Insider by Birth, Outsider by Choice

Salman Rushdie in Imaginary Homelands

Rushdie was born in a liberal Westernized family without any great fervour for religious tradition and had friends from all major communities viz. Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, etc. Certainly, he was never an adherent of that sort of Islam which believes that apostasy is a capital offence. At the time of the writing of the novel, he evidently did not even consider himself a Muslim. Thus, his novels are a critique of the Muslim society from the point of view of a person who is insider by birth and an outsider by choice.

As a writer, Rushdie seems to believe in the avant-garde view that the writing of outspoken controversial fiction is a calling, perhaps even a duty. All of his works contain controversial themes; and beginning with Midnight’s Children in 1981, he took on South Asian politics in a way that earned him denunciations and bans as well as praise for his courage. Rushdie has had a penchant for unconventionally-shaped fictions. Shame, a 1983 critique of the Zia ul-Haq regime and Benazir Bhutto, was banned in Pakistan.

Read: Chapter 1

Rushdie was highly influenced by James Joyce, Swift, Stern and Fielding. In his novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, Joyce makes frequent use of popular cultures, such as newspapers, magazines, and romances. Rushdie also uses Mumbai’s popular slangs and cine-culture to the hilt. Nevertheless, Rushdie is not James Joyce, “a writer torn between the standards of an ascetic, religious upbringing and his desire for sensuousness”.[xv] He is not shy of either sexuality or of using slangs. He uses offensive languages intently. Literally, he is all out to give Islam a shock treatment. Only that the after-shock (fatwa) was still bitter. Like Joyce’s works, Rushdie’s novels are full of wit, multilingual puns and disquieting conceits. Brilliant verbal skill and the eagerness for literary experimentation are on display in his novels.

Salman Rushdie has written almost a dozen books, half of them being novels. Now, despite the variation in form and matter, certain common ideas or literary and thematic concerns run through all the novels of his. A touch of contemporary history is all-pervasive in his novels. Just as the author, his heroes belong to two different cultures and they are at a distance from them. Thus, his novels are about expatriates or migrant individuals. The Individual of Salman Rushdie bears a hybrid identity. Right from “Grimus”, his first novel, the theme of the individual caught in the historic-cultural cauldron has been repeated in every single work of Rushdie.

Read: Chapter 2

The art of a creative artist is the mirror through which we see the world-view of the artist. This is the reason that a limited number of themes seem to pervade through the total production of a novelist. In this connection, it will be very apt to remember James Joyce. The artistic dilemma of Stephen Dedalus, who indeed is James Joyce himself, is the recurrent theme in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Exiles (1918) and Ulysses (1922). The last one, in a sense, is a remake of Homer’s Odyssey, set in the squalor of Dublin’s slums.

Coming to India, Raja Rao’s novels are concerned with the superiority of Vedantic, spiritual India over the materialistic west. R. K. Narayan’s protagonists choose to modernize traditional Indian values by borrowing eclectically from the western value-system. However, Narayan is very well aware, on his own, of the differentiation made between modernization and westernization by the social anthropologist M. N. Srinivas and he aptly chooses modernization against westernization. In the case of Anita Desai, the search of a person’s identity as an individual prevails upon his identity as an Indian.

The repetition of certain themes in his or her different works is not the prerogative of the novelists only. For example, we find all the films of the late showman Raj Kapoor genuinely concerned with the theme of social engineering however coated in glamour. Well, we should not equate his social engineering with that of today’s certain politicians in whose case it is limited to manoeuvering of the political support base. Looked at from this backdrop, it is not unnatural to find the themes of contemporary socio-religious political history and individual, migration and fragmentation occupying an important space repeatedly in migrant Rushdie’s novels.

Read: Chapter 3

Why is post-colonial literature so obsessed with political fiction? For Rushdie, politics is central to his art, but art is also central to his politics. To quote Salman Rushdie himself,

There is a genuine need for political fiction, for books that make new and better maps of reality, and make new languages with which we can understand the world…. to grapple with the problems created by the incorporation of political material, because politics is by turns farce and tragedy, and sometimes both at once.[xvi]

Moreover, what are the odds involved in producing such literature? To start with, political fiction is expected to be objective, factual and impartial. However, it is well nigh impossible to attain the same. Rather, Rushdie claims in his essay, ‘Outside the World’ that such an attempt is undesirable. This is because one cannot report truthfully without being a participant observer and it is difficult for a participant not to take sides.

What are the political themes in Salman Rushdie’s literature? Firstly, his attention is nearly solely focused on the Indian sub-continent, India and Pakistan, in particular. Three different cultural identities have been involved in the sub-continent in the modern and contemporary history of power snatching, sharing and balancing viz. Hindus, Muslims, and the British. The rise of religious nationalism in the subcontinent is the most visible political concern in Rushdie’s fiction.

As said earlier umpteen times, migration or the exodus of Muslim refugees to Pakistan following the partition of India in 1947 is another very real concern. The consequence of this exodus has been the emergence of a culturally displaced muhajir community in Pakistan. In Urdu, the term muhajir explicitly refers to an emigrant or refugee whose decision to leave the homeland is directly related to the preservation of his/her faith.

View: Structure of the Thesis

To take stock, Midnight’s Children (1981), Rushdie’s first major work is a multifaceted narrative, which is at once an autobiographical bildungsroman, a picaresque fiction, a political allegory, a topical satire, a comic extravaganza, a surrealist fantasy, and a daring experiment in form and style. The narrative opens with an account of the life of Saleem’s grandfather, and the hero is actually born as late as on page 116.[xvii]

The story is narrated in the first person by Saleem himself, and his garrulity makes for several digressions like the Paean to Dung and the “Fairy Tale of the Prince of Kif.” Stylistic experiments, which remind us of All About H. Hatterr, mainly take the form of the “chutnification” of the English language, using several devices such as the use of Hindi and Urdu words, expressions, expletives etc (“0 baba”, “funtoosh”), bilingual echoic formations (“writing-shiting”), use of Hindi idiom a la Mulk Raj Anand (“who cares two pice”), bilingual puns (“ladies and ladas”), and dovetailing of words (“ononon”).


[xv] A History of English Literature by Edward Albert, OUP, 5th Edition, p 513

[xvi] Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, Page 100.

[xvii] It reminds us of the birth of Sterne’s hero in Tristram Shandv in Volume IV of the novel.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *