Monday, January 29, 2007

The Counter-Orientalism of Salman Rushdie

There is a delightfully wicked story in Midnight's Children about a boy whose mother dresses him up as a holy-man. She fashions an improbable story about him being a superior being with miraculous powers who has come to Earth from the heavens. The boy soon becomes the latest religious craze, attracting a large and devoted following while his mother rakes in the moolah.

The joke is partly on the many unlikely God-men and women Desh throws up, and their eager and uncritical followers. But Rushdie also relishes subverting the conventional orientalist stereotypes - the boy's mother does not get her idea from exotic Indian myth and legend, but from reading her son's Superman comics! And so the origins of just the kind of strange and absurd story that has historically been portrayed in the West as peculiarly oriental turn out to lie in a 20th century American pop-culture icon.

Elsewhere too, Rushdie takes inspiration from western sources. There is a scene earlier in the book where the heavily pregnant Mrs Amina Sinai visits Shri Ram Ram Seth the seer and fortune teller, who prophesises in cryptic verse the future of her unborn-child. I would like to speculate on a possible western inspiration for this scene.

Before I begin, two points: Firstly, this is only my personal speculation, and may not be correct. Secondly, I am not familiar with the literary or critical analysis of Midnight's Children, and may therefore be possibly repeating what others have already said. I do not know - what follows is based solely on my own reading of the two texts mentioned.

My candidate for the inspiration behind the prophecy of Ram Ram Seth is I, Claudius, a historical novel of the Roman Empire written by the English poet Robert Graves and first published in 1934. The book was hugely successful - the cover of my copy describes it as 'this century's classic historical novel', while BBC produced a television series of the same name based on the book.

There are a number of similarities between Midnight's Children and I, Claudius. Both are fictional first-person narratives which use the narrator's own life mainly as a means to chronicle significant periods in history - Midnight tells the 20th century history of India, while I, Claudius covers first century of Rome as an Empire. Both are written as private autobiographies of men who find their lives and their fate deeply interwoven with their country's.

In both novels, a prophecy is given early in the story. This prophecy foreshadows the events that are to follow, hinting to us about what will happen later. Both are given in cryptic verse whose full import is not immediately clear, but becomes obvious later. In Midnight's the fortune is recited by a poor fortune-teller of uncertain reputation, while in I, Claudius, it was recorded from the predictions of the Sybils at Cumae, women famed in ancient Greece and Rome for their ability to predict the future.

It is unlikely that someone as well-read and erudite as Rushdie would not have been aware of I, Claudius, especially as he was trying to do something very similar in aim to Graves - retelling history on a grand scale, but through one individual's eyes. So he could have read it, and certainly there are many similarities already noted between the books, and the role and telling of the prophecies in them. But this in itself is merely circumstantial - what convinced me of this idea was some rather prominent similarities in the actual verses as well.

For example, in I, Claudius, the prophecy repeatedly contains the phrase 'his son, no son" . In Midnight's Children, the prophecy has similarly 'he shall have sons without having sons". Actually, both use paradox more widely than that - the I, Claudius prophecy additionally has paradoxical lines like "A hairy man that is scant of hair" - Midnight's has "He will be old before he is old! And he will die...before he is dead."

There is transposition also: I, Claudius has "every man's woman, and each woman's man", while Midnight has similarly 'there will be knees and a nose, a nose and knees."

Both prophecies end in death of course, but this is probably nothing remarkable. And yet, consider the improbably similar last lines. I, Claudius concludes with 'And blood shall gush from his tomb' and Midnight's with 'he will die...before he is dead'.

So there's my theory, make of it what you will. If it is true, the origins of Shri Ram Ram Seth the fortune teller could be traced from Rushdie to Graves to the exotic history and legends of Classical Greece and Rome. And Rushdie knocks yet another iconic cliche of orientalism on its head. Which is not to say that the East isn't a crazy and extraordinary place. It definitely is. But we, both in the east and west, need to recognize that the West is no less crazy or extraordinary either. We are all strange and weird!