Abstract: The concept of history in the works of Salman Rushdie is open to many interpretations and his daring portrayal of nations, events and people challenge the accepted notions about writing history into fiction. Rushdie’s vindication of the ‘imaginative variety of truth’ is noteworthy. The borderlines between the public and private spheres of experience, memory and imagination, and reality and fantasy are deliberately blurred. Many metaphors suggestive of the nature of time, history and historiography can be found in his novels, and he uses the techniques of allegory, anachronism and flashback while turning history into fictional narrative. Rushdie believes in the artistic freedom of an author to use the raw material of history for writing fiction, and while doing so one need not be bound by the conventional notions of history and can exercise the right to critique and create ‘altered and alternate versions of realities’.
Keywords: memory, historiography, fiction as history, history as social critique, chutnification, pickling, concept of history, imaginary homeland, fictional narrative
The concept of history and the strategies of narrating it in the works of Salman Rushdie can be interpreted along several lines. For him, history is a complex experience in which the private and the public spheres merge into each other. The recurring image of a story with juggled incidents or disunited episodes alludes to another possibility and dimensions of the portrayal of history in his works. Individual stories leak into the stories of societies, nations and the world. Rushdie philosophises history as ‘time’ and takes it to a metaphysical plane while he discusses it in terms of Kaala and the divisions of Kaala into Yugas, each of which has a definite characteristic of its own. When history gets personified in dictators who claim to have regulated the course of events, Rushdie gives it a political dimension.
Experiences and events become uncertain phenomena that are better interpreted not in concrete terms of history in the conventional mode, but through the subtleties of allegory, metaphors and anachronism. History in Rushdie’s works takes the form of a polyphonic narrative which is dappled with hues of hilarity, violence, shame, pain and acerbic satire. The metaphors that Rushdie use to indicate time and the lives of individuals intervening into and changed by events make history darkly poetic and grotesque. History can sometimes be a lived experience; its narration a combination of fragmented and discontinuous memories of incidents, places and people, real and imaginary.
Rushdie explicitly states his mistrust of conventional history. His novels exemplify the ways in which postmodernism problematises history and fiction. History in his novels is disjointed, provisional, plural and subjective. He is aware of the power of imagination to synthesise and transform the historical raw material into works of fiction. Imagination unshackles the mind of the creative genius from the basic and rudimentary facts of history. Rushdie fantasises nations, people and incidents. According to him fantasy is “a method of producing intensified images of reality” and also one of the functions of fiction is to “find techniques for making actuality more intense, so that you experience it more intensely in the writing than you do outside writing” (qtd. in Hoffenden 246).
Rushdie does not believe that history is an indisputable fact; he converts it into absolute fiction through his works by allowing fact and fiction to imbricate and seep into one another. For him history and fiction have no border lines since the former, in the process of understanding, recording and narrating can be like the latter. In his view, both history and fiction can be lived forward and written in retrospect. Rushdie feels that fictional form allows “the miraculous and the mundane to co-exist at the same level, in which the sacred and the profane can be simultaneously explored” (Imaginary Homelands 376). He defends the tendency to fantasise and make history fabulous. History is not only made by recorded events, but also made up and narrated. So like a story of life and the anecdotes within it, history can consist of or be concocted with recorded, remembered, imagined, exaggerated, underestimated and distorted elements. In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie justifies his blatant use of fabulation:
I genuinely believed that my overt use of fabulation would make it clear to any reader that I was not attempting to falsify history, but to allow fiction to take off from history. (408)
History for Rushdie is a story indeed, but it is not narrated with a proper beginning, middle and ending. The techniques to cross the borderlines of time such as flashback and visions of future are used by Rushdie. The metaphor of juggling used in Haroun and the Sea of Stories indicates the narrative technique used by Rushdie in his novels:
I always thought that story telling is like juggling. You keep a lot of different tales in the air and juggle them up and down; if you are good you don’t drop any. (108-109)
The nonlinear mode of story telling alluded by the metaphor of juggling implies the random selection and projection of multiple story lines. It is a technique which Rushdie uses in his novels for which he is indebted to the oral tradition and epics of India. ‘The Ocean of the Streams of Story’, which is a literal translation of the title of the work Kathasaritsagara in Sanskrit, combines all the stories in the universe and is in a state of constant flux and turbulence. We are told that “because the stories were held there in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories” (72). The ocean is never still but ever alive. A character in Grimus expresses his predilection for stories which are “like life, slightly frayed at the edges, full of loose ends and lives juxtaposed by accident” over the ones which are “neat, tight and organised in some grand design” (141).
Through the metaphors of ‘chutnification’ and ‘pickling’, Rushdie not only emphasises the haphazard selection of events but also their lack of chronological ordering in Midnight’s Children. The narrative that meanders through the labyrinths of events, with numerous digressions, breaks and ruptures, gives several dimensions to the concept of history in this novel. Rushdie overlooks the notion of continuity in and logical coherence of narration. There are curious parallels between the autobiography of the protagonist and the history of the nation. Rushdie is aware that history is partly formed in and by the people. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie describes how history forms the lives of people through the narration of the experiences of Saleem Sinai who is handcuffed to history. The technique of allegory is made use of by Rushdie in his novels to deal with various periods of history. Rushdie analyses each age in its contemporariness. In his novel Shame he makes it very clear that “time cannot be homogenised as easily as milk” (13). The narrative voice of Shame asks:
…is history to be considered the property of the participant solely? In what courts are such claims staked, what boundary commissions map out the territories?
Can only the dead speak? (28)
Rushdie suggests in his novels that history as a discipline is a matter of perception and it is invented and put together by people, in the same way as a person is invented by his circumstances. This concept of history has parallels with the process of fictional creation in that it is similar to how a character is invented in the novel. In the Enchantress of Florence, the available records of Mughal history are used to create the fantasy of Akbar’s India and the Rajput wife, Jodha turns out to be a fragment of Akbar’s imagination. Rushdie thus claims that what we find in ‘authentic’ historical records may be mere fantasy. People and incidents are created or altered to suit the purpose and politics of the ruler. The travellers and seafarers in this work explore such realms of fantasy that can never be mapped in reality. By asserting the fact that historical writing that is considered ‘real’ and so ‘reliable’ is concocted and manipulated, Rushdie vindicates the right to turn history into fantasy using imagination.
The narrative technique used by Rushdie has similarities to the epic and puranic modes of narration. The story moves backwards and forwards. The middle of the story is often suggestive of beginnings and endings. Flashbacks and visions of the future invade the present that Saleem inhabits in Midnight’s Children. In the novels of Rushdie, there is an inclination towards the present; the personae inhabit the terrains of the present that are haunted by the chimeras of the past, both actual and imagined. Future confronts the fictional personae with uncertainty. The boundaries between memory and real experiences, dreams and visions are blurred. This kind of switching over from past to present and future and from memory to the experienced and to the imagined in a random manner creates a chaotic experience of time in the works of Rushdie.
Rushdie challenges the official versions of truth and the concept of authenticity while dealing with historical raw material. He is aware of that plane of history which is kept silent and invisible. History is a social as well as personal experience in fiction. Each society has its own notions of time and history. Through creative writing, the socially constructed time is often subverted or reconstructed in other guises. In Rushdie’s works, history is a curious and muddled blend of memory, perception, experience, imagination and vision. Memory is understood as a power to transform. Memory is not reliable. It uses the freedom of selection and elimination. It can highlight and play down the events of history. Time has a personal dimension when it is being interpreted by the individual through his experiences and in a wider sense, we find in his novels how historical experience becomes a mass fantasy and a collective fiction. In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie opines:
History is always ambiguous. Facts are hard to establish and capable of being given many meanings….The reading of Saleem’s unreliable narration might be…a useful analogy for the way in which we all, every day, attempt to read the world. (25)
For Rushdie, imagination is a means of challenging the fixity of conventional historiography. Imagination, according to Rushdie is “the process by which we make pictures of the world” (Imaginary Homelands 143). Imagination helps one to write “books that draw new and better maps of reality and make new languages with which we can understand the world” (100). Rushdie does not try to suggest that imagination is infallible. Rushdie’s conceptualisation of imagination as the agent of synthesis and transformation, which is capable of liberating us from the crude facts of history, shows a possibility of treating history in fiction. About Midnight’s Children, he comments in Imaginary Homelands, “I tried to make it as imaginatively true as I could, but imaginative truth is simultaneously honourable and suspect” (10).
In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie discusses the difference between invention and imagination. When the first provides only ‘make-believe’, the second offers “reliable accounts of the horrific, metamorphosed reality of our age” (204). He does not deny that “imagination can falsify, demean, ridicule, caricature and wound as effectively as it can clarify, intensify and unveil” (143).
Rushdie feels that salvaging of the past in the present is subject to the vagaries of reminiscence. Rushdie is able to foreground memory as an integral feature of the depiction of the times past. In Imaginary Homelands, he observes that it is a process of “remaking the past to suit our present purposes, using memory as our tool” (24). The intentional errors in memory indicate the unreliable nature of memory. Remaking the past from memories is a technique followed in the earlier works of Rushdie.
The mixing up of historic pasts and the modern age in the works of Rushdie through memory and visions not only help to overcome the borderlines of time; the technique of anachronism used in the works of Rushdie also serves as a tool for satire and fantasy. Incidents like the Jalian Wala Bagh tragedy and the assassination of Gandhi are given with wrong time references in Midnight’s Children. The purpose is to suggest the unreliable nature of memory and also to remind the readers ironically that in India, Gandhiji always dies at the wrong time; his death has to be inevitably untimely. It shows the dubious nature of historiography and the unreliability of the writer.
Tai, the boatman in Midnight’s Children, who sets history in motion, remembers the arrival of Christ to the Kashmir valley. His description of a fat, bearded, polite, bald and gluttonous Christ chatting fluently in Hindi both fascinates and intrigues Aadam Aziz. Tai claims that on the cushions of his shikara, Jahangir himself has reclined. Aadam’s boyish mind travels to different lands and meets strange people, as Tai spellbinds him with the narration of his eccentric visions which are not restricted by the boundaries of time and the insistence on accuracy.
Rushdie uses the technique of fictionalising real events. In Midnight’s Children, the killing of Homi Catrack, a film magnate and lover of Lila Sabarmati, by the cuckolded Colonel Sabarmati is the famous Nanavati case. He discusses the Bombay riots in the same manner in The Moor’s Last Sigh.
The symbolic references to historiography, such as pickling in The Midnight’s Children, weaving of shawls in Shame and the art of painting on the huge canvas and creating a scattered collage of eras and events in The Moor’s Last Sigh, metaphorically suggest various possibilities of recording history. Like pickle, history is preserved in memory to spice up the meal of the present; the memories and thoughts are conserved for future use. But they get transformed into something else.
The concepts in the works of Rushdie, such as the reconstruction of history and the understanding of the past in the present, are expressed using the metaphors ‘chutnification’ and ‘pickling’. In the ‘chutnification’ of history many discourses come together in the historical narrative, giving it an indeterminable quality. ‘Pickling’ is a process of preserving the past to be tasted in the present and future. Each chapter in Midnight’s Children falls into a pickle jar, the last one being left empty for preserving the future. The novel metaphorically ends with a note against closure.
The processes of chutnification and pickling imply preservation and distortion at the same time. It is from the compulsions and traumas of the present that the narrators of the novels of Rushdie take off to the past and the future. The present in the novels of Rushdie is a puzzle for those who live in it. The attempts to escape it by retreating into memory or by imagining the future commonly appear in his novels. The characters wander through the pathways of time, exploring the world from its contemporariness to the antiquity and the imagined futures.
The fragmented vision through a perforated sheet suggests the possibility of understanding history as a plethora of disorderly events. In Midnight’s Children, Aadam’s vision of his future bride is fragmented, so is the historian’s perspective of India as a newly independent nation. When these fragments are put together in a narrative grid, shape and beauty are assigned to history. The understanding of an age through fragmented events does not give any clue about the wholeness of experience; this wholeness is illusory. It is something that is aspired for, but never possibly achieved. Rushdie suggests that this notion of wholeness is a contrived one, whether it is in the case of an individual, history or nations. The narrative voice of Shame describes the vision of Pakistan in the same manner, “I am forced to reflect that world in fragments of broken mirrors,… I must reconcile myself to the inevitability of the missing bits” (69).
