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Idiomatic Confluences: Xenisms in Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and Kamila Shamsie's In the City by the Sea (1998)

Confluences idiomatiques: les xénismes dans Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) de Salman Rushdie et In the City by the Sea (1998) de Kamila Shamsie”
Isabelle Roblin


L’auteur et journaliste britannique d’origine pakistanaise Kamila Shamsie a reconnu l’influence de Salman Rushdie sur son œuvre. Il n’est donc pas surprenant que Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) de Rushdie et le premier roman de Shamsie In the City by the Sea (1998) aient de nombreux points communs, même si leur genre est différent. Je me propose d’étudier les différentes manières dont les auteurs incorporent des mots et des expressions étrangers, ou xénismes, dans leur texte en anglais. Après une brève analyse des points communs entre les deux romans, j’étudierai plus en détails les techniques utilisées par les deux auteurs, à travers leur utilisation des xénismes, pour éduquer et divertir leurs lecteurs occidentaux et pour les familiariser avec certains aspects de la culture et du mode de vie en Asie du Sud, et plus particulièrement dans le cas de Shamsie, sa vision de l’Islam. J’estime également que Rushdie et Shamsie utilisent tous deux les éléments interculturels propres à la langue comme une stratégie pour non seulement promouvoir l’Hindustani vernaculaire auprès de leurs lecteurs occidentaux, mais aussi pour renouveler et enrichir la langue anglaise en y incorporant ces xénismes, et ce faisant inventent une confluence originale des langues. Et avec la langue c’est le roman anglais qui est ainsi rajeuni par des écrivains venus des marges de l’ex-empire britannique et qui devient encore plus multi-culturel.

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1As the Indian-born poet and literary critic Mukesh Williams points out, ‘after over one hundred and ninety years of the introduction of English in the Indian subcontinent by Thomas Macaulay, a host of South Asian writers […] have twisted the tail of English language, mixed it with indigenous vernacular, colloquial speech and transformed it from a foreign language into a local vernacular’ (Williams 181). Xenism, the practice of incorporating indigenous words and expressions into a text written predominantly in English, is thus not new and is, of course, not limited to South Asian writers.

[This] technique of selective lexical fidelity which leaves some words untranslated in the text is a more widely used device for conveying the sense of cultural distinctiveness. Such a device not only acts to signify the difference between cultures, but also illustrates the importance of discourse in interpreting cultural concepts […]. The use […] of untranslated words is a clear signifier of the fact that the language which actually informs the novel is an/Other language. (Ashcroft et al. 1989, 64)

2Moreover, through the use of xenisms, ‘the text constantly draws attention to cultural differences’, while at the same time ‘forc[ing] the reader into an active engagement with the horizons of the culture in which these terms have meaning’ (Ashcroft et al. 1989, 65). And ‘ultimately, the choice of leaving words untranslated in post-colonial texts is a political act’ (Ashcroft et al. 1989, 66), a literary stand to restore a measure of parity between the ‘Other language’ and English, the language of the colonizer.

3My analysis will focus on two novels by writers from ‘the Indian subcontinent’ that are remarkable in the various ways they use xenisms: Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), the first novel Rushdie wrote while hiding after the fatwa pronounced on him by the then Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini for allegedly insulting Islam and its prophet in The Satanic Verses, and Kamila Shamsie’s debut novel In the City by the Sea (1998). After a brief analysis of the points these novels have in common and of the question of their readership, I propose to study in some detail the literary devices used by both writers, through their use of xenisms, to both educate and entertain their Western readers as well as make them familiar with some aspects of South Asian culture and way of life and, especially, in the case of Shamsie, her vision of Islam. It is my contention that both Salman Rushdie and Kamila Shamsie are using elements of different languages as a strategy not only to promote vernacular Hindi-Urdu to Western readers but also to revive and enrich the English language by incorporating xenisms into it. They have, indeed, ‘creat[ed] a typical and distinct idiom which is at once [South Asian] and cosmopolitan’ (Williams 175). And with the language it is the English novel itself that is being rejuvenated by writers coming from the fringes of the ex-British empire and becoming even more multi-cultural.

  • 1 Both Shame and In the City By the Sea deal in their own way with Pakistani history and its successi (...)

4The Indian-born Salman Rushdie has influenced many South Asian writers over the years, including the Pakistani-born novelist and journalist Kamila Shamsie. Herself a ‘Midnight’s Grandchild’, ‘anglicized, relatively well-to-do, upper middle-class, privileged, and located in urban centres’ (Kanaganayakam 175), Shamsie has willingly acknowledged the older author’s vital role in her own work, especially his novel Shame, set in Pakistan.1 In particular, her self-confessed ‘fascination with writing fictional lives set against a backdrop of politics’ (Ranasinha 2012, 201) owes much to Rushdie. It is, therefore, not surprising that Haroun and the Sea of Stories and In the City by the Sea converge on many points.

  • 2 This particular genre is indeed unusual for Rushdie. It is linked to its writing context and the fa (...)

