


Gibreel, of course, is not the only one plagued by the confusion of voices: in what has now become the most notorious section of The Satanic Verses, it is Mahound who acknowledges an error of recognition and naming. Having first accepted as divine revelation the dictates of a voice that sanctions the worship of the old goddesses of Jahilia within the practice of Islam, Mahound later decides that the message he received came in fact from the devil and orders that it be expunged from the record of revelation. Rushdie's narration of the “satanic verses” incident becomes perhaps the text's most powerful strategy for questioning the authority and transmission of revealed words. The episode itself has been described by several Muslim historians and biographers, of whom the best known are the ninth-century historians Al-Tabari and Ibn Sa'd. Whether or not these accounts are true, they nevertheless suggest that an anxiety regarding the phenomenon of revelation was evident quite early in the history of Islam.

Ibn Sa'd relates that at a time when Muhammad strongly desired to establish better relations with his countrymen, he was once at the Ka'ba, reciting from the Koran.6

When he came to the passage: “Do you behold Allat and Al 'Uzza, and also Manat, the third idol?”—which now concludes: “What? shall ye have male progeny and Allah female? This were indeed an unfair partition!”—Satan suggested two lines to him: “These are the exalted females, and truly their intercession may be expected.”

(Andrae 19)

Muhammad then prostrated himself and prayed, and the whole tribe of Quraish followed him. Later that evening,7 when the prophet was meditating at home, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, and Muhammad recited the sura to the angel. “Have I taught you these two lines?” asked Gabriel (Andrae 19). Muhammad then realized his error and remarked that he had attributed to Allah words that He had not revealed.

The story has evoked responses of several kinds. Tor Andrae claims that “the whole narrative is historically and psychologically contradictory” (19), but maintains that there is some element of accuracy in it: in one instance, Muhammad did in fact attempt a compromise between monotheism and pagan idolatry in order to reach an understanding with his people. Providing ample justification for the resentment of later Muslim historians against orientalist biographers, he then declares that “parallels to such opportunism are by no means lacking in Mohammad's later conduct” (20).

Montgomery Watt is more sympathetic in his treatment of the incident. He argues that even the cult of the goddesses might be considered a “vague monotheism” (62) insofar as the enlightened Arabs regarded the deities as manifestations of a single divine power. Thus the word goddess here suggests a sacred power associated with certain places, rather than a more elaborately anthropomorphized deity. The Semitic religion, Watt says, “has a less personal conception of the divine” (62) than, for instance, Greek paganism. Thus, Muhammad and his followers might not have regarded the worship of the goddesses as being necessarily a violation of the monotheistic principle.

Orientalist scholars have always shown a particularly strong interest in the story, often retelling it in ways that have angered Muslim historians. Many of the latter maintain that it is a fabrication, propagated by those who wished to attack the very basis of Islam: the idea of monotheism or tawhid. This is the view of Muhammad Husayn Haykal, one of the most respected biographers of the prophet, who writes:

the forgers must have been extremely bold to have attempted their forgery in the most essential principle of Islam as a whole: namely, in the principle of tawhid … in which [the prophet] never accepted any compromise.


Rafiq Zakaria has also dealt at length with the incident in his book Mohammad and the Quran, partly in order to expose the various prejudices that have always accompanied the narration of the incident and partly as a polemic against Rushdie. Zakaria charges that Rushdie “opened old wounds” by his “lurid picturization of this incident” (15). Like Haykal, Zakaria reads the story as a negation of the central message of the Koran and a slur on Muhammad's mission. He comments on various readings of the incident and finally presents as conclusive the assessment of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98), perhaps the most eminent Muslim intellectual of undivided India, and the work of Maulana Abul'ala Maudidi, the founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami, “the foremost [Muslim] fundamentalist organization in South Asia” (Zakaria 16). Maudidi's version of the incident is particularly interesting in that it shifts the burden of error from the prophet to the listening congregation. While the prophet was reciting the sura “Al Najm,” Maudidi says, the listeners were so elated by his eloquence and by the mention of the three goddesses that they did not hear what he actually said. They thought the goddesses were being praised when in fact their authority was being dismissed. Later, when the Quraish realized their mistake, they invented the story of satanic intervention as an expression of their displeasure with Muhammad. Thus it remains a story of mis-hearing and misjudgment, but in this version it is the pagan Arabs who allow their desire to obscure or redirect the course of revelation.

However, Zakaria's main argument has more extensive implications. It rests largely on a blanket repudiation of the traditions on which early Arab writers based their work.8 Various authorities are quoted to demonstrate that the works of the eighth-century writer Ibn Ishaq and the ninth-century writers Tabari, Waqidi, and Ibn Sa'd have little basis in historical accuracy and instead rely largely on gossip and myth. According to Zakaria, not only are these writers themselves irresponsible and romantic in their approach to the material, but also the very tradition on which they base their work is suspect, for their accounts contradict each other in several instances and “none of them has produced any reliable evidence” for their work (16). Zakaria agrees with Maudidi's conclusion that perhaps with the best of intentions, they failed to see the “incongruity and contradictory nature” (18) of this tradition.

Zakaria and other modern commentators judge the work of the early chroniclers, like that of Rushdie perhaps, by the standards of accuracy and inaccuracy, the demands for evidence and rational cogency, that are properly characteristic of the desire for a scientific, empirical history, even though in this case it is the history of a miracle or a faith that is under scrutiny. I am certainly in no position to read or analyze the original work of the early writers, but it does seem that in judging this work from the perspective of empirical historians, the modern commentators are making what one might call a generic error, where a history that has not yet emerged as distinct from legend or poetry is now judged by the alien standards of history as a social science.9 It might be instructive for us to note that for scholars like Zakaria, as for the Sikh terrorist Tavleen in the novel, it becomes a relatively easy matter to assimilate a certain version of history within the project of revelation: in the name of such a history, it is finally literature that must be silenced. What first appears, then, as a complaint directed against orientalist writers turns out to be an expression of discomfort with all work that cannot be relegated to the margins of Islamic historiography. Those who have charged Rushdie with joining ranks with imperialists, as well as those who have hailed him as a champion of Western values of freedom and democracy,10 would do well to remember that in fact, Rushdie has predecessors in the Arab tradition itself, and that the battle between gossip and truth, or literature and history, need not be waged at the boundary between East and West.

In Rushdie's text, the interest in the episode of the satanic verses shifts to some degree. Certainly the incident is still concerned with the tension between monotheism and polytheism, which acquires a specific resonance for Indian Islam, crowded by a pantheon of Hindu deities. But Rushdie focuses more explicitly on what has been a source of anxiety for the tradition as well as for modern Muslim scholars: the incident's skillful subversion of the very phenomenon of revelation. In The Satanic Verses, the episode's significance derives from Mahound's tacit acknowledgment of a failure of recognition—a failure that is mirrored in Gibreel's failure, later in the novel, to recognize the voice of Saladin in the telephonic verses that prove to be his undoing. The verses that Mahound proposes as true revelation to replace the earlier, heretical words seem to settle the question of monotheism quite definitively—even as they make use of a familiar misogynist detour—but they offer little help in laying to rest the anxiety about recognizing (and naming) the sources of belief. In Rushdie's text, the new verses read:

Shall He have daughters and you sons? That would be a fine division!

These are but names you have dreamed of, you and your fathers. Allah vests no authority in them.

(124, emphasis added)

It is evident that Rushdie's translation consciously calls attention to the ambiguous status of dreaming, which can signify at once an idle fantasy and a profound vision. Most other English translations of the sura “Al Najm” of the Koran, to which Rushdie's text refers, do not use the word dream at all. Nevertheless, one may read the sura itself as betraying an anxiety about revelation, at least in its overriding concern with establishing its own authority.11 The sura in the text of the Koran reads:

By the star when it sinks down, your companion [Muhammad] neither strays nor is allured; neither does he speak out of whim. It is naught but a revelation inspired, taught him by one vigorous in power [Gabriel], prudent and in true nature, while poised on the uppermost horizon. Then he drew near and lower, until he was at two bow lengths distant or nearer. Then he revealed to His servant what He revealed. The heart did not falsify what he saw. Do you dispute over what he saw? … Indeed he saw his Lord's greatest signs. Have you seen al Lat and al 'Uzza, and Manat the third, besides? Have you [begotten] males and has He [begotten] females? That is indeed an unjust partition. They are nothing but names you yourselves and your fathers named them. God has sent no authority concerning them. They [the Pagans] but follow surmise and what the souls desire, when indeed there came to them guidance from their Lord.

(The Bounteous Koran 700-01)12

At least in light of what we already know about the sura, it is hard not to read the first few lines as responding to voiced or unvoiced allegations about the source of revelation. The text appears to be particularly concerned to establish the purity of the prophet's declarations. It states that they stem neither from whim nor desire—the desire, for instance, to either placate or defy the idolaters—but that they only record what was revealed to the prophet by the archangel.

For Rushdie's story, however, the archangel is not a transparent authority but only a figure of deference. Who really speaks, the novel asks, when the archangel speaks? Thus in the novel, the focus shifts to Gabriel; and in his dreams of doubt and despair, Gibreel Farishta, whose name literally means Gabriel Angel, appears to himself as an archangel forsaken by his faith. In these dreams Gibreel becomes the guarantor of revelation, except that the archangel himself does not know whose messages he transmits or how he transmits them. When Mahound decides that the earlier revelation about the goddesses was but a trick of the devil, Gibreel the messenger is more mystified than anyone:

Gibreel, hovering-watching from his highest camera angle, knows one small detail, just one tiny thing that's a bit of a problem here, namely that it was me both times, baba, me first and second also me. From my mouth, both the statement and the repudiation, verses and converses, universes and reverses, the whole thing, and we all know how my mouth got worked.


Gibreel's mouth, as we know, gets “worked” by Mahound's will, as it does in other dreams by the imam's or Ayesha's will, so that Gibreel remains, in every scene, an actor reciting words that he neither chooses nor even understands.

How then are we to read such a version of the story of the satanic verses? As an allegory that dramatizes the relationship between politics and religion, the legislator and the angel of God, such that the legislator actually becomes a ventriloquist who turns the gods into his puppets, as in Hobbes's account of the early lawgivers? (177). As a psychological reading of the mystery of revelation, which demonstrates that what is imagined as revelation is but the desire of the prophet? Or to go even further, as a suggestion that the sacrosanct voice of the heart—whether it be named instinct, desire, or revelation—is nothing but a ruse of power, its instrument and slave? The text itself corroborates all these readings, and possibly others as well. We may, indeed, keep in mind that since the story of the satanic verses, like several other episodes in the novel, is narrated as a dream, we should perhaps also allow our approach to be guided by the peculiar logic of the dream world. We could at least say that like a dream, the story is overdetermined, that the elements in the story are determined by several contexts, and that each of these contexts might be represented in the story by various elements.13

Thus we find, condensed in Gibreel's dreams, images of the Bombay film world, the legends of Islamic hagiography, the backdrop of an India struggling to define itself as a socialist, secular state, and the dreamer's own struggles with his loss of faith. On a more overtly linguistic level, the dreams are also connected to the dreamer's names: the name he was given, Ismail Najmuddin (Star of the Faith), which perhaps guides his later preoccupation with the sura “Al Najm” (the Star) of the Koran; and the stage name he adopts, Gibreel Farishta (Gabriel Angel), in memory of his mother, who thought of him as her very own angel, “her personal angel, she called me, farishta, because apparently I was too damn sweet” (17). We might also note here the ways in which the names of other characters circulate through the various episodes of the book—Hind, Bilal, Ayesha—appellations that proliferate like metaphors. As the plot moves from one landscape to another, from the real world to the dream world, we encounter familiar figures, names, references: memories both preserved and strangely transformed. Gibreel's dreams thus become the dreams of the novel itself, the text's own dreaming of its manifold contexts.

We might find here a way of understanding why the source of revelation, or indeed of utterance itself, becomes such a persistent enigma in Rushdie's treatment of the satanic verses episode. If the text continually draws attention to its own inability to name the source of utterance, and if it explicitly focuses on the possibility of error whenever such an attempt at naming is made, then by this very gesture it points toward that which perhaps defines it as a text—that is, as a literary rather than a revealed text. In spite of a momentary error, Mahound can later definitively assert that his words bear the authority of divine law, but a story like that of the satanic verses can only circulate by veiling its sources: its power derives precisely from its lack of authorization. It has a history but no recognizable origin: as gossip, fable, indictment, or parable, it becomes the shadow play that mimics and mocks the drama of revelation. It inhabits the story of revelation, one might say, in a way that is just as disruptive or as uncanny as the way in which the novel inhabits the epic, or the secular inhabits the sacred. The text's preferred model for such inhabitation is the experience of the dream, perhaps because dreams represent to us at once the most intimate and the most alienating relationship we can have with ourselves.


In granting a primordial status to writing, do we not, in effect, simply reinscribe in transcendental terms the theological affirmation of its sacred origin or a critical belief in its creative nature?

—Michel Foucault 120

In an essay written in defense of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie says: “At the center of the storm stands a novel, a work of fiction, one that aspires to the condition of literature” (Imaginary Homelands 393). One might remark that the very act of defense—the necessity of defense, perhaps, in Rushdie's case—is already symptomatic of a certain “condition of literature.” We certainly know that this is true of the Western tradition, where literature has always had to defend its right to speak or exist even as it abjures the kind of authority that is claimed, for instance, by philosophy or theology, which have generally insisted on regarding literature as frivolous, false, or dangerous. The Arab tradition has not been very different in this respect. In response to the fatwa against Rushdie, the Tunisian writer Tahar Bekri writes:

If we thought the present era was going to be more clement in this regard, we should have remembered the works of Gibran burned by the Church and the words of dozens of Arab writers condemned by the mosques. It is as if repression were an integral part of our landscape or scenery. … It should be recalled that the Arab poets who came before Islam all communicated with their genies, and poetry itself was seen as the parchment of the devil.


The work of the Arab writer Adonis, which undertakes a comprehensive analysis of Arab poetics, confirms this general thesis. Adonis convincingly demonstrates that most Arab theoreticians have conceived of poetry either as an object of pleasure (as diversion) or as a threat to the pursuit of knowledge. His work shows us that the overt political repression that Bekri mentions has also been aligned with a more complex, sustained, and insidious assault, not only on particular works of literature, but on the status of literature itself.

Presumably, it is not to this condition that Rushdie refers when he says that his novel aspires to the “condition of literature.” What he means becomes more clear in “Is Nothing Sacred?” another essay in Imaginary Homelands. Here he argues that in battling the oppressive militancy of the sacred, we must also remain vigilant against the temptations of a counter-rhetoric that would turn literature into yet another variant of a sacred discourse—one that must be safeguarded and defended at all costs, or one that becomes the arbiter of civilization, the guarantor of freedom, and so forth. Certainly most attempts at a defense of literature find themselves entangled in such claims, thereby inciting accusations of a kind of secular fundamentalism or righteous liberalism that can afford to place all its trust in the grand abstractions of the Enlightenment.14

Nevertheless, Rushdie claims that there is a privilege that literature deserves: “the privilege of being the arena of discourse, the place where the struggle of languages can be acted out” (Imaginary Homelands 427). In some ways, this argument is not very different from the one he has been cautioning us against, and indeed, in several instances, Rushdie reveals his own attachment to the very ideals of European modernity that his antagonists wish to question. And yet it seems to me that Rushdie does qualify—or explain—this privilege. He claims that in fact it is not a privilege at all: “this privilege [is what literature] requires in order to exist” (emphasis added). In other words, if literature cannot be deprived of this attribute without ceasing to be literature, then we can hardly think of it as a privilege.

In many ways, The Satanic Verses stages this discussion, not only because it stages the conflict between poet and prophet, but also because it is consciously a book about verses—a book where, in almost every episode, we encounter someone reading, writing, or listening to verses. In the Jahilia section, the pagan poets mock and fear Mahound's revealed verses; in London, Jumpy Joshi struggles to transform and render poetic the fallen idiom of politics; in Farishta's visions, the ghost of his mistress, Rekha Merchant, recites the work of the Urdu poet Faiz; Farishta himself, as the angel Gabriel, imparts his messages to Ayesha sung to the tunes of popular Hindi songs; and finally, Chamcha commits perhaps the most vicious crime in the book by reciting to Farishta, over the telephone, a series of verses that cause Farishta to question the fidelity of his lover, Allie Cone. It would be a mistake, then, to presume that the title of the book refers only to the story of Mahound's encounter with the devil, for various kinds of verses in the book prove to be malevolent in effect: Baal's last poems in adoration of the 12 whores lead to his captivity and execution; Chamcha's jingles drive Farishta insane and finally cause him to kill both his lover and himself. Indeed, Chamcha's simple little verses, so precisely crafted to summon the dementia of jealousy, are plainly called “satanic” by the narration:

One by one, they dripped into Gibreel's ear, weakening his hold on the real world. … In spite of his protestations to the contrary, he started slipping away from her; and then it was time for the return of the little, satanic verses that made him mad.


It is clear by now that satanic itself becomes a many-layered adjective in this novel. But what does the word signify here? It would only make sense to turn to the book's epigraph, a quote from Defoe's The History of the Devil:

Satan, being thus confined to a vagabond, wandering, unsettled condition, is without any certain abode; for though he has, in consequence of his angelic nature, a kind of empire in the liquid waste or air, yet this is certainly part of his punishment, that he is … without any fixed place, or space, allowed him to rest the sole of his foot upon.

We find that it is Satan's nomadic character, rather than his sin, which is most compelling for this text: Satan becomes an emblem for the wanderer or the migrant. But Satan also becomes a figure embodying paradox: he is “confined” to a “wandering” condition; he is a devil with an “angelic nature”; he has an empire but no home. Thus, his condition is “unsettled” because he has no “fixed place, or space”—no territorial home, but also no stable nature that he can abide in. Satanic verses, then, might refer to the verses of such a Satan or to verses about such a Satan, who becomes a name for migrancy as paradox. In that sense, we might read the title as properly naming the book as a whole, since all the episodes, in one way or another, reflect on the ways in which migrancy signals the encounter between irreconcilable elements.

But the text also makes a larger claim: it seems to say that perhaps all verses could be satanic and that literature itself is migrant, not only because it wanders wantonly from reader to reader, but also because it does not derive authority from its source or origin, as for instance Mahound's words claim to do. Among Mahound's adversaries in the city of Jahilia are numerous poets from whom he must distinguish himself, and his confrontation with the poets in fact becomes a prominent theme in the book.

Before beginning his recitation of the sura “Al Najm,” Mahound announces the terms of this confrontation: “This is a gathering of many poets … and I cannot claim to be one of them. But I am the Messenger, and I bring verses from a greater One than any here assembled” (114). While this is certainly a claim to transcendent authority, we might also keep in mind that a certain context perhaps made revelation the only refuge of a poetry that wished to distance itself from the realm of diversion to which it had been relegated. We know that the revelation marks a significant landmark in the Arab literary tradition. Not only did the study of the Koran transform the scholastic scene so that, increasingly, works of history, philosophy, political theory, and jurisprudence were written, collected, and studied, but it also galvanized an interest in poetics and rhetoric. Even though most literary critics of the time were mainly interested in demonstrating the Koran's superiority to other poetic texts, the comparison itself turned the Koran into a new literary ideal that demanded serious study, so that it was no longer possible to treat poetry only as idle pleasure.15

The Satanic Verses suggests that the Koranic text was able to arrogate such power to itself only by making a decisive break with the tradition of pre-Islamic poetry—and indeed, with literature itself. Mahound's suspicion of poetry is dramatized in his relationship with the satiric poet Baal, who always questions the authority of Mahound's words. Their antagonism grows stronger with the progression of their respective careers until finally Baal is sentenced to death, not for his poetry but for the crime of dishonoring the prophet's wives by suggesting that their names might be profitably used in a brothel. To compound his sin, Baal himself takes on the role of their husband, the prophet. The enterprise proves to be a great success for the brothel, as countless men are charmed by this drama of seduction. By recognizing the sources of fantasy, Baal succeeds, according to Mahound, in “bringing the worst out of the people” (392). The order for Baal's execution follows the closing of the brothel and the execution of the twelve guilty prostitutes, thus inciting the final exchange between the two men, where Baal shouts “Whores and writers, Mahound. We are the people you can't forgive,” and Mahound replies, “Writers and whores. I see no difference here” (392).

Apart from their common ability to offer pleasure, sometimes by appealing to people's “worst” instincts, what connects writers and whores is perhaps their defiance of the laws of fidelity. The writer inevitably interrupts or complicates the presumed fidelity of representation, just as the whore contaminates the fidelity of marriage. This devious trait of writing is underscored in the novel by Rushdie's periodic invocation of the traditional beginning of Arab folk tales: It was and it was not so; it happened and it never did. Stories flirt with us, at once making and withdrawing the claim to truth. By presenting themselves as the double of history, they thus also call into question the truth claims of history, just as the whore, perhaps, calls into question the allegiance of the wife.

Mahound's violent rejection of writers and whores is reminiscent of a familiar strain in the Western tradition. We remember that in The Republic, writers are censured not only because their work operates in the realm of imitation and is thus distanced from, and inferior to, the realm of truth, but also because their work beckons us toward the lawless regime of pleasure. Hence in book 10, Socrates says to Glaucon:

you may acknowledge Homer to be the first and greatest of the tragic poets; but you must be quite sure that we can admit into our commonwealth only the poetry which celebrates the praises of the gods and of good men. If you go further and admit the honeyed muse in epic or in lyric verse, then pleasure and pain will usurp the sovereignty of law and of the principles always recognized by common consent as the best.

(339; emphasis mine)

Poetry is to be banished because it threatens to institute the treacherous reign of the senses. Like whores, writers produce a disruptive economy that undermines the regulatory ends of the state.

If, however, in reading the couple writer/whore, we are now led toward a defiant celebration of this identification, we should also note the ways in which the text warns us against such exuberance. For the novel clearly shows us that trading in fantasies can never be an innocuous enterprise. Just as the 12 prostitutes finally prove themselves to be “the most oldfashioned and conventional women in Jahilia” (384), who really want nothing more than to be the dutiful wives of a strong and wise man, so too is Baal exposed in his own secret desire to be the mirror image of his enemy, the prophet. And if we can read the poet Baal's parody of the prophet as expressing also his desire to become the prophet, we might read the narrator's parody of a Higher Power in a similar way. Mimicking the elusive voice of revelation—the God/Devil whose identity temporarily eludes even the prophet—the narrator appears several times in the course of the story as a vacillating presence. These interjections usually appear as if in the voice of Satan—for instance, in the brief comment on Farishta's and Chamcha's fall from the doomed airplane:

And another thing, let's be clear: great falls change people. You think they fell a long way? In the matter of tumbles, I yield pride of place to no personage, whether mortal or im-. From clouds to ashes, down the chimney you might say, from heavenlight to hellfire. …


Or more succinctly, after a narratorial digression on the differences between angels and humans:

I know: devil talk. Shaitan (Satan) interrupting Gibreel. Me?


However, when a Higher Power actually makes a vivid appearance on the scene, we see a thinly disguised Salman Rushdie in the form of God. Gibreel's vision of the Supreme Being, we are told, “was not abstract in the least”:

He saw, sitting on the bed, a man of about the same age as himself, of medium height, fairly heavily built, with salt-and-pepper beard cropped close to the line of the jaw. What struck him most was that the apparition was balding, seemed to suffer from dandruff and wore glasses.


In a novel that has managed to evoke a global command for the death of the author, here he is, hilariously flagrant: the author as God. Of course we recognize here a parody of an outmoded conception of writing and authorial power, but perhaps we also recognize that however much it might be slandered and dismembered, this conception may never quite die. It might, in fact, be partially revived each time an author, in a grand, if blind, gesture of power, assumes the authority to write. And particularly to write a novel such as this, which so fiercely wants to reveal something to us about our time, our condition—the time of postcoloniality, the condition of hybridity—and thus assigns to itself the task of a revelation. Very early in the book, anticipating from the reader a query about Gibreel and Chamcha's fall, the narrator admonishes, “Slow down; you think Creation happens in a rush? So then, neither does revelation …” (5).

We can now perhaps reread what had earlier appeared as an ambivalence regarding the status of literature in Rushdie's essay “Is Nothing Sacred?” The hidden desire of literature is to be the law itself, even as its work is to transgress the law. Literature cannot conceal its own desire to become revelation, even while its mode of narration mocks its claim to the authority of truth. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this impossible desire that makes literature “satanic.”

This is what the text signals: on the one hand, the desire of literature to become revelation, and on the other, revelation's inability to cease becoming literature. In the novel, it is the scribe Salman who draws attention to the materiality of revelation by noting that if revealed words are substitutable, they cannot be inherently distinct from the fallen words of common language. As he sits at the prophet's feet, writing down the verses that Mahound recites, Salman gradually begins to make little changes that escape Mahound's attention:

So there I was, actually writing the Book, or re-writing, anyway, polluting the word of God with my own profane language. But, good heavens, if my poor words could not be distinguished from the Revelation by God's own Messenger, then what did that mean? What did that say about the quality of the divine poetry?


Rushdie's own rereading of the Koran follows the trajectory inaugurated by his namesake in the novel by situating the sacred narrative in the profane tradition of intertextual writing. However, even in the hands of more submissive readers, the Koran has not been able to transcend the categories of literary analysis—indeed, as I have mentioned before, it is paradoxically responsible for having institutionalized and legitimized those categories. In the Arab tradition, it was the study of the Koran that led to a serious examination of the distinctions between literal and figurative language, injunction and parable, transparency and allegory, such that the Koranic verses themselves are widely recognized as being of two kinds: those that proclaim basic principles in an unambiguous fashion (Muhkamat), and the more allegorical or elusive verses (Mutashabihat). There also arose a corresponding division between types of exegesis: the distinction between accessible, explanatory interpretation (tafsir) and esoteric interpretation (ta'wil) is also largely based on a recognition that the text was not always semantically transparent.16

I have attempted to map here how the novel mirrors the Koran's slide toward profane literature by its own aspiration toward the status of revelation. Although the tendency to incorporate and parody other genres, both literary and extraliterary, is characteristic of the form of the novel, such mimicry does not indicate only an ironic distance but also an anxious imitative desire, perhaps a more Lukacsian nostalgia for the authority of earlier genres. If the novel indeed renders the world historical, it might do so not only by speaking from the locus of the present but also by asking us to rethink the relation between older and newer forms of writing and by throwing into disarray our generic categories of analysis.


Although The Satanic Verses builds its plots from spatial and temporal antinomies—childhood and adulthood, colonialism and postcolonialism, faith and skepticism, India and England, the epic and the novel—these antinomies are never presented in sequential relation to one another. Instead, they appear in a continuous process of informing and transforming one another or, as I have tried to suggest, of inhabiting one another. Very early in the story we are told that “newness” is made of “fusions, translations, conjoinings” (8), and moreover that it must make compromises to survive. The concept of hybridity, often used to describe Rushdie's work, perhaps does not do justice to the ways in which these processes of transformation reflect acts of interpretation and reading. What distinguishes the sacred from the profane, history from poetry, tradition from innovation, and, finally, law from literature depends less on the content of the utterance and more on the manner in which it is heard or received.

In highlighting the interpretative moment, the text follows a path that the novel, as a genre, has traditionally recognized and charted as its own. However, Rushdie's text does not only celebrate the power and play of interpretation or the politics of reception. It also demonstrates that no utterance freely relinquishes its authority to the listener or the reader, and that even literature, that most transgressive or blasphemous arena of discourse, harbors a desire to speak the language of revelation: to speak, as it were, from the place of the law.


  1. For a more comprehensive discussion of this idea, see Eliade and Balslev.

  2. See, for example, Joel Weinsheimer, who reminds us that in the eighteenth century, “story and history were nearly synonymous, just as factual research and imaginative elaboration were not nearly so dichotomized as we would like to think they are today” (3).

  3. For a provocative, if brief, discussion of the novel as a critical reader of earlier narrative, see Kermode. Commenting on Hans Frei's observation that the development of hermeneutics in Germany was historically contemporaneous with the birth of the novel in England, Kermode asks: “Can it be that prose fiction was always a substitute for critical thought about the interpretation of earlier narrative, especially sacred narrative?” (124-25).

  4. In book 10 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Venus describes metamorphosis as a punishment “halfway between” exile and death (241), thus collapsing the spatial and temporal coordinates of identity.

  5. Among the many ironies generated by the reception of this book, the most remarkable might be that a novel that constantly dwells on the mysterious sources of utterance should cast upon its writer the heaviest burden of authority and authorship. Or perhaps this too is already inscribed in a certain logic of metamorphosis as contrapasso—a logic that the text both appropriates and denies, and which finally seems to take on a power of its own.

  6. I am drawing here on Tor Andrae's retelling of Ibn Sa'd's account, which in general does not differ from that given by other biographers, though there is some disagreement on details.

  7. Montgomery Watt says: “the earliest and best sources give no indication of the interval before the abrogation. It may have been weeks or months” (64).

  8. For a concise account of Islamic traditions, see Cook's biography of the prophet. In chapter 7, Cook writes:

    Tradition … is whatever the Muslim scholars have handed down, formally by a process of oral transmission, in practice as a vast literature. It embraces all aspects of the sayings and doings of early Muslims, and comprises many different genres; within it a particular tradition may recur in a variety of contexts and in numerous variants. The early narrative accounts of the life of Muhammad form a small if significant part of this body of material.


  9. Rushdie himself draws attention to this question in Imaginary Homelands:

    Fiction uses facts as a starting-place and then spirals away to explore its real concerns, which are only tangentially historical. Not to see this, to treat fiction as if it were fact, is to make a serious mistake of categories. The case of The Satanic Verses may be one of the biggest category mistakes in literary history.


  10. I would consider Bruce King a member of the latter group. He claims that “Rushdie looks critically at both East and West, but the moral values are those of the individualistic, free thinking West” (435). Talal Asad's reading offers a more complex analysis, though finally it assesses Rushdie's novel in a similar way. Asad argues that the very idea of eroding the boundary between literature and religion belongs to a secular, bourgeois modernity and that such a privileging of literature is quite foreign to the Muslim tradition. By appealing to an elite, secular (and yes, imperial) concept of literature, Rushdie's work, he suggests, shows itself to be a product of Western modernity (269-306). Although Asad is quite brilliant in his analysis of the British liberal establishment, his comments on literary and aesthetic history are a little confusing. Even outside of the Western bourgeois canons of literary theory, and even in premodern times, literature (or the arts in general) and religion have often occupied contiguous or indivisible terrains. The rasa theory of art, perhaps the best known among Indian aesthetic theories, provides a strong example. Most famously expounded by the tenth-century scholar Abhinavagupta, this theory clearly sacralizes aesthetic pleasure; and in his commentary on Anandavardhan's Dhvanyaloka, Abhinavagupta repeatedly draws connections between poetic or aesthetic enjoyment and the joy of spiritual bliss. See Masson.

  11. According to tradition, the first few verses were revealed 18 months before the Hijra and are thus of a considerably later date than the verses where the repudiation of the goddesses occurs, which are believed to have been revealed in the seventh year before the Hijra. But in tone and intent, the beginning appears to be of a piece with the rest.

  12. This is M. M. Khatib's translation. N. J. Dawood's translation of the last verses reads:

    Have you thought on Al-Lat and Al-Uzzah, and thirdly, on Manat? Is He to have daughters and you sons? This is indeed an unfair distinction! / They are but names which you and your fathers have invented: Allah has vested no authority in them. The unbelievers follow vain conjecture and the whims of their own souls, although the guidance of their Lord has come to them.

    (The Koran 115)

  13. I am obviously referring here to Freud's use of the term overdetermination:

    In the case of every dream which I have submitted to an analysis of this kind I have invariably found these same fundamental principles confirmed: the elements of the dream are constructed out of the whole mass of dream thoughts and each one of those elements is shown to have been determined many times over in relation to the dream thoughts.


  14. Gayatri Spivak offers a characteristically astute analysis of this problem. In discussing the complex position of the postcolonial critic, she argues that “it is only if we recognize that we cannot not want freedom of expression as well as those other normative and privative rational abstractions that we on the other side can see how they work as alibis” (237).

  15. See, for example, Weeramantry and Adonis.

  16. For a more detailed history of the interpretative tradition, see Arberry.

Works Cited

Adonis. Introduction to Arab Poetics. Trans. Catherine Cobham. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.

Andrae, Tor. Mohammed: The Man and His Faith. Trans. Theophil Menzel. New York: Harper, 1960.

Arberry, A. J. Revelation and Reason in Islam. London: Allen, 1957.

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Balslev, Anindita Niyogi. A Study of Time in Indian Philosophy. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1983.

Bekri, Tahar. “Theft of Fire.” For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech. Trans. Kevin Anderson and Kenneth Whitehead. New York: Braziller, 1994. 64-65.

Benslama, Fethi. “Rushdie, or the Textual Question.” For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech. Trans. Kevin Anderson and Kenneth Whitehead. New York: Braziller, 1994. 82-91.

The Bounteous Koran: A Translation of Meaning and Commentary. Trans. M. M. Khatib. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Cook, Michael. Muhammed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt, 1957.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. New York: Cornell UP, 1977. 113-138.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Avon, 1965.

Haykal, Muhammad Husayn. The Life of Muhammad. Trans. Ismail Faruqi. Delhi: Crescent, 1990.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. C. B. Macpherson. London: Penguin, 1981.

Kermode, Frank. The Art of Telling. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.

King, Bruce. “Who Wrote The Satanic Verses?” World Literature Today 63.3 (1989): 433-35.

The Koran. Trans. N. J. Dawood. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956.

Lukacs, Georg. The Theory of the Novel. Trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge: MIT P, 1973.

Masson, J. L., and M. V. Patwardhan. Santarasa and Abhinavagupta's Philosophy of Aesthetics. Poona: Bhandarkar, 1969.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1955.

Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Francis McDonald Cornford. London: Oxford UP, 1981.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. London: Granta, 1991.

———. The Satanic Verses. Dover: Consortium, 1992.

Spivak, Gayatri. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Watt, Montgomery. Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman. London: Oxford UP, 1964.

Weeramantry, C. G. “The Arab Resurgence of Learning.” Islamic Jurisprudence: An International Perspective. New York: St. Martin's, 1988. 14-19.

Weinsheimer, Joel. “Fiction and the Force of Example.” The Idea of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Robert W. Uphaus. East Lansing: Colleagues, 1988. 1-19.

Zakaria, Rafiq. Muhammad and the Quran. London: Penguin, 1991.

Mark Davies (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Davies, Mark. “Aspects of the Grotesque in Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.” In Seriously Weird: Papers on the Grotesque, edited by Alice Mills, pp. 51-61. New York, N.Y.: Peter Lang, 1999.

[In the following essay, Davies identifies and discusses aspects of the grotesque in The Satanic Verses.]

One way of addressing the vexed problem of defining the grotesque would be to consider it, as J. P. Stern does the question of realism, in terms of Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblances.1 But as Freud observed of the supernatural in his essay on “The Uncanny”, the grotesque too affects us very differently in different social and aesthetic contexts.2 Most theories of the grotesque see it as in some way defamiliarizing or transgressive of traditional boundaries. But as Popper pointed out, theory always precedes observation, and different theorists tend to privilege the aspects of the grotesque that fit their aesthetic or ideological convictions.3 Bakhtin's emphasis on Rabelais' “grotesque realism” of the body and his notion of the carnivalesque have been criticized for advancing a “prescriptive model of a socialist collectivity”, and displaying a “nostalgia for origins”.4 Kayser by contrast emphasizes the disturbing, uncanny, nightmarish side of the grotesque in Tieck and Hoffmann, who in many ways herald the alienated psychological grotesque of modernists like Dostoevsky, Joyce and Kafka that McElroy has explored.5 Harpham assimilates the grotesque to deconstructive theory, arguing that “all grotesque art threatens the notion of a center by implying coherencies just out of reach, metaphors or analogies just beyond our grasp.”6 While Kristeva, Russo and Creed privilege various aspects of the “monstrous feminine” in different media.7

Several aspects of this body of theory are pertinent to Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which of all his novels is perhaps the richest in the sheer profusion of its grotesque effects. In the first place, as a self-conscious, parodic metafictive text, not a little influenced by Grass and Pynchon, the entire novel might be said to be grotesque in the sense that it transgresses traditional generic boundaries.8 Like his mimic-man hero and star of the TV Aliens Show Saladin, and Gibreel his alter-ego, who has graduated from Indian village clown parts to become the screen idol of the “Theologicals” in the roles of Hanuman and Ganesh, Rushdie too as fabulist moves in and out of different narrative masks. And The Satanic Verses is by turns oriental tale, dream vision, migrant saga full of Dickensian eccentrics, Joycean exploration of father/son relationships and Lawrentian analysis of the obstacles to love between the sexes, drawing extensively on both high art and popular culture in its pursuit of the grotesque. The extent to which this transgressive principle is taken structurally can be gauged by comparison with Bulgakov's Hoffmannesque fantasy The Master and Margarita. In this three-tiered novel, the invasion of Stalinist Moscow by the devil figure Woland and his macabre accomplices is counterpointed against realistic, demythologized scenes from Christ's Passion, dreamed or written by the Master of the title and his beloved Margarita, which function as a norm.9 In The Satanic Verses Saladin and Gibreel's exploits in London and Bombay are similarly removed in time from Gibreel's dream visions of Mohamed/Mahound's life, but these do not have the normative function of the Jesus sequence in Bulgakov, and both the novel's time frames are surreally invaded by the grotesque and the fantastic.

This is not to say (and this is my second general point) that Rushdie is creating pure pastiche—indeed as Brennan and others have shown in detail, unlike much merely playful western metafiction, The Satanic Verses is a typical post-colonial metafictive text in that it is very much sociopolitically engaged.10 But I would argue that, as in his earlier novel Shame, which presents shame and shamelessness, repression and the return of the repressed, as two sides of the same coin, the conceptual schema underlying the contemporary and intertextual allusiveness of The Satanic Verses is relatively simple. When the novel was banned in India in 1988, Rushdie protested in a letter to the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that it “isn't actually about Islam, but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay.”11 And the centrality of the Mahound, Imam and Ayesha episodes does not invalidate Rushdie's general claim that the novel is concerned with more universal issues. Put perhaps too simply, The Satanic Verses is a very Blakean polemic against the errors not just of Islam but of “all Bibles or sacred codes” which divide heaven from hell, soul from body, man from woman, self from other and race from race, and propagate closed, essentialist “grand narratives” (p. 537) rather than open, pluralist narratives like Rushdie's.12 The bodily grotesque tends therefore to be a negative rather than a positive sign as in Bakhtin's reading of Rabelais. In terms of Harpham's theory of the grotesque as something decentering and destabilizing, The Satanic Verses is generically a hybrid, but argues single-mindedly for cultural pluralism.

This gives rise to a third general issue: the extent to which our response to grotesque characters, episodes and images in Rushdie is affected by our sense that they belong within a conceptual schema. In his discussion of the kind of fantasy that entails an invasion of the real world by the supernatural, Todorov argues that as soon as we suspect that the uncanny or inexplicable events may cohere on a higher allegorical plane, our responses alter and the hesitation between natural and supernatural explanations which he regards as the mark of true fantasy evaporates.13 Something analogous may often be said to occur with the grotesque as well. To take an obvious example, Saladin's transformation into a devil or satyr and his humiliation in the Black Maria disturb us, but they do so on an intellectual plane, because we recognize them as emblematic of xenophobic racism and police brutality in general. And when he cries out “I am not a freak”, tension is diffused by the officer's comic retort: “Just that you look like one” (p. 252). When the Elephant Man (mentioned later in the novel—see p. 275) is cornered in a public lavatory and makes a similar plea, our visceral response is more powerful because we recognize that his deformity is real, not allegorical.

Analogously, there is little sense of the uncanny in Gibreel's macabre opening romance with the ghostly Argentinian ex-colonial Rosa Diamond, because we construe his donning of her dead husband Henry's clothes allegorically, as the mimic-man's impulse to avoid the kind of racism meted out to Saladin by adopting the ways of his former colonial masters. In an authorial aside, Rushdie comments that “the grotesque has me, as before the quotidian had me, in its thrall” (p. 260). And his frequent shifts in storytelling mode and often incongruous clustering of intertextual allusions for satiric or black-humorous effect, tend to require imaginative dexterity and to subvert the establishment of the kind of unity of mood we encounter in, say, Marquez. A good example would be the opening scene in which “Gibreelsaladin Farishtachamcha” are seen grotesquely locked together head to crotch in their “angelicdevilish fall” (p. 5) or sky-dive from the exploded plane, just prior to their separation by the police. In what Charles Schuster might regard as an exemplary threshold situation, Rushdie invokes the fall of Milton's Satan, Blake's deconstruction of it as a “fall into division”, and Alice's tumble down the rabbit-hole—in the migrant context, death of the old self, exile, psychic and cultural division and rebirth into a strange new world.14

There is a Shandean exuberance to Rushdie's syncretist imagination and many of his grotesqueries do seem purely playful, but I should like to focus on those that seem more closely related to his central themes. The archetypal disaster alluded to in the title of The Satanic Verses occurs when Mahound becomes a Urizenic patriarchal tyrant by rejecting the female principle represented by Uzza (Beauty), Manat (Fate) and mother-goddess Al-hat, “Allah's opposite and equal” (p. 100) as a temptation of the devil, and insists on submission to his parodically exaggerated book of rules (p. 364). His twelve wives, or their doubles, are confined within a labyrinthine oriental brothel named “The Curtain”, Baal the poet finds the call for satire (that litmus-test of a democracy) has dried up, and is eventually beheaded, the carnivalesque fair at Jahilia declines, and Hind the mayor's pleasure-loving wife becomes a demonic warrior maiden who remains eternally young as the city decays. But Rushdie makes clear that these tendencies are not confined to Islam by including caricatured fanatics of various persuasions, some of whom display the protean or metamorphic qualities which are the hallmark of his magic realism. There is the hijacker Tavleen, “grenades like extra breasts nestling in her cleavage” (p. 81), who makes “Saladin Chamcha want to argue” with her, “unbendingness can also be monomania, he wanted to say, it can be tyranny, and it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last” (p. 81). There is the American creationist Eugene Dumsday, “a humble foot soldier … in the army of Guard Almighty” (p. 75), crusading against Darwin's evolutionism, whose tongue lands in Saladin's lap when Tavleen silences him with her rifle butt.15 There is the caricature of Khomeini, the Imam, engaged (like Mahound before him) in mortal struggle with “a powerful woman, his enemy, his other” (p. 206), the Queen of the Night (p. 215).16 He is part Nobodaddy, part oriental genie, part celebrant at Bulgakov's Witches' Sabbath, as he “slings his beard over his shoulder, hoists up his skirts to reveal two spindly legs with an almost monstrous covering of hair, and leaps high into the night air”, before riding Gibreel like a magic carpet through the moonlight toward his “idea” of Jerusalem—from Rushdie's point of view, the “Babylonian whore” (p. 212).17 Later he is transformed into a monstrous, yawning hell-mouth which, like the Iran/Iraq war, swallows up the people passing through the palace gates. And there is the epileptic, butterfly-devouring Indian girl Ayesha, who leads her village pilgrims into a sea that will not part, releasing their butterfly souls which then regroup as a giant figure (Gibreel, we later learn—p. 457) over the horizon.18 In all these cases grotesque figures evoking very different imaginative and cultural worlds are thematically linked.

Given Rushdie's interest in the multiple selves that the experience of migration so often engenders, it is not surprising that his use of doubling should be both central and sophisticated. His metafictive techniques tend of course to undermine the kind of ontologically disturbing effect that Hoffmann achieves with his grotesque, uncanny doubles in The Sandman. But The Satanic Verses is very much concerned with the alienation from self and from society that both Kayser and Bakhtin associate with the inward-looking psychological grotesque from the Romantic period on.19 The Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship between the angelic soul Gibreel and Saladin the mutated body, “each man the other's shadow” (p. 426), has both patriarchal and (as mooted earlier) post-colonial implications, in that Gibreel's unpardonable sin is to dissociate himself not merely from his bodily but from his racial identity. The abject Saladin as satyr, confined in the attic of the Shaandaar Café, embodies both this self-loathing and society's suspicion of the racially other, and as racial tensions mount in London he grows (like Alice) eight foot tall and becomes the focus of rumours about witchcraft cults. The danger of projecting such paranoid “schizophrenic” (p. 351) states onto reality, and seeing people as angelic or infernal others, is exemplified by Gibreel himself when he feels the “universe fork” and takes the “left hand path” (p. 352), on making his Christ-like come-back as an actor, heralded by the fanatical Maslama as a six-toed John the Baptist, and haloes suddenly become as popular as devil masks.

To a degree these angelic-devilish divisions within Gibreel/Saladin, which combine the symbolic with the psychological grotesque, are mirrored in their relationships with their western female partners. If the Hind, Queen of the Night and “Curtain” scenes allude to the abject status of women under Islam and its violent potentialities, here Rushdie explores the insidious ways race-consciousness can distort relationships even in a modern marriage. Pamela's attraction for Saladin has been that she (and especially her voice) epitomized the upper-class Englishness his postcolonial soul has always longed for, yet they agree on nothing and she cuckolds him (he is in this sense too a horny devil) with his friend Jumpy Joshe. Alleluia Cohn, the mountaineering blonde, and Gibreel are sexually compatible, but she finds his schizophrenic soul beyond her. These doublings are triangulated further when Saladin begins to play Iago to Gibreel's Othello, “believing he saw” in him “the embodiment of all the good fortune that [he], the Fury-haunted Chamcha so singularly lacked” (p. 429), and sowing the seeds of destruction in a way befitting the return of the repressed. Even more complex fracturings within Gibreel are suggested in an apocalyptic passage reminiscent of Blake's Milton20 where Rushdie seems to be foreshadowing two alternative outcomes to his metafictive story. Gibreel

moves as if through a dream, because after days of wandering the city without eating or sleeping, with the trumpet named Azreel tucked safely in a pocket of his greatcoat, he no longer recognizes the distinction between the waking and dreaming states;—he understands now something of what omnipresence must be like, because he is moving through several stories at once, there is a Gibreel who mourns his betrayal by Alleluia Cohn, and a Gibreel hovering over the death-bed of a pilgrimage to the sea, waiting for the moment at which he will reveal himself, and a Gibreel who feels, more powerfully every day, the will of the adversary, drawing him ever closer, leading him towards their final embrace: the subtle deceiving adversary, who has taken the face of his friend, of Saladin his truest friend, in order to lull him into lowering his guard. And there is a Gibreel who walks down the streets of London, trying to understand the will of God.

Is he to be the agent of God's wrath?

Or of his love?

Is he vengeance or forgiveness? Should the fatal trumpet remain in his pocket, or should he take it out and blow?

(p. 457)

The dénouement, in which the two mimic-men return to Bombay, is in fact appropriately double. And the Othello-like murder-suicide of Gibreel, Alleluia and Sosidian the stuttering producer, is counterpointed against the no longer self-divided Saladin's reconciliation with his dying father and reunion with his first Indian love, Zeenat Vikal. The Blakean or Bulgakovian view of woman as redemptress here and in Alleluia's attempt to wean Gibreel from his “Mad/Angelic/Divinity” (p. 435) might not please every feminist, but at least they are both liberated women.

What none of this accounts for is the sheer zaniness of The Satanic Verses—its affinities with say Brazil or Monty Python. And narratologically, Rushdie's many masks as fabulist and Gibreel's role as part visionary part voyeuristic camera eye, like the angels in Wenders' Wings of Desire, make for unusual flexibility. Some of the grotesque effects seem pure bravura, as when Zeenat's mother dies like a carved chicken, losing first one breast then the other (p. 53), or when the hijackers are described as “shootingstars” (p. 78) seeking television coverage, or when Alleluia climbing with her sherpas is likened to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Pamela watches vampire movies on TV (p. 182) and when she talks drunkenly of her indifference to Saladin's reported death, Jumpy reacts like a vampire stricken by the light (p. 173). In the Ayesha sequence, the giant banyan tree dominates the village of Titlipur like the plumbing in Brazil. But more typically the grotesque effects are thematically integral, even when, as with the comment on the ubiquity of Indian migrants, their heads turning up in Idi Amin's fridge (p. 54), the full resonances may strike us only gradually. Many are related to the theme of racism—Saladin's monstrous fellow detainees (p. 168), for instance, or Gibreel's surreal dream of a man trying to escape the prison of his glass skin (p. 34), or the seven-foot hybrid albino “Indian who has never seen India, East-India-man from the West Indies, white black man. A star” (p. 292). The Club Hot Wax houses effigies both of villains like Mosley, Powell and Thatcher, who believe in the “homogeneous, non-hybrid, ‘pure’” (p. 427), and of unsung heroes from alternate histories. The Granny Ripper, who leaves his victims literally heart-in-mouth, is assumed to be a black.

Episodes involving haunting too, defined at one point as “unfinished business” (p. 129), are integral, though often comically presented. Prior to leaving Bombay, Saladin sees his mother's ghost at the old family home of Scandal Point, in the person of an old retainer's wife who has inherited her clothes, and for whom his “giant” (p. 36) “gargoyle” (p. 64) father forsakes his new wife at weekends, courtesy of the retainer. He is horrified by what can be seen as a ghoulish clinging to the past—one of the things about India itself that makes him want to leave—but also as a tribute and an act of love, as later after his mimic-man experiences he comes to appreciate. Gibreel and Alleluia Cohn are both haunted by a sense of failure—Gibreel by the suicide of his mistress Rekha Merchant, Allie by a vision of the yogi mountaineer who failed to conquer Everest—which mimetically is linked to the failure of their relationship. Pamela, too, whose punning maiden name is Lovelace, is haunted by her parents' suicide. And Mahound, of course, the spiritual architect of so many of their troubles, is haunted by the self-deprecating Gibreel, onto whom he projects his legalistic visions as the voice of God (see p. 110).

If there is little here of the kind of uncanny effect that Todorov discusses, Rushdie's use of the grotesque to express alienated states such as migrants frequently experience clearly has affinities with Kayser's understanding of it. Moreover when one contemplates the total impact of The Satanic Verses, one is left with a sense that, in a world where God is dead, and his “management skills” (p. 92) never up to much when he was reputedly alive, the author finds life itself grotesque, and that the black humour is a form of whistling in the dark. Rushdie would seem to share Bakhtin's notion of the grotesque as liberating sociopolitically—and also perhaps from the anxiety of literary influence. But there is little sense in The Satanic Verses of the grotesque body as inherently redemptive, or that apocalypse will herald the new golden age that Bakhtin detects in Rabelais. Rushdie distrusts all forms of purism as anti-pluralist and potentially totalitarian. With the exception perhaps of the proprietress of “The Curtain” and the Imam's demonic emanation, the Queen of the Night, his portrayals of woman are less grotesque here than in Shame or Midnight's Children, but his sense of the link between patriarchy and the “monstrous feminine” is nonetheless astute.


