The Asian Wall Street Journal, Sept 21, 2001.

Leisure & Arts

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away

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 (mainly Islamic).

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 are Indians.

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 we began."

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.