Salman Rushdie brilliantly uses dialogue in East, West to draw readers into the stories he tells. His characters all have different styles of speech which betray their personalities, and the manner in which dialogue is used creates different atmospheres in each of the stories. For instance, “The Prophet’s Hair” contains very little dialogue, most of which is urgent (“’Because we can afford no last-minute backings-out… I am determined to tell you everything, keeping back no secrets whatsoever’”) or severe (“’A dope! I have been cursed with a dope!’”) (40-41, 46). This significantly increases the tension in the story. Moreover, this story is dominated by brief monologues or isolated statements rather than drawn out conversations, which creates a choppy and disjointed mood that a reader finds unsettling.
“At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,” however, contains little dialogue, and that which does exists resides in flashbacks. The reader and the narrator both become disembodied observers to the story, rather than participants – the absence of speech distances the reader from the events of the story, and so allows him or her to plunge directly into the meaning of the story. “Chekov and Zulu” uses the opposite technique – it is dominated by uninterrupted conversations between characters. The extensive use of dialogue, as well as the casual, joking quality of the characters’ speech, obscures the themes of the story while bringing attention to the characters’ interactions. The way Chekov and Zulu communicate is familiar to the reader, because the inside jokes and implicit understanding between friends is thoroughly realistic. They seem to share a unique, personal language which nobody else can comprehend (certainly not Zulu’s wife, who can barely repeat the message Zulu sends Chekov), and the intimacy of the connection this language creates deepens the tragedy of the friends’ parting.
Dialogue plays a profound role in the plot of “The Courter.” Rushdie immediately establishes the flaws in Certainly-Mary’s and Mixed-Up’s communication – Mary speaks broken English and mispronounces words (particularly those containing the letter P), and Mecir suffered a stroke which greatly reduced his brain function. The children mock them for these faults, as they mock their father for misusing the word “nipple,” but the narrator confesses that he, too, struggled with the language and is ashamed of his difficulties (185). However, these two, who can communicate only brokenly through spoken conversations, learn to communicate instead through chess. Even though they can barely talk to each other, their relationship grows strong, which shows the diversity of languages that can connect people.
Communication is an essential part of human life. We form connections with others through language, whether this is the private language of two old friends or the silent language of a game that two lovers understand more easily than the spoken word. We communicate differently with different people, depending on how we relate to them. With our superiors and elders we know to speak politely and formally, but with our friends we speak openly and share whatever is on our minds. The knowledge that one can speak freely is in itself a sense of home – it indicates a degree of comfort with one’s surroundings. A home is filled with those who speak the same language, whether Indian or English or a web of personal jests that only close friends or family can understand.
I’ve recently been exposed to such a codified “inside language” in an unexpected way. At my service site, Tunbridge Public Charter School, the teachers and students have a system of rules and terms that threw me for a loop during my first few days there. The school promotes what they call “pax,” which is essentially good behavior. The teachers turn rules into games that the young children can understand – when they want the students to quiet down, they will say “show me your bubbles!” and the students know to puff up their cheeks and listen. The teachers have established these methods to communicate with the younger kids who cannot understand the language that adults would use to communicate with one another. It was somewhat strange to find myself in a position where pre-K students understand what was going on better than I did, but every time I return to Tunbridge I become more familiar with the language of the school, and I learn to speak to the students in terms we all understand.