The Asian Wall Street Journal, Sept 21, 2001.
Leisure & Arts
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
By SALIL TRIPATHI
The "past is a foreign country. They do things differently there," wrote
L.P. Hartley in his novel, "The Go-Betweens." To get away from that past
and all that it represents, some people move to another country, to transform
their present and future, and in the process reinvent themselves.
Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul, two of the best-known writers of Indian
origin, have often dealt with the dislocation brought about by displacement.
In a curious coincidence, this month both have published new novels in which
they tackle this theme, of an uprooted individual and his place in a new
society. But while the theme is a grand one, and the territory familiar to
both writers, the results are mixed. Neither novel is flawless, and both
have written much better work.
Mr. Naipaul's "Half A Life" (Knopf, 224 pages, $24) begins in pre-independence
India, where in a princely state a Brahmin caught fiddling with books decides
to take a vow of silence. This creates an aura of holiness around him, and
his fame spreads far and wide. Out of pique and with a view to score a political
point, he marries an unattractive, low-caste woman, claiming to have been
inspired by Gandhi, and lives to regret it. He names his son Willie Somerset
Chandran, after the famous novelist W. Somerset Maugham who is visiting India
researching a novel. The father succeeds in pulling the right strings and
manages to send Willie to a sub-standard college in London for higher education.
At school, Willie encounters the Bohemian culture of Notting Hill and meets
the people from the Caribbean, and somehow gets chosen to write scripts for
the BBC and publishes a collection of ordinary stories, which threaten to
sink into oblivion, until Ana, a half-Portuguese woman writes to him, impressed
by his work. Love happens, and they leave for her native Africa. After 18
listless years and some embarrassing sexual escapades with African women,
Willie leaves Ana and goes to Germany, where her sister has settled alone,
separated after a tumultuous marriage with a revolutionary German filmmaker.
This meandering plot about an inadequate man, uprooted from his history,
savaged by the colonial experience which gave him limited skills but not
the insight or enlightenment of wisdom, reveals all of Mr. Naipaul's pet
prejudices about the Third World which he has set out in his non-fiction.
Africans are "dirty" and they "smell," wearing "cheap" clothes. Nothing works
in the Third World, and if anything, standards collapse after the colonial
masters leave. Willie's mediocrity is charmless, and while he lacks Mr. Naipaul's
genius, he manages to embody most of Mr. Naipaul's views, including his belief
that Indians have remained mired in inferiority because of foreign invasions
Mr. Naipaul has been pitiless in the past of the Third World that has yet
to emerge from the humiliation of colonialism, and which nonetheless struts
around with modern symbols of nationhood. Mr. Naipaul yearns for a more glorious
past. It is no surprise that Mr. Naipaul approves of India's Hindu nationalist
Bharatiya Janata Party and its policies of intolerance towards minorities,
particularly Muslims, and its swagger on the international stage. Trinidad-born
and Britain-based, the displaced Mr. Naipaul has lately been nostalgic about
historian A.L. Basham's wonder that was India before the Islamic invasions.
But it is precisely the pluralistic, polyglot India that emerged from its
encounters with the outside world that has fascinated Salman Rushdie and
become the leitmotif of his fiction since "Midnight's Children," his 1981
classic. Mr. Naipaul leaves details vague, naming few characters. Mr. Rushdie
revels in suffusing his fiction with remarkable local details, a trick that
has worked best when he writes about the place he knows the most, Bombay.
Like Mr. Naipaul, Mr. Rushdie has written about displacement and migration
-- in fact, some critics have complained that that's all he writes about.
But while Mr. Naipaul is uncomfortable with the differences he must confront
in a new environment, Mr. Rushdie is bored by sameness, and has celebrated
diversity in each of his novels.
In "Fury" (Random House, 259 pages, $24.95), Mr. Rushdie has taken an ambitious
leap by taking on the
final frontier, the capital of polyglot culture, New York, his new home.
Word play, Mr. Rushdie's favorite device -- which has exasperated some of
his critics -- is in full flow here. The hero is a man called Malik Solanka.
If spoken in Hindi, could be understood to mean the owner of Solan, a cryptic
reference to Mr. Rushdie's recent, exhaustive victory in a tortuous lawsuit
with Indian authorities to re-establish ownership of a villa his family once
owned in Solan, a hill station in northern India.
Like Willie Chandran, Solanka is born in India and goes to Britain to study.
But unlike Willie, Solanka is a polymath genius; a Cambridge don and a doll
maker, whose dolls spawn a TV show that becomes the rage in Britain. Solanka
is horrified when his art is commercialized, with spin-offs and serials,
all eroding the purity of his art, and he is driven to fury. In his rage,
he is about to kill his wife and child. He realizes the evil that lurks within
him, and escapes to New York, settling with a beautiful young woman.
The novel then goes on a topsy-turvy, roller-coaster ride; it is peppered
with images of fin-de-siecle New York, at the cusp of the new millennium,
and popular references to real people such as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Hillary
Clinton and Madonna. Unsurprisingly, and reflecting his deeply held affection
for his mother country, the only ones who come out looking good in the novel
For while Mr. Naipaul is embarrassed by the mish-mash India has become with
so many faiths and so many languages and ideas competing with an older, simpler
idea of India, Mr. Rushdie is delirious with joy that India offers all of
that. When he decided to move to Manhattan after spending nearly three decades
in Britain (much of the last decade in internal exile forced by Ayatollah
Khomeini's fatwa), he was thrilled by the city's energy, dynamism and cosmopolitan
culture. He seemed overwhelmed by it, seeing in that inclusive dynamism the
Bombay he believes it has lost; the Bombay of 1950s and 1960s, which lured
people from all over India.
If Manhattan was the Big Apple, Bombay was the Juicy Mango. But while Mr.
Rushdie has always been on firm ground evoking the spirit of Bombay (he is
probably the finest literary chronicler of Bombay, much like what James Joyce
did to Dublin and Christopher Isherwood to Berlin), he is unsure in New York.
It is too vast a city, and he has plunged into it too soon, capturing a Kodak
moment, which is exceptionally difficult for the city that changes constantly
and never sleeps.
Like Mr. Naipaul, Mr. Rushdie's fiction is often the vehicle for his ideas.
But while Mr. Naipaul's Willie is troubled by the changes his experiments
bring about, Mr. Rushdie's Solanka wants to reinvent himself and wishes to
experiment with all emotions. Like Mr. Rushdie, Solanka is bothered by the
massive commercialization of almost everything in moneyed New York. That
unleashes the fury. But that anger is laden and weighty, it lacks the agility
of spirit that characterized his earlier novels.
The experience of migration and exile pains Mr. Naipaul even if he does not
say so explicitly; the feeling of being uprooted troubles him and angers
him, even if Willie acknowledges his life is better out of India. Mr. Naipaul
leaves out details, seeking a simpler explanation. Mr. Rushdie too suffers
from the pain that dislocation brings about, but he learns to frolic in it
and wants to tell all of us, garrulously, with verbal pyrotechnics, how wonderful
it is to live astride cultures, at home nowhere.
Writing about the film "The Wizard of Oz," Mr. Rushdie said: "The truth is
that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our
lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real
secret of the ruby slippers is not that 'there's no place like home," but
rather that there is no longer any such place as home, except of course for
the home we make ... anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which
And where we began, one might say, belongs to the past, which, as Hartley
observed, is a foreign country.
Mr. Tripathi is a Bombay-born writer based in London.