5First, of course, both novels are written in English by diasporic authors (Rushdie now lives in New York and Shamsie in London). Both are also third-person narratives using an 11-year-old boy (the eponymous Haroun for Rushdie and Hasan for Shamsie) as a center of consciousness. True, their literary genre is different. Rushdie's novel is clearly (and rather unusually for him) a contemporary fairy-tale, signaled as such by its very beginning—‘There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city…’ (15; emphasis added)—as well as by its multiple happy endings.2 The connection with The Arabian Nights is made clear to Western readers by Rushdie himself in his postface: ‘Haroun and [his father] Rashid are both named after the legendary Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al-Rashid, who features in many Arabian Nights tales. Their surname, Khalifa, actually means Caliph’ (208, words in bold type in the text). It is also a quest narrative, a characteristic choice for diasporic authors according to Chelva Kanaganayakam, as ‘the mode inherently adapts itself to the symbolic structures often created to map the experience of exile’ (178). Its allegorical dimension was accurately identified by Ruvani Ranasinha, who described it as ‘a children's fairy-tale offering an allegorical defense of The Satanic Verses with the stifling of freedom of expression as its subtext’ (Ranasinha 2007, 53). Shamsie's novel, on the other hand, is much more difficult to classify: while it definitely does not belong to the marvellous, there are within the narrative, because of the chosen point-of-view, some elements, like the ending for example (it does end happily and somewhat miraculously in wish-fulfillment), that ‘depart from or challenge the limits of the referential’ (Kanaganayakam 23) and experiment with fantasy, while being essentially grounded in realism.

6Both novels are clearly set in South Asia. In keeping with its fairy tale status, the first one starts and ends in the imaginary city of Kahani (meaning ‘story’, as Rushdie tells his readers in the glossary appended to the novel [218]). In the second, ‘the city by the sea’ of the title stands for Karachi, Kamila Shamsie's hometown, which she described in a recent interview as ‘the most cosmopolitan and energetic and vibrant place in Pakistan’ (Hanman). As Cara Cilano writes, ‘[i]n the context of Pakistani history, Karachi occupies a unique position. The country's capital upon independence, […] the Karachi of 1947 […] serves as a metonym for the optimism of the nascent Pakistan’ (2013, 143). In the novel, however, Karachi is never explicitly named and we could paraphrase Rushdie's narrator in Shame in pointing out that ‘the city in this story is not Karachi, or not quite. There are two cities, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space’ (29). This ambiguity also contributes to the partly non-referential nature of the novel and, to a certain extent, does not tie it in to a real location as the setting could theoretically be any ‘city by the sea’.

7Both authors use many xenisms within their English texts, essentially—but not exclusively—Hindi-Urdu ones. Hindi-Urdu (or Hindustani, as Rushdie calls it in his postface) is the blanket name given to Hindi (spoken mainly in the north of India) and Urdu (essentially spoken in Pakistan). However, the authors employ these xenisms in quite different ways. Whereas Rushdie’s goal is essentially educational—his tale is, after all, written specifically for children—as his glossary or postface ‘About the Names in this Book’ indicates, Shamsie’s, in addition to being pedagogical, is more diversified. Her recourse to xenisms ranges from the traditional local colour effect, for the most part decorative, defined here as ‘the use of detail peculiar to a particular region and environment to add interest and authenticity to a narrative, […] includ[ing] some description of the locale, dress, customs, music, etc’ (Cuddon 509), to a celebration and a dramatisation of the hybridity of language and culture, as the characters themselves are depicted as the convergent products of a bilingual and bicultural heritage.

  • 3 Organised by The Royal Society of Literature at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, with Nade (...)

8The whole question of the use of Hindi-Urdu words in Pakistani or Indian fiction written in English is, of course, linked to that of its readership. In a debate on the The Pakistani Novel Today, hosted by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra in London in December 2013,3 where Kamila Shamsie was a guest speaker, most of the discussion centered on that particular issue. Rushdie’s and Shamsie’s fictions are clearly not written for the cosmopolitan, English-speaking and reading Indian or Pakistani elite but for Anglophone Western readers. According to Shamsie and the other panelists, there is still today not enough local audience for fiction written in English, particularly in Pakistan.

9While the cultural issues and situations addressed in their novels may be alien and new for a Western readership, they are probably more familiar and self-explanatory and, therefore, less relevant, to South Asian readers, even though the ‘Indian subcontinent’ is, of course, extremely diversified in terms of cultures, languages and religions. The decision for South Asian-born authors to write in English can, however, be awkward, both from an ideological and a literary point of view. Indeed, ‘to write about a people in a language that is, for the most part, alien to them’ and to have their characters speak in English ‘is to incur the charge of appropriation’ (Kanaganayakam 7). Kanaganayakam elaborates:

[T]he problematic status of the English language in relation to the vernacular languages, its valorization by the postcolonial elite, the associations that underlie the use of the language, the audience for whom the texts are intended, the distance that the words demonstrate from a vital indigenous culture, the temptation for authors to exoticize and present the local in a flattering or self-deprecating manner—all these form part of the critique (2).

10In addition, not only is the English language often perceived as resistant to the expression of certain South Asian realities but also, ‘for the Indian-Anglian’ or, more generally, the South Asian, ‘author, the hiatus between language and reality is always problematic’ (Kanaganayakam 16). Rushdie himself acknowledges that, ‘for some, English-language Indian writing will never be more than a post-colonial anomaly, the bastard child of Empire, sired on India by the departing British’, and that the ‘continuing use of the old colonial tongue is seen as a fatal flaw that renders it forever inauthentic’ (Rushdie 1997a, xii). Nonetheless, he made his position regarding ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature very clear in a polemical article he wrote for The New Yorker in 1997:

[contemporary prose writing created] by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen ‘recognized’ languages of India, the so-called ‘vernacular languages’, during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. The true Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind (Rushdie 1997b, 50).

