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Rock and roll in Rushdie land

The Ground Beneath Her Feet
Jonathan Cape
18 Pounds
Rs 395 in India

The ganja, my friend, is growing in the tin. The dancer is glowing with her sin... The gardener is mowing with a grin.
From The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Salman Rushdie knows the magic of words. His characters rarely speak the 'proper' English taught in school; they revel in slang, word association, rhyme. And they are very Indian, prompting Rushdie frequently to fall back on 'plain English' to ensure that his international audience does not feel left out of all the fun.

Rushdie's literary success owes considerably to his ability to draw on the wealth of Indian idioms. Good Advice is More Precious than Pearls, the opening story in East West, is full of Urdu turns of speech. His earlier work was praised for this very quality.

In The Ground Beneath Her Feet again, he talks affectionately about the language of Mumbai, Hug Me, which is an acronym for Hindi Urdu Gujarati Marathi and English. The Spectator's critic caustically described him as a "professional foreigner ... at every intersection of the planet, carrying with him a raft of websites, vocabularies and a fine inner ear for vulgarity". And as we read The Ground Beneath Her Feet, we realise that he is a foreigner yet again, a foreigner to Indian music too, hiding his ignorance behind his cascading, uncontrollable rhetoric.

A critic described rock and roll as the "last great upsurge of romantic rebellion in history". Rushdie's latest novel invests two Indian singers, Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama, with the subversive passion of rock and roll, and seeks to tell the "secret history" of an English-speaking Indian urban class whose youth coincided with the heady days of that upsurge.

The idea of music as rebellion could sound strange to those of us raised on Indian music videos and their unthinking middle-class values. Alisha chooses her mate from hunks who come packaged in cartons, and the patriotic triumph is that she finally chooses an Indian man. Daler Mehndi rides the go-kart with Lisa Ray or romps in some other equally juvenile setting with pretty, dumb girls. In many videos girls aspire to beauty queen-hood. And by now there must be hundreds of videos that show an extravagant wedding with its attendant exhibition of jewellery and finery, and bungalows, cars and servants.

Rock and roll was defiant, and challenged such middle-class ideas of good living. "We don't want to live like that any more," a leader of the Paris revolt said in 1968. The idea was to live intensely, unconventionally.

Rock and roll had an Indian connection. Ravi Shankar was one of the icons of that generation. George Harrison, the Beatles drummer, became his disciple. Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, toured India frequently and learnt the harmonium. Many in the West took to listening to Indian classical music because it was fashionable, but consequently became serious students and practitioners of this comparatively more abstract art. India was, of course, influenced by rock and roll, and it was naturally an urban, upper middle-class fascination.

Rushdie knows a lot about rock and roll. He must have grown up with it, and read up the biographies of its stars. His hero is shot outside his apartment, just like the Beatles singer John Lennon. Rushdie's narrative feeds on pop culture, as the blurb tells us, as also on the fare served up by tabloids. As though we weren't swamped enough by pop culture, we now have Rushdie making a rehash of it all. In the process he also launches a schoolboy-like tirade against those who may not have been all that receptive to rock and roll.

"In India it is often said the music I'm talking about is precisely one of those viruses with which the almighty West has infected the East, one of the weapons of cultural imperialism, against which all right-minded persons must fight and fight again… Why then offer up paeans to culture traitors like Ormus Cama, who betrayed his roots and spent his pathetic lifetime pouring the trash of America into our children's ears?" he begins rhetorically.

He answers the question himself: "Such are the noisome slithers of the enslaved micro-organisms, twisting and hissing as they protect the inviolability of their sacred homeland, the glass laboratory slide." His sympathies lie with Vina, who "could never read Indian languages as well as she spoke them" and who represents the "chutnified" and culturally alienated Indian urban class. Nothing wrong with such sympathy, of course, but the problem arises when he militantly asserts the superiority of rock and roll enthusiasts over Indians with other musical tastes.

Pankaj Mishra, in a scathing review in Outlook, called Rushdie's narrator, Umeed Merchant, a "prig" who doesn't realise he is one. Mishra talks of the recurring theme of belonging and non-belonging, and Rushdie's tendency to concede "full humanity" only to "western or West-bound characters". Incidentally, Rushdie got so enraged that he refused to talk to that magazine's correspondent who went to hear him read at Hay on the Wye in the UK.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet is terribly nostalgic about the Bombay of Rushdie's childhood. Piloo Doodhwala, a character modelled on Laloo Prasad Yadav, is a semi-literate real estate shark and is portrayed as the novel's chief villain. The narrator's mother, Ameer Merchant, sides with him to precipitate a tragedy in an otherwise harmonious family. Rushdie describes with affection the old Bombay and is cutting about how people like Doodhwala turned it into an ugly concrete jungle, but feels no nostalgia for the musical heritage he might similarly have lost.

In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie drew on Hindi film songs, translations of which he sprinkled along the book. In The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, which he co-edited with Elizabeth West, he included a sentimental Gita Mehta story about a musician. It looks at Indian music through the eyes of an outsider again, giving no insight into the real world of musicians.

Rushdie is a musician with words. His flaw is that he doesn't believe in restraint, the value that separates the craftsmen from the artists. Rushdie's novel is overwrought. Carried away by his craft, he loses the sense of proportion that makes for great music. His taans get more and more self-indulgent, and his art turns into a sledge hammer. Rushdie's word-concerts are getting a bit too loud.

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