Rani Harappa in Shame weaves the scenes of her husband’s cruelty and the consequences of his autocracy in the shawls. The multicoloured strands of memory and imagination reconstruct the hitherto de- visualised tales of Iskander Harappa’s misdeeds. The shawls that are never worn and kept locked in an iron box represent the protest of the oppressed also. Rani Harappa’s shawls focus mainly on what is excluded from history. For each of the celebrated virtue of the tyrant Iskander, the shawls offer an alternate view. In the shawls of Rani Harappa, Rushdie combines historical and literary motifs. The shawls represent the act of accusation and condemnation of the narrowness of Pakistani society. This is emblematised through Sufia Zinobia who blushes at the shames of her nation and like a saint endures its shamelessness.
Rushdie deems it necessary to portray shame, a very real emotion, by allegory. It is at ‘a slight angle to reality’. Rushdie overtly attaches Pakistan, ‘a miracle that went wrong’ and Sufiya Zinobia, ‘the wrong miracle.’ In essence, Sufiya Zinobia characterises an entire nation. She blushes at Pakistan’s shame created from violence, corruption, and the forced displacement of people. Her character represents certain aspects of history as shameful phenomena that consequently end up in violence. Rushdie makes Sufiya Zinobia’s shame literally unleash a beast from within, suggesting that shame manifests itself through violence.
Through the metaphor of the palimpsest, Rushdie analyses the process of historiography. The image of the palimpsest in Grimus analyzes the possibilities of multi-dimensional perspectives. Virgil Jones, the historian asks:
Is it not a conceptual possibility that here, in our midst, permeating all of us and all that surrounds us is a completely other world…? In a word, another dimension…if you conceal that conceptual possibility, you must also concede that there may well be more than one. In fact, infinity of dimensions might exist, as palimpsests, upon and within and around our own. (52-53)
In Shame, the narrator observes that to build Pakistan, it was necessary to cover up India’s history. A palimpsest always obscures what lies beneath. The idea of the palimpsest provides the key to The Moor’s Last Sigh also. The literal palimpsest as depicted by Aurora’s painting and the metaphoric palimpsest as a layering or re-creation allude to a possibility of recording history. The city of Bombay as well as the country is referred to as palimpsests:
…under world beneath the Over world, black market beneath white, when the whole life was like this, when an invisible reality moved phantomwise beneath a visible fiction, subverting all its meanings,… How could we have lived authentic lives? How could we have failed to be grotesque? (184-85)
In The Moor’s Last Sigh, historiography becomes an art that gives enough scope for the imagination and whims of the historian. In this novel, Rushdie initiates a historiography of the downtrodden masses in India that results in the problematisation of historiography. History in all its aspects — events, memories, majority outlooks, minority views, subjective and objective perceptions, experiences, political incidents, individual responses — all come in the montage of Rushdie’s history. In historiography, the preference for the plural over the singular is shown through the paintings of Aurora. The “torrential reality of India” (45) awakens her imagination. Figures from Indian history consort with hybrids of her imagination. Vasco da Gama is present as an ancestor.
Aurora’s paintings allude to Rushdie’s technique as a writer and suggest some strategies to read his works. Like Aurora’s paintings that form a jumble of contemporary vistas juxtaposed in symbolic or mythical scenes, Rushdie’s novels are an assortment of realism and imaginative fantasy. The creative liberty involved in interpreting the present against the foil of obscure pasts is permissible in making use of the historical material in fictional writing. Like painting, fiction is an art. The artist’s freedom can be asserted through the reinterpretation of memory, available records of history and lived or narrated experience.