  1. J. Stern, On Realism (London: Routledge, 1973), pp. 28-29.

  2. S. Freud, “The Uncanny”, Collected Papers, vol. 4., trans. J. Riviere (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), p. 405.

  3. Quoted in G. Harpham, On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 22.

  4. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp. 19, 1-58, 303-67; see M. Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 61; and Harpham, p. 73, quoting Derrida.

  5. W. Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, trans. U. Weisstein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), pp. 68f. See B. McElroy, Fiction of the Modern Grotesque (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), pp. 30-69.

  6. Harpham, op. cit., p. 43.

  7. J. Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on the Abject, trans. L. S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982); M. Russo, The Female Grotesque; B. Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine (London: Routledge, 1993).

  8. S. Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (Dover, Del.: The Consortium, 1988). All citations are taken from the 1992 paperback edition. See U. Chaudhuri, “Imaginative Maps: Excerpts from a Conversation with Salman Rushdie,” Turnstile, 2.1 (1990), p. 37.

  9. M. Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, trans. M. Glenny (London: Fontana, 1967). For the normative function of the Jesus plot, see J. Davies, “Bulgakov: Atheist or Militant Old Believer?: The Master and Margarita Reconsidered,” Australian Slavonic and East European Studies, 6 (1992), pp. 25-33.

  10. T. Brennan, Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989); M. Fischer and M. Abedi, “Bombay Talkies, the Word and the World: Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses,Cultural Anthropology, 5.2 (1990), pp. 107-59; and T. Asad, “Ethnography, Literature, and Politics: Some Readings and Uses of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses,Cultural Anthropology, 5.3 (1990), pp. 239-66.

  11. M. Fisher and M. Abedi, op.cit. p. 110.

  12. See D. Erdman, ed., The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York: Anchor, 1982), p. 34.

  13. T. Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. R. Howard (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973), pp. 58-74.

  14. C. Schuster, “Threshold Texts and Essayistic Voices,” in J. Davies, ed., Bridging the Gap: Literary Theory in the Classroom (West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 1994), pp. 87-88.; and M. Bakhtin, Problems in Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. C. Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 170.

  15. Dumsday was based on an American creationist called Duana Gish—see Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 (London: Granta, 1991), p. 368.

  16. See J. English, Comic Transactions: Literature, Humor, and the Politics of Community in Twentieth-Century Britain (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 230.

  17. This moonlit ride toward the Imam's demonic version of Jerusalem has echoes both of Bulgakov's novel, and of course of Blake.

  18. For a discussion of other stock types in the novel, see English, op.cit., pp. 231-37.

  19. W. Kayser, op.cit., p. 114; and M. Bakhtin, op. cit., pp. 45-47.

  20. Rushdie parodies Blake's fall “outstretched upon the path” in the apocalyptic closing lines of Milton (D. Erdman, op. cit., p. 143) when he has Gibreel open “his eyes to find himself collapsed, once again, on Alleluia Cohn's doorstep …” (p. 355).

Nalini Natarajan (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Natarajan, Nalini. “Woman, Nation and Narration in Midnight's Children.” In Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, edited by Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick, pp. 399-409. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 1999.

[In the following essay, Natarajan perceives the function of women in Midnight's Children to be a signifier for the changing social status quo of India.]

In Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, the midnight of Indian independence is represented through refraction of the colors of the Indian flag onto national celebrations (extravagant ‘saffron rockets’ and ‘green sparkling rain’) and the bodies of women giving birth: ‘green-skinned’, ‘whites of eyes … shot with saffron’ (MC [Midnight's Children], 132).1 We may note significant juxtapositions and identities: woman's pain with communal joy, human with national birth, woman's body as the national tricolor flag.


The scene illustrates the centrality of gender in the space of the social imaginary that constitutes ‘nation’ while indicating the dissimilar elements that comprise the collectivity of nationalism. The two women whose ordeal in labor is represented in national colors are from the more marginalized sections (by the dominant middle-class Hindu ethos) of Indian society: a Muslim woman and a humble street singer. The text provides an occasion for introducing my concerns in this essay: the spectacle or visual effect of woman as it shapes the national imaginary, the way woman functions as sign in the imagining of community, the relation of these aspects of woman as sign and spectacle (as figurations of the beloved, mother, and daughter) to the failure of the secularization project that ‘Indian’ culture generally, and the Bombay cinema industry in particular, envisaged for itself in the early decades of Indian independence.



Woman functioned as a signifier in many ways in the contrary dialectic of stasis and change in the imagining of India. It was required not only to imagine one out of many, an operation requiring a relinquishing of the caste-based hierarchies to a pan-Indian modernity, but also to render this one ontologically stable, an effort that inevitably privileged the dominant cultural group—broadly speaking, the Hindu middle classes.2 In reading narrative against this paradoxical cultural effort, I look at woman in three moments in nationalism: (1) the movement from regional to national in the ‘modernizing’ process; (2) the threat of communal or civil rupture within the body politic; and (3) the rise of fundamentalism. Woman's body is a site for testing out modernity, in the first moment; in the second, as ‘Bharat Mata’ or ‘Mother India’, a site for mythic unity in the face of fragmentation; and in the third, as ‘daughter of the nation’, a site for countering the challenge posed by ‘Westernization’, popularly read as ‘women's liberation’.


A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which … was … quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will—except in a dream we all agreed to dream—it was a mass fantasy.

(MC, 129-30)

The text I am reading traces the fortunes of a Muslim family in complex allegorical relation to the fate of the nation. Woman occupies a minor role in the narrative, but my argument foregrounds her marginality as a strategy of reading. I have already indicated the symbiotic connection between Midnight's Children and Bombay cinema. The representation of women is a startling instance of the connection, and it is possible to read the text as parodying Bombay cinema's use of women. At the same time, the text's own use of woman's body as signifier for nation implicates it within a critique of male-dominated culture.

My first argument links the scopic (that which is seen) with the civic. Synecdoche, the imagination of a whole from its parts, essential to nation construction, also becomes the way woman is perceived in Midnight's Children. The first national subject textualized in Rushdie is the German-educated doctor Aadam Aziz. He returns home with a void in his head—European scepticism has destroyed his faith in ‘Islam’ and in ‘India’. The void becomes the space of desire. His reintegration occurs over the body of a woman patient, who later becomes his wife. Because she is in purdah (veiled) she is shown to him through holes in a sheet. As he treats her in parts he begins to imagine her as whole. This coincides with his imagining a ‘whole’ Indian identity for himself, instead of his regional Kashmiri one.

The synecdochic process of discovery or construction of Naseem Aziz is a camera technique familiar in Bombay cinema. The camera focuses on the heroine's body part by part. On one level, this defers to the censors; on another, it leaves the job of construction to the male hero and the audience. The popular film Mere Mehboob (1963), for instance, depicts the hero's discovery (which is also imaginative construction) of the woman he loves.3 He, like Aadam Aziz, has only seen her in parts—walking fully veiled on a university campus. The woman's covering is a sign of orthodox values (here the national culture exploits the titillations of Islamic restrictions on women as presented by many producers who work in Bombay cinema) while the university campus is a signifier for modernity. In another film, Pakeezah (1971), a viewing of the heroine's feet takes place on a train.4 The university and the train are both symbols and spaces of modernization and integration. The audience participates at once in the potential for female viewing offered by a modernizing India, as well as the retreat into traditional taboos that monitor the revealing of the female body. Such representations demarcate the space of desire as male. This imaginary uncovering/covering of woman becomes the site for national self-definition, a site where the contradictory facets of the national ideology are played out. Woman should fulfil the individual male psychic need for scopic/sexual gratification and yet be the figurehead for national culture, guarded by the censors. The contradictions in woman's position as spectacle may be seen in the social dramas of contemporary India—bride viewings by eligible males, the spectacles of lavish marriages financed by the fathers of brides, bride burnings caused by ‘inadequate’ dowry, the resurgent spectacle of widow-sacrifice, or sati. In each case, the body of woman becomes a focus for the symbolisms of cultural and religious reaction.

While male discursive dismembering (such as Saleem's mutilated finger or bruised scalp) symbolizes national rupture, the representation of woman as parts in both fictional and filmic discourse provides an occasion for imagining wholeness. Although she is a symbol for wholeness, her own integrity remains secondary. The text announces within brackets ‘(he has told her to come out of purdah)’, the punctuation indicating that woman's freedom is an aside in the narrative of nationalism. When the couple move to Amritsar, Naseem Aziz finds herself cruelly exposed to the multiplicity of the Subcontinent as Aziz sets fire to her purdah veils:

Buckets are brought; the fire goes out; and Naseem cowers on the bed as about thirty-five Sikhs, Hindus and untouchables throng in the smoke-filled room.

(MC, 33)

Imaginative construction of woman's body is a metaphor for constructing national identity from regional, and the exposure of woman's body is a signal for the melting pot of secular modernity. The text represents this modernity as a sexual threat for women—note the connotations of ‘bed’, ‘through’. For in the political context of decolonization, modernity is required of Indian women. An Oedipal trace could be observed here—we recall that Aadam Aziz's mother also came out of purdah in order to finance her son's education. Aadam Aziz demands of his wife after the purdah-burning: ‘Forget about being a good Kashmiri girl. Start thinking about being a modern Indian woman’ (MC, 33). Women are required to shed their traditional inhibitions; their reluctance to do this could indicate disjunctive articulations in the discourse of nationalism, which claims to construct one out of many. ‘You, or what?’ says Naseem at Aziz's request that she come out of purdah. ‘You want me to walk naked in front of strange men’ (MC, 33).

Incidentally, we may note the difference to woman in Western representations. In Alice Doesn't, de Lauretis quotes Mulvey's account of the paradigmatic film narrative where woman is first object of the collective male gaze and then reserved for the hero's eyes alone.5 The movement of woman as scopic object between public and private spheres is mediated by the wider sociohistorical processes that affect gendering and by the specific anxieties of nationalism. Rushdie's text reveals how women are tied into the process of middle-class homogenization as India modernizes. As part and parcel of the new ‘nationhood’ and its economic, social, and cultural coordinates, woman becomes an index of the erosion of discrete regional and caste cultures in the movement from regionalism to modernity. The class anxieties that imposed a ‘new kind of segregation’ on women in the nineteenth century are modified so that women may emerge in public.6 Thus in Rushdie's text, woman moves from man's individual gaze to the collective gaze of many. But this emergence into the public gaze is as problematic as women's seclusion.

Frantz Fanon has discussed the politics behind the veil in the colonizer's attempt to decimate the colonized culture. The battle to end purdah in the colonial context is inflected by the colonizer's wish to ‘rescue’ the colonized woman from the ‘backward’ colonized male.7 Here in decolonization, the newly independent male demands what he resisted during colonialism, or conceded grudgingly in response to British accusations of ‘backwardness’. In both cases, the uncovering of women's bodies is related more to the politics of men's power relations than any interest in female subjectivity.

Rushdie's text ironizes the formation of the national bourgeois imaginary through the relations of Aadam Aziz and Naseem. Although Bombay cinema retains for the male the scopic advantage, and consistently portrays woman as an entity to be discovered and protected in the formation of a new India of patriarchally monitored ‘progress’ for woman, Rushdie's text unseats these confidences in the spectator/subject. For Aadam Aziz's attempt at mental construction fails—he misapprehends Naseem Aziz. Synecdoche allows a space for the imagined object to assert its autonomy. When the whole is assembled it turns out to be very different from the sum of its parts. Naseem Aziz emerges as the stronger partner in the relationship, defying her husband's desires by becoming fat and refusing to do his sexual bidding. Communication between the couple is forever curtailed through Naseem's silence; her body promises not cognitive wholeness, but rupture.


Naseem Aziz's daughter Amina, though conventionally unattractive, is sexually precocious: she steals her older sister's fiancée. For the early chapters of her appearance, she lives underground with her fugitive lover—a textual absence. Like Naseem, unmarried women exist only partially in discourse. When she surfaces again, as wife and mother-to-be, national imagining goes side by side with Partition riots. In the Delhi sections of Midnight's Children the imagined India reappears in the visual space of the bioscope—the Dilli Dekho machine that shows children the collage of a unified India:

Inside the peepshow of Lifafa Dass were pictures of the Taj Mahal, and Meenakshi temple, and the holy Ganges … untouchables being touched; educated persons sleeping in large numbers on railway lines.

(MC, 84)

We may note here the voyeuristic terminology: peepshow, the sight of untouchables being touched, of the educated homeless … the exclusions that help the bourgeois Indian child still dream of Indian unity. Meanwhile, in the geographical space of Delhi, attempts at unity are shown to be futile. A Hindu revivalist group (the Ravana gang) terrorizes Muslims, and the Muslim crowd turns on the lone Hindu Lifafa Dass. Once again, the spectacle of woman's body, Amina Sinai provides a national image and averts a riot:

‘Listen’, my mother shouted, ‘Listen well, I am with child. I am a mother who will have a child and I am giving this man my shelter. Come on now, if you want to kill, kill a mother also and show the world what men you are!’

(MC, 86)

Woman as spectacle of motherhood once again evokes dreams of unity and wholeness. Woman here is the dream of unified India, and her unborn child its hypothetical citizen. In pregnancy she is the symbol of the wholeness of the men themselves. Motherhood, which could be a privileged site for women and also a potential challenge to patriarchal systems through its admitting of, in Kristeva's terms, an ‘otherness within the self’, is appropriated for nationalistic purposes. As Klaus Theweleit has said, ‘woman is an infinite untrodden territory of desire which at every stage of historical deterritorialization, men in search of material for utopias have inundated with their desires.’ He further adds that it is the lure of a freer existence that marks this territory of desire and is most often indulged in by men in search of power rather than those already dominant.8

How does the figure of Mother cement nation? She suggests common mythic origins. Like the land (which gives shelter and ‘bears’), she is eternal, patient, essential. National claims have always been buttressed by claims to the soil. The linking of ‘Mother’ with land gains strength from Sita, who was the daughter of Mother Earth. During moments of ‘national’ resurgence, the land is figured as a woman and a mother. In the era of militant Hindu resurgence in the late nineteenth century, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's Anand Math captured the figuration through its famous slogan ‘Vande Mataram,’ Victory to the Mother. The film version of this work expressed the role of woman in the euphoria of a newly independent India. Thus, ‘Mother India’ is an enormously powerful cultural signifier, gaining strength not only from atavistic memories from the Hindu epics, Sita, Sati Savitri, Draupadi, but also its use in moments of national (typically conflated with Hindu) cultural resurgence.

Figuring woman/mother as nation also suggests another of the sustaining analogies of the myth of nation. In an analysis of the foundational fictions of Latin America, Doris Sommer speaks of how the analogy of family helped to represent marriage between the different racial groups that comprised Latin American nations.9 In India, however, exogamous marriage (across regions, religions, castes, and subcastes) was not a historical reality. Hence the analogy of nation as family could only lead to the appropriation and invisibility of minority groups in the hegemonic Hindu national narrative.

Let us now see how this appropriation of the maternal body as the ‘imaginary site where meaning (or life) is generated,’10 which excludes women from being meaning makers in their own right, is cemented by film. We have said that Hindi film took upon itself the task of covering the fissures in Indian society through an ‘India’ it represented for its viewers. This ‘India’ was best captured by its ‘values’ figured in woman. Mother as presiding over the link between nation and land/family found its classic expression in a film of the late fifties. I refer to Mother India, a film released in 1957, still said to be screened in India every day of the year. Here the nation gains its strength and validity from its metonymic identification of woman with land and family. In Mother India, the mother Radha works the land as a serf and is exploited by the forces of capital in Sukhilala the moneylender. She works the land and provides for her family after the death of her husband. And she stands for woman celebrated in the mythic Hindu narratives—of Sita in the Ramayana and Draupadi in the Mahabbarata, who encounter privations (and in Sita's case rejection and expulsion) in the service of their hero-husbands. Her younger son Birju joins the dacoits in order to avenge his family's ruin. This has been read as an allegory of radical action.11 But the mother kills her own son, using her moral authority within the family and the nation to uphold the law, making the figure a force for conservatism.

In conflating the maternal with the national, the film extinguishes the heterogeneity of Indian women in favor of the Hindu model. The potential of different cultural formations to interrupt one another and reduce the tendency to privilege man's version of woman over historical women is thereby lost. This stereotyping of Hindu Woman as Mother India gives great impetus to the Hindu fundamentalist project, and makes woman's body the very site of fundamentalism.

Feminist criticism has stressed this need to distinguish between woman as sign and women as historical subjects in their own right.12 Here feminist perception intersects that of critics of Hollywood cinema who argue that by relying on the primacy of the visual, cinema manages to efface real women in its representation of the image of woman. The image privileges what is present over that which is absent. As Christian Metz has said, the mastery of technique in cinema ‘underlines and denounces the lack on which the whole arrangement is based (the absence of the object, replaced by its reflection), an exploit which consists at the same time of making this absence forgotten.’13

This disguised lack in cinema has a communal as well as sexual dimension in the case of the film Mother India. In this archetypal film of nationalism, the Muslim identity of the actress who played the recognizably Hindu character symbolizing the nation is at once appropriated and emptied of significance. The main actress who played Mother India was the Muslim actress Nargis, and she has always been associated in the minds of the public with Mother India. Her marriage to the Hindu Sunil Dutt, who played her son in the film, cemented her image as Mother India. The cultural message of the film has always been seen as Hindu, with its echoes of Radha, Parvati, Sita, with all of the traditional self-sacrificing virtues ascribed to these women.14 We have, then, a nationalist articulation of Hindu religion and culture focusing on the figure of a Muslim actress.

Woman, symbol of Hindu nationalism, covers real women in India, heterogeneous, various, of many castes, religions, and geographical regions. As spectacle on screen, the regional identity of the actress is usually subsumed under the hegemonizing cultural sway of the Hindi heartland, the Indo-Gangetic plain. The metonymic representation of all women—whatever their cultural identity—as Hindu women is a recurring feature in Hindi film. Indeed, a large majority of popular film actresses have in fact come from the ‘minority’ sections, but rarely are these sections the subject of the national film industry. Because in Indian popular culture, attention is focused on the person of the actor or actress (gossip magazines about these characters constitute a major popular discourse), such metonymic representations obscure, at the level of individual actor, the fissures in Indian society, and may work to appropriate minority groups.

Read against the cultural politics of the Bombay film industry, the spectacle of Amina as Mother India in Midnight's Children yields interesting ironies. The conflations of mother with origin, land, family, and Rule of Law, upheld in the Bombay cinema, are exposed in Rushdie's text. Amina is mother but not to her own son, sharing the raising of Vanitha, the street singer's son, with Mary Pereira. The text is much more interested in maternal betrayal. When Saleem's telepathic gifts give him an inside view of women, he uncovers maternal adultery. But this adultery can be read in terms of national anxiety, suggesting the text's complicity with the imaginary of Bombay cinema. His mother, auntie Pia, and Leela Sabarmati become the collective scapegoat for the emergence of militancy and national heroism, especially significant in the context of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965. Once again it is the expulsion of Sita enacted. The graphic scene linking women's purity with national events is conveyed textually through the letter Salim sends to a Commander Sabarmati. He cuts out words from national newspapers relating current events to phrase a letter of warning. Once again, over the body and morality of woman, national events take shape. There is a public unanimity in the reaction to Commander Sabarmati's murder of this wife (‘We knew a Navy man wouldn't stand for it’ [MC, 314]). The ironies are obvious—woman's shame, dispensable in the urge to modernize, becomes a mystified area once the crisis has passed, and India, from being victim, is now the aggressor and victor in subcontinental politics (the two wars with Pakistan, the second over the creation of Bangladesh, established this position for India).


In Midnight's Children, the dream image of woman as embodying the desire for nation becomes subjected to greater ironies even as male desire (represented first in Saleem's erotic attraction to his Auntie Pia and then to his sister, Jamila Singer) continues to provide the narrative's impetus. Each time this desire is deflated. Women recur as different kinds of bodies: the body in adultery, the body aging.

But the myth of nation is in fast decay, especially in the context of partition and war, and with it the dream image of woman. Male dismembering—as Saleem loses first hearing, then hair, then finger—is symptomatic of deep national anxiety. But this, too, happens in relation to the anxiety aroused by women. The description of the other children of midnight allows the narrator to imagine many versions of women who are no longer idealized or a dream, but victims of the brutal realities of poverty. There is Sundari, the beggar, whose face is slashed because her beauty blinds people, but now ‘was earning a healthy living’ and because of her story ‘received more alms than any other member of her family’ (MC, 236), and Parvati the witch, who ‘stood mildly amid gasping crowds while her father drove spikes through her neck’ (MC, 239). In contemporary India, poverty drives women to present a different kind of spectacle. Wee Willie Winkie's wife Vanitha, the street singer, is a common sight in India's big cities, her rags barely covering the body that in other circumstances is so mystified a site. In poverty, woman's shame is dispensable.

And woman's shame is the cornerstone of Islamic fundamentalism. The status of woman as a sign constantly subordinated to male-dictated contexts is demonstrated in the transformation of Saleem's once uninhibited sister the Brass Monkey into Jamila Singer when the family moves to Pakistan. The Brass Monkey, like the Monkey God Hanuman in the Ramayana, has entered the world of corruption (read as Western influence on women). Thus she is friendly with the ‘hefty’ Europeans of Walsingham School and plots with them to discredit the young boys. Later she (temporarily) embraces Christianity. But she can hold her own against these girls—she defeats Evie Burns in a street fight. Saleem's narrative adopts the male-oriented rhetoric of the nation—women are the electorate to be wooed by those in power (MC, 221).

(Woman becomes the site of the East—West cultural battle so often depicted in Bombay cinema. The classic example in this genre is the film Purab aur Paschim (East—West) (1970), where Indian values for women are reiterated over European. The ‘Westernized’ heroine (played by the actress Saira Bano) smokes, wears miniskirts, and is reformed into Indian womanhood by her love for the hero (played by Manoj Kumar, a recognized ‘nationalist’ filmmaker),15Purab aur Paschim uses woman to vent cultural anxiety in the wake of war and migration. The film targets Indian immigrants in Britain (metonymically represented by women who wear short dresses, smoke, and drink) and the nationalist message of the film is the containment of the threat to national culture (once again represented by Hindu ideals for women) from diasporic Indian populations. In other films of the seventies heroines are similarly reformed or punished for daring convention (Thodisi Bewafai and Do Anjane, for example).

So too, in Midnight's Children, the taming of Jamila Singer, which now involves not the exhibition but the extinguishing of woman as spectacle. As a child, the Brass Monkey was at the center of spectacle—she set fire to shoes. In the cosmopolitan world of Bombay her exuberance was irrepressible, but now, in fundamentalist Pakistan, she is captive to the Pakistani nationalist rhetoric and its view of women. She becomes martyr to the idea of nation. The wheel has come full circle when Jamila's voice, dream/imaginary of the Pakistani nation, is dissociated from her body. Heard by all on the Voice of Pakistan, she is placed during public appearances behind a perforated sheet; ‘this was how the history of our family once again became the fate of a nation … being the new daughter-of-the-nation, her character began to owe more to the most strident aspects of the national persona than to the child-world of her monkey years’ (MC, 375). As inspirer of men's souls, she must hide her body: ‘Jamila, daughter, your voice will be a sword for purity; it will be the weapon with which we shall cleanse men's souls’ (MC, 376). Because ‘no city which locks its women away is ever short of whores’, Saleem Sinai acts on his country's dual view of woman, as saint and whore. While the sister he desires sings of holiness and hides her body, Saleem's lusts drive him to ‘women of the street’—latrine cleaners, Tai Bibi, whore of strange odors, and eventually Padma, the muscular pickle maker, whose hairy and strong forearms fascinate him.

Midnight's Children represents and ironizes not only the dream image of woman really servicing the psychic needs of the male subject constructed at the time of decolonization, but also her flip side, fat, gross, dirty but strong, as, from the male narrator's point of view, the dream of nation turns to nightmare in the wake of Indo-Pakistani postcolonial history. The text thus demonstrates woman's body's continued exploitation as a sign (albeit not a fixed one—the role of shame, and of spectacle, for instance, keeps changing), and the shifting space it occupies in the tentative process of decolonization and nation forming imaginatively represented in Midnight's Children. Reading Rushdie against Bombay cinema reveals gender as a trope in the narrative imagining of nation. This analysis hopes to reveal how all narratives imagining nation—sophisticated postmodern as well as mass cultural—collude in the engendering of nation as male through their representation of the female body. Thus, though Rushdie's representation parodies this engendering, moments in the text are complicit with Bombay cinema's signifying practices on women.


  1. Quotations from Midnight's Children are cited in the text with page numbers in parentheses using the abbreviation MC Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (New York: Avon, 1980).

  2. Throughout this essay I refer to ‘Hindu middle classes’ not as an essentialized religious or cultural group, but as a construct of a cultural production relying on recognizable Hindu symbolisms. For the recent political use of Hinduism, see Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, and Sambuddha Sen, Khaki Shorts, Saffron Flags (Delhi: Orient Longman, 1993). By ‘modernization’ I mean the postindependence changes caused by increased intranational mobility of the professional and clerical sectors, and the legal changes in women's status with the widespread education and visibility of women. These are distinct from the role of women in modernization during reform and nationalism. See Partha Chatterjee, ‘The Nation and Its Women’, in The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 116-58. See Immanuel Wallerstein's discussion of ‘modernity’ and Westernization, ‘Culture as the ideological Battleground of the Modern World System’, Global Culture, ed. Mike Featherstone (London, Newbury Park, and New Delhi: Sage, 1990), 45.

  3. Made by H. S. Rawail, this film was very popular in the sixties, chiefly because of its music. The sixties was a decade of euphoric nationalism, centering in the early half around the figure of Nehru and fuelled by the war with China and the two wars with Pakistan.

  4. Although released in 1971, this is essentially a film of the late fifties as it took twenty years to complete. In mood and representation of women, it echoes the earlier period of filmmaking. The fifties and sixties were notable for the preponderance of Muslim themes. See Hameeduddin Mahmood, The Kaleidoscope of Indian Cinema (New Delhi: East West Press, 1974), 84.

  5. Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 139.

  6. See Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, ‘Recasting Women: An Introduction’, in Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. Sangari and Vaid (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 10-11.

  7. Frantz Fanon, Studies in a Dying Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1959), 35-67.

  8. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 294.

  9. Doris Sommer, ‘The Foundational Fictions of Latin America’, Nation and Narration, ed. Homi Bhabha (New York: Routledge, 1990), 71-98.

  10. Mary Jacobus, Body/Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science, ed. Mary Jacobus, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Sally Shuttleworth (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), 7.

  11. Vijay Mishra, ‘The Texts of “Mother India”’, Kunapipi 11, 1 (1989): 119-37, 134.

  12. Mary Poovey, ‘Speaking of the Body: Mid-Victorian Constructions of Female Desire’, in Body/Politics, 29.

  13. Mary Ann Doane, ‘Technology, Representation, and the Feminine,’ in Body/Politics, 170-76.

  14. Mishra, ‘Texts’, 125-26.

  15. The director is noted for his interest in nationalist themes. The film in question deals with the protection of Indian values for women in an era of change. To assess the nationalist mood at the time, it is useful to note that this era was framed by the two wars with Pakistan—1965 and 1971 (Sarcar, Indian Cinema, 147).

Teresa Heffernan (essay date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Heffernan, Teresa. “Apocalyptic Narratives: The Nation in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.Twentieth-Century Literature 46, no. 4 (winter 2000): 470-91.

[In the following essay, Heffernan argues that, in Midnight's Children, Rushdie explores “an alternative, though equally apocalyptic, concept of the nation, the Islamic umma.]

The radically performative laying down of the law by the legislator must create the very context according to which that law could be judged to be just: the founding moment, the pre-, is always already inhabited by the post-.

—Geoffrey Bennington (132)

Thus the veil had to fall so that with it the strongholds of reactionaries preventing women from being educated and participating in public life would fall.

—Amina Said (360)

In the Book of Revelation, John is living in forced exile on the island of Patmos.1 Opposed to and alienated from the existing social and political order, he predicts the overthrow of a corrupt world and the everlasting reign of the New Jerusalem. In this revolutionary prophesy, John imagines himself as the consciousness of the collective; the boundary between the world and the word, between narrative and history, must dissolve, and all margins, including the one he inhabits, must be eradicated to complete this dream of a perfectly integrated community at the end of history.2

While the belief in the actual or imminent end of the world has receded, Frank Kermode argues that “the paradigms of apocalypse continue to lie under our ways of making sense of the world” (28). With the shift from God's plan for humanity to secular dreams about the world, nationalist narratives that both replace and echo Revelation are one of the ways we order that world. Apocalypse continues to be understood in a secular context as a revelation or unveiling (from the ancient Greek apokalupsis), and this paradigm underlies the nineteenth-century teleological narrative of modern nationalism, where the emergence of the nation is understood as the point of arrival for an “imagined community” (Anderson 6). As Benedict Anderson has suggested, as traditional religious belief wanes, national narratives come to satisfy the desire for origins, continuity, and eternity (11).

Like the biblical story, secular apocalyptic writings about the nation also express the dreams of the ostracized and the oppressed about the renewal or rebirth of a community; the call from beyond (the interference from the Other) that characterizes apocalyptic writing challenges the established order, confuses accepted rules, and ignores the prevalent codes of reason. As Jacques Derrida writes, “By its very tone, the mixing of voices, genres, and codes, and the breakdown [le détraquement] of destinations, apocalyptic discourse can also dismantle the dominant contract or concordat” (“Of an Apocalyptic Tone” 89). It is not surprising then that the Romantic poets, and Blake in particular, conceived of the French and American Revolutions in millennial terms; the violence and upheaval of these events seemed to mark the dawn of a new earthly order, freeing man from the tyranny of monarchy and church.3 And in Writing the Apocalypse, Lois Parkinson Zamora reads both the Hebrew (Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah) and Christian (Mark 13, Matthew 24, 2 Peter, and Revelation) apocalyptic texts, with their emphasis on the merging of private and public destinies, as inspiring the “communal” or national fictions of Latin American writers such as Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Julio Cortázar.

However, the events of the twentieth century have also cast doubt on apocalyptic nationalist narratives. In E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, Aziz clearly joins the revolutionary chorus when he declares that “India shall be a nation! No foreigners of any sort! Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and all shall be one!” (289). But while Forster suggests that the colonial presence in India is intolerable, completing his novel in the aftermath of the First World War, he is clearly not convinced by the revolutionary promises of nationalism: Fielding taunts Aziz with the remark “India a nation! What an apotheosis! Last comer to the drab nineteenth-century sisterhood!” (289). And as a Muslim, Aziz himself is only half taken with the idea of the modern nation as he recognizes the pressures of teleology and origins that accompany this model. When he is asked to imagine a lineage for the modern nation, he suggests Afghans as a viable trajectory without being able to “quite fit” (289) them in the Hindu Native State of Mau. He also experiences, at a microcosmic level, the limits of this model, which privileges birth, when he has to refuse Mrs. Moore's invitation to join her in the English club: “Indians are not allowed into the Chandrapore Club even as guests” (41). Significantly, he is later able to extend an invitation to Adela and Mrs. Moore to “be Moslems together” on the train because membership in the Islamic nation—the umma—is not restricted by birth (130).

In Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Saleem Sinai also draws on the revolutionary legacy of apocalyptic nationalism as an obvious frame for his account of India's struggle of liberation: “I shall have to write the future as I have written the past, to set it down with the absolute certainty of a prophet” (462). Readings of Midnight's Children either insist on Rushdie's allegiance to nationalism—Josna Rege, for example, suggests that “[d]espite its conceptual freshness and vitality, Midnight's Children remains very emotionally committed to the narrative of the nation” (366) and that the novel “romanticizes the Congress Party ideal of ‘unity in diversity’” (360)—or, alternatively, insist that Rushdie is disillusioned not with the nation per se but with the corruption of the postcolonial nation, because those who came to lead it were, as Timothy Brennan puts it, “sell-outs and power brokers” (27). However, in this paper, I want to argue that Midnight's Children, in recasting Aziz and drawing on Forster's skepticism, is from the outset suspicious of the very model—with its apocalyptic underpinnings—of the modern nation. Discontented with the narrative of origins and ends implicit in this model, the novel explores an alternative, though equally apocalyptic, concept of the nation, the Islamic umma. However, this paper concludes, securing these models is the figure of the (un)veiled woman, who tacitly calls into question the very apocalyptic language of “unveiling” on which they both rest.

Like Revelation, the narrative of the modern nation envisions the eradication of margins and the closing of gaps in the formation of a community that emerges at the end of history; cutting across class, race, language, and gender boundaries, a national boundary circumscribes differences. Saleem, as the chronicler of the nation, insists on the idea of community as a “mixing of voices” in a contained space. He writes: “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world” (109). Frederic Jameson argues that it is precisely this sense of community that distinguishes Third World literature from the private, individualistic, fragmented, and alienated narratives of America. The novel, a child of Western capitalism, he contests, is born out of the radical split between private and public; however, in the Third World the novel resolves this division necessarily by taking the form of “national allegories,” “where the telling of the individual story and the individual experience cannot but ultimately involve the whole labourious telling of the experience of the collectivity itself” (85). Saleem, however, suggests that this process of “telling the experience of the collectivity” is quite a bit more complicated than Jameson suggests.4 Even as Saleem invokes the metaphor of swallowing as inclusion, he encounters the problems of containment, boundaries, centrality, and marginality, problems that plague modern nations and apocalyptic visions. Who is inside, who is outside, and who defines this “imagined community”?

National boundaries are legitimated through the invocation of destiny in the form of continuous and sacred historical narratives. Nationalism, Jawahar Lal Nehru writes to Saleem in Midnight's Children, is merely “the newest bearer of that ancient face of India” (122). Although India as a nation is both a modern and an imported concept, Nehru, in an article written long before he was leader of India, entitled “The Psychology of Indian Nationalism,” insists (in an attempt to counter British imperialism) that “India” has always shared a common and continuous history: “even in the remote past there has always been a fundamental unity to India—a unity of common faith and culture. India was Bharata, the holy land of the Hindus” (219).

As an Indian nationalist, Nehru invokes a “spiritual” India as distinct from the rational secular state, both to distinguish the new nation from its colonial heritage and to suggest that liberation from colonial rule involves a return to a national identity that has been interrupted by colonialism. Yet his appeal to a historical origin in turn lends legitimacy to the idea of a majority and reinforces the centrality and sovereignty of the state.5 Kermode's argument that ends (and, subsequently, origins) lend meaning to individual life, when transferred to the context of nations, necessarily invokes a particular trajectory that conflicts with the rhetoric of community and inclusion. Apocalyptic narratives of nations, immersed in teleological arguments, necessarily introduce the problem of majorities and minorities, of insiders and outsiders.

The “unity of common faith and culture” and the sense of destiny masquerade as tradition but draw directly on the legacy of the modern myth of the nation. Nehru's invocation of India as destiny recalls, according to Anderson, one of the defining features of the modern nation. While nations are born in Europe at the dusk of the religious age, they are more than a rational construct. The mythic dimension of the nation provides a sense of continuity, destiny, and meaning that fills the void left by religion. Hence, while

nation-states are widely conceded to be “new” and “historical,” the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past. … It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.


As Saleem tries to invoke the abstractions of destiny and purpose—“the Prime Minister wrote me a letter” (119)—at the Midnight Children's Conference, his alter ego Shiva interjects with the other side of the modern nation—material well-being, self-interest, the particular and the contingent:

What purpose, man? What thing in the whole sister-sleeping world got reason, yara? For what reason you're rich and I'm poor? Where's the reason in starving, man? God knows how many millions of damn fools living in this country, man, and you think there's a purpose! Man, I'll tell you—you got to get what you can, do what you can with it, and then you got to die.


The irony of course is that they have been switched at birth, proving Shiva's point that what Saleem is reading as destiny is really a question of chance. Saleem finally has to shut Shiva out of the conference, but he cannot avoid the issues Shiva has raised about who defines the destiny of the nation and whose interests these narratives of endings and origins serve.6

Saleem confronts the underlying problem of the particular posing as the universal in the invocation of destiny as he seeks to legitimize his tale of the nation. While he insists that “I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country” (9), as soon as he begins his history of the new nation, other histories interfere. The rivalry to control the center is fierce, and Saleem finds himself competing with politicians (“Indira is India”) and rich gurus, such as Lord Khusro Khusrovand, formerly known as Cyrus, a childhood playmate of Saleem's. “[W]hen set beside Cyrus's India,” complains Saleem, “my own version seems almost mundane” (269). Saleem tries, without much success, to negotiate the tensions that arise from Shiva's comments—public versus private, community versus the individual, centrality versus marginality, representation versus obscurity—tensions that plague the modern nation.

Like the exiles in apocalyptic texts, in order to realize “meaning” or continuity and escape “absurdity” or contingency (9), Saleem must become the consciousness of this new “nation that had never previously existed” (112); Saleem must be India (420). The pressures of “unity” lead Saleem to believe that he is in control of the world, that there is nothing beyond his knowledge and that there is no boundary he cannot cross. But, in retrospect, he realizes that this belief is defensive, “an instinct for self-preservation” (175) employed to protect himself against the flooding multitudes who threaten to annihilate him with their own unique visions. In this contemporary world, “truth” has nothing to do with the fierce competition over differing narratives of the nation. But, perhaps, Saleem suggests, as he reflects on some of the “lost” prophets of Arabia (Maslama, Hanzala ibn Safwan, and Saleem's namesake, Khalid ibn Sinan), it never has: “Prophets are not always false simply because they are overtaken, and swallowed up, by history” (305).

Saddled with the task of accommodating diversity within the bounds of a unified narrative of the nation and motivated by his own imminent dissolution, Saleem battles to narrate an official version of history but is plagued by some of the problems inherent in the task: how can he both claim to represent the teeming multitudes he has ingested and acknowledge that other voices have been excluded, “swallowed up, by history”? In other words, how tenable is India's nationalist slogan “unity in diversity” that Saleem tries so desperately to adhere to in his narrative of independence? As committed as Saleem is to writing a chronological history of India, the crush of other conflicting stories, which must be ignored in order for Saleem's narrative to secure its origin and reach its end, force Saleem to ask, “if I began again, would I, too, end in a different place?” (427). Saleem, like India, begins to crack under the pressure of “unifying” the multitudes:

But how can I, look at me, I'm tearing myself apart, can't even agree with myself, talking arguing like a wild fellow, cracking up, memory going, yes, memory plunging into chasms and being swallowed by the dark, only fragments remain, none of it makes sense any more!—But I mustn't presume to judge; must simply continue (having once begun) until the end.


The problem Saleem is having with the chronological ordering of the narrative, of having no time for digressions (other stories) because of the pressure of telling the central story—which introduces the whole problem of origins and endings and centers and margins in the documenting of the history of the nation—is imported, like the novel genre itself, from another time and place. In Laurence Sterne's eighteenth-century novel Tristram Shandy, which foregrounds the implicit tensions in the Enlightenment project, the narrator faces the dilemma inherited by Saleem: “For, if he [the author] begins a digression,—from that moment, I observe, his whole work stands stock-still;—and if he goes on with his main work,—then there is an end to the digression” (73). Sterne's work offers a critique of the newly emerging genre of the novel and the very idea on which the novel is based: the interior private and autonomous bourgeois self, a construction of self that introduces, as Karl Marx claims in “On the Jewish Question” (a work this paper will return to), the split between the private and public self that is at the crux of the modern nation and its citizen/state divide.

Since Saleem is stuck in this divide and tries to reconcile the sense of national community with his particular life through a coherent narrative of his private self that will mirror perfectly that of his community (hence his absurd attempts to connect his personal life with the more widely publicized “official” version of India), perhaps we should turn to the likely origin of this divide. It is after all “Mountbatten's ticktock … English-made” (106) that has fathered the children of midnight, “the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history” (118). We cannot fully understand Saleem's problem from the vantage point of a country where “‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for ‘tomorrow’” (106). To understand the idea of a nation's history as progress (as measured by a British clock), which has catapulted Saleem into the narrative dilemmas posed by the oppositions progress/digression, center/margin, private/public, we have to go elsewhere, to another prophesy on the end of history.


Fukuyama's narrative (via Alexandre Kojève's reading of Hegel) of the fully evolved—“the last”—man and the triumph of Western liberalism begins with the French revolution and the ideals of liberty and equality.7 Although there was some work to be done after 1806, he argues—abolishing slavery and extending rights to women, workers, blacks, and other racial minorities—history effectively ended with the Battle of Jena (“End of History?” 5). Since then, there have been a few complications (world wars, communism, fascism, the threat of a nuclear apocalypse brought about by an “updated marxism” [“End of History” 4]8), but finally, it is safe to say, Western liberalism has won. He writes:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

(“End of History” 4)

Fukuyama's victory speech, which draws on secular apocalyptic rhetoric in the name of universal man, makes us ask an important question about rights: is it merely a question of extending and readjusting the rights of man to accommodate what has historically been left out, as Fukuyama suggests, or are the rights of man legitimated in and by bounded narratives? John Stuart Mill pondered the paradox of rights, with respect to imperialism, in his essay “On Liberty”: “I as a liberal, democratic, individually autonomous Englishman, am in a very invidious position, because I am a democrat at home and a despot abroad.” Homi Bhabha points to this passage in Mill as evidence of the contradictions inherent in the Enlightenment project (27). Toni Morrison has drawn out “the historical connection between the Enlightenment and the institution of slavery—the rights of man and his enslavement” (42). Mary Astell asked in 1730 “If all Men are born Free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?” (107). And Fatima Mernissi asked of the American government, after the “othering” of the Arab that legitimated the Gulf War in 1991, “Can one trumpet universality and erect frontiers at the same time?” (168). Fukuyama himself uncritically repeats this pattern of a bounded narrative of rights when he insists on locating the origin of “universal man” in Europe and on exempting some from his definition of mankind, arguing that “it matters very little what strange thoughts occur to people in Albania or Burkino Faso, for we are interested in what one could in some sense call the common ideological heritage of mankind” (“End of History” 9).

This tension between the impulse to universalize and the establishment of boundaries stems from the very document, the Declaration of 1798, that serves as the basis for Fukuyama's essay. As Jean-François Lyotard writes, the members of the Constituent Assembly “hallucinated humanity within the nation” (The Differend 147). He argues that there is no possibility of reconciling the rights of universal man, which are authorized by a transcendent Ideal (the Supreme Being), with the rights of man as authorized by the nation, which relies on the authority of necessarily exclusive names and narratives of origin. Because these authorizations cannot be reconciled, after the French Revolution,

it will no longer be known whether the law thereby declared is French or human, whether the war conducted in the name of rights is one of conquest or liberation, whether the violence exerted under the title of freedom is repressive or pedagogical (progressive), whether those nations which are not French ought to become French or become human by endowing themselves with Constitutions that conform to the Declaration, be they anti-French.


This is the dilemma that haunts modern nationalist movements organized around resistance. Do nationalist movements, in the “search for a legitimating mode of nomination and origin” (Deane 19), serve as an effective counter to imperialism, or do nationalist narratives in doing so remain trapped in the legacy of imperialism? These are some of the questions that complicate Saleem Sinai's narration of Indian independence. Saleem begins his and India's story, which he insists are bound together, with his grandfather, who is appropriately named, for a tale of origins, Aadam Aziz. Aadam has studied medicine in Germany and returns to his village only to find his “new” knowledge and “modern” ways greeted with both skepticism and contempt by the ancient boatman Tai, a historian who scorns the very idea of progress (21). Disheartened, Aziz departs from Kashmir for Amritsar, where, after witnessing the massacre of peaceful demonstrators protesting British occupation, Aadam becomes an “Indian” (40).

Thus, Saleem begins his tale of the birth of the nation at the moment when the “modern” Aadam becomes conscious that he is “Indian,” a moment that is awakened by the brutality of imperialism. However, this “beginning” is complicated by Saleem's discovery that both his own and the nation's origins also lead him back to Britain. Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that, as subjects of Britain, colonized Indians wanted to become “legal subjects” or “modern individuals” (7). The colonized Indian dreamt of being European. In contrast, Indian nationalists abandoned the desire to be “European,” and, assuming that the concept of “individual rights” was universal, wanted to be both Indians and citizens (7). But Saleem's lineage suggests that the idea of individual rights, the basis of the modern nation, is historically specific. He discovers that not only is his biological father the Englishman William Methwold (and, to make matters worse, his nose is inherited from a French grandmother), but also that Methwold's ancestor, an East Indian Company officer, initiated the dream of Bombay, which gave way to the dream of “India” (92). Further, the Indian nationalists suffer from the problem of “turning white” (179), “a disease which leaked into history,” Saleem writes, “and erupted on an enormous scale shortly after Independence” (45).

Further, if the advocates of the social contract write of the particular, while all the time legitimating their argument with the myth of the universal, so, likewise, do the Indian nationalists in Midnight's Children invoke the myth of public communities while all the while ensuring their own private interests. Referring to the Indian businessmen, who profited enormously from the first Five Year Plan, the plan to modernize, Saleem writes:

It seems that the gargantuan (even heroic) efforts involved in taking over from the British and becoming masters of their own destinies had drained the colour of their cheeks. … The businessmen of India were turning white.


This scenario repeats itself in the examples of the Pakistani nationalists. The Muslim League, “[l]andowners with invested interests to protect” (46), agitates for the partition of India, all the while claiming to represent all Muslims but serving no one's interests but their own.

As Marx argues in his essay “On the Jewish Question,” the private and public are never really reconciled in the modern nation, and versions of nationalism derived from the social contract inevitably end up securing private interests. The state is not the voice of the public but the protector of the private:

It is difficult enough to understand that a nation which has just begun to liberate itself, to tear down all the barriers between different sections of the people and to establish a political community, should solemnly proclaim [in the Declaration of 1791] the rights of the egoistic man. … The matter becomes still more incomprehensible when we observe that the political liberators reduce citizenship, the political community, to a mere means for preserving these so-called rights of man.


Thus, Saleem, in his attempt to narrate the birth of an independent nation, finds at least one road persistently and unwittingly forcing him back to Britain. As Gayatri Spivak has argued, unlike America and the story of the Founding Fathers, where British merchants are able to secure an origin for their nation in a sparsely populated land, “[i]n the case of India, colony and empire step forth as place-holders for a ‘failed originary moment.’” (“Scattered Speculations” 264). Although nationalism was instigated in the name of the masses9 and, it is argued, “Indians had for years demanded a constitution establishing parliamentary democracy” (Austin xiii) to mark their liberty from British rule, this demand was not only predicted and pre-empted but also celebrated as a British triumph by Thomas Macaulay, secretary to the Board of Control, in 1833. In a speech he made to the British House of Commons, he said of the Indian public:

that, having become instructed in European knowledge, they may in some future age demand European institutions. … Whenever it [such a day] comes it will be the proudest day in English history.

(qtd. in Appadorai xxvii)


Given Fukuyama's reading of history, how is the violence that tears postindependence India apart today to be explained now that India has adopted the European constitutional model based on the ideals of liberty and equality? Is it that India has failed to meet the demands of “modernity”? Has the country failed to evolve? Or has the very apocalyptic rhetoric of “arrival” contributed to the exclusion of large populations from the constitutional “we, the people of India”?

As Saleem is born, a “wiry” man in Delhi (Nehru) announces that “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new” (116). Caught in an evolutionary version of history that has largely been manufactured in Europe, and having adopted a European constitutional model, India continues to be assessed in terms of this model. The arrival of India, the nation state, signals the end of all history and full ideological evolution, while any violence or opposition (Fukuyama insists that this is true of most of the Third World) “remains very much mired in history” (Fukuyama, “End of History” 15). In keeping with the apocalyptic understanding of the emergence of the nation as the end of history, Gyanendra Pandey writes that the history of India as it is taught in schools and universities ends in 1947, while what is often referred to as communalism, but, in fact, is any voice of protest (women, tribal peoples, the poor), is persistently read as an “aberration.” Violence occurs outside the parameters of the harmonious “we” and is marked as antinational. The “we” represents official history, the “state-centred drive to homogenize and ‘normalize’” (29).

Some suggest that political violence occurs in a zone where different and conflicting versions of nationalism meet. For instance, Partha Chatterjee argues in The Nation and Its Fragments that while this violence is often referred to as “bad nationalism” (4), a perversion (along with drugs and terrorism) that has infected the Third World, the violence, in fact, is indicative of the inherent conflict between capital and community. The anticolonial movements marked a division between the inner, spiritual world of national culture (for example, the resistance organized by figures like Gandhi10) and the outer material domain that adheres to the colonial model. Having rejected civil society (individualistic and capitalistic), the postcolonial nation adheres to a sense of community that invokes the rhetoric of love and kinship that must in turn be suppressed by the state governments that try to accommodate the modern world and its narrative of capital.

India is not of course a blank slate upon which only the British have inscribed a destiny. India's long and complicated history has other streams that conflict with the European nationalist model, and Saleem, fathered by many, invokes another prophetic current. Tai, the boatman, invokes a sense of community that is founded not on individualistic and private historical narratives of progress but on a sense of humanity as universal, ahistorical, and timeless, a model he seems to embody: “Nobody could remember when Tai had been young. He had been plying this same boat, standing in the same hunched position, across the Dal and Nageen Lakes … forever” (14). Vehemently opposed to the idea of progress, Tai is “the living antithesis” of Aadam's German friends' belief “in the inevitability of change” (15). The stories he tells the young Aadam are not of national boundaries and private narratives but of the Mughal Emperors, such as Jehangir, the “Encompasser of the Earth.”

Tai articulates the Muslim sense of community and nation, the umma, which, like the Christian and Hebraic traditions, has been read as revolutionary. In the Koran, the stories of Hud and the Tribe of Ad, Salih and the destruction of Thamud, and Shu'aib and the destruction of Midian establish a similar pattern of destruction and renewal as prophesied by the exile and intimate the Last Judgment.11 However, unlike the biblical stories, which are inscribed in a teleological framework (Genesis to Revelation), this group of stories invokes a spatial totality—“the whole in every part,” the infinite in every moment.

Even as Islam claims Mohammed as the last in a long line of Christian and Hebrew prophets (from Abraham to Jesus), it is troubled by this teleological narrative. Ahmed Sinai (Saleem's father and one of the businessmen who suffers from the disease of turning white) wants to figure out the proper order of the Koran; the implied “disorder” marks the resistance of this sacred book to linear or chronological forms (82). The transhistorical, antinarrative, antiprogress apocalypse of the Koranic tales has inspired, like the apocalyptic biblical tales, hopes of the rebirth or renewal of a community. According to Islam, Mohammed was sent to end the violence and corruption that reigned among the Arabs of the jahiliyya (the pre-Islamic era) and ensure peace. Norman O. Brown argues that it is precisely the metahistorical structure of the Koran that breaks or “junks” Christian and Hebraic traditions, reduces them to rubble, and introduces a “new civilization” that works “to change the imagination of the masses, the folk who shape and are shaped by folklore and folktales” (169). This new civilization, the umma (the Islamic nation), is secured by the shari'a. Unlike the Declaration of Rights that serves to protect individual freedoms, the shari'a, as a legislative body, serves to unite the community and thus discounts the particulars of location or historical circumstance. It “is seen as static and immutable, free from the currents of time, applicable to all societies that accept Islam as religion” (Amin 223).12

It is this spirit of community that kindles Aadam's optimism about the Hummingbird, a magician who rises from the ghetto in Delhi and is the “moving spirit” of the Free Islam Convocation that stands on the motto, borrowed from the poet Iqbal: “Where can we find a land that is foreign to God?” (47). This informal organization promotes the idea of a universal community that does not pander to private interests or bounded narratives, an idea that finds renewed expression in another ghetto magician, Picture Singh, who is “no lover of democracy” (400). However, this “universal” community unquestionably privileges masculinity, as we see in Hummingbird's ability to attract “members” by inducing erections with his voice (“Padma laughs, ‘no wonder he was so popular with the men!’” [46]) and by Picture Singh's (the “patriarch of the ghetto”) fight for supremacy in the Metro Club, where blind women, with painted eyes, live in “a world without faces or names” in “that place outside time, that negation of history” (454).

Saleem also offers a more cynical account of the surrender of the individual to the community, at least as an official policy. From its creation, Pakistan has attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to reconcile the logic of the rights of the private liberal citizen with its commitment to Islam, the popular ideological basis of the nation, because “in Muslim theory, church and state are not separate or separable institutions” (Lewis 28). After suffering a blow from a spittoon in the “Land of the Pure” (Pakistan), Saleem forsakes his private narrative, forgets his mothers, fathers, and midnight origins and, abandoning his “lust-for-centrality” (356), achieves purity. Saleem's newly adopted “philosophy of acceptance” in the army life, which requires the abandonment of self-interest in the service of the “greater good” of the nation, however, leads him to commit horrible acts in the name of a fraternal community. Working as a bloodhound, he ruthlessly tracks down enemies of national unity. In his other role as buddha, “abstracted,” “emptied of history,” “anaesthetized against feelings as well as memories,” Saleem denies his in-the-world, material being (350).

The metaphor of swallowing the world that Saleem repeatedly invokes in his attempt to narrate the nation exposes the weakness of both the historical and ahistorical models: the rhetoric of democracy and individual rights inevitably leads him to the problem of the particular posing as the universal, while the rhetoric of community, the pressures of having to transcend place and time, literally leaves him abstracted and disembodied.


Both the umma and the modern nation are secured by the figure of the (un)veiled woman, who, in her very exclusion, is critical to these models. Padma, to whom Saleem tells his tale, remains on the periphery of Saleem's story of nations. Her comments and suggestions are available to the reader but are never incorporated into Saleem's narrative. The fact that there is no sexual union further suggests the asymmetry of their relationship. Yet, although this is clearly a hierarchical relationship, Saleem is also entirely and utterly dependent on her: she sits at his feet and holds him together; when she leaves, his cracks widen and he cannot write (149). Padma's peripheral status reflects the position of women in nationalist struggles, where they are at once absolutely crucial and yet silent, especially on matters of gender. Marie-Aimée Hélie-Lucas, founder and member of the international organization “Women Living under Muslim Law,” qualifying what she refers to as her earlier blindly nationalistic stance in Algeria, writes: “Defending women's rights ‘now’ (this ‘now’ being ANY historical moment) is always a betrayal—of the people, of the nation, of the revolution, of Islam, of national identity, of cultural roots, of the Third World” (13). Referring to nationalist struggles in the Third World in general, and to India in particular, Kumari Jayawardena writes:

while Indian women were to participate in all stages of the movement for national independence, they did so in a way that was acceptable to, and was dictated by, the male leaders and which conformed to the prevalent ideology on the position of women.


Ketu Katrak further argues that, although Gandhi mobilized women in the nationalist struggle, his coding of passive resistance in accordance with the traditional ideology of the feminine (self-sacrifice and purity) and his valorizing of the role of women as wife and mother ensured the continued harnessing of female sexuality to serve a patriarchal order.

The brotherhood of the umma finds expression in Midnight's Children, as already noted, in the struggles of the patriarch Picture Singh in the den of blind women and in the Hummingbird's commanding voice that calls male “members” to attention. In its official form, in Pakistan, the brotherhood takes on a more insidious hue, dependent as it is on the absence of the female. The Brass Monkey starts out as a reckless, disrespectful child, outraged by gender inequity, particularly by her brother's favored position in the household (152). But in her reincarnation she becomes Jamila Singer, “Pakistan's Angel,” the “Nation's Voice,” submissive and pure. President Ayud tells her, “your voice will be a sword for purity; it will be a weapon with which we shall cleanse men's souls” (315). Jamila Singer, hidden away behind her “famous, all-concealing, white silk chadar,” secures the brotherhood and serves the state by her invisibility. The umma or nation realizes solidarity only when sexual difference is hidden away behind a veil. Fatima Mernissi, a Koranic scholar, writes: women's “invisibility made it possible to forget difference and create the fiction that the umma was unified because it was homogenous” (127). The blank sheet or veil, pure and white, that stands in place of Jamila's body reflects back the unity of the nation.

The sheet held up by the female wrestlers behind which Jamila Singer sits brings us to another tale of women and the nation, this time of the modern nation, which provokes us to ask whether women's liberation is merely a question of tearing away the Islamic veil. Aadam “emancipates” his bride, Naseem, from behind her sheet, slowly cutting her way to freedom. But “liberation” of course has a complicated history in the context of postcolonial nations. Many have argued that the colonial fixation with “white men saving brown women from brown men” (Spivak, “Subaltern” 242), an attitude that Aadam has internalized (“[s]tart thinking about being a modern Indian woman” [emphasis mine, 34]) in his partial enthusiasm for the West, reproduces the “civilizing the savages” argument from which colonialism drew its raison d'être.13 When Aadam tries to insist that his wife abandon purdah, she protests, not on behalf of modesty (the unveiling of her face and feet) but because “they will see my deepest shame!” Aadam is not really interested in the wishes of his wife. His act of liberation is also an act of violation as he “drags all his wife's purdah-veils from her suitcase … and sets fire to them” (34). Naseem's “deepest shame” is thus the double violation, by colonialism and patriarchy, that leaves her literally without a place, “for all her presence and bulk … adrift in the universe” (41).

Aadam, half enamored with Western narratives of citizenship, liberates Naseem only to insist that she be “modern” and submit to the sexual/social contract that guarantees the European model of nationalism: “move a little, I mean, like a woman” (34), Aadam demands of his newly “liberated” bride. In this model, women are also “veiled” or cut off from the public sphere, as the social contract of modern nations is also, as Carole Pateman argues, a “sexual contract” that divides and genders public and private spaces. The public sphere of “individuals,” who make the pact guaranteeing rights, equality, and freedom, belongs to men, who also rule in the private sphere of blood ties and passion, the world of women. Thus Aadam, actively involved in the liberation struggle against the paternal colonial order, is still free to command his wife to perform sexually. Pateman writes that the social contract is fraternal to the extent that it guarantees men's rights over women:

Civil individuals have a fraternal bond because, as men, they share a common interest in upholding the contract which legitimizes their masculine patriarchal right and allows them to gain material and psychological benefit from women's subjection.

(“Fraternal” 113)

Aadam is outraged when he discovers that this contract that appropriates the womb in the service of the teleology of the modern nation has been violated. On discovering that his daughter (living happily with a man she loves) is still a virgin, he promptly ends this threatening relationship and transfers his daughter to another man. “‘Can you imagine how the insides of his nose must have felt?’” (60) queries the narrator on the discovery of his married daughter's virgin state, a nose that has “‘dynasties waiting inside it’” (14). In her second marriage, Amina is exchanged between the men, Aadam and Ahmed Sinai, completing the social/sexual contract guaranteeing the right of men to claim women as their property and ensuring the continuity of the paternal lineage:

And now Aadam Aziz lifted his daughter (with his own arms), passing her up after the dowry into the care of this man who had renamed and so re-invented her, thus becoming in a sense her father as well as her new husband.


Like her mother, Amina is forced, in the modern nation, to surrender to the fraternal order.

Why is it impossible to accommodate women in either the modern nation or umma? Charu Verma, arguing that Midnight's Children is a thoroughly sexist novel, asks, with respect to Padma, “[w]here is her story?” (160). Yet, Padma's exclusion is not an oversight. Padma's role as the outsider is the constant reminder of the impossibility of women's inclusion in either of Saleem's tales of the nation. Saleem confesses that “the feeling had come upon me that I was somehow creating a world” (174). However, Padma's persistent sexual overtures and Saleem's sexual impotency underlie the irony of his desire to “give birth” to the nation and suggest the reason why women are “never central” and could never be central to his story (192). Pateman argues that the social contract theorists' appropriation of a capacity unique to women, giving birth, in turn means that women must be denied access to the public realm, “bodily removed from civil society” (45). She writes:

The social contract is the point of origin, or birth, of civil society, and simultaneously its separation from the (private) sphere of real birth and the disorder of women. The brothers give birth to an artificial body, the body politic of civil society; they create Hobbes's “Artificial Man, we call a Commonwealth,” or Rousseau's “artificial and collective body,” or the “one Body” of Locke's “Body Politick.”

(“Fraternal” 115)14

The narrative of origins that occurs in the public sphere and that lends a foundation to the modern nation, outside the “disorder of women,” gives rise to the illusion that legislation can articulate and rationalize humanity.

Simply suppressing narratives of historical origin in order to guarantee a sense of community that transcends necessarily bounded and thus private interests, however, does not lead us out of the dilemma of the patriarchal construction of nation. As Mernissi has argued, the homogeneity of the umma is an abstraction that is threatened when you introduce sexual difference and the womb, which gives birth to the material, the particular, and the mortal. She writes:

Because the child of the womb of the woman is mortal … the law of paternity was instituted to screen off the uterus and woman's will within the sexual domain. Islam offered the Arabs two gifts, the idea of paternity and the Muslim calendar—gifts that are the two faces of the same thing, the privilege of eternity. The new code of immortality was to be inscribed on the body of woman.


In light of Fukuyama's apocalyptic pronouncement on the end of history, the question—what happens next?—that Padma, the illiterate factory worker, persistently asks is perhaps not as “naive” as some critics have argued.15 Even as Saleem as prophet announces the end of history with the arrival of India, Padma continues to ask what comes after the end, reminding Saleem of his mortality and hence of the limits and boundaries of narrative: “‘You better get a move on or you'll die before you get yourself born.’” (38). Further, countering the abstracted notions of community, she holds things together for Saleem; she reminds him of the body and prevents him from literally splitting apart.

It is Padma's voice that makes us aware that there are limits to knowledge, which prevent entirely inclusive narratives of the nation. It makes us aware of what's at stake when political identities are secured in narratives of origins or by abstractions that necessarily seclude or disavow women's bodies. Padma forces back upon Saleem's versions of the nation the recognition of sexual difference, of identities that are “born” only in and of this difference. The right of the nation is not to claim histories and names but to claim histories and names as contested and liminal spaces—unclaimed by origins, marked by death.

The postapocalyptic nation would thus involve the “unveiling” of women not as an act of liberation but as the revelation of identity as difference. This unveiling would, paradoxically, thwart the very apocalyptic rhetoric that underlies the idea of the modern nation and the Islamic nation, the umma. Saleem contemplates the meaning of his own name, and he concludes that “when all that is said and done; when Ibn Sina is forgotten and the moon has set; when snakes lie hidden and revelations end, it is the name of the desert—of barrenness, infertility, dust; the name of the end” (304). The name disappears into the desert—the “name of the end,” the name of nothing. The body is thus bereft of inscription. Neither historical foundations nor transcendent abstractions can lend it ultimate legitimacy; the surplus of the body is always already the post (not the end, but the nascent state16) of the apocalyptic nation.


  1. There are some who disagree about this interpretation of Revelation. Leonard Thompson argues, for instance, that the wording “on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” is ambiguous and that John may have chosen to live on the island. However, it is generally agreed that John suffered some degree of persecution and was living in exile.

  2. Walter Schmithals, in his study of apocalyptic literature, argues that the apocalyptic “comprehends reality as history” understood as a “unitary whole, moving toward a goal” (33).

  3. However, for instance, Steven Goldsmith argues that Blake invokes the apocalypse as change, but, simultaneously, in his cryptic codes, layered images, and dedication to revision, resists the idea of apocalypse. He writes of Blake, “his apocalyptic imagery collides with one of his most characteristic political and textual strategies—the subversion of apocalypse through representation” (14).

  4. Saleem is not alone in his view. Aijaz Ahmad, among others, has criticized Jameson and accused him of a reductive “othering” of Third World literature.

  5. Hindu fundamentalism is an obvious repercussion of the introduction of the democratic tenet of “majority rule.” See, for instance, the propaganda pamphlet “Hindu Brothers Consider and Be Warned,” circulated in Bhagalpur and reprinted and translated by Gyanendra Pandey in his article. After citing with alarm the increase of the Muslim population, the pamphlet concludes: “vow to sacrifice your wealth, your body, your all for the protection of the Hindu people and nation and for the declaration of this country as a Hindu nation” (44).

  6. James Harrison compares Saleem's “vague do-goodism” to Shiva's “ruthless self-interest” (43). While Saleem can afford to be liberal, Shiva forces Saleem to confront the problem of self-interest.

  7. See Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. The quotations are taken from an earlier article entitled “The End of History?” (1989), in which he argued that man has reached the end of history with the spread of the “ideal” form of government, liberal democracy. In his book, Fukuyama expands on the idea of liberal democracy as ideal by reviewing both the economic benefits and the “struggle for recognition” (xx) of human dignity that, he argues, accompany this system of government.

  8. Ironically, this threat of a nuclear apocalypse is announced by a man who, in an interview with James Atlas, said that he had abandoned the “nihilism” of Derrida and Roland Barthes for the “real world” of nuclear weapons (40).

  9. Derrida has also noted the complicated matter of the signature of the “good people” on the Declaration of Independence, who declare themselves free and independent. At what point are the people freed? Do they sign as free individuals or are they emancipated by the contract in the act of signing? And if the “people” are invented by the Declaration, where representatives sign on behalf of the people, then the invocation of “the people” is forever complicated by the fact that the “signature invents the signer” (“Declarations of Independence” 10).

  10. See, in particular, Chatterjee's earlier work on nationalism and colonialism, Nationalist Thought. After an exhaustive examination of various nationalist models, he details the attributes of Gandhi's model for the postcolonial world.

  11. Koran 41:1 and 42:53. These tales are grouped together in the section Revelations Well Expounded. Each tells of a messenger from God who arrives with warnings and prophesies but is ignored by the people. The people in turn suffer as a result of their arrogant dismissal of the messenger.

  12. For a more detailed analysis of the modern vs. the Islamic state see Sami Zubaida. He describes the ideal of Islam as the “unity of state and the community of the faithful” (41). However, Zubaida goes on to argue that actual Islamic states have fallen short of this ideal.

  13. See Spivak's “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. Leila Ahmed argues that the veiled woman, the most visible mark of difference between Islam and the West, was read by colonialists as proof of the orientals' inferiority. Lord Cromer, who shared this view and championed the “liberation,” the unveiling, of Egyptian women, at the same time discouraged the practice of medicine in Egypt by women and actively opposed the women's suffrage movement in England. Ahmed concludes:

    Feminism on the home front and feminism directed against white men was to be resisted and suppressed; but taken abroad and directed against the cultures of colonized peoples, it could be promoted in ways that admirably served and furthered the project of the dominance of white men.


    See also Ella Shohat's work on cinema and the veiling and unveiling of women in Hollywood films, which, she argues, perpetuates the colonial myth of liberation. Her analysis of orientalist films leads her to conclude that the role of the Arab woman in Hollywood is one in which she is first saved from her oppressive and backward culture and its villainous men and then claimed as the victory prize by the Western hero. Malek Alloula's work, The Colonial Harem, a study of postcards of Algerian women produced by French photographers, also works through an interesting analysis of the colonialist interest in unveiling the veiled woman.

  14. In The Sexual Contract, Pateman points to the problem of “origins” as the source of legitimacy for a society. Citing the case of Australia, she examines the radically different “founding” moments of the nation: five days after the male colonist convicts arrived in 1788, the female colonist convicts were released ashore into the possession of and for the pleasure of the men. Which narrative, Pateman asks us to consider, reveals the historical origin of the nation? She concludes: “Political argument must leave behind stories of origins and original contracts and move from the terrain of contract and the individual as owner” (232).

  15. See for instance Keith Wilson's article on reader responsibility in Midnight's Children, in which he contrasts the naive reading of Padma with the more sophisticated reading that Saleem's work demands (34). Given Padma's status in the novel as an illiterate factory worker in a postcolonial nation and given the role education played in colonialism, her comments surely do more than support a hierarchy of reading based on the ability to pick up on references to British literature.

  16. Here I borrow from Lyotard's sense of “post” from his work on The Postmodern Condition (79). Also see Geoffrey Bennington's “Postal Politics and the Institution of the Nation”; “post” in the context of his piece is antiapocalyptic in that it refers to putting into circulation (into a circuit that is open) something that necessarily has no definitive point of departure or arrival.

    Thanks to Jill Didur, Linda Hutcheon, and David Vainola for reading, discussing, and commenting on drafts of this paper. Thanks also to the Saint Mary's Senate Research Committee for funding some of this research.

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Bruce King (review date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of The Ground beneath Her Feet, by Salman Rushdie. World Literature Today 74, no. 1 (winter 2000): 161.

[In the following review, King provides a mixed assessment of The Ground beneath Her Feet.]

The blurb proclaims The Ground beneath Her Feet as Salman Rushdie's “most ambitious and accomplished novel, sure to be hailed as his masterpiece.” Ambitious is correct. Rushdie's method is to place fabulous and improbable private lives on a large historical set as a metaphor for political and cultural events. Here the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is retold as two Indian lovers who become international rock stars symbolic of recent Western and postcolonial culture. This is Rushdie's New World novel, half of it set in New York, with some major events in Mexico. It is not Rushdie's masterpiece, but it is his most accessible and likely to be his most popular novel. It is understandable without knowing Indian history and culture, and it alludes to or imitates cultural fashions of recent decades. The protests against the war in Vietnam, apocalyptic sci-fi novels, and grunge rock are all there and all treated as equal. Instead of worrying about what Bombay politician he is alluding to, you will know this is John and Yoko, that is Sid and Nancy, and (is this intended parody?) that famous over-the-top Rushdie voice sounds now like Kurt Vonnegut.

The first half of the novel is set in Bombay and reworks material from Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh concerning the late colonial period and the corrupt violent politics that followed independence. The perspective is that of the Parsis, a small minority who flourished for a century by adopting British ways, becoming the modernizers of India, but who since Independence have become increasingly threatened and marginalized. Rushdie has always been an antinationalist, vaguely on the Left; the Islamic fundamentalists are unlikely to make him more sympathetic to those who use ideas of native and pure culture as a means of political organization and power.

Rai, the narrator of the novel (Rai is the fusion of North African Arabic music with rock that is popular in France and Algeria), says that these are his last memories of Bombay. The main characters leave for England and then move on to New York (where Rushdie has been living in recent years). The shifts correspond somewhat to Rushdie's own life, with the Beatles and well-known Chelsea people featuring in the early sections of the second half of the book. Rai, a photographer, joins the migration of British literati to New York, which he proclaims the center of the modern world while taking a New Left view of the USA as the world's bully. Rai holds politically correct opinions, so that while he must give his rock-and-rollers abusive and abusing poor-white-trash early lives, he says several times that no matter what they suffer, it is not as bad as what Afro-Americans suffer. He does not know much about black America, its long-established middle class, its elites, its history, and its achievements beyond recent popular music. The social texture of this half of the novel thins badly. In the past Rushdie was criticized as sexist; so here we have two strong macho women rock-and-roll stars who have sex whenever, wherever, and with whomever they want, while the two men in their lives abstain and, although themselves famous artists, are softies. There are also a great lesbian guitarist and a great female drummer. Role models, I guess.

The first half of The Ground beneath Her Feet reads well, and is some of the best writing Rushdie has done. The second half is often Rushdie at his worst, ranting when he thinks he is riffing, stringing together bad puns, forgetting his story, getting facts wrong, reducing life to a cartoon. V. S. Naipaul long ago faced and solved the problem of what to write about after using up memories of “home.” Rushdie now has a similar problem.

Rufus Cook (essay date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Cook, Rufus. “The Art of Uncertainty: Cultural Displacement and the Devaluation of the World.” Critique 41, no. 3 (spring 2000): 227-35.

[In the following essay, Cook finds Rushdie's central contribution to contemporary literature to be his exploration of cultural change and transformation.]

In a “century of wandering” such as ours, Salman Rushdie suggests, it is the migrant who can be most productively identified as “the central or defining figure” (Imaginary Homelands 277), whose experience of “uprooting, disjuncture, and metamorphosis” can provide the most useful metaphor for coping with the confusions and contradictions characteristic of the postmodern world (IH [Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991], 394). Modern technological change and the radical discontinuity between industrial end-products and the raw materials from which they are made, which Wendell Berry describes (What Are People For? 193-94), have transformed all of us into “migrant peoples” (IH 279), displaced “from where [we] belong by history, culture, deeds, association, and affection” (Standing by Words 58). To the extent that we all suffer in modern times from the same problems of cultural discontinuity as the migrants of Rushdie (or Kingston or Naipaul), it seems to me that we might also benefit from some of the same “equipment for living” as these characters,1 from some of the same tactics of cultural adaptation or ritual self-transformation. How do we slough off our old constrictive or inadequate selves to take on new more commodious or supple ones? How, in Rushdie's terms, do we migrate “from an old self into a new one” (IH 279)? That, to me, is the pivotal problem facing us in the contemporary world, and one to which “hybridizing” writers like Rushdie (or Kingston or Gish Jen) offer the best chance of a solution. Indeed, if those writers have one central contribution to make to contemporary life, it is probably the patterns that they provide of cultural change and transformation, the archetypes of ritual death and rebirth, of symbolic “transubstantiation.”

Of all the new cross-cultural, hybridizing writers, Rushdie has probably shown the greatest concern with the possibility of cultural adaptation or “transubstantiation.” Not only has he given us a roster of metamorphosing characters, of beauties who transform into beasts or angels who change into devils, he has also provided one of the richest lexicons in contemporary literature of the symbolism of spiritual transformation, the archetypes of ritual death and rebirth: references to discarded snake-skins (Shame 135, 145), to theories of mutation or reincarnation (The Satanic Verses 49, 405; 84, 133), to symbolic wombs (Midnight's Children 456) or umbilical cords (Verses 110, 154).

The opening chapter of The Satanic Verses is particularly interesting in this respect, focusing as it does on the problem of how “newness” comes into the world: “How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made” (8)? Beginning with the description of the sabotaged airliner as a “seed-pod giving up its spores, an egg yielding its mystery,” the chapter describes the plummeting Saladin and Gibreel as though they were “bundles dropped by some carelessly open-beaked stork,” babies assuming the “recommended position for […] entering the birth canal […]” (4). In a characteristic act of dialectical “transubstantiation,” he “translates” catastrophic death into its dialectical opposite: into a mode of ritual rebirth. Having descended a “long, vertical tunnel” (6) through the “transformations of the clouds” (8), Gibreel and Saladin regain consciousness again on a snowbound English beach, spluttering and crying like newborn babies: “Born again, Spoono, you and me. Happy birthday, mister; happy birthday to you” (10).

If Rushdie has taken the lead in cultivating a “migrant's eye view of the world” (IH 394), in addressing the need in modern society for rituals of change and adaptation, a similar concern is to be found in the works of other contemporary cross-cultural writers. V. S. Naipaul, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gish Jen, Michael Ondaatje—these writers are all troubled by the problem of cultural identity, by the question of how one cultural substance can be transmuted into another. Like Rushdie, they can all be approached effectively from a dramatistic point of view: for the strategies they provide for encompassing change, for the patterns of “reidentification” or “symbolic transubstantiation.”2

But if their transformations are to occur, if Indians are to turn into Englishmen or beauties into beasts, is not their other task also necessary: that of undermining reason, of disrupting our established sense of reality? Is not it necessary to expose what Burke refers to as the “false rigidity of concepts” (Attitudes 312): the illusion fostered by language that reality is “blocklike” and discontinuous, governed by the same logical or verbal distinctions as the human mind (Permanence 92-94)? Are not techniques required such as Burke's “planned incongruity” (93-94), his “symbolic merger” (Attitudes 328-29), or “paradox of substance” (Grammar 21-23)—techniques that emphasize the continuous interconnected nature of reality, the “consubstantiality” (Grammar xix) even of such obvious antitheses as intrinsic and extrinsic, action and passion, being and nothingness, beauty and truth (Grammar 23, 35, 38-43, 447-63)? Is not the required emphasis similar to the one found in many recent cross-cultural writers: on the “hotchpotch,” “incompatible” nature of the world, the tendency of one person or culture to “leak” incongruously into the other (IH 394)?

One cannot deny that Rushdie or Kingston make such an emphasis. Everywhere in their books eastern, western, traditional, modern cultural elements mingle incongruously: the introduction of an Airbus or Holiday Inn (Verses 486, 500) into a mystical Muslim religious pilgrimage or the appearance of a “hungry ghost” in a modern suburban kitchen (Men 176). Kingston is especially fond of the incongruous narrative point of view: of depicting American life from the perspective of a bewildered immigrant like Moon Orchid (Woman 113-41) or of interrupting a Chinese narrative with a parenthetical reminder of the adolescent American girl to whom it was originally told (Men 23; Woman 9, 21). The essence of modern urban reality, Rushdie maintains, is its “incompatibility,” its blunt juxtaposition of conflicting cultural traditions (Verses 314). One obvious purpose of a hybrid art such as his, or that of Kingston or Naipaul, is to provide the symbolic strategies necessary for coping with such a world, to create the languages of paradox or contradiction that might enable us to be “borne across” from our old inadequate or outmoded identities into new ones.

Even more effective in undermining our belief in “all continuous and stable forms of reality” (Graff 8), are the reminders, encountered everywhere in Kingston or Rushdie's books, that the story as they have been telling it is only “a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions” (IH 10). Kingston provides probably the most obvious examples of this technique when she confesses that her account of Moon Orchid's trip to Los Angeles is based on nothing more substantial than a sketchy third-hand report from one of her sisters (Woman 163), or when, having repudiated her original account of her father's immigration (“of course, my father could not have come that way. He came a legal way […]”), she goes on to offer a second, more respectable hypothesis (Men 53-60). Whether she is telling the story of Tang Fa Mu Lan, Moon Orchid, or the No Name Woman, Kingston is always conscious of possible alternative versions, of the conflicting political or cultural points of view from which the story might have been told.

Though Kingston may be more systematic in her use of this technique, offering full-scale alternative versions of many of her stories, it is Rushdie's examples that are the most subversive, whose assaults on referentiality are the most thorough going. Was Sufiya Zinobia turned into an idiot by brain-fever, as Rushdie assures us at one point in Shame, or was that explanation perhaps only “a figment of Bilquis Hyder's imagination, intended to cover up damage done by repeated blows to the [head …]” (125)? Was Babar Shakil transformed at death into an angel, as Rushdie initially leads us to believe, or did his metamorphosis take place only “within the grieving imagination of his mothers […]” (Shame 143)? Did Sufiya Zinobia blush “rubescently” the day that she was born, or has the incident perhaps “been a little embellished during its many tellings and retellings […]” (Shame 95)? Rushdie's narrator in Shame—and other novels—is seldom interested in confirming precisely the actual truth of the matter. Even at the risk of collaborating with the propagandists and the advertisers, of contributing to the same “hazy air of unreality and make-believe” (Midnight's 400),3 he is usually more interested in emphasizing the fluid, indeterminate nature of experience, in providing a foundation for a potential political “redescription” of the world (IH 13-14). As Rushdie has said of Gunter Grass, he is “quintessentially the artist of uncertainty […]” (IH 280).

Rushdie's most thorough assault on reality is probably the one carried out in The Satanic Verses. Not only do the characters in that novel have trouble maintaining “the boundary wall between dreams and reality” (340, 347), but Rushdie has seen to it that the reader does as well.4 Was Rosa Diamond once the mistress of Martin de la Cruz or wasn't she (Verses 152-53)? Did her husband finally murder him in a fit of jealous rage, or was the murderer his rival Don Enrique, or his girlfriend Aurora, or even Rosa herself, struggling to defend her honor (155)? “[M]emory's truth” (IH 25) is the only basis for such a decision that Rushdie seems to provide: whatever a character finally decides she would like to be the truth (Verses 152).

Many contemporary cross-cultural writers—Naipaul or Ishiguro as well as Kingston or Rushdie—have made a point of denying the referential value of their work, of referring to the countries that they depict as “imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind” (IH 10).5 If anything is unique about Rushdie in this respect, other than the frequency or ingenuity of his disavowals, it is the explicit connection that he makes between the antimimetic position and the experience of cultural displacement. He argues that the emigrant or exile, of all people, should be most prepared by his experience to accept “the provisional nature of all truths, all certainties,” to acknowledge “that reality is an artefact, that it does not exist until it is made, and that, like any other artefact, it can be made well or badly […]” (IH 12, 280). In that respect alone, the migrant deserves the status conferred on him by Rushdie as the “central or defining figure of the twentieth century,” as the one who most fully exemplifies the dominant new “human-mind-centered” view of experience (Standing by Words 177). “The migrant intellect roots itself in itself,” Rushdie declares in his essay on Grass: “in its own capacity for imagining and reimagining the world” (IH 280).

The ultimate question for Rushdie or Kingston or Naipaul, however, is how to effectively transform the human identity, how to dispel the illusion that there is a fixed or stable or unified self. Common to all their works is the purpose that Rushdie ascribes specifically to The Satanic Verses: that of promoting “change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining,” of emphasizing the “incompatible,” “hotchpotch” nature of human identity (IH 394). A human being is “anything but a whole, anything but homogeneous” (Midnight's 283), Rushdie assures us, and his characters always turn out to contain “a second man” waiting for the chance to reveal himself: a saint is inside the libertine, a beast within the beauty (Shame135, 241).

It makes sense for writers who are interested in promoting cultural change or adaptation to emphasize the fluidity or instability of human selfhood. How else is a beauty to turn into a beast or a libertine into a puritan unless such opposites exist in one another to begin with, unless a demon always is concealed inside an angel, a skeptic waiting inside the true believer? How else can any of us slough off our old inadequate or outmoded identities and take on more commodious or flexible or adaptable ones? Ambiguity or contradiction has the same basic appeal for Rushdie or Kingston that it has for Kenneth Burke. For them it provides an area where transformation might have a chance to occur, from which a person might conceivably be “borne-across” from one logical (or cultural, or psychological) substance into another.6

Desirable as it may be from the point of view of Rushdie or Kingston to have our sense of reality or referentiality undermined, the question still remains whether certain limits perhaps are not necessary to such disruptions, whether it might not be necessary, even in the process of trying to promote change, to maintain some sense of cultural continuity, some conception of objective standards or norms. Does it really makes sense to go as far as Rushdie sometimes does and to conclude that there is nothing more to reality than some sort of construct or artifact, that there is nothing more to cultural identity than a certain style of dress or pattern of speech—a mask of some sort that can be casually doffed or donned? Even among writers as dedicated to cultural change as are Kingston or Naipaul, there is usually some recognition of the dangers involved in any such total dissolution of cultural continuities.7 When it comes to “the emptiness of [the migrant's] luggage,” even an enthusiast like Rushdie seems suddenly to have misgivings. “[W]e have come unstuck from more than land” he warns at one point in Shame: “we have floated upwards from history, from memory, from Time” (91).

From Wendell Berry's point of view, of course, the breakdown of standards of decorum or referentiality in recent literature is one more regrettable by-product of “modern urban nomadism,” of the characteristic modern delusion that “the mind is its own place […]” (Standing 57, 188). Not content simply to sever the “responsible connection” once believed to obtain between mind and reality or between art and experience (Standing 9), modern Faustian man has, in Berry's view, inverted the traditional relationship and given precedence to the mind as the source of value or meaning or order. As Gerald Graff puts it in his indictment of “the doctrine of literary autonomy,” the prevalent modern view is “that reality takes its orders from consciousness more than consciousness takes its orders from reality” (Graff 17). Precisely because of that specialized, professional pretense to autonomy or self-sufficiency Berry refers to contemporary American poetry scoffingly as “industrial poetry” or “cheap-energy poetry” (Standing 87, 110).

One result of the excessive new emphasis on the mind or the self, Berry maintains, is that the status of objective reality has been steadily denigrated in modern thought, that standards of “propriety, correct proportion, proper scale” (Standing 49) have been gradually undermined. The prevalent modern assumption is that “the human place in Creation” is “any place” (Standing 57), that the world consists of nothing more substantial than “‘raw materials’ or ‘natural resources’ or ‘subject matter’” (Standing 177), all waiting passively to be processed by the mind. “Unlike a life at home, which makes ever more particular and precious the places and creatures of the world,” Berry argues, “the careerist's life generalizes the world, reducing its abundant and comely diversity to ‘raw materials’” (Home Economics 51). How surprising is it that a Hemingway story should exhibit some of the same qualities of abstraction and depersonalization as those attributed by Berry to the computer screen or the plastic Clorox bottle? Is it not a product of the same subject-object distinction, of the same modernist assumptions concerning the autonomy of the mind? Is it not inevitable, beginning with assumptions such as those, that a writer would wind up regarding style as Hemingway does, as something to be imposed, “like a victorious general,” on the inchoate raw materials of the world (What Are People For? 70)?

A case could probably be made that all cross-cultural hybridizing writers are in fact contributing to the atmosphere of “unreality and make-believe” described by Berry. However, from many of their stories it is obvious that they are conscious of the dangers involved in their approach, that they are as anxious as Berry to maintain the necessary continuities, to determine what ought to be the limits to change and adaptation. Is that not the lesson to be learned from Rushdie's Saladin Chamcha or Kingston's Mad Sao—that if a person wants to alter his cultural identity something more might be required than simply assuming the appropriate “paleface mask” (Verses 43), that it might be necessary to go back to Bombay or Guandong or wherever one originated to come to terms somehow with all those “old, rejected selves” (Verses 529)?8

Although I could cite many other works in which the dangers of “the progressive dis-realization of the world” (Graff 8) are explored,9Typical American by Gish Jen probably accords most closely with Berry's analysis of the problems. It traces the pitfalls waiting for Ralph Chang, an immigrant accustomed to the constraints of a “terraced society” like China (177), as he tries to adjust to the “endless horizons” (85) offered by the more “spread out” United States (178). Ralph discovers that a person's status in America is not determined in advance by “all the things that might quaintly be termed [his] station” (177), but is something that he is free to create for himself. “Anything is possible. A man is what he makes up his mind to be” (186).

What a person can become, Ralph decides, is limited only by his own powers of imagination, his ability to picture his “ideals” with sufficient clarity and intensity (88). He therefore decides to dedicate himself to the art of “imagineering,” to cultivating his “powers of positive thinking” (88-89). Beguiled by what Berry refers to as the attitude of “technological willingness” that pervades contemporary American society (Standing 60), Ralph winds up swallowing the whole line of seductive self-help rhetoric being dished out by his buddy Grover Ding. Eventually, he plasters his office walls with familiar gung ho entrepreneurial slogans: “All riches begin in an idea,” “Don't wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it,” “What you can conceive, you can achieve” (198).

The result of Ralph's emphasis on the power of the mind is precisely what Berry predicts: a corresponding denigration of objective reality, of objective standards or limits or points of reference. Nothing from the entrepreneurial, technological point of view is ever quite as valuable as “what it might be changed into or what might be taken out of it” (Home Economics 51), Berry warns us. Ralph, with his enthusiasm for zany new get-rich schemes, provides some of the best evidence I know of for that claim. From Ralph's perspective the woods behind his house represent “opportunities” instead of trees, potential houses or paper instead of a habitat for skunks or raccoons—“or something more dangerous” (184-85).

Even more indicative of the speculative, hypothetical character of modern thought is his approach to calculating the profitability of the new addition to his new restaurant. “How long for the addition to pay for itself?” he wonders: “If business doubled say? Or if business tripled? Quadrupled?” As he contemplates the question, he begins to realize that there is no necessary limit to such suppositions, that he can make the numbers do practically anything he wishes: “He could predict business to go way up. He could predict business to go through the roof” (220-21). What better example could one ask for of the sort of “human-mind centered” thought that concerns Berry, that he blames for having destroyed our faith in objective limits or controls, in the capacity of language for “direct reference or designation” (Standing 33)? Ralph thinks that if he does not like the results of his calculations, all he has to do is to alter his premises: to assume that business is going to boom or that his overhead is going to come down, or even that he can forge his cash-receipts and report only half his income: “A third. A quarter. A tenth” (221). As Gerald Graff succinctly puts it: “The essence of capitalistic reality is its unreality, its malleable, ephemeral quality, which provides little in the way of a resisting medium against which personal identity can be formed” (8).

To describe the state of uncertainty into which Ralph is gradually drawn, Jen uses the same metaphor of moral weightlessness that Rushdie employs to explain what he regards as “the worst thing” about “migrant peoples and seceded nations” (91). Particularly after communication with his family is cut off following the fall of China to the Communists, Ralph begins to feel that the “center” has disappeared from his life, that he is being drawn in a “spiral” farther and farther from any established points of reference. “It was Natural Process; it was the slow shift of a pendulum's swing into a different plane” (32). As Ralph comes increasingly under the influence of Grover Ding and his gimcrack gospel of money and success, those feelings naturally increase. Even after his first excursion with Grover, his wife feels that their family has somehow become “ungrounded,” that they are like “astronauts, floating in space.” If there is to be any “fixed center” to their lives from now on, she decides, she would probably have to provide it (115). Beguiled by his dreams of becoming a “self-made man,” Ralph winds up surrendering almost completely to the speculative, futuristic mode of thought deplored by Berry: “Small doubts rained on him from time to time, but mostly he floated in hope, fabulous hope, a private ocean gentle and green” (193).

By the end of the novel, of course, the foolishness of his attitude has been brought forcefully home to Ralph. Far from attaining the god-like powers promised by the art of “imagineering,” he has been forced by the collapse of his business and the breakup of his family to recognize just how limited are his powers of understanding and control.10 Even more disturbing than the external limits are the internal or psychological ones that he has been forced to come to terms with: his inability to picture a clear alternative to a reality like the woods behind his house (184-85) or to figure out precisely what really are his own innermost impulses or desires (177-78). For the sad truth about a “spread-out” country like America is that, in dissolving the external constraints imposed by a traditional “terraced society,” it exposes a person even more painfully to the reality of his own personal shortcomings. That is the truth that Ralph struggles against from the beginning of the novel and that he manages finally to accept only on the last page: “He was not what he made up his mind to be. A man was the sum of his limits; freedom only made him see how much so. American was no America” (296).

Even more important for my purposes than Ralph's recognition of his limitations is his renewed appreciation at the end of the book for the actual people and places that make up his world. Berry contends that the only power capable of turning a person back from the “deserted future” of the developer or entrepreneur, of restoring him once more to “the sphere of [his] being”—is the power of love (Standing 60-61), and the last few chapters of Jen's book provide a virtual casebook demonstration of that contention. Ralph not only undergoes a change remarkably similar to the one advocated by Berry, but he does so for essentially the same reason: because of the concern he suddenly feels for his comatose sister Theresa and his longing to atone somehow for his betrayals of love and trust (285). In the end, “imagineering giv[es] way to nostalgia,” and memories of his sister and recollections of his shattered family relationships wind up preoccupying him (285, 294-96). Forgotten are all the shady get-rich schemes, the dreams of instant, overnight success, the walls plastered with self-help slogans. In a transformation guaranteed to meet with Berry's approval, Ralph can be said to have come back finally to an appreciation of the actual “good at hand” (Standing 61), to an acceptance of “that perennial and substantial world in which we really do live, […] in which we can accept our responsibilities again within the conditions of necessity and mystery” (Standing 13).


  1. This phrase as well as the concept of literature as a form of “symbolic action” is borrowed from Kenneth Burke's seminal essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” in Permanence and Change, 293-304.

  2. For a fuller treatment of the techniques of “transubstantiation” defined by Burke, see the Introduction (“The Five Key Terms of Dramatism”) and Section II (“Antinomies of Definition”) of A Grammar of Motives.

  3. Rushdie's later works raise the obvious problem that Gerald Graff first persuasively defined in Literature against Itself: determining whether a specific “anti-realistic work” is one that provides “some true understanding of non-reality” or whether it is one of “those which are merely symptoms of it” (12).

  4. As Spivak, especially, has effectively demonstrated, the disruption of reality in The Satanic Verses cannot be attributed simply to the madness of its characters. The breakdown is in the text and “not merely in the characters […]” (226).

  5. Kingston and Naipaul are typical examples. Kingston refers to the China depicted in her books as “a country I made up” (Men 87); for Naipaul, Trinidad becomes “an imaginary place for me” (The Enigma of Arrival 311).

  6. The main justification Burke gives for his project of studying and identifying “the resources of ambiguity” is the fact that “transformations” can occur in “areas of ambiguity: in fact, without such areas, transformations would be impossible” (A Grammar of Motives xix).

  7. Exploring such dangers is one of the central themes not only of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses but also of the second chapter (“The Journey”) of Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival.

  8. I am not suggesting that a character can return to precisely the same reality (or identity) that he left behind. Whether it is Aadam Aziz returning to Kashmir (Midnight's 6) or Naipaul's narrator returning to Trinidad (Enigma 309-18), the return is always to a changing and hybrid reality. As Kingston's narrator poignantly reminds her mother in The Woman Warrior, there is “no more China to go home to” (106).

  9. The most obvious examples are Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival.

  10. Ralph's recognition is couched in practically the same terms as Berry's: in terms of the mysterious unaccountability (and uncontrollability) either of external reality or of the human self (Typical American 177-78). The main failure Berry attributes to modern writers, as well as scientists and engineers, is the illusion that their particular style or discipline or terminology can be wholly adequate to the complexities of reality (Standing by Words 49; What Are People For? 65-69).

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. Home Economics. San Francisco: North Point, 1978

———. Standing by Words. San Francisco: North Point, 1983.

———. What Are People For? San Francisco: North Point, 1990.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes toward History. Boston: Beacon, 1959.

———. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

———. Permanence and Change. 2nd rev. ed. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.

———. The Philosophy of Literary Form. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.

Graff, Gerald. Literature against Itself. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Jen, Gish. Typical American. Boston: Houghton, 1991.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. China Men. New York: Random, 1977.

———. The Woman Warrior. New York: Random, 1975.

Naipaul, V. S. The Enigma of Arrival. London: Penguin, 1987.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.

———. Midnight's Children. New York: Viking Penguin, 1980.

———. The Satanic Verses. New York: Viking, 1989.

———. Shame. New York: Random, 1983.

Spivak, Gayati Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Sabina Sawhney and Simona Sawhney (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Sawhney, Sabina, and Simona Sawhney. “Reading Rushdie after September 11, 2001.” Twentieth-Century Literature 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 431-43.

[In the following essay, Sawhney and Sawhney investigate how Rushdie's political essays changed after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and discuss the shifting critical reaction to his political viewpoints.]

The appearance of yet another collection of essays on Rushdie's work will no doubt seem odd to many people. Isn't there too much already written about Rushdie, for Rushdie, against Rushdie? Can't postcolonial critics talk about someone else for a change? Perhaps it is the very fact of Rushdie's familiar presence on the contemporary literary scene that makes this collection seem both redundant and necessary. For it might be equally odd if a journal devoted to twentieth-century literature did not, at the end of that century, take a moment to dwell upon the work of this man. At least for one brief moment, he became, in a sense, the very symbol of the literary for many people across the globe. Of course writers have suffered persecution, exile, and even death for as long as anyone can remember, and we may be sure that among Rushdie's own contemporaries there are many—including those whose names we may never know—who have paid dearly for publishing their impressions and opinions. However, for various reasons (no doubt related more to the political dynamics of the 1980s than to Rushdie's own work) it was The Satanic Verses and the storm around it that provoked more discussions, in more countries, about the status of the literary than perhaps any other work of our time. The 1993 French publication Pour Rushdie: Cent intellectuels arabes et musulmans pour la liberté d'expression (For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defence of Free Speech, 1994) (Anouar) gives us a sense of the charge of such discussions. The polemical debates that ensued over The Satanic Verses forced many people—readers and writers of all kinds—to reflect seriously about the effects and scope of literature, its responsibility and freedom.

But it would be unfair to suggest that Rushdie's significance as a writer is entirely indebted to the accident of the fatwa. The appearance of Midnight's Children in 1981 was a remarkable event in its own right. For many English-speaking Indians, the book was tremendously exciting: a sprawling, clever, and delightful English novel in which the foreign words were not French or Italian but Hindustani, and in which they recognized familiar figures and events from their own history. The pleasures of reading the book were certainly different from the pleasures of reading R. K. Narayan or Anita Desai, and this had to do both with the immensity of the book's vision and with Rushdie's infectious enjoyment of the language. It was almost as though Sterne had suddenly appeared in the twentieth century as an expatriate Indian, for here was a narrator both firangi and desi (foreign and native)—a desi hidden in a firangi or vice versa. Two towering works about colonial India—Kipling's Kim and Tagore's Gora—had already dramatized for us this figure of the non-Indian Indian, of hidden ancestry and deceptive appearances. Rushdie's Saleem gave it a new and provocative spin by dramatizing this dual descent not just thematically but stylistically as well.

When Midnight's Children first appeared, we could not have foreseen how precisely this couple of the firangi-desi would emerge to dominate various trends of Rushdie criticism. It has done so, not only in the questions that have risen about Rushdie's relation to the diasporic South Asian community in Britain, about the relative appeal of his work in Asia and in “the West,” but also in the debates about his “authenticity” as an Indian writer and about the precise ways in which Indian names and words appear in his work.1 Indeed, an uneasy suspicion of the firangi-desi, of the nature of his alliances and the strength of his kinship, has put increasing pressure on the concept of “hybridity,” which seeks to hold some of these tensions at bay.

Like the criticism of all canonical works, that of Rushdie's also reveals changing currents in the academic world. While the initial response to his work was more concerned with questions of literary representation and the critique of metaphysical categories, recent criticism has been more attentive to Rushdie's own location within diasporic culture, to his class affiliations, and to the explicit political ends of his work.

Concurrently, Rushdie's nonfictional writings have also drawn more attention, particularly since the events of September 11, 2001. Although Rushdie has been writing on literature and politics for over 20 years, none of his articles (barring his responses to the fatwa) elicited as much commentary as these recent ones, perhaps because they seem to join, rather than interrupt, the chorus on the street. While most of his earlier political essays (for instance, those collected in Imaginary Homelands) come from a recognizable liberal-left position, these new articles are surprisingly indistinguishable, in their tone and argument, from many mainstream media responses to the events of September 11.

In several op-ed pieces and short essays published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian, Rushdie seems to accede rather easily to the most prevalent stereotypes about Islam. For example, in a piece that expresses his distress at the attacks of September 11, he describes a fundamentalist as one who is against “freedom of speech, a multiparty political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex” (“Fighting the Forces of Invisibility”). While such caricature is familiar to readers of his novels, these characterizations become disturbing when Rushdie claims in a later article that this fundamentalism is inextricably linked with Islam:

If this isn't about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida? Why did those 10,000 men armed with swords and axes mass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, answering some mullah's call to jihad? Why are the war's first British casualties three Muslim men who died fighting on the Taliban side?

(“A War That Presents Us All with a Crisis of Faith”)

It is one thing to be concerned about the political mobilization of religious passion in South and West Asian countries and quite another to present these examples denuded of any context and thus to attribute them to some dehistoricized notion of “Islam.” Where is the writer of The Satanic Verses who exposed the terrible transformative power of such labels? Where is the Rushdie who wrote that there “is no consensus about reality between, for example, the nations of the North and of the South,” and cautioned that if “writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history's great and most abject abdications”? (“Outside the Whale” 100).

The intellectual endeavor by “sections of the left” that have drawn connections between the history of US foreign policy and the attacks of September 11 has been sharply criticized by Rushdie. Such queries and reflections are, according to him, “among the most unpleasant consequences of the terrorists' attacks on the United States” (“Fighting the Forces of Invisibility”). Well, one may quibble about whether the left response is necessarily one of the “most unpleasant consequences,” but these recent pronouncements and his support for the war on Afghanistan—“America did, in Afghanistan, what had to be done, and did it well” (“America and Anti-Americans”)—have certainly distanced Rushdie from the left intellectuals who had hitherto been among his supporters. Indeed, such remarks might even startle the man who wrote that

those of us who did not have our origins in the countries of the mighty West, or North, had something in common … some knowledge of what weakness was like, some awareness of the view from underneath, and of how it felt to be there, on the bottom, looking up at the descending heel.

(Jaguar Smile 12)

Did this sense of solidarity stop at the borders of Afghanistan? Or is it that despite its position as the sole global superpower, the attacks of September 11 have suddenly transformed the US into one of the nations that is “on the bottom, looking up at the descending heel”? The nature of Rushdie's recent assertions has not gone unnoticed: Jonathan Freedland, in a commentary in the Guardian, wonders if Rushdie is letting his enthusiasm for US culture lead him to an endorsement of the current Bush strategy; and Tariq Ali, in his article “The New Empire Loyalists,” has famously labeled him as part of the new “belligerati” set.2

When Rushdie, implicitly identifying with Muslims and Pakistanis, calls for a secular political space in Islamic societies, or when he condemns the corruption and tyranny of many Islamic governments, it is easy to agree with him. His desire that religion be restored “to the sphere of the personal” is one that many of us share. But when he suggests in the same article that Islam's “depoliticization is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern” (“Yes, This Is about Islam”), we are forced to pause. The facile distinction between a politicized Islam and modernity seems insufficiently aware of the historical forces at play. The particular face of fundamentalist Islam we see today is closely linked to modernity; as many historians have demonstrated, it gained momentum in part because it was widely perceived as a response to the military and commercial depredations of the West. Moreover, the decades of the 1950s and the 60s saw socialist and left-oriented protest movements in many postcolonial countries systematically undermined with the support and guidance of the CIA, and politicized Islam was encouraged to fill this vacuum. Here we must remind ourselves of certain particulars, such as the arming and support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the buoying of the Wahabi Saudi regime by the US, which cannot be dismissed as quickly as Rushdie now wants (“Yes, This Is about Islam”).

