Cultural Analysis of Salman Rushdie's "The Courter"
The Great Costs of "Progress"
From a culturally critical perspective, Rushdie’s story, "The Courter", is a clear representation of the struggles of the colonized peoples of his homeland to assimilate into a dominant, repressive European culture. The dominant culture presents the allure of freedom, personal advancement and escape from the repressiveness of what is considered to be old and familiar within his culture. However, with these freedoms come a different kind of oppressiveness—a reminder of the cultural and racial disrespect experienced by the oppressed culture within their own homeland as a result of European conquest. This diasporic oppression creates a self-contempt and cultural contempt, as well as a schizophrenic mindset within the oppressed as they endure the pulls of advancement and the need to assimilate—likewise, the retention of family, culture and values which stems from their connection to their homeland pulls in another direction.
The Music Connection
The most obvious of assimilation methods made known within the story is a universal one—the artistic mode of music. In this respect, America makes its own global hegemonic influential presence within the story. Although, historically, Great Britain was the great colonizer and global conqueror of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States, both militarily, politically and artistically, quickly become the “la meilleure culture” within the 20th century. Many musical references were made by the narrator concerning himself and his siblings. It appears that the children seemed negotiate themselves within their new surroundings by using the music of the day as a guidepost. Not only were they able to navigate their surroundings, but they also shaped their personas around the fashions and music of that time, most of which were not uniquely British, but American. At fifteen, Rushdie describes himself and his siblings as generally insolent when it came to their relations with the adults around them. Part of the children’s behavior is based in immaturity, the other in the underlying need to be cool and fit in with the allure of the dominant cultures. “There was no point in teasing him (Mecir) if he was going to be like that, so I got into the lift and all the way to the fourth floor we sang I Can’t Stop Loving You at the top of our best Ray Charles voices, which were pretty awful. But we were wearing our dark glasses, so it didn’t matter. (Rushdie 180)” Another noteworthy fact within the story is that artists that he mentions and favors, in some way or another, come from lower or second class backgrounds—they are familiar with oppression. They are also some of the leading musical artists of the day (The Beatles, Ray Charles, and Chubby Checker).
The Use and Misuse of Language
As with any minority peoples, there is also the creolization of the native tongues upon the merging of different cultures. Rushdie describes how he and his siblings were able to cleverly amalgamate their native tongue and the language and meanings of the dominant culture to describe the adults they encountered. As a result, they came up with cute names to fit the characters of these persons. The other male tenants in his father’s building he conveniently referred to as Maharaja P and Maharaja B. In Hindi, Maharaja means “prince.” Because Rushdie referred to them as princes, one would immediately assume that these were unmarried men of means. Just so happens, Maharaja P was a “sporting man” of some royal lineage and Maharaja B was a businessman of questionable character. He nicknamed his nanny “Certainly-Mary” because of her limited knowledge of English. Apparently, the only English she was able to speak fluently and with continuity were the words “certainly” and “certainly not.” Because of her inability to pronounce the letter “P”, she referred to her new suitor as “courter” instead of what he was, a “porter.” Ironically, Mecir, her suitor, ended up being more of a courter to Mary than a porter, his occupation. Mary named and defined him without even being aware of what she had done. “English was hard for Certainly-Mary, and this was a part of drew damaged old Mixed-Up towards her. The letter P was a particular problem, often turning into an F or a C; when she proceeded through the lobby with a wheeled wicker shopping basket, she would say ‘Going shocking,’ and when, on her return, he offered to help lift the basket up the front Ghats, she would answer, ‘Yes, fleas.’ As the elevator lifted away, she called through the grille: ‘Oé, courter! Thank you, courter. O, yes, certainly.’ (In Hindi and Konkani, however, her P’s knew their place. So: thanks to her unexpected, somehow stomach-churning magic, he was no longer porter, but courter. ‘Courter,’ he repeated to the mirror when she had gone. His breath made a little dwindling picture of the word on the glass. ‘Courter courter caught.’ Okay. People called him many things, he did not mind. But this name, this courter, this he would try to be. (Rushdie 176-177)” Mecir, himself an immigrant from Eastern Europe, was able to establish communication with Mary early on by using the term “ghat,” a Hindi word that translates to English meaning “step.” According to Rushdie, Mecir may have obtained his limited knowledge from a schoolbook or some formal education at one time in his life. Mecir also mixes up the term “ghats” when he comically refers to them as “mountains.” This brings to mind the term “steppe,” land which could emerge from a mountain range into a valley in relation to the Hindu steps that lead to the Ganges. (Upon further research, I learned that the term “ghats” has multiple meanings and can be used as a noun or a verb.) Rushdie also shortens Mecir’s name to “Mixed-Up” as a play on the Eastern European pronunciation of his name.
Within the text, Rushdie brings to light the use of universal language by immigrants to bridge the gap between language barriers. Mecir and Mary become fond of one another and resort to forms of non-verbal communication in order to convey their feelings for one another. Like Mary, Mecir also speaks in broken English and appears to be extremely accommodating to others in order to avoid confrontation and not to attract problems. One ominous form of universal communication for Mecir is the game of chess. By teaching Mary how to play, Mecir was able to solidify his bond with Mary. The strategy he used, the (Nimzo-Indian Defense), is a chess opening move utilized on the master levels of chess. This alluded to the fact that despite all appearances, Mecir possessed a high intellect coupled with intense humility—something that Rushdie, at a very young age, couldn’t quite grasp because of his immaturity. Mary was able to grasp the concept of the game quickly because she saw it as a harmless endeavor and wasn’t intimidated or awed by it as Rushdie was. Mecir and Mary’s personalities appear to be forged as the direct result of their upbringing, which may have consisted of poverty, lack of privilege, classism and racism. Rushdie, having privilege, was unable to see the worth in these old people, so he made fun of them and gave them funny nicknames. After a severe beating from the both of them in the game of chess, he found out that Mecir was a published Grand Master and Mary, despite her caste (thusly, her education), was able to quickly grasp the concept of chess on a master level and beat Rushdie, a skilled player. “’Who are you?’ I demanded, humiliation weighing down every syllable. ‘The devil in disguise?’ Mixed-Up gave his big, silly grin. ‘Grand Master,’ he said. ‘Long time. Before head.’(Rushdie 192)” This passage gives way to the universal understanding that elders, no matter what their class or distinction, deserve the utmost respect—if not for anything else, at least for their wisdom. By the text, one can assume that in India, elders are shown respect regardless of their caste. Mary also alludes to this fact when she explains how she is able to deal with his father during his difficult, drunken dispositions when no one else can. “I am not sure why Mary was spared his drunken rages. She said it was because she was nine years his senior, she could tell him to show due respect. (Rushdie 182)”
The Dilemma of Assimilation and Loyalty
The issue of classism in Rushdie’s story brings to light the immigrant’s need to connect to their homeland regardless of where they are geographically. Unlike the nicknaming and the acceptance of pop culture for the sake of fitting in, the need to connect to the “old country” reflects a desire to be accepted as who one is. The immigrant doesn’t want to lose touch with who they are and where they come from. In Indian culture, Mary would be considered the “help” or a servant. This denotes a lower caste. Instead of sleeping with the family, she sleeps on a mat outside in the hallway. However, she is highly regarded as part of the family in that she is seen affectionately as a “grandmotherly” figure or ayah. In this respect, the family holds on to some of the cultural morays of their homeland. The father also displays some personal dissatisfaction with his life in London. According to Rushdie, his father (Abba), initially, was always in a bad disposition, drank heavily and isolated himself from his family. (I’m not sure if the father having his own flat is a result of the sexist and classist Indian culture, but the fact that he made decisions without his wife’s consult is a clear indication of chauvinism.) Rushdie’s “sort-of-cousin,” Chandni, also reflects the pull between the need to identify as Indian, all the while surrendering to the wiles of the dominant pop culture. “She was training to be an Indian classical dancer, Odissi as well as Natyam, but in the meantime she dressed in tight black jeans and a clinging black polo neck jumper and took me, now and then, to hang out at Bunjie’s, where she knew most of the folk-music crowd that frequented the place, and where she answered to the name of Moonlight, which is what chandni means. (Rushdie 187)” The old family friend that Rushdie beat in chess, in some ways, reflects the awkwardness of Indian immigrants in a land and culture that are not their own. The fact that this man was “an old India hand” denotes that he may have served in the military there under British rule. The nicknames that Rushdie gave him (Suffolk of Field Marshal Sir Charles Lutwidge-Dodgson and “The Dodo”) carry various meanings. Field Marshal denotes military rank. Sir Charles Lutwidge-Dodgson was the writer of Alice in Wonderland in which The Dodo was a character. The Dodo could mean “prince” or an awkward bird. Either way, this was one of Rushdie’s many disrespectful nicknames for the adults around him that was a clear reflection of their character. The Dodo, according to Rushdie, appeared to be awkward in his British surroundings. Rushdie described the man’s situation as “hell” because he “didn’t fit” in his own surroundings.
