Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies

by Salman Rushdie

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“When I first saw The Wizard of Oz, it made a writer of me,” Rushdie once said. He drew on his interest in that story when he wrote “Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies,” which alludes to the famous slippers that offer Dorothy an opportunity to go home, away from the magical and foreign place that is Oz. “Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies” was published in the collection East, West, which explores the ways in which people of Eastern ethnicity, especially those from India and Pakistan, experience conflict when they confront Western cultures. The collection is divided into three groups of stories—the East, the West, and the combination of both. “Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies” uses unreliable third-person narration to celebrate Eastern values through a tale about an Indian woman who will use trickery to avoid marriage to a man in Great Britain because she prefers to stay at her home in India. Miss Rehana, a beautiful Indian woman, so beautiful that she captures the attention of all men who look at her, is on her way to get her papers to go to London. Muhammad Ali, an expert advice-giver and trickster, smitten by her beauty, gives her free advice as to how to avoid the insults and red tape of immigrating to England, offering to arrange for her a free passport to bypass this. After listening to him patiently, Rehana instead uses his advice to avoid getting the permits she needs. Her fiancé in England was chosen by her parents rather than by herself, and as it turns out, he is an old man. She prefers to reject the Indian societal pressure to marry and instead continues her life as an independent, single woman working as an ayah (nanny) to three children in Lahore. The story rejects the notion that England is a preferable place to live over India but equally rejects the Indian practice of arranged marriage as well as the expectation that all young women must marry. As a result, the author does not simply celebrate Indian culture; he depicts it in a realistic, nuanced way.

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Every Tuesday, women arrive from different parts of India to apply at the British consulate for a permit to enter England, where they will meet with their fiancés or husbands selected by family members through the tradition of arranged marriages. Muhammad Ali makes sure he is always there to meet the bus of “Tuesday women” because he “specialize[s] in advising the most vulnerable-looking of these weekly supplicants,” charging them a fee for his “services,” which he purports will simplify the immigration process. In fact, he merely cons the women desperate to get to England.

When he sees Miss Rehana climb off the bus, however, Muhammad Ali is struck by her uncommonly beautiful eyes. Approaching her, he offers his services for a small fee. “Good advice is rarer than rubies,” she tells him, adding, “But alas, I cannot pay,” for she is not a wealthy woman. He continues to urge her to accept his help but she continues to decline because she does not have the money. Normally, Muhammad would walk away or try harder to convince her to pay for his services; however, Miss Rehana seems different than the other women he makes it his business of conning. Her beautiful eyes overpower him so much that, in spite of his best instincts, he finds himself offering her his advice for free. “I have been drawn to you by Fate,” he tells her, so “for you my advice is free,” even while he says to himself, “I am going...

(This entire section contains 834 words.)

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crazy.” “This fraud,” as the narrator describes the old man, is completely charmed by the beauty of Miss Rehana. She smiles and agrees to listen, because “when Fate sends a gift, one receives good fortune.” She does indeed “receive good fortune,” but not the way Muhammad intends.

Bringing her to his desk in the corner of the “shanty town” near the consulate, he asks Miss Rehana questions that make him sound official while also gathering information about her. Nonplussed by his official demeanor, Miss Rehana merely munches on the pakoras she purchased at a stall when she got off the bus. During the interview, Muhammad Ali inspects her application papers, deems them “tip-top,” but then he tries again to frighten her, warning again of the difficulty of entering England, for the “sahibs [think] that all the women who come on Tuesdays...[are] crooks and liars and cheats.” She needs help—his help, he again insists. Finally, she asks for his advice and, delighted, he tells her that he can obtain a passport that would enable her to avoid all the insulting questions the people at the consulate would ask her. Although he usually charges a fee for such a service, for her, he says once again, he will do it for free. Quite simply, her beauty is such that he cannot resist. “The oldest fools are bewitched by the youngest girls,” he “berates” himself, but he is willing to give up the money just to look at her face for another minute.

Miss Rehana, however, is not so willing to be helped. After he gives his advice, culminating with the “generous” offer of a free, fraudulent passport, she merely gets up from her chair and walks away, going directly back to the consulate gates to stand in line with the other women. Muhammad Ali stands around all day, waiting for her to come out, and finally she emerges, speaking to him kindly with the greeting “salaam.” Because she seems so calm, Muhammad thinks she succeeded in obtaining her permit, and he feels genuinely happy that she did, even without his help. Miss Rehana appreciates his goodness—despite his “work” as “advise-giver”—and offers to buy him a pakora. She wants to tell him the truth about her venture. Beginning with the story of her life, she explains that her fiancé in England was, in fact, a stranger: “It was an arranged marriage...fixed” when she was only nine years old. Muhammad continues to offer advice, saying parents always try to do what is best for their children and that she now has her entire life to get to know this stranger who will be her husband. As it turns out, however, she admits that she answered incorrectly all the questions the sahibs asked, and so she will not be going to England after all. Poor Muhammad is much dismayed, crying that if only she had accepted his help, she would have been able to get to England and be married. “I do not think you should be sad,” she tells him with a smile as she gets back on the bus. While he thinks she is dismayed that she will now have to go back to her hometown, Lahore, and her job as ayah to children, she is in fact delighted; she did not want to go to England to begin with. Indeed, Muhammad’s advice was more valuable than rubies because it enabled her to stay in India at a job she enjoys.