Chapter 2: Critical Reception of Rushdie’s Novels

Chapter 2: Critical Reception of Rushdie's Novels

In the West, rightly or wrongly, Salman Rushdie enjoys the status of the torchbearer of Indian Writing in English. In the literary / critic’s domain, he enjoys this position, not since the controversies of 1988 (The Satanic Verses) rather since 1981 (Midnight’s Children). The importance of being Midnight’s Children lies in that it gave the much-needed confidence to the postcolonial Indo-Anglican authors and in that it set the rules for the New Literature. Below is cited an early critical reaction to Midnight’s Children:

… a novel unprecedented in scope, manner and achievement in the hundred and fifty year old tradition of the Indian novel in English … composed of elements of magic and fantasy, the grimmest realism, … extravagant farce, multi-mirrored analogy and potent symbolic structure … indelibly stamped into unity by a powerful personality, which wrestles the language and the fiction down and masters it to serve a huge purpose, namely the personification of India and the realisation of Indian life.[1]

Acclaimed author Anita Desai has acknowledged his impact in these words:

It was a very ambitious and bold book. And, partly because of the success of the book, it led to a whole generation of writers and gave them the confidence they might not have had otherwise. It may be said to have set free the tongues of the younger writers – a tremendous influence upon their work.[2]

Read: Acknowledgement

Salman Rushdie is on the top of the list of those rare literary figures who the world of critics and academicians do either love or hate or love to hate but whom they cannot ignore. He is in the course of many a university all around the world. A lot many scholars have devoted their valuable time researching him. Several such projects are still going on. There exist three categories of critical practices on Rushdie’s work, either concerned with a) the literariness of the text, b) the writer’s autobiographical details, or c) the political and satirical elements. Hereunder, it shall be my endeavour to present the essence of the more important ones of them.

Lisa Appignanesi and Sarah Maitland have edited The Rushdie File. Syracuse University Press published the File in 1990. It deals with the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses and its aftermath. Essentially, it is concerned with political, religious and cultural issues generated by the media attention to the so-called Rushdie Affair. Arguably, The File contains little literary-critical material.

Rustom Bharucha has presented a paper on the controversy regarding The Satanic Verses. It is entitled “The Rushdie Affair: Secular Bigotry and the Ambivalence of Faith”. It was published in 1990. Bharucha analyses the novel in the larger context of faith. According to him, Rushdie stands accused of invading the private space of believers. The people’s freedom of belief cannot be sacrificed at the altar of the individual’s freedom of speech.

Read: Structure of the Thesis

Afzal-Khan Fawzia, in ‘Myth Debunked: Genre and Ideology in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Shame’[3] claimed that Rushdie applies an ideology of liberation but fails to provide any viable alternative. In this essay, we get a critical mix of Fredric Jameson’s and Edward Said’s theoretical positions on the genre. Fawzia is an accomplished critic. Another essay of his is quite useful. It is entitled “Genre and Ideology in the novels of Four contemporary Indo-Anglican novelists: R.K. Narayan, Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya and Salman Rushdie”. It was published in 1986.

Aravamudan Srinivas identifies The Satanic Verses as a satire intended to combat British, Islamic and Indian censors. In his article, “Being God’s Postman is no Fun, Yaar”[4] he interrogates from the viewpoint of “cultural translation”. Derrida’s “nuclear criticism” aptly states the case.

Nancy Batty has presented a valuable comparative study of Midnight’s Children and One Thousand and One Nights in “The Art of Suspense: Rushdie’s 1001 (Mid-) Nights”.[5] Here is explored the assortment of techniques of suspense employed by the two. Technical aspects of cinematic craft such as the cliffhanger serial form and the trailer that foreshadows future developments are the key elements in this analysis.

Read: Bio-Literary Introduction

Postmodernist writers like Rushdie experiment with non-literary techniques like the cinema. The impact of the Bombay Talkie is seen in both situations and techniques in the novels of Rushdie. The switching of babies, the intervention of different religions in bringing up kids, many a Bombay film dwells on this syncretic mixture of religions of their family and social dramas. Other features are, leaving ransom money in an old fort, the hero losing his memory at a crucial stage due to an accident, miraculous recovery again by some accident as in Saleem Sinai’s case he loses his memory by being hit by the silver spittoon and gets recovered when a snake in Sunderbans bites him.

