Friday, August 12, 2005

Rushdie, Seth: a comparative rant

In weeks to come, I am sure we will be subject to much comparison of these two contemporary greats as their reading publics await the release of Shalimar the Clown and Two Lives. I’m too lazy to find links to any of these discussions, but Kitabkhana is usually the best place to look. Amitava Kumar has pieces on Rushdie and Seth on his website. I’m no literary critic, but here’s my comparative rant.

I found Rushdie very difficult to read to begin with. I had to re-start Midnight's Children three times over before I got past the first 50 pages. And I still think it's quite hard to get through some of his stuff. It's a bit like walking through a very crowded bazaar with all these subplots pulling at your sleeve, haggling for your attention, and the only way to survive it all is to ignore the bits that don't interest you. But Rushdie grew on me very quickly. His voice struck me as so audacious and irreverent, and there were so many points where I nodded in furious assent - at descriptions of places or people or food or attitudes - that I thought he was writing for an audience of one: me. I first visited Bombay at the age of 22 and saw most of South Bombay through Rushdie-tinted lenses, so that the place where I was to stay with my friend Archana wasn’t simply next to Colaba Post Office opposite the Afghan Church: it was the exact spot where Aurora Zogoiby’s car hit the guy who ended up working in her house. Then when Rushdie used the words 'susu' and 'kakka' somewhere, I decided that he was, in fact, one of the greatest Indian writers in English. This was, very simply, the way we spoke. (Where 'we' meant urban, middle-class, English-speaking India.) The qualification is actually too important to be parenthetical - Rushdie writes about (and for) metropolitan India, he writes much less well about mofussil India (I can’t for the life of me remember the name of Aurora’s employee, but maybe that’s my own Woolf-like elitism), and he doesnt write very well when he's not writing about India. That's fine, but it should put in perspective voices that lionise him out of all proportion.

The audaciousness isn’t just in the use of language of course – it’s in the very cheek of writing autobiography-as-national-narrative (that Rushdie does this not just in fiction but also in ‘real’ life is what seems to irritate a young Amitava Kumar most: what business does Rushdie have turning the official reaction to The Satanic Verses in India, into a referendum on the state of Indian democracy?)

But for all this, Seth is – for me – the greater writer. It is Seth who seems capable of greater feats of ventriloquism, creating entire worlds in which there is no one quite like himself (Amit Chatterjee apart). And what different worlds they are – from the fictional Purva Pradesh of 1950s India, to California of the 1980s, to the rather more genteel world of western classical music lovers spanning London, Vienna and Venice. It does of course help that Seth has lived in all of these places, but that cannot at all detract from the achievement of having rendered them all so persuasively. With Rushdie, magic realism is sometimes a cop out – with the magic being resorted to when he doesn’t know enough about something or someone to make it real. Seth cannot, and does not, take easy ways out. Every new work is a complete re-invention of voice and genre and undertakes an exploration of new themes, demonstrating a staggering versatility that Rushdie has not managed. Seth’s treatment of themes is also visionary – as I have said earlier, he strikes me as a writer of post-gay fiction, accomplishing the superb feat of writing about India of the 1950s in post-gay fashion, when gay Indian fiction is only just beginning to emerge as a body of work that warrants independent shelves in (progressive) bookshops. In some ways, Seth almost seems ahead of his time.

I actually think that it is time to move beyond describing the immigrant experience solely in the terms and registers that Rushdie and most immigrant authors employ. As an alien in Britain, I do of course feel out of place in all the usual ways. But there are innumerable ways in which I do not feel out place, many moments when I have not felt like an outsider who needed permission to be here, but more like a part-shareholder with something approaching a right to be here if I so chose. This isn’t just a normative position (I ought to feel like this for my own good, in order to better fit in, etc.); it has often been a feeling that has snuck up on me in a curiously unconscious and unreflective way. Coming to Britain for the first time was emphatically not like coming to an alien place that I had never visited before. Much of it was deeply familiar, reminding me of how culturally creole I actually was, of how I had been born into, and brought up in, contexts that had partly been fashioned in these distant isles. I am acutely aware that this may not capture the majority immigrant experience, that it may have everything to do with my class position at ‘home’. That makes my experience a privileged minority experience perhaps, but one that is real nevertheless (ok I’ll say it – and in need of representation). All of this, it seems to me, makes the case for a post-immigrant fiction – not to describe fourth-generation immigrants who feel like they simply cannot be from anywhere else because their folks have been here for so long, but to describe an experience of familiarity and alienation that begins from the moment one steps off the boat, so to speak.

I should probably stop. Someone once accused me of suffering from a bad case of Vikramitis. I stand guilty as charged. Rushdie convinces me that we all have stories inside of us that are worth telling; he makes me feel as if I, too, could write a novel about myself. Seth leaves me in awe, I am star-struck, his mastery seems less easily attainable. (In real life, the two seem to have quite the opposite effect on people they meet.)

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