Rethinking the Global Urban Space in Salman Rushdie's Novels


Madhumita Roy

PhD defended at: 

Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Kharagpur



1. Introduction

While cities –Jahilia, Sikri, Florence, Bombay, Karachi, London, New York and Los Angeles – play a pivotal role in Salman Rushdie’s fiction, they have received cursory critical attention. Although a few literary studies have recently focused on both the significance of cities in Rushdie’s artistic oeuvre and on the larger questions they raise about the contemporary urban condition, they have not taken into account the new insights provided by emerging interdisciplinary research on cities. Building on the interdisciplinary spatial turn in the humanities, the present study addresses this lacuna in Rushdie studies through focusing on cities as a “social space” (Lefebvre, 1991) in Rushdie’s novels such as Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), The Satanic Verses (1988), The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), Fury (2001), Shalimar the Clown (2005), The Enchantress of Florence (2008) and his latest novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015) leaving out Rushdie’s only speculative fiction Grimus (1975) and his fantastical children’s stories Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1992) and Luka and the Fire of Life (2010).

Using an interdisciplinary approach and drawing on an eclectic group of spatial thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre, Edward Soja, Doreen Massey, Pierre Nora, Michel De Certeau, Nigel Thrift, Rosi Braidotti, the thesis hopes to make an intervention in the new understandings of the contemporary global urban condition that privilege global cities as “strategic territories.” It identifies an alternative global urban space in Rushdie’s novels with the objective of rethinking the notion of the global city in two ways. First, it proposes a diachronic perspective on globalization by largely drawing on Edward Soja’s concept of synekism that is juxtaposed against the synchronic dominated by Saskia Sassen’s concept of the global city. Second, it engages with an immanent critique of twenty-first century global cities through focusing on (i) the alternative conditions of cities of the global south and (ii) the alternative spaces produced in the cities of the global north through the movement of the postcolonial migrant at various scales in Rushdie’s novels.

2. Literature Review

While Rushdie has often been considered as a postcolonial writer by postcolonial scholars who have focused on the politics of his texts, his novels have also been termed postmodern. In considering Rushdie as a postcolonial writer, mention must be made of the various critical (often conflicting) perspectives on Rushdie’s portrayal of the nation-state of India and Pakistan, especially his ability to deconstruct their naturalizing myths (Brennan, 1989; Prakash, 1990; Kortenaar, 1999); his occupying an energized position in-between the East and the West (Bhabha, 1994) that provides him with a stereoscopic vision (Rushdie, 1992) ; and his creative use of the English language to reflect the South Asian condition (Bharucha, 1994; Needham, 1988; Bardolph, 1994) simultaneously considered by certain critics to be inauthentic and exotic (Brennan 1989; Trivedi,1999). Several critics have also focused on the intertexuality in Rushdie’s fiction, which reinforces the multicultural and hybridized nature of his art.

Linda Hutcheon’s (1989) pioneering work classifying his novels as “historiographic metafiction”, a variety of the self-referential postmodern novel that simultaneously inscribes history and parodies it, is regarded as one of the first attempts in claiming Rushdie as a postmodern writer. More recently, Soren Frank (2011) has considered Rushdie’s novels through the postmodern philosopher Giles Deleuze’s concepts of the rhizome, lines of flight, assemblage etc. The other dominant critical trend in Rushdie scholarship is related to assessing the impact of “the Rushdie Affair” on Rushdie’s evaluation as a writer that engages with his troubled relationship with Islam especially in the aftermath of The Satanic Verses (Spivak, 1989; Said, 1989; Aravamudan, 1989; Mufti, 1991; Suleri, 1994; Mazrui, 1989; Afsari, 1991).

In contrast to these critical approaches, a handful of contemporary studies have recently focused on Bombay as a “lettered city” (Khanna, 2011) ; as artists’ material (Khanna, 2006); as a global city that has been shaped by the simultaneous forces of globalization and provincializing (Varma, 2004); as a part of the catoptrics image reconstituting London in The Satanic Verses (Parashkevova, 2007); as Rushdie’s “only ideal city”, which, instead of signifying a city of limitless possibilities resulting from the legacy of the colonial utopian vision, paradoxically exposes the failure of such desires and the “unrealizable dreams of the postcolonial citizen” (Upstone, 2009:87).Taking forward this new trend in Rushdie scholarship that establishes a connection of the cities in his fiction to the global/postcolonial/contemporary urban but simultaneously recognizing the failure of this new scholarship to engage with the full potential of the new interdisciplinary space, this thesis explores cities in Rushdie’s novels as sites of alternative globalization by building on “the spatial turn” in the humanities and social sciences.

2.1 What is the Spatial Turn?

Western thought has traditionally considered space as a passive co-ordinate and time as an active agent of change. However, as Michel Foucault prophetically declares in his seminal essay “Of Other Spaces” (1967), “the present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space.” To map our age of simultaneity and synchronicity, theories have taken a spatial turn and an ensemble of critical thinkers (Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, George Simmel, Gaston Bachelard, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze, Michel de Certeau, Fredric Jameson, Manuel Castells, David Harvey, Edward Soja, Saskia Sassen, Nigel Thrift to name a few) has become increasingly visible in recent socio-political, cultural and literary analyses. At face value, the spatial turn means that thinkers with a spatial orientation are receiving increasing attention in larger theorizing on society, culture, politics and economy. Similarly, figures from traditional spatial disciplines, such as geography, urban sociology, urban planning, urban studies etc. are attaining transdisciplinary status and a wider pedagogic influence. However, the far-reaching implications of the spatial turn can only be established when traced as a dialogue between traditional spatial disciplines and the rest of the humanities and social sciences, which results in transforming and perhaps radicalizing both. For scholars working in literary and cultural studies, the spatial turn might prove to be productive in initiating a rootedness or anchoring of their discursive readings in the materiality of actual locations and allow them to investigate the links between literary spaces and their contexts.

In this context, this thesis heavily draws on Lefebvre’s greatly influential book The Production of Space (published in French in 1974 and translated in English in 1991) and his emphasis on the epistemological value of the “social space”, which includes both the “physical” and the “mental” space but is not exclusively defined by the either of the two. Other major thinkers on globalization and the city that this thesis uses include Saskia Sassen (1991),whoproposed the idea of global cities in the early nineties. In the event of the simultaneous rise of “cities and regions” (sub-national units) and “globalized digital markets and free trade blocs” (supra-national units), Sassen considered the rise of global cities as strategic spatial units, which act as sites of centralized control in the global agglomeration economy, dependent on dispersed “service firms” that supplant the earlier hegemony of the nation-state. David Harvey’s (1989) concept of “time-space compression”, the product of the flexible accumulation of the postfordist economy giving rise to entrepreneurial cities to provide a “spatial fix” to peripatetic capital; Edward Soja’s (2000) six discourses on the postmetropolis; Manuel Castells’s (1989) concept of “the space of flows” as a product of the informational economy that is disrupted by “the space of places” of the fixed labour shaping the matrix of the new age city; Doreen Massey’s (1994/2005) work on gendered aspects of the spaces of globalization; Mike Davis’s (2007) apocalyptic analyses of the dismal urban involution climaxing in slum cities in the developing world; Neil Brenner’s (2004) more nuanced understanding of the spatial restructuring of the transnational economic order by focusing upon the re-scaling aspects of both the nation-state and the city in globalization; and Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift’s (2002) considering of cities in globalization primarily as a fluid state of the affect of human and non-human actors are few of the several influential strands in analyzing the space of the city in globalization to which this thesis refers.

These theories of the city in globalization are crucial to understanding the recent trends in place making and formations of cities. However, these discourses have originated in the global north and their case studies are limited to a few global cities such as New York, London, Tokyo, and the city region of Los Angeles. One strand in recovering alternative global cities of the south is to historicize globalization and focus on the central role of cities of the global south prior to the advent of European imperialism. Such approaches include the works of archaeologists and historians such as Justin Jennings (2012), Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (2006), Walter Mignolo (2000), Sheldon Pollock (2000), Janet Abu Lughod (1989) and others. The second approach to contesting metropolitan theories privileging cities in the global north focuses on destabilizing the paradigm from within by focusing on the inconsistencies of metanarratives emerging out of case studies of cities of the global south in the contemporary times. Arjun Appadurai’s (1996) analyses of the cultural economy of Bombay focusing on Bombay’s alternative modernity; Ananya Roy’s (2011) emphasis on the developmental agendas of slum entrepreneurialism in the cities of the global south; or Jennifer Robinson’s (2005) thesis of the “ordinary cities” that deconstructs the binary of the global north and the global south in developing a comparative, postcolonial approach to urban studies are some of the resistant approaches to the contemporary global urban from within.

3. Objectives and Scopes

The objective of this dissertation is to foreground an alternative discourse of cities that resists the contemporary theories of the global urban condition by focusing on Rushdie’s novels. This thesis employs an interdisciplinary spatial apparatus comprising an eclectic ensemble of thinkers from geography, urban sociology, urban planning, urban studies, literary and cultural studies as a methodology to engage with cities in Rushdie’s novels. Following the literature review, the thesis primarily employs two ways of foregrounding alternative perspectives on cities in Rushdie’s novels: (a.) by using a diachronic instead of a synchronic approach (b.) complicating the paradigm of contemporary globalization through foregrounding the gaps and silences on cities in the global south.

