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

deblina hazra

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