Anatomy Of An Anti-Novel
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The uneven distribution of novelistic attention-always revealing of the novelist's real sympathies-turn his Indian characters into absurd and contemptible figures. Full humanity, or whatever little of it is available in this kind of novel, is offered only to western or West-bound characters. There are long descriptions of the grotesqueries of a rustic new Hindu politician, Piloo Doodhwala (based on Laloo Prasad Yadav), who for Merchant represents the 'Caligulan barbarity' of India, ('breaker of my heart') and who speaks the kind of English that was previously only heard in Peter Sellers's The Party: "Cowvs," he shrieked at his wife Golmatol (the daughters are named-what else?-Barfi and Rasgulla), "Let them worship cowvs, but leawe their udders alone! A person should not squeeze the titties of a goddess! Isn't it wife? What do you say?"

Such crude and witless buffoonery is indeed how the Indian chi-chi class-which serves as 'India' in Rushdie's fiction-responds to the unwashed masses staking a claim to political power.But the embarrassment we feel while reading this is mostly on the writer's behalf. The strong blast of Malabar Hill snobbery hints at a writer not in control of his writing self, of indeed someone who has been overpowered by it.

As always, Rushdie's too-clever-by-half narrator tries to get to such interpretations before the reader does: "When I am facing the enormities of the actual," he tells us, "when that great monster is roaring in my lens, I lose control of other things." He speaks of contradictoriness, rifts and slippages, of the 'irreconciability of being'; he tries to sell us the old chestnut about "how we all have to deal with the uncertainty of the modern". But of these intense private and world conflicts alluded to, The Ground Beneath her Feet turns out to be not a transmuting-as works of art are-but merely a symptom (significantly, the two occasions on which the word 'inwardness' occurs in the text it is accompanied by the words, 'curse' and 'affliction'). Towards the end, as random and gratuitous violence overtakes the novel's events and characters, 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 writes, "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,' Merchant tells us, but he at least has found peace in 'ordinary human life.' He has settled down with a woman and a child in a posh New York apartment: they are 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 novel. As for ordinary human life, the novel has already got 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 great noise of the modern world; and in doing so it not only ceases to be literature but invites scrutiny as an alarming new kind of anti-literature.

(Pankaj Mishra's novel, The Romantics, due to be published next year, has been sold around the world for over half a million dollars.)

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