"Damme, This is the Oriental Scene For You!"--Rushdie's Defense of Contemporary Indo-Anglian Fiction

Benjamin Graves '98, UTRA Fellow 1997

In the 1997 Special Fiction Issue of The New Yorker (June 23 &30)--an issue dedicated to Indian fiction in anticipation of the country's 50 year anniversary of independence this August--exiled Indian novelist Salman Rushdie contributes a new short piece entitled "The Firebird's Nest" as well as an enthusiastic introduction to many of India's emerging novelists. In this introductory article, "Damme, This is the Oriental Scene For You!", Rushdie foregrounds the unique linguistic heterogeneity that shapes the literature, popular media, and everyday conversations of postliberation India--a country in which approximately eighteen "vernacular" languages combine with English to produce what Rushdie terms a "polymorphous" or "multiform" melange of competing languages and regional dialects.

His own Midnight's Children (1981) having perhaps paved the way for much of today's Indian fiction written in English, Rushdie is especially concerned with the controversy surrounding "Indo-Anglian" literature. Many critics, according to Rushdie, suggest that Indian literature written in English endangers India's recourse to political autonomy, agency, and independence because it emphasizes the legacies of British Imperialism that continue to circumscribe Indian cultural productions within the limits of Western aesthetic criteria. English, in other words, remains the "language of the oppressor" (or, in Rushdie's phrase, a "postcolonial anomaly") that renders India's native languages comparatively subordinate, marginal, and primitive. And yet, as Salman Rushdie argues in the passage below, postliberation Indian literature is inconceivable without the pathbreaking contributions made by writers using the English language:

The prose writing--both fiction and nonfiction--created in this period [the fifty years of independence] by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen "recognized" languages of India, the so-called "vernacular languages," during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, "Indo-Anglian" literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. The True Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind. (50)

Rushdie's central charge here is that Indian writers willing to use English do not concede to the exigencies of British imperialism (or the Western canon generally) but rather intervene into and disrupt its premises by challenging its linguistic assumptions--by revising, in other words, what it means to speak "English" in the first place. "Indo-Anglian" literature carries the potential to re-appropriate and subvert the idealized authority within what Homi K. Bhabha calls the "English Book." Not only is English more accessible across a transnational division of labor (allowing authors such as Rushdie himself to be published), but it also establishes a "dialectic" relationship between East and West (or Third World and First, for that matter), that may eventually remove international relations from political antagonism, and moreover, from ethnocentric misunderstandings of Eastern cultural traditions and belief structures:

English is the most powerful medium of communication in the world. Should we not, then, rejoice at these artists' mastery of it, and at their growing influence? To criticize writers for their success in "breaking out" is no more than parochialism (and parochialism is perhaps the main vice of the vernacular literatures). One important dimension of literature is that it is a means of holding a conversation within the world. These writers are insuring that India--or, rather, Indian voices (for they are too good to fall into the trap of writing nationalistically)--will henceforth be confident, indispensable participants in that literary conversation. (54-56)

How might Rushdie's comments on India's linguistic hybridity bear upon the diction of his wide cast of characters in Midnight's Children? Consider, for instance, how Rushdie's deft negotiation of English and vernacular languages ("Hinglish," as Rushdie has described it) results often in the emergence of new words altogether, and how these neologisms may shape the novel's broader "surrealistic" narrativity. How might Rushdie's understanding of the emerging "Indo-Anglian" tradition differ from Homi K. Bhabha's notion of "hybridity" and imperial "ambivalence"?

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV