Heights of feminism in the works of Salman Rushdie
Literature is an exercise in trying to understand the human condition. Women, who comprise half of humanity have historically been silenced and stifled. In this respect, a feminist take on select literary works is both a worthwhile and interesting exercise. Adapting the feminist approach to literary studies to The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Enchantress of Florence, one can generate interesting inter-disciplinary correspondence. This essay will argue that separated in time between the imperial reign of Akbar the Great and the musical reign of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the two characters of Qara Koz and Vina Apsara are united in their emancipated and empowered expression of womanhood. It is hoped that an analysis of the two novels through the feminist lens would lead to a better understanding of broader humanity.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Salman Rushdie revolutionized the art of fiction with his breakthrough work Midnight’s Children. As the role and viability of literature as a medium of education and entertainment came to be questioned during the 1980s, Midnight’s Children sprung like a fountain of elixir and brought freshness and vitality to English Literature. Hence Rushdie could rightly be regarded as an
The very title The Ground Beneath Her Feet stands in tribute to the woman being loved. The phrase represents the feelings of adoration and sanctity that the narrator feels toward the woman he loves. In this case, Vina Apsara is the object of love and Umeed ‘Rai’ Merchant is the narrator, although the latter’s love would prove futile in the face of Ormus Cama’s (the protagonist) charm and talent. Only a writer who’s in love with the character could take it to great heights of self-expression. This is amply evident in the elaborate manner in which Rushdie sketches Vina’s character through the course of the novel. Not only is she musically gifted, she has traversed several continents and overcome arduous circumstances on the way to super stardom. During her formative years, her journeys between America, India and Europe were full of threats and disasters. Yet, through some hidden mechanism of nature and unaccounted fortitude she marches on in life to fulfill her artistic destiny. The strength in Vina’s womanhood is borne by the manner in which she withstood the series of misfortunes visiting her life. When she was a child, Vina only nearly escaped abandonment by her biological father. Though she was fortunate to evade the maddening murder spree of her mother, the loss of her siblings is a real tragedy. Although an element of divine plan is implicit in such a life course, the derivation of strength from inner resources is also present. (Mishra, 1999, p.42)
To understand the feminism of Vina Apsara, one has to look at the traits of her eventual replacement, Mira. This younger, steadier avatar of Vina proves to be quite the opposite of her predecessor. In Vina’s case, the chief antagonist is herself, as her tendency to blow up all of a sudden has led to many troubles. The iconic Vina is someone who collapsed under her own weight – further burdened by “her own unattainable, constantly transforming image”. In contrast, we have Mira, who represents an ““ordinary human love beneath one’s feet” (575), that is, the kind of stability and wherewithal that can ensure longevity without the sensationalist, self-destructive trappings of Vina Apsara’s radicalism”. (Pirbhai, 2001, p.54) In this regard, Mira’s feminism is not in any way deficient than that of Vina’s, only more powerful. The word Mira could be construed as a pun on “mirror” and it stands to expose “the often false image one has of oneself: “Reflected in the circular mirror is a rectangular mirror containing an image of Vina Apsara. No, not Vina, but the greatest of the not-Vinas…. Mira, Mira, who is the fairest one of all?” (541)”. (Pirbhai, 2001, p.54) Hence, through Vina and Mira, Rushdie is sketching rich and varied multitudes of the female psyche.
The Enchantress of Florence is yet another testimony to Rushdie’s acknowledgement of the power of the feminine. The mysterious Mughal princess Qara Koz is the titular character, who traverses continents and empires as a war booty and stirs the hearts of men wherever she goes. The novel tells the story of a European traveller “who arrives at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar claiming to be the child of a lost princess, and beguiles the emperor with his tales of this great beauty believed to possess powers of enchantment and sorcery.” (Stephenson, 2008, p.35) Qara Koz and Vina Apsara can also be linked to prominent female characters in Rushdie’s other works, both fictitious and historical.
“In Jodha and Qara Koz, Rushdie creates memorable female characters to join the ranks of Aurora Zogoiby in The Moor’s Last Sigh, Jamila Singer in Midnight’s Children and India Ophuls in Shalimar the Clown. Qara Koz or Jodha exist primarily to please the men around them, and use their powers of enchantment–and entrancement. In Florence, we meet Machiavelli, the prince of intrigue; Ago Vespucci, cousin of Amerigo (after whom the New World is named); Ottoman janissaries; the Medicis and the monk Savonarola; we also get a second-hand glimpse of Elizabeth the virgin queen.” (Tripathi, 2008, p.57)
All novelists draw their literary content from their personal experiences and one can expect such infiltrations in Rushdie’s novels. Infamous for having gone through four failed marriages, it is an interesting exercise to read Rushdie through the feminist lens. Does the failure of four marriages betray a poor grasp of the feminine psychology, thereby lessening the credibility of the female characters he portrays? There is no straightforward answer to this question as Rushdie was living under exceptional circumstances (living undercover due to the threat of assassination) for a large portion of his adult life. (Hitchens, 2008, p.135) Nevertheless, based on what the great author himself has revealed in his recent interviews, he undertook the Enchantress of Florence project as a way of getting through his divorce with his fourth wife Padma Lakshmi. It is not at all surprising that a writer would resort to a subject that is a source of ailment in order to experience a catharsis. Hence the character of Qara Koz can be read through the feminist lens at various levels.
From an interview Rushdie gave to Hannah Stephenson, we learn the source of his strong female characters. His theme of powerful women was not difficult for him to research, he says:
“”I’ve always been interested in strong female characters, as I’ve known quite a lot in my time. I come from a family in which there’s a lot of them. I have three sisters and no brothers. My mother and my aunt were in many ways forceful characters.” He writes of a world in which male power was dominant, of absolute rulers and great warriors. Within that world, women demonstrate a different kind of power – that of sensuality and witchcraft. “Men are often hopelessly dependent on the women in their lives,” he says, admitting he is speaking from personal experience.” (Stephenson, 2008, p.35)
Shifting focus to The Ground Beneath Her Feet, one could find analogies in the feminist study of Vina Apsara, for she is equated to the mythic Eurydice, with Ormus Cama serving the role of Orpheus. Ormus and Vina’s love story has strong resonance to the Greek myth not just because of the centrality of music to their lives and their relationship, but also because of their status as ‘outsiders’. For example, Ormus’ connection to the other worldly realm is expressed through his dual existence, whereas Vina is shown to be the “queen of darkness” playing dangerous games with death. The comparisions between Eurydice and Vina is extended even to their deaths. For example, the manner in which Vina is swallowed by a gaping hole in the quake-hit earth, Eurydice was plunged underground in the mythic story. (Chun-Yen Chen, 2010, p.51) The tag of outsiders is further emphasized through their experiences of