A Fight against realism

A study of Salman Rushdie's Narrative technique in his select novels

Doctoral Thesis / Dissertation, 2005

110 Pages, Grade: A



Salman Rushdie (born Ahmed Salman Rushdie on June 19, 1947, in Bombay, India) is an Indian-born British essayist and author of fiction, most of which is set on the Indian subcontinent. He grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai) attended Rugby School, Warwickshire, then King’s College, Cambridge in England. Following an advertising career with Ayer Barker, he became a full-time writer. His narrative style, blending myth and fantasy with real life, has been described as connected with magic realism.

His writing career began with Grimus, a fantastic tale, part-science fiction. His next novel, Midnight’s Children, however, catapulted him to literary fame and is often considered his best work to date. It also significantly shaped the course Indian writing in English was to follow over the next decade. This work later awarded the ‘Booker of Bookers’ prize in 1993 after being selected as the best novel to be awarded the Booker Prize in its 25 years.

Midnight’s Children is a 1981 novel by Salman Rushdie. It centers on the author’s native India and was acclaimed as a major milestone in Indian writing. Midnight’s Children is an allegory for the events in India after independence in 1947. The protagonist and narrator of the story is Saleem Sinai, a telepath with a nasal defect, who is born at the exact time that India became independent. Saleem Sinai’s life then parallels the changing fortunes of the country after independence. The novel is also an expression of the author’s own childhood, his affection for the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) of those times, and the tumultuous variety of the Indian Subcontinent.

The technique of magical realism finds liberal expression through out the novel and in fact, is crucial to constructing the parallel to the country’s history. It has, therefore, been compared to the original exponent of magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel is also recognized for its remarkably flexible and innovative use of the English language, with a liberal mix of native Indian languages, this being a departure from conventional Indian English writing. After the success of Midnight’s Children, Rushdie wrote a short novel, Shame, where he depicts the political turmoil in Pakistan by basing his characters on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Both these works are characterized by, apart from the style of magic realism, the immigrant outlook of which Rushdie is so very conscious.

Rushdie is also highly influenced by modern literature. Midnight’s Children borrows themes from Gunter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum, which Rushdie claims inspired him to begin writing. The Satanic Verses is also clearly influenced by Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic Russian novel The Master Margarita. India and Pakistan were the themes, respectively, of Midnight’s Children and Shame. In his later works, Rushdie turned towards the Western world with The Moor’s Last Sigh, exploring commercial and cultural links between India and Iberia Peninsula. Midnight’s Children recieves acclodes for being Rushdie’s best, most flowing and inspiring work. His newest book, Shalimar the clown was released in September 2005. Rushdie received many other awards for his writings including the European Union’s Aristeion Prize for Literature. He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. Rushdie is the President of PEN American Center. Born on 19 June 1947, two months before India, the country of his birth, achieved her independence from British Rule, Salman Rushdie is, and yet is not quite, one of India’s Midnight’s Children. Jawaharlal Nehru, gave voice to the historical moment when he evoked the “tryst India had made with destiny” which would be “redeemed.[…] At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps,” allowing India to “awake to life and freedom.” Anglophone Indian Literature had to wait another thirty-four years for a writer such as Salman Rushdie to write Midnight’s Children (1981), a novel with which Rushdie was to make his stupendous breakthrough as an international writer.

Based in England at the time of writing Midnight’s Children, Rushdie, after having paid Bombay a visit, chose to locate his story in the city of his birth. Born into a liberally orthodox Muslim family of wealthy parents, Rushdie grew up in a Bombay marked by cosmopolitism and a metropolitan secularism. His father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, had to take up business after a career in law Negin Butt, Rushdie’s Mother, a school teacher by profession, agreed to send her son to Bombay’s prominent Cathedral and John Connon School, run by missionaries, where he was inducted into the anglophone Indian educational system. This system’s aim had been formulated over two hundreds years ago by Thomas Babington Macaulay, namely to “create a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” as a consequence of this policy, Englih as medium of instruction was established in Indian Schools. Rhymes from Mother Goose, the adventures of Robin Hood, the stylistic excellence of king James Bible, and the world of English classics, became the study material of the upper and middle classes. With time, English and the study there of was to achieve a hegemonic status in India which for outdid Macaulay’s wildest expectations.

At Rushdie’s home, however, Urdu, a language forbidden as Medium of communication in school, continued to be a spoken alongside English, and it was in these two languages that Salman and his three sisters received their parents’ richest legacy to their children: a fund of stories to fuel their imagination. A dichotomizing linguistic experience such as this one has, according to some other anglophone Indian novelists, led to fissures in their identities as writers.

In contrast, Rushdie, for whom The Kathasaritsagar, (The Mahabarata), The Arabian Nights are as much part of his intellectual baggage as works in the Western Canon (notably Shakespeare, Swift, Sterne, Blake, Dicknes), has been among the most outspoken champions of the idea of hybridity, particularly under diasporian conditions. That re-location should be a gain worth celebrating rather than a loss to be constantly bemoaned, is an opinion much in evidence in Rushdie’s writing, and his reading of one of his favourite films, The Wizard of Oz (1992), demonstrates this most refreshingly: “[The Song] ‘Over the Rainbow’ is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants, all those who go in search of the place where ‘the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true’. It is celebration of Escape, a grand paean to the Uprooted Self, a hymn – the hymn – to Elsewhere.”

Midnight’s Children occupies a unique position in a anglophone Indian literature in being regarded as a towering landmark. Among others, Anita Desai, one of the more prominent members of the older generation of these writers, has openly stated that the public of this novel has forever changed the course of what had hitherto been a social realist tradition of fiction by writers such as Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, or herself. Casting his unreliable first-person narrator, Saleem Sinai, in the mould of the traditional Indian story-teller, Rushdie spins out, through this protagnist, who considers himself “handcuffed to history,” the story of Nehru’s “Midnight’s Children.” Initially, there were a thousand and one highly – gifted Children, who could telepathically communicate with each other using Saleem as their “medium.” At the close of the novel, thirty years later, only 581 of them have survived the hounding, oppression, and enforced sterilization carried out by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency government. The Children have been betrayed by one of their own, Shiva; Saleem’s double, and rival in live. Shiva fathers Aadam, the silent child, who, along with his peers will perhaps, Saleem suggests to his interlocutor Padma, be able to change the course of the sub-continent’s hitherto disastrous history. Thus, from the aftermath of the Partition of India, to the atrocities of the Indo-Pakistani war in 1977, and finally, the Emergency itself, the novel focuses on recent Indian history, and imaginatively transforms it into a tale which transports the reader, on a flying carpet borrowed from The Arabian Nights, to the world of magic realism.

Rushdie’s novels manifest a highly creative use of English as an international, rather than a native, language. Rushdie’s Indian English, in being innocent of regional difference, social class, religious affiliation, and gender membership, is an unspecified cosmopolitan hybrid. The technique of inserting the fantastic into an otherwise realistic narrative has been popularized by the realismo magico works of Latin and South American novelists, foremost among them Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. Along with their works, Rushdie has often cited Gunter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel among the models which have influenced him.

“Multicoloured generations” form the focus of Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), which can be regarded as the last of the “Post-Midnight” novels to date. Here, too, the focus is on Indian history, again magically reinterpreted. Rushdie uses the life stories of the fictive da Gama and Zogoiby families as prisms for refracting the actual political history of the Portuguese Colonizers in India, dating from Vasco da Gama’s arrival in Kozikhode in 1498, and the murky beginnings of the Sephardic Jews who came to Kerela from Jerusalem in 72 ACE.

The Moor’s Last Sigh, a novel by Rushdie, is based in Bombay, India. It is centred around the concept of conflicting interests and their resolution according to the priorities of individuals. Also colouring everything in the novel is this sense of echoing loneliness that seems to be a part of many of Rushdie’s works. About post-independence India, the book speaks about the changes occuring in Indian Society. The book won the Whitbread prize for ‘Best novel’ in 1995.

Salman Rushdie, like modern India itself, was born in 1947. It is this coincidence, and Rushdie’s self consciousness thereof, which is at the core of 1980’s Midnight’s Children. It was an epic fairy-tale of magic forests and bony-kneed telepaths, draped over the palimpsest of India’s 20th century turmoil.

The Moor’s Last Sigh “proves that Rushdie is one of the most brilliant magicians of the English language writing now,” Orhan Pamuk commented. Many critics also pointed to the author’s way of delivering biting criticism veiled in metaphor or stories with the story, Rushdie trademarks again in evidence in the Moor’s Last Sigh, as signs that he has rebounded from his ordeal.

Throughout the story Rushdie relates the history of the family as far back as explorer Vasco da Gama, discoverer of India, and draws parallels with the family’s circumstances in modern time. The “Moor’s Last Sigh” of the title has a number of explanations, one being that it is the title of a portrait of Moraes, the last his mother painted before her death.

Most critics described the story as extremely complex, filled with symbolism, elements of magic realism,and layer upom layer of meaning. In attempting to name one main theme, however, most found it to the history of India upto the present day mirrored by the history of one powerful, fictious family. James Bowman described The Moor’s Last Sigh as “a story of enormous complexity about the rise and fall of a part-Jewish, part-Christian dynasty of Indian merchant from the early years of this century down to the present.” Several critics analyzed The Moor’s Last Sigh for signs of the fatwa’s effect on Rushdie’s writing style or ability, painting to passages in the new book that seem to reveal the author’s state of mind throughout his exile.

The Moor of the title refers both to the protogonist, Moraes Zogoiby, as well as to the last Muslim ruler of southern Spain, Sultan Abd Allah Mohamed XI, forced to flee to exile in north Africa in 1492 by the Reconquista. Portuguese, Jewish and Moorish history are conjoined in the fantastical figure of Moraes, son of Aurora da Gama and Abraham Zogoiby, possessor of a deformed hand, later trained to become the “Hammer”, who ages to double the speed customary to mankind.

The “last sigh” takes its echo from more than one source as well. On looking back for a last time at his home el-Andalus, the Alhambra palace in Granada, the last Khalif of Cordoba is reported to have given a famous “Last Sigh.” Alhambra is the place where Moraes will sigh his last, too. Yet another narrative strand, reminiscent of the crafted conflation of past and contemporary events in The Satanic Verses, deals with the misdeeds of Bombay’s Hindu fundamentalist Bal Thackeray, who founded the militant anti-Muslim Shiv Sena party in 1967. The “last sigh”, therefore, is also Rushdie’s own on witnessing India’s fall into the anarchy of Hindu fundamentalism in ways that are strangely reminiscent of collapse of the Andalusian kingdom which had been noted for its religious tolerance. The Moor’s Last Sigh won the EU’s Aristeion Prize for Literature.

Over the past several years, Salman Rushdie has become such a symbolic figure that is easy to lose sight of the most important fact about him. He is really one of the world’s great writers. Salman Rushdie can be said fairly uncontroversially - - one of the most important English-language novelists currently writing. He has mythologized all our lives, and done so in the area of multiculturalism and postmodernism. This is a remarkable achievement; and of course cannot be seperated, in some important respects, from his own social boundary transgressions - - he is the product of both a divided India and the British Public School system: Gandhi and Tom Brown’s School Days; of Islam and the Booker Prize. Autobiography however is not the whole story - - Rushdie has an extraordinarily bold imagination, in relation to both subject matter and plot and to language.

“Society is part of the paradigm of narrativity,” says Debord. However, the primary theme of the works of Rushdie is the stasis, and thus the paradigm, of textual sexual identity. An abundance of narratives concerning cultural socialism may be found. If one examines subematic theory, one is faced with a choice: either accept cultural socialism or conclude that sexuality is used to entrench hierarchy. Therefore, the premise of cultural narrative states that consciousness has significance, given that narrativity is distinct from sexuality. The example of cultural socialism intrinsic to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is also evident in Satanic Verses.

However, Derrida uses the term ‘cultural narrative’ to denote the role of the poets as observer. Bataille suggests the use of cultural socialism to challenge outmoded perceptions of sexual identity. Therefore, Pickett holds that we have to choose between socialist realism and Marxist capitalism. Several discourses concerning not appropriation, but postappropriation exist.

In the works of Rushdie, a predominant concept is the distinction between within and without. It could be said that if cultural socialism holds, we have to choose between perdeconstructivist narrative and dialectic libertarianism. The characteristic theme of Hanfkopf’s model of cultural socialism is the common ground between class and narrativity. In a sense, the masculine/ feminine distinction depicted in Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet emerges again in Satanic Verses, although in more mythopoetical sense. The primary theme of the works of Rushdie is the rubicon, and some would say the fatal flow, of capitalist sexual identity. It could be said that in The Moor’s Last Sigh, Rushdie reiterates cultural narrative; in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, however, he analyses Cultural Socialism. Sartre promotes the use of cultural narrative to read and analyse consciousness.


Rushdie’s Novel Midnight’s Children (1981), was awarded both the Booker McConnell Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Midnight’s Children chronicles the history of India, beginning in 1947 when India became independent from British rule. The protagonist, Saleem Sinai, one of a thousand and one babies born during the first hour of India’s independence is presented as a man in his early thirties who has aged prematurely and become impotent. The novel has been widely read as an allegory, with Saleem and the other thousand babies, many of whom died at birth, representing the hopes and aspirations as well as the frustrating realities of independent India.

