Thursday, March 21, 2013

East, West

Catlin Castan
East, West
21 March 2013
“The Courter”
In Salman Rushdie’s novel East, West, he writes a story called “The Courter” in which he confronts the transitioning of homes. Rushdie introduces Mary, a girl who moves from India to England and struggles to integrate into the new culture. Rushdie includes that Mary feels she undergoes an, “enforced exile from the beloved country of [her] birth and moved [her], stirring things that had been buried very deep”(178). Mary reveals, “…India felt as far away as Paradise”(175). In this quotation, Rushdie suggests that Mary’s home still exists within her mind. Mary refuses to allow herself to assimilate into the new culture of England, because she continues to daydream about India. For Mary-- India is her Paradise: her perfect home.
During her time in England, Mary meets the “Courter”. Rushdie explains a language barrier-- for Mary, “the letter p was a particular problem”(176). However, he, “did not mind. But his name, this courter, this he would try to be”(177). In allowing Mary to call him as she pleases, or how she is capable of calling him, Rushdie allows for a chance at a relationship between these two characters:  between India and England. As their relationship progresses they discover the game of chess, and it becomes, “their private language”(194). This takes away the cultural barrier and allows Mary to feel comfortable in England. Through her relationship with the Courter, Mary finds a sense of home.
In this story of “The Courter” Rushdie is perhaps suggesting that an individual does not necessarily feel rooted in a place but in the mind. Once an individual’s mind is rooted in a homeland, it becomes their home: an “imaginary homeland”. 

Life's Unanswerable Questions

Curiosity is the ever spinning propeller of human questioning.  We ask questions because we want to know something.  Yet sometimes, these answers aren’t enough, forcing us to ask more and more questions.  We can question ourselves to death, asking “What if this...” or “What if that...” never coming to any conclusion.  In The Harmony of the Spheres, Salman Rushdie’s narrator struggles with his own questions after the death of his best friend.  Rushdie’s persistent use of questions, both within and outside of the characters’ dialogue, makes the narrator and the reader contemplate what is important in their lives.  

Eliot Crane, the mentally disturbed friend of the narrator, is the source of the story’s many questions.  While driving recklessly, Eliot stops suddenly and points out a place where he’d like to be buried.  The narrator, indulging in his little game, yet cautioning him to be careful asks “‘If you wipe us out,...who’ll be left to remember you when you’re gone?’” (134).  Though seemingly not to Eliot, this question is haunting.  Rushdie hands us a challenge to make a meaningful impact in the world; or else no one will care enough to remember us when we die.  

After hearing of his friend’s death, the narrator begins to think about why they were friends in the first place, considering how obscure Eliot was.  Though not part of the dialogue, the narrator asks, “Who knows what makes people friends?  Something in the way they move.  They way they sing off-key” (136).  His question is rhetorical, he is not literally asking what makes a friendship, but rather emphasizes the point that friendship cannot be articulated into words.  There are no definitive reasons as to why we love our best friends, we just do.  This question engages us as readers to think about our own friendships, and contemplate the eccentricities that make them special.  

Finally, the narrator poses a simple question, just one word to really make us think.  As he goes through Eliot’s belongings, he asks, “Harmony?” (142).  He doubts Eliot’s favorite word considering his life was anything but harmonious.  However, the narrator muses that perhaps everyone have their own definition of harmony, and our goal in life is to find that very definition.  The simple word posed as a question is powerful.  It makes us think about harmony in our own, imperfect lives.  Looking at the discord of Eliot’s life from the perspective of harmony invites the reader to begin thinking of all life as harmonious.  Just the fact that we are living, breathing, human beings is harmonious in itself, we do not need to strive for greatness in order to live fully.   

Thinking about our impact on the world at large, our friendships, and the inner harmony in our lives makes for a very introspective reading of Rushdie’s first chapter of the East, West segment of his novel.  By asking these questions, Rushdie captures the readers‘ attention and draws them in, making them a truly active part of the story.         


