Mind Sweet Mind: A Closer Look at Salman Rushdie's Invisible Homeland in East, West
Every person has a birthplace, a starting point that offers a sense of identity for an individual. Through this start, this receding to the roots mentality, one examines their present in terms of their constructed past. Salman Rushdie touches upon this concept of past to present comparison within his vignette “The Courter,” in his novel East, West. Throughout “The Courter,” there is an everlasting push and pull of “worlds in transition,” between the Indian character Mary and her family, as they attempt to adapt culturally to England (Bahris, 13). However, since Mary is older and has never traveled, her Indian roots remain the starting point to which everything is compared. Mary’s roots alone are unable to explain the surrounding structures that exist outside the “invisible” domain of the “India of [her] mind” (Rushdie, 10). To remedy this situation, Rushdie incorporates the idea of “the courter,” who aids Mary in transitioning to England. Through the jealous eyes of Mary’s grandson, the narrator, Rushdie metaphorically depicts both the allure, and alienation present within a state, or ‘relationship’ of cross-cultural integration.
By maintaining a relationship with the courter, Mary displays her desire to possess a sense of companionship within her new, but foreign home (185). When transitioning into a land with infinite cultural differences, it is easy to feel misplaced, and especially misunderstood. By befriending the courter, Mary not only connects herself to a physical relation, but also to a means of cross cultural communication. Through her relations to the courter Mary feels understood, and gains understanding of the English “crumpets,” and “Bedrock” singing culture (188). However, without the discovery of the courter, this bridge between worlds would not have existed for Mary. Mary’s lack of prior understanding of English culture is displayed ironically when she first meets the courter. Since Mary had no prior relations to England, nor the English language, she mistakenly announces the porter, as her “courter” (177). Upon hearing “this name,” he declares that “[a]courter,” is something that he “will we try to be” for Mary. In light of his efforts, Mary starts to branch out her understanding to encompass not just her past, and herself in society, but the world presently around her.
Through the “transformation of chess into a private language,” between the courter and Mary, Mary finds a sense of “adventure,” in adapting to new surroundings (Rushdie, 195). In chess there are two sides, each aiming to trap the other in an unfair, outnumbered position. Rushdie uses the chess game within “The Courter,” as a metaphor to depict the constant battle of balance that a character of two sides, or two cultures, must maintain. Fittingly, the courter who has emigrated many years ago from India to England is a master of the game, and decides to teach Mary the game as well. Through his teaching, she finds the ‘game’, the process of adapting to different angels and perceptions, as exciting as a new “country,” that she has never seen (195). By teaching Mary the game of chess, the courter describes to her how his societal stance of “straddling two cultures like stools,” presents him with an infinite amount of strategies to maneuver himself without feeling trapped by either side. Through the introduction to this concept, Mary for once feels limitless, and not limited, by her bicultural status, or “plural identity” (11).
After witnessing the chess-inspired romance between Mary and the courter first hand, the narrator “wishes [he] had someone too,” to help him gain an identity (197). One day the narrator decides to join Mary and the courter for a game of chess. Thinking that he could beat either, he challenges both to a game. However not expecting the mastered skill of the courter, nor the knowledge he had provided Mary, the narrator loses and is ultimately “humiliated,” and “defeated” (196).
In light of this “dreadful” feeling of inferiority and loneliness, the narrator seeks to establish a romance with someone. At first, the narrator attempts to date a Polish girl, named Rozalia. Rozalia dates him a couple times, but leaves him with no more than a couple of sandwiches bought, and momentary gropes. After that doesn’t work out, the narrator fantasizes about dating Chandi, an Indian classical dancer. Through these choices it becomes clear that Rushdie is depicting the narrator’s desperation to find a single cultural identity. He seeks a connection to his nostalgic Eastern roots within Chandi, and a desire to possess the ever so tempting but distant Western culture within Rozalia. Neither women offer more than a piece of something, an intangible idea, insufficient to fulfill his heart and identity’s needs. Through his desperate attempts to devote himself to one culture, the narrator displays his own “internally divided” nature, and his sense of alienation in society (Bahri, 13).
After witnessing the courter’s stabbing, Mary has her first encounter with a feeling of alienation. Once the courter, the master link to her bicultural world was stabbed, Mary no longer felt fit enough to straddle two cultures any longer. What made her bicultural tie strong, was the belief in the courter’s lesson, and ability to control two sides, the East, and the West. However after the Western youth attacked the courter, the courter no longer appeared to be in control of the cultural game any longer. Witnessing this move, Mary loses faith in her ability to exist in the West any longer. The courter was just one man within the whole of society, and this painful distinction reminded her of the fact that she was also only one ‘piece’, on a vast board of land. After this realization of inferiority, Mary becomes sick with emotional exile, claiming that, “England was breaking her heart” (209). In order to get better she must, “go home.”
Although Mary’s voluntary move back to India ceases her “heart trouble,” her move intensifies the feeling of alienation that’s already present within her grandson (210). When riding home, Mary looks “straight ahead,” and doesn’t bother to display any sense of emotional pain. By displaying such a lack of emotional attachment to leaving her home in England, the home that the narrator was a member of, the narrator feels disregarded. Although the narrator “had known and loved her, his whole life,” this fact did not seem to matter; his grandmother was still returning to her home and leaving his. Without his grandmother, and her relationship to the courter, the narrator no longer had any relation to judge his own bicultural stance. Losing his grandmother did not just lose him a relation, but the only relations that he witnessed between his Eastern and Western world. Continuing the theme of alienation within the narrator, Rushdie also has Rozalia and Chandi, his singular links to the Eastern and Western culture, abandon him as well. Rozalia becomes engaged to a “real man,” and Chandi decides to return to India. Knowing no true sense of companionship to any culture the young narrator experiences an “intense sense of loss” of identity (12).
Although, it is not until the narrator is older that he discovers the ever constant pull that a cross cultural individual most feel his entire life. Upon leaving and returning to his old flat in England, he describes the urges of the East, and the West, as “nooses tightening, commanding,” begging him to “choose, choose.” At this point in the story the narrator recognizes the unassailable stance that he has always held, between two cultures. When the narrator was young, he saw his lack of connections to any culture as a means of failure; however, it was only a failure on his part to choose either side wholly. The narrator knew that neither Rozalia whom he always “pursued,” nor Chandi, “a teenage dream,” ever actualized themselves as being more than just passing desires to him. What he desired most was what Mary and the courter possessed, a true sense of cultural understanding, by existing in their sense of misunderstandings. By coming to realize this fact, the narrator no longer displays a sense of loss, but a sense of understanding to his own state, his unique culture.
Salmon Rushdie once wrote that “we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions…partial beings, in all senses of that phrase.” Although the narrator, and Mary within “The Courter,” felt as if they were “partial,” beings, they were being nothing more than true individuals. No one ever knows the true sense of their own life, and in consequence no one will ever know a true sense of identity. Therefore although adapting to another culture presents the characters with an issue to whether or not they belong, Rushdie informs the reader that belonging is not the point. What the point is, is to recognize that one’s place is rooted only by one’s own view. Since the narrator felt no affinity to either East or West, he never became rooted in either. Since Mary felt only comfort within the confines of India, she returned and felt at home instantly. Our place in society is dictated by our own choice, by discovering what location pulls and compels us--and living by the pulls as best as one can.
Bahri, Deepika. "Predicting the Past." Modern Language Quarterly 65.3 (2004): 481-503. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. East, West: Stories. New York: Vintage International, 1996. Print.