  • 4 This is what Bill Ashcroft and al. call ‘english’ in The Empire Writes Back. Theory and Practice in (...)

11He also argues that in fact, like Urdu, ‘the camp argot of the country’s earlier Muslim conquerors’ which ‘became a naturalised sub-continental language long ago,’ ‘English has become an Indian language’ (Rushdie 1997a, xii-xiii).4 Needless to say, this controversial stand has been severely criticised by many Indian writers and critics: Bonnie Zare, and Nalini Iver, for example, strongly denounce Rushdie’s ‘arrogant tone’ as well as his ‘ignorance’ of vernacular language writers in their introduction to Other Tongues: Rethinking the Language Debates in India (Zare and Iver xxii).

12How then did Rushdie and Shamsie deal with this fundamental problem facing South Asian authors writing in English? Because of the genre chosen in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the question of the language spoken by the characters is, in fact, not really an issue in this novel, where everyone—from Haroun, the eponymous hero, to Khattam-Shud, the villain, and Goopy and Bagha, the Plentimaw Fishes, to Butt the Hoopoe bird—speaks in English, as it is part of the conventions of the marvellous. It is more problematic in Shamsie’s first novel, which is more referential in its setting. Her use of Urdu expressions can be straightforward. First, foreign words in general, be they Urdu, Arabic, French (poulet avec tomatre [sic, 66]), or even Latin or Greek, extensively used by the narrator and the characters, are always signaled within the text by the use of italics. They are often used in puns for comic effect, as in the following example:

Gul Mumani remembered her teenaged efforts to impress the French boy who sat beside her in class by passing him a note consisting of the only French words she knew: voulez vous. Spelling was never Gul Mumani’s strong suit, and the boy looked down at ‘Woo Lay Woo’ and sent back the scrawled message: ‘Chinese porno film?’ (102)

13Once again, Rushdie’s influence can be felt in Shamsie’s delight in using xenisms to make the reader laugh, or at least smile, and she readily admits that ‘in her early novels a model is Salman Rushdie’s playing with language, punning, caricature, stories within stories, comic names, foregrounding of storytelling and amusing allusions’ (King 149). A good example of the playfulness with which Rushdie himself uses xenisms can be found in Haroun and the Sea of Stories when Rashid, Haroun’s father, the Shah of Blah, gives a totally fanciful and absurd explanation, in the form of a double pun, of the supposedly French origin of the name of the Valley of K (for Kashmir):

‘It’s a word from the ancient tongue of Franj, which is no longer spoken in these parts’, Rashid explained. ‘In those long-gone days the valley, which is now simply K, had other names. One, if I remember correctly, was “Kache-Mer”. Another was this “Kosh-”.
‘Do those names mean anything?’ Haroun asked.
‘All names mean something,’ Rashid replied. […] “Kache-Mer” can be translated as “the place that hides a Sea”. But “Kosh-Mar” is a ruder name. […] ‘In the old tongue’, Rashid admitted, ‘it was the word for “nightmare”’. (40)

14These bilingual puns are clearly not directed at children, but at an international readership who is accustomed to going back and forth between languages and cultures and able to understand and appreciate them. As Bill Ashcroft notes, ‘[p]erhaps the most common method of inscribing alterity by the process of appropriation is the technique of switching between two or more codes’ (Ashcroft and al. 1989, 72).

  • 5 ‘Mali’ is also a character in Rushdie’s novel and, as he explains in the glossary, Mali is, of cour (...)

15Shamsie, like Rushdie, also typically uses Urdu words when the signified and, thus, the signifier do not exist in English. For example, there are numerous references to local trees, like chikoo or karonda, for which no translation is available. They do not impede in any way the reader's understanding of the text because when they are first used they are usually followed by a self-explanatory noun (chikoo tree, for example). Moreover, Shamsie also at times deliberately privileges the vernacular Urdu words over their English equivalents (like chowdikkar for gatekeeper, or mali for gardener5), without translating them. In these cases, the context helps the non-Urdu reader to understand the xenisms. As Bill Ashcroft remarks, ‘untranslated words do have an important function in inscribing difference. They signify a certain cultural experience which they cannot hope to reproduce but whose difference is validated by the new situation . . . the employment of specific techniques formalizes the cross-cultural character of the linguistic medium’ (Ashcroft and al. 1989, 53).

  • 6 Salman is of course a fairly common first name in Arabic, but I cannot help wondering whether, in t (...)

16Slightly more problematic are words linked to family relationships, which can be very complicated for Western readers, for Urdu is much more precise than English in that particular domain. For example, whereas Ami and Aba are easily understood as being Hasan’s Mum and Dad, Salman6 Haq, Hasan’s maternal uncle, is repeatedly addressed by Hasan and the narrator as Salman Mamoo as they use the affectionate term for addressing a mother's brother in Urdu, which might be confusing for an English-speaking readership. However, the narrator makes gentle fun of these intricacies as within the text the characters themselves sometimes find it difficult to figure out who is who in their extended family. Thus, Hasan wonders who exactly is the unknown Widow who suddenly appears at their doorstep and is immediately accepted by his uncle as part of the family:

Uncle Latif yelled down from the balcony, ‘Bhabi, don’t leave or grieve, I’ll be right down. ’
Bhabi?’ Hasan said to Zehra. ‘She’s Uncle Latif’s brother’s wife?’ […]
‘Not brother’s wife’, Zehra hissed back at Hasan, ‘Cousin’s wife’. (49)

17Hasan’s confusion reflects the reader's, but the narrator is also perhaps making the point that family solidarity is strong and a basis of South Asian culture.

