Salman Rushdie: Semiotic Seductions

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For someone schooled in reading classics, and accustomed to the language and method of their plot development, the first reading of Rushdie was opaque. His craft of storytelling, where fantasy, fables, reality, history, politics are all intertwined, is different from a realistic linear progression of plot. In Rushdie, the characters speak their own stories thereby giving rise to multiple strands of narratives which are then stitched together. A second reading of Midnight’s Children erased the opacity. To understand and appreciate Rushdie, one has to first understand his language and mode of narration. Derek Walcott’s theory that the “English language is nobody’s special property” and that “it is the property of imagination” is manifested in Rushdie’s writings. As a transnational and transcultural writer, Rushdie chooses literature as “the arena of discourse, the place where the struggle of languages can be acted out” (Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands). His narratives are a celebration of multiple identities, voices and cultures and in working toward that end he uses the English language and experiments with it to form a voice of his own.

Rushdie indianises the English language and incorporates within it words from everyday usage to form his own version of English. Such a play with the language can be traced back to his association with the cosmopolitan Bombay. Born and brought up till the age of fourteen in a city known for its polymorphic composition, Rushdie invests his characters with multiple cultural and linguistic identities. The problem of containing such linguistic and cultural multitudes within the framework of one language is what led Rushdie to forge his own English. The most commonly used word now, probably, to explain Rushdie’s language is “chutnification” from Midnight’s Children. The readers of the sub-continent would immediately decipher the analogy of the word with that of an Indian cuisine, the “chutney”. Saleem Sinai uses this analogy not only to refer to the new language created by Rushdie for his text but also to point to the fact that the essence of a book could be savoured by tasting the correct blend of its ingredients. The emphasis, here, is on the exquisite blending of the ingredients which also forms the basis of preparing chutney. From “chutnification” Saleem Sinai moves onto pickling which is a form of preservation. Rushdie pickles everyday language and then preserves it so that “one day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history” (Rushdie, Midnight’s Children). Rushdie’s indianising of the English language is not simply to “convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own” (Raja Rao, Kanthapura), but eventually to liberate the Indian English literature and language from adopting the fake gentility of the West. Rushdie in his essay “Outside the Whale” has claimed writing to be a political act. Therefore, his construction of new forms of the English language could be seen as a symbolic endeavour to liberate the whole culture from colonial domination.

Such linguistic melange in Rushdie is the medium of his sorcery with magic and reality. His works mix and disrupt the mundane reality of everyday life with fabulous and fantastical elements. For Rushdie, magic realism is an alternative way of approaching the truth. So the disintegration of Saleem Sinai’s corporal frame into millions of pieces symbolises the birth of multiple identities within one self and one nation. Lady Qara Koz in Enchantress of Florence, similarly, is a metaphor for artistic ingenuity, one who has no factual presence. She begins as a Mughal princess, travels to Persia as a captive and yet a queen, then leaves for Italy as the consort of Argalia and becomes and then eventually travels into the dream of Akbar. Qara Koz belongs to none, or, in other words, she cannot be limited to one meaning as given to her by her creator. Qara Koz becomes Rushdie’s metaphor for the space of writing which holds the potential for uncountable meanings. In The Enchantress of Florence Akbar dreams Jodha into being and Abdus Samad paints her from the memory of a dream thereby intersecting the imaginary and the real, the fact and the fiction. Rushdie makes it explicit in Haroun and the Sea of Stories that if the real world is full of magic, the world of magic could also be real. Haroun appeared one year after the issue of fatwa against Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini (14 February 1989) and the allegorical relationship between a storyteller who has lost his creative power and a writer who has been sentenced to silence through death is too strong to ignore. Haroun becomes Rushdie’s way of asserting that the “sea of stories” will be reclaimed, and words will flow. Furthermore, the real and the magical get conflated toward the ending of the narrative. Meenakshi Mukherjee points out in her essay, “Politics and Children’s Literature: A Reading of Haroun and the Sea of Stories” that “if in the magic world Haroun can be the saviour of his father through deeds of adventure, in the real world the son can rescue him through the act of reading.”

Like the plurality of meanings and stories, Rushdie also believes in plurality of identities, in a space which accommodates cultural pluralism. Through his works he attempts to break down boundaries of religion, nation or language that keep people secluded, preventing any alliance between them. In the ‘imaginary homelands’ he keeps conjuring for us we therefore witness a ceaseless intersection of multiplicities that move towards horizons of infinity. The enchantment is in that infinity.

– Deblina Hazra

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Palestine

Palestine by Joe Sacco, published by Jonathan Cape, 2003

joe-sacco2Joe  Sacco’s famous  graphic  novel,  Palestine,  which  was  initially  published in serial  forms  in  nine  volumes, and  later  in  2001, assembled  as  a  whole,  brings  to  us  the  rather  surreal  state  of  existence  in  what  is  known  as  the  Israeli  occupied  land,   Palestine. The  very  genre  of  the  graphic  novel  brings  forth  not  only  the  ‘question  of  Palestine’ with  its  hyper  visibility  on  the  surface  level,  but  is  predicated  on  the  larger  notion  of  the  Palestinian  presence,  through  different  narratives.  Palestine shows  us  the journey  of  Sacco,  into Palestine, investigating the  attempted  erasure  of  the  Palestinians,  in  mainstream  discourses, retracing  its  origin  into  the  (in)famous  Balfour  Declaration  of  1917.

Joe  Sacco’s  graphic  novel,  Palestine  stands  out  for  its  remarkable  portrayal  of  the  Palestinian  issue,  of  the  everyday  life  of  the  Palestinians  in  a  land  of  not  just  conflict  but  a  veritable  battle  field.  Sacco  must  be  credited  for  his  acumen  in  capturing  the  nuances  of  the  different  narratives, thereby de-sensationalising  the  entire  media hype.   This  graphic  novel  is  a  detour  from  our  comfortable  notions  of  ‘home’,  making  it  a  contingent  space,  where  both  the  voice  of  the  invader/settler  and  the  exiled/settler,  intersect.

One  of  the  most  interesting  facets  of  this  genre,  is  how  Sacco  brings  an  entire  political  issue  into  the  realm  of  the  comic,  where  the  caricatured  sketches  have  more  than  a  few  serious,  in fact,  philosophical  implications,  even  while  introducing  an  element  of  dark  humour,  sometimes,  in  a  stark  manner  and  at  times  with  minor  subtleties.  Sacco  must  be  applauded  for  the  extensive  detailing  invested  in  this  graphic  novel  that  brings  it  somewhere  between  a  black  and  white  illustration  and  photographic  representation  and  yet  it  exceeds  both  these  forms,  in  its  own  fashion.

As  readers,  much  like  the  journalist  himself  at  the  beginning,  we  are  equipped  with  only  the  populist  understanding  of  the  deeply  entrenched  political  scenario,  that  simply  glosses  over  a  rather  problematic  history  and  narrative.  It  is  only  when  we  enter  the  realm  of  this  graphic  novel,  we  are,  much  like   Sacco  himself,  implicated.  The graphic novel,  takes  us  across  the  different  cities  that  are  largely  occupied  by  Israel,  from  Hebron,  Ramallah,  Nablus,  Jerusalem,  Jabalia,  West  Bank  to  Gaza,  all  reviving  the  images  of  concentration  camps in  these  refugee  centres. Sacco in  his  chequered  experiences,  all  over  these  places,  shows  us  the  portrayal  of  the  everyday  life  of  the  Palestinians.  He  shows  us  the  facade  of  human  rights  and  democracy,  squashed  under  the  euphemism  of  ‘Collateral  damage’.  At  the  same  time,  the  Palestinians’ constant  resistance  to  oppression,  by  the  act  of  not  only  throwing  stones,  but  to  continue  to  live  life,  through  their  expressions  of  fear,  faith,  happiness,  hope,  anger,  marriage  and  childbirth,  proud  endurance  of  humiliations  and  sufferings  and  the  innate  urge  to  narrativize  their  stories,  also  comes  to  the  foreground.  It  is in  their  daily  practices  of  having  tea  with  extra  helpings  of  sugar,  their  gatherings  filled  with  laughter,  mockery  and  tears,  that  makes  us empathise  with  them.  It  shows  the  Palestinians  constantly  performing  the  role  of  a  Witness,  giving  testimonies  to  the  oppressions  they  have  been  undergoing.  At  the  same  time,  there  is  a  level  of  scepticism,  before  the  Journalist  or  to  the  Western  Media  as  such.  We  see  their  despair  and  distrust  of  the  larger  indifferent  world  and  yet  their  only  reliance  is  on  their  need  to  narrate  their  stories,  somehow.   One  of  the  most  interesting  facets  of  this  graphic  novel,  is  the  role  of  the  journalist,  Sacco  himself.  He  discards  the  notion  of  objectivity,  for  a  more  honest  approach  although  from  his  subjective  lenses.  As  such,  he  is  presented  as  an  active  participant  in  his  observations,  with  the  package  of  his  own  biases  and  idiosyncrasies,  while  confronting  a  diametrically  opposite  cultural  logic.  At  the  same  time,  he  subtly  hints  a  jibe  at  himself  and  the  larger  petit  bourgeois  intellectuals,  who after  all  would  love  a  shower  under  hot  water  and  rather  sit  themselves  comfortably,  reading  ‘Edward  Said’.

Palestine,  obviously  ends  in  the  moment  of  crisis,  of  an  Israeli  soldier,  interrogating  a  Palestinian  child,  who  is  left  with  a  fatigued  expression,  anticipating  the  absence  of  reconciliation,  and  a  bleak  future.  A  moment  that  captures  the  extreme  tension  and  fragility  of  relationship  between  two  different  individuals,  hindered  by  the  burden  of  history  and  blood.  Sacco’s  graphic  novel,  is  a  brave  tale  of  resilience,  of  Palestinian  identity,  in  the  face  of  continued  persecution.  It  is  a  brilliant  political  treatise,  through  the  realm  of  aesthetics,  to  give  representation  to  the  voices  of  marginalised  and  also  understand  the  power  dynamics  that  determine  the  relationship  of  the  executioner  and  the  victim.  At  the  end,  I  am  reminded  of  the  words  of  Mahmoud  Darwish,  that  sums  up  the  feeling of  reading  Palestine ….   “ I  have  the  wisdom  of  one  condemned  to  die,  I  possess  nothing  so  nothing  can  possess  me  and  have  written  my  will  in  my  own  blood : Oh  inhabitants  of  my  song,  trust  in  water.’’

– Ayesha Begum

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014

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Feminism has shared a long and difficult relationship with religion. The latter’s overt patriarchal ideologies, in almost all their forms, have been issues feminism has been long fighting against. Islam, with its necessity of physical manifestation of religiosity and a long-standing reputation of treating women as mute subjects who are forever entrapped in the clutches of patriarchy, has had a vexed relationship with feminism. The idea of an autonomous will for women seems a long, distant dream for the Muslim woman. Seen from our secular, progressive lens, the Muslim woman covered in veil seems to be situated at the lowest rung of emancipation. Seemingly far removed from her bra-burning cousins, resembling them neither in her demeanour nor her methods, she clearly elicits sympathy from the progressive and secular. Or, what is even worse, pity.

Or maybe not.

The Iranian-American film director Ana Lily Amirpour sets her film in Iran, the same country that had erupted into a revolution in 1979 after the infamous regime of the Shah and which had further contributed to building the reputation of Islam as we know it today. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is set in Bad City, somewhere in Iran, whose walls still bear the vestiges of a revolution long forgotten. A half-deserted city feeding on isolation and intoxication, the city comes alive in the night, where a cat knows more than the humans and a girl (who) walks home alone at night. In such a city, everyone seems to know each other and is reliant, strangely, on the other for her/his wants.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a delightful and twisted cross between the diverse universes of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000) and Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight (2005). The suggestion may sound ludicrous, but it is not flippant.  The vulnerability suggested by the title of the film is squashed by Ana. She takes the hijab, a garment which is essentially symbolic of patriarchal imposition, and re-appropriates it. The girl who walks home dons the hijab, which, contrary to our secular perception, does not rob her of her agency. Contrarily, it lends her one. The bodily act associated with docility and modesty is completely subverted as Ana lets her protagonist wear it as a garb, akin to the cape of a superhero while divesting the garment of its patriarchal allegiance. The girl becomes the redeemer of Bad City, aware of the city’s vices and also entrusted with the responsibility to redress them – to make the city less bad- while engaging in “very bad things” herself.

