Covered with ash and dust, the survivors of the attacks on the twin towers would barely have made it to their homes that evening of September 11 when the first reports started coming in of assaults, in various parts of the United States, on Arab-Americans, Pakistanis and Indians. It was not only the South Asians with Muslim names who were the victims of attacks but, in a bizarre twist, even the Sikhs, who, because of their beards and turbans, were assumed to be followers of the Saudi Osama bin Laden. When asked about the harassment of Sikh cabbies, a spokesman for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance told a reporter, "Americans saw Lawrence of Arabia and think all Muslims wear turbans."
Mistaken identity, of course, has been the province of much postcolonial fiction. An important feature of this writing is the manner in which misrecognition has haunted all cognition. History is often a detour into fiction in this literature, an attempt to create a narrative of the self in a fantasy zone of displacement, mirroring in some ways the history of the immigrant (which is, of course, what many of the prominent postcolonial writers are). Witness a recent letter in the New York Times by a Sikh man in Kansas who feared being attacked. The letter proposed a plan that perhaps one could be forgiven for reading as part mimicry, part mockery: "Tomorrow morning when I go out, I will be wearing a nice red turban, white shirt and blue pants, our national colors, walking proud as a peacock, smiling at people I love and live with in our great country." (The peacock, incidentally, is the national bird of India. The principal colors of its plumage are, improbably enough, different from the colors of the US flag.)
Where else can we find such crazy hybridity? A postcolonial writer who has often been credited with mixing the mundane with the magical, and history with fiction, is Salman Rushdie. He applies the same formula, with the uneven effect that has also by now become another Rushdie hallmark, in Fury, his latest novel. The story is set in New York, and with what might appear to be something akin to prescience, at least to those who religiously read astrology columns each week, Rushdie has chosen as his theme the idea of violence in the big, mad city.
While remaining glued to the television set like the rest of America recently, I have often thought of Rushdie's new book. In particular, I have thought of an Urdu-speaking Muslim taxi driver in Manhattan, Ali Majnu, whom Rushdie makes use of on two occasions for a couple of pages. Majnu is introduced to the readers as a bigoted prophet on wheels, screaming deliverance as he skids on Tenth Avenue: "Islam will cleanse this street of godless motherfucker bad drivers…. Islam will purify this whole city of Jew pimp assholes like you and your whore roadhog of a Jew wife too." The cabbie appears again, 110 pages later. This time he says, "Islam will cleanse your soul of dirty anger and reveal to you the holy wrath that moves mountains." Then, switching to English, Majnu addresses another driver, "Hey! American man! You are a godless homosexual rapist of your grandmother's pet goat."
Lucky Ali Majnu. Unlike the other sullen, equally rude working-class immigrants in Fury, each from a benighted corner of the globe, Majnu at least gets a few colorful lines. Majnu stands alone in the novel for the whole of Islam and also for the "wealth-free" from South Asia. This is the brown man's burden, the burden of having to symbolize or answer for more than one is. Shall we regard it as a consolation that Rushdie doesn't force this character to carry the additional load of interiority or even a minimum of complexity? One is reminded of literary critic Michael Gorra's comment about Rushdie's first, great success, Midnight's Children: "Yet I remain troubled that a book about the nightmare of history, a book meant to disturb, cannot make me care about the individual characters to whom that history happens."