Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tensions: Past and Present, East and West

In this novel, Rushdie uses stories both to characterize the differences between cultures and values of the East and West and to reveal how interconnected the two parts of the world actually are. All of the stories that we read for today have something in common: each in some way embodies a tension between past and present, or tradition and progress. This tension actually works as a bridge between the two section of the novel which differ greatly in tone and the structure and style of the stories presented. It also allows Rushdie to criticize the values and lifestyles in the East and West simultaneously.

In the stories of the East the hardships of life in India are central and intertwine with the struggle between tradition and progress in this section, a theme we explored the last time we visited India in Love and Longing in Bombay. In his first story Good Advice is Rarer Than Rubies for example, Rushdie give us a character (Miss Rehana) who seems to prefer the struggles of her home country to the unknown life that waits for her in England. Muhammad Ali, a character representative of modern India, sets aside his conning lifestyle and tries to help Miss Rehana leave the country; he believes she will be better off with her fiancé and he considers it to be a tragedy when she tells him with happiness on her face that she will be staying. At first this seems like the misguided decision of a naïve girl but I got the impression that Miss Rehana was not as naïve as Muhammad assumed her to be. She may have even used his honest advice to ensure her rejection from the Consulate.

The other two stories in this section also seem to favor the more traditional view of the country to modern India, though Rushdie certainly demonstrates the difficulties with both sides of the argument. The narrator in the second story criticizes the choices that his friend Ramani makes. He considers Ramani to be too idealistic and naïve in his confidence in modern India, both in his choice to have a vasectomy and to move to Bombay and be a movie star. But Rushdie also questions the merit of traditional India with in The Prophet’s Hair where a return to the strict customs of Islam put a strain on the moneylender’s secularized and independent family and leads rapidly to their downfall. But is the more traditional way of life truly responsible for the carnage at the end of the story? I think it is Hashim’s greed, an effect of his position in the modern world, that brings the “curse” of the Prophet’s hair on his family. The modern lifestyle seems completely incompatible with the more tradition that the relic represents, and this tension allows the horror of the story to unfold. The stories in this section seem to favor traditional India in the instead of the changing and unstable climate of modern India but Rushdie raises questions about the wisdom of this choice.

Rushdie’s tone drastically changes in the section on the West. These stories are more humorous and Rushdie breaks out of the traditional form of storytelling that he employs in the first part of the novel with narration that is more dynamic and often involves conversations with his readers. But the tension between the past and present is just as prevalent in the stories about the West as it was in the first part of the novel. Here the stories seem to favor progress over the traditions and values of the past. We see this through Rushdie’s criticism and “revamping” of traditional staples of Western culture like Hamlet, The Wizard of Oz, and Columbus’ voyage to America. He demonstrated the tendency in Western culture to “never, never, NEVER! Be satisfied by the possession of the Known” (116). We are constantly changing and searching for the unknown. But Rushdie’s dark sense of humor makes us question what we are losing in pursuit of progress and the unknown. Do we feel guilty leaving the past behind, or using it for profit?

Rushdie’s stories and the different manifestations of the tension between tradition and progress these sections allow him to criticize both of the cultures equally. The two completely different cultures are bonded in the novel through this tension and Rushdie’s criticisms of both cultures –something that only a multi-cultural author like Rushdie could accurately show us. His ability to look honestly at the positive and negative aspects of both cultures transcends his ties to any one place.

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