What Ana ends up creating is a vampire who is a concomitant redeemer. She is closest to the Marvel heroes, except that with the veil on, she does not lose her subjectivity. Unlike a cape which demands a Bruce Wayne of a Batman, the veil allows her, even enables her to maintain her subjectivity. Amirpour not only subverts the genre of superhero films—an essentially male domain—but also alerts us to the very narrow definition of feminism that the west harbours and expects to achieve. She creates her own brand of superhero(ine) who does not bear too high a moral ground, who would suck the blood out of a dastard, as well as threaten a seemingly innocent looking kid to make him promise to be good with equal ease, and look innocently at her love even as the blood of her last victim remains smeared on her lips.

Amirpour describes the film as an “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western” and lives up to her claim. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night could easily have been a whodunnit, a very good one at that, but what it eventually achieves is striking- reminding us to not consider the girl who walks home alone at night as powerless. For she is not.

– Ishita Sengupta

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The Comfort of Strangers

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, published by Vintage, 1997

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Ian McEwan’s second novel, The Comfort of Strangers, leaves one in ironic dis-comfort. First published in 1981, it unravels the tale of a fateful encounter between two couples: the regular holidayers Mary and Colin, and residents of the holiday spot, Robert and Caroline.  What follows as a conventional progression of acquaintance between strangers is a gripping, sinister narrative that shocks the anticipating reader.

McEwan, within the span of a hundred odd pages, explores and explodes several beliefs and practices that are considered ‘normal’.  Simultaneously, he unsettles us – the readers – by making us aware of certain habits that we unconsciously inculcate in ourselves. He first paints a perfectly believable – even popular – prototype of a couple who are tired in love. Stuck in a cycle of automatic responses and synced schedules, their vacation begins with a reflection of their strained selves: “They woke, simultaneously, and lay still on their separate beds. For reasons they could no longer define clearly, Colin and Mary were not on speaking terms.” However, with a certain edge to his language, McEwan also reminds us that this is a couple who love each other – perhaps a bit too much: “[T]hey knew one another much as they knew themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of perpetual concern”.

Mary and Colin, like most young, holidaying couples, go on several walks, through alleys and lanes, exploring the city on their own. They discover new restaurants and engage in political debates and discussions on feminism. It is on one such occasion that they encounter Robert, share drinks with him, and on a consequent meeting, end up at his house, only to find themselves naked and missing their clothes, on waking up the next morning.

It is here that they meet Robert’s wife, Caroline. If Robert stood at what could be considered an ‘extreme’ edge of experience and expectations, then Caroline becomes another mould that fits in with his ideals; one who believes: “If you are in love with someone, you would even be prepared to let them kill you, if necessary.” Just when the passion between Mary and Colin is rekindled and in full blaze, slowly but surely, they become ensnared in Robert and Caroline’s dark past, hearing about their ‘perverse’ fetishes, before becoming the ultimate witnesses and victims of the same.

It is perhaps a given that every reader is a voyeur, privy to the lives of characters in literary works. Yet, when one encounters a set of double voyeurs who have overreached their obsession, it unsettles the voyeur within us. It also perhaps reminds us how blurred the line between seemingly harmless stalking and destructive obsession can really be. Besides subverting the notion of hospitality, McEwan seems to deliberately play with our very human and universal urge for knowing, our insatiable sense of curiosity. He purposely withholds details. We are not told in explicit terms where exactly Mary and Colin have gone on vacation: the abundance of water and the couple’s incomprehensibility of the dominant language spoken suggest it is Venice. What could be considered as an ultimate test of love becomes a test of trust not just between couples in relationships but within the human community in general. Who do we trust then?

Reading the novel in the twenty-first century – conditioned by the overwhelming presence of social media- one could be especially unsettled by the continuous threat to our notion of privacy.  A particularly shocking scene in chapter nine, where we find multiple photographs of one of the characters displayed on the wall of the bedroom of another – a stranger – makes readers shudder, yet we, in our daily “virtual” life, are constantly flirting with this threat to ourselves: we no longer have to anticipate or even apprehend a Foucauldian panoptic vision of ourselves (like in the novel) – we have voluntarily offered ourselves to the gaze, knowing/ not knowing/ choosing to not know the risks involved. Now imagine stumbling across a series of photographs featuring you in a random stranger’s cell phone/computer. Embrace the dis-Comfort of Strangers.

