Una Chaudhuri: Writing the Raj Away

Writing the Raj Away

Una Chaudhuri: chair of Drama department at the Ticsh School of the Arts, New York University and associate professor of English, New York University

© Turnstile Press; Suite 2348, 175 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10010

Volume II, No. 1 (1990)

The Rushdie affair, which unleashed such a torrent of words, left us with suprisingly few images. While news story after news story documented the waves of the various opportunisms — political, religious, literary — as they crashed on the shores of media-hype, the accompanying illustrations soon achieved a sickening familiarity. There were the obligatory and endlessly repeated pictures of the rock-throwing, book-burning, Third World mobs of Teheran-Karachi- Bombay- Bradford sunk forever in their hyphenated anonymity. These were matched, air time and copy space permitting, with two faces, Khomeini’s and Rushdie’s, not anonymous but — under the marks of cultural difference — remarkably similar. Two versions of the same fine Persian features, though distinguished utterly by dress and manner. Their identical hooded eyes put one in mind of Rushdie’s double heroes — Gibreel and Chamcha, Saleem and Shiva, Knees and Nose. It was one of the many points in the affair when reality hinted at a kinship with outrageous fiction. Finally, there was the inevitable collection of talking heads, experts of one sort or another, looking disheartened by the effort to tailor their thoughts to a television format, to bite off all ambiguity and swallow all complexity.

One image, however, did detach itself from the welter of visual cliche, although it did so, I am sure, for only a few people, perhaps only for me. At a number of the rallies held in New York and other cities in support of Rushdie, some of the demonstrators held banners that proclaimed I AM RUSHDIE. The first time I saw such a banner, it was being held by a young white woman, and the image arrested me, even shocked me. For some time after that I was at a loss to explain why I’d responded as I did. Why, I wondered, should this powerful symbolic identification between Rushdie and all venerators of the principle of free speech seem so strange to me. What profound preconception of my own was the message on the banner disturbing that it could make me feel so uneasy? Then I realized what it was. The young woman’s claim to a share in Rushdie’s identity interfered with an identical though obscure claim of my own. To put it simply, I had always thought that I was Rushdie.

Needless to say, the reality to which my realization refers is painfully far from simple. I would call it “psycho-literary,” using the term, like a double-barreled gun, to point toward the hazardous terrain that lies between a writer, his subject, and his readers. When that region must accommodate whole new worlds of experience, the personal and political longings of many people come into play, turning the tranquil expanse of fiction into a veritable minefield. For the post-colonial writer, as for other minority writers who seek to occupy those literary territories to whose margins they had previously been relegated, the problem is a new version of the perennial tension, in literature, between the universal and the particular, sameness and difference.

In seeking to give voice to the experience of marginalization, writers like Rushdie — called “post-colonial writers,” or “Asian immigrant writers,” or “South Asian expatriate writers” — risk losing touch with those at the center, in the mainstream. Yet to be heard by the mainstream is both a strong temptation (the prestigious rewards and recognitions of literary success emanate from the center) and an important need. For these writers seek not only to represent the differences forged by history and perpetuated by prejudice but also, by exposing the vicious logic that underlies them, to destroy them. The problem is posed with disarming (and deceptive) simplicity in Rohinton Mistry’s recent book Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Bagh (Houghton Mifflin, 1989). The Indian parents of the stories’ immigrant narrator respond to their son’s literary endeavors:

… The last story they liked the best of all because it had the most in it about Canada, and now they felt they knew at least a little bit, even if it was a very little bit, about his day-to-day Iife in his apartment: and Father said, if he continues to write about such things he will become popular because they are interested there in reading about life through the eyes of an immigrant, it provides a different viewpoint; the only danger is if he changes and becomes so much like them that he will write like one of them and lose the important difference.

Actually, the Father is too optimistic in diagnosing assimilation as “the only danger.” Equally perilous, surely, is difference itself, for if its demands prove too insistent the writer risks becoming trapped in a readership ghetto from which only such things as the politics of free speech could — temporarily — rescue him. Rushdie himself is a case in point; there will be many more — millions more — copies of The Satanic Verses sold than read. In fact the very qualities for which Rushdie is acclaimed may be the ones that remove him from the majority of Western readers. Why? Perhaps because the psychological and linguistic accuracies with which his India or his Pakistan bristle are no match for the exotic imagery produced by decades of Orientalism.

“The Raj! The Raj!” The words have been resounding in Western writing as the cry for ivory did in Conrad’s African jungle, the name not of a reality but of a shamefully self-serving myth. The Paul Scott-Masterpiece Theatre images of the Raj, domes against the sunset, polo on the lawn — the drama of British lives blazing away against the background of faceless brown crowds — these images continue to rattle around in the culture’s imagination, like stones worn smooth by too much caressing. To this day in the fictions of non-Indians, India remains smothered in the cobwebs of imperial nostalgia.

The other India being imagined today — by Rushdie, Mistry, and others — is not only different from this stereotypical one; it is, fundamentally, about difference. Desire lies at its roots as well, but it is not revisionist desire, not nostalgia — at least not primarily. Rather it is the opposite: desire for a new account of experience that will not so much overthrow the imperial model as place it — that is, account for it — and subdue it. Against the West’s proclamation “The Raj Is Dead, Long Live the Raj,” this new writing raises the questions “Why and how, — and for whom — does the Raj live on?”

This inquiry was initiated most memorably by Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and a partial answer emerged: The Raj lives on not only because it presents British people with a Battering image of themselves, but because, before England withdrew to its own more hospitable climes, there was a heat of conquest, a frenzied coupling. Midnight’s hero Saleem has many surrogate parents, but his literal and clandestine father is a departing colonist. From him Saleem gets his blue eyes — mistakenly credited to the Kashmiri ancestry he never had. The Raj, that is, surreptitiously bequeaths its vision — its psychological structures, its institutions, its habits of mind, its language. Thus, for decades following the death of the Raj, a class of Indians continues to collude, unwittingly, in a spectral colonization of India. Later, inShame, the liabilities of this vision are exposed, as the secret recesses of the subcontinent’s history resist its scrutiny: “Outsider! Trespasser! You have no right to this subject! . . . Poacher! Pirate! We know you, with your foreign language wrapped around you like a Hag: speaking about us in your forked tongue, what can you tell but lies?”

Rushdie’s lies, if such they are, are the lies Indians and Pakistanis tell about themselves, rather than the lies British people tell about them. The difference is so profound that after Midnight’s Children Rushdie was welcomed “home” to India like a conquering hero. Every appearance he made was sold out, every magazine carried stories about him. People assured him (to his delight) that the book was nothing special, they themselves could have written it. Western critics could call it “magic realism” and so on — to Indians it was the simple truth about their lives.

This, I think, is the root of my problem with the banner. The simple power of Rushdie’s writing — underneath all its intellectual and technical brilliance — lies in its recognition and enactment of the speciiczty of a certain kind of consciousness: Indian, post-colonial — “mine.” The terms of that consciousness will be enunciated only gradually, but already other writers have joined Rushdie in showering with more and more details the field he has laid out. And South Asian readers, hurrying out of the stifling confines of Raj writing, have begun to soak up these details, to collect them into the themes, motifs, and patterns they will use to negotiate their own experience, past and future. The new writing stokes itself with what most profoundly characterizes the subcontinent, which is also what Raj writing has pointedly and perversely turned its back on: diversity. India’s history, both pre-British and post-, repeatedly seems to have embodied the archetype (if there is such a thing) of mixture. The gigantic landmass, so lavishly endowed with borders, has tempted successive waves of “outsiders” to enter it, and then, like some fabulous crucible out of ancient alchemy, it has collected and contained the turbulent results of these historical visitations.

This is the India, the “more than India,” that attracted Forster and, before him, Whitman. It is the India within which those distinctly modern dreams — mutual respect, tolerance, communal harmony — have been exploited most cynically, turned to nightmare most regularly, but also dreamed most ardently.

It was this India of mixture that gave Rushdie the method as well as the matter of much of Midnight’s Children, whose narrator associates his labors with the toil of the workers in his pickle factory, a blending, stirring, mingling, and mixing of the private and the public. “The chutnification of history,” he calls it ruefully, “. . . the pickling of time!” In its obsession with establishing connections, from the wildly preposterous to the painfully true, Midnight’s Children reads like a fantastical gloss on Forster’s most famous passage:

. . . Only connect! Only connect the prose and the passion, and both well be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Love in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to neither, will die.

For Rushdie, however, the force of fragments is not something that is easily subdued. Fragmentation pulls at his fiction like some perverse law of anti-gravity, mocking all cravings for unity: literary, personal, national. The partition of countries parallels the breaking up of families and, finally, the shattering of people themselves into bits and pieces. Love, here, blossoms under the auspices of fragments. Rushdie’s Dr. Aziz (unlike Forster’s) connects with his wife-to-be while examining parts of her body through the modest hole of a perforated sheet. Years later, his daughter trains herself to love her husband “bit by bit”:

. . . she divided him mentally into every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioral compartmentalizing him into lips and verbal tics and prejudices and likes ….

Every day she selected one fragment of Ahmed Sinai, and concentrated her entire being upon it until it became wholly familiar; until she felt fondness rising up within her and becoming affection and, finally, love.

As for Saleem himself, disparate, often monstrous body parts become the landmarks of his curious career, bringing him finally to the verge of a literal crack-up: he struggles to complete his history before the “huge cracks and fissures” that are beginning to appear on his body rend him unto extinction.

But freakishness has also been the wellspring of an antithetical impulse manifest in Saleem’s life, a frenzied and furious version of Forster’s synthetic ideal. His bizarrely timed birth destines Saleem to equate connection with affliction. Born at the stroke of Independence, he must function, willy-nilly, as a representative of his outlandish country and its paradox-ridden history:

. . . Newspapers celebrated me; politicians ratified my position. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote “Dear Baby Saleem, my belated congratulations on the happy accident of your moment of birth! You are the newest bearer of that ancient face of India which is also eternally young. We shall be watching over your life with the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own. “

And Mary Pereira, awestruck, “The Government, Madam? At will be keeping one eye on the boy? But why, Madam? What’s wrong with him?”

Ten years later, his face is used by a sadistic teacher in a demonstration of “human geography,” and to the task of mirroring his homeland is added another, perhaps more onerous, one: “In the face of thees ugly ape you don’t see the whole map of India?”

The post-colonial self as mirror, as map: here are two of Rushdie’s most fertile formulations. And, lurking behind this pair of perplexing apparati of representation, another, more ideologically loaded than any: mimicry.

The idea of aping returns us to another version, a personal or individual version, of the issue we have encountered in its literary guise, namely: for whom does the post-colonial writer write, and in whose voice does he speak. Just as the post-colonial writer feels trapped in a language foreign to him, the post-colonial person experiences a cultural entrapment, a sense of being either what Rushdie has called a “cartoon Englishman” or of being nothing at all. The extreme case of aping appears in The Satanic Verses, one of whose protagonists, Saladin Chamcha, has made an entire career of it:

. . . Because he did have that gift, truly he did, he was the Man of a Thousand Voices and a Voice. If you wanted to know how your ketchup bottle should talk in its television commercial, if you were unsure as to the ideal voice for your packet of garlic-flavored crisps, he was your very man. He made carpets speak in warehouse advertisements, he did celebrity impersonations, baked beans, frozen peas. On the radio he could convince an audience that he was Russian, Chinese, Sicilian, the President of the United States.

Such accomplishment of mimicry has its meaning, its history. It bespeaks decades of cultural subjection, of observing the other and learning his ways. It also has its price. As Saladin’s Indian lover points out, none too gently: “They pay you to imitate them, as long as they don’t have to look at you. Your voice becomes famous, but they hide your face. Got any ideas why?”

For the expatriate writer, the sense of alienation is enhanced, indeed literalized, by the time and space lying between his current experience and the moment of emigration. Rushdie touches on the predicament briefly in The Satanic Verses, when Saladin the actor returns home to India as part of a theater tour and finds out “that his blood no longer contained the immunizing agents that would enable him to suffer India’s reality.” To the old friend who tries to wrench him back into Indian ways he insists that he has become, permanently, “translated into English-medium.” The desperation behind this remark, the sense of doom and determinism it contains, is spelled out by the narrator: “Caught in the aspic of his adopted language, he had begun to hear, in India’s Babel, an ominous warning: don’t come back again. When you have stepped through the looking-glass you step back at your peril. The mirror may cut you to shreds.”

The post-colonial writer must contend with a strange, self- directed suspicion, a disabling doubt about the authenticity of his or her own relationship to the culture so long described and defined from the outside, by outsiders. “Alienation” is too abstract a term to convey this stomach-churning sense of being, as it were, an “other” to oneself. The mirror provided by the other culture affords self-reflection, certainly, but it also threatens to cut into and expose the alien sinews of one’s colonial identity.

Yet, as Rushdie’s recent predicament proves, radical alienation — the sense of being out of step with both of one’s cultures — is only one of the traps that history has set for the post-colonial writer. The opposite fate is possible too, that of being required to speak for one’s culture, to function as a kind of elevated trade representative, hawking only those cultural wares deemed appropriate by the powers that be back home.

