East, West: The merging of cultures and imagery
East, West transcribes an interesting confluence of the two so-called dichotomous cultures. Subverting our fixed conventional notions about east and west, the short stories enamour us with an intricate portrayal of life in two time zones of the world. But these are fluid spaces and the threshold is imaginary. In the final story, the enlightened narrator asserts,
“…I choose neither of you, and both. Do you hear? I refuse to choose.”
It is this personal epiphany that Salman Rushdie gives expression to in
East, West, a ‘syllogistic’ work comprising nine thought-provoking short stories.
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Playing around with the reader’s curiousity, Rushdie begins with a mundane portrayal of east in the first three stories of this collection. What deceives the reader is the exotic flavour of a title like Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies. The story narrates the intelligent manoeuvrings of Miss Rehana, which frees her from the bondage of an arranged marriage with an immigrant to England. The authorities refuse to give the passport that she is apparently seeking but that is exactly what she intended to achieve by her “absolutely topsy-turvy” demeanour. The Free Radio shows the dangerously sad lure of fantasies over ordinary mortals like Ramani, the rickshaw driver. A religious metaphor pervades The Prophet’s Hair that lends to the moralistic tone of the story.
The perusal of this first section (‘thesis’) engages the reader in more ways than one. It makes us question the author’s delineation of the West in the subsequent section (‘antithesis’). Here Rushdie gives us a deliberate twist by setting the stories in imaginary countries of its classic tales and legends. After inhabiting the chance unromantic world of east, the reader now finds himself amidst fictitious characters and their idiosyncrasies.
In Yorick, Rushdie retells the story of Hamlet’s jester who, “by becoming a Fool-Actual, sacrifices the privileges of the Fool-Professional”. This was indeed the “dark heart of the matter” for ultimately Yorick’s execution was the “arras behind which Truth was hid” in this drama of murder and revenge. By dismissing it as a “cock-and-bull story”, the narrator shows how he has imbibed the professional skills of the Fool and prepares the reader for the climactic story, At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers. The symbolic title itself is a statement on the “uncompromising times” that we live in.
Depicting a superficial ‘slice of life’, Rushdie goes overboard occasionally. But the message of the satire is clear: “It is to the Auctioneers we go to establish the value of our pasts, of our futures, of our lives”. In this futuristic world true human worth is negated at the cost of the beneficial market economy. The thematic link to the digression on his incestuous affair is intriguing. One cannot ignore the tragicomic element when the narrator concludes,
“Thanks to the infinite bounty of the Auctioneers, any of us, cat, dog, man, woman, child, can be a blue-blood; can be – as we long to be; and as, cowering in our shelters, we fear we are not – somebody”.
The next story about Columbus’s amorous dreams of consummating his relationship with Queen Isabella of Spain closes this ‘fantastic’ innovative section on west.
The reader’s scepticism about east and west is resolved in the final synthesis. The complex interaction of characters from both the worlds has a remarkable verisimilitude. The Harmony of Spheres is an ironic account of the narrator’s fascination with a supposedly extraordinary English writer and an ardent worshipper of the occult, Eliot Crane. The “varieties of ‘forbidden knowledge’” in Eliot was for the narrator “another way of making a bridge between here-and-there, between my two othernesses, my double unbelonging. In that world of magic and power there seemed to exist the kind of fusion of worldviews, European Amerindian Oriental Levantine, in which I desperately wanted to believe.” But the actuality of this “mess-head” who committed suicide led to the “collapse of harmony, the demolition of the spheres of my heart”, as the narrator laments.
In Chekov and Zulu, the political theme will remind the readers of other engrossing works such as Midnight’s Children. Rushdie’s East, West comes a full circle with The Courter, a touching autobiographical story about Certainly-Mary a childhood nanny, and her love relationship with Mixed-Up, an old East European hall porter (she calls him ‘courter’ because she cannot pronounce ‘p).
The unity of East, West is thematic as well as structural. One tale leads to the other as the author explores the ideas of freedom, love, aspiration, choice, self-delusion, greed, falsity, hypocrisy, insularity and indifference in east and west. Rushdie’s
“story-telling powers are alive and well – his ingenuity, wit, charm and his restless talent for the unexpected”.
The characters reveal the literary skills of Rushdie as a “the great post-imperial Indian writer”. The narrator in The Courter says,
“But I, too, have ropes around my neck…pulling me this way and that, East and West, the nooses tightening, commanding, choose, choose.”
Rushdie transcended this stage. He leaves the readers of East, West meditating on the self-inflicted mental ‘ropes’ around their necks.
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