What to make of this shift in approach? Part of the perplexity arises from a sudden onrush of doubt: did we misread the earlier texts, overlook the clues that would explain this surprising volte-face? Were those who had always dismissed Rushdie as another panderer to Western tastes for the colonial exotic right after all? We can see both aspects of Rushdie in the critical reception of his novels in South Asia. On the one hand, his writings were lauded for their innovative linguistic and narrative style, for enacting an assertive, and sometimes even aggressive, South Asian sensibility, and for their satiric approach to the history and politics of the region. On the other hand, critics cast doubt on the originality of his linguistic dexterity, denounced his work as a particularly insidious form of cultural imperialism, and read his success as further proof of his insider status in the Western establishment. The desi and the firangi were not enmeshed in exciting new ways, these critics claimed; the former was merely—once again—being used for the entertainment of the latter.

Rushdie's novels themselves, however, offer some defense against such attacks. To take just two obvious examples, the castigation of the anti-immigrant and racist policies of Thatcherite Britain in The Satanic Verses and the caustic description of American imperialism in Fury suggest that such critics may have been too ungenerous. Arriving in New York, the protagonist of Fury, Malik Solanka, muses:

Might this new Rome actually be more provincial than its provinces; might these new Romans have forgotten what and how to value, or had they never known? Were all empires so undeserving, or was this one particularly crass? … O Dream-America, was civilization's quest to end in obesity and trivia, … Who demolished the City on the Hill and put in its place a row of electric chairs, those dealers in death's democracy, where everyone, the innocent, the mentally deficient, the guilty, could come to die side by side? Who paved Paradise and put up a parking lot? Who settled for George W. Gush's boredom and Al Bore's gush?


Is the author of this dark vision the same person who now finds Londoners' diatribes against American “obesity, emotionality, self-centeredness” utterly shocking? (“American and Anti-Americans”).

In his essay “The Cultural Politics of Rushdie Criticism: All or Nothing,” Timothy Brennan discusses an analogous shift in Rushdie's stance after the fatwa. He maintains that while The Satanic Verses was, after all, not that different in its “savaging of Islam” from Rushdie's other works (110), the affair of the fatwa “dislodged Rushdie from his earlier views” (118) and led him to adopt a less nuanced tone of accusation against Islam. But Brennan concludes by distinguishing Rushdie from less compassionate and more virulent critics of Islam. Reminding us of Rushdie's consistent attempts to create a literary language in which “the experience of formerly colonized, still-disadvantaged peoples might find full expression” (Rushdie, “In Good Faith” 394), Brennan suggests that “the angry protesters from within the community of nonliterary Islam forget that Rushdie has little in common with those who indulge in scares over the civilizational threat of the ‘Islamic terrorist’” (126).

This essay by Brennan was published in 1999. It is unlikely that the same claim could be made quite so convincingly today. Did the attack on the World Trade Center echo the trauma of the fatwa? Is this why Rushdie has so uncritically accepted the terms and narratives generated by the American media? His adoption and use of the word terrorist—a term inherently linked to the justification of state monopoly over violence—is a case in point. “Terrorism,” according to Rushdie, “is not the pursuit of legitimate complaints by illegitimate means. The terrorist wraps himself in the world's grievances to cloak his true motives” (“Fighting the Forces of Invisibility”). This is, at the very least, an odd statement, given Rushdie's long history of support for the Palestinians, who are near the top of the West's “terrorist” list today.3

As we have seen, far from critiquing the practice of violence, the use and circulation of such a term instead renders legitimate the most terrible forms of counterviolence. Slavoj Zizek's analysis, asking us to view today's “terrorist” as an example of the homo sacer4—the man who may be killed with impunity because he is outside the law, neither adversary nor criminal—presents a far more perceptive description of the current situation.

Rushdie's recent piece on Kashmir also seems quite distant from his own earlier writings on the disputed territories. As late as June 1999 he was still advocating, like most South Asian peace activists, “Kashmir for the Kashmiris.” He pointed out that the Indian army in Kashmir is seen by many as an occupying force, and that what most Kashmiris want is a greater degree of autonomy: “to be allowed to run their own lives” (“Kashmir, the Imperiled Paradise”). Three years later, he is still enraged by the betrayal of the Kashmiri people by both the Indian and the Pakistani governments, but now he seems to be convinced that the autonomy of the Kashmiris can best be ensured by bringing in yet another interested party: a Western peacekeeping force (“The Most Dangerous Place in the World”)—a recommendation that, incidentally, is echoed in William Safire's piece on the same page.5 Rushdie's reliance on the disinterested goodwill of the West seems to be in accord with his new allegiances.

Perhaps Rushdie views the US, like him, as being imperiled by some (undocumented) fatwa. But the ancient maxim advocating friendship with the enemy of one's enemy may not always be wise policy. If Rushdie indeed wishes his voice to be heard in the countries of South and West Asia, he will not be helped by his endorsement of the “war on terror.” If he still believes, as he wrote in the essay “Is Nothing Sacred,” that persuasion, not force or contempt, is the most effective way of engaging in political action, then he might have to reconsider his views—about US policy as well as about processes of change in Islamic societies.

Certainly Rushdie is not the first writer to present us with a set of political writings incongruent with the general trajectory of his work. But since he is a public figure writing on current events, and since the issues he addresses are so relevant to postcolonial studies, we felt we could not ignore his recent journalistic writings. It is his literary work, though, that constitutes the strongest and most complex part of his oeuvre, and it is this work that has turned him into a public persona. All the essays presented in this issue were written before September 2001, and all are, in some way or another, concerned with the latent political shape of Rushdie's literary work. Through detailed textual readings, they document in his novels the varied moments of resistance to colonial and neocolonial power. They provide a timely reminder—for the writer as well as his readers—of the import and significance of such moments.

For this issue, we have gathered six essays that both respond to current criticism and offer fresh readings of Rushdie's work. Many of the essays are in some way concerned with the genealogy of this work. They explore the embedded narratives and allegorical allusions that make his novels a gathering place for figures who might otherwise never encounter one another. But they are also concerned with the larger picture—with the ethical distinctions authorized by the narratives, with particular imaginings of nationhood and community, and with the old difficulties of understanding narrative in conceptual terms.

Andrew Teverson's essay on Haroun and the Sea of Stories takes as its starting point the book's evocation of the work of the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar. Discussing how both Attar and Rushdie mount a defense of storytelling by resorting to allegory, Teverson looks closely at the particular arguments presented by Haroun in this context. Responding to Srinivas Aravamudan's criticism that Rushdie's ideal of free speech in this book demonstrates “everything that is wrong with liberal assumptions about literature,” Teverson suggests that we read Rushdie's allegory of storytelling less in terms of a naive plea for free speech and more in terms of the relationship it advocates among cultures. In spite of the significant differences between Attar's and Rushdie's work, both imagine ideal communities where dissent would not be brutally silenced. Teverson invites us to think of the model of multiculturalism proposed by the book in relation to its form of narration. Just as, in Rushdie's text, supplementary narratives subvert and perplex the main story, so too in this model of public space, dissenting minority voices challenge and subvert the dominant national discourse.

Rachel Falconer's essay is also concerned with the genealogy of Rushdie's work, but Falconer looks westward. She reads The Ground beneath Her Feet in terms of the classical narrative of katabasis—the ancient Greek term for the hero's journey to the underworld. The specific structure of this narrative, marked by the four pressure points of threshold crossing, zero point, backward look, and sparagmos (dismemberment) informs Rushdie's portrayal of the life shape of an immigrant in modern times. The protagonists react to these moments by either contracting into an inner core or expanding until they are finally blown apart by an Orphean sparagmos—which is also the point when their work is appropriated by the world. The reading is instructive for showing us how particular narrative and representational forms persist through time; by drawing attention to the literary history of the work, Falconer asks us to consider the implications of Rushdie's allegory. Showing how catastrophe finally forces all the protagonists out of their egotism and into a more responsible relation to their world, she argues that such moments are of particular significance for migrant artists, who are thereby compelled to forge a new social connection.

Allegory has indeed become a privileged term in Rushdie criticism, not only because of Jameson's influential essay but also—and more importantly—because of the highly allusive nature of Rushdie's own writing. Patrick Hogan returns to this terrain as he responds to Keith Booker's recent criticism of Rushdie's work as representing a compromised or naive political position. Paying close attention to the allegorical significance of the early, Kashmir chapters in Midnight's Children, Hogan suggests that these chapters dramatize the conflict between tradition and modernity that is of central significance to the novel as a whole. Rushdie's narrative of Kashmir's passage to modernity allows us to understand the political charge of the novel in terms of a fundamental distinction the narrative makes between two different conceptions of identity, which Hogan names practical and categorial identity. Drawing on Ashis Nandy's work, Hogan reads the novel as a critique of the ways in which modernity has undermined more traditional and fluid structures of practical identity and offered in its stead more rigid and perhaps inherently violent forms of categorial identity. The novel's utopian impulse, on this reading, would lie not so much in its looking forward to postmodern, “hybrid” forms of identity but in its looking back to a time when religious or national affiliation had not yet assumed paramount importance in terms of self-identification.

John Su's essay, like Hogan's, examines the politics of Midnight's Children by revisiting the question of form. Following several other critics, Su perceives a critique of epic values in the book. However, for him, the most provocative aspect of this critique lies not in the novel's implicit rejection of teleological history but in its parody of the myth of the hero and of communities founded on the power and charisma of heroic individuals. He proposes that we read the novel's valorization of failure—best exemplified in the life of its protagonist Saleem—as its way of preserving the possibility of a utopian future. By drawing our attention to Rushdie's engagement with epic tropes, he shows us how particular narrative conventions are closely linked to conceptions of political space. In this way Su's essay shares some of the concerns that Falconer brings to her reading of The Ground beneath Her Feet. However, while Falconer argues that in The Ground beneath Her Feet even the final stage of the Orphic conflict, the sparagmos, should be read as indicating a “progression” for the protagonist and his world, Su proposes that in Midnight's Children the hero's failure signals the narrative's ironic stance toward all narratives that maintain the integrity of the heroic trajectory. That is why for Su's reading of Midnight's Children, what is significant is the hero's failure, not his death—which might always be available for mourning, sublimation, or communal appropriation.

Alexandra Schultheis's essay on The Moor's Last Sigh addresses academic debates about Rushdie's preoccupation with form by moving away from questions of genre to those of aesthetic pleasure. Schultheis finds the general pessimism of the novel tempered with “the regenerative potential of the aesthetic,” which not only provides knowledge of difference and hybridity (as the study of history might), but also opens alternative paths of identification and pleasure. Discussing Rushdie's deployment of the nation-as-family metaphor, she argues that by divorcing the feminine from the maternal, the novel unsettles a trope whose function lies in domesticating difference.

Schultheis does not simply want to reiterate literature's ancient claim to widen our sympathies and deepen our imaginative powers, but rather to demonstrate how specific narrative devices—the suture and the palimpsest—are central to Rushdie's attempt to critique and complicate the nation-as-family metaphor. By tracing connections among cinematic, psychoanalytic, and narrative theory, Schultheis suggests that Rushdie's novel consistently encourages the reader to negotiate between multiple images of the past as well as multiple—and often incompatible—identifications.

Shailja Sharma returns to the politics of class, which have assumed central significance in Rushdie criticism. Comparing Rushdie's work to that of other South Asian diasporic writers such as Farrukh Dhondy and Hanif Kureishi, she finds that Rushdie's work manifests a far closer relationship than theirs to South Asia. His work thus stands out because of the sheer detail and breadth of his acquaintance with various nuances of life in India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, within the South Asian diasporic community in Britain, Rushdie is generally perceived as an outsider, especially since the publication of The Satanic Verses. Despite his support of leftist politics in Britain, he is viewed as an antagonist by many British South Asians because his ideals are read as being those of the liberal upper class. She argues that by bringing class tensions to the foreground, and by exposing the radically different experiences and attitudes of South Asian immigrants, the reception of the novel has compelled us to reconsider its own representation of migrancy.

All these essays suggest thoughtful and promising directions for new criticism in postcolonial studies. Selecting them from among the large number of submissions we received and editing this special issue has been a long and fairly arduous process. We are grateful to Lee Zimmerman and Jim Martin for their support and help. Finally, we wish to thank all those who gave us an opportunity to read their work, and in particular the contributors—not only for their wonderful essays but also for their patience and understanding.


  1. See, for instance, Harish Trivedi's “Salman the Funtoosh: Magic Bilingualism in Midnight's Children.” The charge of inauthenticity, of mixing idioms in inappropriate or unconvincing ways, continues to haunt Rushdie. Thus, in a recent review of his latest novel Fury, James Wood has responded to protagonist Malik Solanka's quick and surprising grasp of American idiom with similar distrust: “A cartoonish and inauthentic voice produces a cartoonish and inauthentic reality” (34).

  2. In response to a New Statesman survey about fallen icons (“Smashed Hits”), Tariq Ali names Rushdie, with the following comment: “When literature masquerades as imperialism, all one can feel is … SHAME.”

  3. See Rushdie's “On Palestinian Identity.”

  4. Zizek is referring to Giorgio Agamben's work on homo sacer, a figure from Roman law who “may be killed but yet not sacrificed” (Agamben 8), and who, Agamben believes, plays an essential function in modern politics. Neither included nor excluded from the juridical order, such a figure is susceptible to the force of the law but never protected by it.

  5. We might recall in this context that during the recent Kashmir crisis, even as the British government was engaged in efforts to allay the threat of war in South Asia, it continued to approve arms sales to both India and Pakistan. Export licenses for arms equipment covering over 200 categories were issued to the two countries during the period from December 2001 to May 2002 (Norton-Taylor).

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

Ali, Tariq. “The New Empire Loyalists.” Guardian 16 Mar. 2002: 22.

———. “Salman Rushdie (Smashed Hits)” New Statesman 17 Dec. 2001: 67.

Anouar, Abdallah, et al., eds. For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech. New York: Braziller, 1994.

Booker, M. Keith. “Midnight's Children, History, and Complexity: Reading Rushdie after the Cold War.” Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie. Ed. Keith Booker. New York: Hall, 1999. 283-313.

Brennan, Timothy. “The Cultural Politics of Rushdie Criticism: All or Nothing.” Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie. Ed. M. Keith Booker. New York: Hall, 1999. 107-28.

Freedland, Jonathan. “Comment and Analysis: Back to the Revolution: It Is Perfectly Possible to Love the Ideals of America's Founding Fathers and to Abhor George W's Policies.” Guardian 20 Mar. 2002: 21.

Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (Fall 1986): 65-88.

Norton-Taylor, Richard. “UK Selling Arms to India.” Guardian 20 June 2002: 1-2.

Rushdie, Salman. “America and Anti-Americans.” New York Times 4 Feb. 2002: A23.

———. “Fighting the Forces of Invisibility.” Washington Post 2 Oct. 2001: A23.

———. Fury. New York: Random, 2001.

———. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. New York: Granta, 1991.

———. “In Good Faith.” Imaginary Homelands 393-414.

———. “Is Nothing Sacred?” Imaginary Homelands 415-29.

———. The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey. New York: Viking, 1987.

———. “Kashmir, the Imperiled Paradise.” New York Times 3 June 1999: A27.

———. Midnight's Children. New York: Avon, 1980.

———. “The Most Dangerous Place in the World.” New York Times 30 May 2002: A25.

———. “On Palestinian Identity: A Conversation with Edward Said.” Imaginary Homelands 166-84.

———. “Outside the Whale.” Imaginary Homelands 87-101.

———. The Satanic Verses, 1988. New York: Penguin, 1989.

———. “A War That Presents Us All with a Crisis of Faith.” Guardian 3 Nov. 2001, Saturday Review, 12.

———. “Yes, This Is about Islam.” New York Times 2 Nov. 2001: A25.

———. “Zia Ul-Haq. 17 August 1988.” Imaginary Homelands 53-58.

Safire, William. “Al Qaeda Provoking War.” New York Times 30 May 2002: A25.

Trivedi, Harish. “Salman the Funtoosh: Magic Bilingualism in Midnight's Children.Rushdie's “Midnight's Children”: A Book of Readings. Ed. Meenakshi Mukerjee. Delhi: Pencraft, 1999. 69-94.

Wood, James. “The Nobu Novel.” New Republic 24 Sep. 2001: 32-36.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Are We in a War? Do We Have an Enemy?” London Review of Books 23 May 2002: 3-6.

Andrew S. Teverson (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Teverson, Andrew S. “Fairy Tale Politics: Free Speech and Multiculturalism in Haroun and the Sea of Stories.Twentieth-Century Literature 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 444-66.

[In the following essay, Teverson identifies Rushdie's two main objectives in Haroun and the Sea of Stories—“to reassert the value of storytelling after the fatwa, and to defend free speech against what he sees as the forces of silence and oppression.”]

Jacobites must speak in children's rhymes,
As preachers do in Parables, sometimes.

—Pynchon (350)

Late in his life, either in the latter decades of the twelfth century or the first decades of the thirteenth, there is evidence that Farid ud-Din Attar, the Sufi mystic and poet, fell afoul of the Persian authorities and was charged with heresy. He had, according to Edward G. Browne, “aroused the anger and stirred up the persecuting spirit of an orthodox theologian” who denounced him as “a heretic deserving death” and caused his works to be burned, his property to be ransacked, and Attar himself to be sent from his homeland to hide (in Attar's own words) “like a ruby in Badakhstan” (Browne 509).1 As with much of Attar's biography, the exact nature of his offense is obscure, although it is reasonable to assume, on the basis of the vivid contempt Attar displays for temporal authorities in his poetry, that he did not exert himself to find favor with the political and religious powers of the land. It is also reasonable to assume that Attar was not unaware of the risks he was running by promoting his faith and ideas through his poetry; his masterpiece Manteq at-Tair (The Conference of the Birds) is replete with examples of Sufis who have been dubbed heretics for their unorthodox beliefs and either driven into banishment or murdered by jealous tyrants.

Salman Rushdie first makes reference to The Conference of the Birds in his debut novel Grimus (1975), the story of a group of immortals who, shunned by (or shunning) conventional society, converge on Calf mountain, where they hope to find solace from their wandering. In this early novel, there is no evidence to suggest that Rushdie is aware of the fate of the poem's author or that he wishes that fate to form an allusive subtext for his narrative. Attar's ornithological myth seems useful to Rushdie to the extent that it provides thematic and structural support for his meditation on exile, but it is never overtly associated with pleas for freedom of speech or freedom from persecution. When Rushdie returns to The Conference of the Birds nearly 20 years later in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, it is again without allusion to the biography of its author. Attar and his fate are not mentioned in the text or, to my knowledge, in any commentary that Rushdie has made on the text. By this time, however, the similarities between Rushdie's own experience and Attar's have become striking. Rushdie too has “aroused the anger and stirred up the persecuting spirit of an orthodox theologian,” he has had his work burned by outraged believers, he has been denounced by the Islamic authorities as a heretic deserving death, and he has gone to hide himself like a ruby in North London. It is tempting to believe, on this basis, that Rushdie makes reference to Attar's work in Haroun either because he is aware of Attar's persecution and wishes to draw strength from the fact that he is not the first (or the last) to suffer for expressing opinions in a fictional form or because he is unaware of Attar's fate but recognizes in The Conference of the Birds the work of a man who is already intimate enough with the mechanisms of earthly oppression to compose the following lines:

A [divine] king is not one of those common fools
Who snatches at a crown and thinks he rules.
The true king reigns in mild humility,
Unrivalled in his firm fidelity.
An earthly king acts righteously at times,
But also stains the earth with hateful crimes,
And then whoever hovers nearest him
Will suffer most from his destructive whim.


The persecution experienced by Attar in the twelfth century and the persecution experienced by Salman Rushdie in the twentieth are, of course, of a different order. Attar was persecuted because, as a Sufi, he was expounding a doctrine thought to be heretical by the Islamic authorities; Rushdie is being persecuted because of his secular beliefs and because of his overt attack on Islamic fundamentalism. The persecution of Attar, moreover, was a local affair, involving a sect within Islam; the trials of Rushdie have attained global significance and have contributed to the polarization of relations between the Islamic nations and the West. There are also significant differences in the role and function attributed to storytelling in the work of both writers. For Rushdie, the freedom to tell stories is connected to freedom of speech and personal liberty. Attar, by contrast, is not constructing a broader argument for a free society but is suggesting that secular storytelling is useful in a religious context, because it can be used to encourage readers (or listeners) to engage actively with the arguments of the text and endure an interpretative struggle toward revelation and religious understanding. Rushdie has no such conception of religious truth, and while he, like Attar, incorporates obscurity into his storytelling, he does so not to promote the belief that there is a transcendental “truth” beyond ordinary human understanding but to suggest that there is no definitive, final truth “out there” to be apprehended. In Rushdie's novels, unlike Attar's poetry, to use the words of Carlos Fuentes, “truth is the search for truth, nothing is pre-established and knowledge is only what both of us—reader and writer—can imagine” (245).

Despite the substantial differences in the philosophical and ideological outlook of these two writers, however, and despite the very different social and cultural contexts within which they operate, both are persecuted for expressing ideas that were considered heretical by orthodox Islam, and, in both cases, the focus of this Islamic suspicion is the literary medium in which they work. Both, moreover, use literary allegory (Attar avant la lettre, Rushdie après la déluge) to respond to their detractors, mounting a defense of storytelling in the face of an extreme and potentially brutal form of censorship.

In Attar's poem this defense is mounted primarily through the figure of the eloquent hoopoe who uses stories both to encourage the birds in their quest and to enable them, as representatives of the faithful, to negotiate the complexities of the way. The poem tells the tale of a group of birds that gather from all over the world to seek their spiritual king, the Simurg: a symbol of the Sufi conception of God, into whom the bird adepts will be assimilated if they can endure the rigors of their quest.2 The hoopoe, as figure of the sheikh who guides the Sufi adept along the path of righteousness, appears at the start of the poem to tell the birds about their king, and the birds, initially, respond effusively and determine to take wing to the distant mountain of Kaf where the Simurg lives. When they start to consider the journey's length, however, more worldly concerns assert themselves, and the birds, one by one, decline the hoopoe's offer. The nightingale claims that he has a “lover's thirst” (35) and will not abandon his beloved for a single night; the heron suggests that he is too wrapped up in his own misery to leave “the empty shoreline of the sea” (46). As each bird “according to his kind” (35) offers its apologies, however, the hoopoe responds with stories that help it to overcome its reluctance. The nightingale, for instance, is told “The Story of a Dervish and a Princess” in which a dervish becomes a fool because he is preoccupied with worldly love rather than higher love, and the heron is told a rather oblique tale about a hermit who questions the ocean and discovers that the sea cannot provide a reliable route to salvation because “[l]awlessness is her law” (47). Having been swayed by the hoopoe's eloquence, the birds begin their journey, but after only a short distance they halt to make the hoopoe their official leader and to discuss some of their reservations. The majority of the remaining poem is then taken up with this halt, during which the hoopoe, having used his storytelling skills to encourage the birds to join him, now devotes himself to maintaining their enthusiasm for the venture. The hoopoe thus comes to represent both the ancient tradition of Sanskrit storytelling from which Attar has taken him and the value of the narrative arts in which he is adept. Given this significance it is no surprise, in Salman Rushdie's novella, that when the Water Genie asks Haroun to choose a bird to carry them to Kahani (story in Hindustani)3 Haroun chooses the hoopoe, the bird that “in the old stories … leads all other birds through many dangerous places to their ultimate goal” (64). As in Attar's poem, this hoopoe signals Rushdie's connection with an ancient Sanskrit tradition. It also—at an early point of the narrative—introduces two of the primary objectives of the novella: to reassert the value of storytelling after the fatwa, and to defend free speech against what he sees as the forces of silence and oppression.


The exploration of the value of fiction in Haroun and the Sea of Stories is initiated with the question that Mr. Sengupta flings at Haroun's mother, Soraya, and that Haroun later repeats to his distraught father: what's the use of stories that aren't even true? This and other objections to storytelling in Haroun recall the Socratic objection relayed by Plato in The Republic that, for reasons both metaphysical and social, art has no claim to truth and therefore no value. On the one hand the artist is offering not a truthful representation of reality but an imperfect copy, and on the other the artist is acting upon an irrational, indulgent impulse and thus cannot proceed by rational means toward a true and philosophic understanding of actuality. These arguments are reflected throughout the tale, but primarily in Mr. Sengupta's condemnation of Haroun's father, Rashid, and in the Sengupta-inspired note that Haroun's mother, Soraya, leaves behind her: “You are only interested in pleasure, but a proper man would know that life is a serious business. Your brain is full of make-believe, so there is no room for the facts” (22). Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in the course of the narrative, offers several responses to these arguments, some of which are almost as old as the challenge to storytelling itself. Firstly, Rushdie reformulates the response to Plato suggested by Aristotle in his Poetics and later appropriated by Philip Sidney in his defense of poetry against its Puritan detractors, that the poet (or storyteller) “nothing affirms, and therefore never lyeth” (111). Rashid's intention is not to relay “facts” or tell the “truth,” so he can hardly be accused of an intention to mislead. “Nobody ever believed anything a politico said,” Haroun observes, but “everyone had complete faith in Rashid because he always admitted that everything he told them was completely untrue and made up out of his own head” (20).

A more important defense of storytelling offered in Haroun arises from Rushdie's sense that experience abhors simplification, and that the ambiguities of storytelling can do more justice to “reality” than the supposed certainties of rational inquiry can. Rashid's refusal to offer facts and truths, and his preference for yarns and fictions, make him more trustworthy than the “truth-tellers” because he is not attempting to reduce an irreducible reality into political sound bites and captions. In the revealingly titled conversation that Rushdie conducted with Günter Grass in 1985, “Fictions Are Lies That Tell the Truth,” Rushdie tells Grass:

[T]he thing that made me become a writer was … a desire simply to tell stories. I grew up in a literary tradition. That's to say that the kind of stories I was told as a child, by and large, were Arabian Nights kind of stories. It was those sort of fairy tales. … And the belief was that by telling stories in that way, in that marvellous way, you could actually tell a kind of truth which you couldn't tell in other ways.


“I think using these fairy tales” notes Grass, in agreement with Rushdie,

is bringing us to another kind of truth: to a much much richer truth than you can get by collecting facts of this flat realism. We have many realities. Our problem is that we don't accept that there are many realities. This side only wants this reality, and the other only their own reality. This is one of the reasons we still have this struggle.


Both writers in these comments are reformulating an argument that had been made several decades earlier by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Storyteller,” in which it is argued that storytelling is the antithesis of information, because information thrives on containment and limitation (“prompt verifiability”) while good storytelling is characterized by expansibility and ambiguity. “[I]t is half the art of storytelling,” Benjamin suggests, “to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it”:

The most extraordinary things, marvellous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.


For Rushdie, Grass, and Benjamin, this means that storytelling, when unfettered, becomes the antithesis of totalitarian thinking, because it resists the fascistic (or Platonic) drive to control society by limiting potential definitions and controlling interpretations. Storytelling is complicit with “liberated man,” as Benjamin argues toward the end of his essay, because it “tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest” (102).4

This is a point made vivid, in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in the fear that Khattam Shud—representative of the totalizing tradition from Plato to Khomeini—has of storytelling. For Khattam Shud, storytelling is one of the greatest threats to his power, because the eclecticism implicit in any uncensored grouping of stories, along with the expansiveness and ambiguity of any one narrative, undermine the lust for closure and finitude that his name (completely finished in Hindustani) represents. He is obsessed with the desire to establish a univocal interpretation of culture by policing who may and who may not speak, and the story sea, as living embodiment of heteroglossia and polyphony, is a fluid rebuttal of this politics of exclusion. When Haroun asks why he hates stories so much, given that stories are such fun, Khattam Shud replies:

“The world, however, is not for Fun. … The world is for Controlling.”

“Which world?” Haroun made himself ask.

“Your world, my world, all worlds,” came the reply. “They are all to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all. …”


The aim of the novella, it is hardly necessary to add, is to reveal the destructive potential of this viewpoint, by showing how the frenzied pursuit of totalitarian rule results in a society riven with jealousy, suspicion, and mutual mistrust, and by showing how, contrary to the logic of authoritarian rule, freedom of speech and freedom of thought will ultimately create a stronger community.

This leads us to the third defense of storytelling presented in Haroun: that free narration is a form of free speech and thus is good for society. It is only through the free exchange of ideas and words that members of a community can achieve their full potential. This “free” society is represented in Haroun by the Guppees who defend the story sea because it reflects the diversity of their own community, a multicultural utopia in which mechanical hoopoes consort with many-mouthed fish and Archim-boldo-esque vegetable men fraternize with blue-bearded water genies. In this society “the Power of Speech” is regarded as “the greatest Power of all” and is “exercised to the full” (119), a political principle that may give Haroun and Rashid pause for thought when the city's preparations for war are hounded by disorder and chaos, but which is ultimately validated when the Guppees overrun the Chupwalas:

The Pages of Gup, now that they had talked through everything so fully, fought hard, remained united, supported each other when required to do so, and in general looked like a force with a common purpose. All those arguments and debates, all that openness, had created powerful bonds of fellowship between them. The Chupwalas, on the other hand, turned out to be a disunited rabble … their vows of silence and their habits of secrecy had made them suspicious and distrustful of one another.


A free society in which there are no limits to what can be said and what can be told, Rushdie is suggesting, will always prove stronger than a society that is superficially bound by imposed government policy and enforced ideology.

This assertion of the importance of absolute free speech, however, does raise some problems that Rushdie fails to confront in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. In theory, freedom of expression leads toward a more tolerant society in which a multitude of different, competing ideas can coexist side by side. In practice, however, it is usually the case that, even in societies in which there is no direct censorship, indirect censorship based on various social and economic factors will still operate. As Rodney Smolla argues:

The marketplace of ideas, no less than the marketplace of commerce, will inevitably be biased in favour of those with the resources to ply their wares. The ideas of the wealthy and powerful will have greater access to the market than the ideas of the poor and disenfranchised.


By arguing, in Haroun, that the principle of free speech is sufficient to guarantee a free society, Rushdie is, uncharacteristically, ignoring the impact of social and economic inequality on an individual's ability to speak out, and so failing to engage with arguments that suggest that society would be more just if speech was, in certain conditions, regulated to protect the rights and freedoms of the underprivileged and unrepresented. Rushdie is also ignoring the argument (that his own emphasis on the power of words in Haroun would paradoxically suggest) that language, far from being a materially innocuous tool, has the capacity to cause harm and should, as such, be subject to legal controls comparable to those that govern acts of physical violence.

For these and similar reasons Haroun has been criticized for naiveté and for excessive simplification of complex political issues. As Srinivas Aravamudan has argued, it “becomes a banal didactic fiction that demonstrates … everything that is wrong with liberal assumptions about literature” (327). It assumes that “pluralist individualism (as large a variety of opinions as possible will be best for all concerned)” (328) is preferable in all circumstances regardless of context, and regardless of the fact that “very different kinds of multicultural considerations have to be weighed and balanced in a socially responsible manner” (325). It also assumes that speech does not have the capacity to cause direct harm, and so fails to recognize that “[m]ost speech is attempting to act upon the world in some fashion and … therefore relates to its background in a pragmatic and materially effective way” (324).

Some commentators have attempted to defend Rushdie's tale against criticisms such as these by suggesting that Rushdie is not, after all, writing a polemical work, and that it should not be read as a serious piece of political thought. “Haroun is not a tract,” James Fenton observes; “ideas are played with, but not forced into too tidy an order.” “This is a fable without a moral,” notes Rushdie himself: “It uses all the techniques in a fable without trying to operate a homily at the end” (Tushingham 5). In both these arguments the implication is that Haroun is exempt from rigorous critique because it is (as Rushdie's narrator suggests ironically of Shame) “only … a sort of modern fairy tale, so … nobody need get upset, or take anything … too seriously” (70). The narrator of Shame, however, clearly means this statement to be disingenuous and for the reader to understand that fairy tale status (pace Grass) does not disqualify a story from being political. The same must also be true of Haroun. The ideas may not be arranged in too tidy an order, and there may be no clear “homily” at the end, but in many respects Haroun remains a tract in favor of freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas. Rushdie himself acknowledges this in a conversation held with David Tushingham: “[t]here is obviously a kind of view,” he notes, “that the values of language are superior to those of silence. So in so far as there is an author's message, it's there” (5). Unfortunately, this is precisely the message that critics of Haroun are objecting to Rushdie, according to commentators like Aravamudan, has exchanged a blinkered and unthinking religious fundamentalism for an equally blinkered, equally unthinking form of “first amendment fundamentalism” (324, 328).

It is perhaps fair to note that Aravamudan does not extend his criticisms of Haroun to the fiction produced by Rushdie preceding the fatwa. “When [his] novelistic skill is applied to the political shenanigans of an Indira Gandhi, a Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, or a Zia-ul-Haq,” he argues, “Rushdie's novels achieve the status of responsible and context-specific political satire mediated through magic realism” (327). It is only in Haroun that Rushdie seems to advocate the blanket application of abstract principles and, in so doing, fails to recognize the importance of deploying “flexible and differential pragmatics” (327) in sensitive multicultural situations. The implication of this is that Rushdie, composing Haroun under the stress and strain of an exceptional situation, abandoned his customary political sensitivity to produce a work that (for reasons that are understandable and perhaps forgivable) is little more than a shout of anger and frustration, and should not be regarded as representative of his thinking.

Aravamudan's critique of Haroun provides a counterbalance to the growing number of essays on the novella that celebrate its vision of free speech without recognizing its tendency to simplify these issues for the sake of utopian allegory or for the sake of the children's book market, at which it is, in part, aimed. However, while there is a strain of untheorized bitterness that blunts the edge of Haroun's satire and makes some of its ideological postures look hollow, there is also more to the text's political allegory than Aravamudan gives it credit for. The battle waged by the Guppees against Khattam Shud is, after all, not just a battle for the freedom to say what you want when you want—it is also a battle fought over competing ideas of nationhood. The ocean of stories is not just a vision of “free narratives” floating vacuously in a world of speech without consequences, it is also an allegory of a utopian national culture that allows its members to be who they are without fear of persecution. To assess the ideological position expressed in Haroun more fully, therefore, we should not limit our discussion of the significance of storytelling to its implications for free speech: we should also consider the use of storytelling in Haroun in relation to issues of national and cultural identity. In order to do this, I should like, in the following section, to begin by exploring the cultural significance of storytelling traditions and narrative genres that Rushdie is drawing upon. The discussion will then broaden to show how Rushdie's idiosyncratic use of narrative tradition reflects and reinforces an argument that is being made about national identity in other dimensions of the text.


Haroun and the Sea of Stories can be described as a short literary fantasy that combines traditional elements of fairy tale with the author's own creative and surreal imaginings. It operates as a children's quest narrative that features a young boy traveling to distant lands in search of a happy ending and as a potent political allegory that confronts pertinent contemporary issues, ranging from the restrictions on freedom of speech imposed by fundamentalist regimes to the pollution of the environment by irresponsible multinational corporations. As such it can be located in the subgenre, suggested by Jean-Pierre Durix, of “the children's story which only adults can really understand” (343), a tradition that incorporates Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865).

The influence of both these predecessors is evident in the style and the structure of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. All three narratives use fantastical and nonsensical scenarios to conceal (or reveal) a satirical intention, and all three are organized around the adventures of a central hero who begins the tale in a comfortable domestic environment, travels out of that environment to visit a fantasy world full of peculiarities and marvels—though strangely parallel to his or her own world—and then returns home to find that his or her understanding of the home world has been clarified.5

Despite the similarities between Haroun and texts such as Gulliver's Travels and Alice in Wonderland, however, Carroll's and Swift's tales, unlike Rushdie's, both derive from a predominantly English storytelling tradition. Alice in Wonderland was heavily influenced by previous Victorian “juvenile” literature such as Catherine Sinclair's Holiday House and Frederick Marryat's Masterman Ready, and also reveals a debt to the fantastical, non-sensical situations portrayed in popular British fairy tales and nursery rhymes.6 Swift's novel, similarly, is influenced by popular British oral or chapbook fairy tales such as The History of Tom Thumbe and The History of Jack and the Giants.7 Rushdie's fantasy, by contrast, demonstrates a resistance to the tradition's exclusive reliance on European narrative forms and European modes of perception by taking this tradition, saturated in British folklore and fairy tale, and merging it with an equivalent tradition in Indian storytelling that derives from Indic, Persian, or Arabic oral and literary sources. In addition to a host of character types and scenarios reminiscent of Western fairy tales, for instance, Rushdie gives us plot motifs and expressions from The Arabian Nights, Bhatta Somadeva's eleventh-century Ocean of Streams of Story (Katha Sarit Sagara), and, as we have seen, Attar's The Conference of the Birds.

There are, of course, elements in Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver's Travels that also derive from texts such as these. The Arabian Nights first became popular in Britain in the early eighteenth century, and, since Swift, as Peter Caracciolo notes, was among its first English readers, it is probable that oddities recalling “the wonderful East” in Gulliver's Travels, such as the floating island populated by transcendentalist astronomers, owe something to The Nights (2). The figure of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, similarly, with his hookah and his “languid, sleepy” voice, draws upon stereotypes of the drug-addled oriental that narrative collections like The Nights have been associated with since their introduction into Europe by Antoin Galland. These orientalist elements, however, do not represent attempts to incorporate the non-European narrative into the substance and body of the story; neither do they represent attempts to convey the spirit of Arabic or Sanskrit storytelling to a new readership. On the contrary, they isolate fantastic or absurd features of the non-European narrative tradition to emphasize their strangeness, and to play upon European ideas of the foreign and exotic. Rushdie, by contrast (although this is a contentious point),8 aims to transform the genre by placing both narrative traditions on an equal footing, by showing how the two are interdependent and intertwined.

Rushdie's attempt to demonstrate the compatibility of tales from different cultures is most apparent in the episode in which Haroun takes a drink from the story sea. Haroun is miserable, having failed to wish hard enough for the return of his father's storytelling abilities, so Iff, the Water Genie, extracts a story from the water to cheer him up. Haroun drinks the story water and finds himself transported to a virtual landscape in which the story is being played out before him. First he has to dispatch several monsters, which he does with considerable ease; then he finds himself at a white stone tower:

At the top of the tower was (what else but) a single window, out of which there gazed (who else but) a captive princess. What Haroun was experiencing, though he didn't know it, was Princess Rescue Story Number S/1001/ZHT/420/41(r)xi; and because the princess in this particular story had recently had a haircut and therefore had no long tresses to let down (unlike the heroine of Princess Rescue Story G/1001/RIM/777/M(w)i, better known as “Rapunzel”), Haroun as the hero was required to climb up the outside of the tower by clinging to the cracks between the stones with his bare hands and feet.


Rushdie is clearly being playful here. This passage creates a comic effect by drawing attention to the formulaic conventions of fairy tale and then confounding those conventions by introducing the extravagant device of a princess with a haircut. Despite this frivolous approach, however, Rushdie's parodic fairy tale notation suggests a serious point. The first notation, S/1001/ZHT/420/41(r)xi, calls to mind The Arabian Nights. The number 1001 evokes the thousand and one nights, and the letters ZHT (possibly) signify Scheherazade. The second notation, G/1001/RIM/777/M(w)i, also suggests the presence of The Arabian Nights (1001) but then alludes to the Brothers Grimm, the capital letters spelling GRIMM unambiguously, the lowercase w standing for Wilhelm. Both are variants, as Rushdie notes, of the “princess rescue story” that has become popularized as “Rapunzel.”

This playful notation alerts the reader to the fact that the tale “Rapunzel” is not exclusive to the Grimms' collection, and that different variants of the tale, such as the mysterious S/1001, are also floating around in the veins of the story sea. The variant of “Rapunzel” that is now most popular is undoubtedly that which was collected by Grimm in 1812, but—as Rushdie reminds the reader cryptically—this is not the only version, nor indeed is it the first. Grimm took the tale from a story by Friedrich Schultz, who had in turn borrowed it from a French tale, “Persinette,” by Mlle. Charlotte-Rose de la Force (published anonymously in Contes des Contes in 1692) (Zipes 729). It is unclear where de la Force took it from, although there is an Italian variant in Basile's Pentamerone, and it is probable that Basile's version, through various complex paths, is related to early Indian versions of the tale.9 Just as Rushdie implies in his parody, therefore, there are Indian and Middle Eastern precedents for a tale that is now predominantly thought of as European. The implication of this is that the tales of different cultures are not separated from one another by rigid cultural divides and “walls of force” but may share a number of significant features.

Perhaps this is giving too much weight to what is, arguably, little more than a passing joke on Rushdie's part. S/1001/ZHT/420/41(r)xi and G/1001/RIM/777/M(w)i are, perhaps, only jests at the expense of folklore indexers such as Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson that were not meant to be subjected to rigorous analysis. However, there are other ways that Haroun suggests to the reader that narratives evolve through a process of cultural exchange and fruitful intermingling, and are not (as the Brothers Grimm and later the Nazis were eager to suggest) indications of the purity of the national voice. This idea is presented to the reader pictorially in the image of the story sea that Haroun examines only a page before he drinks the princess rescue stories. The story waters, as Haroun observes, are “made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity.” As Iff explains:

Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held there in fluid form they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.


It is this livingness, for Rushdie, that characterizes storytelling. Stories may seem to be “fixed” or “stable” if they are fixed artificially—by a canon of “official” narratives, or by direct censorship. The most cursory investigation of a story's genealogy, however, will reveal that the borders and boundaries we have erected around the stories of different peoples and nations are permeable, and that a serious assessment of a narrative's ancestry must include a recognition of the process and performance of cultural interaction. It is in this respect that the story sea as an image of Rushdie's hybrid sources comes to reflect one of the dominant arguments presented in the plot of Haroun—that the establishment of strict and impermeable boundaries between different cultures gives a false impression of the “purity” of each culture and prevents cultural groups from discovering that their respective social narratives provide as much of a basis for dialogue and communication as they do for segregation and separation. As a testament to this, the troubles that Haroun encounters on the moon of Kahani are largely the result of the separation of the moon into two halves. There is a light side populated by the talkative Guppees (derived from gup, gossip in Hindustani) on which the sun always shines, and a dark side populated by the silent Chupwalas (quiet fellows in Hindustani) that is in perpetual darkness. The division between the two sides is maintained by a wall of force erected by the Guppees to keep the Chupwalas out, and it is this wall that is responsible for the tensions between the two communities. Its name, “Chattergy's Wall,” after the king of the Guppees, recalls the Roman emperor Hadrian's barrier against the Picts and the Scots, but it also invokes the Berlin wall separating communist East Germany and democratic West Germany which had come down the year before Rushdie published Haroun. Its symbolic function is the same as that of the wall constructed by the king in Edward Bond's play Lear (1972): it is meant to ensure the safety of the populace, but it ends up being a cage, a trap, which causes hatred, suffering, and brutality.

The Guppees, in Rushdie's tale, seem to have justice on their side, since they are defending their moon Kahani against the tyranny of Khattam Shud. As the tale progresses, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Guppees are as much responsible for Khattam Shud's reign as the Chupwalas, because it is their machinery that has created the division between the two cultures. They developed techniques with which to bring the moon's rotation under control, separating day from night and Chupwala from Guppee, and it is this separation that has allowed Khattam Shud's fanatical opposition to the Guppees to flourish. The success of Haroun's quest, therefore, depends on his being able to undo this binary opposition, which he does in the end by causing the moon to turn “so that it is no longer half in light, half in darkness” (170). Light shines down on Chup for the first time, causing all Khattam Shud's shadow battalions to melt away to nothing.

Once the binary is undone, the people of Gup and Chup devise a peace settlement that permits “a dialogue” (193) between the two groups. “Night and Day, Speech and Silence,” according to this peace, “would no longer be separated into Zones by Twilight strips and Walls of Force” (191). This radical transformation in the way that the two cultures interact is prelude to a total reassessment of their understanding of one another. Each realizes that the other is not as bad, or as different, as they first thought—and both realize that the distinctive differences between the two cultures can provide opportunities for productive exchange rather than destructive enmity. This is something that the perceptive young Haroun has realized several chapters previously while watching Mudra, the shadow warrior from the “enemy” city of Chup, do his martial dance. At first he thinks:

How many opposites are at war in this battle between Gup and Chup! Gup is bright and Chup is dark. Gup is warm and Chup is freezing cold. Gup is all chattering and noise, whereas Chup is silent as a shadow. Guppees love the Ocean, Chupwalas try to poison it. Guppees love Stories, and Speech; Chupwalas, it seems, hate these things just as strongly. …


And yet, he recognizes,

it's not as simple as that … because the dance of the Shadow Warrior showed him that silence had its own grace and beauty (just as speech could be graceless and ugly); and that Action could be as noble as Words; and that creatures of darkness could be as lovely as the children of light. “If Guppees and Chupwalas didn't hate each other so,” he thought, “they might actually find each other pretty interesting. Opposites attract, as they say.”


In a tale that is largely about oppositions—between fantasy and reality, between child and adult, between good and bad—Rushdie is being careful to suggest that there can be “dialogue” and “crossover” between categories.

On several levels, therefore, Rushdie has created in Haroun a complex allegory that emphasizes the importance of exchange between different cultural groupings. At the level of theme, he has shown how Guppees and Chupwalas are able to create a better society when rigorous separation is not enforced; at the level of symbolism, he has given us the potent image of the story sea that is only healthy when stories from diverse places are permitted to intermingle freely; finally, and perhaps most innovatively, he has created a story sea in his own text by drawing eclectically from diverse narrative traditions (Arabic, Persian, Indian, and European) and allowing those traditions to cross-pollinate one another. The allegory of Haroun, in this sense, is one that works, like traditional fabular allegories, by creating situations in the plot that “speak otherwise” about social, cultural, and political events; but it is also possible to argue that Rushdie has extended the reach of the traditional fable by making intertextuality serve an additional allegorical function.10 Not only is the story of Haroun about the dangers of ethnocentrism and its terrible impact on a fantastical other world, but the eclecticism of Haroun as a piece of writing also operates as material evidence of the benefits (in terms of lively and dynamic storytelling) that can be accrued from a willingness to traverse freely across the boundaries of diverse cultural traditions. The real tragedy of Khattam Shud, in this respect, must be that he is not only confounded by the opponents he comes up against within the tale—Haroun and the representatives of the story sea—he is also confounded by the very materiality of the story within which he finds himself. He is thus, we might say, completely finished before he is even begun.


In Rushdie's vision of a plethora of “small” stories, all set in opposition to the “grand mythology” promoted by Khattam Shud, there is an echo of Lyotard's famous distinction between petits récits and metanarratives. Khattam Shud's is the totalized account of experience that must suppress difference to maintain the illusion of its own totality; the story sea is a riot of diverse narratives that resist the drive toward assimilation and incorporation, and in so doing responds to a Lyotardian call to be “witness to the unpresentable” and to “wage war on totality” (82). Whereas Lyotard's vision of competing narratives remains at the level of metaphysical generality, however, Rushdie's allegorical revisitation of Lyotard's attack on the Platonic tradition has a more specific focus. His aim is not to reimagine a form(lessness) for truth in the abstract, although this might well be one of the implications of his allegory; his aim is to reimagine a form(lessness) of social and communal interaction. Or, more specifically, his aim is to imagine a form for the nation, if nation is understood not as a unified and holistic entity defined by the exclusion of “others” but as a fluid, provisional entity defined by its capacity to incorporate difference and variation. In this respect, Rushdie's Ocean of Story can be described with more accuracy as an attempt to give shape to the Lyotardian ideal as it is appropriated by Homi Bhabha in service of a description of the disseminated nation—a nation that is

a form of living that is more complex than “community”; more symbolic than “society”; more connotative than “country”; less patriotic than patrie … less homogenous than hegemony; less centred than the citizen; more collective than the “subject”; more psychic than civility; more hybrid in the articulation of cultural differences and identifications than can be represented in any hierarchical or binary structuring of social antagonism.


The story sea, according to this interpretation, is not just a metaphor for free speech and free narratives; it also offers a model for an ideal concept of nationhood that permits unlimited interaction and exchange between cultural interests.

In the light of this interpretation we can reread the conflict between the Guppees and Khattam Shud not as the battle between absolute free speech and censorship but as the collision between conceptions of nationhood identified by Bhabha as the “pedagogical” (which sees “the people as an a priori historical presence”) and the “performative” (which sees the people as constructed—and continuously reconstructed—in the “enunciatory present” [147]). Khattam Shud represents the pedagogical (fundamentalist) ideal of a nation that exists as an essentialized entity independent of any actual manifestations of national life and that defines itself by its opposition to and difference from “extrinsic other nations” (148). The story sea, by contrast, represents the idea of a nation that is redefined in each moment of its existence and is able to incorporate new strands into the national narrative as they become part of the ongoing performance of national life. Whereas Khattam Shud demands a nation that can be homogenized according to some preestablished blueprint, in other words, the supporters of the story sea celebrate a “liminal” idea of nation that will never be complete or incomplete, neither resolving nor eliminating cultural difference but recognizing it as an insurmountable and dynamic aspect of community. It is this “liminal figure of the nation-space” that presents the supreme threat to Khattam Shud because, as Bhabha puts it, it ensures “that no political ideologies [can] claim transcendent or metaphysical authority for themselves” (148).

On this basis it is now possible to suggest that Rushdie's call for freedom of narration in Haroun cannot be reduced so easily to a facile, liberal plea for freedom of speech. The demand for free interaction of stories in the story sea is linked to the demand for the freedom of individuals, groups, minorities, to be a part of the nation with which they are affiliated. It is also a reinforcement of the rights of individuals, groups, minorities not to be excluded from a nation simply because they do not conform to a pedagogical nationalist ideal. Haroun, in this capacity, is not only a vindictive cry against Khomeini and a pedantic, ill-theorized insistence on the right to say what we want when we want, it also incorporates a more radical response to Khomeini in its challenge to the nationalist and fundamentalist principles on which Khomeini's authority is based, and on the strength of which the fatwa against Rushdie's life was issued. While Srinivas Aravamudan is undoubtedly correct to critique Haroun for those instances in which it stereotypes Khomeini and Islam “through the lens of James Bond” (326), and for its occasionally simplistic assessment of the problem of free speech, a fair appraisal of Rushdie's ideological position in Haroun should also take into account the radical revisioning of traditional ideas of nationhood that the story sea connotes.

Of course, as both Rushdie and Bhabha are aware, it is still possible to misread their revisioning of nationhood as a liberal dream of a multicultural utopia. If “cultural difference” is understood as “the free play of polarities and pluralities in the homogenous empty time of the national community” (162), Bhabha has argued, then multiculturalism becomes little more than an argument for a cultural relativism in which all are equal because all are the same, and all are included because no one is different. In arguing for “perplexity” in the living and writing of the nation, however, Bhabha is insisting on a more antagonistic vision of cultural difference in which social contradictions and antagonisms are “negotiated” without being “sublated” (162). “The difference between disjunctive sites and representations of social life,” he argues, “have to be articulated without surmounting the incommensurable meanings and judgements that are produced within the process of transcultural negotiation” (162). Minority discourse, therefore, must not be seen as discourse to be incorporated into the national discourse but as a form of intervention that repeatedly subverts and transforms the national narrative without ever offering the promise that there will be a point at which the national narrative accumulates into an organic unity. Different forms of cultural knowledge and practice, in other words, should not be seen as adding up the idea of nation so that minorities and margins are subsumed in the discourse of the “many as one” but should be seen as adding to (interrupting and perplexing) the idea of nation, which remains an incomplete and uncompletable entity.