The problem is considerably worsened by the fact that the representatives of those powers are often less than sophisticated as readers and critics of fiction. Too often their interpretations are reductive and distorted. Too often they are based on a thoughtless identification of fact with fiction, or (which is just as misleading) a complete dissociation between the two. An excellent — and prophetic — study of the messiness that results when politicians dabble in literature is David Hare’s play A Map of the World (Faber and Faber, 1982). In it a novelist very much like Rushdie — Indian-born, educated and domiciled in England, an acute critic of the political and bureaucratic excesses of his old homeland — finds himself in a predicament not unlike Rushdie’s present one. The UNESCO conference on poverty at which he is scheduled to deliver a keynote address is threatened with collapse unless he knuckles under to the demands of a radical faction of the delegates from Third World countries who find his portrayal of their countries offensive. They will allow him to address the conference only on condition that he preface his speech with a brief statement to the effect that fiction is lies and that therefore what he has written in his novels need not be taken seriously on a political level. The writer, naturally, refuses. Desperate, the organizer of the conference pleads with him, constructing an argument both hilarious and inversely prophetic:

“It is a short statement, it is an unimportant statement, because it is on a subject which is of no conceivable general interest or importance, namely, what a novel is, which I can hardly see is a subject of vital and continuing fascination to the poor. Frankly, who cares? is my attitude, and I think you will find it is the attitude of all the non-aligned countries …. “

But of course, as the Rushdie affair has proved, people do care, and their concern can sometimes blind them. For example, the condemnation of The Satanic Versesrests on an assumption that its primary concern is Islam. It is not. It is something else, a more complicated phenomenon which, although it is increasingly characteristic of modern experience, has yet to gain the acknowledgment of a convenient label. We can call it, awkwardly, “trans-culturalism,” distinguishing it from the more familiar “inter- culturalism,” which refers to collective transactions of the sort epitomized by world fairs and international festivals.

Trans-culturalism, as I define it, is more a psychological than a social phenomenon, and so far its realities have almost exclusively been expressed and explored in works of fiction. Rushdie’s treatment is, characteristically, exuberant and fantastical. Another young writer, Amitav Ghosh, in a novel aptly entitled The Shadow Lines(Viking, 1989), traces the many and subtle connections that exist between cultures: the old and the new, Indian and English, personal and historical, pre-colonial and post-. His inquiry into trans-culturalism employs a very different literary mode from Rushdie’s — one that is subtle, allusive, lyrical — while still retaining some of his more powerful allegories; the image of the mirror, for example, and, even more importantly, that of the map.

Toward the end of a narrative that moves incessantly and effortlessly back and forth in time and space, the narrator must finally face the mystery of difference, of “distance.” He tries to do so by drawing circles in an atlas, marveling each time at the lack of congruence between the established borders and the lines of true meaning, of significant relation. Slowly, he comes to reject the logic of maps, the “enchantment in lines,” the illusion that any borders could separate such places as Dhaka and Calcutta, places so closely bound that “I, in Calcutta, had only to look into the mirror to be in Dhaka . . . each city the inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free — our looking-glass border.”

A central figure in Ghosh’s novel is the young narrator’s uncle, an extraordinary character named Tridib, no less marvelous for being utterly real. He is an adventurer in the world of fabulous facts, a master of historical and geographical detail. He is also a teller of tales, and has taught his nephew the secret meaning of distance long before his tragic death sends the nephew to the atlas to learn its literal non-meaning. The secret meaning of distance is inscribed with the shadowy lines of archetypal stories of love and loss:

. . . Ah, said Tridib. That’s the trick, you see. It happened everywhere, wherever you wish it. It was an old story, the best story in Europe, Snipe said, told when Europe was a better place, a place without borders, and countries — it was a German story in what we call Germany, Nordic in the north, French in France, Welsh in Wales, Cornish in Cornwall it was the story of a hero called Tristan, a very sad story, about a man without a country, who fell in love with a woman across-the-seas….

In a world increasingly inhabited by people without countries, men and women from across the seas, it is perhaps not new stories that are needed but new ways of telling and hearing them, and a new willingness to listen to unfamiliar voices. What is needed is a trans-cultural writing.

In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie performs this mode of writing — and reflects on this mode of living. In doing so he has to contend with the conflict between religion and secularism. As in his earlier books, he sketches here the long shadows that the archaic world throws into the modern, and the grotesque forms that belief will take when it is denied. Yet his subject remains, not Islam, but trans- culturalism, and his motives for engaging it are precisely the opposite of the one he was accused of: betrayal of his own heritage. Perhaps more than any other contemporary writer, he has helped to give that heritage a modern inflection and has insisted on its right to a place — and a voice — in the contemporary culture of the West.

To do this he has had to carve out a space in that language of empire, English, from within which the subjects of the Raj can begin to recognize themselves without the benefits of prior definition. He knows, better than most, that the process by which the colonial “others” — the “natives” — come into focus as human beings is a slow and vulnerable one; old ways of seeing, fearing, demeaning die hard. In The Satanic Verses, a sanatorium full of immigrants and foreign visitors to England find themselves being transformed into various loathsome beasts. How is it done? “They describe us. That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct.”