Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies

by Salman Rushdie

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Themes and Meanings

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Beneath its simple surface, “Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies” deals with complex issues of international relations, cultural differences, and the many-sided nature of human desires and goals. At one level, the story deals with the unequal relationship between Great Britain and its former colony, Pakistan. Muhammad Ali’s meager, dishonest living depends on a steady stream of women seeking permission to join husbands or fiancés working in England. When Miss Rehana appears at the gates of the consulate, she is turned away because the sahibs have not yet finished their breakfast. The British officials have complete power to decide whether she will be allowed to enter their country.

It is clear that the British do not understand Pakistan or customs such as arranged marriages. Miss Rehana and the other young women, in turn, do not understand British ways of doing things. Muhammad Ali is able to act as a go-between and to defraud the young women, because he can claim to have some insight into how things are done by the sahibs.

At a deeper level, the story treats the mystery of motivation. Even Muhammad Ali, a greedy and selfish cheat, finds himself motivated to help the young woman without completely understanding why. Miss Rehana herself appears to be motivated to go to England, but in the end she really seems to want to stay home. The difficulty of knowing what people really want makes it hard to say just what good advice is. Muhammad Ali turns out to be right in everything that he tells Miss Rehana. The British do interrogate her, and she is refused permission to go to England when she cannot answer their questions. However, Muhammad Ali is also wrong in assuming that going abroad is what Miss Rehana really wants. In the end, failure has made her happy, and her happiness seems to bring light into the dark life of the old con man, even though he has failed both in his original plan to cheat her and in his efforts to help her.

Themes

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Celebration of the East, and India in particular, is the dominant theme in the story. However, rather than make India exotic, which is the common practice in the literature of Western cultures, Rushdie presents it in very realistic terms through the ordinary details of life. Readers see and experience the setting as dusty but colorful, with people eating food, doing business, and trying to make a profit or establish a life. In addition, when given the opportunity to stay in India and work as an ayah or go to England and live the life of a married woman, Miss Rehana prefers the former, for India is her home. Thus, instead of portraying India as foreign, the story makes England a place of the unknown; it is vague, with confusing names and requiring a permit even to go there. “Good advice is better than rubies,” Miss Rehana tells Muhammad Ali, and the advice she receives enables her to stay in India. Miss Rehana, then, becomes an inverted version of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, for while Dorothy clicks her ruby slippers to return home, representing the West, Miss Rehana uses her rubies, the advice of Muhammad Ali, to stay at home in the East. Both characters know “there is no place like home,” but for Dorothy home is Kansas while for Miss Rehana home is Lahore, India.

Rushdie also makes gender a theme by celebrating the cleverness, beauty, and wisdom of Miss Rehana over the superficiality of the men in the story, especially Muhammad Ali, who fawn over...

(This entire section contains 707 words.)

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her. Although he is supposed to be the tale’s trickster, the old man who cons women into paying for his advice, Miss Rehana instead cons him through her beauty and by not telling him from the beginning that she really has no desire to go to England. Instead, she obtains all the advice she needs from him, paying not a rupee for it, and uses it for the opposite purpose for which Muhammad Ali intended. As it turns out, even though this is India, where women are supposed to be more subservient to men than in the West, an Indian woman is the independent character in the story, preferring to work and remain single, and from beginning to end she exercises control over her life. Poor Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, allows his emotions to get the better him, is entranced by her beauty, and cannot discern her larger purpose.

No one in this story is reliable in actions or character, making how we know the truth of anything another theme. This deconstruction of a final, clear truth is an aspect of Rushdie’s postmodern view of the world. Whom can we trust? How do we know someone speaks the truth? The sahibs behind the gates issuing permits cannot be trusted, for they have an opinion of the Tuesday women that categorizes them in a degrading way: women desperate to enter England at any cost. Muhammad Ali makes it his profession to dupe the same Tuesday women, eliciting money from them for imagined services. Miss Rehana is perhaps the least reliable of characters, for she acts one way while she thinks another, so that neither Muhammad Ali nor the audience know her intentions until the end of the story.

However, even if the characters are unreliable, in the end they are also kind and good, so that the essential goodness of people is another theme in the story. Although he intends to con Miss Rehana out of her money, Muhammad Ali finds that he cannot do so and instead wants to help her. Indeed, truly concerned about her welfare, he counsels her that even though she does not love her fiancé now, she will grow to love him in future years. And even if Miss Rehana withholds information from Muhammad in order to obtain all she can from him, after she leaves the British consulate she offers to buy him a pakora and they chat in a very friendly and respectful way. There is no meanness here, and even if these two exploit each other, the narrative tone characterizes this as playful and harmless interaction rather than a result of oppression or inequity in the social structure.

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