In the South by Salman Rushdie (Short Fiction review)

Saturday, March 3, 2012


I did something today morning that I am incredibly proud of; something that had humbled me once, the first time I tried it; something that I publicly claimed not to be interested in but was secretly very envious of all who had done it. I read a Salman Rushdie piece. Not an entire book - that's still a challenge, but a short story - In the South. And I have to say - he is not an intimidating writer at all; contrary to all my expectations, I actually enjoyed this story and loved the cleverness of his prose!

The first Salman Rushdie piece I had ever tried was his Midnight Children - a book that basically left my gray and white matters in tatters. Needless to say, I didn't even finished the book, bruised as I was. That was about seven years ago. Lately, I have been meaning to revisit his works, just in case I have grown up. His story, In the South, was recently in the news when Booktrack released a digital version of this story, complete with soundtracks.

In the South features two octogenarians - Junior V. and Senior V. who made a very hilarious pair. They were neighbors - proud men who loved each other's company but never admitted it. Every morning they had a more or less fixed routine - they woke up at pretty much the same time and came out to their adjacent balconies together to speak the same lines every day.
"Be thankful we are men of the south," Junior said, stretching and yawning. "Southerners are we, in the south of our city in the south of our country in the south of our continent. God be praised. We are warm, slow, and sensual guys, not like the cold fishes of the north."

"In the first place," Senior said, "the south is a fiction, existing only because men have agreed to call it that. Suppose men had imagined the earth the other way up! We would be the northerners then... In this regard, the points of the compass are like money, which has value only because men say that it does. And in the second place you’re not that warm a character, and a woman would laugh to hear you call yourself sensual. But you are slow—that is beyond a doubt."
The two men shared many similarities - their birthdays were just 17 days apart. They had the same name - V-something - the same long name just like many other people from South India. But they had had different lives - Senior V. belonged to a family with 200-odd members - siblings, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren included, so much so that he no longer cared to be surrounded by people. But now he had outlived many of them, including his first wife. He had remarried but didn't care too much for his second wife, whom he called 'Woman' or 'Wife'. In return, she got her revenge by inviting her family (which is also just as large) to their apartment, knowing fully well that Senior V. was especially annoyed when surrounded by bouncing energetic kids and babies.

(Picture credit)
Junior V. on the other hand lived a mediocre life. He didn't have a huge family and although he yearned to be someone important, he was reduced to clerical duties most of his life. He never took part in the affairs of his country, feeling more inclined to watch history pass by him without any opinion. On the day the story is set, Junior falls down and Rushdie offers glimpses into the dynamics of the two men and what happens after the fall.

I loved this story, mostly because it was funny and also thought-provoking. Very few books I read feature vivid 80+ year old characters - mostly they either sound as if they are 20 years old or they are just somewhere in the backyard of the book. Both Junior and Senior were immensely likable and took pride in their self-sufficiency. The first half of the story provided great glimpses into their friendship, and although both showed their disdain often enough to each other, it was pretty clear that they were two peas in a pod. The second half is set on the eve of the 2004 tsunami and the disastrous d-day itself, and has plenty of tones of death and loss. While this isn't another story of the tsunami's destruction at all (since the main climax happened on the day before), the deadly waves provide a metaphorical backdrop to echo out Senior's anguished thoughts.

Rushdie's prose was nothing like I remembered from Midnight's Children. It is just as beautiful and I loved his play with words. By the time of Junior's fall, I felt as if I had known these two men all my life. Their diurnal quibbles and memorable reminiscences served to shed more color to their personalities. The setting, Elliot's Beach in Chennai, was another pull of the story because it is a place I have been to often, having had family there for years. My only trouble with the story was with the last couple of paragraphs, where the pacing accelerated significantly and felt vaguely dramatic, quite out of sync with the rest of the story. Barring that, this is a story that I'll count among my favorites.


I read this book online on the The New Yorker. Go ahead and read it. Check out more of Rushdie's stories here.


4 comments:

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I've been intimidated to try his work.  A short story would be a great way to try.  I'm glad this one's so good.

Helen Murdoch said...

Reading Salman Rushdie is impressive; I feel the same way that a book by him intimidates me so I am glad to hear you liked this short story so much!

softdrink said...

I need to remember this strategy! Rushdie intimidates the heck out of me, too...I totally failed at The Enchantress of Florence. The page long sentences were too much for me.

Mona said...

Great review! I love how you analyzed the characterization. That's so true. I read a book at the end of 2011 that had an elderly lady as a narrator (I want to say she was in her 80s but I cannot remember for sure) and was unimpressed with the voice. It sounded like a young writer trying too hard to be clever. Since most writers aren't writing at age 80+, it can be a challenge to find a writer who understands what that would feel like and can transmit those feelings to the writer.

I've never read any of Rushdie's short stories, but thanks for pointing them out. I'll have to try them out!