Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Broken Mirrors" in Chandra's Novel

In “Imaginary Homelands” Salman Rushdie discusses the importance of the past and memory to his work and more generally the work of other “out-of-country” or “out-of language” authors. He suggests that many authors, especially expatriate and emigrant Indian writer, are “haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back” upon their past (10). He reminds us, however, that this lost land that the author desires to portray is not entirely reclaimable; because memory is fallible the closest one can get recovering the past is to create fictions or “imaginary homelands.” Rushdie argues that once a homeland is left or lost only a fragmentary or distorted memory of the past remains. “It may be that when the Indian writer who writes from outside India tried to reflect that world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost” (11).But Rushdie does not consider these “broken mirrors” to be invaluable; in fact he believes that the incomplete nature of these images is what gives them their power and resonance. “The broken glass is not merely a mirror of nostalgia. It is also, I believe, a useful tool with which to work in the present” (12).
I think Chandra’s novel embodies this idea of “broken mirrors’ on several levels. The structure of the novel centers on Subramaniam, the personification of tradition and the “old India,” recounting the past to the narrator who is representative of the new way of life. With his almost mythological wisdom, Subramaniam is always prepared with tale from the past (his own or someone else’s) that to illuminate the present. In the frame narrative, Ranjit Sharma seems constantly troubled or confused by his sense of the present and it is only through Subramaniam’s stories that he is able to gain some perspective on his own life.
We also see the fractured memories of the past at work within Subramaniam’s stories. In each of the stories we see the characters returning to their past: Jago confronts the memory of his brother’s dead, Sheila sees visions of the traditional India both through Ganga and the memories of her father, Sartaj relives moments of his life with Megha, the narrator in Artha tells his tragic story to Subramaniam, and Subramaniam shares his own past with the narrator. In each of these instances the characters must confront their past in order to understand their place in the present. Chandra demonstrates, as does Rushdie, that the past is vital to a sense of home and identity in a constantly changing culture.
The oral quality of Chandra’s novel and its complex chain of narration give allow the entire novel to act as a broken mirror of the past that Chandra holds up to his readers. Instead of a single narrator and story, this novel is literally a retelling of a retelling of a retelling of the past. Because of the oral quality of the stories being told, Chandra’s audience cannot verify the truth to these tales –as Chandra demonstrates with the storytelling in Shanti. This is very similar to the unreliability of Rushdie’s narrator in Midnight’s Children: “That is why I made my narrator, Saleem, suspect in his narration; his mistakes are the mistakes of a fallible memory compounded by quirks of characters and of circumstance, and his vision is fragmentary” (10). But from the “fragmentary vision’ that the novel portrays Chandra presents his readers with his “imaginary homeland,” the combination of the old and new Indian culture that seem to be his idea of post-colonial India.

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