Uma Parameswaran is a significant name regarding Salman Rushdie’s literature. From this critic have come to light many a study. In one of them,[6] where character analysis is the main framework, the critic is of the view that Rushdie has unquestionably absolved the generation of Midnight’s Children of any responsibility for their inaction. Rushdie shifts the blame for their failure on to their parents. In my opinion, parents are akin to the state as the post-independent nascent state was parental with the so-called socialistic characteristics. So, in the final analysis, the blame is on the state, that is, the leaders and the system perpetrated by them. Saleem is made impotent by the state machinery. Admittedly, betrayal as the prime factor in Saleem’s final position.

Amitav Ghosh: A Chronicler of the Other

Elsewhere[7] also, the critic dwells upon the narrative techniques in Midnight’s Children, noting the compendium of short stories in the novel, including “The Prophet’s Hair” and “The Free Radio”. There is a comparison between Grimus and The Children. The argument is that the former is a forerunner of the ‘loose’ and accidental novel form of the later. In both novels, central characters are composite repositories of other lives and tales.

There is another[8] study by the same critic in which is made a thorough comparison of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) with Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope (1960). Both the novels succeed in experimentation and innovation with language, use idiomatic language accurately, adapt vocabulary to their character’s register and have their women characters express the traditional feminine values. Uma Parameswaran’s The Perforated Sheet: Essays on Salman Rushdie’s Art published by Affiliated East-West Press, Madras (1988) is a useful companion on the author.

M. Keith Booker[9] has made an interesting and a bit different study on Salman Rushdie. According to this critic, acceptance of contradiction might serve as a central theme for all of Rushdie’s fiction. Numerous motifs are to be found in Salman Rushdie. These are (a) paired characters, (b) human-beast transformations, (c) multiple selves, and (d) two contradictory realities occupying the same space. Amazingly, Mr Booker finds intertextual relations to Beauty and the Beast and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Booker evaluates Rushdie as an example of Menippean satire, which historically developed as an opposition to Aristotelianism.

Amitav Ghosh: An Ethnographer of the Other

Timothy Brennan[10] seeks to prove that the structural basis of Shame lies in the fairy tale format and the incorporation of the takallouf principle, which is defined as “a species of compulsory irony which insists for the sake of good form on being taken literally”.  Pakistan is present as the apotheosis of nationalism. A detailed enlisted point-by-point argument differentiating the principles of postmodernism and postcolonialism is available here.

Elaine Campbell[11] has compared and contrasted between Rushdie and Naipaul.  He finds that Mohun Biswas and Saleem Sinai are linked by similarities of midnight birth, loss of a finger, ugly physical appearance and the theme of early death. Theme, imagery and style of the two are comparative. Campbell uses the sociological perspective as a framework for character analysis.

Klaus Borner has written an article on “The Reception of Midnight’s Children in West Germany”. He traces German perceptions of India and examines public reception of Rushdie; compares it to Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus (1671) and locates it in the picaresque tradition. One interesting point raised by him is that understandable ignorance of India forms the basis for much of the book’s appeal.

Feroza Jussawalla[12] has produced quite a volume of critical literature on Salman Rushdie. He finds the bias towards stylistic experimentation by the previous generation of literary critics as misconceived and claims that Midnight’s Children is imitative, blurring the distinction between the authorial and narrative voices and is conditioned by the author’s awareness of its consumption by a non-Indian audience. The novel is set in the context of the Anglo-Indian speech and ‘Hindi film’ slang.

Amitav Ghosh: A Raconteur of the Other

Elsewhere,[13] he pitches Midnight’s Children against Attenborough’s Gandhi. Not an inappropriate comparison as Salman Rushdie’s entire literature is heavily indebted to the cine-world. According to the critic, both the works foreground the question of India’s governability. He traces the context of factual events and real personages and their incorporation into fiction to raise the issue of the political process and modern-day governments in India and Pakistan. He further interrogates interpretations of history from a nationalist perspective in an analysis formulated on the extreme tension between the good of the individual and the good of the collectivity.

