Salman Rushdie and the chutnification of language (by Dr Mela Sarkar)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

chutney (noun): a mixture containing fruit, spices, sugar, and vinegar…(Cambridge English Dictionary)

…a willingness to use untranslated words from another language….This was the way we spoke English in Bombay, sprinkling it with Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, or Gujarati words. It was also the way we spoke Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, and Gujarati, sprinkling those languages with English words where they seemed appropriate….English, I understood, could be chutnified. That was a moment of real liberation. (Rushdie, Languages of Truth, 2021, p. 92)
Rushdie interviewed after the attack by EuroNews

Nearly fourteen months ago—on August 12, 2022—the author Salman Rushdie was rushed by a surprise attacker on the lecture stage in upstate New York where he was about to speak to an audience of about 2,500 people. Rushdie, then 75, was stabbed several times; fortunately people on the scene and first responders were quick enough to make it possible for him to survive the attack, though the stab wounds were severe, and “resulted in damage to his liver, lost vision in one eye and a paralysed hand caused by nerve damage to his arm.”

All that is strictly peripheral to this piece of writing, but can’t, now, be left out of most public mentions of the author and his work. I wish it could be otherwise. I have been enjoying Rushdie’s fiction since my father (born in 1929 in what was then British India and is now Bangladesh) was given a copy of Midnight’s Children (1981) by an academic colleague of his who announced, “Finally, I get it, about India!” This comment needed (but didn’t get) unpacking—my sisters and I had grown up with India as the distant, mostly imagined, well-entrenched backdrop to our white Anglo-Canadian neighbourhood in 1960s Toronto—so I was curious. The hero, Saleem Sinai, and the other 1000 children born in Rushdie’s imagination at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the moment when India became independent from Britain after 200-odd years of occupation, used their fantastic superpowers to lift the novel into superstardom as the winner of the Booker Prize that year and the “Booker of Bookers” 25th-anniversary prize in 1993, as well as the “Best  of the Booker 40th-anniversary prize in 2008.

Frontispiece and title page of Midnight’s Children in the 2009 Folio Society edition

Like another well-known work of so-called “magic realism,” Gabriel García Marquez’s 1967 One Hundred Years of Solitude (not coincidentally one of Rushdie’s favourite books), Midnight’s Children is a novel that has not aged, that can be read and re-read, yielding more riches as the reader grows older. If you want to “get it,” about India and the subcontinent, Midnight’s Children is a good place to start.

The fiction continued; the pleasure of reading it continued; thirty years ago, when my own children were small, I read Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) to them over many bedtime instalments not once but three times, at their insistence. During that decade, Rushdie was living in hiding because of the fatwa that had been issued against him by the then-leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The novel that had been the indirect genesis of this outrageous act, The Satanic Verses (1988) has probably had more ink spilled and screens filled about it than any other work of fiction I can think of; I needn’t add anything here. Verses moved readers from post-Independence Bombay to the 1980s world of South Asian migrants to Britain. Haroun takes place outside any reality one can visit, but remains one of the most powerful testaments to the importance of free speech and the magic of storytelling ever written, because children of seven or eight get the point about censorship and the need to challenge repressive authority, as mine did, at the same time as they bounce along with the child-hero on his magical journey. (Sadly, the only place in Haroun that bears a resemblance to any place in the geography of this planet, the Vale of Kashmir, is forever lost to us in the incarnation Rushdie describes. Most of the action takes place on a different planet, one which I encourage the reader to discover. But that, as Haroun’s fictional storyteller father might say, is another story.)

Haroun illustrated by Sho L. Uehara

The Islamic-fundamentalist response to The Satanic Verses moved Rushdie into a world that he must have wished was fantastic, but that was horrifyingly real. After the proclaiming of the fatwa in 1989, Rushdie disappeared from public view and was under police protection in London for nearly ten years, during which time he managed, despite the odds, to stay alive and to continue to write, both fiction and nonfiction. His collections of essays, published in 1991, 2002 and 2021, were where I first started to feel that I was conversing with the man in my head, rather than being tumbled enjoyably and a little dizzyingly into the mesmerizing universe of his fiction. In August 2022, when news of the knife attack—a tragic testament to the fatwa fallout—hit the press, I had just acquired and started to read Rushdie’s 2021 essay collection, Languages of Truth. Since Haroun there had been no fewer than ten more novels; the collections of essays; many short stories; and a 2012 memoir of the fatwa years, Joseph Anton, eponymously titled by the alias Rushdie lived under while in hiding. The literary-pseudonymic tribute is to authors Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov—shortened in real life to “Joe” by the British Special Branch officers charged with protecting Rushdie around the clock through those interminable years. At the time of the 2022 attack, Rushdie’s novel Victory City had just come out to enthusiastic reviews (I am half a dozen novels behind, I admit it, but I’ll catch up!).

Now, as a sabbatical year comes to a close for me, I am also about to finish up a first reading of Joseph Anton, a second reading of the 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, and lots of browsing through essays that took me to the 2021 “chutnification” quote with which this blog post opens. “That’s IT!” I thought, stunned by this seamless melding of my lifelong reading self with my more recently-forged academic self (since translanguaging and/or plurilingualism and/or heteroglossia and many other ors have not been part of the general and/or critical sociolinguistic lexicon for more than a couple of decades at most). Scholars from the subcontinent have, of course, been pointing out the obvious for some time—for example, Canagarajah, 2007; Pattanayak, 2000, who memorably wrote, “Any restriction on language use is intolerable. Two or three languages are barely tolerable and one language is absurd” (p. 47).

