Can Rushdie and Roy save the novel in the age of Trump and Modi?

The two have a stake in renewing the fountains of both language and history, while once again reminding us that borders are meant to be crossed.

 |  Angiography  |  8-minute read |   13-02-2017
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2017 comes bearing gifts.

At a time when the United States stands “unpresidented” and Donald Trump is unable to string a simple sentence together without committing grave factual or lexical errors, we have the return of Arundhati Roy, the novelist, and Salman Rushdie, with his grand American book about a family of Indian immigrants.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Roy and The Golden House by Rushdie are easily the most anticipated works of literary fiction to be published this year. This, at a time when literature itself is at its most disavowed, when language, under the barrage of social media, is increasingly failing to convey the shifts and churns posed by technology and politics, and the past is coagulating into imagined purity that prescribes exclusionism as the cure – is a source of hope.

Only this disintegration of language and literature, and surrender of the novel to the “market forces” that prefer algorithms of sales over literary interrogation, is happening in India and America, so far the repositories of democracy, language and the novel in their sprawling best.

How different were things 28 years back.

In 1989, when Iran’s Supreme Leader – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – issued a death warrant against Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, who had earlier stunned the world with Midnight’s Children, birthing history, as it were, of Indian writing in English – the confident “genre” – the world looked diametrically opposite of what it appears to be today.

rushbd_021317024506.jpg In 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader issued a death warrant against Salman Rushdie for his book, The Satanic Verses.

In that world order, Anglo-America, where Rushdie spent a hellish decade of deathly seclusion, was the refuge. Sure there were issues, there were gaping holes, in fact, of racism, but a man like the Booker-winning Rushdie was always welcome there. He defied borders – of countries, continents, religions, language, history, wars and even the canon itself. He was the idea of America (and India) personified, embodied.

Salman Rushdie was what forces of colonial encounters – sad, happy, bloody, sexy – produced at its sublime best. Salman Rushdie’s language was like a mighty river that disrespected borders, broke them down, flooded strongholds of tradition and destroyed compartments. Instead, he reveled in fusion, in migration, in travels and travails of past and present, in the mélange of history and language, in forbidden cross-pollination, in naming anew, in remembering.

And Salman Rushdie was under threat – physically, bodily threat – from what he rebelled against: the manacles of religion, Islam in case of The Satanic Verses, which proscribed imagination and depiction of certain kinds. Since Rushdie was testing the limits of freedom, what he was doing and somehow what was happening to Rushdie seemed to justify what America had been doing, had to be doing for the sake of “democracy”.

satbd_021317024808.jpg Salman Rushdie was under threat – physically, bodily threat – from what he rebelled against: the manacles of religion.

It fit the grander narrative, though Rushdie would be loath to admit it, that democracy, and therefore the novel, was safer in Anglo-America, because freedom and individual liberty were valued in the West. Even as Rushdie fiercely opposed the Gulf Wars and other attempts by the US and UK to export democracy, he was ensconced in the pricey nucleus of freedom itself.

It is exactly here that we need to pay heed to British-Indian literary critic and Rushdie scholar Kenan Malik. In his seminal book From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, Malik shows how the “roots of campaign against The Satanic Verses [were] complex and as embedded in political strife as in religious belief… One way to understand it, however, is as the first great expression of fear of a mapless world, the first great contemporary confrontation over identity and the resources necessary for sustaining identity”.

There were ironies having their maniacal laughs here, and they forced Rushdie to pen Fury, a strangely underestimated book in which his rage against America and its conflict management burst all banks. Fury sank like an iron filling in a vast ocean of literature, to prop up what Fury was raging against. Rushdie never was allowed to become ungrateful to America.

But there was always Bombay to refuel Rushdie’s engine of delight and experiment. Bombay under Shiv Sena, India under Indira – ensured Rushdie kept writing, ambitiously, furiously; extracting language from life, shaping history for fiction, moulding and kneading the soft clay of prickly politics to sculptures in words. “How newness enters the world?” he asked, in Step Across This Line, a book of essays so bountifully giving and heartening that the novel seemed comfortable – intellectually arrogant and questioning, but comfortable, as if in a high-voltage marriage with a ludicrously attractive spouse – under Rushdie’s steerage. 

