Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies

by Salman Rushdie

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Style and Technique

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“Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies” is told in the third person, but it presents events from the point of view of Muhammad Ali. It is a short and deceptively simple tale that has only two main characters. Nevertheless, in a few pages and a sparse style, Salman Rushdie manages to present an ironic view of life in contemporary Pakistan.

Rushdie’s work is often characterized by the style known as Magical Realism, in which fantastic and wildly imaginative events occur within a realistic setting. Much of the effectiveness of this style lies in its ability to draw readers into accepting unlikely or impossible events as occurring in the normal course of daily affairs and in the surprises made possible by unexpected twists of plot. “Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies” owes its impact to the fact that its characters and its events stay on the level of realistic fiction, presenting nothing impossible or even out of the ordinary, while disrupting the ordinary world in a way that seems magical.

Muhammad Ali’s corrupt, sordid life is interrupted by the radiant young woman, and he finds himself unexpectedly changed. The advice that he gives her is good advice, based on the point of view that creates his reality. This point of view suddenly appears to be an illusion, though, along with much else in the story. Evil intentions are transformed into efforts to help. His efforts to help, seen from another angle, are rejected as illegal actions. In the end, the misfortunate results of rejecting well-meant but illegal suggestions are transformed into a fortunate outcome. As Miss Rehana leaves on the bus, the reader is left standing with Muhammad Ali, feeling that there was something magical about her intrusion into the old man’s routine.

Rushdie’s writing style is simple, ornamented only by the dialogue between the two main characters. This dialogue uses the quaint but oddly poetic dialect of Pakistani English, giving a sense of place and drawing attention to the old man and the young woman. The description of the setting is minimal. Only the brightly painted bus at the beginning is depicted in any detail. After Miss Rehana descends from the bus, the whole story takes place at the gates of the consulate or at Muhammad Ali’s desk. This sparseness of description of surroundings, like the dialogue, focuses concentration on the relationship between the two people and on Muhammad Ali’s growing sense of wonder as Miss Rehana surprises him and as he surprises himself.

Setting

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Because one theme of the story concerns how people are happy living in an Eastern environment, the setting is very important. The story takes place outside a British consulate in an unnamed town in India, which establishes a contrast between Eastern and Western culture. Women, accompanied by male family members, arrive at the consulate every Tuesday to obtain permits to immigrate to England to meet their husbands or fiancés. Inside the consulate, “sahibs” eat their breakfast while Indian women wait outside in line to see them. “Sahib” is a term Indians used during the Raj period to refer to British rulers, and in this context it indicates the postcolonial setting of the story, where vestiges of old attitudes that privilege British over native people remain. The “coolies” who tie the bedrolls to the top of the bus are as much of a reminder of the caste system in India as the power system established by British rule. Symbolically, the British consulate functions as a site of bureaucracy, while the streets of India represent the business of and vitality of life.

(This entire section contains 677 words.)

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Because one theme of the story concerns how people are happy living in an Eastern environment, the setting is very important. The story takes place outside a British consulate in an unnamed town in India, which establishes a contrast between Eastern and Western culture. Women, accompanied by male family members, arrive at the consulate every Tuesday to obtain permits to immigrate to England to meet their husbands or fiancés. Inside the consulate, “sahibs” eat their breakfast while Indian women wait outside in line to see them. “Sahib” is a term Indians used during the Raj period to refer to British rulers, and in this context it indicates the postcolonial setting of the story, where vestiges of old attitudes that privilege British over native people remain. The “coolies” who tie the bedrolls to the top of the bus are as much of a reminder of the caste system in India as the power system established by British rule. Symbolically, the British consulate functions as a site of bureaucracy, while the streets of India represent the business of and vitality of life.

A preponderance of Indian terms lends reality to its culture. Although the area is “dusty,” the bus that transports the women is “brightly painted in multicolored arabesques” and other decorations, giving it a visual charm, especially in contrast to the guarded gates of the consulate. Various stalls outside those gates sell food, including pakoras, a fried, dumpling-like snack filled with curried ingredients. A “bearded lala” wearing a colorful “gold-buttoned khaki uniform with a cockaded turban” guards the gates to the consulate. Muhammad’s office is merely a “low wooden desk in his own special corner of the shanty-town.” Miss Rehana does not wait in line to see him, as women must do in front of the consulate, but instead Muhammad Ali approaches her. Rather than sit on a chair as they talk, Muhammad provides a cushion “on the dusty ground” for her to sit. Near his office is a stall selling “betel-nut,” a mild stimulant popular in India with a tradition dating back thousands of years. Muhammad uses the term “Pukka goods” to describe the authenticity of the passport he will arrange for Miss Rehana. Miss Rehana refers to Muhammad as “old babuji,” a term expressing high respect for a father; and he refers to her as “bibi,” a term of respect for women.

Miss Rehana repeatedly confuses terms of place in England, saying she intends to go to “Bradford, London,” while Muhammad corrects her that London “is a town only, like Multan or Bahawalpur. England is a great nation full of the coldest fish in the world.” His explanation humorously characterizes England as impersonal and boring and reduces the grandness of London to the familiar cities in India. As for the British consulate, Muhammad characterizes it as “a worse place than any police station,” filled with “men with hooded eyes, like hawks,” which directly contrast with Miss Rehana’s eyes, repeatedly described as beautiful. He pleads with Miss Rehana to protect herself from submitting to the bureaucracy of the consulate: “Go home, forget England, only do not go into that building and lose your dignity.” On one hand, this characterization reflects an aspect of Muhammad’s con game in convincing women to accept his help, but on the other it posits England as a Western site that does, indeed, insult Eastern people by treating them as less than fully human. Ironically, here in his office, Muhammad initially tries to trick Miss Rehana as he has done other naive Indian women, acting a bit as a hawk himself. Indeed, Muhammad’s perception of Indian women as gullible marks whom he can swindle prevents a simplistic, romantic portrayal of India as a land of pure innocence and charm. For that reason, just as the bus arrives in a cloud of dust, so it leaves in a dust cloud. What is most important is that Miss Rehana prefers the dust that is India to the kind of life represented by the permit she must obtain in the consulate.

Bibliography

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Erickson, John. 1998. Islam and Postcolonial Narrative. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Erickson analyzes the narrative strategies Rushdie and other postcolonial writers use to explore the encounter between Western and Islamic values as well as to discuss the authors’ use of Islam in their fiction.

Gurnah, Abdulrazak, ed. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. This collection of essays provides thematic readings as well as detailed interpretations of Rushdie’s work. It also discusses his importance in postcolonial writing.

Reder, Michael, ed. 2000. Conversations With Salman Rusdie. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press. These interesting interviews with Rushdie cover topics such as the fatwa that drove him into hiding as well as literary questions, including the common theme of love and the value of digressions in a narrative.

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