  • 7 For the readers who have never been to India or Pakistan, the numerous Indian or Pakistani (or Chin (...)

18The numerous untranslated descriptions of meals and food are also clearly ‘Rushdie- inspired’ (King 149), especially from Midnights Children. This, of course, is not specific to South Asian writers, and evocations of food and cooking, perhaps as they are truly universal human experiences, are very often used by non-Western Anglophone novelists in general to reach out to their readers and share with them their cultural practices in a way that they can relate to. There is in Shamsie’s novels a mixture of what might be familiar to the average Western reader (chicken korma, prawn vindaloo, chicken tikkas, na'an, biryani, to name but a few7), and what is probably less so, like kheer, which is a kind of rice pudding. The same remark can apply to articles of clothing: saris, the well-known garments worn by South Asian women, are mentioned along with less familiar attire, such as dupatta, peshwazes, sheraras, kameezes, sherwani, kurta and angarkha, the last one ‘originally a man’s coat, but you lot didn’t appreciate it enough so we adapted it’ (60), as Zehra explains to Hasan […] and the reader at the same time: once again, through the boy Hasan, the reader is told about various aspects of the background of the characters in the novel and can, thus, broaden his/her own understanding and knowledge of their culture: ‘in the post-colonial text the absence of translation has a particular kind of interpretative function. Cultural difference is not inherent in the text but is inserted by such strategies’ (Ashcroft et al. 1989, 65).

19However, these expressions can also be used figuratively to express and celebrate the complementarity and convergence of different cultures, as when Hasan’s father, ‘[running] his eyes along Hasan’s kurta and jeans’, jokingly tells his son: ‘I mean, if you will persist in this mismatch you should at least be prepared to back it up with a five-minute oral report on the advantages of being hybridized’ (132). ‘Hybridization’ (another form of convergence) is, of course, one of the key concepts of postcolonial discourse and one of the main, recurrent themes in all of Rushdie’s fiction. What he wrote in his essay ‘In Good Faith’ in Imaginary Homelands about The Satanic Verses can be applied without any difficulty to both Haroun and the Sea of Stories and In the City by the Sea:

The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. (394, emphasis in Rushdie’s text).

  • 8 Florence Labaune-Demeule specifically mentions the numerous references to Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Da (...)

20Hasan’s mixed articles of clothing are the expression of his own cultural hybridity. On the one hand, he puts on jeans, goes to a co-ed English-speaking school where he is famous for his recitation of Scott’s poem ‘Lochinvar’,8 reads Lord of the Rings and is mad about cricket. On the other hand, he also wears a kurta, loves Urdu poetry, and is also a devout Muslim who usually prays ‘at maghrib (the fourth of the five daily prayers in Islam [emphasis added]), brought to his knees in adulation by the sunset’ (65). Hasan’s mother is also a good example of this cultural hybridity in the novel: she is both ‘an artist with a gallery that exhibits such works as Reclining Nude’ (King 150) and a practicing Muslim, seen praying with ‘her body relaxing in a trance of ritual, her lips moving in steady rhythm’ (Shamsie 95). Both attitudes are seen as totally compatible and the main characters have come to terms with their cultural hybridity. They have appropriated many elements of the culture of the ex-colonising power, whether it be art, literature or cricket, without renouncing their own cultural identity. Unlike in earlier postcolonial novels, they are not seen negatively as The Mimic Men (and women), to use the title of V. S. Naipaul’s 1967 novel, or ‘mimickers’, ‘accused of being the white man’s artifice’ (Boehmer 172) like the Anglophile Uncle Chacko in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997) or the university lecturers in Anita Desai’s earlier novel In Custody (1984). On the contrary, they are represented as likeable characters, with a sense of humour, at ease in both cultures. However, Shamsie’s narrator also makes fun of this concept of hybridization: Hasan, who is, after all, a child, misunderstands what his father is saying and thinks his Aba has asked him for ‘a report on Hebrides’ (131) instead of a ‘report on being hybridized’: the narrator’s ability to pun and, thus, distance herself gently from what has become a topos of postcolonial critique is perhaps one of the most charming aspects of the novel.

21In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the process of hybridization is represented allegorically through the Plentimaw Fishes, the guardians of the sea of stories, who

swallow stories through every mouth, and in their innards miracles occur; a little bit of one story joins to an idea from another, and hey presto, when they spew the stories out they are not old tales but new ones. […] No story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old—it is the new combinations that make them new. (86)

22Creativity is thus linked to hybridity. Both novels actively promote linguistic and, more generally, cultural convergence as an ideal for a more harmonious society where, instead of opposing each other, different cultures combine to create a new, truly cosmopolitan, model. In both novels, the characters are also threatened by, and under attack from, ‘the absolutism of the Pure’ and a military dictatorship that rejects any form of compromise and considers intermingling as wrong and even evil and sinful. In both novels however the ending is optimistic as despotism is eventually vanquished.

  • 9 The same is true for ‘Indo-Anglian’ writers as Rushdie concedes in his introduction to The Vintage (...)

