The Commonwealth: A Common Culture?

By Richard Maltby; Peter Quartermaine | Go to book overview

3: MARIA COUTO
Enigmatic Arrivals

I would like to begin with two propositions.1

This paper was read at a series of seminars in Indian Literature in
English organised by the Centre of South Asian Studies at the
School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, in 1987.

The first is from Rushdie’s novel: ‘What you are is forever who you were’ says Saleem Sinai in the course of Midnight’s Children.2 His claim generates the idea of a self forever captive in lost time, and, in an important sense, belonging to another place. The second is from G. V. Desani: ‘Things are. They are there,’ says Desani’s Mr Hatterr, in exasperated wistfulness. What he implies is that the world cannot pretend that he does not exist, that certain historical events did not take place, nor indeed, that the past is irrelevant in the description of present joys and traumas, in the search for and recovery of a self. Saleem and Hatterr travel long years. The recognitions and arrivals they finally achieve are enigmatic, because they represent a mental process, a coming to terms with history. The country and experience they seek and simultaneously define is life itself; not India, nor colonial India; not Britain nor her cultural empire, but a sum total of all these in terms of values that affect the condition of all men.

The idea implicit in the title of V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival3 provides the framework for my discussion of historical events and private experience, of a social community and internecine strife in Midnight’s Children and All About H. Hatterr. The idea serves to illustrate the aesthetic developed by the novelists to reveal the spirit of man and the supremacy of community, the human community. Although Naipaul’s novel is elegiac and desolate, altogether different from the world of fantasy, comedy and the picaresque created by Rushdie and Desani, yet he did create such a world himself in A House For Mr Biswas. The three writers embark on a similar journey and a quest which attempts to understand the ‘who you were’ of Saleem’s claim in order to confront

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