Keith Wilson[14] has undertaken a first of its kind practical exercise in reader-response theory. As such, he perceives that Rushdie asserts the collaborative basis of fictional activity and finds the structure organised by a subjective, narrator-centred past co-coordinated to a more objective, reader-centred present. Obviously, the reader competency holds the most prominent place in the written narrative strategy.

John Stephens[15] has applied Derridean methods of deconstruction to a few key incidents in Midnight’s Children. He asserts that linguistic terms and modes of writing are the primary issues to address with Rushdie. He perceives that Rushdie throws into question the relationship between signifier and signified.

Tariq Rahman reads, as we would all like to do, Midnight’s Children and Shame from the political analyst’s point of view. In his article,[16] he analyses how the evocation of politics relates to the stylistic and philosophic aspects of the two narratives, which are expressions of a liberal humanist consciousness. Unarguably, the author applies liberal humanist standards to the corrupt public value systems controlling India and Pakistan.

The White Tiger: Fiction or Political Treatise

M. Madhusudhana Rao, in his article “Time and Timelessness in Rushdie’s Fiction”, focuses on chronology in order to discern the effects of time on Saleem Sinai and Omar Khayyam Shakil and reaches the conclusion that the consciousness and the pervasiveness of time organise thematic details and structural forms with Rushdie.

Elsewhere,[17] he identifies three distinct tactical manoeuvres in the narrative: 1) integration of the historical setting with the personal events of the Aziz family, 2) rich exploitation of myth and fantasy, and 3) a quest for identity by the protagonist. A character study of Saleem Sinai and a correlation between the historical intertwining of Saleem’s life with the factual events of 1947 to 1978 are available there in that essay.

Richard Cronin[18] deftly examining stereotypical characters such as the Bengali Babu and the guru figure suggests that the fantasy genre is suitable and proper to Indian writing in English. He further identifies major differences between Kim and Midnight’s Children resting on the issues of knowledge and power. In the former, these two support each other while in the latter, they are oppositional forces.

M.D. Fletcher,[19] establishing structural bases for apologue as parody, ridicule and the fantasy, asserts the specificity of this genre for Salman Rushdie’s literature. He, in the process, clarifies the differences between satire and apologue.

Jean-Pierre Durix[20] categorises Rushdie’s novels as mock-heroic in a form in pretending to create a myth that is deflated by other elements. He further traces the interplay of the narrator/reader symbiosis as a key factor in the author’s writings. Moreover, he presents a structural analysis of the narrator as a trickster figure playing with the reader’s awareness of the conventions of fiction.

The White Tiger: A Retake on Servitude

Gayatri Spivak[21] perceives the central theme as the post-colonial subject torn between two conflicting identities, migrant and national. The critic contextualizes the cultural politics that misreads the novel as Freedom of Speech versus State Terrorism. Instead, it focuses on constituting readerships and agencies at play in formulating it for various public consumptions. In general, she offers a critical mix of Barthes, Foucault and Barbara Johnson but, most specifically, applies some of Derrida’s “Autobiographies: the teaching of Nietzsche and the politics of the proper name” as the grounds for her argument.

Charu Verma,[22] reading the Children from the women point of view, says that Padma is not involved in the remembered historical action of the novel and, consequently, she is overlooked by critics too.  She is mostly absent, and wherever present, she is derogated as animal physicality. She is part of consistent sexism in the novel wherein history and writing are men’s preserve and cooking and listening are for women. Her elevation to lotus goddess is merely male compensation for consistent exploitation.

Ron Shepherd[23] has read the Children from Indian cultural point of view. According to the critic – and, I would readily go with him – the basis for the novel lies in the traditional Indian oral narrative. Nonetheless, using postmodernist techniques the author parodies that tradition. The critic states that the Indian allegorical manner based on the Hindu assumption of Maya forms the context for the parodic form. Moreover, the basic Hindu concepts of reality, creation and destruction are vital structural principles with Salman Rushdie. We may attribute traditional Hindu cosmological lore to the conceptual framework of the novel’s development.

The White Tiger: Nation-State Dichotomy

E.W. Herd[24] conscientiously argues that Rushdie has adapted his techniques from the Tin Drum (1959). Accordingly, Rushdie had borrowed his main structural device, the reflection of public events through and against a private story, from Grass. He further establishes thematic similarities viz., 1) ‘imitatio Christi’, 2) dwarfism, 3) interweaving public and private spheres, 4) the unreliable narrator stance, in structural analysis.

