Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sir Vidia and Shalimar

The critic Namita Bhandare has a very interesting article in today’s Hinudstan Times looking at the differences and similarities between two of India’s most lauded literary sons, Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipual.

Rushdie, Bhandare writes, “even though he held a British passport, was married to a Brit, lived in London and had a family that was based in Pakistan, (he) claimed to be determinedly Indian." Perhaps Rushdie’s best regarded novel, 1980's Midnight’s Children, features the city of Bombay extensively, and during that time “Rushdie pleased us by finding virtues in India. He raved about the Baroda School of Painting, praised our democracy (as distinct from Pakistan’s record of military rule) and even said the right things about Indira Gandhi (he didn’t like her, a sentiment shared by the urban middle-class).”

By contrast, V.S. Naipual, author of one of my favorite novels of all time, A Bend in the River, “missed no opportunity to tell us how much he hated us. He may have hated his birthplace (Trinidad) even more but the land of his ancestors was — in his view — a complete failure. It was, in the Sixties, an area of darkness. And by the Seventies, it had become a wounded civilization.”

Of course, that was over twenty years ago, when both writers were regarded in the prime. Midnight's Children was in that era, The Satanic Verses (which earned Rushdie a fatwa death sentence from the ossified, Koran-thumping theocracy in Iran) arrived some eight years later. Mr., Naipaul’s first book of renown, A House for Mr. Biswas, went even further back, to 1961, the interesting if often unpleasant In a Free State to 1971, and A Bend in the River itself to 1979.

A decade ago, Rushdie was the speaker at my graduation from Bard College in upstate New York, and he spoke about his time in seclusion, and at the demands for adherence to this or that hierarchy that had been made of him throughout his life. It was an address whose words have stayed with me ever since.

"It is men and women who have made the world, and they have made it in spite of their gods," he said that day. "The message of the myths is not the one the gods would have us learn - that we should behave ourselves and know our place - but its exact opposite. It is that we must be guided by our natures.""Do not bow your heads. Do not know your place. Defy the gods. You will be astonished how many of them turn out to have feet of clay. Be guided, if possible, by your better natures."

For his part, Naipaul's A Bend in the River remains one of the great portraits of post-colonial Africa and the alternating absurdities and horrors of a quasi-fascist cult-of-personality state, but Naipaul himself was the subject of a rather distasteful campaign, although one with far less mortal implications, when former friend and vastly inferior writer Paul Theroux lambasted him in a rather ill-considered memoir some years back.

In today’s Hindustan Times article, however, Bhandare notes that, through a strange confluence of events, the lives of Rushdie and Naipual have become in some ways mirror images of one another. Bhandare cites as examples that both authors are now better known for their non-fiction and their political views than for their novels (a conclusion I take issue with), that “both men have hit the social circuit thanks to glamorous and ambitious wives from the subcontinent” (something I couldn’t care less about), that they both continually revisit the subcontinent as a mine for material for their fiction (an astute observation), that they both cast a very skeptical eye over Islamic extremism and that, in Bhandare’s estimation, their respective levels of arrogance are meeting on some high misty plane of self-regard these days.

Bhandare finally speculates about “what is it about being an Indian writer abroad (to the extent that Trinidadians and Pakistanis are part of a greater India) that turns both men into clones of each other? Could it be that they have lived too far away from home for too long? And that they now occupy an imaginary homeland?”

Imaginary homelands? Now there's a sobering and intriguing thought for any expatriate.

Othwerwise, in very sad and decidedly non-literary news from Haiti, it was revealed today that freelance photographer Jean-Rémy Badio was murdered in the southern Port-au-Prince district of Martissant Friday by some of the same gangsters who have been terrorizing that neighborhood since this past July. Badio’s apparent crime? He had photographed the gunmen a few days before. Far from being imaginary, the violence in Haiti continues to be all too real.

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