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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Same, Only Different

In today’s Hindustan Times, Namita Bhandare puts forth a seemingly interesting and provocative argument: that, despite being quite distinct in their attitudes in the past, Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul now “have turned into mirror images of each other”.

Unfortunately, having announced this thesis, she conveniently twists facts around to support it. (Procrustean beds, anyone?)

To begin with, she writes that both authors are now “better known for their non-fiction and their political views than for their novels”. Well, Rushdie has always been and still is a novelist first and foremost, having written ten novels and one collection of short stories so far (His non-fiction so far amounts to one book on travels in Nicaragua, one slim work of film criticism and two volumes of collected journalism, essays and reviews.) In sharp contrast, Sir Vidia, has displayed an active interest in non-fiction from almost the beginning of his writing career, with the publication of The Middle Passage in 1962, followed, of course, by others such as The Loss of El Dorado and Beyond Belief (to name but a few).

As for the “political views” that both are allegedly known for nowadays: in Rushdie’s case, it is a marked and natural antipathy to fundamentalist Islam, dating from 1984’s fatwa, and in the case of Naipaul, his contempt for “mimic men” too has been clear from almost the beginning. No convergence or even contemporaneity here, either.

Ms Bhandare then devotes a paragraph to the pairs’ social lives, asserting that their current wives have made them darlings of the “social circuit” – something so irrelevant and generalized that it ought to be ignored here.

Another point of similarity, according to her is that both writers are unable to move beyond “ancestral roots” in their work. That this is a statement you could make about almost any writer (from Dickens to Hardy to Caryl Philips to Peter Carey) seems to escape her completely; it also betrays a lack of understanding of the wellsprings of inspiration.

Bhandare’s following two points revolve around the way they view the world. She says, for instance, that Naipaul is “is now even more of a fan (of India) than the young Rushdie” She’d be well advised to read his comments on India at the Brussels India Festival in November last year – not entirely critical of modern India, yes, but by no means the utterances of “a fan”.

She goes on to cluck her tongue over the fact that Rushdie “failed to condemn the invasion of Iraq”. Presumably, she’s referring to the author’s Washington Post article in November 2002 which made the case for a regime change primarily because of the “prolonged suffering of the Iraqi people” while remaining “unconvinced by President Bush's Iraqi grand design”. (In 2004, speaking of American response to the invasion, Rushdie said: “President Bush did not tell the truth to the United Nations. Things in Iraq are not getting better, they are getting worse…I don’t know why there isn’t more outrage over here.”) Perhaps all of this is too mild-mannered for Bhandare. No thumping of shoes on tables, eh?

Yet another point of startling similarity between Rushdie and Naipaul, according to the article, is that the latter has been prescient about Islamic extremism, and that the former has been uncompromising in his condemnation of it. By that yardstick, we can even assert that there’s a startling similarity between Don deLillo and Stephen King.

Finally, she says, Naipaul is a “curmudgeon” and Rushdie is “highly strung”. (Tch: don’t they know that they owe it to their readers and reporters to be sweet-tempered and affable at all times?) She chides Rushdie for informing journalists at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival that he would not entertain political questions. Leaving aside the fact that this isn’t entirely an invalid response to make during a literature festival, how does it make him similar to Naipaul?

All of this is capped by an unexpected penultimate paragraph that praises the literary merits of both to the skies. Not exactly breaking news, that.

Half-truths and veiled biases: no way to take up half a page in a newspaper.


  • Remind me to tell you (in private, of course) about some of the things Rushdie said about Indian journalists at his press conference/discussion. Amit's blogged some of it, but the whole story is a lot juicier...

    By Blogger Jabberwock, at 10:40 PM  

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