The paintings of Aurora in The Moor’s Last Sigh have the same symbolic significance as the embroidered shawls of Rani Harappa in Shame. Aurora’s obsession with “the mythic romantic mode in which history, family and politics and fantasy jostle each other” (203) is similar to Rushdie’s way of making use of history as a material for fiction. Her paintings assume the status of allegories and like mirrors reflect the countenances and many moods of the nation. The nation and its jerky ride in, across and along ‘time’, called mythology or history can be mapped on the expanses of fiction.
History is often associated with pictorial aspects in the work of Rushdie. The collage of contemporary events in the paintings of Aurora, is created through the cleverly manipulated depictions of scenes from myth and romance. Like painting, history becomes an art which is open to be interpreted by the observer. Umeed Merchant in Ground Beneath Her Feet captures the disastrous incidents using a high resolution camera. This act symbolises the recording of a violent and disquieting present. The recorded things give an impression of being exact replicas of reality; but the photographer can select the angle, focus on what he chooses to include and leave out what he wants to exclude. Umeed knows that a photograph is a moral decision taken in a split second and a photographer occupies some space between voyeur and witness. The photographs taken by Umeed scream out the drama of the world. The sick, the dying, the rich, the greedy, the ecstatic, the killed, the children, the adults, the good and the bad populate the photographic world.
The Indian idea of Kaala has fascinated Rushdie. In Indian philosophy time or Kaala is conceived as having a cyclical pattern. In Midnight’s Children the division of time into four Yugas, that have different characteristics and traits, has been discussed. The realisation of Saleem that India is entering the Kaliyuga or the dark ages which precedes an absolute destruction shows his knowledge of Hindu Puranas.
The motif of quest is used in the works of Rushdie as a symbolic exploration of the unmapped terrains of history. The traveller, instead of finding an answer to his queries, is confronted with more and more questions unfolding before him. In his novels, the endlessness and inconclusiveness of history as knowledge is revealed through the various quests through the landscapes strewn with history. Moreover, these homeless journeys suggest the permanent exile of the modern man. The state of the immigrant and the predicament of exodus are treated as a contemporary reality and are symbols of the process of history itself. The parallels between history and the homeless wanderings can be traced in the works of the author.
Midnight’s Children is an odyssey of sorts. The journeys of Saleem Sinai become wanderings which commence and continue without any order or method. The bits and pieces of incidents that are cut, torn and ripped at random from diverse periods of history are arranged in a muddled collage. Saleem’s unique power to enter the minds of others enables him to understand history from various perspectives and he lives through different levels of experience. The quests of Saleem Sinai and the Moor, the protagonists in Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh respectively, are characterised by aimlessness. The aspect of fleeing from threats with a bundle of fear and hatred is portrayed in Midnight’s Children and Shame. Bloody violence is a major theme in these novels. Violence creates shame and the pack of shame is heavy on the heads of those who flee for refuge.
The works of Rushdie show the ambivalence of alienation and belonging. This dual consciousness of the migrant has a major role in moulding Rushdie’s historical vision. As an expatriate writer, Rushdie belongs to the nation without directly participating in its life and inhabits alien lands without belonging to them. In his works we find a deliberate interweaving of Indian life and its mythical parallels. He thus provides a colourful intertext of myth and fantasy to the history of the nation. His use of language in the novels shows translatedness because his English has purposely absorbed the styles and vocabulary of the local dialects of Indian languages.
Rushdie adopts varying tones, sober to lighthearted and has an inclination to fantasise. He is highly inventive in the use of language. The tone is deceptively casual and there is a touch of irony and a profusion of satire in his writings. Rushdie uses a very casual style even while discussing very serious issues. This tone is often misleadingly informal. Rushdie’s approach is not a simple literary experimentation in which stylistic devices are given more importance than character and plot. Rushdie blurs the distinctions between the tragic and the comic, the horrible and the ridiculous and the serious and the trivial. His satire is made vigorous by an intense understanding of character and society and is imbued with a strong loathing for the social ills.
Rushdie gives us dark and horrifying pictures of our todays. But his purpose is to make us realise the necessity of immediate action to save our future that is threatened to be lost and destroyed in the turbulence of todays. The novel, Fury is about the unrest and instability of the present in the globalised world inhabited by people with confused memories and absolutely no sense of the past. Shalimar the Clown depicts a paradise that has turned into hell and this transformation is traced through history by juxtaposing the memories and perspectives of many characters. The violence and communalism in the Kashmir valley has many origins and unpredictable consequences. One has to pay back history with one’s own life; no one is excluded, the unfaithful wife, the wronged husband who becomes a terrorist and the American Ambassador, a living martyr of the holocaust. Shalimar the Clown converts the locale into history.
Rushdie’s message is not that of utter pessimism, but a warning to man who takes refuge in false optimism about the progressing present world. The man living in the present should treasure the dreams and convert them to actions and learn from his memories. Rushdie says, “I am a writer. I do not accept my condition. I will strive to change it; but I inhabit it. I am trying to learn from it….Our lives teach us who we are” (Imaginary Homelands 414).
Rushdie sees politics as history in action which often turns to farce and tragedy, or both at once. His political world is ruthlessly Orwellian. It is replete with betrayals and violence. For him politics is always petty, opportunistic, self-serving and demagogic. It never gives scope for resistance to oppression. Rushdie’s stance is that of non- conformity. From a pedestal well above the bog of politics, he proclaims his condemnation of Right and Left alike. No one is free from his censure; Indira Gandhi, Pakistan’s great Generals, Communist Parties, Naxalites, Dictators, Empire and so on.
Rushdie insists that the restrictive frame works and the confining norms of fiction need not affect a writer. The social critique in his work and the sense of history should not be directed or regulated by the censorship lobbies. Art has the power to interpret and highlight the suppressed dimensions of human experience. When these dimensions are set free, literature and art become a common arena for people to meet and communicate. A great work of art is a bridge built between people and different ages. According to Rushdie:
Literature is an interim report from the consciousness of the artist and so it can never be ‘finished’ or ‘perfect’. Literature is made at the frontier between the self and the world, and in the act of creation that frontier softens, becomes permeable, allows the world to flow into the artist and the artist to flow into the world. (Imaginary Homelands 427)
In the opinion of Rushdie, a novel is “part social enquiry, part fantasy, part confessional. It crosses the frontiers of knowledge as well as topographical boundaries” (Imaginary Homelands 58). Rushdie asserts for fiction an imaginative variety of truth where freedom rules in place of institutional control. Fiction can ignore the commonplace facts and still appeal to the world of imagination to maintain that it corresponds to the true or authentic depiction of human experience in and across time. The Satanic Verses asserts that no limits can be set to the imaginative variety of truth. One may reinterpret the life of the Prophet and his messages. All is possible in fiction.
Rushdie’s idea of imagination is ambivalent. The significant exclamation of Gibreel in The Satanic Verses “If I was God, I’d cut the imagination right out of people” (122) suggest a curious reversal of priorities. Rushdie does not want the imaginative truth to claim the
supreme authority of reality that masquerade as absolute and objective. In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie expresses his view about the need to define the limits for imaginative freedom. Freedom of imagination, if over emphasised might represent a secular fundamentalism, and it is likely that it would “lead to excesses, abuses and oppression as the canons of religious faith” (418). Of all the art forms, literature can still be the most free because “the interior spaces of the imagination is a theatre that can never be closed down” (426). This does not mean that Rushdie considers literature a privileged category. According to him “the only privilege literature deserves-and this privilege it requires in order to exist—is the privilege of being the arena of discourse, the place where the struggle of languages can be acted out” (427).
As a writer, Rushdie follows the technique of gathering the threads and motifs of life, experience and memory and weaving them into a fictional narrative. Patchworks of events, emotions of all colours and a melange of perspectives merge on the very fabric of history. His novels contain a chaotic hotchpotch of myths, cacophonous voices, jostling personalities and events. The multi-dimensionality of narratives makes his novels a huge canvas designed to display the collage comprising historical incidents and pieces of memory. It becomes no more necessary to tell apart lived experiences and a life lived in imagination. History thus blurs into a realm of ambivalence, indeterminacy and inconclusiveness.
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BINI B.S. Is a Lecturer at parul Group of Institutes ini Baroda, Gujarat and also worked as a temporary lecturer at M.S. University of Baroda.