I was asked by my editor to write up a piece. No that won’t do, there’s no getting away from it: it was a year-ender. O omniscient inevitability of the year ender! O chronological certitude of journalism! “Sabkuch ticktock hai” as Methwold would put it. And the topic? Comfort zone. What gave us solace as the world collapsed outside. Our own personal washing chests, as it were. Something that via the literal-metaphorical modes of connection that our thinkers, like Subramanium Swamy have spoken much off of late, calm down our lives.
O spell it out spell it out, Daniyal: I obviously picked Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
I started reading Midnight’s Children when I was in class IX (that is how we measured age in those times). I didn’t buy it; it was an old copy owned by my father who hadn’t (and still hasn’t) read it. Which is fine. Midnight’s Children is a bit of an odd read. As another friend once remarked: “Boss, that bugger’s writing is like a jalebi. You follow it and you get lost. What’s the point, eh?” I did not point out that the point is to not use the jalebis as a navigational device and it is to eat it whereupon a jalebi would fulfil its purpose: being tasty.
But anyway, I read it and to be honest I did not get a lot. I did like Adam Aziz’s story though. So I read it again. And little bits started filtering in, slowly, like masala seeping into meat being marinated overnight. Three years later when I read Marquez, I exclaimed, “Baap re baap, this bugger writes exactly like Salman, yaar. Call the bloody police.”
Later I watched Forrest Gump and I saw insidious connections: of the idiot as the avatar of his nation (with modes of connection both literal and metaphorical but, because this was a film, more literal). But I was more mature then, I did not exclaim: just swallowed this fact silently (but still bitterly).
I read it again: on a trip to the West, I discovered a close affinity with Amina and her utter disgust of wiping bums with only paper. And on yet another reading, I noted that not having a belief in god can leave holes inside you (which is true in the metaphorical mode of connection, I have learnt). And I read the 1971 War bits after visiting the Bangladesh Mukti Jodha Museum and I thought: Saleem fought here (metaphorical, yes but also literal: I’m sure there was at least one Saleem in the Khan Sena).
In total, in sum, poora poori, I must have read the book, what, some 14 or 15 times, roughly once a year leaving out maybe class XII (because if I studied hard that year, life would be set). I was crushed when Rushdie supported the invasion of Afghanistan. And then there was the flirtation with Hitchens – clearly, Rushdie ignored Adam Aziz’s hole lesson as well as Hanif mamu’s warning about (former) communists. But then, o happy circumstance of intellectual equivocation: separate the writer from his work, said the cartoon devil from over my left shoulder. A most excellent, A-1 compromise given that it also helped to knock off Fury from the List-of-Things-I-Need-Worry About.
Other chinks appeared: “funtoosh” did not mean “finished, finito, shesh, khattam shud”. It meant, to quote Amir Khan’s immortal line from Dhoom 3, “Maskhara, mazaqiya, joker, clown”. Rushdie was a Breach Candy boy: it is not surprising his hold on Bambaiyya was less than secure. But then also: flashes of genius: Reverend Mother’s (Badi Amma?) whatsitsname – kyanaamhai – such a lovely Urdu throwaway phrase, an everyday linguistic filler, churned into English.
And there were others. In effect, Rushdie did wonderful things with language, more so if you knew Hindi-Urdu, taking the language’s soul and squeezing it into the straitjacket of English to create this jalebi (it is called taking back the word) of a language. I just read the book a few months ago during the second wave. My 15th reading: I don’t know, I’ve lost count. It has been a wonderful ride with much enjoyment and, by now, familiar comfort. And soon I shall read it again.
Read all the articles in the Comfort zone series here.