23Unlike in Rushdie’s fairy-tale, within Shamsie’s novel the issue of language is also clearly class-related: as Chantal Zabus notes, ‘the European language […] is the medium of prestige and power’ (288). Hasan and his family, who are the main characters, belong to the Pakistani intellectual elite (like the author herself9) and are diglossic: for them ‘bilingualism has become an enduring societal arrangement’ (Ashcroft et al. 1989, 39). When they interact with other characters, however, the question of language comes to the fore and is dramatised ‘in a manner that acknowledges its own artifice, and in the process turns the limitations imposed by language into strengths’ (Kanaganayakam 7). Different narrative techniques are used by the narrator to address this question. First, translated Urdu is used and signaled as such, as, for example, early in the story when Hasan, who speaks English within his family circle, introduces himself to the new cook, whom he assumes does not speak English:

‘I’m Hasan’, Hasan said in Urdu, advancing into the kitchen. ‘And you are?’
‘Yes’, came the reply. ‘I am.’
‘God is great’, Hasan said, with the confidence of someone who knows he has the last word. (4; emphasis added)

24Later, Hasan is told off by his cousin Zehra, who is more class-conscious than he is, for speaking English to her when in the presence of others less fortunate than themselves:

‘No school tomorrow, I suppose’ ; Hasan said to Zehra.
Zehra frowned at him. Don’t be rude. Speak Urdu. Although— ‘she glanced around, grinning, and switched to English herself, ‘I bet they all understand English, right?’
Khalida-the-Heartbreaker laughed. ‘No school. More strike’,
she said in English.
There were whistles and applause all around. (105; emphasis added)

25English-speaking is thus more widespread than the children thought. Later they are, once again, confronted with their linguistic prejudices when dealing with lower-class supporters of their uncle Salman. After being placed under house arrest, he is finally imprisoned with many of his followers, including his driver Khan’s brother-in-law, who had taken to the streets and demonstrated against the military junta:

Khan took the list (of political prisoners) and handed it to Zehra. ‘It’s in English,’ he said.
Zehra slid a finger down the page, her lips moving silently. A few inches from the bottom of the column of print, her finger stopped.
‘I’m sorry, Khan,’ she said.
‘Where is it? Which is his name?’
Zehra’s finger underlined the words ‘Gohar, son of Asghar’. […] Khan prised open the blade on his pocket-knife and cut out his brother-in-law’s name from the page. ‘I’ll give this to my sister,’ he said. ‘At least it’s something.’ He traced the letters, right to left. ‘He could read English, you know.’
‘Oh’, said Hasan. His cheeks were burning, and he felt as though he should feel guilty about something. (108)

26Hasan then suddenly realises that he had been patronising his uncle's supporters and that, contrary to what he had implicitly assumed at the beginning, speaking and reading English is not the exclusive prerogative of his social class. On the other hand, the political slogans sung by the followers of Hasan’s uncle Salman are transcribed from Urdu in italics, then translated into English, clearly for the benefit of a Western readership: ‘Salman, Baat maan, Terey hathon mein qoum kee jan’. ‘Salman, Understand, The country’s life is in your hands’ (82). Other emblematic Urdu words —freedom, justice—are explained through a periphrasis: ‘Zafar Haq […] saw the breeze calligraphing ‘Azadi’ in the dust of the prison floor. That single word of freedom told Zafar Haq that eight months of imprisonment were over’ (76), or: ‘it seemed each one of the City’s ten million inhabitants were out in the streets calling out his name’… ‘Haq! Haq!’, until it was both a call to him and a call for him to become his name, to become Haq, become justice’ (80) ; as Bill Ashcroft points out, these ‘translations of individual words […] are the most obvious and common authorial intrusion in cross-cultural texts’ (1989, 61).

  • 10 Loreto Todd, Cameroon, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 1982, 303 (quoted in Zabus 285).

27Within the novel, the two languages, Urdu and English, occasionally collide when the characters are emotionally upset. Thus, Hasan recognises his father’s distress at his uncle’s being jailed when he hears him reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets in Urdu: ‘When Aba started translating lines of poetry into their root words it was clear something was worrying him; but when the poetry was Shakespeare’s sonnets…’ (63; emphasis added). His deeply embedded bilingualism suddenly gives way and he reverts to his native Urdu, which is seen as the origin of English poetry, in particular Shakespeare’s, this icon of Englishness, thus challenging the primacy of English. Hasan himself, imagining his beloved uncle Salman in prison ‘etching calligraphy on the wall, etching snakes and diamonds of Urdu verse’, also experiences some linguistic confusion but seems to be even more linguistically mixed up than his father: ‘Hasan looked closer at the words and his faltering Urdu took flight; his brain translated the words into English, while his heart beat in time to the original metre’ (112). This is a good example of the linguistic process known as ‘relexification’, which ‘takes place […] between two languages within the same text’ (Zabus 288). Loreto Todd first defined ‘the relexification of one’s mother tongue’ as ‘using English vocabulary but indigenous structures and rhythms’,10 which is exactly what Hasan is doing. Chantal Zabus later expanded the previous definition to refer to semantics and syntax as well, and suggested that relexification should be understood as ‘the making of a new register of communication out of an alien lexicon’ (285). She was writing about the way ‘the African language is simulated in the Europhone text’ (286), but her analysis can be transposed to Hindustani and English. For Zabus, ‘this new register of communication, which is neither the European target language nor the indigenous source language, functions as an “interlanguage” or as a “third register” […] When relexified, it is not “metropolitan” English or French that appears on the page but an unfamiliar European language that constantly suggests another tongue’ (286). For Hasan, relexification is not seen as something positive or creative but is the sign that he is confused and overwhelmed by his emotions and in danger of losing control over his linguistic proficiency. The kind of cultural hybridity offered by relexification is, thus, not what Shamsie is promoting in her novel.