Dieter Riemenschneider,[25] while comparing the Midnight and Anita Desai’s  Clear Light of Day as responses to the human need for meaning and identity, finds Rushdie more influenced by the Brahminical tradition whereas Desai is as much closer to Western philosophical concerns. Also perceives the importance of reality and illusion in the author’s approach to the act of writing – whether history, memoirs or fiction.

Coral Howells[26] presents a comparative study of the Midnight and Rudy Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear. Alternative renderings of history, offering supplements of official histories are the basis for commonality in theirs. Narrative structures differ, Wiebe’s novel takes the form of a chronicle, Rushdie’s the form of a fictive autobiography. Differences in temporal relations to their material are highlighted; this lapse of time gives Wiebe’s narrative voice authority which Rushdie’s cannot possibly attain. Perceived nationalist interpretations are brought into question by fictional revisionism, Wiebe rewriting history as an elegy, Rushdie as a protest.

D.S. Mishra,[27] shows that Shame works with carnivalesque Menippean satire, crude and scandalous language enacting the theme of shamelessness and shame. Rushdie has an outsider-insider relationship with Pakistan. As a knowledgeable outsider, he may undertake to say what Pakistani insiders cannot. Moreover, interpolated tales show that the violence of repressed shame is universal.

The White Tiger: Narrative of the Subaltern

John Sligo[28] has attempted a psychological critique utilising a Jungian framework. His thesis is that the centre of the novel rests in the distortion of the male imprisoning the female within him. He employs a Jungian psychoanalytical mode to probe the deep recesses of Gibreel Farishta’s psyche.

Susan Oommen[29] finds fantasy as fictional mode best able to project the Pakistani collectivity as a stifled people. Further, he correlates traditional fairy tale motifs such as Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty and the author’s incorporation of these into his work. The critic applies a nationalist perspective and perceives reconstruction of Pakistan’s sense of self at the centre of Shame.

I.B. Johansen[30] identifies this novel as Menippean satire concerned with the problem of the uses of enchantment/disenchantment. Structural analysis discloses common ground between Amerindian and Islamic mythology. He also finds various correspondences with Grimus in The Devine Comedy and Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann (1972).

Aleid Fokkema[31] identifies an inside-outside pattern underlying Commonwealth literary discourse. He claims that the metropolitan Englishness produced the provincial Indianness, but suppressed its political content. He further examines the British discursive formation of Indianness within the context of Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Rimli Bhattacharya[32]think that there pervade two representations of exile/expatriation usually inscribed as either nostalgia or nemesis. Rushdie is an avid deconstructionist of the homogenised ‘migrant’ identity forced on Third World non-white immigrant communities in the metropolitan centres by the media’s methods of ‘labelling’ and ‘slotting’ them. They further offer structural analysis grouping Midnight’s Children (1981) Shame (1983) and The Satanic Verses (1988) and constructing a triangle of these works with the three points of effect, history and religion interconnected and alternating in importance.

Anuradha Dingwaney Needham[33] Examines particular instances when Shame’s narrator plays deliberately and self-consciously with the hybridity of his identity as a post-colonial expatriate and his fiction. Rushdie’s work reflects a post-colonial identity that is fluid, multiple and responsive to shifting situations and audiences. Finds Rushdie’s rewriting of ‘alternate histories’ for India and Pakistan offers an approach to the constricted area of the West’s and the subcontinent’s repressed formulations of their national pasts.

Sura Prasad Rath[34] Shame incorporates two narrative patterns; the realistic novel and the fictional romance into its structure. Pursues conventional structural analysis and includes a comparison with Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) such as the picturesque descriptions of towns and the “Alexander the Great” section with Part III (Temple) of Forster. Draws on the moral codes of Christianity and Islam to highlight authorial intrusions for four purposes: to authenticate the narrative; to expand on parallels between the real and the imaginary; to provide choric irony, and to establish control of the text.

Joseph Swann[35] finds Eastern philosophical tradition providing the basic structure of the text as evinced by the linguistics, especially metaphor. Eastern consciousness makes a present of the past, rather than seeking out a past, to validate a present. Owes a major debt to Dieter Riemenschnieder’s ‘East is East and West is West’?



