Top positive review
It might sound like a very easy question but over the years
12 October 2017
Who are you? It might sound like a very easy question but over the years, the issue of identity has been made so complex that there is no longer a very direct answer to the question any more. Although whether the complications are required or not is an entirely different debate altogether, Sir Salman Rushdie in his thirteenth novel explores the various identity crises in the society.
It starts with an aspiring filmmaker, son of Belgian academics, René is writing a film featuring his new neighbours, moving in to New York on the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated. But who were they – a man and his three sons (or is it?) trying to dissociate themselves from their old names, with the patriarch naming himself Nero Golden, with his sons assuming Roman names themselves – Petronius (Petya), Lucius Apulius (Apu) and Dionysus (D). Predictably so, René’s film is called The Golden House and the question he asks is – who are they? Is it really possible to be completely shed all your past identities?
In his quest, René does get some of his answers, the Goldens are an extremely wealthy family with Indian origins where the patriarch seems to have made the decision to move out of his past life post the death of his wife following the terrorist attack in Mumbai on 26th November, 2008. But is that the only reason? While René tries to find the answers and to learn about the Goldens for his own film, René gets too involved that he becomes a part of the story of the Goldens himself.
The other identity issues that the author raises through his various characters are intriguing – one is that of Petya and alcoholic and agoraphobic, Apu – an artist who longs to return to his homeland and original identity and that of D, who is confused about whether he is man or a woman or the category of transgender he falls under. The women have a significant role too, Riya D, helping her boyfriend (or girlfriend) D through the identity crisis and at the other end, Nero marrying a significantly younger Russian woman, Vasilisa, whose entry eventually makes all the sons leave the Golden House as she assumes absolute control.
The author has made a good decision to return to realism rather than the usual genre of his being magic realism. This book lacks any element of magic and in the era of post-truth or truthiness (coined by comedian Stephen Colbert) the question is always as to whether everything we hear or see or told is actually the reality. The author doesn’t leave that stone unturned and frequently makes allusions to the current President of the United States as the story moves towards the end of Obama’s term. Without ever taking names, he refers to the winner of the 2016 Presidential Election as The Joker and his principal opponent as Batwoman. Considering René’s own background, he makes a lot of pop culture references, from Batman to The Great Gatsby, which considering my lack of knowledge in the area, started becoming difficult to follow and appreciate.
The author fills the book with various other allusions as well – such as Nero himself alluding to Trump, a rich man who considers himself all powerful and invulnerable, with a young wife from Eastern Europe, and a highly murky past from when investigated would open a can of worms. The author also brings out that even if you wish to shed your identities, they would eventually catch up to you and when it does, the Goldens start to fall apart.
René the narrator was very unlike Saleem Sinai of Midnight’s Children wherein, René is not the principal protagonist and as a writer of the Golden family’s mockumentary – what he describes as a story where he assumes the events whenever he wasn’t present, what we often do about people around us. Thus, René being the narrator rather than being one of the Goldens was indeed a very good choice.
The final third is where the author chooses to bring up the murky past which again, has a lot of allusions to reality and this is where, the extent of thrill would vary based on whom you are and the extent to which you know the history of the city of Bombay / Mumbai and how closely you followed the campaign of the current President of the United States. Since I am reasonably aware of both, it was very clear to me as to where he was alluding to Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim (Mumbai gansters) and also Donald Trump and based on the sequences, I could predict what was going to happen.
However, for those who aren’t familiar with those, along with the various issues of identity he has raised – touching upon blind nationalism, gender politics, other identity issues, this would also be a thriller plot unravelling along with an interesting political backdrop. But it could also be argued at the same time that for the plot, the political background was quite unnecessary.
The author has taken up a courageous task, of making political connections on an interesting plot, and that too, taking a position contrary to the trend in the two countries he hails from – being United Kingdom and India and also the country where he is currently residing, being the United States.
To conclude – it is an intriguing plot that keeps you gripped till the end and on that note, I would award the book a rating of four on five.