  • 11 ‘Ho, Shehryar!’ Uncle Latif said. ‘What’s the etymology of ‘etymology’?’
  • 12 ‘Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos meaning “homecoming” — don’t interrupt, Solomon (the Hebrew (...)

28More generally, the characters in both novels are obsessed with languages and etymology, going so far in Shamsie’s story as to enquire about the etymology … of etymology11! Contrary to Haroun’s father, Hasan’s father and his uncle Salman, who both like to show off their erudition, use etymology and philology very seriously not only to try and show the common origin of different languages but also find an interpretation that suits their particular situations.12

29There might also be another purpose to Shamsie’s use of Arabic xenisms in her novel, to be found in her depiction of Islam. Whereas Rushdie’s fairy-tale is definitely secular, there are, indeed, in Shamsie’s novel quite a few references, untranslated but self-explanatory in the context, to Islamic religious practices, which are part of the cultural background of the characters. They are perceived as pious Muslims, even though there is an allusion to a cousin of Hasan’s ‘brief flirtation with atheism’ (97). So, for example, the muezzin and the azaan, or call to prayer, are mentioned several times in the course of the novel. Another Islamic observance plays an important part in the novel and takes up the whole of chapter 12: the chehlum ceremony, held on the fortieth day (chehlum meaning forty) after the death of Hasan’s young cousin Azeem, who fell to his death while flying a kite from the roof of his house. As Bruce King points out, ‘Shamsie alludes to an Islamic history and culture richer and more interesting than the present fundamentalism’ (149). Thus, Shamsie’s fiction counters the current demonisation of Islam, especially regarding women, and depicts it on the contrary ‘as gentle, spiritual, poetic and most importantly individualistic, and is thus de-Othered’ (Ranashinha 2012, 213), something Western readers probably find more congenial. The female characters in the novel are seen as equal to their male counterparts. Hasan’s parents are presented as a loving couple and his mother earns her living as an art dealer and does not financially depend on her husband. His cousin Zehra is educated in the same co-ed school as he is and is given as much freedom by her father as he is. However, through the character of the Widow, who was left destitute by her in-laws after the death of her husband, the narrator also addresses and denounces the political instrumentalisation of Islam and the way in which Koranic laws are manipulated by the government and ‘unscrupulous male in-laws who evict women from their home and take their money’ (King 151). The Widow, another strong woman, is able to counter-attack and cite ‘the inheritance laws loud enough for all the mourners to hear, and then she chased the brothers away with quotes from the Quran and the Hadith about honouring widows and safeguarding the rights of your widowed sisters-in-laws’ (52). At the end of the novel, she is also thinking about entering politics and running against the great Salman Haq himself in the coming elections (211).

30On the other hand, Rushdie’s aim in Haroun and the Sea of Stories in using xenisms is much more straightforward in the way he wants to tell/teach his Western readers about his own cultural background. But speech itself is the subject of this fairy-tale since, at the beginning, having lost his gift of story-telling, Rashid is threatened to death if he cannot perform: like Scheherazade, the epitome of story-tellers, storytelling is literally for him a matter of life and death. Through the character of Rashid, the narrator reflects within the text itself on the very nature of language. Rashid's explanations are, at times, totally fanciful, as with the origin of the word Kashmir, but, at others times, they are more serious, as when Rashid explains to Haroun (and the reader) about Khattam-Shud who, within the story, is censorship incarnated. Rashid glosses his name: he is ‘the Arch-Enemy of all stories, even of language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech’. His name is, of course, quite relevant, as Rashid says, ‘because everything ends, because dreams end, stories end, life ends, at the finish of everything we use his name. “It’s finished”, we tell one another, “it’s over. Khattam-Shud: The End”’ (79, 39).

  • 13 The words in bold type are in the text.

31After the end of his fairy-tale novel, Rushdie added a sort of glossary or postface, ‘About the Names in this Book’, in which he explains that ‘many of the names given to people and places in this story have been derived from Hindustani words’ (217). As Bill Ashcroft points out, ‘editorial intrusions, such as the footnote, the glossary, and the explanatory preface, where these are made by the author, are a good example of (the fact that he/she is not the subject of an interpretation, but the first interpreter). Situated outside the text, they represent a reading rather than a writing, primary sorties into that interpretative territory which the Other (as reader) stands’ (1989, 61). Ashcroft sees glossing rather negatively, as for him it ‘gives the translated word, and thus the “receptor” culture, the higher status’ (1989, 66). I don’t think it is the case in Rushdie’s case: his intention is clearly educational and he wants to teach the Western reader (especially the children, for whom the story is written) about Indian language and culture. Some of the twenty or so Hindustani words that make up this glossary are simply translated, for example: ‘Bat-Mat-Karo means ‘Do-Not-Speak’; ‘Kitab means ‘book’. Others have their pronunciation explained as well: ‘Chup (pronounce the “u” like the “oo” in “good”) means ‘quiet’ ; “Chupwala” means something like “quiet fellow”’ and ‘Gup (pronounce the “u” as in “cup”) means “gossip”. It can also mean “nonsense” or “fib”’ (217-218). Rushdie also uses this glossary to give the reader some background on specific aspects of Indian culture used in the novel: for example, ‘Abhinaya is, in fact, the name of the Language of Gesture used in Indian classical dance’, and ‘Mudra, who speaks Abhinaya, the Language of Gesture . . ., is also named after it, in a way. A ‘mudra’ is any one of the gestures that make up the language’ (218). But he also seizes the opportunity to explain some of the more general cultural references, from the obvious (the choice of the names Haroun and Rashid and the connection to The Arabian Nights) to the less familiar to pun and pay homage playfully to his own favourite film director: ‘Goopy and Bagha don’t mean anything special, but they are also the names of the two goofy heroes of a movie by Satyajit Ray. The movie characters are not fishes, but they are pretty fishy’ (217).13

  • 14 The French title of Genette’s essay is Seuils, which means ‘thresholds’. There is another of those (...)