            When I graduated from high school, I got a passport so that I could leave the country at a moment’s notice.  To me, that was freedom.  To the narrator of this story, “The Courter,” he speaks as if he sees freedom in the same way, but there is certain gravity to his opinion of freedom.  Because London was not his first home, he felt tethered there.  The passport allowed him to break away from his old home, his new home, and his family at a moment’s notice. 
            But the ropes around his neck, the ropes that are pulling him east and west are something that people may not be able to understand if they have not left their homeland.  People have roots and ties wherever they have loved.  I, for instance, have lived coast to coast, from California to New York.  I understand what the narrator is saying because I am never fully settled because I cannot always have everyone I love around me.
            The image of the ropes pulling him east and west implies that he is grounded in one place, but that one place is not his homeland.  His homeland is a roving island or a few islands that are outside of him.  The ropes are not just in London and Bombay—they are in his father, his sisters, Certainly-Mary, Rozalia, and Mecir.  The ropes are not tied around his neck, but they are anchored right in his heart.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Choice Is Yours

Rushdie creates three different worlds in his collection of short stories, East, West. The distinct characteristics of each section lead us to question and search for a melding of worlds in our own lives. In East and West, each story has its own way of fitting into either the mundane or the mystical quality of the collection. Although diverse, all of the stories speak to the internal struggle and choice of knowing one’s homeland.
In Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies, we see the young Miss Rehana choosing to stick with the life she knows and has come to love. Miss Rehana’s strong sense of self signifies her identity and the acknowledgment of her true homeland.  West offers us a different sentiment as far as knowing one’s homeland.  In At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers, we encounter a seemingly astray population of people who have lost sight of their value and their ability to recognize where their homelands lie. Even though the power to discern one’s homeland has not really been removed from the man himself, the ruby slippers— something to be purchased, promise the restoration of this power. In this story, the choice of one’s homeland is lost in the caricatures of the futuristic society in which anything and everything is for sale. The Courter in East,West provides yet another more liberating view of discovering one’s homeland.  As the young man reflects on Certainly-Mary’s mental, emotional, and physical struggle to accept England as her homeland, he recognizes the freeing power of his passport:
It allowed me to come and go, to make choices that were not the ones my father would have wished. But, I too, have ropes around my neck, I have them to this day, pulling me this way and that, East and West, the nooses tightening, commanding, choose, choose.[…] Ropes I do not choose between you. Lassoes, lariats, I choose neither of you, and both. (211)
The man no longer has to choose as Certainly-Mary did, and instead discovers his power to choose both homelands in choosing neither homeland.
            Many of Rushdie’s stories can be traced back to the how, what, when and why of our homelands.  Through choice we exhibit our human nature and in East, West and East,West, we see the confidence, uncertainty and freedom that make up this nature.

All Mixed-Up

Yet again Rushdie shows off by furtively choosing the name ‘Mixed-Up’ and depicting a theme of India.  This central question is addressed in the opening paragraph of The Courter, he states, “Word from a schoolboy atlas long ago, when India felt as far away as Paradise. (Nowadays Paradise seemed even further away but India, and Hell, had come a good bit closer.)” (175).  So what exactly is the schoolboy, or a childish/immature/innocent inner-Rushdie saying?  He might mean that India has gotten worse and the image of a paradise is a lost prospect, he could be saying India is a living hell, or the quote could be drawing on homesickness and comparing India to a certain paradise.  The last idea stems from a strong sense of homeland, a prevalent and persistent theme in Rushdie’s works.  He also has a sorcery capacity of dropping realizations on the heads of the reader.  What hit me is how the ending amplified what was said in the opening paragraph.   We are introduced to the hall porter being named Mixed-Up, this strikes skepticism in the eyes of the reader because it is a flexible word.  Its malleability makes for an interesting ending, Mixed-Up turned into, in the final lines, “’I’m the porter sir,’ the man said. ‘I don’t know anything about any mix-up’” (211).  The transition from Mixed-Up to mix-up is subtle but substantial, thus putting stress on the reader.  So the conflict for the reader is in interpreting the mix-up, the view of paradise in regards to India, and the usage of the schoolboy.  Making sense of the story comes from fleshing out larger themes and examining diction; Mixed-Up all along would be used to add drama and ambiguity to the ending while India’s relation to paradise seems to waver in the process of getting older and wiser.  Rushdie exemplifies excellent writing and crafts a story, but what exactly is the “mix-up”?