Midnight’s Children is rich in allusions to Indian history, literature, and mythology. For this and other reasons, the novel is widely viewed as a stylistic tour de force. Rushdie introduces fantastic and comically absurd events in socially realistic settings, a technique known as “magic realism”. Rushdie’s use of magic realism and his exuberant prose, which features extensive use of symbolism and hyperbole, led many critics to compare his style with that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Critics also impressed with the multiple narrative perspectives employed by Rushdie to expand the scope of Midnight’s Children. Several critics have placed Rushdie among the great chronicles of India’s political, social, and cultural history.

It is obvious that Salman Rushdie uses narrative technique in Midnight’s Children in order to place his story outside the euro-centric tradition of literature, narrative and history. The theory of history presented in Midnight’s Children attempts not to replace the centre in this traditional binary of centre and margin, but rather to deconstruct this binary in order to gain access to history and literature.

Salman Rushdie tries to break the binary by using a very different kind of narrative, a mixture of an oral narrative style with all the colloquialisms typical of that style, on the one hand, and a very formal style typical of written language on the other. In addition to this ‘Englishes’ like Pidgin English are used. These elements serve to place the novel outside the Western tradition, even though it uses a language, English, and a format, the novel, which are central to Western literary canon.

This dissertation will analyse the style and language, characterisation, metaphor, magic realism genre of the novel to show how Rushdie accomplishes all this. It is proposed to begin with a linguistic and stylistic analysis of the first paragraph of the book inorder to show how Rushdie mixes different kinds of style and language to create a narrative very different from traditional Western books. From the beginning Rushdie places the narrative within the oral tradition by constantly arguing with himself about how to tell the story. He uses typical colloquialisms e.g.’No, that won’t do’, ‘Well then’, ending a sentence with ‘as a matter of fact’ and beginning another with ‘and’; one sentence is never completed, again typical of the colloquial style: ‘it’s important to be more […]’ (MC 9). He also, in the very first line, uses the all familiar ‘once upon a time’, which epitomises the oral tradition of folk-tales, yet he immediately opposes this tradition by giving us the exact date and time of the action.

Rushdie even draws a lot of attention to this by constantly elaborating on the details, again in a colloquial manner e.g. ‘Oh, spell it out, spell it out, spell it out’ (MC 9). This seemingly colloquial style, like the folk-tale allusion, is abandoned without any warning; he suddenly starts to use a very formal style typical of written language, e.g. ‘mere trifle’, ‘befallen’, ‘benighted moment’ (MC 9). The language sometimes becomes almost solemn, e.g. ‘embroiled in Fate’; (MC 9) his talk about prophecies and destiny help to emphasise this solemn style. The formal style is seen in the syntax as well, e.g. in the use of a passive construction, ‘had befallen’, which is typical of formal written language. He also uses a sustained metaphor where the time of his birth becomes the ‘occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks’ (MC 9) which have ‘handcuffed’ and ‘chained’ him to history and his country; this sustained metaphor is, of course, not typical of everyday language, but rather of an almost lyrical written language; i.e. a completely different in style from the first part of the paragraph.

But the style, too, is abandoned in the very last sentence of the paragraph, stating in a very down-to-earth manner and without any of the formal styllistic and syntactic features: ‘And I couldn’t even wipe my own nose at the time (MC 9). This last sentence cements the fact that in this book there is no fixed style or type of syntax; it changes constantly.

Even the language changes, sometimes moving into Pidgin English. All this supports the point that Rushdie is constantly trying to place himself outside the master discourse of the West. It could be said, and has been said, by some post-colonial authors and critics, that English, as the language of the colonizer, cannot be used to represent the problems of the colonized. However, for Rushdie there really is no alternative; India has around 15 major languages and writing in any of these would immediately give the narrator as a metaphor for India, which is a major point in the novel. Instead of using a language of the colonized Rushdie appropriates the English language to his own purpose by using the stylistic and linguistic effects mentioned above.

Again returning to the first lines of the novel, another point to be made about them is that they are repeated at several times throughout the book, though they are used in different contexts (MC 294). This is a way to break up the usual linear structure of narrative of the Western canon and it is a technique which is used throughout the book; events are constantly being foreshadowed, and previous (in the temporal sense) events and characters affect present events and characters without any apparent sign of causuality. Examples of the first pervade the book, though one of the first is when the brandy bottle of the boatman Tai becomes a foreshadowing of Saleem’s father’s drinking (MC 17).

