Monday, September 25, 2006

The Amitava Kumar - Salman Rushdie Controversy

Read this article on Amitava Kumar's Blog. Can't say that I agree with him totally, being a die-hard fan of Rushdie. But, it now turns out that Rusdie has, some how, read Kumar's blog articles (some excerpts follow) and has threatened to cancel a lecture at Vassar College if he was introduced to the audience by Amitava. This may have the potential of blooming into a full-fledged literary controversy, me thinks.

"What Rushdie did was not exactly new in Indian writing in other languages or even in Indian drama, but its intensity and range was novel in the tradition of English writing that had been inaugurated by the likes of R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao, and Mulk Raj Anand. In a land allegedly in thrall to babu English, here was someone who was having fun with the English language. Reading him was a bit like coming across a giant ad for Amul butter on an Indian street—except that Rushdie was in command and kept doing it for five hundred pages."

"The trouble is that despite all his invention and exuberance Rushdie remains to a remarkable extent an academic writer. He is academic in that abstractions rule over his narratives. They determine the outlines of his characters, their faces, and their voices. Rushdie is also academic in the sense that his rebellions and his critiques are all securely progressive ones, advancing the causes that the intelligentsia, especially the left-liberal Western intelligentsia, holds close to its breast. This is not a bad thing, but it should qualify one's admiration for Rushdie's daring."

"There can be no doubt that the threats that Rushdie faced and also the book-burnings and other protests were shameful and unacceptable. But I do not for a moment support Norman Mailer's assessment (Norman Mailer wrote Rusdie after the Fatwa "Many of us begin writing with the inner temerity that if we keep searching for the most dangerous of our voices, why then, sooner or later we will outrage something very fundamental in the world, and our lives will be in danger. That is what I thought when I started out, and so have many others, but you, however, are the only one of us who gave proof that this intimation is not ungrounded."). I don't believe that Rushdie has even found his most dangerous voice. In fact, I don't believe that Rushdie's is the most dangerous voice writing today. His is no doubt a powerful voice; often, it has been an oppositional voice; but it is a voice of a celebrity promoting commendable causes; more seriously, in some fundamental way, it is the voice of a metaphorical outsider, and therefore incapable of revealing to ourselves, in an intimate way, our complicities, our contradictions, and our own inescapable horror. I don't deny that it is a voice that can engage and delight and of course annoy, and yet it is very important to make a distinction: what Rushdie writes can easily provoke, but it is rarely able to disturb."

Kumar's grouse seems to be that Rusdie is being used as a milestone in Indian English literature as when we say "he writes like Rushdie" and "he doesn't write like Rushdie." But Rusdie opened the gates to the flood (or is it a trickle?) that followed, didn't he? Admittedly Rusdie criticized and parodied Indian life for a western audience, but he did it with considerable charm and wit and even we tend to nod our heads and smile when we read what Kumar calls "academic" writing. Here's what Rushdie says about migration, as quoted by Kumar, "To migrate is certainly to lose language and home, to be defined by others, to become invisible or, even worse, a target; it is to experience deep changes and wrenches in the soul. But the migrant is not simply transformed by his act; he also transforms his new world. Migrants may well become mutants, but it is out of such hybridization that newness can emerge."

I have underlined "invisible" because in "Midnight's Children" he calls the people who live beyond posh Neapean Sea Road area in Bombay as "Invisible People," or the migrant people. This is something I can identify with as I am of second generation migrant stock, living as invisible people in an extended suburb of Bombay. Here's a poem I wrote in my blog about how indigenous people hate migrants.
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1 comment:

gef said...

I'm very glad to know about this controversy, and your thoughts. Your poem is frightening in its implications. It requires the reader to acknowledge what we know is true but are reluctant to face. I'm putting a link on my English-language blog. (I have another in Spanish.) BTW, I'm glad to get acquainted with this whole crowd of people on this and associated blogs . Regards.