This is how the parable of Indian writing in English runs for most Anglophone Indians, from the academic teaching English in San Jose to the journalist in Delhi. No argument, no appeal to history or fact, toward fashioning an alternative account, or accounts, of the brief history of this literature to penetrate the minds of those who feel they've been transformed by the revelatory force of the parable; cults have a particular immunity to history. What passes for discussion is really the sort of semi-paranoiac gossip that breeds inside cults; signs of loyalty and telltale marks by which to identify who belongs and who doesn't preoccupy the discussants. Does the author live in Europe or in America? Do they include a glossary in their work?
The analogy with the cult can only be stretched so far; for cults are fatally drawn to self-destructiveness. The arriviste middle-class Indian, however, who has largely taken over the discourse of English writing in India, is deeply enamoured of longevity, success, and, importantly, power.
This isn't the sense in which those who speak of 'confidence' in Indian writing understand that term. What they mean is visibility, success, proximity to power. This confidence is a general, seamless metaphor for India in the age of globalisation. Indeed, Indian writing in English, since Rushdie, has participated in a subtle but significant shift in register in the way India views itself and others: from a once-colonised nation "finding its voice", to quote from V.S. Pritchett's review of Midnight's Children, to a player on the world stage with a 'say' in the
world. A thin line divides post-colonial pride from imperialist ambition, separates the India trying to consolidate its democratic traditions from the India with Security Council aspirations; the story of Indian writing in English traverses, in the last 20 years, this journey, and is located where the dividing line is at its most blurred.
And so the Indian writer in English must be coopted into this narrative of success and record growth; anything else, during this delicate watershed, is looked upon with anxiety. The writer mustn't cause anxiety, in our family romance, he's the son-in-law—someone we can be proud of, can depend on, who is, above all, a safe investment. He is solvent; preferably settled abroad. He's capable of addressing questions consonant with our emerging prestige. He is not a failure, a daydreamer, a misfit. The Anglophone intellectual tradition in India, unlike other intellectual lineages in modernity, has developed no space for daydreaming, irresponsibility, failure, or for the outsider; it has little understanding of the role these play in shaping the imaginative life. It is baffled, if not offended, by an indifference to lofty themes and causes; in the end, it's baffled by an indifference to power.
The triumphal narrative of Indian writing in English bores me; personally speaking, as a reader and writer, I feel almost no connection with it. I find no echo in its values and excitements of the sense of value and excitement that once brought me to writing. Similarly, the Rushdie firmly embedded in this narrative holds little interest for me. So, faced with the sobering prospect of reflecting upon him, I've gone looking for him outside that story of empowerment—to locate him among his enthusiasms, his memory, his contradictions. For Rushdie's a great and often moving enthusiast; and what he enthuses over—painting, for instance, for which he has an eye; Bhupen Khakhar—makes him seem sometimes like a Bombay writer—not just a writer about Bombay, but, intellectually and emotionally, of it, possessing the gift of curiosity that Ezekiel and Jussawalla had, and which, in turn, drew them to the art-world and Khakhar in the Seventies. This sort of writer is at once interloper and observer; he has the air of a student, a learner. We find this writer in the Rushdie who admires a heterogeneity of stimuli besides the fabulist forbears he's associated with; the Rushdie who is quickened by Kipling, J.G. Ballard, Arun Kolatkar, and who is occasionally drawn irresistibly to an artist with an aesthetic radically different from his own, such as Satyajit Ray. It's difficult to fit this Rushdie into a bureaucratic paradigm. This Rushdie is louche, perpetually open to enthusiasm, incomplete, in the process of being made; we don't know him completely, but he has an odd intimacy, a neighbourliness, that the Rushdie of the other narrative doesn't.
I wish to place his new novel in this process of making and unmaking. Briefly, it tells us of four characters: Max Ophuls, a charismatic former US ambassador to India (the name is a jokey reference to a filmmaker that's never quite developed); his daughter India, born of a passionate affair between Max and Boonyi, a dancer from the Kashmiri village, Pachigam; and Boonyi's sweetheart and husband, Noman, or Shalimar the Clown, a man whose capacity for love is eroded by Boonyi's defection to the ambassador. The book does something interesting; it conflates the story of an honour killing with the story of terrorism—and there's a point at which you feel that Rushdie the novelist inhabits the inconsolable hurt and rage of a person who kills for honour as Rushdie the essayist cannot.
The novel moves from Los Angeles, portrayed featurelessly (but then it is a featureless city), to the village in Kashmir.The action begins when Kashmir is still 'unspoilt'; the narrator reminds us repeatedly that it was paradise on earth. But Rushdie's descriptions of the physical world have never been among his strengths; landscape in this novel is as much a dead stage-prop as it is for a writer of thrillers: "There was no moon... The birds were sleeping." Only once, when the narrator mentions the early-morning moisture on a corrugated roof, do we get a sense that beauty in Kashmir is not to be found in the shikaras and lakes but where we do not look for it.
Rushdie, here, sounds less like himself than a writer who's under the compunction to manufacture a 'major' work. He could be Hari Kunzru. Something like this happened to Ray, when, in Shatranj ke Khiladi, he took on the sensibility of a Shyam Benegal. In part, this is to do with a lack of certainty about one's work that comes, at some point, to the genuine artist; not a waning of 'confidence', but of trust. It's a state of confusion about what's first-rate and what second, from which we, as readers, can't pretend to stand back; for the confusion affects us powerfully. It's part of the process that makes a writer as well as our sense of the literary; and I don't think the process ends, for Rushdie, with Shalimar the Clown.
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT