Art and the City: Salman Rushdie and his Artists

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Art and the City: Salman Rushdie and his Artists
  21  Art and the City: Salman Rushdie and His Artists Stuti Khanna  Tis article undertakes an investigation of the figure of the artist in the fiction of Salman Rushdie. Tat most of his novels pivot around such a figure is surely significant, as is the crucial importance of the city (of Bombay) in the formulation and development of their artistic credos and personae. 1  Te postcolonial urban chronotope in and of which Rushdie writes is emblematic of the deep fissures and contradictions marking a third-world terrain. A study of the artist-figure in such a set-ting, as, indeed, the narrative requirement for one, is deeply revelatory.  An analysis of the engagement between the artist and the city can, I argue, uncover the aporias of seizing upon the third-world city as artis-tic material, and prise open questions of representation, representability, individual subject-positions, and class-divides. Te modalities, aspira-tions, and limitations of these arguably self-reflexive engagements with the city can tell as much about the artist in question as about the city from which her/his art is inseparable. 2  o a large extent, the artist becomes the prism, as well as the means, through which the city is negotiated in Rushdie’s writings. As figures  whose vocation allows them the artistic license to enter, probe, and rep-resent the multifarious aspects of the life of the city, Rushdie’s artists evince in their persons as well as in their art many of the contradictions that constitute the terrain of the city. Focusing on the narrator/writer Saleem in  Midnight’s Children , the photographer Rai in Te Ground Beneath Her Feet  , and the painter Aurora in Te Moor’s Last Sigh , this article demonstrates how the modernist (self-)conception of the artist as a somehow de-classed, detached, free-floating figure is immediately and irrevocably shattered in the fractured, conflicted terrain of the postcolo-nial city. I propose that the figure of the artist is the indispensable means by which Rushdie can begin to map the vastly disparate geographies  22Stuti Khanna   within the postcolonial city of Bombay. Te strategic importance of this figure perhaps explains their appearance is all of Rushdie’s. Belonging, almost without exception, to the leisured upper-class crust of society, his artist-protagonists acquire, through the exercise of their art, an alibi for entering zones of the city that they would, under ordinary circum-stances, never have reason to encounter at first-hand. Rushdie’s narrators pride themselves on their ability to be all-inclusive and representative of the “teeming” multitudinousness of the postcolonial city. In more than one interview, Rushdie talks of his need for adequate narrative forms that would convey the plural, multiple possibilities that the city of Bombay generates. In order for him to be able to write comprehensively about the multi-faceted, multi-layered realities of a third world metrop-olis, it is necessary for his protagonists to have easy and, in terms of the plot, justifiable cause for entering into them. Tis requirement is, how-ever, a highly diffi cult one to meet for the sheltered, upper class, babalog   protagonists of Rushdie’s novels. Teir class position determines their day-to-day itineraries along fixed, narrowly defined paths which would, normally speaking, never take them to slums, working class neighbor-hoods, lower-end suburbs, or the “underworld”; areas that nevertheless constitute the contemporary third world city as much as do its civic in-stitutions like schools, offi ces, libraries and museums.It is here that the figure of the artist, along with the narrative strat-egy of magic realism, comes in handy. Te only reason why Aurora, and through her the reader, has access to the stifled lives of the strik-ing dock workers is because she goes looking for images from which to paint her “ chipkali  ,” 3  social-realist pictures. Te only reason Saleem finds even a temporary home in the magicians’ ghetto is because of his earlier encounter with Parvati through his “inner ear” radio. Tis magi-cal, “All-India Radio” is the only   means by which Saleem can come to know children outside the bounds of the elite Methwold’s Estate and Cathedral School. It is worth noting that Shiva, Saleem’s alter-ego, was also a regular presence in the same Methwold’s Estate, accompanying his father Wee Willie Winkie on his weekly singing-trips there. But even as a child, he was always perceived as an “other” and a threat; teased for “his surliness, his unstarched shorts, his knobbly knees,” Shiva’s response  23 Art and the City: Salman Rushdie and His Artists is shown to be violent in the extreme, as he “hurled a sharp flat stone,  with a cutting edge like a razor, and blinded his tormentor in the right eye” (128–29). Te image of the other returns to haunt Rushdie’s novels again and again. It is located in the unfamiliar, shrouded, threatening zones of the city where poverty dwells; threatening because it increas-ingly refuses to remain in its benighted corner and steps over into the daylight world of the protagonists. In Te Moor’s Last Sigh  this divide, as well as its precariousness, is brought out in the form of the binary de-piction of the “overworld” and the “underworld”; the division between the two on the surface only conceals the dense underground network of relations between them. Te artist’s negotiations with the “teeming” city of Bombay, then, in-variably and insistently take the form of a confrontation with the crowd. I use the term “confront” advisedly to highlight the sense of opposition and persecution that marks the artist’s relationship with the people of the city, a relationship that is visualized almost without exception in terms of a mass or crowd. While the crowded reality