13 December 2018
Salman Rushdie might be one of the best writers acting as a bridge between western and oriental culture, effortlessly blending them in a potpourri whose fragrance can seduce readers from both the worlds. He turns otherwise humdrum lives into fables, weaves the baroque into the ordinary and is somehow always able to find analogies from history, art, music and literature (and cinema too, as in this book) that educate and astonish me by turns. Sometimes I wonder what manner of brain could retain such a repository of knowledge and summon it at will, delivering it in passages of almost musical perfection.
But these aren’t the only commonalities in the few nuggets of his oeuvre that I have managed to pick up so far. Mr Rushdie seems obsessed by the idea of an exile (being one himself), defining his key characters as individuals uprooted from their motherland who, despite slipping into the folds of an alien milieu, retain the essentials of their place of birth in their heart. In the case of ‘’The Golden House’’ it’s not just the essentials for Nero Golden - the patriarch of an apparently illustrious but enigmatic women-less family that comes to settle in Greenwich Village, New York in 2008, an unforgettable year for both America and the ‘country that must not be named’ - but a dark secret that takes a long, checkered and multi-hued book to reveal.
My last outing with Mr Rushdie’s fiction was ‘’Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,’’ a book that relied too heavily on magical realism. Not this one. The Golden House rides on stark realities of a world that doesn’t seem to be changing for the better (The Trump Phenomenon), seen through the movie-camera lens of a Belgian-American screenwriter (hence the cinematic references that abound in this book) whose insatiable and shameless hunger for story (as is the wont of any writer worth his salt) embroils him in the Goldens’ affairs to an extremely discomfiting extent, almost in a soap-operatic way, but that’s part of the intended black comedy that Mr Rushdie is so adept at bringing out in his works.
The American setting makes the narrative much more flexible and effortlessly ambitious than it could have been in an Indian one where, even in a newly queerdom-tolerant society (this happened in 2018, a year after the book’s publication), prudish critics would have found the openly lesbian encounters and other sexual shenanigans rather too bitter for the palate. A case in point is an episode of India’s no.1 English talk-show ‘’Koffee with Karan’’ being pushed to a late hour for the mere fact that the guests - the stunning Czech-Pakistani beauty Nargis Fakhri and the Mumbai-raised Hollywood actress Frieda Pinto - had openly mentioned strap-ons and a small dick.
There is a lot of meat on the characterization front. Where the father Nero is an enigma waiting to unravel, his sons symbolize three radically different individuals who are closely connected, quite paradoxically, by the mere fact of being Goldens. Riding on their remarkable personae, Mr Rushdie composes an incisive and far-reaching satire on modern society, its Americanism always visible but often fading away in favour of wider considerations - the human condition, so to speak. Petya, the loner addicted to video-gaming isn’t hard to picture, what with the blue-light-emitting, electronic-device-dependent environment that so many young people have been existing in since the advent of the smartphone and other demons of its ilk. Apu, the middle one, is an artist while D Golden, the youngest, is the one with gender-based question marks falling like unwanted confetti over the crumbling edifice of his happiness. D had the most lasting impact on me, and definitely would on a big chunk of humanity that struggles with gender identity. It’s perversely laughable that arguably the most liberated society on the planet seems to have a leaky bottom when it comes to fending off potential suicides caused by the Zeus of all grief - depression. Under a sky where so many variants of god’s two original (unimaginative?) genders are allowed to exist (as Rushdie lists in the book: gender fluid, bigender, agender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, non-binary etc), what awaits D at the end of his journey is still a bullet to the head. The victim of a dire family history or the tempest inside his brain or simply one of many people struggling to identify themselves no matter what part of the world they live in? Bullets kill everywhere if a willing hand helped by a weighted psyche presses the trigger. What a sad leveller for the world. Globalization of the ammunition kind.
There is an assortment of women too: Vasilia, the quintessential vamp (Baba Yaga wearing human flesh, as Rushdie says); Suchitra Roy, the filmmaker and the narrator’s lady love; the Swedish-American Riya with the economized name who works at the very interesting Museum of Identity; and Uba, the artist and bone of contention between two brothers.
The author has experimented with several narrative styles too that run the gamut from harking-back-to-classics description to plain dialogue to stream-of-consciousness to epistolary and even a long-drawn-out chronicle of the growth of the mafia and its influence on popular culture in Bombay from the 1960s to the fateful day of 26/11, pinning stage names on such famous and infamous characters as Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim.
The last part of the book was an entirely different world from the one that I had been living in as I followed the misadventures of the Golden family and the voyeur with the mental camera who erected it all for the audience in the way of a movie being transitioned to a book, with words like Cut intervening here and there, even references to music playing in the background as an act lived its short, deliberately-dramatized life in front of the invisible cam’s eyes.
Overall, I’d call this book an immensely satisfying experience and a mammoth of storytelling from an author whose abilities are refusing to bow down to the scourge of age.