Rushdie's Soft Spot for Pop Culture

Since I’ve written about The Courter quite a bit now for my presentation, I have decided to spin this reading analysis in a bit of a different direction.  One of the subthemes of this story is the prominence of pop culture, contemporary cultural figures, and music and how those factors often amount to the definition of a particular homeland.  Although Rushdie excels throughout East, West in making well-thought out popular culture references, The Courter seems to rely on this technique more than any other story as a means of placing the reader in a given place and time.  Interestingly enough, he chooses to do this with the story that is arguably the most autobiographical in the book, perhaps connoting the how incredibly influential the definitive pop culture was for a young man who found it necessary to steep himself in contemporary British culture as a means of assimilation.
The most prominent example for me were Rushdie’s copious Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons references.  By referencing the same band over and over, he makes the Four Seasons and their music into a totem or representation of home.  He even goes so far as to bring their music into his own reality.  He reflects on his inability to seduce Chandni, “She-E-rry, won’t you come out tonight?  Yodeled the Four Seasons.  I knew exactly how they felt.  Come, come out toni-yi-yight.  And while you’re at it, love me do” (188).  He also comes back to the music of the Four Seasons as he sits before Mixed-Up, post chess defeat.  He expresses, “I sat broken in my chair at the end, close to tears.  Big girls don’t cry, I reminded myself, but the song went on playing in my head: That’s just an alibi. 
Not only do these pop culture ad musical allusions help to place the reader in a physical time and place, but they help to describe the narrator’s state of being at home with himself and his relationships.

Epeli The Envelope Pusher

               A supplementary read for Epeli Hau’ofa’s Kisses in the Nederends, is his interview; “A Promise of Renewal: An Interview with Epeli Hau’ofa.”  It is helpful to get to know the author and his assertive perspective.  The interview allows the reader to absorb Epeli’s intention.  He places humor, crudeness, and awkwardness to draw attention to the masked beauty of the body.  The body, and all of its parts, should be embraced no matter the description or presentation because it is natural.  Something natural, bowel movenents and “arseholes,” invite the reader to hurdle insecurity and tackle the reverence of the seemingly irreverent.  Now, Epeli doesn’t hide his agenda, he puts it on a poopoo platter with the dressings on the side.  What we are served isn’t exactly what we ordered, but swallow the putrid flavor and accept the hearty humor.  The stench seeping from the platter, collectively, contributes to a resonating satire.  It is odd how Hau’ofa accomplishes abstract and important ideas through such a strange platform.  The word strange is at the heart of the discussion; he doesn’t rope-a-dope or shy away from an imposing figure of discomfort, rather he jabs into it constantly with the same comedic form.  Unpacking the style, Hau’ofa takes a rather disgusting and bleak subject and turns it into the central hub of the novel.  Farts are part of life, your anus is part of life, your acceptance of their inherent pivotal nature—should be part of life.  Why is it so unattractive to talk about the butt or anus?  The next time you go to a fancy dinner bring up bowel movements and ghastly farts, it’ll certainly spice up the mood.  While you have their complete attention, them being parents or friends, look deeply into their eyes and see the discomfort you have imposed.  It is undeniable, unless you have anally liberated family and friends, that an awkward pause or two will strangle the sound waves. But what doesn’t pulsate out of your conversation is a genuine insight to the universality of the body and its beauty.  Though we don’t kiss each other with our “arseholes” or greet eachother with a booming fart, we do encounter the utility of both frequently.  Wouldn’t it be funny, or strange, if we didn’t encounter our bottom half? So the discomfort associated with our anus should be overcome, by um humor.  We utilize humor to circumvent insecurity and uncomfortable situations.  But Hau’ofa delves into, I believe, an intricate part of our perception of the body.  Since there is a reaction to his abrasive language, it can be inferred that all of his readers have a gauge of discomfort associated with the ‘ugly’ part our otherwise majestic form.  But in all seriousness, we can romanticize our bodies as supreme, symmetrical, and godly and we can mask our perspective in advertisements of ‘perfect,’ ‘sexy,’ people.  Or we can confront the superficial and vane nature of believing in such a mirage (I’m not saying people aren’t beautiful, I’m hinting that beautiful people poop too).  Epeli confronts an institutional insecurity of a smelly, grotesque, and ugly body part; but the anus is critical in survival.  Doesn’t its pinnacle usage suggest its beauty, better yet, shouldn’t we accept our “arseholes” as assholes.  Epeli might suggest that humor and beauty converge, and we can see it most clearly against a white porcelain canvas; art is expression- no one clarified what’s expression.