East, West: Stories
The Grandmother’s Tale and Selected Stories
Some years ago, in an essay called “A Writer’s Nightmare,” R.K. Narayan imagined himself a citizen of a strange country called Xanadu, where the government printer had made a grave error; five tons of forms meant for the controller of stores had been turned out with the heading “controller of stories.” Five tons of paper is no mean amount, and an official must be invented to make use of it. Perhaps, indeed, this is a matter in which government should have interfered before?
The Government has observed that next to rice and water, stories are the most-demanded stuff in daily life…. Every moment someone or other is always asking for a story.
And so there is to be a Central Story Bureau, with four directorates, one each for plot, character, atmosphere, and climax. Authors contemplating a story would have to fill in a form, obtain a treasury certificate, submit a synopsis, and obtain authorization. Unauthorized story tellers would be fined. Bad story tellers would have their ink bottles smashed.
Narayan’s joky but chilling little fable has given way to a worse nightmare, the one which Salman Rushdie is living day by day. It is now some six years since the Ayatollah Khomeini put a price on his head, exhorting “all zealous Muslims” to avenge the insults to their faith contained in The Satanic Verses. Khomeini is dead, but the edict remains in force; the author leads an unsettled life under police protection.
Rushdie is not now subject to purely literary judgments—if such things can be—but to a complex of political-ideological-literary judgments. One cannot respond to his writing in any uncomplicated way, or say an uncontentious word. This is a state of affairs which some British commentators see as unfortunate. When East, West appeared in the UK recently, the critic D.J. Taylor suggested:
Of all the misfortunes to affect a writer, one of the most dismal must be an awareness that the simple act of picking up your pen has become a highly charged political act, open to misrepresentation by friend and enemy alike.
Dismal? It is frightening, certainly, yet in a way horribly exhilarating. We have been returned to a world where ideas matter, where words cause riots, where they cause the world to change. The Ayatollah’s death sentence is a hideous tribute to the power of words, and Salman Rushdie is certainly aware of this. His plight has forced him to become a politician, canvassing the support of Western governments, but he has made an imaginative response to it as well. In his 1990 novella, Haroun and The Sea of Stories, Rushdie imagined an enemy of imagination called Cultmaster Khattam-Shud, whose ambition is to dry up the Ocean of the Stream of Story. This tyrant hates stories, because he aims to rule the world, and fiction creates an alternative world, a multiplicity of worlds he can never command; stories are outside rules and creeds.
The short stories in East, West pursue this theme. What are stories for? How is it that we all tell them to ourselves, all the time? What is the relationship between self-delusion and dream? Stories can cross barriers, barriers between East and West, between cultures; they can defeat or amplify our expectations, make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Rushdie is perceived as a master-practitioner of “magic realism,” as if “magic” were a go-faster adjunct to the trite, a device bolted onto mundane events as an outboard motor is clamped on to a boat. No one who has lived outside the West will believe matters are so simple. Where linear thinking does not rule, where the time on the clock is unimportant, one reality peels away to show another underneath. And artists, one might speculate, all carry within them a country of this type, an internal topography where, though naturalism may provide the topsoil, myth and magic erupt to break the surface and suggest what the depths may contain.
East, west, home’s best, the saying goes; but where is home? A sense of displacement can be good for writers, and Rushdie, Asian-born, acclaimed in the West, is betwixt and between. One might think of him as poised to interpret one world to the other, or to pass judgment on both, but what emerges from this collection—if he speaks at all through the mouths of his characters—is a sense of struggle. In the story “The Courter,” the young Indian narrator, who has spent his adolescence in London, thinks of himself as torn between cultures, plunging and fighting like the wild horses in the film The Misfits: “I buck, I snort, I whinny, I rear, I kick. Ropes, I do not choose between you. Lassoes, lariats, I choose neither of you, and both. Do you hear? I refuse to choose.”
It is this profitable refusal, this struggle, that makes the stories in this new book so fascinating. Many of them are written with a wariness and a gentle humor that one associates more with Narayan than with Rushdie. Exuberant, flamboyant prose is not much on display, and some of Rushdie’s admirers will regret this; others will believe that his genius shines brighter through plain words. The East section of the book begins with “Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies.”
On the last Tuesday of the month, the dawn bus, its headlamps still shining, brought Miss Rehana to the gates of the British Consulate. It arrived pushing a cloud of dust, veiling her beauty from the eyes of strangers until she descended. The bus was brightly painted in multicoloured arabesques, and on the front it said “MOVE OVER DARLING” in green and gold letters; on the back it added “TATA-BATA” and also “O.K. GOOD-LIFE.” Miss Rehana told the driver it was a beautiful bus, and he jumped down and held the door open for her, bowing theatrically as she descended.