32These authorial comments in the postface also correspond to the form of paratext within the book itself that Gérard Genette calls a ‘peritext’ which is a threshold14 or a ‘vestibule’ that ‘offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back. It is an “undefined zone” between the inside and the outside, a zone without any hard and fast boundary on either the inward side (turned towards the text) or the outward side (turned towards the world’s discourse about the text)’ (2). The aim is to facilitate the reader’s understanding of the novel:

Indeed this fringe, always the conveyor of a commentary that is authorial […] constitutes a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that […] is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it (more pertinent, of course, in the eyes of the author and his allies (2).

33Rushdie’s postface and his dedicatory acrostic to his son Zafar at the beginning, while being strictly speaking off-text, frame the novel and refer to the author's own life, bridging fiction and autobiography.

  • 15 I am thinking, for example, of the Australian Peter Carey’s neo-Victorian and definitely post-colon (...)

34While Shamsie’s and Rushdie’s novels, because of their dates of publication and general settings, qualify as ‘postcolonial’, unlike other postcolonial novels they do not criticise their characters for their biculturalism or denounce the evils and the oppression of colonialism.15 They do not ‘write back with a vengeance’ to British literature but, on the contrary, promote a new literary ideal. Indeed, each in its own way deliberately incorporates and even foregrounds its own marginalised vernacular within the language of the ex-coloniser and, thus, renews the latter. Using a cooking metaphor to define the way he uses xenisms in his novel, Rushdie, in Midnight’s Children, describes the process as the ‘chutnification of history’ (459). Indeed, in Indian cooking, chutney is a side-dish that spices up the main course of the meal: ‘Chutney is a noun form and is understood as such in English. By adding ‘-fication’, Rushdie changes an Indian word into an English one to stand for transformation. Therefore ‘Chutnification’ in the novel means transformation of English having an additional connotation of making the language used in the novel tangy and more flavoursome and exciting’ (Krishnamurthy 1). However, this is not the sole purpose for using xenisms: not only are they deliberately used to teach the readers about their language and culture, proposing, especially in the case of Shamsie's novel, their own vision of society, but they are also the sign of the fairly harmonious hybridisation of the characters as a form of biculturalism, seen by both authors as a positive factor and, perhaps, even as a model for their Western readers to follow.

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Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 2006.

Bahri, Deepika, ‘The Shorter Fiction’, The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie, ed. Abdulrazak Gurnah, Cambridge: CUP, 2007, 139-151.

Boehmer, Elleke, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, Oxford: OUP, 1995.

Cilano, Cara, Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English. Idea, Nation, State, London: Routledge, 2013.

Cilano, Cara ‘Writing from Extreme Edges: Pakistani English-Language Fiction,’ Ariel 40.2-3 (2009): 183-201.

Cuddon, J. A, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (1977), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991, 509.

Genette, Gérard, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Literature, Culture, Theory), trans. Jane Lewin, Cambridge: CUP, 1997.

Hanman, Nathalie, ‘Interview with Kamila Shamsie: The Pakistani writer on patriarchy, cricket and the unashamedly political nature of her novels’, The Guardian 11 Apr. 2014, last accessed at on 29 January 2017.

Kanaganayakam, Chelva, Counterrealism and Indo-Anglian Fiction, Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2002.

Krishnamurthy, Sarala, ‘The Chutnification of English: An Examination of the Lexis of Salman Rushdie's Midnight’s Children. Ounoungo Repository Polytechnic of Namibia, 2010, last accessed at on 29 January 2017.

King, Bruce, ‘Kamila Shamsie's Novels of History, Exile and Desire’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing 47.2 (May 2011): 147-158.

Labaune-Demeule, Florence, ‘Normes et discours dans le texte postcolonial anglophone (Caraïbes, Inde) : du contre-discours à l’hybridation », Études de stylistique anglaise 6 (2013): 169-184.

Ranashinha, Ruvani, ‘The Fatwa and Its Aftermath’, The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie, ed. Abdulrazak Gurnah, Cambridge: CUP, 2007, 45-60.

Ranashinha, Ruvani, ‘Resistance and Religion in the Work of Kamila Shamsie’, Culture, Diaspora, and Modernity in Muslim Writing, eds. Ahmed Rehana, Peter Morey, and Amna Yakin, London and New York: Routledge, 2012, 200-214.

Roblin, Isabelle, ‘Arabian Nights Plus One: Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories’, Literary Happy Endings. Closure for Sunny Imaginations, eds. Armelle Parey and Isabelle Roblin, Aachen: Shaker Verlag, 2012, 66-77.

Rushdie, Salman, Midnight’s Children (1981), London: Vintage, 1996.

Rushdie, Salman, Shame, New York: Knopf, 1983.

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Rushdie, Salman, ‘Introduction,’ The Vintage Book of Indian Writing. 1947-1997, eds. Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, London: Vintage, 1997a, ix-xxii.