If we reread Rushdie's vision of storytelling in Haroun and the Sea of Stories along these lines, as an attempt to imagine a form of narration that accommodates the idea of supplementary subversion, then we have the model of a cultural ideal very unlike the liberal dream of multicultural homogeneity that Aravamudan accuses Rushdie of constructing. In this vision, each new narrative, or each fresh formulation of an old narrative, is not a simple addition to the body of narratives that already exists; it antagonizes it or (as Butt the Hoopoe might put it) “shakes it up a little, va-voom!” (79). That there are a thousand and one different tales in the story sea, moreover, does not imply that there is a finite number of narratives that the nation can add up to. For Rushdie, as for Jorge Luis Borges, the number a thousand and one is a magical number that suggests infinite complexity even as it suggests limitation.11 A thousand and one nights does not mean a thousand nights plus one night. It means a thousand nights and then one more night, and then one more night, and then one more night ad infinitum, where each night added will transform all the nights that have gone before and all the nights to come. The number 1001 in Rushdie's fiction thus comes to represent what Bhabha has called “the insurmountable extremes of storytelling [where] we encounter the question of cultural difference as the perplexity of living and writing the nation” (161).


In his reconception of society as a complex and multiform body of competing discourses Rushdie has moved a fair distance from the vision of society promoted by Farid ud-Din Attar in The Conference of the Birds. Attar's vision, in tune with Sufi philosophy, is based on the ideal and transcendental unity of its members. This is suggested toward the end of his narrative by Attar's use of an ingenious (and somewhat Rushdiesque) pun: 30 birds reach the mountain of Kaf expecting to find their king, the Simurg, awaiting them, but when they alight they realize that they themselves, having undergone their quest for enlightenment, are their own collective king—Simurg, in Persian, also meaning thirty birds (si: thirty, morgh: birds).12 The trajectory of Rushdie's heroes and heroines is in many respects antithetical to Attar's. When the hoopoe and his cohorts reach their goal, they discover a story sea that does not embody a principle of the many as one but on the contrary represents resistance to totality (whether it be the totality of a preexisting essential unity or a post factum totality achieved by gradual accumulation). While Attar and Rushdie have the potent symbol of the hoopoe in common, therefore, it is apparent that their hoopoes signify very different traditions of thinking, one that aims at incorporation, the other at dissemination. Rushdie's hoopoe is a postmodern bird whose quest leads toward a celebration of diversity, and who has, appropriately, a mechanical, computerized brain; Attar's hoopoe is a spiritual entity whose quest leads in the opposite direction toward the absolute eradication of difference. At the same time that we can identify these dissimilarities in Rushdie and Attar's systems of thought, however, it remains possible to detect continuities across the centuries in the motivation behind their fiction. Though they have imagined very different forms of ideal community, they have both used their “elsewhere” as a means of responding to their persecutors. Both have attempted to imagine models of communal interrelation that do not result in the marginalization or exclusion of their own dissenting voices, and both, finally, have sought solace as well as empowerment in imaginary utopias.


  1. Attar is comparing himself to another persecuted poet, Nasir-e-Khosrow, who, “in order that he might not look on the accursed faces” of his oppressors (Browne 509), was forced to spend his remaining days, like a lost jewel, in the remote province of Badakhstan.

  2. There are variations on the English spelling of Simurg. Here I have used the spelling employed by Rushdie in Grimus (adopted because it is an anagram of his titular character).

  3. The translations of the names are provided by Rushdie in a glossary, 217-18.

  4. Benjamin anticipates Roland Barthes (as he anticipates so much late twentieth-century theory) in his understanding of myth. Myth, in this context, means an official kind of story in which each element is marshaled toward some total explanation of experience. The story or fairy tale, by contrast, is a predominantly secular form of telling that tends to proliferate narratives rather than organize them under the umbrella of a single authoritarian metanarrative.

  5. This is a subject that Rushdie explores in his British Film Institute pamphlet on The Wizard of Oz, another adult-children's tale that inspired Haroun.

  6. See Reinstein.

  7. See Smedman.

  8. Whether or not Rushdie simply reinforces orientalist stereotypes in his reuse of texts such as The Nights is a matter of ongoing debate. See Baker for a full discussion.

  9. Stith Thompson identifies an early Indian variation on the motif of the princess held captive in a tower (R41.2) in his Motif Index of Folk Literature (273). One such Indian version can be found early on in the Katha Sarit Sagara, a story collection that influenced The Arabian Nights. See Somadeva 15.

  10. Other allegories operate at the level of form as well as at the level of text, of course, but in Rushdie's tale the correlations between the fictional representation of a story sea and the intertextual embodiment of a story sea are self-consciously foregrounded.

  11. “[T]he word thousand is almost synonymous with infinite,” Borges writes:

    To say a thousand and one nights is to add one to infinity. Let us recall a curious English expression: instead of forever, they sometimes say forever and a day. A day has been added to forever. It is reminiscent of a line of Heine, written to a woman: “I will love you eternally and even after.”


  12. It is partly because of this pun that Rushdie makes The Conference of the Birds a key source for Grimus, a novel that is obsessed with word games and conundrums. The word grimus itself, in fact, is a word game built on a word game—grimus being an anagram of the pun simurg.

Works Cited

Aravamudan, Srinivas. “Fables of Censorship: Salman Rushdie, Satire, and Symbolic Violence.” Western Humanities Review 49.4 (1995): 323-29.

Attar, Farid ud-Din. The Conference of the Birds (Manteq at-Tair). Trans. and ed. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. London: Penguin, 1984.

Baker, Stephen. The Fiction of Postmodernity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2000.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968, 83-109.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Seven Nights. Trans. Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 1984.

Browne, Edward G. A Literary History of Persia from Firdawsi to Sa'di. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1928.

Caracciolo, Peter, ed. The Arabian Nights in English Literature: Studies in the Reception of “The Thousand and One Nights” into British Culture. Basing-stoke: Macmillan, 1988.

Durix, Jean-Pierre. “‘The Gardener of Stories’: Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories.Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie. Ed. D. M. Fletcher. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994. 343-51.

Fenton, James. “Keeping Up with Salman Rushdie.” New York Review of Books 28 Mar. 1991: 32.

Fuentes, Carlos. “Worlds Apart.” Modernism/Postmodernism. Ed. Peter Brooker. London: Longman, 1992. 244-46.

Grass, Günter, and Salman Rushdie. “Fictions Are Lies That Tell the Truth.” The Listener (June 1985): 15-16.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984.

Pynchon, Thomas. Mason and Dixon. London: Vintage, 1998.

Reinstein, P. Gila. Alice in Context. New York: Garland, 1988.

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. London: Granta, 1991.

———. Shame. London: Picador, 1984.

———. The Wizard of Oz. London: British Film Institute, 1992.

Sidney, Philip. Defense of Poesie, Astrophil and Stella and Other Writings. Ed. Elizabeth Porges Watson. London: Dent, 1997.

Smedman, M. Sarah. “Like Me, Like Me Not: Gulliver's Travels as Children's Book.” The Genres of Gulliver's Travels. Ed. Frederik N. Smith. Newark: U of Delaware P. 1990. 75-100.

Smolla, Rodney. Free Speech in an Open Society. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Somadeva, Bhatta. Katha Sarit Sagara or the Ocean of Streams of Story. Trans. C. H. Tawney. Vol. 1. Calcutta: J. W. Thomas, 1880.

Thompson, Stith. Motif Index of Folk Literature. 2nd ed. Vol. 5. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1957.

Tushingham, David. Interview. “Salman Rushdie in Conversation.” Theatre Programme. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Dir. Tim Supple. National Theatre (Cottesloe) 1 Oct. 1998: 3-5.

Zipes, Jack, ed. and trans. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. New York: Bantam, 1992.

Robert Edric (review date 1 September 2001)

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SOURCE: Edric, Robert. “Kicking Him While He's Up.” Spectator 287, no. 9030 (1 September 2001): 39.

[In the following review, Edric maintains that “the real problem with Fury lies not so much with its absurd and near non-existent plot or with its failure to deliver, but with the writing itself.”]

Several weeks ago, a Guardian article asked disbelievingly why the readers among us remained in thrall to the heavyweight literary quartet of Amis, Barnes, McEwan and Rushdie. Disregarding the obvious—that all four writers are at least a decade past the genuinely ground-breaking and forward-looking work once produced by two or three of them—this question reveals more about the intellectual laziness and commercial opportunism of many publishers, and the media and literary cliques which remain in obeisance to these four at a time when a vast diversity of imaginative, daring and engaging writers has risen struggling towards the light beneath the spreading shadows of this solid and unmoving foursome.

And here, following his misjudged foray into the world of popular music, comes Rushdie's latest, Fury. This, according to the advance publicity, is a work of pitch-black comedy, a profoundly disturbing inquiry into the darkest side of human nature, and a love story of mesmerising force. Even allowing for the excesses of the publicist's trade, it is none of these things, and the honest reader will quickly feel deceived by all these outrageous claims.

What confronts the reader is the tale of Malik Solanka, a ‘historian of ideas’, who communicates various philosophies through the dolls he makes, but who then grows disillusioned when these dolls become popular and exploited, making him a world-wide celebrity and fabulously wealthy. Weary of all this fame and wealth, Solanka abandons his wife and young child in London and moves to New York, city of the tired and disillusioned, where he meets a beautiful young woman, half his age, with whom he falls in love, but who, it transpires, is actually a leading figure in the fight for independence of a tiny Indian Ocean state, where, in a hurried and disappointing ending, she finally goes to play her part in the armed struggle. The besotted Solanka follows her with his offer to mediate (he remains a world-wide and respected name, remember) and, in what can only be described as a wholly predictable ‘twist’, his weary life is saved by this beautiful young woman making the ultimate sacrifice.

The real problem with Fury lies not so much with its absurd and near non-existent plot or with its failure to deliver, but with the writing itself. Rushdie's grip here is tight, and grows ever tighter; nothing is allowed to escape his writerly eye. Every sentence is finely wrought, awash with metaphor, allusion and word-play; whole constellations of people, places and events are described in redundant detail. (Even when characters laugh, Rushdie lets us know precisely the duration, form and intonation of that laughter.)

This is an ungenerous book. The characters are held at arm's length from us. Their lives are probed and examined, explained and rendered cold and uninteresting by Rushdie's excessively explicatory and self-regarding prose, and by the blinding light he insists on shining upon them. Not for the first time, Rushdie, in attempting to prove himself pre-eminent among his worthy peers, has ignored completely the needs of the reader.

There is little doubt that the publication of Fury will attract a great deal of orchestrated attention—it is, after all, an event and not merely a novel—but I wonder how often the reviews will afterwards be referred to as ‘respectful’.

A week ago, the Booker long-list was announced, but rather than focus on the two dozen imaginative, daring and engaging books on offer—at least half of them by little-known or unknown writers—the main concern of much of the coverage of the announcement was the perceived insult to Rushdie and his publisher that Fury was not among them. It does not deserve to be among them. Everyone, eventually, gets tired of cheering and waving at the emperor as he imperially passes us by.

Lee Siegel (review date 2 September 2001)

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SOURCE: Siegel, Lee. “Wild in the Streets.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 September 2001): 3-4.

[In the following review, Siegel identifies Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as textual inspirations for Rushdie's Fury.]

Art critic Clement Greenberg once described someone as being “stupid as a painter.” Painters consider his remark high praise. For them, Greenberg meant to say that because artists' very viscera are lined with thought, they don't need to think their way to the truth. Artists' instincts do the driving; their minds catch up later. Interpretation comes later too, in the eye of the spectator. Yet the real meaning of a painting cannot be articulated in any language other than the idiom of brushstroke and paint.

In this sense, Salman Rushdie is a stupid novelist, as opposed to, say, the highly reflective Saul Bellow or Milan Kundera. Just as Jackson Pollock's intelligence lay in his technique and materials, Rushdie's ideas—about society, about culture, about politics—are embedded in his stories and in the interlocking momentum with which he tells them. His reflective power lies in the way his fiction simply unfolds. All of Rushdie's synthesizing energy, the way he brings together ancient myth and old story, contemporary incident and archetypal emotion, transfigures reason into a waking dream.

Of course, you cannot grasp any genuine work of fiction with reason alone. But until the advent of modernism and so-called postmodernism, novels usually ran along the rational rails of a beginning, a middle and an end. Modernist and postmodernist writing, however, seek to reproduce the way life actually comes at us, twisting and bending meaning and dispensing with the conventional narrative. But there is a paradox here. Although life is indeed random and discontinuous, that is not how we experience it. We impose on the teeming mess of our existence a narrative order; we break the bewildering stream of our days into storified bits and pieces with beginnings, middles and ends. This is realism's conundrum: The raw material of experience and how we mentally organize that experience seem impossible to reconcile in fiction. Enter, in the '70s and '80s, the novels of Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.

As different as they are, these two writers each wrote at least one novel that had no traditional beginning, middle or end but that contained story upon story which did possess the conventional structure of older realist fiction. If there is a single reason why Rushdie's Midnight's Children and García Márquez's much earlier One Hundred Years of Solitude set the world's imagination on fire, it is because Rushdie and García Márquez somehow—at least formally—solved the realist conundrum. Through the overall formlessness of the novel, they captured the way life comes at us; through the conventional form of the particular stories, they captured the way we mentally make sense of life.

Rushdie has been plowing other fields of invention in novel after novel. An erudite re-spinner of the timeless old stories, he endeavors to express them in a distinctly contemporary voice. Rushdie has restlessly remade himself: In Midnight's Children making the narrator also the main character; in the Satanic Verses telling the tale as if it were disembodied wisdom reciting itself; in The Ground beneath Her Feet, his last novel, making his photojournalist-narrator both witness and character, along the lines of Joseph Conrad's Marlow or F. Scott Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway.

In Fury, the story of Professor Malik “Solly” Solanka is told in the third person, but his experience seems so intimately bound to the narrator's that he soon comes to occupy the epicenter of his own epic. In this regard, Fury shares an affinity with Midnight's Children. But in his latest work, Rushdie has faltered; he has lost the exquisite balance he once maintained between the portrayal of raw experience and truthfulness to the way we make sense of experience. He has crushed his formal beauty under the weight of casual commentary.

Rushdie has always built his novels out of the rich clay of mostly Indian myth and folklore, but for this tale, his first novel set entirely in America—New York City, to be exact—he has internalized two indigenous sources: Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. In fact, Fury seems almost to be a conscious imitation of Bellow's 1970 work, in which a Polish-born and British-educated Holocaust survivor acidly surveys the cultural riot of the '60s and '70s from his refuge on the Upper West Side.

Bellow has become the equivalent of Plymouth Rock for British writers living and working in America, so many of whom seem to regard writing about him, or meeting him, or writing about meeting him as some kind of rite of passage to the New World. With Fury, Rushdie has pioneered a new approach, having decided to rewrite Bellow by trying to inhabit Bellow's imagination. He treats Bellow's novel the way Joyce appropriated Homer's Odyssey in Ulysses: as a cultural archetype that needs to be re-imagined for present-day readers.

Like Artur Sammler, Solanka lives on the Upper West Side, is highly educated and sports a British accent. The very name “Solly” is more Jewish than Indian and fools at least one of Solanka's neighbors into thinking that he is a Jew. And before long we meet a Jewish plumber, a Holocaust survivor, through whom Rushdie burlesques one of Mr. Sammler's Planet's most famous sentiments (“through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life … he did meet the terms of his contract”): “I haff liffed my life. I haa kept, eh? My appointment.”

Mr. Sammler's Planet was a dazzling screed against the culture of the '60s, driven by Sammler-Bellow's vertiginous ruminations on society, politics and history. That novel posed a question: Had things gotten so bad that it was time to “blow this great blue, white, green planet” and travel to outer space? An Indian scientist, as it happens, named Dr. Lal has plans to make just such an escape possible. In Fury, an embittered, world-weary Solanka says, “Scan me, digitize me, beam me up. If the past is the sick old Earth, then, America, be my flying saucer. Fly me to the rim of space. The moon's not far enough.”

The horror that Sammler thought he observed running wild in the streets expressed itself in the eruption of private desire into public life, dehumanization—as he saw it—through sexual promiscuity and the protean fluidity of the performing American self. Though Rushdie wants to rebut Bellow, even satirize him, he takes up where Bellow left off. Like so many recent novels and nonfiction books, movies and even paintings and installations, Fury is stunningly high-concept, and like these other kindred works in different genres, the concept outruns the execution.

Through Solanka's anguished retrospection, we learn that he once taught philosophy at Cambridge University. Bored by his professorial duties, Solanka accepted an offer from the BBC to develop a television series popularizing the history of philosophy. He invented a doll, called “Little Brain,” which traveled through time to interview the great philosophical minds of the past. Inevitably, Solanka's creation came to be removed from its creator's hands. The first sign of trouble occurred during the segment on Galileo, when Solanka's bosses demanded that he excise amiable references to destroying Rome and the pope. Eventually, Little Brain was commodified and dumbed-down, leaving an unprotesting Solanka feeling as though he had been forced, like Galileo, to recant. He also became rich and famous.

The doll-maker himself is turned into a thing, and his inanimate creation takes on a new life as an international celebrity. Thus the fury. As Solanka's suicidal best friend, also a celebrity-professor, puts it: “You wake up one day and you aren't a part of your life. … Your life doesn't belong to you. Your body is not … yours. There's just life, living itself. You don't have it. You don't have anything to do with it.” Or, as Solanka formulates such a condition, thinking about his friend: “The more he became a Personality, the less like a person he felt.” Solanka soon finds himself in the same crisis. Gripped by a rage whose cause he cannot fathom—Othello is another allusion in this novel's rich literary fabric—he finds himself one night standing over his wife and child holding a kitchen knife and, shortly afterward, he flees to America in fear and despair.

For Rushdie, America is the headquarters of thingification. It is the place where desire transforms people into things or where people's own desires backfire and turn the wanter into an objectified wantee. England is bad enough—Rushdie has great fun alluding to the image of the ruined giant wych-elm in E. M. Forster's Howards End as a symbol of England's decline—but American anomie is state of the art. This is, as Solanka considers it, because “[h]ere in Boom America … human expectations were at the highest levels in human history, and so, therefore, were human disappointments. … People were waking up … and realizing that their lives didn't belong to them.”

Solanka himself has gone to America in an Alpine state of expectation: “He had flown to the land of self-creation … the country whose paradigmatic modern fiction was the story of a man who remade himself. … Nothing less than the unselfing of the self would do.” Appropriately, Rushdie nods throughout the novel to Fitzgerald's epigraph in The Great Gatsby: “Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; / If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, / Till she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover; / I must have you!’”

But just as murder lies waiting for high-bouncing, self-created Gatsby, what Solanka finds in America is increasing numbers of disappointed and enraged people shooting to death, or otherwise doing away with, other people. Though Rushdie wants, at points, to turn Bellow on his head, he makes the bitterly apocalyptic Mr. Sammler's Planet look like the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. At Fury's core are the mysterious murders and scalpings of three Upper East Side debutantes, crimes which at one point Solanka thinks he has committed in a furious trance.

Such extreme acts are, for Rushdie, the correlative of contemporary humankind's normal state of affairs. Just as the unspeakable image of Sammler fighting his way through twisted corpses up out of a mass grave in Poland is at the heart of Bellow's novel, the nightmare revelation of a stepfather sexually abusing a little boy is at the dark center of Fury—the very image of rage and rage-producing trauma, of dehumanization, of a spiritually genocidal condition in the midst of peace and prosperity.

Like menin, the wrath in the Iliad, fury courses through this novel in all its degrees. There are some riveting, joyful, original set pieces here, and when Rushdie allows his stories to enact his ideas, he strikes gold off the page. These little tales are fragments of what this novel might have been: a return to the articulate form of his earlier work. Rushdie writes about Solanka: “Life is fury, he'd thought. Fury—sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal—drives us to our finest heights and coarsest depths. … The Furies pursue us; Shiva dances his furious dance to create and also to destroy.” And so we meet an angry Jewish plumber, an angry Muslim cabdriver, angry rich white boys, an angry black professional, angry ex-wives, an angry young woman and her angry young boyfriend. Anger hits the high notes in all the existential categories: sex, money, love, politics—the novel ends in a faraway country, in the midst of a revolution whose twining cords of rage and objectification are impossible to sort out. And there is, as there almost always is in Rushdie, an exceeding beautiful Shiva-like woman, in this case, Neela Mahendra, who represents fury's dual nature and nearly redeems the melancholy Solanka.

But if fury is the theme that ties the novel's incidents together, the device that binds the theme to the story is a constant editorializing that is like an unwitting caricature of Bellow's reflective style. This is where Rushdie's intelligence gets in the way of his fantastically gifted viscera. He has original stories, but he does not have original ideas. And the truly epic vision of people obscurely stimulated and mysteriously disappointed, of people cut off from the sources of their anger, is more of a story than an idea.

But Rushdie wants to be explicit, and the result is that Solanka's reflections belong in balloons: “Who demolished the City on the Hill and put in its place a row of electric chairs, those dealers in death's democracy, where everyone, the innocent, the mentally deficient, the guilty, could come to die side by side? Who paved Paradise and put up a parking lot? Who settled for George W. Gush's boredom and Al Bore's gush? Who let Charlton Heston out of his cage and then asked why children were getting shot?” Rushdie's finely woven imagination is vast and playful and wise, but his naked attitudes are small and conventional.

Indeed, Rushdie exploits the charges of racism that Bellow's smuggest detractors have leveled at him for years. In Mr. Sammler's Planet's most notorious incident, a black man stalks and finally exposes himself to Sammler; in Fury, the janitor uses a disparaging Yiddish word for blacks, and the barbarians are rich white boys who kill and scalp rich white girls. Rushdie seems to want to say that Bellow got it wrong; it's the white power structure that stalks and menaces and destroys. This is not only an embarrassing dig at Bellow, who is hardly an apologist for any power structure. It is an even more embarrassing anachronism right out of The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Rushdie's excoriations of dehumanizing contemporary life end up restating and caricaturing Sammler, just as his dashing of Solanka's hopes for a new life restates and trivializes Gatsby, and his portrait of social decline reiterates and makes banal Howards End. Rather than transforming these not-so-old tales, Rushdie seems to be using them as substitutes for his own art. One gets the sense that for Rushdie, to borrow a phrase from Bellow, the veils of Maya have worn thin. Like García Márquez in The General in His Labyrinth, and like the recent Philip Roth, Rushdie seems impatient with reality; he seems to want to push art out of the way and go mano a mano with the literal facts. The result is a work of fiction thrown into the river of reality with facts and mere opinions pushed into its pockets like stones. The terrible disclosure of incest, meant as a shattering climax, has too much newsprint on it to work as an artistic event.

In Rushdie's case, though, something more personal than impatience with pretense seems to be at work. It is hard to sympathize with the imperfect though saintly Solanka, who is constantly feeling sorry for himself on account of his fame, his wealth, his many women and even his relationship with Neela, who is portrayed—with brilliant comedy—as the most gorgeous woman in the cosmos.

Celebrity seems to have imposed its own fatwa on Rushdie. A lack of true feeling rather than fury seems to impel him. Though he gestures furiously, he is simply not furious enough, but at the same time he seems unappeased by his own consoling gift. The more he has become a Writer, the less like a writer he seems to feel. And yet, to paraphrase the final sentence of Mr. Sammler's Planet, Rushdie knows his own dilemma. He knows, he knows, he knows.

Merle Rubin (review date 6 September 2001)

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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “A State of Wrath.” Christian Science Monitor (6 September 2001): 14, 17.

[In the following favorable review, Rubin asserts that Fury is “an acrid, sharp, self-critical portrait of an angry man in an anger-inducing world.”]

Salman Rushdie's latest novel [Fury] takes as its hero a 55-year-old man in flight from his inner demons. Prof. Malik Solanka has recently left his loving wife and delightful little boy to lose himself in the maelstrom of New York City. Although friends berate him for his desertion and his wife and child warmly implore him to return, Solanka may well have had good reason to leave: One night, much to his horror, he found himself holding a kitchen knife over the body of his sleeping wife, the culmination, perhaps, of a lifetime of suppressed fury.

A native of India who has spent most of his adult life in England, Solanka first made his name as a historian of ideas. When Britain embraced the welfare state, Solanka bucked the trend by writing a book that sought to shift the focus from the role of the state to that of the individual. Much to his chagrin, his book later came to be described as a “pre/text” of Thatcherism, though that had not been his intention.

Solanka, indeed, sees Thatcherite Conservatism as “the counterculture gone wrong. It shared his generation's mistrust of the institutions of power and used their language of opposition to destroy the old power-blocs—to give power not to the people, whatever that meant, but to a web of fat-cat cronies.”

Tired of academia, Solanka turned his talents to doll-making, of all things! Solanka's passion for creating highly detailed and individualistic dolls is, of course, similar to a novelist's passion for creating life-like characters.) His dolls went on to star in an educational television show that became a cult classic. Eventually, like his academic ideas, they took on a life of their own, maddeningly beyond the control of their original creator, but making him a very well-off man.

Solanka's personal furies and fears are microcosms of the larger world in which he finds himself in the year 2000: “The city boiled with money. … While the overheated citizenry was eating these many varieties of lotus, who knew what the city's rulers were getting away with—not the Guilianis and Safirs … not these crude glove-puppets, but the high ones who were always there, forever feeding their insatiable desires, seeking out newness, devouring beauty, and always, always wanting more.”

In the midst of the vulgar carnival of acquisition, a series of murders of wealthy young women remains unsolved. Solanka sometimes feels so out of control that he wonders if he himself might be the culprit.

Psychiatric help is out of the question, because Solanka distrusts doctors and the mood-altering drugs so widely prescribed to fix broken souls. “Redefinition was this industry's basic mode of operation. Unhappiness was redefined as physical unfitness, despair as a question of good spinal alignment. Happiness was better food, wiser furniture orientation, deeper breathing technique. Happiness was selfishness. The rudderless self was told to be its own steering mechanism … while continuing to pay for the services of the new guides, the cartographers of the altered states of America.”

Despite his contempt for the “rudderless self,” however, Solanka holds an equally low opinion of people who try to anchor themselves in religious faith.

Deftly interweaving political, metaphysical, psychological, mythological, even cybernetic, variations on its central theme, from the ancient Greek Furies of revenge to the “fury” that fuels the process of creation, Fury is an acrid, sharp, self-critical portrait of an angry man in an anger-inducing world.

James Wood (review date 10 September 2001)

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SOURCE: Wood, James. “Escape to New York.” New Statesman 130, no. 4554 (10 September 2001): 49-51.

[In the following review, Wood finds Fury to be a pretentious, outdated apologia.]

Fury exhausts all negative superlatives. It is a novel that is indeed likely to make even its most charitable readers furious and that could hardly be worse if a secret committee bent on discrediting Salman Rushdie had concocted it. It is also, among other things, a flailing apologia, telling the story of an Indian professor, Malik “Solly” Solanka, who has recently left his English wife of 15 years, and their three-year-old son, and flown from London to Manhattan. Professor Solanka, who has made a lot of money by inventing and marketing a puppet, comes to America desperate to erase his past, to start over again, and to bury the guilt he feels not only about his separation but about a moment of “fury”, in which, after an argument, he had held a knife over his wife's sleeping form and imagined stabbing her.

In Manhattan, however—the boiling, zany, money-fattened Manhattan of the end of the millennium—Professor Solanka finds not peace but only a universal fury, and he wanders the streets, a tormented flâneur, angrily observing the madness of contemporary American life, inflamed by “the everywhereness of life, by its bloody-minded refusal to back off, by the sheer goddamn unbearable head-bursting volume of the third millennium”. Solanka has an affair with a furious Serbian woman called Mila Milo (shortened from Milosevic—you see, even her name is furious), and then with a beautiful Indian woman called Neela, “by some distance the most beautiful Indian woman—the most beautiful woman—he had ever seen”. But Neela is furious in her way, too—she is a political activist—and after some wild adventures, Solanka loses her to that fury. The novel ends with Solanka returning to London, taking a suite at Claridge's, where he “lay wide-eyed and rigid in his comfortable bed, listening to the noises of distant fury”. The next day, he spies pitifully on his estranged wife and son as they walk on Hampstead Heath.

Fury seems an apologia, if an unstable one, in part because the novel is nimbused by a dirty cloud of reality; many readers know that Rushdie himself has separated from an English wife and child, embarked on a new life in America and has a beautiful Indian girlfriend whom he met at the launch party of Talk magazine. Quite apart from these meshings of subject and theme, the novel seems to want us to read it as a species of feverish diary. For instance, Fury might as well be time-stamped, and indeed might as well be entitled Talk; most of it is relentlessly set in the New York of last year, and records, as if offering the pages of a calendar, the city's large and small events: we read about the Puerto Rican parade that ended in multiple rapes, Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton's run for Senate. In addition, there are references to Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Ford of Gucci, the separation of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, Donatella Versace, the film Gladiator, the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the film The Cell, J-Lo, Angelina Jolie, Tommy Hilfiger and so on. It is a novel that contains the sentence: “Thanks to Buffy on TV, vampires were hot.” Flourishing its glamorous congestion, Fury is already obsolete; its trivia-tattoo has already faded. But presumably, all this weightless volume of reference is supposed to be part of “the fury”—the white noise to Solanka's black noise.

It may seem unfair to make Rushdie identical with Solanka. But the novel's own corruptions force the identity. There is, throughout the book, a grievous uncertainty about whose voice is speaking, Solanka's or the author's. On the one hand, we are introduced to a fastidious, European voyeur: “old-world, dandyish, cane-twirling little Solly Solanka in straw Panama hat and cream linen suit went by on his afternoon walk”. Solanka is essentially an Indian version of Saul Bellow's Mr Sammler; he even has the Jewish nickname, Solly. As in Bellow, descriptions and critique are generally prefaced or suffixed by an almost irrelevant “Professor Solanka thought”. But what does Solanka see, and how does he represent it? What is Mr Solanka's Planet? Here the novel disastrously wavers. It seems, in fact, that “old-world” Solanka is enormously interested in, and au fait with, the celebrity houses on Long Island, the fancy new Manhattan restaurants Nobu and Pastis, Ellen DeGeneres, Tony Soprano and Jennifer Lopez. At one moment, Solanka reflects that he was “avoiding head doctors. The gangster Tony Soprano might be going to a shrink, but fuck him, he was fictional. Professor Solanka had resolved to face the demon himself.” At another, he sees posters for The Cell and thinks: “It sounded like a remake of Fantastic Voyage, starring Raquel Welch, but so what? Nobody remembered the original. Everything's a copy, an echo of the past, thought Professor Solanka. A song for Jennifer: We're living in a retro world and I'm a retrograde girl.” So Solanka, who seems to think that the corrective possession of deep historical memory would consist of a familiarity with a Raquel Welch movie, also knows his Madonna.

And then there is the language. For an Indian professor, a former Fellow of King's College, Cambridge (Rushdie's own college), who has never before lived in America, his language has gone peculiarly native. Solanka uses “gotten” not “got”, thinks of “his pal, his best buddy”, recalls getting “jiggy beside a big-assed Puerto Rican girl”, talks of shrinks and head-doctors, of “industry mavens”, of “goddamn” noise and “the cheesiest daytime soap”.

This is no small complaint; not just the critic fussing on about “point of view”. For this instability of voice infiltrates and infects the fabric of the storytelling. A cartoonish and inauthentic voice produces a cartoonish and inauthentic reality. Consider the following fluorescences: “this glowing six-foot Cruella De Vil fashion plate of a mother”; “erect, wiry, with Albert Einstein white hair and Bugs Bunny front teeth”; “the owner-manager, a Raul Julia lookalike”; “she had become the Maya Angelou of the doll world”; “a petite Southern belle … who was a dead ringer for the cartoon sexpot Betty Boop”; “tall and skinny, with a sexy John Travolta quiff”; “a Stockard Channing of the near-at-hand” (a particularly unfortunate echo of Augie March's self-characterisation as a “Columbus of those near-at-hand”). All these vulgarities, these hazy swipes at vivacity, are characters (so-called) in Fury, and all are seen in these terms by Professor Solanka.

Striving to be vivid, this writing only produces something smaller than life, because distanced and mediated by anterior images: when a man is described as having Bugs Bunny teeth, you see Bugs Bunny, not the man. In a way, this cartoonishness, which has been Rushdie's weakness throughout his career, and which has been lucky enough, over the years, to be flattered by the term “magic realism”, proves only that Rushdie is incapable of writing realistically—and thus oddly confirms the prestige of realism, confirms its difficulty, its hard challenge, its true rigour.

Rushdie might reply that he is making a point about the society of spectacle, about the ineradicably mediated nature of the contemporary American world. Look, even Professor Solanka cannot escape this corruption: he sees Jennifer Lopez and immediately thinks of Madonna! But to poison a whole book is a very lengthy way of making a point about a single modern germ; and besides, Solanka is the one supposedly complaining about “this age of simulacra and counterfeits”. Alas, Solanka's unlikely vulgarities, taken alongside his equally unlikely American argot, are so distorting that they abolish him as a character, and leave him only as a figment of Rushdie's painful confessional urge. Fury does not seem to present Mr Solanka's Planet so much as Mr Rushdie's Planet, all secret numbers for Nobu and fancy houses in the Hamptons.

Solanka/Rushdie reverently calls New York, at one point, “a city of half-truths and echoes that somehow dominates the earth”, but this idea of Manhattan is no deeper than the idea of the man who is “a Raul Julia lookalike”. Indeed, the Manhattan of Fury is a city of half-truths precisely because Solanka/Rushdie peoples it with cartoons. And not just Manhattan; America is seen cartoonishly in this book. Solanka, you recall, has come to America “to be devoured … He had come to America as so many before him, to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over. Give me a name, America, make of me a Buzz or Chip or Spike. Bathe me in amnesia and clothe me in your powerful unknowing. Enlist me in your J. Crew and hand me my mouse ears!”

What luxurious condescension in this banal apostrophising. This idea of America, as a place of amnesia and “unknowing”, represents a perfect coincidence of old-fashioned European disdain and new-fashioned postmodern naivety: in the older vision, America is disapprovingly seen as the country with no real history; in the newer vision, America is approvingly seen as the country of no real history, as one enormous Disneyland, handing out Mickey Mouse ears to all its grinning immigrants. Rushdie seems not to realise that actual Chips and Spikes live in America, that amazingly enough they have histories, even American histories, and do not stride through clouds of “unknowing”. Why, they might even not know what Nobu is.

Given this view of things, it seems preposterous when, towards the end of the book, Solanka/Rushdie plumes himself up as a moralist, excoriating America's corruption by materialism: “O Dream-America, was civilization's quest to end in obesity and trivia, at Roy Rogers and Planet Hollywood, in USA Today and on E! … Yes, it had seduced him, America; yes, its brilliance aroused him, and its vast potency too, and he was compromised by this seduction.”

This is supposedly a moral critique, and perhaps a form of confession, but is it not really cousin to the earlier condescension? Rushdie's view of uncorrupted America is as vulgar as his vision of corrupted America. The uncorrupted “devourer” was Mickey Mouse; the corrupted civilisation, against which he supposedly pits himself, is Roy Rogers. You take your pick. And, most importantly, Fury speaks the language of corruption anyway, and so has no rock from which to launch this moral armada. It has apparently been corrupted by the very corruption it decries. It is Rushdie/Solanka who seems to have his head filled with Tony Soprano and J-Lo. Indeed, one might say that, in this book, Rushdie manages the remarkable feat of being simultaneously Euro-condescending and American-debased.

Now, it is one thing to write an allegory or apologia about how America has seduced and even, on occasion, compromised one's soul: but it is quite another to publish a novel that so emphatically re-enacts that compromise.

Roger Y. Clark (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Clark, Roger Y. “When Worlds Collide.” In Stranger Gods: Salman Rushdie's Other Worlds, pp. 18-29. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Clark explores Rushdie's extensive use of other worlds in his novels, commenting that “Rushdie's fiction can be especially disconcerting to those who believe (or want to believe) that the forces of the universe exist in a meaningful harmony.”]

If this world is not to our taste, well, at all events there is Heaven, Hell, Annihilation—one or other of those large things, that huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue or black air. All heroic endeavour, and all that is known as art, assumes that there is such a background, just as all practical endeavour, when the world is to our taste, assumes that the world is all. But in the twilight of the double vision a spiritual muddledom is set up for which no high-sounding words can be found; we can neither act nor refrain from action, we can neither ignore nor respect Infinity.

—Forster, A Passage to India1

There is no obvious way to do an introduction to the myriad of other worlds in Rushdie's fiction, except perhaps to do a second introduction, a second run through that library of permutating letters, that jungle of books which changes with every reading.

In attempting to give context to his work, one could start anywhere from the dawn of Vedic poetry to the latest postmodern transmutation of myth. Yet what seems constant in his finest writing is a love of the metamorphic and inconstant, which, when applied to what Forster calls “those large things, that huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue or black air,” becomes a questioning of fundamental truths as they have been formulated by the great religions and myths of the past. Rushdie's queries into the nature of the universe lead him to juxtapose one cosmic system with another, and to question the balance within any one system. In Shame the narrator proclaims that the cosmic battle for domination is far from over: “Forget left-right, capitalism-socialism, black-white. Virtue versus vice, ascetic versus bawd, God against the Devil: that's the game. Messieurs, mesdames: faîtes vos jeux” (S [Shame] 240). Rushdie's fiction—and especially The Satanic Verses—enters this game in the deepest, most dangerous way imaginable; for in all of his first four novels he revisits the conundrums of theodicy, weighing the forces of good and evil, of order and chaos, and he also throws in new systems which operate by other rules. For instance, in Shame he pits the Devil against God in a number of ways, yet he also brings in the goddess Kali, suggesting a cosmic alliance between the Devil of the Middle East, who operates largely within (and against) monotheism, and a goddess from the polytheistic universe of Hinduism.

In his radical questioning of the epistemologies found in overarching systems, Rushdie resembles what Borges calls “the heresiarch” or “arch heretic who questions all before him, and particularly all forms of established dogma.” In her work The Unresolvable Plot Elizabeth Dipple adds that for Borges “reality itself is an infinite mise-en-abyme [sic] that cannot be traced to any secure source and requires a brilliant heresiarch to demonstrate its infinite resonances.”2 Rushdie also calls to mind the hammer-wielding philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the dark visionary Edgar Allan Poe, as well as the hell-bound Charles Baudelaire of “Le Voyage”:

Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau,
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu'importe?
Au fond de l'Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!

—Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal3

We wish, so long as this fire burns the brain,
To plunge to the depths of the abyss, Hell or Heaven, what does it matter?
To the depths of the Unknown to find something new!

(translation mine)

Rushdie's journeys into dark, dangerous realms are on occasion harrowing, especially in Shame and the Verses. Yet they are not without their consolations and moments of grace. His fiction is also full of wonder, emotional warmth, sensuality, and a sense of humour which is as irrepressible as it is inimitable. He counters the sense of being lost in a meaningless universe with a sense of being liberated by an eclectic, iconoclastic mysticism. His position is difficult to get hold of, for while he hints at an esoteric unifying perspective, a “huge scenic background” that gives the cosmos meaning, he also questions every act of magic or revelation that would give substance to such a vision.

Paradoxically, Rushdie has become something of an icon of that most iconoclastic of forms, postmodern metafiction. Given his metafictional style, his sense of the metamorphic self, and his extensive use of metaphysical realms, one might even call him a metacist. Meta signals a strategy of displacement, a tendency to place at a distance from, beneath, above; Rushdie constantly puts a metafictional distance between believing and doubting his narrator's stories, between the habitual personalities of his characters and the selves into which they metamorphose, and between worldly and metaphysical versions of reality. These multiple gaps destabilize the self and render doubtful any explanation it might advance about truth or about the very act of attempting any such explanation.

Rushdie's metafiction and magic realism go hand in hand, for both serve as levering devices to distance one belief system from another. In his comments on magic realism, Jean-Pierre Durix notes that much of “the pleasure produced by Rushdie's work” derives from his “play on verisimilitude” and from his “adept juggling with different levels of ‘reality.’”4 Stephen Slemon notes that “the characteristic maneuver of magic realist fiction is that its two narrative modes never manage to arrange themselves into any kind of hierarchy.” He calls magic realism “a binary opposition between the representational code of realism and that, roughly, of fantasy … the ground rules of these two worlds are incompatible, neither one can fully come into being, and each remains suspended, locked in a continuous dialectic with the ‘other,’ a situation which creates disjunction within each of the separate discursive systems, rending them with gaps, absences and silences.”5 The liberating term magic realism can become reductive, however, unless one assumes that the dialectic between realism and the magical other is also a “polylectic” between realism and many other magical versions of reality. Such a multiple process offers an endless array of conflicting directions, imperfectly aligned contours, and puzzling gaps. It dooms to obscurity any integrated or systematic vision of the universe, as well as any attempt to relegate specific versions of reality to such categories as true or false, high or low.

One could complain that adding further magical worlds or modes to Slemon's dialectic progressively replaces meaning with conundrum, unity with fragmentation, certainty with doubt. One might argue that Rushdie merely replaces solid (or at least integrated or referential) versions of the universe with an infinity of slippery versions, an ocean of divergent narratives. This of course assumes that there was solidity, integration or referentiality to begin with—a difficult proposition in many cases. On the other hand, one could argue that Rushdie only mirrors the eclectic nature of our times, and that his writing suggests a sort of narrative democracy—not a two- or three-party system, but rather a parliament with many independents. What I say here applies, however, only to Rushdie's first five novels; in his sixth and seventh he takes a rather dogmatic stand, one which precludes support for multiple religious beliefs and urges readers to vote, so to speak, only for the Atheist Party.

The license Rushdie allows himself in exploring myth, religion and metaphysics in his first five novels remains based on the conviction that no one, himself included, has a monopoly on the truth about whatever might lie beyond this world of practical experience—what I call our common four-dimensional world (I am of course assuming here that the three dimensions of space, along with the fourth dimension of time, are not themselves illusions.) In this Rushdie resembles the Byron of Don Juan, for whom the question of the afterlife remains a mystery which is superseded by the story of our present lives:

The path is through perplexing ways, and when
The goal is gained, we die, you know—and then—
What then?—I do not know, no more do you—
And so good night.—Return we to our story(6)

This type of skeptical and self-skeptical stance is less pronounced in Rushdie's latest two novels, for there he comes close to proselytizing in an antireligious vein—as if he actually knows there is no afterlife. Yet to insist on this later Rushdie would be to ignore his earlier self-critiquing metafiction as well as the majority of his finest creations: Aadam Aziz tortured by “a God in whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve” (MC [Midnight's Children] 12); Saleem lost in mystical visions amid a battlefield of gods, demons, angels and djinns; Padma with her stubborn belief in witches who can make people invisible and in mothers who can keep a moral watch over their daughter's dreams; Omar the trembling cosmographer who fears the monstrous forces that eventually devour him; Raza hounded by the puritan angel at his right ear and the socialist demon at his left; Chamcha growing horns he does not believe in; Gibreel sprouting the invisible wings of an angel and being flown from one demon-infested realm to the next; and Allie with her icy visions of angels on the peak of Everest.

Rushdie's extensive use of other worlds in his first five novels fits with his aim of responding less to his own doubts than to the beliefs of the South Asians he writes about. As recently as 1992 he says that his aim has been “to develop a form which doesn't prejudge whether your characters are right or wrong … a form in which the idea of the miraculous can coexist with observable, everyday reality.” This coexistence of the miraculous and the mundane explicitly includes religion: his fiction has always “been shaped by the everyday fact of religious belief in India—not just Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh, but every belief.”7 While he claims that he lost his belief in “God, Satan, Paradise and Hell” at the age of fifteen, and that his “sense of God ceased to exist long ago” (IH [Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991], 377, 417), he nevertheless finds it impossible to talk about human beings without talking about religion: “It did not seem to me, however, that my ungodliness, or rather my post-godliness, need necessarily bring me into conflict with belief. Indeed, one reason for my attempt to develop a form of fiction in which the miraculous might coexist with the mundane was precisely my acceptance that notions of the sacred and the profane both needed to be explored, as far as possible without pre-judgement, in any honest literary portrait of the way we are” (IH 417).

In the area of belief Rushdie is difficult to tie down. It is not just that he inhabits Aadam Aziz's middle ground between belief and disbelief and that he agrees with Khayyam that “To be free from belief and unbelief is [his] religion”8; it is also that he swings from one side to the next. He sometimes calls himself an atheist, yet he also expresses a strong interest in religion and in the existence of the spirit. While his attacks on orthodoxy appear relentless, his fiction is also rife with heavens, hells, angels and djinns, and he returns again and again to the mystical symbology of Farid ud-Din Attar. At one moment he affirms “the two central tenets of Islam—the oneness of God and the genuineness of the prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad” (IH 430), and the next moment he retracts this affirmation.9 To this apparent mass of contradictions one might add his admission that religion and mysticism have had a growing influence on him. In 1990 he writes, “I have been engaging more and more with religious belief, its importance and power, ever since my first novel used the Sufi poem Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-din Attar as a model” (IH 430).

The Verses marks the peak of his engagement with belief and disbelief, after which he relinquishes serious and problematic exploration. One thing that remains constant in his novels, however, is the idea of transcendence or spiritual flight, which, not surprisingly, he explains very broadly as “that flight of the human spirit outside the confines of its material, physical existence.” He claims that “all of us, secular or religious, experience [it] on at least a few occasions” (IH 421). Flight also represents “the imagining spirit” which is “at war with the ‘real’ world” in which “centres cannot hold” (IH 122).

It is this notion of flight and unity which makes most sense of his otherwise puzzling obsession with the mystical poetry of Attar. It also explains his related interest in the ghazal, a Persian and Urdu form of poetry and music which highlights the separation between the human lover and his beloved, as well as between the human soul and the Divine. Exemplified in the singing of Saleem's sister, the ghazal is “filled with the purity of wings and the pain of exile and the flying of eagles and the lovelessness of life and the melody of bulbuls and the glorious omnipresence of God” (MC 293-4). Like tragic love, the ghazal is all the more potent because the love it speaks of cannot be realized; it is, like Attar's Impossible Mountain of Qaf, impossible in this world.

One could argue that Rushdie's notion of transcendent flight cannot be compared to that of Attar or other Sufis since that of Rushdie is too loaded down with materialism, sexuality, plurality and doubt. Yet Sufism in its most poetic and iconoclastic form insists neither on an unswerving monotheism nor an explicitly religious sentiment. While some Sufis follow strict definitions and codes of belief and behaviour, others have more in common with Hindu and Taoist mystics, who by and large see dogma as a limitation imposed by humans, not God. A helpful comparison of Sufism and Hinduism can be found in Hindu & Muslim Mysticism, in which R. C. Zaehner observes that Hindu mystics have operated within a framework that encourages mysticism, whereas Sufis have often been forced to hide their revelations. For this reason metaphor is all the more indispensable, since it obscures what remains unacceptable to the orthodox. By using Sufism in secular and irreverent contexts, Rushdie follows in the Sufi's, rebellious footsteps. That is, he is breaking established or orthodox patterns. Yet he also creates a brand of mysticism—if in fact it can be called that—which is more iconoclastic and permissive than what Attar or most Sufis would allow. Although anyone who has read the famous Sufi poet Jalal ud-Din Rumi would see that Sufism is not only about whirling in a dance of atoms and stars, Rushdie combines Rumi's subversive and humorous vision with an even deeper and more anguished sense of doubt, which makes him closer to skeptics like Khayyam than to believers like Attar or Rumi. And were Attar still living, he would most probably disapprove of Rushdie's fiction, given that he condemned his contemporary Omar Khayyam for hedonism.10

Rushdie may not be compatible with most mystics or theologians, yet he feels free to take Sufi notions and use them for his own narrative aims. Here at least he is consistent, for he is always attacking what he calls “the bogey of Authenticity,” the purist notion that one must refrain from altering the paradigms of culture and religion. He insists that “it is completely fallacious to suppose that there is such a thing as a pure, unalloyed tradition from which to draw. The only people who seriously believe this are religious extremists” (IH 67). This view works itself out in a thousand and one different ways in his novels, most pointedly in Shame's attack on the sanctification of family stories, in the Verses's portrait of the Imam who smashes clocks so that ancient religious versions of reality cannot be further transformed, and in Haroun's figure of the Cultmaster, who tries to poison and plug the flow of narratives in the moon's great ocean of stories.

Orthodox Muslims might shudder at Rushdie's distortion of Attar, yet they might also approve (however reluctantly) of the opposition he sets up between Qaf's abstract transcendental divinity and the violent, deceptive figure of the Devil. The dynamic between these two is involved and paradoxical, one complicating factor being that both Qaf and Satan are elusive by nature: the Mountain of Qaf cannot be located, just as God cannot be defined; and the Prince of Darkness slides surreptitiously in and out of this world. Also problematic is the way Rushdie sometimes suggests that God is a dictator and Satan a rebel hero. Yet he also reinverts this Romantic inversion: the possessions and coercions of his Devils go a long way in nullifying any of their Promethean rhetoric. In addition, his many eulogies to Attar's Simurg and Qaf go a long way in compensating for his occasional portrait of a limited, anthropomorphic God.

In The Sacred and the Profane Mircea Eliade argues that a hierophany, an eruption of the sacred, “allows the world to be constituted, because it reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation.”11 I cannot help seeing this in terms of Forster's cosmic background, and in terms of a fixed star which makes sense of the heavens, the sort of star which Shakespeare writes of in sonnet 116, “whose worth's unknown although his height be taken.” In Rushdie's fiction, this kind of “sighting” or sacred eruption provides but momentary orientation, for it is inevitably accompanied by darker and more chaotic eruptions. For instance, Saleem initially hears angelic voices, yet these turn into a cacophony of fallen angels and drunken djinns; Omar initially sees the screen of Qaf, but this is taken from his field of vision, after which he ponders the heavens and the depths of the earth only to find intergalactic monsters and a frightening abyss; Gibreel in his dreams hears the voice of Gabriel yet the reader cannot help but hear the voice of Satan. What begins as a liberating orientation, a meaningful vision of the universe, most often turns into a nightmare.

If Rushdie were strictly a magic realist writer, eruptions from some other world would not be as disruptive and problematic as they are. For magic does not necessarily reverberate into the cosmos, does not necessarily reach toward Shakespeare's “edge of doom,” Yeats's “blood-dimmed tide” or Attar's blissful annihilation. When writers introduce a magical or inexplicable event into a framework of realism this does not force them into an established otherworldly realm. Yet religion does. When writers introduce a religious symbol or motif this brings with it an entire cosmic system, a prefabricated universe dominated by figures such as Satan or Shiva and by ideas such as Apocalypse or Grace.

