Why would anyone want to pick up a novel to see how faithfully it depicts real life?
It has been an inglorious year for art in India. First, Salman Rushdie was prevented from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival. Then Taslima Nasreen’s book was targeted by hooligans in Kolkata, after which Mamata Banerjee locked up a professor for a cartoon she found offensive.
Most recently, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on a ridiculous charge of sedition. Hence, the news about Jeet Thayil being shortlisted for the Booker was especially gratifying. It’s good to see someone in the arts making news for the right reasons. Hope you go all the way, mate.
Talking about the Booker invariably brings to mind the first writer of Indian origin to win it: Salman Rushdie. Rushdie is everywhere nowadays with his memoir of the fatwa years. The fact that Rushdie is universally known for The Satanic Verses tells you, at times, that fame or infamy — depending on how you see it — have little to do with how good or bad a work of art is.
The Satanic Verses is nowhere near Rushdie’s best work. I tried to read it while in Britain and, upon finding it a tedious and plodding novel, quit after the first 100 pages. Yet it is the novel that moved Rushdie from the book pages of newspapers to the front pages by angering a group of religious fundamentalists so much that they called for his head. In an earlier age, something similar happened to D.H. Lawrence, whose Lady Chatterley’s Lover earned a fair degree of notoriety for flouting the morality of the day. Just like The Satanic Verses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is far from its author’s best work.
In the case of Rushdie, the fatwa and The Satanic Verses have become so much a part of the global psyche that people forget his real literary merit lies in Midnight’s Children, which was one of the first books to employ magical realism in English to tell the story of a country. Like all highly successful novels, its timing was impeccable. It came at a time where the idea that a mindset based on consistent realism leads to an overly bleak existence by blanking out fantasy altogether was gaining ground.
Life as a dream
As Ben Okri reminds us in his Booker Prize-winning The Famished Road, there are times where the high point of a life is a dream. That assertion is especially true in a country like ours where dreams provide most people with their only escape from the harsh realities of day-to-day life. With consistent realism retreating as a desirable mindset, it was only a matter of time before realism got the sack as the preferred literary form.
In the new millennium it has been consigned well and truly to the doghouse. The runaway success of fantastical fiction in the hands of commercial writers such as J.K. Rowling and literary writers such as Etgar Keret, whom Salman Rushdie has dubbed ‘the voice of the next generation’, bears ample testimony to that.
The commercial and literary success of fantasy illustrates the role that fiction has come to play in our times. The great Franz Kafka was only able to publish a small amount of his work in his lifetime and was so frustrated by his lack of success that he asked for his manuscripts to be destroyed. The request, thankfully, was ignored.
Etgar Keret, on the other hand, who is clearly influenced by Kafka and writes in the same absurdist vein, is hailed as one of the most original writers in the world. Keret’s success and Kafka’s lack of it in his lifetime can be attributed, in no small measure, to the fact that Keret, unlike Kafka, lives in an age that increasingly wishes to see itself in fiction through a fantastic rather than a realistic lens.
We inhabit times where we are constantly bombarded by reality. It comes at us in the form of 24x7 news channels, websites that are updated by the minute, mobile updates that are more persistent than a pest…All that on top of the crummy lives that most of us lead. In such an age, would anyone want to pick up a novel for how faithfully it depicts real life? Some would, I am sure.
But for most people losing themselves in a novel is tantamount to escaping the daily ordinariness of their lives. They wish to immerse themselves in new worlds, to be dazzled by the force of imagination, to experience breathtaking adventures…The last thing they want to see there is, to paraphrase Etgar Keret, an eye-witness report. They get plenty of that elsewhere.