The first chapter explores how cities in Rushdie’s novels offer an alternative historical perspective on globalization through establishing differential interlinks and trajectories of the cities particularly concentrating on the global south. In the process, cities in Rushdie’s novels contest both contemporary globalization as the de-linked product of the flexible accumulation of the postfordist economy and its habitual privileging of the global north. In Rushdie’s novels, cities of the (now defined) global south—from pre-Islamic Jahilia; and from Mughal Sikri to postcolonial Bombay and Karachi—feature very prominently as interconnected and interdependent locales. In the first chapter entitled “Alternative Geohistories of Global Cities in Salman Rushdie’s Novels”, the thesis uses Soja’s (2010) concept of synekism, the generative impulse of urban agglomeration acting as the central force behind the rise of all spatial units, as a useful tool to investigate alternative interlinks and hierarchies of urban formations in Rushdie’s novels. Soja analyzes Catal Huyuk and Jericho, the earliest cities formed through synekism in South Central Anatolia 9000-10,000 years earlier, as products of the matriarchal and nomadic impulses of inclusiveness rather than of paternalistic exclusions of the state. Following Soja, this chapter traces the continuous interplay of matriarchal and nomadic energies of inclusiveness and patriarchal impulses of institutionalizing and exclusion in cities in Rushdie’s novels, which finally repeats with a difference in his depiction of amorphous, postmodern global cities.

The thesis also aims to establish that cities in Rushdie’s novels contest the discourse of contemporary globalization from within through foregrounding the gaps and silences on cities in the global south. The three chapters of the thesis that follow focus on this immanent critique of globalization in Rushdie’s novels. The second and third chapters of this thesis entitled “Bombay in Salman Rushdie’s Novels: A Study from Alternative Global Perspective” and “Houses of Memories: Alternative Global Homes in Rushdie’s Novels” focus on an alternative global space emerging in Rushdie’s novels that interrogates hegemonic deterritorialized and spectral globalization by referring to Massey’s concept of “global sense of place” and a modified form of Pierre Nora’s mnemonic framework of les lieux de mémoire (the site of memory) respectively.

In the chapter on Bombay, the focus is on the city in which Rushdie spent his childhood. The city features prominently in four of his novels, namely Midnight’s Children (1981), The Satanic Verses (1988), The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) and The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999). In the globalized world of ubiquitous placelessness, the strategies and the tactics of recovering “place” and politics associated with places, sometimes involving the micro scale of the body and sometimes macro scales such as communities, are matters of great significance for the major contemporary thinkers on space. Therefore, this chapter explores Rushdie’s sense of place as a progressive, global sense of place, which neither collapses into a reactionary nostalgia or nativist bigotry nor surrenders to a spectral, deterritorialized globalization, by considering Rushdie’s depiction of Bombay as a material place through focusing on land reclamation.

In the chapter that follows, the thesis focuses on homes in Salman Rushdie’s novels that may be considered as enacting the complexities of global homes. Globalization, often defined as a nomadic, deterritorialized era, has witnessed a crisis of homelessness. It has intensified instances of actual crises of home due to the escalation of a worldwide refugee crisis; real estate disasters; performative migrant home-building; and consumerist home-production, which have resulted in the creation of unhomely societies lacking in values of intimacy. Rushdie’s home-making may be analysed through modifying Pierre Nora’s (1989) concept of les lieux de memoire to envision his homes as alternative global homes. This chapter shows that homes in Rushdie’s novels not only enact the spirit of globalization but also become a corrective to its condition of homelessness through forming a link to the world not as deterritorialized,performative or consumerist homes but as recovered, lived and embodied sites of memory, which are conditionally accommodating to the outsider.

The final chapter of this thesis entitled “The Production of Alternative Global Spaces: Walking in the City in Salman Rushdie’s Novels” also focuses on the production of an alternative globalization at the micro level of the body. It engages with the trope of walking through the lens of “post-anthropocentric” theories, which posit a revisionist account of the “human” by focusing on the continuous evolving of the human through its potent encounter with its non human “other.” In the context of Rushdie’s novels, these theories open up possibilities of revising Michel De Certeau’s (1984) concept of “walking in the city” through divesting the act of walking of Certeau’s anthropocentric and Eurocentric bias that suggests the possibilities of resistant politics for walkers in the global south. In this process, alternative global spaces are produced in the cities in Rushdie’s novels with the body of the walker being revitalized as an affirmative political site by including the “other” in its fashioning of the self. In this chapter, the thesis also aims to explore the “vertical” production of the cities in Rushdie’s novels through the oriental and occidental mythmaking of heaven, earth and hell that resists the narrative of the horizontal, instantaneous production of the city by the entrepreneurial, performative, global capital.

4. Conclusion

The thesis focuses on cities in Rushdie’s fiction to challenge the dominant metropolitan discourse on cities. It engages with and critiques global theories of cities by recovering the decentred flows of globalization prior to European hegemony; and also to contest global theories from within by foregrounding the gaps they present in the context of the global south. These analyses reveal that cities in Rushdie’s novels, while lending themselves to new theories of space engaging with the contemporary global urban also have the potential to subvert their stereotyped positioning in the global north.

5. Contributions of the Thesis

The thesis makes three original contributions in the research on Rushdie and on cities. First, it fills up a gap in existing literary studies on Rushdie by adding to the growing literature on cities in Rushdie’s fiction. Second, as opposed to existing studies of cities in Rushdie’s fiction, it adopts an interdisciplinary approach to explore the new dynamics of cities in globalization from the perspective of the global south. Third, it traces an alternative trajectory of cities in the global south to critique contemporary discourses on globalization and cities emerging from the global north.

ICAS is an initiative of the
International Insitute for Asian Studies