It may be that writers who seek to break free from conventional conceptions cannot simply ignore conventional models. My reading of Rushdie's novels does not rest on this idea; nevertheless, it would appear that the writer who would be an iconoclast cannot deliver the attack merely through magical moments that contradict a realist vision of the universe. For ancient otherworldly systems orient the individual and constitute the world in a psychologically, culturally and historically responsive way. Often learnt in childhood, they have psychological impact even after the rational mind has rejected them. In terms of ontology and epistemology, they are well-rounded and cannot be dismissed easily or quickly, if at all. In order to fully challenge an established cosmic system or orientation, it may be necessary to respond to it with an equally weighty or developed orientation. For instance, in questioning the notion of an afterlife in Paradise or Hell, a plot involving reincarnation may be more effective than one involving a unique setting inhabited by souls of the departed dead. Even if one does not believe in any particular version of the afterlife, there is nevertheless a power structure based on usage, indoctrination and precedence. There is a sort of “Common Law of the Unknown” which makes mythology and religion carry more weight than cosmologies which never gained adherents or which appear to be freshly hatched from the imagination. While Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five may shake up our view of America, the aliens in that novel are unlikely to shake our view of the afterlife.

Rushdie may not believe—or fully disbelieve—in the other worlds he includes in his fiction, yet he knows that these have been employed for centuries and that they consequently reside and reverberate deep inside the minds of his readers. In The Study of Literature and Religion David Jasper observes that when people ask themselves fundamental questions, the language used is still steeped in cosmological settings and mythological figures: “The story of Eden and the figure of Satan remain alive in our emotions, and in the textuality of theodicy they continue to address the problem of suffering and evil in God's world, however dead their ‘theory.’”12 Rushdie understands that “theory” has been undermined by skepticism and other theories. Nevertheless, he brings it alive again and again by creating characters who believe in the otherworldly and by describing events which corroborate their belief. For instance, in Midnight's Children Padma's belief in witchcraft is validated when Parvati makes Saleem invisible. Even when characters such as Aadam Aziz, Omar or Chamcha reject religion, they are indelibly marked by the very belief structures they reject.

In his first five novels, Rushdie questions, yet never entirely dismisses, the notion that different epistemologies can be marshalled into a heterogeneous yet coherent view of the universe. These novels can thus be situated between what Lonnie Kliever calls monotheistic polysymbolism, which is associated which modernity and with the view that diverse systems contain universal meanings, and polytheistic polysymbolism, which rejects this universality. According to Kliever, polytheistic polysymbolism “celebrates the variousness and many-sidedness of all expressions of culture and religion. But it decidedly rejects the monotheistic ideal of a fundamental unity underlying and integrating this heterogeneity. Thereby it calls into question modernity's sense of centered self, integral universe, and historical destiny. In short, this rival form of polysymbolic religiosity appears to be polytheistic and postmodern.”13 This polytheistic polysymbolism comes very close to what some people find impossible to accept in Rushdie. His most ardent detractors are staunchly monotheistic and repeatedly blame him for promoting a fragmented vision of God's universe. In addition, Rushdie's novels from Grimus to the Verses increasingly reflect the “historical dislocation,” the “apocalyptic pessimism” and the “rising tide of occultism” which accompanies the ontological and epistemological chaos of Kliever's polytheistic polysymbolism.14 Yet despite this, Rushdie's fiction also suggests some very positive and unifying perspectives. Idealistic or desperate, he returns again and again to Attar's unity and annihilation, Shiva's endless cycle of worlds, Somadeva's Ocean, and other religious paradigms of infinite contextuality and creativity. This tension between chaos and a hidden cosmic order remains one of his fiction's most challenging aspects—be it contradictory or paradoxical.

One of the problems in trying to weigh the fragmenting and pessimistic against the unifying and optimistic is that each novel has a different mix of these elements. Grimus and Haroun are rather overt in their mysticism and in their depictions of a triumphant and unifying multidimensionality. Midnight's Children and the Verses, on the other hand, suggest unity in an esoteric manner, the occult and the apocalyptic taking on ever more dire proportions. Shame is the darkest of Rushdie's novels in this respect, for in it the protagonist is both alienated from a unifying mystical perspective and overwhelmed by the most fearsome of his nightmares. The ending of Shame brings to mind what Dante and Virgil see at the end of Inferno, where Satan uses his three mouths “like a grinder / with gnashing teeth he tore to bits a sinner”15—the sinner in this case being Omar. The important difference here is that readers of Inferno move on the Purgatory and Paradise, whereas readers of Shame have nowhere to go; they can only shudder to think of Omar's fate in the maw of the Beast.

In “Religion and Literature in a Secular Age: The Critic's Dilemma,” Theodore Ziolkowski argues that the lack of a “unified faith” and an “epistemological field” deriving from such a faith leads to a critical dilemma: “the general secularization of Western culture has produced a new problem for literary interpretations because there is no longer a unified faith—what structuralists would call an epistemological field—that provides an automatic context of understanding for the literary work.”16 Rushdie gives this dilemma unprecedented sharpness, for he not only breaks open the Western treasure horde of religious systems and epic narratives, but also, adds a bewildering mix of Hindu and Islamic systems, creating an intercultural clash of realism and multiple hierophanies such as fiction has seldom seen.

Rushdie may disorient his readers with an alienating series of displacements, yet he also leads them on exciting explorations which hold out the possibility of a hidden orientation, a shifting field of meanings. He disturbs those who would find solace in some vague mystical promise, yet he also suggests that multiple versions of reality do not necessarily imply the absence of meaning.

In exploring the meaning of Rushdie's many worlds, I borrow from a variety of sources and I suggest numerous parallel texts and traditions. Yet in finding sources and parallels for a global writer such as Rushdie there is no end. I would therefore like to finish this introductory chapter with two interpretive possibilities which are not fully covered in the body of my text: the fluid epistemologies of Hinduism and Taoism.

Parameswaran, Kanaganayakam, Aklujkar and Goonetilleke supply insight into Hindu aspects of Rushdie's work, yet no one has yet published a detailed analysis of his oeuvre from a Hindu point of view. Throughout this study I suggest various ways in which Rushdie makes intriguing use of Hinduism, yet I do not pretend to cover the subject in any of the scope or profundity it deserves. For instance, Rushdie's cosmological speculations echo those of the earliest Hindu scripture of Rig Veda, in which the poet says that only the being who lives in the highest heaven knows from whence this universe arises—“or perhaps he does not know.”17 Rushdie also has much in common with the much more recent tantric subversions of K. D. Katrak's Underworld (1979) and with the angst-ridden mystical conundrums of Arun Joshi's The Last Labyrinth (1981). The Bhakti tradition might also provide insight into Rushdie's mix of reference and rebellion, allusion and alienation, given that it works both with and against orthodoxy.

Wendy O'Flaherty's various studies of Hindu myth supply insight into two key questions raised by Rushdie: What does it mean to exist in this or any world? and, What does it mean to arrive at a confident reading of any story? Her comments on the Yogavasistha are particularly helpful in appreciating Rushdie's shifting and oneiric narrative structures: “If Vasistha can plunge into the page and come face to face with the monk in his own story, as [the Vedic god] Rudra can go into his dream and wake up the people who are dreaming him, we cannot rest confident in our assumption that our level of the story is the final one.”18 In her analysis of the stories of Lavana and Gadhi, she asks, “Why could there not be a woman, say, dreaming that she was a king dreaming … ? In fact, this cannot happen in our text. For the Hindu, the chain stops with the Brahmin, the linchpin of reality, the witness of the truth. To the extent that the Brahmin represents purity and renunciation, he is real, safely outside the maelstrom of samsara and illusion. Our confusion about our own place in the frames of memory, one contained within another like nesting Chinese boxes, is shared by Lavana until the very end of his tale. But to Gadhi, who is, after all, a Brahmin, the god who pulls the strings is directly manifest and takes pains to open his bag of tricks right from the start; moreover, he returns three times at the end to make sure that Gadhi has understood his lesson properly.”19 In Midnight's Children,Shame and the Moor there is no Brahmin or god who enlightens Saleem, Omar or the Moor about the meaning of their lives. In the Verses there is no one even remotely similar to a holy man or deity who might inform Gibreel about the nature of the strange and dark journey he takes from one reality to the next. Rather, his strings are pulled without his knowledge by Chamcha, whose strings are in turn pulled without his knowledge by the satanic narrator. While in Grimus Eagle learns the meaning of his quest from three separate sources (Deggle, Virgil and then Grimus), in the Verses Gibreel remains puzzled to the very end of his increasingly miserable existence. Gibreel's universe is not like O'Flaherty's “mobius universe,” whose final level is the “transcendent continuum” called God.20 It is rather a downward, chaotic, splintering spiral whose final level is madness and suicide.

Another religious tradition which might offer useful points of comparison is Taoism. The writer Chuang Tze (third century B.C.) is of particular interest, since he posits an ineffable Being yet refuses to insists on such things as the afterlife. Like Rushdie, Chuang Tze sees the self as an indeterminate entity which cannot possibly grasp the parameters of its own reality. In the Verses Rushdie appears to borrow from Chuang Tze, for Gibreel's notion that he is part of Gabriel's dream echoes Chuang Tze's parable in which a man wonders whether he previously dreamt he was a butterfly or whether he is now a butterfly dreaming he is a man.21 Much of the import of Chuang Tze's parable lies in the parable of the shadow which precedes it, in which the shadow cannot understand itself since the contours of its existence depend on the body which casts it. This body in turn depends on outside forces to do what it does, which in turn depend on outside forces to do what they do, ad infinitum. Rushdie's fiction in general, and Gibreel's predicament in particular, suggests that since the self is dependent on an infinite number of unknown factors, it cannot construct a coherent, encompassing framework or ideology. One might be tempted to read a postmodern or deconstructive stance into Chuang Tze's ontology and epistemology. Yet his understanding of displacement leads to a joyful acceptance of change and identity transformation, an acceptance which works in his philosophical system because he maintains a deep belief in the Tao or Way which guides and helps everything under Heaven. Rushdie on the other hand repeatedly asks the disturbing question, What if there is no such Way which gives hidden meaning to the transformations of the self? In Midnight's Children Saleem can only hope there is a spiritual meaning in the annihilation of his Midnight Children's Conference, and in Shame and the Verses the protagonists are unable to escape from an increasingly nightmarish universe. In Shame Omar ends up in the stomach of the fearsome Beast he has dreaded since childhood, and in the Verses Gibreel dreams he is a tortured archangel. Gibreel wonders if the archangel is “the guy who's awake and this is the bloody nightmare. His bloody dream: us” (SV [The Satanic Verses] 83). Rushdie pushes his readers even further into Gibreel's dilemma by hinting that this archangel is the Fallen Angel, and that Gibreel's oneiric existence is a function of Satan's perverted, violent imagination.

Rushdie's fiction can be especially disconcerting to those who believe (or want to believe) that the forces of the universe exist in a meaningful harmony, whether presided over by the laws of karma and samsara, by a God who precludes chaos and meaninglessness, or by the ideal of a mystical oblivion which projects the self beyond the suffering of this world. His last two novels seem to give up this disturbing exploration of what Forster calls “a spiritual muddledom,” and fall back instead on the notion that religion is a waste of time. Yet the first four express a keen interest in the conflict between belief and nonbelief, including the conflict between the divine and the satanic forces within any given otherworldly system—or number of systems. As we shall see in the upcoming chapter on Grimus, the notion of many systems, of worlds upon worlds, obsesses Rushdie from the very start of his literary career.


  1. Forster, A Passage to India, 212.

  2. Dipple, The Unresolvable Plot, 66.

  3. Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal et autres poèmes, 155.

  4. Durix, “The Artistic Journey in Salman Rushdie's Shame,” 454.

  5. Slemon, “Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse,” 409-10.

  6. Byron, Don Juan, Canto I, stanzas CXXXIII-CXXXIV.

  7. Rushdie with Wachtel, 149.

  8. Khayyam, Ruba'iyat, 62.

  9. Rushdie with Cronenberg 24. In addition to changing his mind, Rushdie withdrew the essay “Why I Have Embraced Islam” from the 1991 edition of Imaginary Homelands.

  10. Avery in Khayyam, Ruba'iyat, 17.

  11. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 21.

  12. Jasper, The Study of Literature and Religion, 129.

  13. Kliever, “Polysymbolism and Modern Religiosity,” 178.

  14. Kliever, 178.

  15. Dante, Inferno, xxxiv, 55-6.

  16. Ziolkowski, “Religion and Literature in a Secular Age: The Critic's Dilemma,” 20.

  17. Rig Veda, 26.

  18. O'Flaherty Dreams, Illusions and Other Realities, 244.

  19. Ibid., 138-9.

  20. Ibid., 240, 244.

  21. Chuang Tze, The Writings of Chuang Tze, 245.

Ayelet Ben-Yishai (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Ben-Yishai, Ayelet. “The Dialectic of Shame: Representation in the Metanarrative of Salman Rushdie's Shame.Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 1 (spring 2002): 194-215.

[In the following essay, Ben-Yishai discusses the duality in Rushdie's metanarrative approach to his subject material in Shame.]

I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge. But the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies, obliging me to couch my narrative in all manner of sinuous complexities, to see my “male” plot refracted, so to speak, through the prisms of its reverse and ‘female’ side.

—Salman Rushdie, Shame

This passage from Salman Rushdie's third novel has been pivotal in most analyses of the novel, and indeed will also prove important to mine, if more peripherally. Shame is probably the least written-about of all of Rushdie's novels, and when they did write about it, many critics have centered their argument around his treatment of women, hence the importance of the passage quoted above. Opinions have varied, ranging from charges that his treatment is misogynist (Ahmad 144, 148; Cundy 52) to praise for his emancipatory vision (Needham). Within this range we find readings of “ambivalent” feminism (Hai 16-50) and, more complexly,” critical-therefore-emanicipatory because of its ambivalence” ones (Levinson; Mufti1). In this paper I too take up a feminist reading, but attempt to approach it from yet another angle, one that ultimately allows for most of these interpretations but frames them according to a different question, that of representation or mediation. I wish to show that both Shame the novel, as well as “shame” the concept as it is articulated in the novel, are conceptualizations of a dialectic of representation, and as such necessarily engage a feminist dialectic. Ultimately, I argue that the novel formulates a critique of the domination of women not through the women represented, but through the representation of these women.

The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space. My story, my fictional country exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centering to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate. My view is that I am not writing only about Pakistan.

—Salman Rushdie, Shame

As exemplified in this passage, the question of representation is overtly thematized in the novel with the overarching question of Pakistan versus Peccavistan. In this and other passages, the narrator interrogates the question he posits himself, whether the novel is about the fictional “Peccavistan” named in the novel or “really” about the real Pakistan. The obvious answer is that the novel retraces the historical, real-life infamous struggle for power over Pakistan between General Zia Ul-Haq and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, respectively portrayed in the novel as Raza “Razor Guts” Hyder and Iskandar “Isky” Harrapa. But the answer is also “not quite,” for the novel—as shown in the quote above—purposefully and overtly evades an isomorphic correlation between historical “fact” and textual “fiction.” Furthermore, the novel cannot be easily classified: despite its allegorical moments, the novel is not an allegory because its levels of meaning are not distinct from each other. This is not a story about an imaginary country that is meant to be understood as Pakistan but a story about Pakistan that is not quite Pakistan. Likewise, the novel cannot be classified as “historical fiction” or even the textual equivalent of a “docu-drama” because instead of striving for verisimilitude as these genres require, the narrator shies away from it. The Pakistan/Peccavistan question thus serves to foreground the centrality of the question of representation to the novel, in all its levels of form and meaning.

If this were a realistic novel about Pakistan, I would not be talking about Bilquis and the wind; I would be talking about my youngest sister. Who is twenty-two, and studying engineering in Karachi; who can't sit on her hair anymore, and who (unlike me) is a Pakistani citizen. On my good days, I think of her as Pakistan, and then I feel very fond of the place, and find it easy to forgive its (her) love of Coca-Cola and imported motor-cars.

—Salman Rushdie, Shame

In order to take up this question of representation, I have chosen to focus my reading on the series of narratorial/authorial “asides” that recur throughout the novel, in which the narrator, taking on the persona of the real-life Rushdie himself, addresses the reader in a metanarrative that exposes his thoughts, memories, and deliberations in the process of writing the story of Shame.2 As the passages already quoted in this paper show, these asides range in character, form, and content: from postmodernist theoretical analyses of the novel; through more personal ruminations or anecdotes that appear to be true to Salman Rushdie's “real” life and his relationship with Pakistan; to the narrator's deliberations as a writer of this self-same novel. Thus, the question of representation is foregrounded in these asides by their very appearance and conceit of being somewhat more real and ontologically less fictional. However, the act of mediation between the different levels of the story is represented as transparent, and, as a result, it is elided. And indeed, some of this novel's critics have referred to these passages as conclusive in that they can provide an authoritative key to an interpretation of the novel or, alternatively, provide the (conventionally missing) link between the real-life author and his fictional text.3

Ascribing the metanarrative to Rushdie himself is not as unaccountable as it may seem. The form of these metanarratives works relentlessly to give the impression of “laying bare the device.” Because they foreground the novel's own conceits of representation, they do seem to be ontologically absolute moments of candor, truth, and almost transparency—of very limited (if any) mediation. Aijaz Ahmad, for one, is willing to accept this conceit for his purpose of talking about Rushdie's ideology: “The narrative within the book itself is controlled transparently by repeated direct, personal interventions on the part of the narrator—who is for the purposes of our interpretations here, mainly Rushdie himself” (Ahmad 132; emphasis added).

However, following Althusser, I would like to read these ostensibly “transparent” moments in the text as those not least, but most, pregnant with mediation and, consequently, with ideology. How then, does the narrator mediate his representation precisely at the point of the conceit of no mediation? In other words, the “different question” I wish to pose is not whether or how this novel represents (or misrepresents) women, Pakistan, or anything else for that matter; but rather the question of what this novel says about the very possibility and meaning of the act of representation and the mediations that are elided in this very act.

I begin this inquiry by looking closely at the narrator's own definition of his mode of representation. “If this were a realistic novel about Pakistan, […]” says the narrator over and again in one of his longer asides (65-68). He then immediately proceeds to elaborate a list of things he would have had to include had this been a realistic novel about Pakistan. This marks and creates a formal contrast between the asides and the novel proper, thus producing a correlated dichotomy between the narrative (fiction) and metanarrative (fact). The markers of the real, as pointed out by the narrator, are of two related kinds: The first is a long list of historical/cultural/political ostensibly real-life anecdotes about Pakistan, ranging from corruption—“President Ayub Khan's alleged Swiss bank account”—to “genocide in Baluchistan”; from ludicrous censorship of Western films to globally strategic anti-Semitism (67). These anecdotes mark the real by their verifiable referentiality: many of these facts are common knowledge, and the rest can be authenticated by relatively simple research. The use of such referential facts imparts a similar truth effect to the whole of the metanarrative. But the result undercuts the narrator's own stated intent: he lists the things he would have had to include had this been a realistic novel; this, of course, creates the opposite effect—the “realistic” is de facto included in his novel and hence not excluded. Moreover, had he restricted his novel to these verifiable facts it could not have been a novel—characterized by its fictionality4—but another documentation of some sort. In other words, the “realistic novel”—as defined by the narrator—is an oxymoron and could not have, in fact, been written.

The second marker of this would-be realistic novel is the personal anecdote, in which the narrator, in his Rushdie-persona, reveals the limits of his personal perspective and shows how his story of Pakistan is specific:

Even though I lived in Pakistan for a long time, I have never lived there for longer than six months at a stretch. […] I have learned Pakistan in slices, the same way as I have learned my growing sister. […] I have felt closer to each successive incarnation [of my sister] than to the one before. (This goes for the country, too.)

I think that what I am confessing is that, however I choose to write about over-there, I am forced to reflect that world in fragments of broken mirrors, […]. I must reconcile myself to the broken bits.


A number of things combine here to create a realistic effect. First is the confessional, autobiographical mode—we always tend to sound more “truthful” when we confess our limitations. The narrator seems to create a sense of candor and honesty by professing an inability to produce a complete narrative about Pakistan, due to his inconsistent residence in the country. But this candor is also ironic, for Shame is heavily invested, both thematically and formally, in fragmented, radically subjective narrative technique, as is much of Rushdie's fiction. The text itself implies that the narrator's inadequacy is shared by all human perspectives and narrators. In other words, neither he nor a full-fledged Pakistani resident could have created a comprehensive narrative. This is especially true in light of the repeated allusions to Pakistani censorship, rendering the “outsider” more, not less, capable of telling the “truth” about Pakistan. Thus, while the narrator is ostensibly confessing his limitations, he is at the same time showing that he is just as reliable a narrator as any other—his fragments are as good as the next; the “reconciliation” is a celebration. The same is true for the academic tone the narrator takes here and elsewhere in his asides, analyzing the narrative by means of the metanarrative. This seems to lay bare the device of the narrative, deconstructing the text, but yet again, the deconstructive moment turns on itself, exposing its very textuality as opposed to its referentiality. The result is that textuality, rather than referentiality, has become the marker of the reality-effect.

The second reality-effect component of the “personal” marker of the realistic novel is specificity. The narrator writes about his sister, “[w]ho is twenty-two, and studying engineering in Karachi; who can't sit on her hair anymore, and who (unlike me) is a Pakistani citizen” (65-66). This specificity and personal tone (as well as the production of the Rushdie persona) lends an autobiographical—hence non-fictional—tone to the text. But this marker is also short lived: the sister is almost immediately allegorized (in one of the most banal of allegorizations—woman-as-nation) as Pakistan. Nevertheless, this equation of specificity with the realistic is further supported by the text when the narrator states, two pages later, that

By now, if I had been writing a book of this nature, it would have done me no good to protest that I was writing universally, not only about Pakistan. The book would have been banned, dumped in the rubbish bin, burned. All that effort for nothing! Realism can break a writer's heart.

Fortunately, however, I am only telling a sort of modern fairy-tale, so that's all right; nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously. No drastic action need be taken, either.


This passage affords us a closer look at the reason given in the text for the separation of fictional narrative from its factual “realistic” metanarrative asides. Once more, the dichotomy of representation is thematized: a text can only be fictional or factual—either obscure to reality or transparent to it, realistic or “fairy-tale.” It is in this vein that the reader is instructed to approach this text. Or maybe not? For in its sarcastic tone, the text subverts this fact/fiction dichotomy, alluding to its very impossibility. Moreover, in implicitly assigning this notion to the much-derided Pakistani censors, he emphasizes the over-simplification and ludicrousness of the very idea of such a dichotomy. Yet again, the text subverts the premises it establishes; turning a mirror onto both the transparency of the “realistic” metanarrative as well as the fictional “fairy-tale” narrative—and more importantly, to representation itself.

Representation is thus established as a troubled concept, central to the novel as a whole and specifically to the metanarrative within it. It constantly subverts the seemingly natural categories that it sets up; calling the concept of representation itself into question. Therefore, the “different question” that I have posited above regarding the very possibility and meaning of the act of representation and its mediation is pointed out by the text itself. What then, is represented by the novel's concern with representation? What might the meaning of this concern ultimately be? I approach these questions of representation through various theoretical and critical texts that inform my understanding of the intertwining dialectics of representation and feminism in Shame. In doing so, I will articulate my argument by differentiating it from these other texts, tracing, in a negative way, its own contours.

The first type of reading I would like to distance myself from in this context is the postcolonial deconstructionist reading espoused by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture.5 Granted, the reading by which representation always already subverts and refracts its own ability to represent is one to which the text lends itself with great ease. The narrator's arguments for fragmented representation are convincing, for as I have shown they appear to be more truthful and “real.” As a result, it becomes commonsensical, indeed almost natural to end by saying that we, like the narrator, must “reconcile” ourselves to the broken bits and fragmented mirrors through which we represent the world. For Bhabha, this would seem (as I have hinted it might seem for the narrator as well) a moment of celebration, “an empowering condition of hybridity; an emergence that turns ‘return’ into reinscription or redescription; an iteration that is not belated, but ironic and insurgent” (227). Thus the impasse of representation becomes an empowering moment, produced and reproduced through its rearticulation. The metanarrator (the Rushdie-persona) certainly seems to read his work that way. However, this paper follows the methodology of questioning that which seems natural. So, while Rushdie's prose does seem to go hand-in-hand with Bhabha's theory, I would like to attempt to release that clasp and read Rushdie's representation as a negative dialectic of shame constituting a dialectic of mediation because of its stakes for feminist reading.

Enter shame. It is the metanarrator who establishes the notion of shame as a dialectic, though he does not use the specific term: “What's the opposite of shame? What's left when sharam is subtracted? That's obvious: shamelessness” (33). First, we must note that the positioning of shamelessness opposite shame is not an obvious one. The lexical and semantic opposite of shame is not shamelessness but rather honor;6 while the “opposite” of shamelessness would be shamefulness. Opposing shame and shamelessness in this text is, of course, hardly a mistake or misunderstanding, but rather an indication that the relationship between the two concepts is not one of opposites, but one of negation (subtraction) and hence a dialectic. The dialectic of shame in this novel is not with its opposite—honor, but with its lack—shamelessness. The antithesis is not distinct from the thesis, but rather inscribed within its production: shameless behavior produces shame.

Having (tentatively) identified shame as the thesis and shamelessness as its antithesis, the narrator continues, “Between shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn […]. Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence” (118). What then is the nature of this dialectic, which, fierce and destructive, can only generate violence? I would like to show that it can be read in three ways, all of which are supported by the novel itself. The first is a dialectic that consists of a juxtaposition of two opposites and an ability to contain them both at the same time; the second is one that establishes a self/other dependency between its two components and then internalizes that relationship in order to overcome it; the third form is related to Horkheimer and Adorno's negative dialectic, wherein the dialectical relationship necessarily produces excess or residue, thus providing its own undoing and/or critique.

The key to the first reading can be found in the last metanarrational aside of the novel, opening a chapter entitled “Stability”: the narrator recounts discussing a play, Büchner's Danton's Death, which he has seen with “visitors from Pakistan”: “‘The point is,’ one of my friends argued, ‘that this opposition exists all right; but it is an internal dialectic.’ That made sense. The people are not only like Robspierre. They, we, are Danton too. We are Robeston and Danpierre. The inconsistency doesn't matter; I myself manage to hold large numbers of wholly irreconcilable views simultaneously, without the least difficulty. I do not think others are less versatile” (256). The narrator understands the dialectic to be the subject's ability to hold or embody two or more inconsistent and even irreconcilable views at the same time. It is, in his mind, a matter of versatility, reminiscent once again of Bhabha's empowering notion of the hybridity of the migrant whose ability to be many things at once is his advantage over others.7

Against this understanding of dialectic-as-hybridity the metanarrator shows a different understanding, again gleaned from the opposition between Danton and Robespierre in that same play, of the nature of the dialectic. He comments: “This opposition—the epicure against the puritan—is […] the true dialectic of history. […] Virtue versus vice, ascetic versus bawd, God against the Devil: that's the game” (254). What is forcefully implied is that the last, unnamed, item in this list of oppositions is that between shame and shamelessness. This relationship between the puritan and the epicure, and hence between shame and shamelessness, is more complex than the mere juxtaposition of the irreconcilable. For the two entities in this reading of a dialectic are dependent upon each other for their very existence—the epicure can only be defined as such or become one against an existing notion of puritanity that he or she can then transgress. Hence the dialectic between shame and shamelessness—the latter is and can only be defined against the former, which is in turn constituted by the latter. There is no unmarked term upon which the relationship hinges. In other words, shamelessness can only be defined against shame, whereas it is through shameless behavior that shame is created. I will continue elaborating on this point, but not before the (belated) introduction of Sufiya Zinobia Hyder, shame incarnate; and her husband Omar Khayyam Shakil, the embodiment of shamelessness.8

Sufiya Zinobia is born into shame for being a girl instead of a boy. At the age of almost two, she contracts brain fever; the cure leaves her mentally retarded. As Ahmad correctly observes, in the course of the novel, her shame “comes to refer less and less to herself (her femaleness, her mental retardation) or to her family and becomes increasingly focused on the world as Sufiya finds it; she becomes, almost literally, the conscience of the shameless world” (146). Her allegorical marriage to Omar Khayyam, forbidden by his three shameful mothers to feel shame, reinforces the interdependence of the two concepts they embody.

The above second reading is, indeed, dialectical in portraying the dependency of the two opposites on each other, the metanarrator now adopting a more Hegelian view of the dialectic—“the true dialectic of history” (254). The result of this dialectic is overcoming its opposition by progressing to a third term that preserves that which it overcomes. Thus the dialectical opposites are contained within a trajectory of progression. In this case, the metanarrator takes “shame” and “shamelessness” and pits them against each other, creating the narrative that preserves them both, but contained, now understood as “the game.” Shame and shamelessness are no longer as threatening since they are contained by their very dependency on each other; they can be transcended, grasped from without.

But this view from without carries its own dangers. First and foremost, the position of exteriority gives the observer the privilege of not being implicated in or by the dialectical terms. The metanarrator assumes he recognizes the dialectic for what it is and that “it” is extrinsic to himself. Having the power of comprehension, he is able to transcend the dialectic; he is on the outside looking in. He is not part of shame or shamelessness because he is able to explain them. This can lead (and, I argue, does lead) to a reification of the concepts of shame and shamelessness. And indeed, shame is represented as an object whose meaning is sealed, independent and exterior to its user; hence it is reified and, ultimately, fetishized as “Eastern”: “This word: shame. No, I must write it in its original form, not in this peculiar language tainted by wrong concepts […] Sharam, that's the word. For which this paltry ‘shame’ is a wholly inadequate translation. Three letters, shìn rè mìm (written naturally, from right to left)” (33). Shame is (or was) a pure “natural” Eastern (Oriental?) concept, before it was “tainted” by the English language. This quote assumes, of course, that concepts exist originally in pure form, untainted by a subject position from which they are uttered.9

All things considered, this version of the dialectic does not, in my mind, account for the mediation at work within it. The ideas of shame and shamelessness are not unmediated concepts or received notions simply reflecting an external, pre-existing concept. Rather, it is only in their articulation from concrete subject positions that they become meaningful. In the above, second, reading of the dialectic, shame and shamelessness are perceived as hermetic unequivocal concepts; this reading thus lacks an awareness of the subject position that creates their meaning.

If we want to go beyond a description of the personification of shame towards an explanation of it—to distinguish between what shame is and the way it manifests itself—we must first acknowledge that a double set of mediations is at work in the conceptualization of shame in the novel. One is the representation of shame as a reified object; the second, of course, the personification of this construct in Sufiya Zinobia. Following the methodological steps of Moishe Postone in his essay “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism,” we can recognize that the two mediations present themselves antinomically, as the opposition of the abstract (concept/word) and the concrete (the character).10 Postone argues that “[b]ecause, additionally, both sides of the antinomy are objectified, each appears to be quasi-natural” (308). As I have shown, both the mediations in the novel—shame as a reified object as well as Sufiya as shame personified—have indeed been objectified and naturalized. It is exactly a wariness of the naturalness of these two representations that leads me to the third, most productive way to read the dialectic in this novel; looking at these mediations through each other, in a negative dialectic.

This methodology can be traced to Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Their dialectical approach is characterized by the use of the self same concept as both object and subject position. In fact, according to Martin Jay, it is the ability to include both these moments, negative as well as positive, which is presented as the very strength of the concept (Begriffe) by Horkheimer and Adorno (261). In their critique, the Enlightenment is both the object and the subject position for their project. This is not to say that the two—enlightenment as historical object and enlightenment as theory—are identical. In fact it is the way they both “escape” this identity that creates their dialectic in the form of reflective opposition. A similar move can be located in their reading of Homer's Odyssey; the text serves both as an object of their reading and at the same time as the source of theory for that very reading. Finally, the notion of sacrifice within the Odyssey is elaborated as an ultimate dialectical moment; Odysseus is both sacrifice and priest (Horkheimer and Adorno 50), a nexus for their reading of the Odyssey as the “inherent relationship between self-renunciation and self preservation” (Jay 264). Thus, the same dialectical move is traced in three different levels of Dialectic of the Enlightenment: in its overarching project (the dialectic of enlightenment); in its approach to the literary (the reading of the Odyssey); and in its analysis of trope within the literary text (the analysis of sacrifice). This provides a methodological understanding of the negative (cultural) dialectic as the use of subject matter (object) as theorizing its own conceptuality. In other words, closer to those of Horkheimer and Adorno, this method negates the object with its own perception, while maintaining their “reflective opposition” (Jay 267).

An invitation to take this third approach can also be located in the novel. Since Shame is not a purely allegorical novel, both Sufiya and Omar Khayyam are but representations of shame and shamelessness; the characters do not embody that which they represent, because they cannot do so. Due to this very act of mediation, they are in excess of their corresponding concepts as well as of each other. Ahmad makes this precise observation, but fails to follow through on its meaning: “[T]he very dialectic—of shamelessness and shame, and their condensation in eruptions of violence—which governs the conceptual framework of the novel is fundamentally flawed; symbolic values that Rushdie assigns to Sufiya Zinobia simply exceed the terms within which he has fashioned her whole existence” (146). Moreover, and at the same time, her existence exceeds the symbolic value she embodies. It is this excess that is the marker of mediation—of the impossibility of a complete allegorical identification between the character and what she purportedly represents. Thus, this excess is not a “flaw” in the conceptual framework of the novel, but is the inevitable residue, intrinsic to the negative dialectic, according to Horkheimer and Adorno.

This approach accords with that of Marjorie Levinson, who takes Ahmad to task for a Marxist reading of Shame that “reproduces the false antithesis identified by Lukàcs as the foundation of capitalist science: namely, immediacy and abstraction” (103). Levinson argues that Ahmad's reading is not dialectical, thus espousing a “binary, moralistic, transcendental critique” (107). Reading Sufiya Zinobia and Omar Khayyam as transparencies through which one can see shame and shamelessness and their dialectic, ultimately results in a reification, wherein the abstraction of shame is naturally perceived to be personified or actualized in Sufiya Zinobia, shamelessness in Omar Khayyam, and the dialectic at work in their relationship.

We return to shame, now approached as a negative dialectic. We no longer need shamelessness to create this dialectic, because the negation of shame is already contained in its conceptualization. In other words, the dialectical relationship is no longer that of shame and shamelessness but rather of shame as object and its perception as such. Since neither of these representations is transparent, they must be “detoured through another transparency”—observed through each other—for “unless they are so produced, they remain abstractions masquerading as particulars” (Levinson 115). Only when we look at shame as a nontransparency, as a reified construct, through another nontransparency, the mediated characters, can we examine its naturalization by asking why and how Sufiya Zinobia is incarnated as shame.

The best place to do so is the aside in which the metanarrator describes his real-life and imaginary sources—his how and why—for his “heroine.” Sufiya Zinobia was initially created “out of the corpse” (118) of a Pakistani girl in London who was stabbed to death by her father for making love to a white boy and bringing “such dishonour upon her family that only her blood could wash away the stain” (117). Two more “phantoms” join the first girl in the making of Sufiya Zinobia, both from London, another girl and a boy. The girl, “‘Asian’ again,” is beaten up by a group of white teenage boys, and “afterwards, remembering her beating, she feels not angry but ashamed.” In the narrator-as-writer's imagination the violence that is the result of shame unleashes in the second girl great fury and strength far beyond her physical ability, as she “thrashed the white kids within an inch of their lives” (119). The boy, “from a news clipping” had been found “blazing in a parking lot” (120). Apparently (and unaccountably) he had ignited of his own accord.

How do these three sources work against or with each other in the implied writer's mind? How are they perceived and objectified? Let us begin with the first girl. The narrator recounts how the story of her murder “appalled” him not only because of the infanticide itself, but because of the family's friends and relatives who refused to condemn the father's actions and understood the man's point of view, and went on supporting him even when it turned out that the girl had never actually “gone all the way” with her boyfriend (117).

The narrator's horror is increased when he realizes that the girl did not really “go all the way,” which implies that had she done so, her death would still have been unjustifiable, but a little less so, perhaps because in his eyes the shame is real, even if the means of its eradication are wrong. Further explanation is given when the narrator candidly admits: “But even more appalling was my realization that like the interviewed friends etc., I, too, found myself understanding the killer” (117).

This moment of great honesty and self-reflection speaks for an understanding of the subjective nature of shame, for its location in the mind of the beholder. But the narrator is quick to externalize this understanding: “The news did not seem alien to me. We who have grown up on a diet of honour and shame can still grasp what must seem unthinkable to peoples living in the aftermath of the death of God and of tragedy: that men will sacrifice their dearest love on the implacable altars of their pride” (117-18).

The narrator resists personal agency and responsibility and ascribes it to his own socialization, thus separating this cultural conditioning from his “real” self. But at the same time he does something more subtle but still of crucial importance—he shifts his focus of inquiry from the concept of shame to its consequences. It is the murder that obsesses the narrator, and not shame, which is left as an unanalyzed given; a commodity to be consumed: “a diet of honour and shame.” This is supported by the conclusion of this paragraph, which I have already quoted: “Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence” (118). The narrator's thesis, and, to some extent, the novel's, is about the connection between shame and violence and not, despite the text's repeated claims, about the origin of shame itself. The latter is perceived and presented as an immediate fact, not a social construct.

Even more tellingly, the narrator describes his obsession with shame as manifested in the girl's dead body: “Wanting to write about shame, I was at first haunted by the imagined spectre of that dead body.” The description of the (imagined) body that follows reads like a clichéd buildup to a detective novel,11 once again reifying the specific in the generic. The description continues in biblical form, using “And” for narrative progression, culminating in “And the father left with blood-cleansed name and grief” (118). This too serves to reify the murder, placing it within a mythological order, before the death of God, evoking the story of Ibrahim/Abraham's sacrifice of Ishmael (in the Islamic tradition) or Isaac (in the Judeo-Christian tradition).12 The tone of this passage is severely censorious; there seems to be no possible reading that would sanction this murder in any way. In fact, the inclusion of these two disparate genres—crime fiction and biblical register—serves to critique and implicate them in the death of the young girl. However, in the process of doing so, the girl is distanced, effaced, and the text refocuses—uncritically—on the idea; on shame as a reified construct.

It seems that the narrator feels that he has “lost” the girl and attempts to return to her in the next passage:

I even went so far as to give the dead girl a name: Anahita Muhammad, known as Anna. In my imagination she spoke with an East London accent but wore jeans, blue brown pink, out of some atavistic reluctance to show her legs. She would certainly have understood the language her parents spoke at home but would obstinately have refused to utter a word of it herself. Anna Muhammad: lively, no doubt attractive, a little too dangerously so at sixteen. Mecca meant ballrooms to her, rotating silver balls, strobe lighting, youth. She danced behind my eyes, her nature changing each time I glimpsed her: now innocent, now whore, then a third or fourth thing. But finally she eluded me, she became a ghost, and I realized that to write about her, about shame, I would have to go back East, to let the idea breathe its favourite air. Anna, deported, repatriated to a country she had never seen, caught brain-fever and turned into a sort of idiot.

He names her. The real-life girl about whom he had read in the papers, must have had a name and, since the story was so publicized, one that should have been relatively easy to find out. But the narrator is no longer interested in the girl herself but in the concept of shame she has come to embody for him. His final move of abstraction from the specific woman is done, paradoxically, by personifying her as concept; appropriating her to himself. She now exists only in his imagination as his “private dancer.” This is the dialectical moment where the concept—shame—reveals both its abstraction from its underlying misogyny (its “labor process”) and its objectification in the reified personification of the girl.13

What can we then discover about shame through this moment when the two mediations are superimposed on each other? We find that in order to conceptualize shame the narrator had to rid the girl of her specificity and to internalize and appropriate her. The girl, object of shame, does not have a subject position within the dialectic, for it is contained within the male gaze. She is trapped between the (male) imperative for her to be attractive and the “danger” (also from men) of being so. Her status as object is further illustrated when the narrator describes her changing nature as a succession of “things” that are already inscribed by the very idea he is analyzing: “innocent” or “whore” assumes shame. The changing nature of the girl moves from one category of shame to another but does not question the categories themselves. We seem to have a variant of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic. The narrator has internalized the girl; in looking at her he finds himself, manifested in his (socialized) perceptions of received categories.

However, the passage is more complex. Even trapped inside his imagination, a figure seemingly identifiable with his conception of shame, the girl manages to elude the narrator: she dances behind his eyes and then becomes a ghost—a magic that, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, is the residue and excess of the dialectic. She thus escapes identification as shame. In order to recapture her the narrator/writer takes her “back East” and she turns into “a sort of idiot.” The narrator never answers the question he asks of himself: “Why did I do that to her?” (119) We can only conjecture that this too was an attempt to empty her of a subject position, make her conform to the idea she is supposed to embody, by turning her into a sheer victim. But Sufiya Zinobia refuses to comply. In her furious (though unconscious) outbursts she kills and mutilates, avenging shame—both hers and others'.

This second quality of shame, that which avenges its own shamefulness, is not left abstract by the metatext either, but is personified by the second girl. However, she who is given agency, is not named. This vengeful quality of shame is described by Rushdie—both in the narrative and in the metanarrative—as the regenerative possibility for women, and, as others have noted, a very bleak option at that. In any case, the important thing to note at this point is the necessity of splitting the two qualities of shame, personifying them in two girls. The incommensurability of either girl with shame, their relegation into the supernatural, to magic, is the marker of negative dialectic—that which negates the object through its own perception.

We find ourselves at an impasse: despite the narrator's honest attempts to give a voice and a central place to women and the shame that oppresses them, his narrative ultimately circles back on itself, generalizing the singular, turning oppression into abstraction. Is this, then, simply an “honorable failure” as Gayatri Spivak would have it? (“Reading” 223). I have suggested that this need not necessarily be the case. Our way out of this impasse is indicated by Marjorie Levinson: “the appropriate Marxist move is to search out the historical conditions of that representation of arrested dialectic. [… T]he contradictions and arrests that deform Rushdie's novel, keeping it from assuming some received utopian shape, also give it the power to shadow forth its culture's immanent and founding negation” (124-25, emphasis added).

In order to perform this search, we must return to the idea of sacrifice, constitute both of Rushdie's Shame and of Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment. In the former, shame is repeatedly referred to as a form of sacrifice.14 Of the father who murdered his daughter the narrator says: “men will sacrifice their dearest love on the implacable altars of their pride” (118). In this description, men are subjects while their “love” (again an abstraction of the woman/daughter as defined by men's regard) functions as the object (15). This is the difference between Rushdie's sacrifice and Horkheimer and Adorno's, where it is Odysseus who embodies both sacrifice and priest, thus obliterating the subject/object split.

In order to do the same, Rushdie's father must kill the girl. In his perception he is sacrificing part of himself—“his dearest love”—he too is both sacrifice and priest. The subject (man)/object (woman) split is ultimately internalized in the father as a dialectic. Once again, Rushdie shifts the focus from the woman, whose plight he is trying to underscore, to the struggles of the man. Andrew Hewitt finds that Horkheimer and Adorno do the same: “That male domination involves a certain self-immolation on the part of the male may well be true—very probably it is—but the thrust of the argument here is to bypass man's domination of woman in the rush to get at the crux of the issue, the “real” heart of the matter: man's alienated domination of himself” (154-55, emphasis added).

So we arrive at the third source of Sufiya Zinobia, as elaborated in the metanarrative, the boy who burns to death, apparently from self-combustion. Anna is the victim, or object, of shame; the second, nameless, girl turns shame into agency, a subject position; but it takes a boy to put the two together.

In her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak has shown that a woman cannot be represented as both priest and sacrifice of her own sati. The practice of sati, argues Spivak, has been represented, time and again, by various dominant discourses (whether “brown” or “white,” feminist or not) but in all those discourses the sexed subaltern is always the object, never the subject of her self-immolation, not to mention both at once. Her argument is corroborated by this novel. Rushdie needs the boy to incorporate both subject and object positions. The boy is both subject and object of his pyre; both priest and sacrifice of his self-immolation. He is the one who discovers “the truth” (120).15

Linked thematically as well as theoretically through the motif of self-immolation, this argument—of the gendered subject/object split internalized within man—resonates with Andrew Hewitt's feminist reading of the Dialectic of Enlightenment where he traces the exclusion of women in the internalization of the dialectic by man: “in focusing upon the category of (masculine) self-domination, Horkheimer and Adorno ignore the persistence of outer-directed domination—man's domination of woman, for example. The central role played by the category of alienation […] allows them to focus, among other things, upon: ‘male domination, which—as a permanent deprivation of instinct—is nevertheless a symbolic self-mutilation on the part of the man [Adorno and Horkheimer 72]’” (Hewitt 154-55).

According to Hewitt, man interpolates himself, through sacrifice, from the realm of domination to that of power, which is domination by representation. “[Man] trades off his subordination to a network of power in order to maintain his own direct privilege” (144). As we have seen in Shame, man indeed sacrifices one part of himself—“his dearest love”—in order to gain power (represented as pride) over the woman. However, by so doing, argues Hewitt, he loses the experience of domination, which is relegated to women, instrumentalized as the representation of exclusion. (The woman, by the way, loses her life.) He points out that Horkheimer and Adorno, although cognizant of the exclusion of women as a category, “are obliged to repeat the generalizing gesture they condemn. How can it be asserted that ‘woman’ is denied the honor of individualization without once again denying her the honor of individualization, by forcing her into the singular yet generic category of ‘woman’?” (148)

If we agree that power is domination as representation then we have to conclude that Rushdie's women characters—represented as they are in both in narrative and metanarrative—are certainly unemancipated. But, as Hewitt shows, there is no way for them to be represented as emancipated for it is the very representation that dominates them. Moreover, even if this were possible it would result in a liberation from domination into a more complex system of power (157).

However, the solution to yet another variant of the impasse described above is the foregrounding of representation itself. This, argues Hewitt, is suggested by the Dialectic of Enlightenment: “The ‘way out,’ which is really a ‘way in,’ a way into the very heart of representation—that Horkheimer and Adorno offer consists in articulating in and through the figure of woman a critique not only of social relations made possible within a certain system of representation but a critique of the representational system itself” (157). Thus, the novel formulates a critique of the domination of women not through the women represented, but through the representation of these women.

Rephrasing this argument in the terms set by Spivak, I can say that the sexed subaltern subject still does not speak. The novel does not give a voice to Anahita/Anna, or to the unnamed “Asian girl” or even to its fictional characters, foremost Sufiya Zinobia. However, its representation of these women can be read as exposing the violence and the silencing imposed on their voices by the selfsame representation—ultimately echoing Spivak's own argument.

What I have tried to represent in this paper is the double mediation at work in Rushdie's representation of shame. I have shown that this concept is both a reified abstraction of the social forces dominating women as well as a cause for this domination of women. The metanarrator does not seem to be cognizant of this distinction. Thus, while declaring his interrogation of the concept he is, in fact, questioning the causal connection between shame and the violence (domination) it generates. In this he is unsuccessful: the connection cannot be severed because the domination is inherent in the concept itself. On the other hand, the concept cannot be interrogated because it is a naturalized abstraction of the social forces at work.

However, through the excess accrued in the process of this naturalization in the text, Rushdie marks its non-immanent, representational quality, or, if you will, its negative component. Focusing on these moments of this text, we can defamiliarize them, gaining access to their “mode of production.” By superimposing these two mediations upon each other we find an entering point into what initially had seemed like a vicious circle. Thus, the novel's radical critique is located in the narrative's inability to embody shame in one character, in Anna's evasion and disappearance, in the residue and excess accompanying each and every attempt at representation—and especially that of women—in the novel. Shame, in this case, is a reified abstraction of men's domination of women; its failure to be represented reveals its abstraction and thus harbors its own critique.


  1. Mufti makes this claim in his discussion of Rushdie's fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, but I think that it can be easily applied here with the same degree of success. (My critique of Mufti's argument will be implied in a later stage of this paper.)

  2. While the narrative implies that this metanarrator is indeed the real-life Salman Rushdie, he is not the implied author of this narrative, hence my decision not to refer to him as such. The implied author is commonly understood as a construct of the text “inferred and assembled by the reader from all the components of the text” (Rimmon-Kenan 87). The narrative voice I quote throughout this essay is not implied by the text or inferred from it. Rather it has a distinct narrative presence in the novel. I have called it the metanarrator to distinguish this voice from that of the narrator of the diegesis itself. The metanarrator narrates the process of narration of the diegesis.

  3. See for instance Ahmad, who writes in reference to the metanarrative passages, “we should recall what Rushdie himself tells us […]” (133).

  4. A good case in point is the genre of the realist novel in the tradition of Eliot, Balzac, and Dickens, which, paradoxically, achieves its reality effect in its fictionality (which enables its narrative omniscience and detailed specificity) and not in its fidelity to reference. See Gallagher.

  5. Especially 223-29, where he discusses Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

  6. As attested by Rushdie himself: “Because shame and its opposite, which is honour, seem to me kind of central to the society I was describing, to such an extent that it was impossible to explain the society except by looking at it through those concepts” (“Midnight's Children” 54).

  7. Most would argue, and I would agree, that this is not a dialectic relationship. But since it is explicitly named so in the novel, I have decided to leave it, possibly in the interest of a future observation of the post-structural, deconstructive adoption and (mis)use of the dialectic concept.

  8. Since my paper focuses specifically on the metanarrative asides in this novel, I will in no way be giving a comprehensive reading of these characters, who are at the center of the narrative itself. They are presented here briefly, in order to introduce the discussion of how these characters are represented and talked about in the metanarrative.

  9. Or maybe untainted as long as they are uttered by those who were “naturally” meant to use the concept in its “pure” form.

  10. My indebtedness to Postone's essay goes much farther and wider than its specific contribution here; it has influenced and indeed shaped my argument throughout this paper.

  11. À la Raymond Chandler, or a scene in the film noir genre of cinema.

  12. The girl's throat is described as “slit like a halal chicken” implying the God-instructed purifying process this murder brings about.

  13. And note the narrator's shame at his own “understanding” of the murder.

  14. Elsewhere, the narrator says of Sufiya Zinobia, “What is a saint? A saint is a person who suffers in our stead” (146).

  15. However, though the boy can embody both the subject and object of his sacrifice—internalizing the dialectic—he is not directly linked to shame. This, I would argue, is due to his maleness—since shame is a category used (as I have shown) for the domination of women.

I would like to thank Colleen Lye, Shai Ginsburg, Amy Huber, Irene Perciali and Jenny L. White for their rigorous and encouraging comments on earlier versions of this paper.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London: Verso, 1992.

Althusser, Louis. Reading Capital. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: Verso, 1997.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Booker, M. Keith, ed. Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie. New York: Hall, 1999.

Cundy, Catherine. Salman Rushdie. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1996.

Gallagher, Catherine. Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

Hai, Ambreen. “‘Marching In from the Peripheries’: Rushdie's Feminized Artistry and Ambivalent Feminism.” Booker 16-50.