of the city in its expansiveness and inclusiveness is an inspiration to the artist, the same reality, when embodied in a collective mass of people, becomes fearful and threatening. While claiming to be representative of the multifarious elements of the city (and indeed the nation), and to derive artistic inspi-ration and sustenance from them, these artists are in fact in a conflict-ed, mistrustful, uncomfortable relationship with those very realities that beget and energize their enterprises. I propose that the metaphorical grid of fear and guilt is a useful tool in the analyzing the artist’s problem-atic relationship with the city; their privileged class-position within the glaring economic disparities of the postcolonial metropolis offer both the means as well as the limitations to the exercise of their art. Albeit functioning as all-important plot devices that enable the narrative to significantly widen its scope beyond the sheltered, upper-class, exclu-sive pockets of the city to which the narrator/artist-protagonists belong, these artists remain marked by their inherited class anxieties, in which both fear and guilt figure prominently. Teir negotiations with the city are marked by simultaneous feelings of complicity and distance, attrac-tion and revulsion, knowledge and ignorance, empathy and fear. Teir  24Stuti Khanna  attempts to create sweeping, all-encompassing art forms are inevitably stymied by the multiple, complex, and contradictory realities they seek to encompass. I argue that this impasse reveals as much about the artists in question as about the cities that they are inseparable from. I. Storytelling as Pickling  “‘Look at me,” he said before he killed himself, ‘I wanted to be a miniaturist and I’ve got elephantiasis instead!’” (Rushdie  Midnight 48) Te character and career of Uncle Hanif in  Midnight’s Children  offers a useful point of entry into the discussion of the artist, particularly with regard to Saleem, the narrator of the novel. Despising the “myth-life of India,” Hanif as the “high-priest of reality” instead writes the story of “the Ordinary Life of a Pickle Factory,” with “long scenes describing the formation of a trade union” and “detailed descriptions of the pickling process” (242–44). Needless to say, his career as a film script writer is doomed, and he eventually commits suicide. Interestingly, the novel also makes a passing reference to another   artist quoted in the epigraph above,  whose attempt to “get the whole of life into his art” is equally doomed and also ends in suicide (48). Te two artistic projects are the obverse of one another: Hanif’s minute, microscopic focus is at the opposite extreme from the expansive, all-encompassing drive of the anonymous artist. Both, however, end in failure. It is not a big leap from the artist  with elephantiasis to Saleem the “pickler” of reality; even Saleem suspects he is the other’s alter ego. 4  Te narrative of  Midnight’s Children  self-re-flexively holds up two alternative modes of storytelling, the narrowly mimetic realist and the inclusive, fabulous mode. It goes on to stolidly reject the former for being dull, insipid, and pedantic, and distinctly en-dorses the latter in its own form and structure. However, Saleem’s fate is not very different from Hanif’s. Saleem does not, admittedly, commit suicide as a failed artist, but the novel does end in his defeat and anni-hilation. I argue that Saleem’s defeat and annihilation can be adequate-ly understood only within the context of his “urge to encapsulate the  whole of reality” (75). Further, I argue that in his case, “the whole of re-  25 Art and the City: Salman Rushdie and His Artists ality” is understood in terms of the city of Bombay—the over-crowded, bursting-at-the-seams city of Bombay. 5  Tis is what constitutes the art-ist’s paradox: the city’s teeming realities are a vital artistic resource, at the same time as they threaten to crush the artist underfoot. From the very outset, an atmosphere of anxiety and fear accompanies Saleem’s act of writing. He articulates a sense of urgency and persecu-tion, though the exact cause behind this sense is left unclear. In Saleem’s  words:I must work fast, faster than Scheherazade, if I am to end up meaning—yes, meaning—something. I admit it: above all things, I fear absurdity. And there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumours, so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane! (9)Te invocation of Scheherazade and the thousand and one tales of the  Arabian Nights  , the indiscriminate leveling of “events” with “miracles” and “rumours,” clearly set the stage for an epic fabulist mode of narra-tion, which the novel certainly lives up to. Te sense of dread that ac-companies this confession, however, remains undefined. Saleem goes on to claim that he is literally “falling apart” and will soon dissolve into nothingness, which is why he has “resolved to confide in paper, before [he] forget[s]” (37). Te exact cause of this anxiety is never clear. What is  worth mentioning, however, is that the terms in which this anxiety is ex-pressed are the very same as those defining the experience of the crowd-ed city. Te “multitudes [of stories] jostling and shoving” inside Saleem are comparable to the teeming multitudes of city-crowds, the “people people people” that make up the “rainbow riot of the city” (9, 297). It is as if the book is the loose baggy monster it is because it is a book about the city of Bombay. 6  Te attempt to “encapsulate the whole of real-ity” is invariably troped as the experience of the vital, pulsating crowd in Bombay; an experience that, to an individual, particularly from the upper class, can be acutely hard-hitting and threatening. Te image of the crowd, then, imparts to the narrative   both its energy as well as its scope. It also concurrently arouses in the narrator a sense
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