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In Sir Vidia's shadow

india Updated: Jan 23, 2007 04:33 IST
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In the Eighties, Indians regarded the emergence of Salman Rushdie with a special sort of pride. Admittedly, he hadn’t lived in India for a long time. His parents had migrated to Pakistan and he was sent off to school at Rugby. The young Salman had gone on to Cambridge, to advertising, to one poorly received science fiction parable (Grimus) which sank and then, suddenly, to the Booker Prize success of Midnight’s Children.

Even though he held a British passport, was married to a Brit, lived in London and had a family that was based in Pakistan, Rushdie claimed to be determinedly Indian. Midnight’s Children celebrated a Bombay childhood and went on to reflect the triumphs and failures of modern India. Moreover, 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).

But there was another reason why we warmed to Rushdie. In the Eighties, the best-known author of Indian origin was VS Naipaul. And Naipaul 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 civilisation.

Rushdie delighted us because he was the un-Naipaul. He celebrated India’s diversity, found virtues in its secularism, hung around with Tariq Ali and espoused vaguely lefty views. Unlike Naipaul who loved England, Rushdie saw it as a deeply racist society headed by a woman he called Mrs Torture.

Predictably, Rushdie and Naipaul never quite got on. In private, Rushdie was scathing about Naipaul’s views on India and (post the publication of Among the Believers) his negative take on global Islam. Naipaul, ever the snob, dismissed Rushdie as a trendy lefty who traded on his Indianness.

But something strange has happened over the last five years. Rushdie and Naipaul may not dislike each other any less. But in some mysterious and completely unpredictable way, they have turned into mirror images of each other.

The parallels stretch from their writing to their private lives to their political views to their public images.

First, both are novelists who are now better known for their non-fiction and their political views than for their novels. Midnight’s Children was a long time ago and while critics still regard Rushdie with respect, it has been over a decade (if not more) since he has written a novel that has been treated with the regard accorded to the early work. So it is with Naipaul. His political views may be prescient or offensive, depending on your perspective, but it is a long time since he has written a novel in the same league as his first books.

Second, both men have hit the social circuit thanks to glamorous and ambitious wives from the subcontinent. Naipaul’s first, English, wife was a retiring figure and the Argentinian-English girlfriend he travelled with avoided parties. His new wife, a Pakistani journalist called Nadira, however, is an entirely social animal and Naipaul is a familiar figure at Delhi parties. So it is with Rushdie. His early wives and girlfriends never had the glamour of Padma Lakshmi, his current South Indian model wife, and the two are one of New York’s beautiful couples, featuring on society pages and hanging out with U2’s Bono.

Third, neither writer seems able to move beyond his ancestral roots. It’s a long time since Rushdie had any significant experience of India (he left when he was in his teens and has lived most of his life in the West). But the subcontinent and its people are recycled again and again in his books. (The most recent, Shalimar the Clown, is set in Kashmir which Rushdie has not visited for nearly two decades.) Naipaul has made a few tentative attempts to write about Western characters (Mr Stone and the Knights Companion was an early example), but he is of interest mainly because of his channelling of the brown man’s experience and his views on the Third World. Critics might wonder: have these men found nothing in their lives in the West that is worth a body of fiction?

Fourth, their political views no longer seem so different. Rushdie might have sneered at the central thesis of Among the Believers, but Naipaul has been prescient about global Islam — as Rushdie himself discovered when Ayatollah Khomeini issued his famous fatwa forcing the writer to seek protection from Mrs Torture. In recent years, Rushdie has been uncompromising in his condemnation of Islamic extremism. On India, Naipaul is now even more of a fan than the young Rushdie. (A Million Mutinies Now was an extended love letter to the country he once hated.) Unlike Rushdie, though, he is hesitant about making judgments on subjects like Kashmir where his knowledge is either outdated or limited.

Fifth, their view of the world is now eerily similar. Ever since he moved to New York, Rushdie has taken positions that Naipaul would approve of. In the aftermath of 9/11, he identified himself so completely with American outrage that he failed to condemn the invasion of Iraq — some might even argue that he was a tacit supporter — in the way that he had condemned previous Western adventures. (He regarded the Falklands war, for instance, as a battle to save Maggie’s face.) British liberals who once applauded his political views now find themselves estranged from Rushdie’s perspective. Naipaul, on the other hand, subscribes to much of what Rushdie now believes in.

And finally, there is the marriage of personalities. Naipaul is a famous curmudgeon. He doesn’t like anybody or anything and is proud to say so. Rushdie has always been, well, let’s say, highly strung — and one of the most embarrassing moments at a Booker ceremony was when Schindler’s Ark beat Shame and Rushdie stood up to complain loudly about the injustice that had been done to him. Even so, in recent years, Rushdie has become much more like Naipaul: difficult to approach, sneering about other people and full of his own importance. At the Jaipur Literature Festival this weekend he told interviewers that he would not entertain political questions (perhaps because he did not want to discuss the US invasion of Iraq) and launched a childish broadside against the press that would have done Naipaul proud.

None of this, of course, is to deny the vast talents that both men possess. Naipaul is still one of the finest writers alive of the English language. His political observations, though frequently derided at the time they were made, have been borne out by future events. Rushdie is, perhaps, the greatest writer to have emerged out of the Indian subcontinent. Midnight’s Children is a masterpiece that launched a whole new school of magic realism. Malcolm Bradbury has hailed it as “a new start for the late twentieth century novel”. His non-fiction is still an absolute delight to read.

But 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?

Email Namita Bhandare: nbhandare @hindustantimes.com

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