Rushdie’s Language in “Midnight’s Children”

An essay on the kind of language Rushdie has experimented with, in his book "Midnight’s Children". His english is sprinkled with words and phrases from hindi, which is unlike other indian writers who wrote in english before him.

Once upon a time there was a writer called Salman Rushdie, who won a whatisname booker  for a novel , and we feringhee lovers instantly recognized him as one of the best Indian writers writing in English. There is no such sho-sha glamour attached with the Sahitya Academy award for sure. It’s like A.R. Rehman winning an Oscar for ‘jai ho’. Not that he hasn’t done well (read better) before.  It’s just that we see him with new reverence filled eyes now that he’s been approved by the west.  Either we are hopeless anglophiles or we (post-colonially) see it as a kind of conquest -beating the angrez in his own playground using his own language (in case of Rushdie) .

 A-ha! Here comes the catch… whose language is English anyway? I use it but I am an Indian. Someone in the HRD ministry thought that I should be taught English at school, so I and many others like me were forcefully made to imbibe the language. And we couldn’t even wipe our own noses at that time. Butbutbut, I speak the kind which is my own, for I have domesticated it, like many of my fellows have done. Rushdie claims to have done something similar. He wanted to convey the realities of the hybrid, multicultural, multilingual India in a language which was also a hybrid-chutney. Therefore he had to “break up the language and put it back together in a different way”, to “dislocate” it and to “let other things into it”. He certainly has let other things into it, like a fine sprinkling of Hindi/Urdu words and phrases.

“Listen nakkoo… I saw that Isa, that Christ, when he came to Kashmir… Yara, you should have seen that Isa when he came…” (13)

“… finished, washed-up, or in our own expressive word, funtoosh.”  (82)

“…my mother’s love- name for me , her innocent chand-ka-tukra, her affectionate, piece-of-the-moon…” (144)

“Arre, O my God, listen, baba, the boy is saying something!” (641)

It is noteworthy that the Hindi words are often accompanied by a translation placed before or after… to suit the western readership that Rushdie is obviously targeting.

 India seeps into the language like spices in pickle. However, it is well to remember that the language Rushdie has created is not the be all and end all of Indian English. There are many varieties of englishes spoken in India as a result of the influence of the native, regional, state vernacular, whatever languages of the speakers.  In short the use of English changes, depending on which part of the country the speaker comes from. Let’s consider a few specimen-Indians : Lola Kutty who speaks tamil, Rakhi Sawant in Mumbai, Mamta Banerjee  from West Bengal, Manmohan Singh from Punjab, Sonia Gandhi , Rajnikant (mind-it!), Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mayawati etc, all speak their own varieties of English. Does Salman Rushdie write like them? NO. Do they speak like each other? NO. Do you and I speak like them? NO!  The point is that Rushdie’s language is not representative of how English is spoken in India. Such all encompassing representation is not possible. Nor is India the same for all. A tribal in the northeast, or Gujjar in Ladakh or a Tibetan speaking monk in Dharamshala perhaps lives in an India which may have little in common with Rushdie’s India in Midnight’s Children. Rushdie portrays India as he knows it and has developed his own variety of English (like the rest of us) in order to speak of it.

From a post-colonial perspective, Rushdie’s chutnified English is often seen as an attempt to subvert the language of our ex-colonizers. If they could colonize us, we can indianize their language and make it our own. “Correct” English is no longer privileged when the “empire writes back”. The result is: phrases turning into words (‘godknowswhatelse’, ‘overandover’, ‘nearlynineyearold’, ‘whatdoyoumeanhowcanyousaythat’); hinglish hybrids (‘chutnification’, ‘dupatta-less’, ‘big doctor sahib’, ‘FUNTABULOUS FALOODA’, ‘LOVELY LASSI’); onomatopoeia (‘yaaaakh-thoooo!’ which would have been ‘ach –choo’ if only Aadam  Aziz were  an Englishman ); cacophony (‘Come all you greats-O, eat a few dates-O’);  and a special variety of abuses (‘sistersleeping pigskin bag’).

 

 Raja Rao, in his foreword to Kanthapura, wrote that an Indian writing in English needs to “convey in a language that is not one’s own a spirit that is one’s own.” That was then. Rushdie believes that “by now English is very domesticated in India” and that Indian writers would use it “with more verve, more confidence, more ease and more Indianness”, “without that kind of echo of the colony”. Come to think of it, even Urdu/Persian, and Sanskrit languages were brought to India by once-upon-a-time-outsiders (the Moughals and the Aryans respectively) but they became a part of Indian culture. Something similar has happened with English in India. It has developed into a special variety- Indian English. (The only difference is that English is also an international language.)

Rushdie’s language also serves the function of highlighting the framework or mode of the novel. The opening paragraph helps to demonstrate this:

‘I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date; I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more…. On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock hands joined hands in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world…. … … thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks, I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.’

With ‘I was born in the city of Bombay’ , the novel begins like an autobiography, quickly switching to a fairy tale/ fantasy mode with ‘once upon a time’, a phrase repeated several times in the book. It prepares the reader for the elements of magic realism to be confronted soon. The addition of an actual historical date shows that the novel can be read like a history. It is in fact an inversion of foundational history in favour of a personal account authenticated by ‘memory’s truth’. The narrative strategy of the book is revealed in the sentence ‘thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks, I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.’ Events in Saleem’s life will be reflected in the events of national importance and vice versa.

The novel is written in the oral tradition of storytelling with a ‘commingling’ of high art and popular culture. Bollywood- meets -Hollywood- meets -mythology-meets -folklore to present the India  where there are Radha andKrishna, Rama and Sita, Laila and Majnu and also Romeo and Juliet and Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Therefore Rushdie’s language sometimes makes grand epical sweeps, only to be deflated by the mundane, and sometimes turns into the language of cinema, fixing various camera angles, zooming in and zooming out.

Language is also a theme in Midnight’s Children. Rushdie refers to the barriers of language that divide India into fragments. ‘India has been divided anew, into fourteen states and six centrally- administered territories. But the boundaries of these states were not formed by rivers, or mountains, or any natural features of the terrain; they were instead , walls of words. Language divided us…’ Keeping the Telengana issue and the Marathi Manoos problem in mind, Rushdie’s work seems prophetic. The barriers of language continue to threaten India’s unity. They need to be overcome to prevent India from cracking up like Saleem Sinai.

                                                                                                                                   -     Sukriti Sharma

11
Liked it
Liked this? Share it!
Tweet this! StumbleUpon Reddit Digg This! Bookmark on Delicious Share on Facebook
4 Comments
  1. jagmohan sharma
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    kepp it up

  2. Posted November 15, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Dear Sukriti

    Good! Well Done. Keep it up.

    R K Pandey
    Rudrapur, Uttarakhand

  3. Shafat
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 11:02 am

    great
    sindhu

    Keepitup

  4. Posted March 3, 2011 at 11:41 am

    Hello!

    Loved your bubbly language! Its fresh and zealous! You must have read the book with all your heart and soul!

    Fantabulous work[Indian English]!!

    Cheers,

    Sujyothi Prasad

Leave a Reply
comments powered by Disqus