Imagination and Reality in The Shadow Lines and Midnight’s Children

Like a patient etherized upon table” (“Prufrock”) waiting for the surgeon’s scalpel to make its first, second, third… nth incision, a novel waits in quivering anticipation for the critic’s omniscient and omnitoment (taking roots from omnis for all and tomos for cutting) gaze to cut through the veneer of words to reach the core of the problem literature poses: and in quite a similar state of mind. How can it be otherwise when the doctor’s/ critic’s only avowed and declared focus is on the problem at hand and not on the body that has the problem? The western development of allopathy and surgical intervention/ invasion, along with a parallel development of a critical, as different from the readerly gaze and critical dissection (or, shall it be called autopsy?) of the body on the table have drained the life-blood of joy from the experience of life/ reading. The polarities of white-black, high-low, mature-immature, proper-improper, specialist-commonsensical, licensed-unlicensed, reaper-grower etc. is established in the sphere of literary enjoyment too.

Gone are the Arnoldian days of a critic’s also being a cultivator of minds- his own and that of those who reached the objects he criticized after experiencing the secondary work. The word critic became so much loaded with negativity that in some circles it substituted the more frequent four letter words. Enjoying literature without any specialist’s attention to its genre, theme, narrator, narrative technique, plot, prolepsis, paradox etc. was looked down upon by the specialists. The golden age of critical dissection and the stone age of readerly joy had arrived. Tomes were written about Salman Rushdie’s MNC and Amitav Ghosh’s TSL (I’ve read a few myself) by those who knew that they knew how to analyse after reading a text. Theirs became the dominant discourse – the one that got to be heard, printed and circulated through the arteries of academia and media. The recessive discourse that couldn’t be heard, as it was neither articulate, nor aware of any need for breaking silence – was that of the readers who took MNC or TSL up, read and enjoyed/ hated it, and later remembered it only when reliving those lucidly vivid moments of joy/ antipathic disgust. They had no thought for a frame by frame technical analysis of the thing for them, it was only a stream to be waded through – to see what lay on the other side – or simply to experience the thrill of folding the stream for the first, second… nth time. They didn’t care for the chemical formulae of various molecules that constituted the water of that stream – they only tasted the water, despite the risk of toxicity, as they were adventurous by nature. Well, an amalgam of the extremes may come in handy for both enjoying and understanding the nuances of the aesthetic pleasure the text offers. The Blakean loss of ignorance has altered the state consciousness of the reading-enjoying part of an individual. It has been tainted/ altered as, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness” (“Gerontion”)? The burden of experience encumbers the shoulders of reckless enjoyer and prods that part towards equanimous analysis. A golden mean may well be the way out – or, the way into the text – by exploring its full aesthetic potential – critical and creative.

Here I propose to go for a thorough golden mean kind of perusal of MNC and TSL i. e. a record of whatever arose in my mind, as an informed reader enjoying the text, along with an analysis with a slant towards what is called critical/ theoretical. The novel begins with what Dr. Johnson would call a veritable pyrotechnics of dazzling wit that sets the mood and tone for what’s to come on the pages that follow. In a way reminiscent of the Elizabethan/ Jacobean drama’s display of playful wit that sometimes bordered the intellectual limits, MNC foregrounds the style much more conspicuously than TSL. When the narrator addresses the reader and interests him by declaring: “by the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks [he]… had been mysteriously handcuffed to history … at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement” (1), he sets in motion a chain reaction of expectations that grow in magnitude as one moves from one thought-nucleus to the next one.

Style is the man, or man is style? Whether the narrator (here we’d restrict ourselves to the conscious minds, that too without any psychoanalysis of the writer’s unconscious) affects wit while telling us his story, or he is simply a witty man telling his story? Has he been hiding something behind the screen of words and sentences or he has been lifting the veil from the unknown/ unknowable with his words and sentences? And, finally, why does the writer make the narrator do so – consciously or unconsciously? Why?

Well, the wit part may be due to either the writer’s tendency to show off (and not just of this writer, in one way or the other, all writers tend to show at least something off – including the one who wrote this paper), or due to the market’s demand over the barest minimum eligibility criterion kind of a thing (sticking to the paradigmatic stream of theory and using technical jargon being the unwritten eligibility criteria for publication). Introspection tends to precede, accompany and follow pro-, circum- and post- spection. So does inspection, followed by destruction using one of the most dangerous lawful devices that kills – words. Juxtaposing tyranny with saluting clocks is kind of antithetical, even shockingly so. It declares the intention of the writer, or, to avoid the intentional fallacy, of the narrator. He foregrounds language by attempting to fill it up to the brim with literariness. He is no common man, the writer of ours. So, he makes his men and women uncommon, nay, extraordinary in many ways. Then again, the critic too is no common man. So, the objects of his attention must be uncommon, nay, extraordinary in many ways – positive and negative. Where can he find aesthetic objects as worthy as MNC and TSL?

Unlike Rushdie, Ghosh plays less with words than with the process of the translation of the concrete world into abstract ideas. He plays with time and space and travels through them in his narrative. For him “a place does not merely exist… it has to be invented in one’s imagination” (TSL 14). Looking back at times past and far, thinking of places that used to be there, and doing it all accurately, takes a very strong and vivid power of recollection. To be precise, in bringing the past back to life, one has to live it in the present moment and also live in it. Thus, there are times when one inhabits two distinctly different places and times simultaneously, defying the basic law of physics that a body can occupy only one space at any given point of time. Memory has its own physics, and its own chemistry too. And then, there is future – a time one hasn’t ever experienced, and places one’s never visited. To think of any one of these uses memory, as one composes the unlived in or unseen, using the units of that which is known. That again takes a lot of imagination combining the functions of an architect and a builder. The time and space in which one exists at any given moment may be seen and experienced in many ways. At the most materialistically oriented mundane level, the level of the physically verifiable sensorily experienced world, things and people are neutral snapshots kept in shelves, neatly arranged, not reacting with any other snapshot, each sealed within its boundaries. The parallel ends here, because the shelves are always inert in the physical world; but the shelves that contain these snapshots start acting as chemicals that chemicals that dissolve and change not only the pigments of colours but also the basic substance of the snapshots, that too, with the lapse of a very short time period. It is the re-creation of an experience of a time and place that is done through various processes of an active brain, that the new snapshots emerge. They are generally composite, not-so-true-yet-truer copies of the real originals. Or, in other words, reality takes birth after having killed and devoured “the real” and imagination is the weapon used. It does not just annihilate but also re-create and the sustain what it destroyed. Thus it takes the functions of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh.

What is real anyway? For a “localist” (as against a nationalist or internationalist) getting just the news of their place of birth (like Dhaka’s for Tha’mma) brings to life a whole set of past experiences more tangibly and more vividly than any present time could ever be. It is the realness of such an experience that enables others touched by it to ”see” the same places and people as imagination invents. Refugees are more than just migrants, because theirs is a moving out out of compulsion, most often due to a threat to their life or way of life. They carry the pain of separation from their homeland and doomed with a yearning that is nearly impossible: to return to their old life and times. Such was the case of the millions of the post-partition refugees in the Indian subcontinent, for whom the present was a time that existed only while they performed certain functions to sustain their lives on a daily basis. They lived in a painful present and found solace in reminiscing about their past with the ache of the now familiar, almost physically registered nostalgia. They imagined, at times (here personal enters the arena of impersonal and neutral and transgresses the boundaries of normative scholarly writing), and I say this with the analogical introspection and conviction of my own miniature refugeeness, their being present in their past times and places, living a life coloured brighter and better when looked at in the hindsight. They, like Tha’mm, and, in a way, Tridib, did pass on their invented pasts in vivid details to the next generation too – to those who’d never be there or experience their real, and not imaginary homelands. Then, there’s a special case of people endowed with a lot of common sense, who have strong and deep roots in the material reality, and for whom using imagination to transcend the real is an anathema or impossibility. Ila is one such case – the foil to the narrator – in The Shadow Lines. Tridib gave the narrator eyes to see the world never seen, in contrast to Ila whose senses never fully imbibe the cornucopia of stimuli ever present all around. In her single minded determination, she only used the world and tended to remember only what fit in her pattern of use, e.g. for her Cairo was just another place remembers because of her memory of (astonishingly for the narrator) the exact location of the ladies’. History dies for such people and become a catacomb with slabs bearing names and dates only. Literature has no relish for them because people and places can’t be if they aren’t “real”. Philosophy is just a taxonomical positioning of nature and civilizations psot-mortmed. It is imagination that creates time and space, and it is time and space, as categories, in which life is lived in a succession of lived experiences. As Kant would have it – time and space, being existent a priori are there before any kind of experince. Imagination performs the function of the mechanism that makes experiences meaningful by arranging them in time and space.

 

There’s a thin line between imagination that produces the world and that which brings forth hallucinating, non-existent entities in a vacuous world made of nothing. Using “imagination with precision” (TSL 16) enables one to fill details and colours in the world whose outlines are etched on the slate of mind. The unconscious like structure of language, if Lacan was not wrong, makes it possible for one to meaningfully understand the world and one’s experiences in it. It also makes it possible for different people to experience, see and understand the same thing in different ways, as thing-in-itself is approached through the use of one’s imagination on the phenomenal world and reason comes for its help, as and when one’s emotions warrant in most of the cases. A common man is not Plato’s ideal type, governed by reason alone. He is governed by emotions justified by reason ex post facto. If one does not put full effort in creating a system that explains the world of sense experiences using one’s own imagination, then, as Blake had warned against, other people’s inventions flow in to fill the outlines and lend colours and details that aren’t one’s own “because the alternative[isn’t]… blankness[and]…we would never be free of other people’s inventions” (TSL 21).

 

References:

 

Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Web. n.d. bartleby.com. 12 November 2012.

—. “Gerontion”. Web. n.d. bartleby.com. 12 November 2012.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [MNC in the text.]

Advertisements

Rushdie’s art of story telling in Midnight’s Children

Why do I read? More specifically, why do I read fiction (when not doing it to write a paper on)? Why do I write at all? More specifically, why do I write on something impersonal? Moreover, can there be any writing, even about impersonal things, in the field of literature that is totally free of the “taint” of the writer’s personal style and way of thinking? Through a substitution of “I” for the variable x, and then, by putting the value “Rushdie” in it – only after the answers have been fully explored with “I” – there may appear a new opening to the heart of Midnight’s Children (henceforth, MNC). So, let there be some analysis.

I read because for an average, educated, white collar employee it is quite essential in order to perform various information imbibing and data churning activities. The kind of reading we are interested in here, the one that deals with the very next question in the series, is reading for entertainment and edification. I read fiction, when not with some ulterior motive, because I enjoy(ed) it. Even when doing it to write a paper, there are times when fiction works its magic and I do enjoy it, despite my purpose being dryly academic and strongly established. I read to live, even if for a few moments, after losing the “I” in me. Those few moments of intense and joyful loss of self are the central pull drawing me time and again towards my favourite activity: reading. It does happen sometimes, even now. I write for many professional reasons. Some of them I hate to acknowledge (and will not, at least here), some of them dry and boring. Then I write about myself and mine, but the kind of writing we are finally interested in is the impersonal one, e.g. writing an article on Rushdie’s MNC. It’s the conventional wisdom that has seeped into my system and tells me not to let my “me” part enter my academically oriented writing – if I really intend it to be published somewhere. Even the reader-response theory tries to steer clear of “I” through its use of impersonal pronouns and syntax. Despite all conventionalities and social mimicries, it’s quite useless to attempt to hide what is clearly, obviously and spectacularly visible to all who introspect. I write because that’s my gift, like it was of many before me. No, I don’t dare to acknowledge the anxiety of influence kind of Oedipal links, even tenuously with the greats of the past. I write because I suspect that it is one human activity or field in which I may excel. I don’t see any other field where I can be even a little above the ordinary. Yes, T. S. Eliot is turning in his grave; red with rage, I know. Yet, I must write because I have failed (without even attempting actually – only by doing it all in my mind) in every other possible area of human endeavor open to me. All my eggs are kept in one basket, in the basket of writing, or shall I rephrase it: all my writing is in one folder. Well! Whatever it is, I write therefore I am and will be. No, there’s no plagiarism, paraphrase, cryptomnemics or plain lifting involved. Just like the last part of the penultimate sentence, I do use the popular and easily recognizable ideas of others (in the present case, Descartes’) sans the marks of quotation , and then show the license of intertextuality. Jargons and theory aren’t always set against an outsider or a newcomer. They, in addition to performing their intended and explicit function of deeply and darkly laying out the boundaries of the field, may also be used to breaches into it. Writing is my passport to the land of glory, and hopefully, very liberal humanistically, a state tending to an eternal virtual life. Although an eternal kind of real-physical life beats all, it being unattainable at the present level of scientific development, I’d settle for the virtual, even if very distant and unsure kind. So, I write to live beyond the four dimensions of my insignificant and ephemeral life and times. It is a valiant attempt (allusion to Shelley?) to gain in a way what one’s sure to lose eventually.

