I returned from San Andres a week ago, turned on CNN to catch up with the democratic race in the US and found myself tuned into a fast-paced international current affairs program hosted by Fareed Zakaria. For some reason this filled me with immense pride, especially as the show turned out to be sharp, humorous and acutely insightful—It’s called GPS, Global Public Square, and airs on Sunday at noon in these parts—refreshingly different from most such programs on the channel. What a relief too to finally have someone on American TV who can pronounce ‘Mohammed’ and ‘Muslim’ the right way.
Described as “the best in the world at boiling down – without dumbing down – complex issues” Bombay-born Zakaria was formerly managing editor of Foreign Affairs and is currently editor of Newsweek International. In GPS Zakaria manages to come across as a brain without being nerdy and displays a certain hipness when he tosses off statements such as “…and because history is cool” when introducing a videoclip on CNN’s humble beginnings however many years ago.
I can just hear my left-wing friends chiding me for bigging up a ‘”rightwinger” (which Zakaria is perceived to be) but hey if there’s one lesson we should have learnt from the last few years it is that its time we started listening to each other, no matter what party, faction, sect, subcaste or global group we align ourselves with. No one side has the privileged vantage point or all the answers and with a book called The Post-American World how could what Zakaria has to say be irrelevant? He speaks for many of us whose views thus far have been inaudible and invisible in international fora.
If Zakaria is the most recent example of a subcontinental/Asian/person from the global South to gain international visibility in a highly competitive field, Salman Rushdie–also Bombay-born–was perhaps the first, in the Anglophone world at any rate. So my curiousity was piqued when I read a harsh review of Rushdie’s latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, in the New York Times. The reviewer, an obscure American writer named David Gates, freely admitted to being afflicted by a ‘philistine cussedness’ saying “I’m probably not Rushdie’s target audience: in literature, at least, I find the marvelous tedious, and the tedious — as rendered by a Beckett or a Raymond Carver or even a Kafka — marvelous.”
Perhaps the New York Times should have asked someone more competent to review Enchantress. Or at least someone with a nodding acquaintance of and sympathy for the literary mode of magical realism. The latter does little for my gladbag either but Gates seems to use the review as an opportunity to take the mickey out of a great writer, dismissing Rushdie as a “multicultural dream weaver” whose fiction “revels in writerly self-congratulation”.
I’m hardly a great Rushdie fan myself (I don’t consider people’s sacred beliefs to be fair game for caricature; cows are sacred in my opinion and should be handled with care and respect even when they’re obstructing traffic) but Gates’ hostility moved me to read the first chapter of Enchantress the NYT made available along with the review. What, i wondered, was Gates fussing like a walrus with a sore tusk about? For what it’s worth I’ve decided on the basis of the first chapter to buy this book though I haven’t read any of Rushdie’s novels since the first three. So thanks Mr. Gates for inadvertently leading me to rediscover why Salman Rushdie has the reputation he has. Let’s hope you get there someday.
In the meantime here are two interesting quotes by the author of Midnight’s Children. As Rushdie poignantly observed in another recent NYT article on him (Now He’s Only Hunted by Cameras, May 25, 2008):
“There’s a writing self which is not quite your ordinary social self and which you don’t really have access to except at the moment when you’re writing, and certainly in my view, I think of that as my best self,” he said. “To be able to be that person feels good; it feels better than anything else.”
And this detail from the first chapter of Enchantress sheds light on the use of the word ‘coolie’ in the Indian context where it is often a synonym for ‘porter’:
“Turbaned coolies in red shirts and dhotis ran ceaselessly hither and yon with bundles of improbable size and weight upon their heads.”
As discussed at length in an earlier post the term ‘coolie’ is as overloaded and burdened as the porters signified by it who often carry baggage two or three times their weight at Indian railway stations.
There is much else to talk about; San Andres was a trip and a half and I didn’t get to blog much about Calabash, which was outstanding this year. Nicholas Laughlin gives a good account of it though in his UK Guardian blog “The distraction of Walcott vs Naipaul“. Suffice it to say for now that I think the Calabash team should invite Salman Rushdie to Treasure Beach next May. More on San Andres and the Raizales in a few days.