A good example of the latter is that the perforated sheet through which Saleem’s grandfather Aadam Aziz is forced to love his wife ‘dooms’ Mumtaz to her attempt to learn to love her husband, Ahmed, part by part and forces Saleem to see his wife in fragments (MC 107). The element of linearity, which is, after all, the main temporal feature of the narrative is credited to Saleem’s wife, Padma, ‘bullying me (Saleem) back into the world of linear narrative, the universe of what-happened-next’ (MC 38); she stops him his ‘attempts to put the cart before the bullock’ (MC 338).

Thus the linearity of the narrative is not the natural mode of narrative for Saleem; it must be forced upon him by his wife. All of these create a sense of a circular or spiral time which runs along side the traditional linear time, constantly crossing and affecting the latter. Thus, the language, narrative style and technique all place the novel outside almost anything written in Europe before the post-modern period, and thus creates a space for a very different voice in literature, clearly distinct from the Western canon. This inspite of the fact that it uses elements from the Western tradition, e. g. the first person narrator, and the form of a memoir or a diary.

Rushdie’s prose style alone shows both the effort involved and the strains inherent in such a task. The penultimate paragraph of the book, for instance, from ‘I will have train ticket’s to the end, foresees the remainder of Padma and Saleem’s marriage day, recapitulates for the last time the preceding events of the story, and closes with the ‘fission of Saleem […] bones splitting breaking […] bag of bones falling down down down’ as Shiva and the window close in on him from either side, all forty-five lines of print without a period (MC 462-- 3). Earlier and similar passages capture ‘the confusion inside (Saleem’s) head’ when the first discoverers his telepathic powers (MC 170 - - 1), the conflicting points of view expressed at a typical session of the Midnight’s Children’s Conference (MCC) in the ‘parliament of Saleem’s brain’ (MC 228), and the tension-filled thirteen days of Parvati’s labour and the Widow’s refusal to resign (MC 417 - - 19). But much the most complex is the paragraph devoted to the bomb explosion that kills Saleem’s family (MC 342 - - 3). A change from past to present tense, the more striking for occuring midway through a single sentence, marks the crucial turning point of Saleem’s amnesia. And no other passage in the book incorporates so much important on going action, so detailed a recital of past events, and such a wealth of implication for the future, all interwoven within a single syntactic unit. All such instances of recapitulation and foreshasowing, moreover, considered singly and collectively, are among Rushdie’s most frequently used and effective devices for creating unity out of a diversity that often verges on chaos.

In effect, therefore, Rushdie is creating, stylistically, the coherence which he is simultaneously acknowledging, stylistically, may be unattainable. Purely syntactic or typographical expediments can be seen as performing similar functions. More interestingly, there is his use of the colon to call attention to a grouping of items requiring emphasis. ‘What leaked in to me from Aadam Aziz: a certain vulnerability to women, but also its cause, the hole at the centre of himself caused by his (which is also my ) failure to believe or disbelieve in God. And something else as well – something which, at the age of eleven, I saw before anyone else noticed. My grandfather had begun to crack’ (MC 275).

Thus all syntactic efforts to hold things together also imply, by their very presence and nature, the centrifugal force of the diversity that makes them necessary, as do the equally frequent foreshadowings and recapitulations. And the same applies to imagery and events implying fragmentation and reassembly. Aadam Aziz must put together his bride-to-be from sucessive circular instalments glimpsed through a hole seven inches in diameter. Amina sets about loving her husband by concentrating her affection seperately and successively on ‘every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioural’ (MC 68). Ahmed dreams of reassembling ‘the Quran in accurately chronological order’ (MC 82). And Lifafa Das strives desperately to achieve universality by adding more and more disconnected pictures to his peep-show. (MC 75 - - 6).

More important than any of the factors hitherto considered, however, is Saleem Sinai himself. His role as a narrator will be considered later. But his multiple personality and the frequently asserted metaphoric equivalence of his life story to that of India constitute, surely, the novel’s most extraordinary bid for unity. He is, in the first place, the biological son of William Methwold and Vanita, the unwittingly adopted son of Ahmed and Amina, and the subsequently presumed son of Wee Willie Winkie and Vanita - - i.e. the joint product (as in India) of Hindu, Muslim and English influences.


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A Fight against realism
A study of Salman Rushdie's Narrative technique in his select novels
English Literature
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A complete study of Salman Rushdie's Narrative technique in his select novels.
fight, salman, rushdie, narrative
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Professor Nancy Prasanna Joseph (Author), 2005, A Fight against realism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/230567


  • guest on 8/27/2013

    feeling so proud mam....... gr8 work....

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