But here was the word I had been searching for all those years, coined by Rushdie way back in 1981, buried deep in Midnight’s Children (Krishnamurthy, 2018, obligingly dug it out), better than all-of-the-academic-above because with an origin not in Latin or Greek but in Sanskrit, the language of Rushdie’s distant ancestors and also of mine (Urdu and Bengali are both its great-great-granddaughters; they are cousins): “The word chutney derives from [Sanskrit through] Hindi चाटना chāṭnā ‘to lick’ or ‘to eat with appetite.’” The chutnification that Rushdie and this blog celebrate in our different ways is linguistic, but it can usefully be taken as a metaphor for the way we live our lives, those of us with roots deep in both East and West. We are chutnified, we are the agents of our own chutnification. As Rushdie has said elsewhere, we have multiple belongings, which for me also means multiple unbelongings. We call many places home, it’s true; we are able to act and also feel like insiders in wildly divergent surroundings. The corollary is that we are very much aware of the many ways and places in which we are, rather, outsiders. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

Intrinsic to chutnification, furthermore, is the refusal to translate; the “willingness to use untranslated words” that Rushdie wrote about in 2021 contains within it a fine disregard for monolinguals who won’t make the effort to use common humanity to bridge cultures and languages. Accepting this kind of irrepressible sprinkling about of words and ideas from Somewhere Else, unlexified in “our” vocabulary, perhaps unlexifiable outside the contexts in which they are rooted and have deep meaning, is, to my mind, not quite the same thing as translanguaging, as plurilingualism. Those are of course good and important concepts and it was high time we in the West started to work with them, as educators, as researchers. But the words and the concepts remain deeply Eurocentric. The air of the academy hangs about them, whereas chutnification belongs in the marketplace, in the bazar, the open air, and is, quite simply (as its Sanskrit root tells us), delicious.

On this and many other topics, my imaginary conversations with Rushdie are ongoing. We frequently argue, sometimes passionately. While he continues to write, I will continue to read, and to be pushed to question (because Rushdie, even at his most overbearing, is constantly self-questioning) much of what I thought made up me.

When I started looking for online sites where I could do simple things like copy-paste a list of Rushdie’s published books (it’s appended below), I found that I had stumbled into a mega-morass of writing about Rushdie by other people, meaning, critics, journalists, and other riff-raff (there’s a lot of riff-raff). I decided not to allow myself to be that thoroughly swamped, because the relationship between myself-as-reader and Rushdie-as-writer is very much a personal, and, in my mind, a co-constructed, one. This, despite the fact the other partner in the relationship has no idea I exist. I am, quite irrationally, convinced that he would approve.

(In fact I did drop in on Rushdie’s Official Author Website. It has very cool graphics and links. Needs a bit of updating—it only gets us to the end of 2019. I guess the pandemic happened.)

Taken from Salman Rushdie’s Official Author Website

Thank you for your work, Salman. I hope that you and the India we both love may live to be a hundred. I am often (see my last BILD blog post) not so sure that India is going to make it.

If just one reader of this blog post starts reading Rushdie because of it and gets hooked, I will have achieved what I set out to do here. There has been so much media hype, so many words and images devoted to everything about the man but his creative output (in an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker earlier this year, Rushdie laments, “I’ve always thought that my books are more interesting than my life. The world appears to disagree.”)

As Rushdie says in another recent interviewread his damn books. There are nearly two dozen of them (not even counting the edited volumes and screenplays), so there’s bound to be something in there for readers of this particular blog. Don’t get distracted by the extremist waving about of proclamations, knives and other items irrelevant to the appreciation of literature that can profoundly change a person. Read.

Let a hundred flavours of linguistic chutnification flourish!

Rushdie in 1981, aged 34, taken when Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize

References, some in non-APA fashion

Canagarajah, S. (2007). Lingua Franca English, multilingual communities and language acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 923-939.

Krishnamurthy, S. (2018). The chutnification of English: An examination of the lexis of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.” Public full-text uploaded to ResearchGate. Accessed 7 October 2023.

Pattanayak, D.P. (2000). Linguistic pluralism: A point of departure. In R. Phillipson (Ed.), Rights to language: Equity, power and education; celebrating the 60th birthday of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. Lawrence Erlbaum.

By Salman Rushdie:

1975: Grimus (London: Paladin).

1981: Midnight’s Children (London: Jonathan Cape).

1983: Shame (London: Picador).

1987: The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (London: Picador).

1988: The Satanic Verses (Delaware: Consortium).

1990: Haroun and the Sea of Stories (London: Granta).

1991: Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism: 1981–1991 (London: Granta).

1994: East, West (London: Vintage).

1995: The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995; London: Vintage).

1999: The Ground Beneath Her Feet (London: Vintage).

2001: Fury (London: Jonathan Cape).

2002: Step Across This Line: Collected Non-Fiction 1992–2002 (London: Jonathan Cape).

2005: Shalimar the Clown (London: Jonathan Cape).

2008: The Enchantress of Florence (Vintage Random House)

2010: Luka and the Fire of Life (New York: Penguin Random House)

2012: Joseph Anton (New York: Penguin Random House)

2015: Two years eight months and twenty-eight nights (New York: Penguin Random House)

2017: The Golden House (London: Jonathan Cape)

2019: Quichotte (London: Jonathan Cape)

2021: Languages of Truth (New York: Penguin Random House)

2023: Victory City (New York: Penguin Random House)

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