– Adreja Mukherji

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Cinephilia, Conditions Apply*

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Image source: cinearchive.org

In 1996, Susan Sontag wrote an article in the New York Times, stating that cinema has lived its life, and is dying. 1996, we must remember, is the centenary year of the first modern film. It is also the time when digital formats were on the rise, and film viewership was rapidly shifting from the public space of movie theatres to the private space of living rooms. Sontag’s love for cinema, which she saw decaying and dying at the turn of the millennium, had two very specific conditions. The first was that it had to be a certain kind of film, which was the experimental and avant-garde films which the French and Italian auteurs, among others, indulged in. Sontag had a pronounced distaste for the mainstream Hollywood style of mercantile films, with its fast cuts and genre-specific narrative tropes. She thought such films were “astonishingly witless; the vast majority fail resoundingly to appeal to their cynically targeted audiences.” Secondly, Sontag thought the love for cinema is fulfilled only through the fidelity to viewing films in movie theatres, a space she deemed the only ideal for watching films. Other modes of viewing films, be it on a TV screen or on a computer are, to put it indelicately – sacrilege.

Love for cinema, and the discipline that has developed around it in the last two decades, has a specific term which is used in the academic circles – cinephilia. Girish Shambu, a prominent blogger and author, says that cinephilia is not only the habit or credit of watching hundreds of films, “but also thinking, reading, talking and writing about cinema in some form, no matter how unconventional…. in other words, cinephilia involves an active interest in the discourse surrounding films”. And herein lies the question; what are the margins of the discourse? Even though it is a discipline about the love for cinema, does it include the voice of someone who does not love the movies? Could such a person have something important to say?

Thus, this post is in essence a continuation of our last post in the sense that it addresses certain aspects of our author’s scepticism about films, and to see whether this cinephobia, if it could be called so, can be placed within a more academic-minded discourse. Could personal idiosyncratic accounts of likes, and dislikes have important insights about how academic writing handles a particular topic? Does accommodating these voices give us a certain inward look, some self-reflexivity? Let’s take, for example, where the author writes about her comparative ease with watching films on a DVD rather than in a theatre where she has no control. The tangential approach to film viewing which the DVD facilitates (and I use DVD as an umbrella term for all digital media), where we can pause the film, slow it down, hasten it, rewind and fast forward, has been one of the primary concerns of film theoreticians in the digital age. In a sense, as she writes, it affords us an access to films similar to our access to a book, where we can start at any point, go back, skip a few pages, read very quickly through the book or take our time with it, being introspective, pensive. Theoreticians have linked this idea of stopping the film in its track with death, which as it affects our idea of how a film should be watched also opens up avenues to look back into the past in a new manner. This marriage of digital technology and the mass dissemination of film material has traditionally been viewed with some scepticism. Serge Daney talked about zappers, who would listlessly surf the channels on television. Laura Mulvey on the other hand, talks about two kinds of spectators – the possessive and the pensive, viewers who avoid the cinema hall experience and prefer their private viewing space and constantly meddle with the intended flow of the film to pore over images, frames and other details. But both ideas maintain that the newer practices are disruptive, and problematic.

Personal accounts too, despite the criticism it has faced in academic circles, are an important part of the discipline of cinephilia. When Stanley Cavell wrote about his experience with various films, he misremembered many of the details he talks about. Academic writing is generally conditioned with the idea of reliability on objectivity and the capacity to get closer and closer to the object of study without contaminating it with traces of the author’s self. Therefore, quite unsurprisingly, the criticism that has been generally awarded to personal accounts of film experience is that of its unreliability. But this has its own importance as well; as Victor Burgin talks about his memory of films, he expands on the idea of associative memories which fuse disparate film sequences to create a hybrid object, creating new meanings. Every voice and every mode of viewership—be it the nostalgic and romantic, or the ponderous and detached—has opened up newer paths within the discourse of cinema. Probably, merely as an intellectual exercise, the discourse of cinephilia could shed its conditions applied tag and accommodate into its ambit the voices which have a fundamental apathy towards the medium, if only to see whether that in any way enriches the discourse or takes us towards a more nuanced understanding of what cinema is.

– Souraj Dutta