Rushdie, Salman, ‘Damne, This Is the Oriental Scene For You’, The New Yorker 23 June 1997b, 50-62.

Shamsie, Kamila, In the City by the Sea (1998), London: Granta, 2004.

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1 Both Shame and In the City By the Sea deal in their own way with Pakistani history and its successive coups d'état. What Chelva Kanaganayakam wrote about Shame could to a great extent equally apply to Shamsie's novel: ‘Even to those with no more than an elementary knowledge of Pakistan's political scene, the identity of the major characters is always clear. In some instances the markers are very specific, but even where there is some defamiliarization, the connections are obvious to those who are part of that world’ (153).

2 This particular genre is indeed unusual for Rushdie. It is linked to its writing context and the fact that he wrote it specifically for his own son, who was 11 at the time of the fatwa: ‘[The fairy-tale mode in Haroun] in retrospect, was ideal for the years immediately after the fatwa, rather than one which expresses the kind of vision that Rushdie works with’ (Kanaganayakam 150). Rushdie however was to return to the genre in 2010 with Luka and the Fire of Life, which he wrote for his younger son and which is presented as a companion piece to Haroun and structured like a computer quest game. For a detailed analysis of the different endings, see Roblin ‘Arabian Nights Plus One: Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

3 Organised by The Royal Society of Literature at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, with Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie. The recording of that debate can be listened to at the British Library in the Library’s sound collection.

4 This is what Bill Ashcroft and al. call ‘english’ in The Empire Writes Back. Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures: ‘we distinguish in this account between the “standard” British English inherited from the empire and the english which the language has become in post-colonial countries . […] For this reason the distinction between English and english will be used throughout our text as an indication of the various ways in which the language has been employed by different linguistic communities in the post-colonial world’ (8) .

5 ‘Mali’ is also a character in Rushdie’s novel and, as he explains in the glossary, Mali is, of course, a gardener (218).

6 Salman is of course a fairly common first name in Arabic, but I cannot help wondering whether, in this particular context, Shamsie did not use it in homage to Salman Rushdie.

7 For the readers who have never been to India or Pakistan, the numerous Indian or Pakistani (or Chinese) restaurants which are now part of the Western world culinary landscape have probably helped make these dishes more familiar than they used to be, even though the authenticity of their cuisine may be questionable, as Timothy Mo's 1982 novel Sour Sweet makes abundantly clear.

8 Florence Labaune-Demeule specifically mentions the numerous references to Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Daffodils’ and Scott’s ‘Lochinvar’ in postcolonial novels as ‘l’emblème du gouffre culturel entre la métropole et les colonies, le centre et la marge’ as well as ‘l’absence d’adéquation entre la réalité vécue dans les colonies et les textes littéraires lus’ (173): in Shamsie’s novel, both poems are repeatedly chosen by the children in Hasan’s school for the yearly oratory competition (190).

9 The same is true for ‘Indo-Anglian’ writers as Rushdie concedes in his introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing: ‘It is true that most of these writers come from the educated classes of India; but in a country still bedeviled by high illiteracy levels, how could it be otherwise?’ (xiv).

10 Loreto Todd, Cameroon, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 1982, 303 (quoted in Zabus 285).

11 ‘Ho, Shehryar!’ Uncle Latif said. ‘What’s the etymology of ‘etymology’?’

‘From the Greek etymos meaning true, akin to eteos which also means true, which comes from the Latin esse meaning ‘to be’,’ Aba shouted back’ (66).

12 ‘Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos meaning “homecoming” — don’t interrupt, Solomon (the Hebrew form for the Hindi Salman), I know you know that. But here’s the interesting part — it’s probably akin to the Sanskrit nasate which means “he approaches”. So, is nostalgia about return or about standing still and watching someone else return? ‘
Salman Mamoo laughed shortly. ‘I suppose you would say the latter. You like to choose the observer option, don’t you, Sherry?’
. . . Salman Mamoo said, ‘I’ve been checking up etymologies too, Shehryar. There’s a third word connected to nostalgia. The old English word
Genasan,’ Aba corrected him. ‘Yes. Meaning “to escape”.’
‘Very tempting when you’re under house arrest, wouldn’t you say?’ (19, 20)

13 The words in bold type are in the text.

14 The French title of Genette’s essay is Seuils, which means ‘thresholds’. There is another of those thresholds before the beginning of the novel: an acrostic poem dedicating the story to Zafar, Rushdie’s eldest son.

15 I am thinking, for example, of the Australian Peter Carey’s neo-Victorian and definitely post-colonial novel Jack Maggs (published in 1997 in the same decade as Rushdie’s and Shamsie’s novels), which is both a ferocious rewriting of Dickens’ Great Expectations and a vehement criticism of Victorian England.

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Isabelle Roblin, « Idiomatic Confluences: Xenisms in Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and Kamila Shamsie's In the City by the Sea (1998) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 52 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Roblin

Isabelle Roblin is an Assistant professor at the Université du Littoral-Côte d’Opale and specialises in contemporary anglophone literature. She has published many articles on Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Timothy Mo, etc. She is currently working on literary and cinematographic rewritings of the British and American literary canons and more particularly on Harold Pinter’s adapted screenplays (of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers among others) and has published Harold Pinter adaptateur: la liberté artistique et ses limites. She is also interested in feminist and post-colonial rewritings of classics, and has written for example about Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, which retells Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from the point of view of a young Irish maid, and Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, which revisit Great Expectations, but also Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, a parody of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

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