Miss Rehana is one of the “Tuesday women” who come to the consulate to get visas to go to England. They are preyed upon by an old man, an “advice wallah” who intercepts them and sells them worthless documents which he says will ensure their safe passage. Relieved and grateful, they might pay him five hundred rupees, or give him a gold bracelet. Then they go home—he always chooses women who live hundreds of miles away—and begin their packing.
Who knows at what point they found out they had been gulled, but it was a too-late point anyway.
But Miss Rehana does not become his victim; it is the other way around. Bewitched by her sparkling black eyes, he offers her advice, and then—he cannot help himself—the ultimate prize of a stolen passport.
Completely genuine and pukka goods. I have a good friend who will put your name and photo, and then, hey-presto, England there you come!
Rushdie’s sharp ear for the peculiarities of idiom gives his characters individuality at a stroke. He is adept at finding the exact word which seems to unite East and West, but in fact shows the gulf between, as cultural borrowings often do. Subtly, his sentences veer away from the expected. And Miss Rehana veers too, from the pattern of behavior the old man has exploited for so long. She does not want the passport he offers. This Tuesday woman has no desire to cross continents to be married to a man she hardly knows. On purpose, she messes up her interview at the Consulate and reboards the bus glowing with triumph, to return to the great house where she is employed as the ayah of three boys who are fond of her. The advice-wallah’s world has been turned upside down; will he ever trust himself again to be as bad as he needs to be to make his living?
Her last smile, which he watched from the compound until the bus concealed it in a dust-cloud, was the happiest thing he had ever seen in his long, hot, hard, unloving life.
Almost as successful is “The Free Radio,” narrated by a “mister teacher sahib retired” who might be one of Narayan’s characters, an elder who sits under a tree and watches and passes judgment on his neighbors’ affairs. A young rickshaw driver, a simple friendly soul, falls in love with a thief’s widow, who has many children to support, and will not marry him unless she can be sure she will have no more. He decides to have a vasectomy, believing that the government will give him a free transistor radio—the object in the world he most covets.
“Go away, get away from me,” I cried out in despair, and did not have the heart to tell him what everyone else in the country already knew, which was that the free radio scheme was a dead duck, long ago, long forgotten. It had been over—funtoosh!—for years.
When the radio does not come, the rickshaw boy—like an artist who believes in his power to make dreams a reality—simply pretends it. He pedals through the streets holding the imaginary radio to his ear, singing and making announcements. He can almost convince others that this invisible thing exists. The tragicomic balance is beautifully held; the story wobbles off course only when Rushdie allows his small-town dignitary to overexplain. Of course, he is a sententious man, but he should think and talk on his own level—not, for a few lines, on the author’s.
There was a new thing in his face, a strained thing, as if he were having to make a phenomenal effort, which was much more tiring than driving a rickshaw, more tiring even than pulling a rickshaw containing a thief’s widow and her five living children and the ghosts of two dead ones; as if all the energy of his young body was being poured into that fictional space between his ear and his hand, and he was trying to bring the radio into existence by a mighty, and possibly fatal, act of will.
But quickly enough, the narrative takes over again; when the boy runs off to Bombay to become a film-star, he sends back via a public letter-writer accounts of his triumphs and fame. But the old man knows it is a myth, another dream strenuously conjured out of the dry empty air.
“The Prophet’s Hair” is a more complex story. Narrated in the manner of a fairy tale, it takes place in an unspecified year in Kashmir, in “a winter so fierce it could crack men’s bones as if they were glass.” A hypocritical moneylender changes his character when he comes into possession of a relic of Mohammed, a hair of the prophet in a silver vial. His gentle domestic life is overturned as he imposes a heavy-handed masculine authority on the household, abuses his wife, commands his daughter into purdah, and begins to pray and read the Holy Koran for the first time in his life. Yet one cannot say, simply, that becoming a religious fanatic makes him a bad man. He was already a bad man; and far from renouncing his un-Islamic trade as a usurer, he becomes even more brutal in collecting his debts. The relic is, in itself, an ambiguous symbol, as many Muslims regard such cult objects with distaste. The real function of the hair seems to be to strip away falsity. Not only does it expose the moneylender’s hypocrisy, it also heals the smashed legs of four young men who have been crippled at birth by their father so that they will make more money at begging. Naturally, they are furious.