I am just in the course of reading Salman Rushdie's latest work of fiction, Shalimar the Clown. And my current observations are as follows.
I do accept the premise that there is nothing political or public without the personal. I am myself of the nature that if there cannot be a personal, there never can be room for political or public. As much as "No man is an island" and that "Man is but part of a composite community at large"... without the individual there is also no society; but the inference I am increasingly deriving from recent trends in fiction, especially Indian or Indo-centric fiction is very disturbing to me as a development in the continuing rise of the post-modern fiction.
Shalimar the Clown is supposed to be a political thriller on one side; it is also Rushdie's exercise in trans-globalising the violence, where inevitably Kashmir has to be involved, Al-Qaeda has to be mentioned, Bin Laden has to be equated in the process. It is, nevertheless, a vendetta narrative of a very personal nature, the order or chaos of things arising out of one man's thwarted love - the one man in question being a Kashmiri Islamic chauffeur of an erst-while Ambassador of Teutonic origin, to India. I am starting to not so much like this work. I bought this work, in the middle of my dire penury, because of my avid liking for Rushdie's work, which began with my reading of his Satanic Verses, fructified after a reading of his Haroun and the Sea of Stories and culminated in my shameless acceptance of him as the greatest writer India has produced, after The Moor's Last Sigh - which I still rank as his best book. Of course, I had earlier, much earlier, as a student of literature, gobbled up his Shame and Jaguar Smiles and that Booker of Bookers - the Midnight's Children, a decade and a half before these.
Shalimar is turning out to be such a total let down, not so much as a narrative (it never gets uninteresting when Rushdie is story-telling) but as a book in the illustrious line of other Rushdie books. They said Rushdie's croaking as a writer after Fury. I haven't read Fury. But there seems to be some truth in that prognosis, in the light of Shalimar.
This also leads to the following observations. This spawning of the personal as political or public or allegorical is not good for literature. Writers with a bag full of gags and intelligence, and a departmental store rackfulls of delighful and inventive phrases, realism of the magical order don't necessarily produce great literature. No amount of Booker-ing them adds credence to their wannabe-ing into the story-telling hall of fame.
Looking through Glass by Mukul Kesavan - one of the early torch-bearers of New Indian Fiction (I thorougly refuse to term some books Post-modern. They are an insult to the genre, inspite of them having elements of the said canon. I can see a few anti-post-modern eyebrows arching high and mighty and caustically! But, let's accept, most of you don't really know what defines a post-modern work of art or sculpture or film or architecture, for that matter!) - is a classic example. Oh no, Mukul never made it to any list of such roaring pantheistic award rolls. That is probably a saving grace. Else I would have hated the work as well. As a work per se, Looking through is quite engrossing. It starts with a free-lance-hobby-passion-whachumahcallit photographer on his way to dissolve the ashes of his grandmother (a promise he gave her on her deathbed) in Jamna or whichever river (it's been 11 years since I read it. Plan to read it again). His train stops on a bridge waiting for signal. He peeks through the window to see the resplendent colours the sun is making through the clouds, adventures to get down on the jetty of the track above the river (that little protuberance in which the local key-collectors stand in the middle of the night to do their duty as an express train passed by screaming at 2 a.m!), cranes himself to get a better pan through his zoom, gets the wrong in-step... the next thing he knows he has fallen down into the river below where dhobis are washing dirty linens. And the next other thing he knows, when he wakes up... it is 1940s... approaching Quit India Movement. Well, it is a joie-de-vivre... a delighfully incredibly inventive roller-coaster ride of a world that could have been. What if you are given a chance to be in a particular point of history and has the chance to redraft as you would like it to be! That's what it is. But the personal is just a branch-off point for Kesavan to launch on his readership how it probably really was - what the story untold was - when Quit India happened, when India was split... It is for this reason I much prefer Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel. There is really nothing personal. He proves that one doesn't need a personal reference point inside a narrative. But then again, take a work like Vikram Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain (written again somewhere during this decade and before period). Nothing very personal, but still a monkey's personal predicament, much like the playwright's in Karnad's Naga-Mandala, becomes a reference point for a flight into the realms of quasi-magical realism. Poor Borges, Poor Marquez, Poor Llosa... poor all those central and latin american practitioners of Magical Realism.
Coming back to Shalimar... how much longer Rushdie? I am not surprised that it didn't make it to the final Booker cut. What if the Chairman of the Booker Committee had written a glowing review of the work and heaped accolades on Rushdie just the other week? Probably he knew that Rushdie is worth a personal obligatory bouquet. But when it comes to duty, the personal don't go with the political. And that is the story of Shalimar the Clown as well as Rushdie vis-a-vis Booker. But am still wondering how Pi Patel made it to Booker. The reference point is even flimsier, its narrative more redundant and going in circles than Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea or Melville's Moby Dick (Life of Pi is probably 3 times bigger than Old Man and 1/3 shorter than Moby Dick in an 8 pt. serif type face). The story is flicked from folklore... (oh, we still remember the Colombian? who wanted to sue Martel for plagiarism, don't we?). The allegory is gleaned from the Testament... perhaps the only reason is there was no real competition. This year's Booker seems stacked that Coetzee and Rushdie had to take a break. But of course, after the odyssean Oscar and Belinda, Life of Pi is a welcome change for its terseness, if you can call it. Nevertheless, didn't the South African meerkat episode bore one to death? So trite, so articially conceitful ('conceit' in the canon of John Donne!)
Anyway... I shall post a more clinical write-up of Shalimar once am through.