Hewitt, Andrew. “A Feminine Dialectic of Enlightenment? Horkheimer and Adorno Revisited.” New German Critique 56 (1992): 143-170.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1947. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1998.

Jay, Martin. The Dialectic Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. Berkeley: UC Press, 1973.

Levinson, Marjorie. “News from Nowhere: The Discontents of Ahmad Aijaz.” Debating in Theory. Spec. issue of Public Culture: Society for Transnational Cultural Studies 6 (1993): 97-131.

Mufti, Aamir. “Reading the Rushdie Affair: ‘Islam,’ Cultural Politics, Form.” Booker 51-77.

Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney. “The Politics of Post-Colonial Identity in Salman Rushdie.” Massachusetts Review 26:4 (1988-89): 609-24.

Postone, Moishe. “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism.” Germans and Jews since the Holocaust: The Changing Situation in West Germany. Ed. Anson Rabinbach and Jack Zipes. New York: Holmes, 1986. 302-14.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. New York: Routledge, 1983.

Rushdie, Salman. “Midnight's Children and Shame.Kunapipi 7.1 (1985): 1-19.

———. Shame. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Reading The Satanic Verses.Outside the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993. 223.

———. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grosberg. Urbana: U. of Illinois P, 1988. 271-316.

Ian Almond (essay date winter 2003)

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SOURCE: Almond, Ian. “Mullahs, Mystics, Moderates, and Moghuls: The Many Islams of Salman Rushdie.” ELH 70, no. 4 (winter 2003): 1137-51.

[In the following essay, Almond examines Rushdie's portrayal of Islam throughout his body of work.]

One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on the prayer mat, transformed into rubies. … At that moment … he resolved never again to kiss earth for any god or man.1

There is a cinematic quality to this opening scene from Salman Rushdie's novel—one can imagine it filmed in ironic, gently understated terms: the figure of a returning emigrant, on his knees against a mountain-flushed landscape, the sound of an indignant thud as his head bows in the namaz, and then the same figure rising, filled with a new pride. Within a single image, Rushdie seems to encapsulate every reservation he feels towards religion in general—and towards Islam in particular: faith as something essentially childlike and naïve, a habit to be grown out of, a near-enough synonym for nationalism and capitalism, a myth which sometimes needs a good hard bump on the nose to be dispelled.

Disbelievers, regardless of whether they are born-again atheists or congenitally skeptical from birth, seem to wander through most of Rushdie's works: in The Moor's Last Sigh, no place for God can be found in Aurora's masterpiece, nor on the lips of her mother (“There is no world but the world,” she cries, a perversion of the la-illahi la illah); the three sisters in Shame all reject the God of the society from which they withdraw, as does Changee Chamchawala in The Satanic Verses, who finds his own father “more godlike … than any Allah,” until the old man becomes a believer himself.2 The abruptness of Aadam Aziz's moment of un-conversion has something faintly Sartrean about it—Sartre, we will recall, stopped believing in God as a child, after refusing to feel guilty about burning a piece of the family carpet: “I was busy covering up my crime when suddenly God saw me. I felt His gaze inside my head and on my hands; … I grew angry at such a crude lack of tact and blasphemed, muttering like my grandfather: ‘Sacré nom de Dieu de nom de Dieu de nom de Dieu.’ He never looked at me again.”3

In one essay, Rushdie relates how he himself lost his faith with equal suddenness at the age of fifteen, in the middle of a Latin lesson. The consumption of a ham sandwich immediately after this epiphanic moment, we are told, seemed to confirm the “correctness of [his] new position.”4 Sudden losses of faith, distinctly un-Pauline road-to-Damascus revelations, unexpected Aufklärungen where the protagonist suddenly sees through the perceived sham of religion and superstition—the existence of such Enlightenment souls in Rushdie's novel tends to obscure the presence of not one but several Islams in his work, a polyphony of different Islams which many commentators have overlooked.

Rushdie's various Islams surface according to the mood and feeling of the moment; different versions serve different purposes at different times. Sometimes it is a pool of fanaticism, replete with all the echoes of jihad and the blessings of martyrdom; at other times, when confronted with Hindu nationalism in the forms of the Shiva Sena and the Hindu extremist organization RSS, Islam is invoked as the faith of an oppressed minority, struggling courageously against the blindness of bigots like Mainduck the frog. Sometimes Islam, along with history and capitalism, is cited as just another violent metaphysics, responsible for war and prejudice on a large scale. In calmer moments, Rushdie is keen to stress the moderate, more democratic elements within Islam, particularly when commentators like V. S. Naipaul are excessively critical towards it. Geographical as well as ideological variations are observed—Moorish Islam as well as Moghul India seem to capture Rushdie's imagination at various moments. If Pakistani's Islam, as a state religion, is seen as stultifying and thought-threatening, Rushdie is keen to remind us (particularly in his own self-defense) of a long tradition of critical inquiry and creative thinking in Islamic thought, from Ibn Sina and Omar Khayyam to his own namesake, Ibn Rushd.

Rushdie, in other words, weaves a complex web of associations in his work, with the faith he simultaneously lauds as one of “the world's great religions” and criticizes as a thought-system which turns us into “servants” and “children” (“G” [“In God We Trust”], 378, 379).5 This plethora of different images of Islam in Rushdie's work stems from a clash of three personae: a secular but nevertheless spiritual Rushdie, one who can write about “the flight of the spirit outside … its material, physical existence”; an empirical Rushdie, who accepts that “the world is all there is,” and ultimately sees religion as a voluntary self-denegration, “a dream of our inadequacy, a vision of our lessness” (“G”, 378); and also the Muslim Bombayite, brought up as an insider in a faith he was to step out of, skeptical towards the narrative of Islam but still able to call the Muslim community “my community” and subscribe to the “nascent concept of the ‘Secular Muslim.’”6 Within such an alternative range of attitudes towards his faith and his background, there is certainly something Joycean about Rushdie's mild schizophrenia—Rushdie's simultaneous satirizing of Islam and love of its philosophical tradition does seem to echo Joyce's own paradoxes as an apostate with an intimate knowledge of Thomas Aquinas, even if Rushdie's own familiarity with philosophers such as Avicenna and Avveröes seems to stem more from reading historians like Albert Hourani rather than from the philosophers themselves (“O” [“One Thousand Days in a Balloon”], 436).

The questions, therefore, in this essay will be threefold: what kind of Islams does Rushdie draw upon in his various texts—and what traditions are implicitly invoked with them? Do these rival Islams ever openly conflict in his work—and to what extent can we discern one idea of Islam predominating over the others? Finally, given the near-synonimity of Rushdie's work with the term “postmodern fiction,” what are the implications of his texts for the relationship between Islam and postmodernism?

“From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable,” says the narrator of The Satanic Verses (S [Shame], 95). Throughout his novels, Rushdie's characters and narrators express rejections of Islam which oseillate between the modern (religion as outdated superstition) and the postmodern (religion as an obsolete collection of metaphors in a postmodern world). Rather like the unnamed son in R. K. Narayan's “Second Opinion,” who weans himself off his mother's Hindu faith reading Arnold Joseph Toynbee and Plato, Rushdie's characters read books like Bertrand Russell's Religion and Science and dream—after the manner of secular German theologians—of correcting and rearranging their inaccurate holy texts. Understood as a set of practices inherently obstructive to progress and resulting from a certain metaphysical need or weakness, this Enlightenment version of Islam is usually the first of Rushdie's Islams to make an impression. Its presence makes itself felt at the beginning of every book: not just the figure of Aadam Aziz, trying to recite the exordium while tormented by the possibility of it being nothing more than “Mecca-turned parroting” (MC [Midnight's Children], 11), but also the beginning of Shame, where the narrator suggests the Hegirian calendar of Islam is actually a reliable indicator of where its present standing is on the ladder of Western civilization:

All this happened in the fourteenth century. I'm using the Hegirian calendar, naturally: don't imagine that stories of this type always take place long-long ago. Time cannot be as homogenized as easily as milk, and in those parts, until quite recently, the thirteen-hundreds were still in full swing.7

When the Enlightenment Rushdie speaks, religion invariably shrinks into the medieval. It becomes a bitter old man, keeping his three daughters under an ancien regime of tradition and blind, filial submissiveness, or an imam who teaches children to hate, or an ancient holy relic (“The Prophet's Hair”) whose disappearance inspires countless deaths. Islam, in other words, is old: its built-in obsolescence stifles the new, and attempts to halt and even reverse history. Rushdie's fascination with Ali Shariati's description of the Iranian revolution as a “revolt against history” reflects this understanding of Islam as a phenomenon inherently inimical to the passage of time (“G,” 383).

Such ideas have famously earned Rushdie both praise and recrimination: charging the author with “literary colonialism” and being a British imperialist tool of civilizing culture, on the one hand (or “a Saladin-like race traitor,” as Gillian Gane puts it), and praising him as an “Anglo-Indian Voltaire” on the other.8 Rushdie's analysis of Islam in a 1985 essay as a “backward-looking and nostalgic” faith, however, is by no means unambiguously negative. Mohammed's revelations represented, we are told, the nostalgia for an “old tribal humanism” which was succumbing gradually to the “pressure of the new, business-based ethics of a city like Mecca” (“G,” 384). Read in this context, Islam's perceived allergy to change is no stubborn insistence on the obsolete and the primitive, but rather a much more humanistic desire to protect the older nomadic values (and thereby the welfare) of the lower classes against the competitive demands of a market-driven urban economy. In this essay, written in the midst of a thoroughly Thatcherite Britain obsessed with privatization and trade union control, Rushdie shows an unusual degree of sympathy in this depiction of a Prophet struggling for the preservation of old, caring values in the face of ruthless, free-market forces.

What is so striking about this sympathetic resketching of Mohammed as a classic socialist, defending the “lower classes of Meccan society” against the new set of “business-based ethics,” is the way Rushdie will completely reverse this portrait of the Prophet in The Satanic Verses (“G,” 384). Mohammed, the defender of old beliefs in the community and tradition, becomes Mahound the “Prophet Messenger Businessman” (SV [The Satanic Verses] 118), as Islam—one might almost term it the new company called Submission—takes over Jahilia and begins to incorporate the city into a much larger firm:

[H]e recalled that of course Mahound himself had been a business man, and a damned successful one at that, a person to whom organization and rules came naturally, so how excessively convenient it was that he should have come up with such a very businesslike angel, who handed down the management decisions of this highly corporate, if non-corporeal, God.

(SV, 364)

Moving from essay to novel, Rushdie has switched Islams. Where, in his nonfiction, Rushdie is happy to draw on Islamologists like Maxim Rodinson to present a belief system based fundamentally on the welfare of the community, six years later, in his fiction, Rushdie presents an Islam which is ultimately profit/prophet-driven. If Mohammed was a defender of the lower classes in the essay, in the novel he has become their exploiter. Islam, the faith of the poor and downtrodden, has become Islam, the money-motivated manipulation of the gullible. The revelations have become “management decisions”; the Koran a “rule-book”; Allah a “corporate” leader (SV, 364). Rushdie chooses to redescribe historically remote cultures and vocabularies in the language of free-market capitalism—market values, corporate decisions, believers as consumers. The effect of this is two-fold: first, there is a cynically materialist edge to Rushdie's anachronistic redescription of seventh-century Arabia, an implicit suggestion in all this talk of markets and brandleaders that the basic reasons why the phenomenon of organised religion takes place remain the same. Gods, like consumer products, fulfill a metaphysical need. As far as the author of The Satanic Verses is concerned, a prophet fortunate enough to locate and identify the coincidence of such need and revelation—one who can supply these products—will be just as concerned with “temple revenues” (SV, 121) as he will be with the saving of souls. However, Rushdie's use of the terminology of post-war capitalism to renarrate the story of Islam also serves another purpose—not merely to present religion as a disguised form of capitalism, but also to show capitalism itself as a form of religion. Rushdie is fond of bundling capitalism together with faith and nationalism as three belief systems which move into action when people lose the will to think for themselves. In Midnight's Children we read: “India, the new myth—a collective fiction in which anything was now possible, a fable rivalled only by the other two mighty fantasies: money and God” (MC, 112). Islam, therefore, becomes the sister fantasy of history and capital, a metaphysical means of classifying and arranging the confused matter of the world in a certain way. If Rushdie the essayist's opposition to Islam was purely modern—an objection to Islam on grounds of pure technological backwardness—the author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children presents a more sophisticated denunciation, one phrased in terms not of the Enlightenment but of a post-Enlightenment vocabulary. In this more complex objection, religion is still based on a fundamental delusion but is nevertheless allowed a greater degree of adaptability and intellectual complexity. If, in his essay, Rushdie paints a backward looking Islam which can't keep up with the pace of modernity, in The Satanic Verses we encounter a radically dynamic prophet who seems, on the contrary, to be epitomizing modernity all too well, restructuring a primitive and feudal Jahilia into something along the lines of a business corporation. If one Islam represents a call back to traditions and past values, the other version signifies a sweeping change, a radical reorganization of society, a sociological rationalization of religion, whittling down Jahilia's several hundred gods to one “all-rounder” (SV, 99). It is difficult to see how a feudal and nostalgic version of the faith can be reconciled to the entrepreneurial Islam we find in The Satanic Verses.

This conflict of Islams in Rushdie's work takes place again when talk turns to religious nationalism and oppressed minorities. Rushdie, in novels such as Midnight's Children and Shame, often observes how Islam is invoked to facilitate the nationalisms proclaimed by the newly-born states of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Whether it is Commanders-in-Chief who quote the Quran (MC, 289), descriptions of Pakistan as “Al-Lah's new country,” Koranic promises of paradise and virgin houris to would-be war heroes, or the Karachi TV chief who considers pork to be a “four-letter word,” Rushdie deftly delineates and comments upon the various hypocrisies involved when nation states employ the faith of their peoples to justify and color their own self-seeking policies (S, 69, 70). What's most interesting about such comments is the incompleteness of Rushdie's cynicism—the fact that, even in ridiculing a country which awards state scholarships only to members of the Jamaat Party or prohibits the sari as an “obscene garment” (S, 70), Rushdie allows for the idolized, chadar-clad figure of Jamila (beauty), the narrator's sister, whose voice is compared to that of Bilal's (the first muezzin) and who sings of “holiness and love-of-country” to the Pakistani masses:

That was how the history of our family once again became the fate of a nation, because when Jamila sang with her lips pressed against the brocaded aperture, Pakistan fell in love with a fifteen-year old girl whom it had only ever glimpsed though a gold-and-white perforated sheet.

(MC, 313)

The word for “holy” in Arabic, kudus, like its Hebrew counterpart, qadosh, ultimately means “separate”: for Rushdie, both religion and nationalism owe their success—their sanctity, their separateness—to the maintenance of an illusion. The secret fiction of both phenomena, the concrete origin of the fantasy—be it a new prophet or the new myth of a nation state—is kept separate from the adoring believers in order to preserve its power. A metaphysical complicity would explain why, for Rushdie, Islam and nationalism seem to collude so easily with one another, why “faith-in-leaders and trust-in-God” (MC, 315) seem to go band-in-hand as mutually reinforcing illusions.

In a nation such as India, however, where Islam operates as a minority religion (albeit a two hundred million minority), Rushdie's description of Islam and Muslims suddenly takes on a different tone. A love of the outsider, an innate concern for the underdog and the demographically disadvantaged and politically oppressed, pushes Rushdie to write about Muslims in the same way he writes about immigrants in Britain after the war. Islam, suddenly bereft of power and might, loses its image of nationalism's metaphysical accomplice and, particularly in novels such as The Moor's Last Sigh, almost becomes attractive through its very impotence. When the Hindu nationalist Mainduck expresses the familiar fear of an Islamic re-Moghulization of India, Islam, the bullying, backward, state-assisted advocate of ignorance, becomes a poor, oppressed faith at the mercy of ancient prejudices:

Drugs, terrorism, Mussulmans-Mughals … nuclear bombs. Hai Ram how you minorities stick together. How you gang together against us Hindus, how good-natured we are that we do not see how dangerous is your threat. But now your father has sent you to me and you will know it all … about babies, the march of minority babies who will push our blessed infants from their cots and grab their sacred food. Such are their plans. But they shall not prevail. Hindustan: the country of Hindus!

(ML [The Moor's Last Sigh], 295)

The fact that the Moor in the novel is really Jewish does not detract from the authenticity of the passage, which blends together Ayodhya, the Hindu ruling party BJP's fears of a rising Muslim population, the lingering and complex memories of India's Moghul past; moving from Pakistan to India not only changes Rushdie's Islam once again, but rewrites the entire set of terms in which he will deal with it. In the passage from Karachi to Kerala, from Islamabad to Uttar Pradesh, Islam becomes smaller, weaker, and thereby implicitly braver. In this new vocabulary, the greatest irony to be found lies in the way Rushdie represents to us the kind of satirical descriptions of Islam which (in Midnight's Children and Shame) he himself has used, but this time putting such satire in the mouths of Hindu nationalist ignorance—their lament, for example, that all of Hinduism's sacred sites have been “hogged by minarets and onion domes” (ML, 299). One could reinvoke a familiar criticism of Rushdie here—that he spends so much text deconstructing and undermining Islamic and Indian identities only to unconvincingly resurrect them when faced with equally deconstructible British imperialist and Hindu nationalist hegemonies.9 Such a criticism, however, would be unfair: there are difficulties but certainly not contradictions in Rushdie's negative depiction of Pakistani political Islam and positive portrayal of suffering, marginalized Muslim minorities; a writer who, on the one hand, can resent the image of the mosque as an oppressive structure, describing its minarets as “long pointed finger[s]” and the houses it overlooks as “mosque-shadowed” (MC, 330), but who can also deplore how Hindu fanatics “swarmed over the Babri Masjid and tore it apart with their bare hands, with their bare teeth” (ML, 363). This game of good mosque/bad mosque which Rushdie plays (exactly when is a masjid a victim of fanaticism, and when a provider of it?) carries a certain semantic consequence for Islam itself: ultimately, it almost suggests that there is no central, identifiable signified called Islam for all of the references in Rushdie's books: his Koranic citations, his religious generals, his put-upon minorities and ignorant bigots. There is nothing to link the Islam which suffered in Ayodhya with the Islam which bullies in Karachi; they are separate, almost mutually exclusive phenomena. In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie considers the possibility that, in trying to write about the one physically real India, we can only produce a plurality of “invisible ones … Indias of the mind.”10 The various Moghuls, mullahs, mystics, and moderates Rushdie presents us with in his oeuvre form are equally a collection of Islams of the mind—nowhere in these texts are we ever led to believe that there might be something which lies behind these diverse and conflicting Islams.

The ambivalences inherent in Rushdie's attitude towards Moghul India also indicate this absence of a central signifier for Islam in his work. One recalls the complexity of Mainduck's feelings about Indian Islam, which had swept across the northern half of the Indian subcontinent in the thirteenth century, as he first slanders then praises the Moghul contribution to his young, impressionable recruits:

“Now our freedom, our beloved nation, is buried beneath the things the invaders have built. This true nation is what we must reclaim from beneath the layers of alien empires.” … The eager young things from Malabar Hill agreed enthusiastically. … But when they began, in their guffawing way, to belittle the culture of Indian Islam that lay palimpsest-fashion over the face of Mother India, Mainduck rose to his feet and thundered at them until they shrank back in their seats. Then he would sing ghazals and recite Urdu poetry—Faiz, Josh, Iqbal—from memory and speak of the glories of Fatehpur Sikri and the moonlit splendour of the Taj. An intricate fellow, indeed.

(ML, 299)

Of course, Mainduck's consecutive citation of two versions of Indian history—the Moghul reign as a nightmare of darkness and intolerance, and alternatively as an enriching and embellishing chapter in the development of a multicultural nation state—represents the already problematic place of Islam in Indian history. Model emperors of tolerance such as Akhbar, and cruel tyrants like Aurangzeb, typify the necessary complexity of any Hindu response to the Moghul invasion. What Mainduck's simultaneous denunciation of Aurangzeb and praise of the Taj Mahal also suggests, however, is the ambiguity of Rushdie's own feelings towards his Muslim status. The varied and scattered references to the Moghuls we find in his work offer, like Mainduck's speech, an “intricate” response to the “northern intruders” (ML, 299) who came into Northern India. When, in Midnight's Children, Saleem Sinai is forced to migrate across the border to Pakistan from Bombay, he briefly allows a moment's comment on the irony of going in the opposite direction of the original invaders:

And Tughlaq, and the Moghul Emperors … but I've made my point. It remains only to add that ideas, as well as armies, swept south south south from the northern heights: the legend of Sikandar-But-Shikan, the Iconoclast of Kashmir, who at the end of the fourteenth century destroyed every Hindu temple in the Valley … and five hundred years later the mujahideen movement of Syed Ahmad Barilwi followed the well-trodden trail. Barilwi's ideas: self-denial, hatred-of-Hindus, holy war … philosophies as well as kings (to cut this short) came from the opposite direction to me.

(MC, 310)

“[S]elf-denial, hatred-of-Hindus, holy war”: Saleem's representation of Islam in India, from the earliest penetrations to Bariliwi's nineteenth-century mujahideen, is aggressive and uncompromising. In a novel otherwise noted for its depiction of the worst excesses of the Indian nation state, the mention of temple-destroying invaders (a phrase which might have come out of a Shiv Sena booklet) does seem to suggest the kind of developments that, ultimately, will bring organizations like the RSS, and criminal mobs like the Ravana Gang, into being. And yet, as we have often seen, Rushdie the essayist—in a piece written after the assassination of the Pakistani general Zia Ul-Haq in 1988—seems to review the history of Islam in India in a different light:

The medieval, misogynistic, stultifying ideology which Zia imposed on Pakistan in his “Islamization” programme was the ugliest possible face of the faith, and one by which most Pakistani Muslims were, I believe, disturbed and frightened. To be a believer is not by any means to be a zealot. Islam in the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent has developed historically along moderate lines, with a strong strain of pluralistic Sufi philosophy; Zia was this Islam's enemy.11

Three Islams come together here to provide a series of contrasts from which Rushdie will attempt to make a tentative point: the intellectually sterile, propagandistic Islam which supported Zia's ideology; a “moderate” Islam, which will become important for Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses; and a Sufi tradition, equated here with moderate Islam but by no means a synonym for it. At no point in the passage does Rushdie speak of misrepresentation. Zia's Islam is not a false Islam; it is simply not the only one. In perfect parallel to Mainduck's speech, Rushdie goes on to quote a poem from the modern Urdu poet Faiz (Zalim or “The Tyrant”), to counterbalance the medieval crudity of state Islamization with an example of so-called Islamic high culture. In juggling such images, in providing an array of different signifiers for the signified Islam, Rushdie tries to show how diverse the narrative of Islam actually is. Like Mainduck the Moghul-hater, Rushdie is happy to expose the cruelties, blindness, and errors of Islam until he encounters similar but exaggerated versions of such critiques, at which point he changes vocabulary and constructs an alternative Islam in an attempt to preempt such generalizations. Thus Rushdie is content to paint Islam as backward, intolerant, medieval, and aggressive until he encounters a statement from the Jewish Defense League, a journalist who tells British Muslims to move to Tehran, or an Indian professor of literature who quotes Sanskrit without translation and insists on calling all Muslims “Moghuls.”

In a rather Nietzschean way, it is almost as if Rushdie seeks the identity of Islam through conflict rather than correspondence, through the Other rather than the Same. The status of his own Islam is forever dependent upon the Islam of his subject: in sympathetic environments be will attack the holy; in arenas hostile to Islam he will defend it. From such a perspective, Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of Nähe durch Streit—of achieving intimacy throughout conflicts rather than dialogue—may not be wholly inappropriate.

To see Rushdie's fragmented, many-faced profusion of Islams as the offshoot of a skeptical half-nihilism would not only be uncharitable but also overlook the aim of such Protean vocabulary switching. The idea of the novel as a space where different vocabularies can freely interrogate one another does go some way to explain the faintly kaleidoscopic sequence of different Islams in his work:

[W]hereas religion seeks to privilege one language above all others, one set of values above all others, one text above all others, the novel has always been about the way in which different languages, values and narratives quarrel, and about the shifting relations between them, which are relations of power.12

Seen in such a light, Rushdie's conflicting presentations of Islam are neither contradictory nor problematic, but rather the Verarbeiten or working out of Islam's identity through the contiguity of its different manifestations. In a sense, we are still offered a gallery of images of Islam, just as we are with Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, and John Barth; unlike these authors, however, the purpose of such a gallery is not one of variety or entertainment. Rushdie's various Islams are not intended to color his novels with a certain Oriental hue, to endow an Occidental mundanity with Eastern magic. Rather, they enable a kind of conference to take place, with each vocabulary presenting its own collection of metaphors, allowing the reader ultimately to decide upon the version of his choice. Of course, one could argue that such a process begins with an idea of Islam which automatically excludes any notion of open dialogue—Islam as a thought-system which a priori “seeks to privilege one language above all others.” For Rushdie, it is precisely the stifling of the religious, the suppression of its truthclaim which allows other languages to speak. The many faces of Islam in Rushdie's work—his fanatics, his doubters, his Moghuls, Moors, and heretics—can only truly take on a life of their own once the suffocating, domineering orthodoxy of “Actually Existing Islam” (as Rushdie frequently refers to it) is laid to rest. This idea of a hidden wealth of alternative Islams, waiting to be rediscovered and emancipated from their status as marginal or heretical, manifests itself several times in Rushdie's fiction:

In Arabia—Arabia Deserta—at the time of the prophet Muhammed, other prophets also preached: Maslama of the tribe of Bann Hanifa in the Yamama, the very heart of Arabia; and Hanzala ibn Safwan; and Khalid ibn Sinan … [who] was sent to the tribe of 'Abs; for a time, he was followed, but then he was lost. Prophets are not always false simply because they are overtaken, and swallowed up, by history. Men of worth have always roamed the desert.

(MC, 305)

Rushdie here suggests that the distinction between false prophets and true ones is merely demographic: orthodoxy is the heresy of the majority, heresies simply unsuccessful orthodoxies. If novels like Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh present an interrogation of these different vocabularies within Islam, it is primarily because these texts resent the kind of power structures which establish centers and peripheries, mainstreams and margins, prophets and heretics. Such a struggle against the idea of a central signifier for Islam, something which Islam must necessarily mean, explains Rushdie's oft-stated interest in the Sufi tradition. Not just Ibn Sina (“master magician, Sufi adept” [MC, 304]) and the novelist's namesake, Ibn Rushd, but also Omar Khayyam (after whom the protagonist of Shame is named), Al-Ghazali and Ibn 'Attar, to whose Parliament of the Birds the young Omar is introduced in Shame (S, 34). It is in the self-same essay following the Satanic Verses's controversy, where Rushdie allies himself with a tradition of marginalized, misunderstood Muslim thinkers such as Ibn Rushd, that the novelist fully articulates the once-intended trajectory of his abandoned project:

I reluctantly concluded that there was no way for me to help bring into being the Muslim culture I'd dreamed of, the progressive, irreverent, sceptical, argumentative, playful and unafraid culture which is what I've always understood as freedom. … Actually Existing Islam, which has all but deified its Prophet, a man who always fought passionately against such deification; which has supplanted a priest-free religion by a priest-ridden one; which makes literalism a weapon and redescriptions a crime, will never let the likes of me in.

(“O,” 437)

A number of interesting points come through in this passage: first of all, Rushdie actually begins to talk about an original Islam, a pure, dreamlike Islam which has yet to come into being. Although he makes no specific references to tie this idea of Islam to a particular time and place, the adjectives he uses—“progressive, irreverent, skeptical, argumentative, playful”—seem to suggest the essentially medieval philosophical/mystical traditions of Islam (Ibn 'Arabi, the philosophers of the Kalam, the Ismailis, Ibn Rushd) that, in these decades of Islamic militancy and Iranian regimes, appear to have been forgotten. More importantly, he links this forgotten understanding of Islam to freedom—to a perceived willingness within Islam to entertain and produce new, hypothetical, unorthodox metaphors. This as yet unrealized dream of Rushdie's Islam, with its ironically medieval genealogy and radical reunderstanding of the sacred as freedom itself, is contrasted with the “granite, heartless” actuality of present-day Islam and its “political and priestly power structures” (“O,” 436). In other words, self-determining power has fossilized Islam, rendered it inflexible, dogmatic, intellectually sterile. And yet, halfway through the quoted passage, Rushdie begins to make quite a different claim: not only has “Actually Existing Islam” betrayed an earlier, intellectually more liberal and open-minded period of medieval thought, but contemporary Islam is a perverted version of Mohammed's own teachings. Suddenly, Rushdie is no longer lamenting the oblivion of an interestingly alternative vocabulary; no longer is the subject the loss of a historical variant. The original intentions of the Prophet—his resistance to “deification,” his aversion to clericalism, his mistrust of “literalism”—are suddenly at stake. Contemporary Islam, no longer simply guilty of stifling liberal thought, has become a misrepresentation of the Prophet himself.

It is certainly outside the limits of this study to enter into the difficult questions of how correct or incorrect Rushdie's conjectures on the development of Islam may be (whether, for example, his implicit association of literalism with orthodoxy, and esoteric hermeneutics with liberalism, may not be slightly naïve). What is more important is how Rushdie moves from the status of his namesake, a misunderstood outsider, to the reviver of a pure and sincerer Islam, the rediscoverer and resurrector of Muhammed's original principles, carelessly abused and forgotten by the priestly power mongers of today. One African writer has defined the postcolonial as the “space-clearing gesture … concerned with going beyond, with transcending coloniality.”13 What Rushdie's texts may be searching for, in many ways, is a Muslim space beyond Islam but one which does not dispense with Islam: to reinvoke a tradition that can accommodate plurality without strangling it, but that at the same time avoids the semantic decentering which would ultimately render it meaningless. Of course, given the kind of antagonism which Rushdie has increasingly been willing to display towards his former faith (particularly after his infamous post-September 11th article in The Guardian), it would be ludicrous to attribute the search for any kind of post-Islamic vocabulary to the author himself. Nevertheless, texts such as Shame,Midnight's Children, and The Satanic Verses remain (to quote Sara Suleri), “deeply Islamic,” in form and reference, if not in content.14 The doubly relevant question of whether Rushdie's oeuvre can accommodate Islam—and whether, one day, Islam will accommodate Rushdie—will, perhaps, have to be reformulated as we discover, with the passage of years, what kind of writer Rushdie will have been.


  1. Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (London: Vintage, 1995). Hereafter abbreviated MC and cited parenthetically by page number.

  2. Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh (London: Vintage, 1996), 84. Hereafter abbreviated ML and cited parenthetically by page number. Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (London: Vintage, 1998), 48. Hereafter abbreviated SV and cited parenthetically by page number.

  3. Jean-Paul Sartre, Words, trans. Irene Clephane (Penguin, 1967), 65.

  4. Rushdie, “In God We Trust,” in Imaginary Homelands (London: Cranta Press, 1992), 377. Hereafter abbreviated “G” and cited parenthetically by page number.

  5. Rushdie, “In Good Faith,” in Imaginary Homelands, 409 (“world's great religions”).

  6. Rushdie, “Is Nothing Sacred?,” in Imaginary Homelands, 421 (“the flight”). Rushdie, “In Good Faith,” 413 (“the world”), 414 (“my community”). Rushdie, “One Thousand Days in a Balloon,” in Imaginary Homelands, 436 (“nascent concept”). Hereafter abbreviated “O” and cited parenthetically.

  7. Rushdie, Shame (London: Vintage Press, 1995), 13. Hereafter abbreviated S and cited parenthetically by page number.

  8. Syed Shahabuddin, quoted in The Rushdie File, ed. Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1990), 40. See Talal Asad's “Multiculturalism and British Identity in the Wake of the Rushdie Affair,” in The Postcolonial Crescent, ed. John C. Hawley (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), I; Gillian Gane, “Migrancy, the Cosmopolitan Intellectual and the Global City in The Satanic Verses,Modern Fiction Studies 48 (Spring 2002): 34. See the extract of Leon Wieseltier's 22 February 1989 speech, quoted in The Rushdie File, 166.

  9. Brian Finney has seen this strategy as no contradiction but rather an attempt to “reconcile these internal stresses by resorting to a trope—that of oxymoron—by means of which [Rushdie] seeks to celebrate the certainty of uncertainty, the singular affirmation of plurality.” See Finney's “Demonizing Discourse in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses,ARIEL 29.3 (1998): 69.

  10. Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 10.

  11. Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 54.

  12. Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 420.

  13. Kwane Anthony Appia, quoted in Brian May, “Memorials to Modernity: Postcolonial Pilgrimages in Naipaul and Rushdie,” ELH 48 (2001): 262.

  14. In an article in The Guardian on 3 November 2001, barely six weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Rushdie criticized the “self-exculpatory, paranoiac Islam” which represented for most Muslims “in a jumbled, half-examined way … a cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices that include their dietary practices, the sequestration or near-sequestration of ‘their’ women, the sermons delivered by their mullah of choice,” and “a loathing of modern society in general.” Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1992), 175.

Salman Rushdie and Davia Nelson (interview date March 2003)

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SOURCE: Rushdie, Salman, and Davia Nelson. “Salman Rushdie and the Sea of Stories.” American Theatre 20, no. 3 (March 2003): 26-40.

[In the following interview, Rushdie discusses the inspiration behind Haroun and the Sea of Stories, recent adaptations of his work, and his creative process.]

“Some artists are blessed with outrageous humor. Some artists are blessed with wonderful imagination. Some have extraordinary intelligence. Some have raw emotional power. And some seek in their work a kind of spiritual understanding of how the world works. It is extremely rare that those qualities are combined in one person.” So spoke Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Tony Taccone as he introduced the novelist Salman Rushdie to the audience of a special Berkeley Rep event in November.

While Rushdie is indeed a consummate literary man of our time, his own much-publicized tribulations seem even more theatrical than the sprawling, lexicon-bending novels he's written (The Satanic Verses,Fury and The Ground beneath Her Feet). It would seem farfetched, for instance, to attempt a staging of his Booker Prize-stamped Midnight's Children.

Nevertheless, the Royal Shakespeare Company recently premiered a new stage version of Midnight's Children at the Barbican Theatre in London. Adapted by British director Tim Supple and former RSC dramaturg Simon Reade, the production, featuring an ensemble of 20 British-Asian actors, crosses the Atlantic this month for visits in Ann Arbor, Mich., and at Harlem's Apollo Theatre in New York City. And Berkeley recently presented the first professional American production of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, directed by Dominique Serrand of Minneapolis's Theatre de Jeune Lune. Serrand's spectacular production substantially altered the National Theatre of London's original version, adapted by Supple and David Tushingham, which was produced at Children's Theatre of Western Springs in Illinois in 2000 and Georgia's University Theatre in 2001.

Both Haroun (published as a novel in 1990) and Midnight's Children (1981) unfold as coming-of-age fables that put the adventures of young people center stage. Haroun is the son of a storyteller—“the Ocean of Notions, the famous Shah of Blah”—who's lost the gift of gab, and the young boy gets involved in an epic battle to save the Sea of Stories, the source of every story ever told, from the dark forces of Khattam-Shud, the master of silence. More historically grounded than Haroun,Midnight's Children plays out as a complexly layered allegory of modern India, full of showbiz fireworks and surrealist moments, that intertwines the stories of the children born in Bombay on the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947 (the date of India's independence from Britain).

So if texts as dense as these should make any would-be adapter blanch, the thematic chord Rushdie strikes—in Haroun, in Midnight's Children and in the following interview—is the backbone of the theatre: Stories are our lifeblood; imagination matters.

[Nelson]: Where do the stories come from? Where did Haroun come from?

[Rushdie]: Well, Haroun came in the first place from fragments of stories that I used to tell my son—Zafar, who was at that time 10 or 11—in the bath. It was a device. You could scoop a mug of water out of the bath and pretend there was a story in it—you know, make up something. Haroun is my son's middle name. Another germ was a short story I wrote years before but never published, in which I imagined a traveler in the Middle Ages, a Marco Polo type, who finds himself in this strange war between the world of language and the world of silence. One side was incredibly chatty and the other side was incredibly silent, and one side was light and the other was dark. The whole cause of the war was that a princess had been kidnapped from the chatty land to the un-chatty land, and they were going to ritually sacrifice her by sewing up her mouth. Anyway, I wrote this story and it just didn't work. So I just put it in a drawer and left it alone for several years. Then, when I was coming up with Haroun's adventure—by that time, I guess had become involved myself in a sort of war between language and silence—I suddenly understood the meaning of the story that I hadn't previously understood. So I brought it out of the drawer and it just fit right in.

Were there other inspirations underneath Haroun?

It was a book written for one person, which is something that I don't usually do. I'm usually seeking a slightly larger readership than that. The way I imagined it is that it was written for my son at two moments in his life. It was important that he read as a child and be able to have childish pleasure for it. But I also thought of it like a message in a bottle: One day he would grow up—and now he's 23—and he could read it again, and he would see another book there. And I'm happy to say that's worked out.

He's read it as an adult?

He's read it—he's loved it at every age, I must say, all the way through. And he doesn't read that many of my books.

Berkeley Rep's not the only place to have taken Haroun and done a stage work with it.

Well, it's amazing. Haroun seems to have made a lot of people want to do things with it. The original dramatization was done at the National Theatre in London just about four years ago. There's been a production of it in France, in French. There was one in Swedish. There was, in Germany, a puppet version of it. There's a project from the New York City Opera to make an opera of it with a brilliant libretto by the poet James Fenton. There has been for five years a very skillful project of not making a movie of it.

There are juicy stories in your recent collected nonfiction, Step across This Line, of other possible collaborations.

Yeah, there have been all sorts of people interested in Haroun. Bono from U2 wanted to make a musical. And then we, by mistake, made a song together—which was completely unplanned by either of us. I wrote this novel, The Ground beneath Her Feet, in which there's character who writes songs, and I thought, you kind of have to bite the bullet: If you're going to have a character who's a songwriter, at some point you're going to have to suggest one of the songs that he writes. So the book is sort of littered with lyrics. And one of those lyrics is what Bono called the title track—an odd idea, a novel with a title track. There's a song called “The Ground beneath Her Feet” in the novel The Ground beneath Her Feet. I sent him the novel in manuscript and he called me up and said that he'd read this novel and that he'd woken up with this tune in his head that he thought was quite good. So I went over to Dublin and he played it for me. And it was quite good. So we found ourselves without ever having talked about writing a song together, having done so.

Supposedly there's a plan to make an animated feature film of Haroun, I'm told, in the kind of style of animation of Shrek and those films. That plan has been around so long that we could all die before it comes true. Every year I scream at the person who owns the rights about how he hasn't done anything for years and he says, “This year, we're definitely moving ahead.” I hope so. It'd be great to have it as an animation feature. So of all my books, Haroun's the one that people seem to get the itch about.

How involved are you with those adaptations?

With Haroun in London, I wasn't actually involved with the adaptation because the director and his collaborator—Tim Supple and David Tushingham—created the adaptation. But they were so ridiculously faithful to the novel that I don't think there was a single sentence in there that I didn't write. So I sort of did write it. Except that I didn't. It felt like getting a play for free—without actually doing the work. And it was wonderful. Here in Berkeley, the literary manager/dramaturg Luan Schooler and the director Dominique Serrand have taken that adaptation and fiddled with it some more—putting things in and taking things out and making it their own. I've consulted in both cases. I would be sent drafts and asked what I thought, and I would say what I thought, but really it's their work with my heckling from the sidelines. They've brought in more material from the novel to emphasize, what should one say, the darkness under the lightness. I rather like the direction they've taken it.

What are some of your heckles?

Well, sometimes I say, you know, “You left out a funny bit.” Sometimes I say, “That's not how the joke goes; it goes like this.”

You're no stranger to the stage.

Well, I wanted to be an actor. In fact, when I was in college that's what I mostly did. I did much more acting than writing. Mine wasn't a very distinguished career. I remember being cast in a production of a play by Ionesco in which I played that important character, Old Man. And as part of playing Old Man, I took it upon myself to build myself a kind of enormous sort of Punch nose—forgetting that there was a point at which I had to bend over and kiss somebody's hand. So when I did, the nose went glump. I then had to spend the rest of the play with a nose that went glump. Which, in a funny way, was very Ionesco-ish. Everybody thought it was on purpose. It wasn't.

Are you tempted to go back to acting?

I'm open to offers. I thought after Bridget Jones's Diary, in which I made a cameo appearance as myself, that the phone was going to ring a lot, but it remained mysteriously and enigmatically silent.

What about your writing process? How do you do it?

I just do it like a job. I wake up in the morning, do a day's work, and then stop. I've always done it like that. You see, a novel is a very long—Randall Jarrell's famous line is: “The novel is a very long piece of writing that's got something wrong with it.” The only way to get a piece of writing like that done is to chip away at it. You've got to just do a bit every day or else it never gets done. It's not like writing a play. A lot of playwrights talk about writing plays in very short, intense bursts of writing. Noël Coward used to write plays in two or three days. A lot of playwrights say this—that somehow the work gathers itself up and then you sit down and just write it in a very fast spurt.

Novels are not like that. A novel is a marathon. You can't afford temperament. Poets have temperament, but that's because they don't write much. You know, their lines don't go all the way across the page. They don't go all the way down the page. And then they publish something 50 pages long and they call it a book. Or a slim volume. A slim volume is something, in my view, that is not a book. I have the novelist's contempt for the poet. If you're writing the stuff where you actually have to fill the page—and quite a lot of pages—you have to just get up in the morning and work.

Maybe someday I'll write directly for the theatre. Theatre is more collaborative than novel writing. My whole career has been myself in the room: You wake up in the morning and you have a little morsel of creative juice, which is like your day's allotment. Use it on the writing first. Don't answer letters, don't read the newspaper, don't make a phone call, don't clean your teeth. Very often I just put on the dressing gown, go straight to the desk and am there for some hours. And then I think, “Okay, now I can have a day.” Have a shower and a cup of coffee and so on. But I've got to do that thing first. And by first I mean first. Not second or third. Sometimes cleaning your teeth does get in the way. Cleanliness is overrated—when in the service of literature. Literature is often enriched by a little dirt.

What is it for you that makes stories so critical?

The way I've always said this is that we are an animal that tells stories. We are, as far as we know, the only animal that tells stories. Unclear whether dolphins have fiction. But there's probably not, I would suspect, the dolphin Hemingway. What does it mean, that we like to tell stories? It struck me that, if you're in a family, one of the definitions of that family is the stories of that family. You know, mad Uncle Ernest and crazy Aunt Gerta. And the day the house burned down. When somebody joins the family—either a child is born or somebody marries into the family—one of the ways in which they become members of the family is that they are told the stories of the family. When they know the family stories, then they're in. So we start off telling the stories of other people, and in the end we become part of a story that somebody tells. It seems such an important part of how we describe ourselves in the world—and it's not just because it's my job. In a way it's part of all our jobs. Everybody thinks they can tell a story. Unfortunately.

What's drawing you to living in the United States?

I don't live in the United States; I live in New York. There's this T-shirt going around New York which says, “NYC out of USA.” The back of it says, “USA out of NYC.” That's kind of—as they say—the New York state of mind. I love the city. I always did, long before I lived there. I always had a kind of itch to live there. And, in fact, had it not been for a little local difficulty I experienced in the '90s, I probably would have been living there a lot longer. When I finished The Satanic Verses, it was the first time I got—what shall I call it?—a big check for a novel. Zeroes. And I thought, “What will I do with these zeroes?” And I thought, “I know, I'll buy a small apartment in Manhattan and spend more time there.” Then that became impossible for a while, and then it became possible again. It's not for profound reasons. I think it's a great city and I love great cities. It's a city whose culture is constructed by immigrants and, you know, I'm an immigrant. It lets you be part of that process of continual construction. What's not to like? One of the things I like is that it's gone back to being rude. There was this terrible moment when, after 9/11, everyone was going, “After you,” “No, after you.” Now it's, “No, move over, I'm walking here.”

[Audience]: Did Sept. 11 make you question the importance of the novel?

No. Does that answer your question? No—I mean, why? Sept. 11 wasn't about that. What I do think it did is shake everybody whose job it is to try and imagine the world. It made us think about how to do that in the light of what happened. I don't know the answers to that, really, but I know that a lot of the writers were vexed by that question—the kind of “now what?” question. In the aftermath of those events, I remember being asked by the fiction editor of the New Yorker if I had a short story (which at the time I didn't have) that was ready to be published. He said, “No one's sending us short stories suddenly.” And this is the New Yorker, which gets the best of the best, usually. And, for a moment the flow of fiction went down to a trickle—it seems as if it was an oddly nonfictional moment, which I think is what your question implies. But that did not last very long; everybody got back to writing stories. I'm not expecting myself or anyone else to write a novel about the attack on the World Trade Center any time soon. But what I do think will begin to permeate fiction and all kinds of writing is the kind of atmosphere—the kind of post-9/11 atmosphere, the feelings that we're all living amongst now: trepidation and concern and uncertainty and a shaken feeling that began that day that I don't think has gone away. Some of that may get into books, but the great thing about books is that they take a long time to make and they last a long time. Sometimes the response to a historical event comes much, much later. The example I like to use about this is War and Peace, which you might legitimately call the greatest novel ever written about the Napoleonic Wars—and it was written, what, 65 years after? Literature is slow; that's its advantage.

When the blood money was off your head, was it a problem for you to come back in the public eye?

No, it wasn't a problem to come back. Ordinary life is easy to resume. It's what we all want and are used to, so it's easy to go back to. I think there's a public perception that there was this long period of invisibility and then pop, here I am again. That's really not what happened—it was a much more gradual process than that. One of the reasons that this book is called Step across This Line is that I had this sense that there were all these lines people were telling me not to cross. “Can't step across that one, it's dangerous.” And the only way to do it was to step across it and say, “See?” “Oh, well, don't step across the next one.” I had to do that for a long time and eventually got back here. In a way, a lot of it had to do with something that wasn't quite real. It was not to do with an actual, identifiable danger, but with people's fear—with other people's fear. A lot of the time I felt very circumscribed by other people's fear. That, in a way, took longer to beat out than any real, identifiable threats. One of the problems with fear is that there is no way you can reason it away. You can say to people, “Here are 19 reasons not to be afraid.” And they say, “Yeah, but I'm still scared.” So that was the problem, and it took a long time just to know that. Happily I'm here, and I'm speaking to all these people. Close. One of the things I always thought about the days in which the money was being offered—by the way, I don't think they ever really had the money, and P.S., I think it would have been quite difficult to collect—I remember thinking in those days, “You know, lots of writers are broke.” So it was very nice of them to be so restrained.

What have been your most important lessons in life?

I'm going to pass. I've learned nothing. I think learning is overrated, too. Living: difficult. Learning: relatively easy. One of the great things about literature is that you really don't learn anything. Each book has its own problems, which the problems solved in the previous book do not help you solve. So you feel ignorant each time. I have this image of books having two ends. There's the beginning of the book, which is the stupid end, and there's the end of the book, which is the possibly slightly more intelligent end. You have to discover how to somehow stop being stupid about that particular idea and become more intelligent about it. Then the next idea comes along and you're stupid again. So you don't learn much.

I think the only thing you learn from experience as a writer is that, if you keep hammering away at it, the problem will get solved. That's a kind of confidence that often young writers don't have. There's a panic that comes when you get stuck. In my view, now, if I don't get stuck it means there's something wrong. A book is a complicated piece of creation and the idea that you could just work it all out in advance and then just do it is naïve. You always find problems. If you don't find them, you're not looking hard enough. There's a lesson in life: Keep hammering away at it and you solve the problem. That sounds too much like a fortune cookie, though.

You talked about your son and how you hoped he would read Haroun both as a child and as an adult. What do you think he'd gain or read in your story as an adult?

As an adult? Well, I think I was very aware of the fact that those terrible years in my life were also terrible years in his life. At the time of the fatwa [religious order, which was issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 and lifted by the Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharraz in 1998], my son, Zafar, was nine and a half. And he had to grow up through that stuff. We got ripped apart, you know. I couldn't live with him. I couldn't live with anybody. I could see him, but only under conditions of ridiculous secrecy. So for me the father-son relationship is the heart of Haroun. As it was for him. The audience has to feel that, if it's going to feel anything at all. It has to be a story about real people, not just about magical beings.

And yet Haroun is a fable. The key line in the novel, the line to which the entire novel is an answer, is “What's the use of stories that aren't even true?” That's the question, it seems to me, that I wanted him to know the answer to. What is the point of the imagination? It's a story about that. That's what I felt was the threat, in my case. That was what was being attacked. Its defense was more important than my personal safety. I wanted to—in this, I hope, very nondidactic, nonpreachy way—offer a defense. I hoped when he grew up he might appreciate that. And, I'm happy to say, he does.

Ruchir Joshi (review date 24 April 2003)

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SOURCE: Joshi, Ruchir. “Step Inside Rushdie.” Far Eastern Economic Review 166, no. 16 (24 April 2003): 54-5.

[In the following review, Joshi offers a mixed assessment of the essays collected in Step across This Line.]

Is it cruel for an author to have to carry on well after he or she has run out of stories to tell?

In his moving essay on Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie writes: “She hadn't finished. Like Italo Calvino, like Bruce Chatwin, like Raymond Carver, she died at the height of her powers. For writers, these are the cruellest deaths: in mid-sentence so to speak.” However, given the unmitigated disasters of Rushdie's last two novels, even hard-core Rushdie fans like myself might be tempted to argue the contrary.

Notwithstanding his last two failures, once you get into Step across This Line, you find that Rushdie is far from running out of stories. There are lots of little, brilliant tales here, and a few Big Themes—the Siamese-twinned ideas of freedom and transgression, the shifting sense of exile and unbelonging, the dangers of religion, the importance of words—that run through the book.

As will happen even to the best writers, (and, as Rushdie himself points out often enough, he is among the best), the pieces are not universally great. There are even a few real lemons here, but overall this collection of nonfiction is the most cleanly powerful thing to have come from Rushdie's keyboard since … well, if truth be told, since his last collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands.

The first section, Essays, has some real gems, both long and short. The loving unravelling of imagery in “The Wizard of Oz” is gripping. Likewise, he brilliantly explores the travails of being a Spurs fan, following his declining football team. The shorter writings include “Heavy Threads,” a hilarious memoir of the young Rushdie's encounter with 1960s fashion, a paean to leavened bread, and a thought-provoking collage called “Notes on Writing and the Nation.” The second section, Messages from the Plague Years, is a mixed bag, a collection of Rushdie's combative writings from his time in hiding.

While we find some true eloquence here, in the cause of a writer's freedom, there also appears the very clear graph of a growing self-regard, evidence of his own vicissitudes becoming bigger in the writer's mind than the larger issues around the fatwa (the death sentence Iranian clerics decreed on Rushdie for The Satanic Verses)—a gradual dismissing of the wood for one large oak, as it were.