In the very beginning of this section I had written of an “I-X-Rushdie” substitution with a naïve assumption that you have all writers of any kind you want, as long as they write for glory only. Well, it was wrong. Some are born with the itch to write, some contract it and some are pushed unknowingly and unsuspectingly into the (quag-) mire. How can there be only one scriptor then? The professional and the accidental writers rub shoulders with the natural and essential (pardon me, o spirit of the postmodern times) ones with no two bits kind of clear cut belonging to any distinct category in a time proof capsule. People, reasons, motivations and types may and do change with the passage of time. So, a Browning laments the conversion of Wordsworth from one type to another. It’s complicated: the whole “writing-talent-glory” business. Yet, fools rush in etc.

So, I intend to wade forward and introduce my central theme: Rushdie, so late on these pages. Some readers may suspect here a mimicry of MNC’s technique of late introduction of the main subject. Any honest pledge of mine, any solemn assurance of unintetionality and mere coincidence, will only make their resolve firmer to blame it on my unconscious. Yet, it really is an accident. Just like Saleem’s being handcuffed with history was the kind of accident that determines the destiny. Or, the accident of grandfather Aziz’s long nose rising (allegedly) atavistically and trickily in Saleem, and what was the meaning? Nada. It is even turning aleatory, this paper, an interminable rambling. Thinking in written form on the paper has always been like this. I don’t have, or expect to have, a Boswell to record all that crosses the line that separates the unexpressed domain from the expressed one. So, I’ll play the roles of both Dr. Johnson and his Boswell.

What happens when one uses commonly used words and syntax in an uncommon manner? What happens when one finds the “occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks” (1) on a page of MNC? What kind of aesthetic response does this overdeterminism with the excess of meaning due to the heavy use of modifiers produce? The occult nature of the tyrannies of clocks isn’t a kind of fact one reads or hears every day. It’s a novelty: shocking as new, or, shocking and new, or, shocking but new? That tyranny wouldn’t have been new and shocking had it not been parceled out with the antithetical phrase: “blandly saluting”. Not all will find the sublime in the same object. Neither will all who find a thing sublime (including the amply – rightly or wrongly – analyzing me) be able to reach an agreement about the elements and mechanism of its achieving the effect: the aesthetic satisfaction. Following the threads of the same thought, one reaches that part of the paragraph that’s “heavily embroiled in fate – at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement” (1). Being embroiled in “fate” isn’t a very common idea and it is followed by nearly contrasting shades of meaning with “best” juxtaposed with “dangerous”. Rushdie’s wit dazzles. Or, is it Saleem’s? he knows how to generate and sustain interest. It only has to be seen whether content accompanies style on the passages and pages to come. A story he does tell, and the way he tells it generates interest, irrespective of and independent from the actual events taking place. Real is closely followed with unreal, possible with impossible or, at least, improbable. Yet, the reader willingly suspends all disbelief for the span of time he is experiencing the magic of MNC. Its enumeration – meticulous and detailed – of facts and figures, takes it close to realism, and its matter-of-factness is maintained in its unreal parts too. Thus, the narrator’s “trick of filling in the gaps of … [his] knowledge” (6) is accepted sans hesitation on the reader’s part. Heis already hooked to the narrative – like Padma, the reader’s representative and the live critic of the common sensical type, provided as a continual touchstone. The narrator’s sparkling wit and new ways of looking at the old phenomena and things, and of dressing new ideas in old garbs and vice versa, call it innovation or use of the Coleridgean fancy, creates magic viz. “India – like Radium – had been ‘discovered’ by the Europeans” (2). It is heavily ironical, placed across through the persona of a newly Westernized man of science in the Orient: Dr. Azizi. In the initial phase of Westernization, the ready acceptance of not only the ideas but also the weltanschauung is quite common. That’s what had happened to the good doctor and the pattern is repeated on various scales in its readers too.

Here I’ll introduce the second element that generates interest in a story – characters. Rushdie succeeds in creating characters that successfully sustain the reader’s interest. They may not agree with them, but they find then real enough to express disagreement. How can one fail to feel a kind of intellectual kinship with the vacillations and uncertainty of a man “unable to worship a God in whose existence he could not wholly disbelive” (2). In his journey from life to death man searches for stories and creates some, consciously or unconsciously, to explain the end of the journey to himself. Of course, it is not about those who don’t deserve the application of the species part of homo sapiens, which is nearly a majority that doesn’t have the inclination and/or power to introspect or to sustainably think about anything that threatens to turn abstract and eternal. So, a reader’s quest for an all explaining myth has been eternally present in human beings. This explains his love for stories for as long back as history can remember. The modern times took the sense of awe away from myths – and in doing so, killed them. The modern man doesn’t believe with the firmness of, say, a medieval man. The modern man has only one central myth that nearly explains all to him – the myth of scientific progress. Nothing is wrong in that, but it tends to monopolize and annihilate the modern man’s capacity to tolerate any alternative or parallel myths. Yet, the old habits surface at times, with the accompanied willing suspension of disbelief, whenever a master story teller is around. Rushdie succeeds in generating enough interest to suffice for the reader to turn into an accomplice in turning the fantastic into believable, and his disarming narrative honesty makes him say: “I mustn’t reveal all my secrets at once” (3). He is nearly on first name terms with his reader. So, there’s already an intimacy that’s been presumed from the very first word of the novel and is confirmed by the time one reaches the end of the first page, and by the time he reaches, with Dr. Aziz, the stage where they finally arrange all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle “to have a picture of Naseem … a badly fitting collage of her severally inspected parts” (9). The young and bashful doctor finds ready acceptance in the reader’s mind; so does Naseem, beautiful in parts: and, one wishes for the doctor, also when assembled. Rushdie’s success is complete with the creation of characters, both major and minor, who sustain the interest of the reader. The minor characters are actually made so interesting that their impact on the reader’s memory is major. Who can forget the “watery Caliban” (4) who also happens to be the “living antithesis … of the inevitability of change” (4)? And Ilse Lubin, Ghani, those women with biceps of wrestlers, and… .

The way a story is told is more important than the actual content of the story. MNC proves this true. The way it links, with special events of human history, the personal histories of various characters, rivets the central events in the reader’s mind. The mechanism had been put in action when the midnight of 15 August 1947 was used to fix the hero’s birth. It goes on to touch the beginning and the end of the two World Wars and the in between events viz. the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Even if one does not have the historically oriented eyes, one still does enjoy it. “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence” (6), accepts the reader along with the paradoxically inclined narrator, and then acquire the eyes of the seer vicariously. Of course, hard determinism of one’s actions and fate is not a thing that everybody finds palatable. Yet, the idea is appealing: fatalistically and very Orientally so. Somebody who holds such views, viz. Saleem Sinai, has a heavily slanted vision of the world and what happens in it – with reasons and consequences arranged neatly. How could such a person be trusted? Who needs trust when one is enjoying the story already? Who needs to trust a story teller like Tai? Tai, who is older than even Tiresias, has seen it all and been there too. From Jesus to Jahangir, he’d met them all persionally and had strange stories to tell about many of them: stories that interested despite their unreliable source, or, probably because of their unreliable source. His used to be a company that had to be washed away with painfully scalding water, yet Aziz returned for more. He always did. So does the reader.

References:

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [MNC in the text.]

 

Ganga ghats and a child

DSC00977  Image

These two river-bank snaps from Varanasi are of two of my first encounters with Death and life by Ganga. The second one with dogs and the trident is of the famous cremation ghat: Harishchandra Ghat. Those who die in the neighbourhood (Kedar Khand) are cremated here. I went there for the first time with my dadi’s dead body. The smell of burning human flesh and its first impact on a human nostril can’t be described. Its intense and unforgettable imprint is alive in my mind even today; I was nine then, and am thrity-seven now.

The Old Order

The old order changes. It inevitably does. But that does not render resistance meaningless and hopeless for those who want to resist a change towards what they see as negative. Yes I know that with every passing century or two, many buildings enter and many leave the visual sphere of urban environment. I am not the armchair filling, ineffectual, day dreaming kind. Action is what I want to take. An action against this attrition of my(our) Kasi’s past. An action that warrants the coming together of people who think that the old face of Kasi needn’t be sacrificed just for the sake of change.

I am posting some images of a building that is around a century old and is in very immediate danger of extinction. Many of you, like me, may have passed it. Many of you , like me, may not have even noticed this very common building (It’s no Taj Mahal!) that merges with its simplicity and humbleness with the overall set up all around. I had always taken it for granted. Like an old friend, I had always believed that it’d be there whenever I passed. How naive!

Look at its present state:

ImageImage

Image

Can it be saved?

Can we do something?

Save the living history before it passes on to the pages of history or worse

Varanasi has buildings that I find fascinatingly beautiful, totally un-exotic, merging with their environs and appealing to my non-specialist aesthetic sense. These buildings are all in danger of passing into oblivion, not even on to the pages of history. I don not think that ASI cares for what it does not see of national importance. I do. All the buildings in this post are of central and supreme importance to my Kasi, to our Kasi. I don’t exactly know what and how, but something must be done.   Think.

The first two images are of one of the many graceful stone buildings that one can see on the ghats of Varanasi. One has to actually experience the rays of rising sun playing on the ochre of the stone and intensifying its majesty and beauty in order to fully appreciate the full strength of the fear of loss that their present condition engenders. Yes, it’ll take a lot of money and expertise. But then, the point from where the search for money and experts begins is when like minded people experience with same intensity the love and the real fear of loss.

The third building in white is the most beautiful structure on the banks of Ganga. My claim may be challenged and proven to be invalid or wrong, but the sublime effect of the combination of the colour, proportions and designs can never be denied. It’s on Rani Ghat, very close to Raj Ghat. It must be saved from the fate that the houses on ghats from Meer Ghat to Assi Ghat share: conversion into some kind of hotel or restaurant.

One passes this quiet, old, hidden and neglected building of the next image by the side of another river that runs parallel to Gangaji, one of the busiest roads of Varanasi, the road joining Bans Phatak with Chowk. There used to be a cinema hall inside. A couple of decades ago, there also used to be the shop of a very famous Chaat waala in the same building. I am quite sure that it’ll soon submerge in the flood of Malls that has already run over several old and beautiful “heritage” buildings of our Varanasi.

The last image is important for two reasons. It’s the front of Satya Narain Temple. It also gives access to Adi Vishweshwar Temple whose natural and ancient stone floor has been replaced by the more chic marble.

ImageImage

Image

Varanasi, Ganga and the Sun

In these photographs that I took last month, Ganga and Varanasi provide a cultural backdrop to the majestic sun. Any one of the three would suffice for a great composition. See what happens when they meet:

Image ImageImageImage

The sun has just started rising and the boats with their pilgrims and tourists coming to life. After a the reign of darkness comes the dawn, and then the splendour of the sun playing on the water of the great Ganga in the holy city of Varanasi. The city I love.

ImageImage