Personal Identities Amid the Melee
Right before the family’s exodus, it seems that the decadence of Western society is having a damaging effect on the family unit and its solid foundation. Rushdie’s sister becomes violent towards her family members, her father in particular. Mecir is mercilessly attacked by dangerous hoods looking for other tenants. Certainly-Mary and Amma, Rushdie’s mother, are accosted by the same dangerous hoods described as looking like the Beatles with their mop top haircuts. The hoods in both cases represent the racist attitudes of the dominant culture towards minorities in their land. In the latter case, especially, the hoods see the two Indian women as the same as all the rest. They may envision them as exotic because of their dark skin, alien culture and gender. Because of the actions of a few, these two decent women are herded in with all the rest and treated accordingly. “’Mistaken identity, fleas,’ said Certainly-Mary. ‘Many Indian residents in Waverly House. We are decent ladies; fleas.’ The second Beatle had taken out something from an inside pocket. A blade caught the light. ‘Fucking wogs,’ he said. ‘You fucking come over here, you don’t fucking know how to fucking behave. Why don’t you fucking fuck off to fucking Wogistan? Fuck your fucking wog arses. Now then,’ he added in a quiet voice, holding up the knife, ‘unbutton your blouses. (Rushdie 204)’” As a result of the tumultuous events and mysterious health problems, Mary makes the hard decision that she won’t be torn between what Rushdie describes as “two loves.” Mary’s longevity is dependent upon her personal happiness. She doesn’t see that in Western culture, so she must leave Mecir and return to India. The family tried to cheer her up by “play acting” like they were happy and enjoying the new culture they were within, but even the family wasn’t truly happy trying to buy into something they weren’t native to. In the end, everyone followed their personal happiness—the father and the family move to Pakistan and Rushdie stays in London and experiences the freedom he so desires--to make choices on his own, independent of his father and at the risk of losing touch with himself—his soul. “At sixteen, you still think you can escape your father. You aren’t listening to his voice speaking through your mouth, you don’t see how your gestures already mirror his; you don’t see him in the way you hold your body, in the way you sign your name. You don’t hear his whisper in your blood. (Rushdie 202)”
In many ways, I personally can relate to Rushdie and his experience in London. As an African-American woman and lesbian, I can understand the need to be acceptable to a larger, more dominant society, all the while white-knuckling my individuality—my authenticity. Like Rushdie and his siblings, I learned early on the art of code-switching on many levels. It’s called survival. However, when the doors are shut and the lights are off, one has to concede to their innermost self who they really are and what truly makes them happy. If that person is wise, like Rushdie and Certainly-Mary, they will make the hard choices and follow their bliss. This, in turn, would ease the schizophrenic insanity that comes with social and racial oppression and would be a catalyst in the quest for true personal and spiritual advancement.
- Brizee, Allen and J. Case Tompkins. Post-Colonial Criticism (1990’s-Present). Copyright 1995-2014. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/10/
- Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Copyright 2011 by Bedford/St. Martin’s; Boston/New York.
- Hanggi, Kathleen. Salman Rushdie Biography. Copyright August 2009. Retrieved from http://postcolonialstudies.emory.edu/salman-rushdie/
- Rushdie, Salman. “The Courter.” Copyright 1994 by Vintage Books. East/West. New York.
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© 2014 Dana Ayres