Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies

by Salman Rushdie

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How does Salman Rushdie portray the relationship between Muhammad Ali and Rehana in "Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies"?

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Though this story is short, and though these two characters only have two conversations, Rushdie's dialogue and narration establishes a developing relationship between them that offers an interesting exploration of human relationships in general. The third-person omniscient narration lets us glimpse the unspoken feelings and thoughts in both characters' minds, but mainly Muhammad's.

First, consider how Rehana's beauty charms Muhammad and affects him deeply even before they speak:

Miss Rehana's eyes were large and black and shiny enough not to need the help of antimony, and when the advice expert Muhammad Ali saw them he felt himself becoming young again.

Her face is so beautiful that it doesn't need makeup, according to the narration, and her eyes awaken a sense of youth in the old man. Further, the fact that she's acting confident and that she hasn't come with a male family member as her escort is so fascinating to Muhammad that it's as if he's gravitationally drawn to her:

Muhammad Ali... found his feet leading him towards the strange, big-eyed, independent girl.

All this initial powerful yet one-sided attraction paints a picture of a common human weakness: how we seem to lose ourselves and our free will when we're overcome by someone's beauty and charm.

When he approaches her, look at how casually she treats him, how full of self-possession she is as she stands, and yet look at how literally visceral his reaction to her is:

She was standing at a hot-snack stall in the little shantytown by the edge of the compound munching chilipakoras contentedly. She turned to look at him, and at close range those eyes did bad things to his digestive tract.

As they begin to speak to each other, notice particularly that Rehana doesn't offer any of her food to Muhammad. She's closed off to him, not taken in at all by his offer of advice or his calculated con-man manners, and the fact that she doesn't share her food with him is a strong indication that she's inaccessible to him--she won't commune with him. Yet.

She continues to baffle him. When he corrects her description of "Bradford, London" to the proper "Bradford, England," Rehana's response is an enigma to Muhammad:

'I see,' she responded gravely, so that he was unsure if she was making fun of him.

When he scares her into listening to his advice, he relishes it, happy to be able to keep drinking in her presence:

His oratory had done the trick. She was a captive audience now, and he would be able to look at her for a few moments longer.

As you can see, Rehana has this man under her control, yet he's struggling desperately to reverse the situation. This tense, uneven, back-and-forth relationship, developing over a small wooden desk in the corner of a shantytown, represents the common human struggle to gain control in a relationship. Rehana calls Muhammad a "wise old man," and who knows if she's making fun of him, reminding him of his old age, or both?

But everything changes when she comes back out from the embassy. Look at how Rehana suddenly showers physical contact as well as shared food with Muhammad:

Impulsively, she took his forearm in her hand. 'Come. Let me buy you a pakora to thank you for your advice and to apologize for my rudeness, too.'

When it turns out that the con man's advice actually worked in Rehana's favor, and when she received the outcome she wanted so that she could stay in her town--suddenly Rehana is filled with misplaced gratitude, and she opens herself to Muhammad.

Their relationship has changed drastically; she confesses her personal family history to him, and then disappears in the same cloud of dust that obscured her arrival. Muhammad remains, as perplexed by the twist in Rehana's story as he was by all of her beauty and confidence. This final kink in the story, and in their relationship, illustrates our very human tendency to allow our moods and circumstances to determine how we treat others and how we develop our relationships.

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