Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

RE-IMAGINED HISTORIES: Rewriting the Early Modern in Rushdie's the Moor's Last Sigh

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

RE-IMAGINED HISTORIES: Rewriting the Early Modern in Rushdie's the Moor's Last Sigh

Article excerpt

Violence was violence, murder was murder, two wrongs did not make a right: these are truths of which I was fully cognizant. Also: by sinking to your adversary's level you lose the high ground. In the days of after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, 'justly enraged Muslims'/fanatical killers' (once again, use your blue pencil as your heart dictates) smashed up Hindu Temples, and killed Hindus, across India and in Pakistan as well. There comes a point in the unfurling of communal violence in which it becomes irrelevant to ask, 'Who started it?'

-Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh1

In an interview with Charlie Rose following the publication of The Moor's Last Sigh in 1995, Salman Rushdie explained that the novel was the product of exile, of not being able to visit India for eight years since the Iranian fatwa sent him into hiding (201).2 The cultural psychology of exile permeates the novel in its author's and its characters' search for roots in a diasporic modern world. Rushdie's fictional recreation from memory of a metaphoric India and its history, rather than recent experience, is an example of what Hayden White has called the imaginative task of historicization. White has argued that historical narratives are verbal fictions and their contents are as much invented as found. Due to their partially fictional nature, most historical sequences can be emplotted in different ways to create different interpretations and meanings (White 82-85). Rushdie's alternative accounts of India and the origins of its various ethnic groups use the fictive quality of historiography to produce alternative interpretations of the past. Critical evaluations of The Moor's Last Sigh have tended to center on the novel's postcolonial appeal to the literary aesthetic of "difference," the political locations of hybridity, and the usage of the literary concept of a palimpsest to represent a multicultural society. Rushdie himself uses the word "Palimpstine" to depict the imagined nation in his text (226). The concept of a palimpsest refers to the erasure or partial erasure or alteration of a text for a new imprint, thereby giving the text a new imaginary aesthetic. Calling the novel an artistic palimpsest, however, does not sufficiently describe its material project. I argue that Rushdie addresses an Indian audience first and foremost in the novel and responds to the material circumstances of the very real cultural ruptures of India in the fifteen years immediately prior to the publication of the novel. This essay thus discusses the Babri mosque dispute to foreground the current polarity of the Hindu/Muslim binary in Indian historical and contemporary discourses. It then shows how Rushdie, by recuperating an imaginative early modern past through the Catholic-Jewish-Moorish antecedents of the novel's protagonists, seeks to create an alternative allegory for the modern Indian nation state.

The Moor's Last Sigh was written in the midst of intense Hindu-Muslim riots in Mumbai and other parts of India over the Babri mosque episode, events that reached their zenith in 1992-94. The novel responds strongly to the religious and ethnic dimensions of various civil conflicts in post-independence India. Rushdie's novel works simultaneously with two temporal registers: the early modern colonial and the postmodern postcolonial registers. Rushdie's choice to recuperate and rewrite the early modern Indian past as opposed to an earlier or later colonial past is not happenstance. India has historically experienced successive waves of colonization, including Aryan, Muslim, and Western. Muslim colonization, in particular, persisted during the early modern period with the establishment of the Mughal dynasty (1526- 1857). Unlike the later British colonists, the Muslims remained as part of the region's multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic mix. For the modern Indian nation, it is this early modern legacy of ethnic and religious diversification due to colonial settlement that remains the core of its present-day religious conflicts. …

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