A dear friend, who moved to the US, once told me that perhaps the greatest myth that generations of Indians have held to is the similarity of the Indian life with that of its former ruler, Great Britain. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said one evening, over drinks, during one of his numerous sojourns to his motherland. According to him, if there was one thing he learned since moving to the US, it was the inescapable fact that if there is one country India is similar to, in terms of its temperament, it’s the US. I didn’t make much of this idea then, but over the last one year, in view of a series of unfortunate events that might just put Lemony Snicket and his wonderful creation, Count Olaf, to proverbial shame, I was compelled to revisit my friend’s hypothesis. This idea is only reinforced in Salman Rushdie’s newest offering, The Golden House.
The novel, designed as an homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age document, The Great Gatsby, is about a family – Nero Golden and his three sons – as they flee from their life in India in the wake of the November 26 Mumbai terror attacks to a plush life in New York’s MacDougal Street. Like all of Rushdie’s earlier works, The Golden House contains a decent doze of what can be called the ‘Rushdie-esque’: families with a terrible past that they are ostensibly trying to escape from, only to have the past catch up on them, hybrid identities, migration, metamorphoses, and the inescapable power of history as it winds its tentacles on the personal as well as the political, thereby rendering the separation between those two invalid.
But unlike his other novels, The Golden House is much more moored to the realist tradition, and by that alone, bears a much greater resemblance to William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. (There is a bit of Kafka, there too, in spirit). But maybe the abiding influence here is Philip Roth.
Beginning with Barack Obama’s inauguration, we follow the novel’s narrator, Rene Unterlinden, as he frequently visits, spies, becomes obsessed with, imagines and is subsequently sucked into the life of his next door neighbour, the Goldens. In this vein alone, Unterlinden, becomes a Nathan Zuckerman-like entity – Roth’s great creation. He is both narrator and character as he prods through the lives we are not privy enough to understand. The novel ends roughly around the time Obama’s presidency ends and the ‘series of unfortunate events’ in the recent life of the US (and by extension, India) begins, with the coming to power of Donald Trump (who is characterised in the novel as The Joker, pitted against the Batwoman aka Hillary Rodham Clinton).
While Fitzgerald sought to distil the essence of the Jazz Age through the life of Jay Gatsby as he pines and obsesses over Daisy Buchanan – a metaphor maybe of the elusive Great American Dream – Rushdie’s Nero and his three eccentric sons, the elder Petya, with his mild autism and wild agoraphobia, the middle Apu, part time artist and fulltime womaniser, and the tragic youngest D, with his ever-changing desire to eschew normative notions of gender restrictions, becomes a document of what has come to be known as the post-truth age. Indeed, the novel, with Unterlinden as the Zuckerman-like narrator, constantly reminds us that what we are indeed reading can be both the real and the figment of someone’s imagination.
Roth observes in his monumental novel, The American Pastoral:
“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”
By making Unterlinden the narrator – who, by the way, is writing a screenplay, which will eventually be titled The Golden House – Rushdie peppers the book with this question: can we know any life, which is different from our very own, fully? If, to return to Roth, living is all about being wrong about others and being wrong again, repeatedly, what does that make men in power, with the authority to shape public opinion? Or to quote Unterlinden himself from the novel,
“In these our cowardly times, we deny the grandeur of the Universal, and assert and glorify our local Bigotries, and so we cannot agree on much. In these our degenerate times, men bent on nothing but vainglory and personal gain – hollow, bombastic men for whom nothing is off-limits if it advances their petty cause – will claim to be great leaders and benefactors, acting in the common good, and calling all who oppose them liars, envious, little people, stupid people, stiff, and, in a precise reversal of the truth, dishonest and corrupt.”
‘These cowardly times’ can very well be the refrain of this weird age we are living in at this moment. What Rushdie writes above about ‘bombastic men’ can be true for both Trump, and closer to home, a certain “barrel chested man named NaMo.” My friend who pointed out that America and India are like siamese twins, conjoined at the hip, later elaborated that he thought so because both our democracies are uncannily similar. We are both founded not so much on the legacy of peace, but violence, the Partition here, and the extermination and corralling of native Americans and slavery of Africans there. More than anything else, as Tocqueville observed in the case of America, if there is one truth about the emergence of democracy there, it is that the American experience is inextricably bound with religion. And that truth alone has proved to be the undoing of both US, and India.
At one point in the novel, Unterlinden observes whether it is possible to be evil, and yet good, whether a balance between this yin-yang duality is possible, and whether morality can ever be removed from religion, and made to stand on its own. But can we escape from the fact that in these two countries characterised by ‘make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters,’ it is these everyday illusions, like religion, that give the sense of the Universal, and helps perpetuate ‘bombastic men’ who can then, by laying claim to this religion-based morality, by extension, lays claim to the Truth, and the nation as a whole. What, for example, is the difference between say a Narendra Modi, a Donald Trump and a Ram Rahim Singh, all three men of bombastic characters, liars in their very hearts, but each with a degree of morality that allows them the power to shape Truth, and make people bow down to their version of manufactured truth?
In many ways, the protagonist of the book and patriarch of the family, Golden, bears striking similarities to both Trump and Modi. Much like both of these contemporary figures, Golden was a “powerful man, no more than that – a man deeply in love with the idea of himself as powerful.” During a dinner party, the patriarch proclaims in front of his guests that he is a “man of reason. A man of affairs. Nobody knows affairs than I do.” He further proclaims that “America is too God-bothered for my liking, too wrapped up in superstitions, but I’m not that kind of man. That kind of thing gets in the way of commerce. Two plus two is four, that is me.” But, ironically, on the eve of his second marriage to his Russian mistress, this man of reason goes down to the lawns in front of his house, in the dead of night, and speaks with the ghosts of his dead first wife and his former mistress, the mother of his youngest shapeshifting son, D. And immediately after the marriage is solemnised, his Russian wife, Vasilisa Arsenyeva, having learned of her husband’s midnight guests from beyond the grave, begins to purify the house by inviting Christian Orthodox priests with their burning incense and installing ikons in the house.
The ostensible separation of commerce from Christianity is itself a lie, with the early roots of capitalism being intricately linked to the emerging Puritan movements in the US, as the philosopher and sociologist Max Weber reminds us. This cohabitation of reason with unreason, religion and commerce, is in many ways the paradox on which this weird century rests. Is it any surprise, therefore, to find Modi talk of vikas and the Hindu deity Ganesh being the first example of plastic surgery in Vedic India in the same vein, both existing in the same mental geography of the prime minister? Is it any surprise then to find Trump boast of his business acumen in fixing the American economy, and in the same breath, give space to white neo-Nazis, many of whom are also Christian fundamentalists, as they create havoc in Charlottesville?
Unterlinden, and Rushdie, as great writers, offers no easy answers. But a great book is characterised not so much by answers, but by the spirit of questions it helps provoke. And by that alone, The Golden House, is a worthwhile investment. It’s a stunning return to form by one of the finest documentarians of this fractious world.
Arnav Das Sharma is an independent journalist and a doctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics.