Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Postcolonial Lack and Aesthetic Promise in the Moor's Last Sigh

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Postcolonial Lack and Aesthetic Promise in the Moor's Last Sigh

Article excerpt

In his documentary film The Riddle of Midnight, Salman Rushdie returns to India 40 years after independence to see if a definable national identity exists. He interviews Indians of different backgrounds and economic statuses, and a crowd confronts him and asks "How can a country that never previously existed become independent? What does it mean to call this crowd of separate national histories, conflicting cultures, and warring faiths, a nation?" Rushdie, as narrator and national spokesman, answers unsatisfactorily, "It's by the lack of definition that you know it's you."

The fiftieth anniversary of independence occasioned another round of national introspection. "[W]e are a land of belonging rather than of blood," writes Shashi Tharoor (126). Sunil Khilnani, addressing the same "tantalizing possibility of a principle of unity but its evident empirical lack" (157), attempts to move beyond competing claims for a singular national identity without abandoning the nation altogether. In place of the old opposition between "the monochromy of the post-imperial imagination," "nationalist histories of a unified people," and "the pointillism of the new Indian historians" searching for "examples of 'resistance' (textual and practical) to the ideas of the nation and the state," he proposes "new routes, that do not altogether abandon the terrain of political history, but recount it in different terms" (3).

Khilnani's route begins with the vastly different but ultimately collaboratory visions of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi for an independent India and proceeds through key cities--Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore--just as Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh charts a similar journey through the workings of a national imagination. Tracing the story of India's colonial and postcolonial histories from the Moorish invaders to the sectarian, technological present, the Moor presents his family saga against a national backdrop. Beginning with greed and corruption and ending with rampant commercialism and communal violence, the story is essentially pessimistic. Yet Rushdie tempers this pessimism with the regenerative potential of the aesthetic. When existing political and social metaphors fail to hold the subject's allegiance, Rushdie suggests, we must turn to the aesthetic to provide a new perspective, to heal historical wounds enough to make renewed faith in the nation possible. In The Moor's Last Sigh, historical, metapho rical, and narrative concerns reflect one another. To represent and respond to the paradox of national identity through history and across cultural differences, Rushdie employs sutures and palimpsests, combining them into an aesthetic vision that, although never wholly successful, attempts to allay what Saleem in Midnight's Children calls the "national longing for form."

Rushdie may have borrowed the trope of the palimpsest from Nehru, who pictured Indian history as a palimpsest of successful intercultural exchanges that the new nation would constitutionally extend and guarantee. In The Moor's Last Sigh, that image is compounded, as it is in Nehru's own writings, by the metaphor of the nation as family, a metaphor whose longevity stems from its ability to synthesize both historical and seemingly ahistorical aspects of the nation. Playing off the rich associative traditions of the Western patriarchal family and Mother India, Rushdie shows their competing attempts to forge unity out of historical, ethnic, religious, caste, and linguistic difference. By invoking the metaphor of the nation as family, he exposes its ideological foundations even as he uses it to sustain an imaginary identification between the nation, its subjects, and readers. We find in the narrator, the Moor, a representative of India's complicated colonial history, encompassing not just British colonization but earlier invaders as well as recent corporate neocolonial powers. Countering this patriarchal genealogy of conquest and modernization, which is rendered suspect and fallible in the novel, is a vision of Indian unity represented by competing images of Mother India. …

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