In Columns, the third section, a strange kind of fellow emerges from the enforced cocoon of the fatwa: a man who has swapped an exile from public life for an exile living in America. This man, it seems, accepts that one of his main tasks is to write himself. And furthermore, that he needs to write primarily for a United States audience rather than an international readership.

There are, however, a few flashes of what one may call the Old Rushdie: the lovely, post-U.S.-election take-off of Dr. Seuss in “How the Grinch Stole America,” will surely compete for the best epitaph for George W. Bush, the passionate sting on the New York Police Department for the murder of a black immigrant from Guinea, Amadou Diallo, and a direct, honest attack on the deep moral rot that has spread within the Islamic world.

The Tanner Lectures, delivered at Yale in 2002, make up the final, eponymous, section of the book. Here, Rushdie begins from the historical idea of the line as the westward-moving “Frontier” in the 19th century U.S. He takes this old concept and extends his critique of the great, white, “civilizing” project into different ideas of the line as a boundary to be transgressed.

“We are living, I believe, in a frontier time, one of the great hinge periods of human history …” he says, concluding with a question. “Will we become the suits of armour we put on, or will we continue to be ourselves?”

For Rushdie, the answer is “a bit of both.” While it is true that the only country for which he is a flag-waving jingoist is the one called Rushdistan, it is a country to which Salman Rushdie has been forced to emigrate. Ante-fatwa, the character of El Escritor Hindu (as Nicaraguans call Rushdie in “The Jaguar Smile”) was that of a guide who led us to different people, places, events, and helped us gain insights about them. The guide himself was far from a dull character but the story was never, primarily, about the storyteller himself.

In Step across This Line, we realise how much time Rushdie must have spent looking at Rushdie in his years of hiding. We get a startling measurement of how much his own character enlarged in the man's mind. With a lesser writer, this self-regard can become tedious and irritating. That is not the case here.

Subramanian Shankar (essay date winter 2004)

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SOURCE: Shankar, Subramanian. “Midnight's Orphans, or a Postcolonialism Worth Its Name.” Cultural Critique 56 (winter 2004): 64-95.

[In the following essay, Shankar explores contemporary Indian literature, noting Rushdie's role as a postcolonial Indian author and utilizing Rushdie's commentary and critiques on postcolonial literature.]

In 1997, Salman Rushdie celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence from British rule by coediting The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997 with Elizabeth West. In the introduction to the anthology, Rushdie claimed that the most interesting literature of post-Independence India was in English.1 “The prose writing—both fiction and nonfiction—created in this period [the fifty years after independence] by Indian writers working in English,” he wrote,

is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen “recognized” languages of India, the so-called “vernacular languages,” during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. The true Indian literature of the first postcolonial half-century has been made in the language the British left behind.


It is readily apparent from Rushdie's introduction to the anthology that there are, in substance, two evaluatory parts to his argument regarding contemporary Indian literature. One is Rushdie's high estimation of Indian literature in English, expanded on in an interview given around the time of the anthology's publication in which he claimed that because of literature written in English, “India has finally managed to break through into world literature, into the world's language, and to create this great province inside it” (1997, interview, 36). There can be little quarrel with the general thrust of this part of Rushdie's argument—that the contribution of Indian writers working in English (not the least of which are some of Rushdie's own works) has been of great value. It is the other part—Rushdie's devaluation of literature written in other Indian languages—that has proven controversial and met with criticism from various quarters.2

There is indeed much to be said in defense of the aesthetic value of literature written in Indian languages other than English. However, in this essay, I am interested less in asserting this value contra Rushdie than in tracking what I consider certain other symptomatic theoretical and critical emphases of Rushdie's argument. For though I begin with Rushdie's provocative comments on contemporary Indian literature (and along the way will offer an assessment of some aspects of this literature), I intend to advance an argument about postcolonialism as a theoretical and literary critical project within the North American academy.3 Rushdie is not in fact generally regarded as a critic or a theorist. Nevertheless, there is a certain justice in beginning with him. Commenting on Rushdie's “particular prominence,” M. Keith Booker notes in the introduction to a recent anthology of critical essays on Rushdie that his work “has been particularly attractive” to postcolonial critics “for whom cultural hybridity is a crucial critical category” (1999, 2-3). Homi Bhabha, whose work I will discuss later, is one such critic identified by Booker.

There is a congruence, then, between Rushdie's fiction and certain strands of commentary on postcolonial literature, and it is this congruence that I rely on to legitimize my turn to Rushdie in a discussion of postcolonial criticism and theory. Recent critical overviews of postcolonialism have noted the great influence of these strands. Ania Loomba, for example, writes in Colonialism/Postcolonialism, “Postcolonial studies have been preoccupied with issues of hybridity, creolisation, mestizaje, in-betweenness, diasporas and liminality, with the mobility and cross-overs of ideas and identities generated by colonialism” (1998, 173). And Leela Gandhi echoes this description when she writes toward the end of Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, “Postcolonial literary theory, as we have seen, tends to privilege ‘appropriation’ over ‘abrogation’ and multicultural ‘syncretism’ over cultural ‘essentialism’” (1998, 153). In this critical context, my turn to Rushdie allows me to demonstrate the widespread nature of the attitudes represented by these emphases, and also to show that the argument that follows is indeed not relevant only to the domain of criticism and theory narrowly understood as a species of academic knowledge.

Of course, the tendencies in postcolonial criticism and theory being identified here exist in dialogue and in contestation with other tendencies, such as the materialist criticism of such scholars as Arif Dirlik, Aijaz Ahmad, E. San Juan, Benita Parry, Barbara Harlow, Timothy Brennan, Satya Mohanty, and Neil Lazarus.4 Echoes to the argument in this essay can be found in their work, and I will have occasion to draw on their enabling and suggestive commentary. I feel it is also necessary to point out that the present argument is meant primarily for a North American academic audience and emerges out of my own implication in the structures of the North American academy. If presented to an academic audience in India, it would no doubt have taken a different form. This is not a matter for embarrassment; it is an acknowledgment of institutional location. To explore in English the nature of the vernacular as I mean to do here is a different matter in the North American academy than in India. The audience is different; the objectives of the critique are different. The critical tensions identified and the debates entered into have different import.

In what follows, I begin with readings of three works of contemporary Tamil literature: K. N. Subramanyam's poem “Situation” (an example of the formal and thematic experimentation of the New Poetry movement), Komal Swaminathan's full-length socialist realist (though the characterization is in some ways inadequate) play Water! and Ambai's feminist short story “A Kitchen in a Corner of the House.” The works have been chosen deliberately—for reasons that will become clear—to exemplify both the variety of genres and the diversity of voices within contemporary Tamil literature. My recourse to these Tamil works is dictated both by my personal biography and the needs of my argument. Literature in Tamil falls among those “vernacular literatures” of India sweepingly dismissed by Rushdie (1997, introduction, xv). Tamil is a modern South Indian language with a tradition of classical literature going back more than two thousand years—though, as we shall see, as a “vernacular language,” despite its presence in a variety of media from film and television to the Web, its very modernity is implicitly questioned in Rushdie's arguments.5 My main interest in the section that follows is in demonstrating the thematic richness of postcolonial Tamil literature in order to advance some arguments, in the final section of the essay, about postcolonialism as a theoretical and critical project within the North American academy.


In the introduction to the anthology he coedited, Rushdie asserts, “parochialism is perhaps the main vice of the vernacular literatures” (1997, introduction, xv). And in the interview, he elaborates further on what he means by this parochialism:

The besetting sin of the vernacular language is parochialism. It's as if the twentieth century hasn't arrived in many of these languages and the range of subjects and the manner of the treatment of them is depressingly familiar: village life is hard, women are badly treated and often commit suicide, landowners are corrupt, peasants are heroic and sometimes feckless, disillusioned and defeated. The language is a kind of Indian equivalent of what, in the Soviet Union, was called “Tractor Art.” When the attempts are made to take notice of some of the developments in the rest of the world, the clumsiness is sometimes embarrassing.

(1997, interview, 36)

For Rushdie, then, the parochial and backward nature of “vernacular literatures”—such as Tamil literature—are easily recognizable in their thematic poverty. But how true is this characterization of vernacular literature? I begin an exploration of this question by turning first to K. N. Subramanyam's 1966 poem “Situation” because this poem would seem to offer the clearest and most direct refutation of Rushdie's claim.6

In a preface to a collection of Subramanyam's poems entitled Puthu Kavithaikal (New Poems), the well-known poet Gnanakoothan notes, “The words and ideas of previous poets are recognizable in the poems of Ka Na Su [as K. N. Subramanyam was often known] from the beginning. But he has used these words and ideas in such a way that they have acquired new meaning” (1989, v).7 In poetry, as much as in his criticism and fiction, Subramanyam struggled with the different claims of innovative movements in literature and of tradition. As a poet, he belonged to the New Poetry movement heralded in 1962 by the influential anthology entitled Puthukurralkal (New Voices), edited by Ci. Cu. Chellappa, in which, in fact, two of his poems were included. As Kamil Zvelebil notes in his essay in The Smile of Murugan, New Poetry shows a “radical break with the past and its traditions, though not a negation of the cultural heritage,” an “experimentation with language and form of poetry, based on intellection,” a familiarity with European and North American modernist poetry, and a “preoccupation” with very contemporary matters (1973, 313-14). Zvelebil concludes his positive assessment of New Poetry by noting the movement's “conscious attempts to evolve a new Tamil idiom, to write, uninhibitedly, about unconventional or even prohibitive themes, to get rid of fashionable foreign influences and to create a truly modern Tamil poetry” (335).8

Many of the features identified by Zvelebil in New Poetry are to be found in “Situation” (the translation is by the poet himself):

Introduced to
the Upanishads
by T. S. Eliot;
and to Tagore
by the early
and to the Indian Tradition
by Max Mueller
(late of the Bhavan);
and to
Indian dance by
and to
Indian art
by what's-his-name;
and to the Tamil classics
by Danielou
(or was it Pope?);
neither flesh
nor fish blood
nor stone totem-pole;
in thoughts
not his own;
eloquent in words
not his own
(“The age demanded …”)

Sanskritic (the Upanishads), national (Tagore), and Tamil traditions make up the cultural heritage of the person described in the poem.9 But ironically, his only access to these roots is through the work (“fashionable foreign influences”?) of Western cultural authorities like Eliot (Anglo-American), Müller (German) and Danielou (French). Thus, the poem thematizes the contemporary cultural predicament of a certain segment of the postcolonial intelligentsia in Tamil India. Not of the land (“flesh”), not of the sea (“fish blood”), not a worthy (even if inanimate) emblem of his culture (“stone totem-pole”), filled with “words not his own”—the individual described in the poem is, it would seem, the product of what is often referred to in the postcolonial context as cultural imperialism.10

The oblique citation of Ezra Pound once again in the final line of the poem suggests the subtlety, erudition, self-reflection, and irony behind this meditation on the contemporary “situation” of the postcolonial intellectual. “The age demanded …” is a quotation from Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Contacts and Life), a long 1920 poem that is, Peter Nicholls notes, “at times a distanced presentation of himself [Pound] and at others a satirical portrait of an ineffectual aesthete” (1995, 190). The phrase makes its appearance in the poem early in the first section, “E. P. Ode pour l'Election de Son Sepulchre,” which is a catalog of the various things “demanded” by the age; among other things, the age is described as demanding “mendacities” rather “[t]han the classics in paraphrase” (98-99). Alluding to the just concluded First World War, Pound goes on to note, “There died a myriad, / And of the best, among them, / For an old bitch gone in the teeth, / For a botched civilization” (1975, 101). And still later in the poem, the phrase “the age demanded” reappears as the title of a section that continues Pound's ironic and self-deprecating exploration of the relevance of (literary) tradition in the midst of the terrible excesses of modern civilization. This section ends by noting “his final / Exclusion from the world of letters” (110).11

“Better mendacities / Than the classics in paraphrase!” and “an old bitch gone in the teeth, / … a botched civilization.” Clearly these phrases find renewed significance by reference to the postcolonial Tamil intellectual at the center of Subramanyam's poem. If it is possible to read Pound's poem as an ironic meditation on the modern Anglo-American poet's relationship to tradition and classical literature, a similar preoccupation with regard to the modern Tamil intellectual is at the heart of Subramanyam's poem. As already noted, Subramanyam was, like other poets of the New Poetry movement in general, deeply familiar with European modernism, whose central figures often find reference in his work. Of course, in his poem, Subramanyam resituates this modernist preoccupation within a postcolonial context. Western modernity is not the same as postcolonialism, nor is the predicament of the modernist intellectual the same as that of the postcolonial intellectual. But in “Situation,” the example of the modernist intellectual is made to inform in a subtle way the predicament of the postcolonial intellectual. While what the postcolonial age (“botched civilization”?) demands is left somewhat undetermined at the end of Subramanyam's poem, the contemporary “situation” of a certain kind of postcolonial intellectual does find ironic figuration in the poem.

It seems clear to me that K. N. Subramanyam's “Situation” cannot be characterized, even by unsympathetic eyes, as Tractor Art. Its themes even show a certain affinity with the concerns of that species of postcolonial criticism and theory that has been so important in assigning such a high value to the work of Rushdie. I have already cited a passage in which Keith Booker makes the link between this high valuation of Rushdie's work and postcolonialism by noting that his “cultural hybridity is a crucial critical category” for postcolonial critics like Homi Bhabha. “Situation,” too, can easily be described as a hybrid text on a hybrid subject. Written originally in Tamil (in which language its irony is even more pointed), it was translated into English by the poet himself. The cultural hybridity of the poem, then, is not just a matter of citation; such hybridity inheres not just in the manner in which it incorporates Pound's poem within itself but in that “Situation” is, if one grants that an author's translation of his or her own work has a different status from other translations, a bilingual poem. It exists in two languages at the same time. The “hybrid” subject of this bilingual poem is a mimic man. Homi Bhabha has written that in colonial discourse “mimicry represents an ironic compromise” between “the synchronic panoptical vision of domination,” with its demand for “identity, stasis,” and “the diachrony of history,” with its demand for “change, difference” (1994, 85-86; italics in original).12 Thus, mimic men and women are called forth by the ambivalence of colonial discourse, but Bhabha goes on to write that “[t]he menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority” (88; italics in original).

In the economy of a postcolonial poem such as “Situation,” however, the ironic compromise represented by colonial mimicry as well as the notion that such mimicry is disruptive of the authority of colonial discourse are themselves ironized. The opposite of such irony and mimicry—a certain, if still vexed, notion of cultural autonomy—slips in through the back door: better is the practice of reading the Indian classics in their original languages. In Subramanyam's hybrid and ironic poem, despite—or, perhaps, through—a deep knowledge of Pound and Euro-American modernism, this desire for cultural autonomy articulates as well as performs an impatience with mimicry. While the poem acknowledges the “multicultural ‘syncretism’” and “the mobility and cross-overs of ideas and identities” that lie embedded in notions of colonial mimicry and that have been summarized variously as the most significant emphases of postcolonialism, at least in the North American academy, such desire reaches in other directions—toward notions of cultural autonomy. It is an autonomous access to his own culture that Subramanyam recommends for the postcolonial intellectual at the center of his poem. Through irony and mimicry, the poem attempts to snatch such autonomy from the very jaws of irony and out of the hands of inevitable mimicry. In this fashion, the postcolonialism of Subramanyam's Tamil poem now joins and now diverges from the influential strains of postcolonialism under discussion here and such Indian writing in English as theoretically and critically abetted by it (such as Rushdie's novels). And both when it joins and when it diverges it slips the noose of Tractor Art.

It may seem at first reading that Komal Swaminathan's full-length play Water! cannot slip the noose quite so easily. The play is quite different in its main concerns, and indeed in its literary sensibility, from Subramanyam's poem. Water! is Swaminathan's most important play and, arguably, the most important Tamil play of the twentieth century.13 It was enormously successful when first produced in 1980, partly because it was preceded and succeeded by public furor. Water!'s controversial subject matter concerns a drought-stricken village in the far south of India. For five years the rains have failed in the fictional village of Athipatti, and the villagers have repeatedly petitioned the government, to no avail, for relief. Into this situation arrives the vagabond Vellaisamy, who exhorts the villagers to organize themselves and take various actions to better their condition. The villagers try to bring water in a cart; they boycott an election to put pressure on the government; they try to dig a canal to the village. Despite all their efforts, however, the villagers are defeated by the forces ranged against them. The play ends with the death of Vellaisamy, the dispersal of many of the key villagers, and the village still locked in drought.

Water! was written at the end of a decade of considerable social turmoil within India—ranging from Marxist-Leninist insurrection to Gandhian agitation. In the months immediately preceding the staging of Water! signs of Marxist-Leninist activity had been reported in Tamil-speaking areas of India. Accordingly, censors in Madras attempted to deny permission to Swaminathan's play because of its alleged sympathy for the Marxist-Leninists. By the time the play was first staged, Water! had won considerable notoriety as a radical play. A year later it was made into an equally successful film, which encouraged many slum-dwellers and villagers to take various actions to bring potable water to themselves. The play met with enormous enthusiasm from playgoers and with favorable reviews in the Tamil-as well as English-language press. Many reviewers regarded the play as an important milestone in the history of modern Tamil drama.14 Though drama is, as M. Vardarajan notes, a neglected genre in Tamil literature, it has had an especially intimate relationship to powerful political movements (1970, 269). Many significant political personages have also been important figures in the Tamil theatrical world.15 It is within this explicitly politicized but critically dismissed dramatic context that Swaminathan's achievement in Water! must be placed. The play represents, as indeed Swaminathan's preface to the published version of the play makes clear, a bold and self-conscious engagement with the aesthetic judgments and political conditions of the time.

Certainly the Tamil dramatic tradition, and the opportunities and limitations that it represents, is one aesthetic context for Swaminathan in Water! but there are others equally important. Swaminathan himself has described his aesthetic sensibility as one informed by “a socialist realism” (in Narayanan n.d.). Water! is certainly a Marxist work. In an interview given in 1995, toward the end of his life, Swaminathan noted, “Marxist literature and thought have provided me a broad-based philosophy of life and I have used it for literary ends” (in Santhanam 1995, 14). No doubt this “broad-based philosophy” suggests a markedly different aesthetic orientation than the New Poetry sensibility of Subramanyam's “Situation.”

Nevertheless, to present Water! as an example of Tractor Art would be to mischaracterize its real thematic and aesthetic complexity. Early in Water! the protagonist Vellaisamy reveals that he was born on the day of India's independence: “My father used to say I was born when the flag of the white man came down over Delhi Red Fort and the tricolor went up. The white man was leaving this country. In his memory, my father gave me this name, Vellaisamy. Maybe it's because I was born on the day of independence. … Like independent India, I too live the life of a dog” (11). This strange passage full of postcolonial mimicry (Vellaisamy's name can be translated to mean “white master”), ambivalence, and irony reveals Vellaisamy—like Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children—to be a midnight's child. “Initially seen as merely a comic, irreverent and high-spirited novel about a fantastic protagonist whose birth coincided with the independence of India,” Meenakshi Mukherjee notes, “Midnight's Children was gradually appropriated into a theoretical discourse about nation, history and their narrativity” (1999, 9). And in his foreword to the published version of the play, Swaminathan writes, “The little village named Athipatti is the mirror-image of an India which has now been independent for thirty-two years” (2001, xxxii). Like Midnight's Children, then, Water! (produced a year before the publication of the novel) is a detailed comment on postcolonial nationhood.

Rushdie's fantastic imaginings, aspirations to a sweeping national allegory, and literary word play are aimed at a transnational readership; in contrast, Swaminathan's mode of expression is resolutely attentive to the mundane forms of reality, his primary audience drawn from Tamil India, and his language firmly rooted in the specific dialect proper to the part of Tamil India in which the play is set. Even if both novel and play aspire to comment on the postcolonial condition of India, they do so in very different ways. Midnight's Children sets out to be a grand historical novel, while Water! is content to explore the same postcolonial history of India through the effects it has had on one drought-stricken village. Perhaps this is the difference between that magic realism with which Rushdie's work is often associated and what I will call, appropriating for my purposes Rushdie's term of dismissal, a vernacular realism—that is, a realism aspiring to reproduce the local in all its specificity and drawing substantially, though not exclusively, on vernacular literary and theatrical traditions.16

I have sketched elsewhere Swaminathan's complicated relationship to psychological realism and socialist realism as aesthetic options in Water! (Shankar 2001). Water! appears to be a naïve play—Tractor Art—if assessed exclusively by the tenets of a psychological realism that emphasizes “rounded” and “interesting” characters and focuses on the motives of human behavior as we have come to understand them from the vast majority of contemporary Western bourgeois literature and drama. There is no real conflict among the “good” characters in the play—no unforgiving anger, no betrayal, no passionate love, no pettiness. Instead, there is a political complexity that is derived at least partly from Swaminathan's commitment to socialist realism. George Bisztray has suggested the following as important characteristics of socialist realism: a programmatic affirmation, a celebration of collectivism, an optimistic outlook, and an emphasis on the educative function (1978, 53-54). Water! both expresses and contravenes these tenets of socialist realism. Swaminathan's eschewal of a psychological realism—a realism based on certain notions of individual motivation—corresponds to a socialist realist collectivism. Also present in the play is an emphasis on the educative function. On the other hand, the tragic ending of the play, when Vellaisamy dies and the villagers are defeated in their attempt to bring water, contravenes the programmatic optimism of socialist realism. Assessed in the light of its engagement with socialist realism (both when affirming and when revising), Water! appears to be an aesthetically rich play.

Also contributing to this richness is a careful attention to vernacular detail that cannot be explained by reference to socialist realism. The play's language, which offers performative opportunities difficult to capture in a translation, is itself expressive of a vernacularism. With Tamil readers and audiences, the play is famous for its faithful evocation of dialectal variations of spoken Tamil—especially those prevalent among the rural people depicted in the play. Vernacular cultural elements are also to be recognized in some of the characters. In contrast to a communist character such as Kovalu, typifying some of the heroic conventions of socialist realism, are characters like Adaikappan and Kandhaiyan, elderly villagers whose witty dialogue and bantering personalities can be traced back to folk theatrical forms such as villupattu and therukoothu. The presence of numerous folk dances and songs in the play also suggest the great influence of these theatrical forms.17

In Water! then, socialist realist elements coexist with aspects drawn from Tamil folk culture. I refer to Swaminathan's particular deployment of these latter elements in his play as vernacular realism. The socialist realism, derived from the transnational cultural politics of communism, coexists with the vernacular realism. If Water! of the three contemporary Tamil texts being discussed here, seems in the greatest danger of falling into Rushdie's noose of Tractor Art, it is because of Swaminathan's compounding of a socialist realism with a vernacular realism (whose thematic and aesthetic complexity cannot be fully appreciated and that cannot even be understood until the text has been returned to its vernacular context). Raymond Williams has suggested that, in a certain productive critical tradition of understanding realism, reality is “seen not as static appearance but as the movement of psychological or social or physical forces; realism is then a conscious commitment to understanding and describing these. It then may or may not include realistic description or representation of particular features” (1976, 219; italics in original). The varieties of realism alluded to above—magical, psychological, socialist, and, finally, vernacular—should be understood in this light.

The point of my discussion thus far has been to suggest through successive layers of elaboration the inadequacy of characterizing as Tractor Art either an individual text such as Water! or a collective body of work such as contemporary Tamil literature. “A Kitchen in the Corner of the House” by Ambai, a self-consciously feminist writer, provides further illustration of this inadequacy. While she is most renowned as a writer of short stories, one of Ambai's more interesting works is a volume of feminist literary criticism. The Face behind the Mask is an account of the treatment of women in modern Tamil literature and is most valuable for its comprehensive approach to the subject.18 In the first part of the book, Ambai reviews a wide variety of literary works to examine how they portray women and arrives at a kind of critical taxonomy. The latter portion of the book is a compilation of the information she gathered from a number of important contemporary women writers through questionnaires and interviews. “The need,” Ambai notes as she concludes her book, “is to experience the truth of one's self and one's society and find a genuine expression of it”; she goes on to suggest that “[s]uch an attempt to write the truth” would permit “the Tamil woman … to make common cause with many others who are in different categories of role-playing and not necessarily in the male-dominating-the-female-order” (1984, 244).

In many ways, “A Kitchen in the Corner of the House,” first published in 1988, exemplifies this supple and sedimented approach to feminism. The story is a study of three generations of Rajasthani women, as perceived by Minakshi (Mina), a Tamil woman married to Kishan, one of the sons of the family. The patriarch of the family is Papaji, the father of Kishan, and the arrangements of the house are firmly in his control. Ambai presents this household as experienced by Mina over a number of visits. Mina, like some of the other younger members of the family, lives elsewhere with her husband. The Tamil Mina is an outsider in this North Indian family, and the story is full of detailed attention to the vernacular specificity of the Rajasthani family and their difference from the Tamil Mina. When on one of her visits she proposes that the dingy kitchen around which the lives of the women of the family revolve be renovated, and the view from its window cleared, she faces Papaji's opposition. “Papaji's silent retort” to Mina, Ambai tells us, is “Woman, woman of Mysore [a town in South India, close to the Tamil area] … Dark skinned woman, you who refuse to cover your head, you who talk too much, you who have enticed my son …” (1992, 207).

In Papaji's shadow, his wife Jiji and stepmother Bari-Jiji compete for ascendancy over each other. Formerly, the ascendancy had been Bari-Jiji's. But when she loses her husband and falls into the despised condition of widowhood, the positions are reversed. The keys of the household pass from Bari-Jiji to Jiji. Bari-Jiji is reduced to contesting Jiji's domination through subterfuge. Ambai's story ends with an episode in which Jiji falls sick on one of Mina's visits. As Mina watches over her mother-in-law in the “darkened room,” a conversation takes place, though we are told “[w]e cannot be certain whether this conversation was actually started by her [Mina], or whether it happened on its own, or whether it only seemed to her to have occurred because she had imagined it so often” (221). Toward the end of this conversation that might not have been a conversation at all, Mina reflects that if all the “clutter” of managing the kitchen in the house “had not filled up the drawers of [Jiji's] mind,” she too might have done great things (222). The story ends with Mina's (apparent) exhortation to Jiji to let go, to “[s]ink deeper still” because “[w]hen you touch bottom you will reach the universal waters. … Your womb and your breasts will fall away from you. … And there will be you. Not trapped nor diminished by gender, but freed” (223).

It could be said that “A Kitchen in the Corner of the House,” like the “feminist texts” from India reviewed by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan at the end of her book Real and Imagined Women, is full of what Sunder Rajan calls “discriminations … worth noting” (1993, 143). “Even as we grant that [the feminist texts] operate with a utopian bias,” she observes,

we must recognize that they do not create utopian contexts that ignore the tensions of reality … ; while they mark what may be described as the brief truces that women seemingly wrest out of history, they do not offer them in the form of a resolution of the conflict between tradition and modernity … ; they do reproduce the dialectic of struggle, but not by representing women as unrelentingly external to the social process.


Such too are the discriminations of the cautiously utopian vision that concludes Ambai's story. In this sense, “A Kitchen in the Corner of the House” can be added to the feminist texts cited by Sunder Rajan “as significant political advances in the self-representation of women” (143). Furthermore, Ambai, in her desire “to make common cause with many others who are in different categories of role-playing,” appends a number of other important themes to her central feminist concern. One of these themes—one I have already tried to indicate through my quotations from the story—is the place of the vernacular within the national community in the context of the historical cleavage of South India from North.

Ambai's story—like Rushdie's novel, K. N. Subramanyam's poem, and Swaminathan's play—offers a wide-ranging comment on the postcolonial condition of India by focusing attention on both the state of women and the limitations of what Benedict Anderson has called the “imagined community” of the nation. In the story, the utopian vision of women's achievement of community through a liberation from the constraints of sex and gender is subtly juxtaposed to the sad reality of intranational tensions. Mina's moment of communion with her mother-in-law at the end of the story is contrasted to Papaji's earlier dismissal of her as a “dark-skinned woman” from Mysore. In this fashion, the story's conclusion is revealed to be a challenge not only to Papaji's patriarchal power but also to the power of an ethnic prejudice that threatens the utopian vision figured in the “imagined community” of Indian nationhood. Thus, Ambai's story reaches beyond the theme of oppression of women and becomes a feminist meditation under postcolonial conditions on the seductions of and obstacles to utopian desire, whether expressed in the notion of nationhood or other types of community.

It might seem that Ambai's vision of a genderless community into which women might escape is a naïve notion that feminism has surpassed. But such an objection to Ambai's story would beg the following questions: Whose feminism? What is the address—in the sense of both locus and discursive purpose—of this feminism? It is precisely the universalization of the particular concerns of Western feminism as the concerns of women everywhere that found objection in Chandra Talpade Mohanty's widely read essay “Under Western Eyes.” In her critique of Western feminism, Mohanty objected not only to such universalization, but also to the construction of the category of a universal Woman oblivious to the particular, material conditions in which particular, material women existed. Perhaps Ambai's story and her vision of genderless community is deserving of critique—whether such critique is appropriate and what shape this critique might take is not the subject of this essay—but the critique cannot take the form of characterizing Ambai's story as backward, that is, insufficiently current, insufficiently developed, without opening itself to the charge of what Mohanty in her essay calls “ethnocentric universalism” (1988, 199). In other words, Ambai's story cannot become Tractor Art without criticism running the risk of ethnocentric universalism. To make the point in this way is to turn the table on Rushdie's characterization of vernacular literature and suggest the “backwardness” of Rushdie's own charge.

Instead of backwardness, then, in “A Kitchen in the Corner of the House,” we find a feminist meditation on utopian possibilities. Varieties of community—of women, of citizens, of ethnic members—busily lay claim to individual bodies through competing notions of solidarity. Against these notions, Ambai's conclusion brings her reader to the genderless and sexless “universal” community of humanity, a utopian conclusion—nowhere-yet-in-existence conclusion—only possible in the wake of the feminist exploration of the female body in the story. Of the body, Gayatri Spivak writes, “I take the extreme ecological view that the body as such has no possible outline. As body it is a repetition of nature. It is in the rupture with Nature when it is a signifier of immediacy for the staging of the self. … It is through the significance of my body and others' bodies that cultures become gendered, economopolitic, selved, substantive” (1993, 20; italics in original). Through her many references to menstruation, childbirth, and disease, Ambai draws repeated attention to the ineluctable materiality of the female body in nature. It is Ambai's feminism that allows her to delineate the ways in which the women characters (are made to) offer their bodies for the cultured staging of selves (theirs and others). If Ambai wishes—so tentatively, so circumspectly—to have Mina exhort her mother-in-law to disengage from the materiality of womb and breast, it is so that in the utopian freedom of “the universal waters” the ferocious signification of the female self in Papaji's patriarchal culture might be revealed and interrupted. Simultaneously, as we have seen, Papaji posits his and his family's Rajasthaniness against Mina's Tamil-ness, thus bringing to the surface in the guise of ethnic subnational differences questions of vernacular specificity. The place of gender as well as the vernacular in postcolonial India stands indexed in these ways. Ambai's feminism evokes a utopian universalism in order to explore, among other issues, a specific gendered as well as vernacular postcolonial condition.

“Situation,” Water! and “A Kitchen in the Corner of the House” are representative of three very different literary sensibilities within contemporary Tamil literature. These three texts cannot of course be said to describe contemporary Tamil literature exhaustively.19 My choice of works is not meant to introduce contemporary Tamil literature, a task that is beyond the scope of this essay. It is meant rather to illustrate the thematic diversity in contemporary Tamil literature: I have tried to indicate how the appellation Tractor Art is inadequate for any one of these three texts, even Water! which no doubt is the kind of polemical text for which the label is intended. Instead of Tractor Art, we find in the “vernacular literature” represented by these three texts a highly nuanced exploration of a variety of postcolonial themes: the challenge of cultural imperialism, the predicament of the postcolonial intellectual, the postcolonial fates of such transnational cultural movements as modernism and socialist realism, the impasses of postcolonial developmentalism, the place of women within the postcolonial nation, the limits of nationhood, utopian desire, bureaucratic indifference, and so on. My intention has been to expand the horizons of our aesthetic understanding through a series of illustrative readings meant to interrogate the nature of the vernacularity of Tamil literary texts, and thus to draw attention to the varied nature of postcolonial experience.

The readings I have offered, I hope, lead us to question the critical attitudes at the foundation of Rushdie's judgment of the vernacular literatures of India, especially as he expresses them in his work as an editor of an anthology. In the preface to another anthology, the monumental Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present,20 the editors Susie Tharu and K. Lalita present their rationale in selecting the works included in the following manner:

Not all the texts or authors … were chosen for the same reasons. We might have included one piece because it was moving, another because the writer was already well known, another precisely because she ought to be better known, or represented a class or other group whose creative activity is rarely taken into consideration in traditional literary histories and the canons they construct. Yet another might be raising an important issue, dramatizing a typical conflict, or representing a formal development.

(1991, 1: xxiv)

This perspective on the responsibilities of anthologizing offers a profound contrast to Rushdie's views in his introduction: where Tharu and Lalita put forward a highly nuanced grasp of the politics and economics of cultural production, Rushdie seems to feel compelled to fetishize his particular notion of aesthetic value above all else. When read in conjunction with Vinay Dharwadker's observations in the introduction to a special issue of World Literature Today titled “Indian Literatures: In the Fifth Decade of Independence,” the comments of Tharu and Lalita indicate clearly the limitations and biases of Rushdie's views. Dharwadker notes in his essay, “As a collective nationalistic enterprise that lasted more than a century, the literatures in the Indian languages [he means languages other than English] were able to legitimize themselves easily by claiming to possess the native, authentic, and traditional sources of Indian identity and culture” (1994, 240-41). “In the past ten or twenty years,” he goes on to add, “that claim to authenticity has been undermined, not only by the accomplishments of Indian English literature, but also by the inescapable modernity and cosmopolitanism of Indian-language writing itself, and by the emergent diaspora of the Indian languages among immigrant communities around the world” (241).

If the comments of Tharu and Lalita offers a contrast to Rushdie on the principles of anthologizing, Dharwadker's comments suggest a contrasting evaluation of Indian literatures. Rushdie's dismissive reference to vernacular literature as Tractor Art in what is, after all, only an interview would not, perhaps, be worthy of comment were it not, it is now clear, symptomatic of the logic behind the substantial critical and literary intervention represented by his anthology. Since, as Rushdie himself observes, only one writer who does not write in English is included in the anthology (1997, Vintage Book of Indian Writing, x), we may then ask, why do Rushdie and his coeditor West not simply call their anthology a collection of postcolonial Indian writing in English? Why the desire to eschew what would seem a reasonable circumspection and engage in an exorbitation of Indian writing in English at the expense of the other Indian literatures? In the passage quoted at the beginning of this essay, Rushdie notes, “The true Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind” (1997, Vintage Book, 50; emphases added). It would seem that it is in support of this claim to the true India—and also its true postcolonialism—that Rushdie's remarkable comments on Indian literatures are marshaled in his introduction; for it is from these claims to India and its postcolonialism that the canonizing power of Rushdie's anthology flows. And—irony upon irony—in this pursuit Rushdie, spokesperson of the ironic and the hybrid, is forced to retreat to a language of authenticity!21


The effect of Rushdie's claims of authenticity for Indian writing in English is to make such writing the true literary child of independence—the true literary inheritor of that postcolonial period inaugurated at the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947. Reciprocally, the very literatures that claimed to represent India authentically at the height of the nationalist movement are now declared to be inauthentic. In Rushdie's comments they are rendered, we might say, the orphans of midnight. However, as noted at the beginning of this essay, Rushdie's assessment of the vernacular literatures of India has been contested from a variety of directions. Within India, certainly, the vernacular literatures have sufficiently powerful institutional and popular support. Rushdie's orphaning of the vernacular literatures, I want to argue, can only be symptomatic of a postcolonialism—widely held within the North American academy—understood as a critical and theoretical enterprise privileging the transnational over the vernacular and capable of being contrasted in this respect to another species of postcolonialism.

In this time of the popularity of the postcolonial within the North American academy, much has been written of “the postcolonial condition”—even as many arguments have been made subjecting such a condition to skeptical scrutiny. Anne McClintock, for example, has questioned the accuracy of the term and expressed misgivings about it as “a singular, monolithic term,” while insisting that she would not “want to banish the term to some chilly, verbal Gulag; there seems no reason why it should not be used judiciously in appropriate circumstances” (1992, 294). In another essay, Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge have distinguished between “oppositional” postcolonialism and “complicit” postcolonialism and argued for what they call a “new postcolonialism.” “It is precisely if we acknowledge the pervasiveness but not universality of complicit forms of the postcolonial,” they conclude, “that we can trace the connections that go back to the settler experience and beyond, and forward to the new postcolonialism” (1991, 289). The essays by McClintock and by Mishra and Hodge, then, challenge the rapidly institutionalizing definitions of such a term as “postcolonial” even as they accept the need for it.

In a similar spirit, I want to suggest that we refine our understanding of “the postcolonial condition” by making a distinction between a transnational postcolonialism and a vernacular postcolonialism. More often than not, postcolonial theory, especially but not exclusively within the North American academy, has characterized postcolonial societies as hybrid societies. Many of the signature themes of postcolonial criticism and theory have flowed directly out of this characterization of the postcolonial condition. Despite the emphasis on the “hybrid,” the ironic effect of this characterization has been, as Ania Loomba points out, to homogenize diverse postcolonial identities and practices under the rubric of a hybridity understood exclusively in the context of a contest between (European) colonizer and (“native”) colonized (1998, 178).

The corollary of this emphasis on the hybrid is the erasure of certain other arenas of cultural endeavor, certain other sensibilities or ideologies. Thus, influential forms of postcolonial criticism and theory have generally been suspicious of any robust idea of the local or the vernacular, when these terms mark hostility to the hybridizing force of transnational cultural flows. They have also been suspicious of ideas of “tradition” closely linked to the local and the vernacular, finding in appeals to such tradition only a distressing quest for purity and authenticity. It is in this context that we can understand Rushdie's dismissal of the vernacular literatures of India as a whole as “parochial.” It is in this context too that we might read Homi Bhabha's essay “Minority Maneuvers and Unsettled Negotiations” (1997). This essay does take positive recourse to the term “vernacular,” but only by treating it as a rough synonym for “minority” and separating it from “local,” “traditional,” and other such terms. Certainly, it is telling that after discussing “vernacular translations,” “vernacular cosmopolitans,” and the need “to transform social division into progressive minority agency,” Bhabha writes of “situations where the driving cataract of history, flowing relentlessly in the direction of the global, does not simply obliterate locality as a kind of obsolete irrelevance but reproduces its own compensatory projections of what tradition, the local, or the authentic ought to have been” (458; italics in original).

The main thrust of Bhabha's argument is to establish the value of what he calls the “minority” perspective and an equivalence between it and “vernacular.” Reciprocally, however, “minority” becomes the wedge in his argument to separate “vernacular” from “tradition” and “the local,” and the latter two, when at all present, are reduced to “compensatory projections” of a globalizing history. And so here too the language of authenticity returns surreptitiously. Bhabha's approach to the contradistinction of the global and the local, the transnational and the traditional, is altogether more careful than Rushdie's dismissal of the vernacular as parochial. Nevertheless, the effect of his argument is to assign a position of inauthenticity to the local and the traditional a priori. The point of departure for analysis is the global, in whose context the local and the traditional, if present, must be understood. The opposite—any idea of the local and the traditional as a point of departure for understanding the global—remains unthinkable. But is not the notion that the driving cataract of history moves relentlessly in the direction of the global a form of metanarrative needing careful elucidation? Such elucidation makes no appearance in Bhabha's essay, and so the discourse of the global validates itself without seeming to do so.

Riveted by the transnational and transnationalizing force of colonialism and its aftermath, such contemporary theories of the postcolonial, despite their complexity in many other respects, have presented a curiously impoverished idea of both the appeal of the “traditional” as well as of the “local” and the “vernacular” (as distinct from Bhabha's “minority”) on which such an appeal often founds itself. No doubt this is partly because discourses of the traditional in postcolonial societies have themselves often discounted the primacy of the colonial encounter in their arguments and have thus opened themselves to a variety of charges ranging from atavism to romanticized indigenism. I hope, however, that my discussion of three contemporary works of Tamil literature sheds a different light on the varieties of vernacular culture and discourses of the traditional. I am not suggesting that the traditional and the vernacular somehow escape the colonial encounter, that they can be isolated from the category of the colonial. Neither “Situation” nor Water! treats the historical effects of colonialism with indifference. I am suggesting, however, that we should be able to argue that the perspectives of the vernacular and related ideas of the local and the traditional (with their orientation toward the autonomous) are no more worthy of automatic dismissal from theoretical discourse than are the perspectives of the transnational and related ideas of the diasporic and the modern (with their orientation toward the hybrid). Sometimes cultural autonomy is the explicit concern of vernacular literature (as in “Situation”). Sometimes a subtle critical understanding of degrees of cultural autonomy within a historical “situation” enables a deeper appreciation of the context within which vernacular literature functions. Considered in this light, the notion of the vernacular can be enabling in the journey toward new horizons of aesthetic understanding, where postcolonial literature properly construed is concerned. Indeed, it is possible to go beyond a narrowly literary context and propose that an adequate accounting of the postcolonial condition—an issue separate from the question of endorsement or repudiation of particular perspectives—requires a more careful attention to the claims of vernacular as well as transnational postcolonialism than has hitherto been granted within certain influential theories of the postcolonial.

The manner in which I have made the distinction in this essay between varieties of postcolonialism no doubt founds it in linguistic difference—after all, “vernacular” is chiefly, though not exclusively, as the Oxford English Dictionary shows, a linguistic term—and I have no desire to disavow this foundation. But I do want to underscore the point that the distinction is ultimately about varieties of postcolonial sensibility, which have a strong relationship to linguistic differences but cannot be reduced to them. It is not as if we must all now rush out to learn the vernacular languages of the postcolonial world. It would be sufficient for the moment if we learned to become more attentive to the diversity of sensibility that actually exists there. Furthermore, a “vernacular” sensibility, while suggesting an orientation toward rootedness and cultural autonomy and specific locality, should be distinguished from parochialism (though such parochialism might very well be part of some varieties of this sensibility).

The nuances I am trying to draw attention to here may be briefly elucidated by reference to the careers of Salman Rushdie and R. K. Narayan. The latter, those knowledgeable will agree, is at least as distinguished an Indian writer in English as the former. Yet his novels have remained in relative obscurity as far as postcolonial literary criticism as practiced within the North American academy is concerned. There are a variety of reasons for this obscurity, but a crucial one, I would say, is that Narayan is much closer to the pole of a vernacular postcolonial sensibility—that is, he shows a greater consciousness of the vernacular in both his subject matter and his philosophical perspectives—than to a transnational one.22 Accordingly, the transnational postcolonial perspectives under scrutiny in this essay have been significantly less interested in Narayan—despite his aesthetic and philosophical complexity—than in Rushdie.

And the corollary also is true. Works of vernacular literature can be located along a spectrum ranging from vernacular postcolonialism at one end to transnational postcolonialism at the other. Thus, among the three Tamil works discussed in this essay, Subramanyam's “Situation” seems clearly closer to a transnational postcolonial sensibility than Swaminathan's Water! This judgment is based not simply on the thematic concerns of these works, but also on their formal and aesthetic allegiances. Accordingly, the former lends itself much more readily to analysis using critical tools perfected on the terrain of transnational postcolonialism, though, as we have seen, even in “Situation” there is a refusal to engage in the facile rejection of the notion of cultural autonomy. Ambai's short story (like Water!) is closer to the pole of a vernacular postcolonialism than Subramanyam's poem in, if nothing else, its foregrounding of intranational—as opposed to transnational—social and political concerns. Even though I have suggested that the notions of transnational and vernacular postcolonialisms should not be reduced to language, as far as literary works are concerned, the language used by a writer is of singular importance in delimiting his or her audience. While not an inescapable straitjacket, language is a powerful constraining pressure in a variety of ways. Thus, we should not be surprised to find that many more works of vernacular literature than literature written in English tend to one pole of the spectrum rather than the other.

Critics such as Neil Lazarus and Timothy Brennan have already offered persuasive and sharply delineated critiques of an unqualified exorbitation of what I am calling transnational postcolonialism. Thus Lazarus pertinently observes, “even if, in the contemporary world-system the subjects whom Bhabha addresses under the labels of exile, migration, and diaspora, are vastly more numerous than at any time previously, they cannot reasonably be said to be paradigmatic or constitutive of ‘postcoloniality’ as such” (1999, 136-37). And Brennan's wide-ranging critique of the sensibilities of cosmopolitanism in At Home in the World connects at many points with the critique of transnational postcolonialism advanced here. For both Lazarus and Brennan, the vantage point that enables their critiques is the nation-state and what Brennan calls “left nationalisms” (1997, 317). “Nationalism is not dead,” Brennan concludes his book. “And it is good that it is not” (317).

So it is. It is good, too, as Brennan himself would no doubt agree, that the vernacular is not dead. Brennan argues elsewhere in his book, “Lost in much of the writing on colonialism and postcolonialism is the mood of languorous attachments to native cultures, still in many ways premarket or anticapitalist, that were (in displacement) sites of nativity. If hybridity can be said to characterize them, then it is a hybridity reclaimed and reinvented as indigenous, defiantly posed against an increasingly insistent metropolitan norm” (10). In Brennan's argument, a certain notion of the indigenous emerges as the counterpoint to the transnational. I have preferred the term “vernacular” to do similar work because of my different objectives in this essay. “Vernacular” conveys closer association with cultural themes and greater distance from themes of ethnicity and identity. One speaks of “indigenous peoples” but not of “vernacular peoples.” To my mind, “vernacular” is able to suggest a sense of local habitation based on genealogy (that “indigenous” indicates so much more strongly) without becoming synonymous with it. My desire has been to find a term capable of drawing attention in a historically rich, critically supple, and conceptually broad way to commonly disregarded sensibilities, practices, and modes of being that operate as a counterpoint to the transnational in the postcolonial context. It is the impulse to mark the counterpoint sharply but not so sharply as to be usable only in limited circumstances that has led me to such a term as “vernacular.” The overlap between “indigenous” and “vernacular” indexes how each term expresses a “defiance” (Brennan's eminently apt characterization) of an uncritically transnationalist point of vantage in the postcolonial context. No doubt one term cannot always do the work of the other.

Criticism and theory, then—especially as often practiced within the North American academy, but this point is not necessarily relevant only to such a location—should distinguish between a transnational postcolonialism and a vernacular postcolonialism, without succumbing to the temptation to see the two as polar opposites permitting no gradations in between. This essay is not meant to be an argument for the political or otherwise authentication of a vernacular postcolonialism over a transnational postcolonialism (or vice versa). I am aware that my argument has proceeded mainly by reference to the Indian context and that the specific nature of the relationship between vernacular and transnational postcolonialisms in Indian cannot be used to generalize about other parts of the world. I do believe, however, that the set of issues identified in this essay is germane to postcolonial criticism and theory in general. To different degrees and in different forms, the need for careful attention to both vernacular and transnational postcolonialisms is relevant to different parts of the postcolonial world. With regard to sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the debates over the appropriate language for literature—whether African literature should properly be written in languages like Yoruba and Swahili or may also be written in English and French—might be said to illustrate a similar tension between vernacular and transnational postcolonialisms.23 I am aware, too, that I have staged my argument on the terrain of literature, raising the possibility of misunderstanding. The textualism of my particular argument here should not be taken to indicate an exclusively textualist understanding of postcolonialism. I have been at pains to regard the literary works discussed as productive clues to certain aspects of the postcolonial situation.

My chief intention in this essay has been to outline, through readings of postcolonial literature, some of the pitfalls in current widely held—even near-pervasive—forms of critically assessing and theorizing the postcolonial within the North American academy and to recommend, as far as such criticism and theory are concerned, that we be attentive to both a vernacular and a transnational postcolonialism. We can begin being so only by learning to recognize, analyze, and evaluate a vernacular postcolonial sensibility in ways less reductive and dismissive than is currently the norm. In the pursuit of this goal, perhaps we will need to recover abandoned critical tools and terminology, perhaps to craft new ones. The careful distinctions to be made between vernacular and cosmopolitan sensibilities, the importance of translation as practice and as trope in the postcolonial context, the felicities and fallibilities of comparativism as a methodology capable of drawing into critical light hitherto ignored aspects of the postcolonial, the place of the vernacular within the national imaginary—it is at the threshold of these and other issues that we have now arrived. It remains to be seen exactly what stepping across the threshold will bring. But it is already clear where refusing to take the step threatens to leave us—with the abandonment, the orphaning, of entire shelves of postcolonial literature and with, indeed, a far too narrow sense of the postcolonial. Out of the kind of critical and theoretical attention recommended here we might come to appreciate, in the fullness of time, a “postcolonialism” worth its name.


  1. Rushdie's introduction appeared originally in the 1997 New Yorker issue dedicated to Indian writing in English under the title “Damme, This Is the Oriental Scene for You!”

  2. For some examples of such criticism, see Mukherjee 1999, 26; Rege 1999, 187-88; and P. Mishra 1999, 49-51.

  3. Perhaps it is necessary to note that “postcolonialism” is used sometimes to refer to a historical condition and sometimes more narrowly to a form of cultural and historiographical criticism and theory. This essay is mainly concerned with the adequacy of certain versions of the last to deal with the first (especially, but not exclusively, the literature that emerges out of it). It is, I think, clear from the context which meaning is meant where.

  4. See also the critical anthology coedited by Bartolovich and Lazarus (2002).

  5. M. Varadarajan's A History of Tamil Literature (1970) is an abridged English version of an important, if slightly dated, introduction to Tamil literature written originally in Tamil.

  6. The poem was first published in Poetry India 1, no. 2 (April-June 1966): 9. The references to the poem in this essay are from The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994) in which it was subsequently included.

  7. Translation by author. When Gnanakoothan refers to previous poets, he has in mind the great Tamil poets of antiquity he has just listed. But it is readily evident from Subramanyam's work that he was an avid reader of English literature and was especially conversant with the modernists. In this context, Tamil readers may see Subramanyam's prefaces and critical essays in Puthu Kavithaikal (1989). K. N. Subramanyam (1912-1989), one of the most prominent figures of modern Tamil literature, was a poet, a critic, and a novelist. “In his novels,” R. Parthasarthy says, “prose fiction in Tamil reached its apotheosis” (1994, 254).

  8. For a recent study of New Poetry see N. C. Rama's unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, “Imagery in the Poetry of Ci. Mani and Es. Vaitiswaran—A Comparative Study” (Madras University, 2003).

  9. As is well-known, Tagore often dissociated himself from nationalist forms of thought. See, for example, Ahluwalia and Ahluwalia (1981, 50). However, because a song by Tagore is the national anthem of India, Tagore is also often linked to the cultural forms of the nation. Subramanyam's poem, it seems to me, means to indicate this association. “National” is my way of identifying this association without assimilating Tagore into an ideological positi