[1] William Walsh, India and the Novel, 1983

[2] In an interview, 1985

[3] Journal of Indian Writing in English 14.1 (1986):50-60

[4] Diacritics 19.2 (Summer 1989): 3-20

[5] ArielE 18.3 (July 1987):49-65

[6] Lest He Returning Chide: Saleem Sinai’s Inaction in Midnight’s Children, The Literary Criterion 18.3 (1983):57-66

[7] Handcuffed to History: Salman Rushdie’s Art in Indernath Kher and Christopher Wiseman eds. Ariel 14.4 (1983):34-45.

[8] Salman Rushdie in Indo-English Literature, Journal of Indian Writing in English 12.2 (July 1984):15-25.

[9] Beauty and the Beast: Dualism as Despotism in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie. ELH (1990) 977-997

[10] Shame’s Holy Book, Journal of Indian Writing in English Vol 16 No 2 (July 1988) 210-227.

[11] Beyond Controversy: V. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, The Literary Half-Yearly 27.2 (July 1986):42-9.

[12] Beyond Indianness: The Stylistic Concerns of Midnight’s Children, Journal of Indian Writing in English 12.2 (1984):26-47.

[13] Fact Versus Fiction: Attenborough’s Gandhi and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, ACLALS Bulletin 7th Series No. 4 (1986):70-78.

[14]  Midnight’s Children and Reader Responsibility, Critical Quarterly 26.3 (Autumn 1984):23-37.

[15] ‘To tell the truth, I lied… .’: Retrospectivity and Deconstruction as (Contributing) Strategies for Reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. SPAN 21(October 1985):193-208

[16] Politics in the Novels of Salman Rushdie

[17] Quest for Identity: A Study of the Narrative in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, The Literary Criterion, 25.4, (1990): 31-42

[18] The Indian English Novel: Kim and Midnight’s Children, Modern Fiction Studies 33.2 (Summer 1987):201-13

[19] Rushdie’s Shame as Apologue, Journal of Commonwealth Literature 21.1 (1986):120-32

[20] The Artistic Journey in Salman Rushdie’s Shame, World Literature Written in English, Vol 23, No. 2 (1984):451-63

[21] Reading The Satanic Verses, Third Text No 11 (Summer 1990):41-60

[22] Padma’s Tragedy: A Feminist Deconstruction of Midnight’s Children, PURBA 20.2 (1989):59-66.

[23] Midnight’s Children: The Parody of an Indian Novel, SPAN 21 (October 1985): 184-92

[24] Tin Drum and Snake-Charmer’s Flute: Salman Rushdie’s Debt to Gunter Grass, New Comp 6 (Autumn 1988):205-18

[25] History and the Individual in Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, World Literature Written in English 23.1 (Winter 1984):196-207

[26] Rudy Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, The Literary Criterion 20.1 (1985):191-203

[27] Narrative techniques of Salman Rushdie’s Shame, Punjab University Research Bulletin (Arts) 18.1 (1987): 37-44

[28] The Satanic Verses: The Imprisonment of the Female in the Male Psyche, Island Magazine Number 42 (Autumn 1990):60-64

[29] Fictional Intent in Rushdie’s Shame, The Literary Criterion 20.2 (1985) 36-41

[30] The Flight from the Enchanter: Reflections on Salman Rushdie’s Grimus, Kunapipi 7.1 (1985):20-32

[31] English Ideas of Indianness: The Reception of Salman Rushdie in C. Davis and H. Maes-Jelnek (eds) Crisis and Creativity in the New Literatures in English Amsterdam: Rodopi (1990); 295-308

[32] Salman Rushdie: The Migrant in the Metropolis, Third Text No. 11 (Summer 1990) 17-30

[33] The Politics of Post-Colonial Identity in Salman Rushdie. The Massachusetts Review Vol 29 No. 4 (1988-89) 609-624

[34] Narrative Design in Salman Rushdie’s Shame, Journal of Indian Writing in English. 13.2 (1985) 27-38

[35] Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as an Indian Novel” WLWE 26.2 (Autumn 1986): 353-62.

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