Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1367
Because of their shared love of puns and allusions, Salman Rushdie often compares himself to James Joyce, a predecessor Rushdie also resembles in the fate of his reputation. Their humorous, vertiginous, multicultural mixture of erudition and popular culture might never have reached large audiences if they had not had works condemned for blasphemy and pornography, respectively. Rushdie’s texts are more erotic than Joyce’s and Joyce’s more blasphemous than Rushdie’s, so their public images are largely a misunderstanding. Both are best seen as postcolonial authors, Joyce condemning the web of British oppression that stagnated Ireland while Rushdie has satirized vestiges of it in India, Pakistan, and émigré communities.
A significant difference, however, divides the importance short stories have played in the careers of each. Joyce learned his craft through writing his collection of stories, Dubliners (1914), which marked a major advance for the genre; the interconnecting stories focus on a single locale. Rushdie’s works of short fiction (the casual fruits of the middle period of his career), although skillful in their dazzling ironic twists and word play, signal only a refinement, not a major change in the genre. Instead, each functions largely within some past tradition (such as those of Tom Stoppard or Donald Barthelme). With the exception of “Vina Divina” (an extension of one of his novels), they do not have an original voice that would give them the importance of his larger works. The latter, however, have a rambling, episodic movement that makes them sometimes resemble short-story collections (such as Harmoun and the Sea of Stories); thus, in a sense, he has followed the lead of Dubliners by eroding further the distinction between short-story collection and novel.
“Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies”
The title conflates Middle Eastern sayings about the preciousness of wisdom, which the biblical book Proverbs likens to a woman as desirable as rubies. Consequently, this title seems to predict a story about useful information or feminine beauty. It concerns both, but in an ironic manner, it is meant to make a political statement. Its protagonist is an advice wallah (specialist), cheating “Tuesday” women who come nervously on that day for visas from India to Britain, as if their salvation depended on escaping their homeland. Because of one woman’s beauty, however, instead of giving his usually perfidious counsel, the wallah offers a forged passport. She refuses lest she confirm the British in their assumption that all Indians are liars (a dishonesty forced on them by English oppression). When he sees her smile upon exiting the embassy, he assumes that her beauty has also triumphed over the “Sahibs”—what he calls the British because they are still to him the lords and masters of the land. Nonetheless, she has received no visa; therefore, she will avoid marrying a man old enough to be her father. Without disobeying her parents (who arranged the match), she avoids being pulled into their and the wallah’s folly. A slave to the colonial past, he deludes both others and himself with such obsolete notions as the desirability of immigrating to racist Britain, because he has found nothing in modern India to love. Miss Rehana, though, enjoys being the governess of three children. Of virtue and wisdom like hers, Proverbs contends, “her price is far above rubies.”
“The Prophet’s Hair”
Another of the narratives from the Asian third of East, West, this tale is the kind of satire that has caused Rushdie so much trouble—his subjecting Moslem influence in India to a critique almost as severe as he addresses against the British. “The Prophet’s Hair” is based on a real incident: A relic is stolen from a Kashmir mosque and then recovered. Rushdie, however, imagines the circuitous path of its return as it works a series of miracles, all of them disastrous. Held illegally by a moneylender (a profession condemned by Islam), the hair, nonetheless, makes him hypocritical enough to force Moslem rigors upon his family, beating them and wishing to cut off the hand of one of his debtors. To escape this religiosity, his son tries to restore the hair to the mosque, but it miraculously returns to the moneylender. Then, risking their lives, the son and daughter hire a violent thief, who like the moneylender has previously led a tolerable life because it was free from religion. The supernatural power of the hair, however, cures his children (whom the thief kindly crippled), and they will thus starve because their income from begging is thereby cut by 75 percent. Death or madness destroys practically everyone else who comes anywhere near the hair. Ironically, the story concludes that Kashmir is closer to Paradise than any other spot on earth—a depressing revelation in a story of widespread horror. D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke compares the story to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The New Arabian Nights (1882) in their borrowing rapid action from the Oriental folktale but reversing its characteristic optimism. One might also read “The Prophet’s Hair” as a parable of the misfortune of recovering faith, based on Rushdie’s own experience—his publicly returning to Islam in 1990 only to renounce it again in 1992.
“At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers”
Author of a monograph-length study of the film The Wizard of Oz (1939), Rushdie employs the Barthelme-like Magical Realism of this story to evoke what that film means to a culture looking to cinematic fantasies as its past and auctioning even these away. The bidders are expected to go insane. One of them schizophrenically interweaves the auction and his love affair with his cousin Gale, whose name is linked through a pun to the film’s tornado. The “Ruby Slippers,” preserved behind bulletproof glass, are the ones that Dorothy used to return home. In Rushdie’s erotic subplot, however, “home” is given obscene meaning, and that subplot is acknowledged to be itself at least partly hallucination, so there seems to be no real, untainted home in a world of migrants and delusion—one with which Rushdie is very familiar. Significantly, fundamentalists threaten to purchase the slippers in order to burn them, since they insist on having a complete monopoly on hope.
In a 1994 interview, Rushdie revealed that this tale was partly autobiographical. Demonstrating skill at depicting a cross-cultural world that Rushdie knows so well, this nostalgic reminiscence of the narrator’s teen years in London portrays his family’s elderly ayah and her romance with Mecir, a porter. The porter, whose title the ayah mispronounces as “courter,” courts her by teaching her chess, a game of which he is a grand master (a status in obvious contrast to the humble occupation forced on him as an émigré from Eastern Europe). Violent racism leaves the ayah torn between East and West and marks the end of the narrator’s innocence. Telling the tale many years later, he realizes that his youthful impertinence in nicknaming Mecir as “Mixed Up” was itself racist, foreshadowing the forces that bring the romance to tragedy. The story concludes the intercultural third of East, West (whose middle portion was Occidental, including “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers”).
Released a month before Rushdie’s six-hundred-page novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, this New Yorker story is the novel’s first chapter retitled and reworked just enough so that it constitutes a relatively self-contained unit. Both fictions take place in an alternative world where the greatest rock celebrities are Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, modeled on the mythical Orpheus and Eurydice. An alternative version of the novel’s introductory section, this tale is an instance of how Rushdie’s short fiction has been engulfed by epic projects (undertaken to distract him from the fatwa). As in that novel, the tale is told by Rushdie’s persona, the photographer Rai, who engages in long diatribes against religious fanaticism and is worried about being assassinated by terrorists. He is famous for his photograph of Vina’s descent into the earth: “The Lady Vanishes.” That title echoes not only Rushdie’s disappearance but also “The One Who Vanished,” Franz Kafka’s title for a work of fiction that, like “Vina Divina,” evokes a dreamlike version of the United States.