& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Moor's Last Sigh

I’ve been re-reading Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. Many agree that this novel is a sort of sequel to Midnight's Children.

Probably because Rushdie wrote the novel when he was hiding from the world under a fatwa from the Iranian clergy, the novel is sombre, less hopeful and realistic. 

Also, in many ways, it’s a truer picture of India as compared to the one Rushdie portrays in Midnight’s Children, which is an alarmingly hopeful novel. 

The Moor’s Last Sigh accurately captures the rootlessness of the post-Nehru generation that grew up in an India where hope was receding quickly and was being rapidly replaced by despondency.

I enjoyed The Moor’s Last Sigh more than Midnight’s Children also because it is focussed on the Bombay of 1970s and 1980s – a time and a place that I relate to. It’s easier to relate to Moraes (Moor) Zogoiby than Saleem Saini because Moraes is my generation. Saleem is my mother’s generation.

The novel – as with most of Rushdie’s novels – is replete with innumerable fanciful characters, including historical figures such as Nehru and Indira, cricketer Abbas Ali Baig, and other thinly-disguised then contemporary figures, who have now passed into history. Two that immediately come to mind are right-wing politician Bal Thackeray, and artist and one of the pioneers of the Baroda school, Bhupen Khakkar. Then, there are others whose names have been slightly altered – Crocodile Nandy – and the personalities transposed. It’s great fun reading the novel and trying to decipher who the real life person is.  A page reproduces the face of RK Laxman’s Common Man.

I know that is an insufficient and a subjective way to assess the greatness (or the lack thereof) of a book. 

Rushdie understood this, and wrote about it on the 25th anniversary of Midnight’s Children in the Outlook magazine. “One day, I knew, the subject of Mrs. Gandhi and the Emergency would cease to be current, would no longer exercise anyone overmuch, and at that point, I told myself, my novel would either get worse—because it would lose the power of topicality—or else it would get better—because once the topical had faded, the novel's literary architecture would stand alone, and even, perhaps, be better appreciated. Clearly, I hoped for the latter, but there was no way to be sure. The fact that Midnight's Children is still of interest twenty-five years after it first appeared is, therefore, reassuring.”

For me, Midnight’s Children is history. The Moor’s Last Sigh is nostalgia. There’s a big difference between history and nostalgia. Nostalgia is personal. History can be, but is more formal. 

An excerpt from the novel on Bombay

BOMBAY was central, had been so from the moment of its creation: the bastard child of a Portuguese-English wedding, and yet the most Indian of Indian cities. In Bombay all Indias met and merged. In Bombay, too, all-India met what-was-not-India, what came across the black water to flow into our veins. Everything north of Bombay was North India, everything south of it was the South. To the east lay India's East and to the west, the world's West. Bombay was central; all rivers flowed into its human sea. It was an ocean of stories; we were all its narrators, and everybody talked at once.

What magic was stirred into that insaan-soup, what harmony emerged from that cacophony! In Punjab, Assam, Kashmir, Meerut--in Delhi, in Calcutta--from time to time they slit their neighbours' throats and took warm showers, or red bubble-baths, in all that spuming blood. They killed you for being circumcised and they killed you because your foreskins had been left on. Long hair got you murdered and haircuts too; light skin flayed dark skin and if you spoke the wrong language you could lose your twisted tongue. In Bombay, such things never happened.--Never, you say? – OK: never is too absolute a word. Bombay was not inoculated against the rest of the country, and what happened elsewhere, the language business for example, also spread into its streets. But on the way to Bombay the rivers of blood were usually diluted, other rivers poured into them, so that by the time they reached the city's streets the disfigurations were relatively slight. – Am I sentimentalising? Now that I have left it all behind, have I, among
my many losses, also lost clear sight?--It may be said I have; but still I stand by my words. O Beautifiers of the City, did you not see that what was beautiful in Bombay was that it belonged to nobody, and to all? Did you not see the everyday live-and-let-live miracles thronging its overcrowded streets?

Bombay was central. In Bombay, as the old, founding myth of the nation faded, the new god-and-mammon India was being born. The wealth of the country flowed through its exchanges, its ports. Those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay: that was one explanation for what happened. Well, well, that may have been so. And it may have been that what was unleashed in the north (in, to name it, because I must name it, Ayodhya) – that corrosive acid of the spirit, that adversarial intensity which poured into the nation's bloodstream when the Babri Masjid fell and plans for a mighty Ram temple on the god's alleged birthplace were, as they used to say in the Bombay cinema-houses, filling up fast – was on this occasion too concentrated, and even the great city's powers of dilution could not weaken it enough.

And a clip of the author reading the above passage

Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/26/Last_sigh.jpg

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