On the other hand, Arundhati Roy seemed almost like an accidental novelist, an imposter-turned-literary superstar, whose massive acclaim seemed to rest on just one book. The God of Small Things, which won the Booker in 1997, appeared to announce a challenger to Rushdie’s immense sway on Indian and indeed postcolonial writing in English.

arunbd_021317024837.jpg Arundhati Roy seemed almost like an accidental novelist, an imposter-turned-literary superstar, whose massive acclaim seemed to rest on just one book.

Roy’s pitiless depiction of caste and sexual politics in communist Kerala, through the eyes of Rahel and Estha, children of a woman who was ostracised, opened up another window into India that Rushdie was unfamiliar with. Rushdie’s women were fabulous enchantresses, and somehow betrayed the novelist’s inability to imagine them as flesh and blood people with warts and defeats, untraveled yet with great inward journeys.

Yet, even as Roy, freshly deified as the fierce goddess of Indian writing in English, penned her first essay – one of several – in 1998, called The End of Imagination, on the Pohkran-II nuclear tests under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, she could anticipate how language itself would become a casualty of a fast-spreading cancerous nationalism that was beginning to show all signs of a diseased bodypolitic.

In that essay she wrote the lines that were not just prophetic in their exact deduction of what Big Identity consolidation was behind the Big Bomb, she also knew that India’s blinding ambition to be superpower in the lines of the United States of America and the pre-1947 British Empire, would be at enormous cost to its own people.

arundhatibd_021317025027.jpg Arundhati Roy speaking at a protest gathering in New Delhi.

19 years back, she wrote:

"If protesting against having a nuclear bomb implanted in my brain is anti-Hindu and anti-national, then I secede. I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic. I am a citizen of the earth. I own no territory. I have no flag. I'm female, but have nothing against eunuchs. My policies are simple. I'm willing to sign any nuclear non-proliferation treaty or nuclear test ban treaty that's going. Immigrants are welcome. You can help me design our flag. My world has died. And I write to mourn its passing. India's nuclear tests, the manner in which they were conducted, the euphoria with which they have been greeted [by us] is indefensible. To me, it signifies dreadful things. The end of imagination."

Since then, Roy, the snake-haired Medusa of words, felling Perseuses of point-black patriotism India has been erecting in her way, has been lighting a bonfire of her “fame”, and taking head-on the world’s biggest democracies at their most powerful. She wrote books of essays and polemical treatises, liquidating the civilised centrism of democratic politics in India and America that support “just wars” against peoples whose countries or homelands – inside or outside the sovereign territories of the USA or India – have been ravaged in differing degrees by the world’s biggest democracies.

As Rushdie retreated into fantasies of language and fables, tying his post-fatwa self into cryptic knots that became expositions of “being Salman Rushdie” more than anything else, Roy kept the novel waiting, immersing herself in naked and brutal politics of her times. She gave lectures and talks that saw standing ovations and the audience in tears, listening to her passionate dissection of the cruelties done in the name of the American and Indian national flags. She had taken on herself the cudgels on exposing the hypocrisies of the self-proclaimed exceptionalism of India and America.

The return of Arundhati Roy to her own point zero – the novel – is, therefore, timed perfectly to match the heedless march of a Modi-fied India, unabashedly Hindutva-spouting and dangerously close to full-fledged fascism. At a time when history is being airbrushed to suit rabid Hindutva ends, when martial glory is being invoked to silence criticism of the current regime, Roy’s new novel – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – could very well be the splintered mirror that could connect us back to the well-spring of language as resistance from its current mode as public relations. 

And Rushdie, could we expect, might do to America in The Golden House what it did with religious proscriptions in The Satanic Verses. Only now, the hideousness is thoroughbred American, product of a culture obsessed with reality as TV and TV as reality, unable to decipher or distinguish anymore, unable to remember or comprehend, retreating into building walls and nuclear weapons, waiting to blow itself up like a beast stricken with madness.

Rushdie and Roy are writing again and the time is propitious. The two novels could possibly be the interventions we desperately need, the dream of hope we must dream again, the renewal of our vows, as it were, of chiseling language as the instrument of speaking truth to power.

Can Rushdie and Roy save the novel in the age of Trump and Modi? Can they save language itself – not just English, but language as the power that imagines the pen to be mightier than the sword? Language that foretells and warns, as much as it dreams up dreams.

Also read: 20-year wait for Arundhati Roy's 'next' novel is (almost) over. Can we deal with it?


Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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