Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Salman Rushdie and Vikram Chandra...Shit or "The Shit?"

We can’t simply use the language in the way the British did; that it needs remaking for our own purpose…To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free. (17)

Salman Rushdie’s “Imaginary Homelands” offers perspective on writers of colonized nations conveying their art in English. When read in conjunction with one another, Vikram Chandra’s “Love and Longing in Bombay” and Rushdie’s work demonstrate transculturation, particularly the transfer of culture found in language. Both Chandra and Rushdie have emigrated from their native India and choose to write their novels in English. In doing so, they make a conscious decision to attempt to impart some aspect of their own culture, onto the culture of the colonizers.

Ashcroft stresses the importance of the word ‘transculturation’ as an improvement upon Western-biased words like ‘deculturation’ which have been used by sociologists in the past. This term emphasizes that the nation being colonized is not the only side receiving new culture. The colonizers, in India’s case the British, are adapting aspects of India. Unlike what the term ‘deculturation’ co notates, scholars like Ashcroft believes that this transfer of culture is not degrading the culture of the British, it is merely a transfer.

Rushdie first offers a rather practical argument for choosing English as a language. He sees the speaking of English to be an ever emerging necessity and fears the practice of a sort of ghetto-isolationism, dwelling only in Indian culture. He would identify himself and probably Chandra as “translated men.” (17) Having moved from one nation to another, something of their personal identity has been translated. However, he maintains that “It is normally supposed that something gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.” (17) He sees the final step in gaining from this translation, as the conquering of the English language. Indian writers can make the words their own, maintaining their own culture within the parameters of a new language.

Chandra demonstrates this rather well. He immerses us in the Indian culture all the while speaking our language. He makes no reference to the fact that this is not his natural tongue, and until he sprinkles in Indian words, one can almost assume that English is his first. Chandra treats these Indian words and phrases nonchalantly. We can assume by context that Sartaj’s shamiana is an erection, but Chandra seems unapologetic about leaving us in the dark as to the meaning of the word bewda. Perhaps he is emphasizing the importance of content and story over language. Seemingly, this story could be recounted in any language. Chandra leaves us in the dark over Iqbal’s sex in order to show us it is irrelevant to the story. Similarly, he does not translate these words to show that what he is trying to convey does not depend solely on language.

Just as Rushdie advises, Chandra makes the idiosyncrasies of the English language his own. Unapparent to me in Chandra’s text is the guilt that Rushdie seems to experience over his removal from the land of which he writes “What I was actually doing was a novel of memory and about memory, so that my India was just that.” (10) He speaks of India confidently, as if he is present. Similarly, he harnesses devices like wordplay to show his confidence in his new language.

Chandra does these things in order to expose English and Americans to his homeland’s culture, to reciprocate the transfer he has experienced. Logically, there is no more powerful a way to transfer culture. While, the taste of food, the sound of music, the look of artwork are all ways to impart culture, I feel that none of these arts are so closely linked and ever changing as language.

I think of my friend Peter, who was a German exchange student. We were drinking juice in a Starbucks after school when he remarked “This juice is shit.” In a half a year he had picked up a lot of American culture (and I regret we were responsible for teaching him a good number of swears), but often still misused phrases. We asked him whether the juice was “shit (meaning bad)” or in fact, “the shit (very good).” This confused him further, but we eventually gleaned that he did not like his Berry Manilow drink. I pondered how one article could make such a difference in a sentence, especially slang and realized how much of our pop-culture he was acquiring through language.

Vikram Chandra and Salman Rushdie take a very novel approach in imparting culture. Rather than hoping that others will learn their language and enjoy their texts, these “translated men” master the language of those they hope to inform. In doing so, they acquire many more readers, willing to absorb their homeland.

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