Rushdie, Salman: The Moors Last Sigh

The proposer indicated that Salman Rushdie was no stranger. He was born in 1947 and this prompted him to write Midnights Children .The proposer had  a copy of this book autographed and  dedicated to him as a member of the 1947 club .The proposer had told Rushdie he had been  conceived in Calcutta during the Raj even though  born late and in Edinburgh .

Rushdie’s father was a rich lawyer /business man who changed his name to Rushdie after the great Muslim philosopher of medieval Spain. He was a Bombay wallah and after early education he sent Salman to Rugby School and thence to Kings Cambridge  to read History .Then Rushdie joined an advertising agency dreaming up “That will do nicely”   for American Express , “Naughty but nice”    for cream cakes and “Irresistible” for Aero chocolate .In the evenings he wrote a first book [a failure ] and then in 1981 Midnights Children which won the Booker Prize and the later Best of Bookers. This won lots of Awards and opened the way for many other talented Indian Authors, eg Vikran Seths A Suitable Boy .

After Shame a book set in Pakistan he went on to Satanic Verses .At some time it was always going to provoke Muslim ire but he doubtless did not expect the Fatwah.

Then in hiding he wrote The Moors Last Sigh .This was an important matter for us to recognise in our discussion .The proposer  met him when he appeared in 1995 in London and Edinburgh to launch the book .Security is a familiar fact now but 17 years ago it was interesting to give one’s details in advance ,be searched on arrival and then see that 10% of the audience was looking at the rest of the audience not at Rushdie .He looked in the flesh less ugly than  expected .The goggle eyes are probably made more obvious by TV studios .Also he was charming .

The proposer had not read Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s recently published book about his life in hiding after the Fatwah .There was no index so he could not see in the book shop what Rushdie  had to say about The Moor. Finally in 1995 the proposer went with his wife to India for the first time and later in the year to Granada. The Red Forts in Delhi and Agra are not too different from the Alhambra .Also they saw the spice markets and warehouses in Cochin and the Synagogue with its blue tiles .It follows that this is more than just a literary  choice for the proposer.

 The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel about modern India. Its hero is Moraes Zogoiby of Bombay, nicknamed by his mother “the Moor.” But the famous sigh to which the title refers was breathed five centuries ago, in 1492, when Muhammad XI, last sultan of Andalusia, bade farewell to his kingdom, bringing to an end Arab-Islamic dominance in Iberia. From Sultan Muhammad a line of descent, partly historical, partly fabulous, leads to Moraes, the narrator, who in 1992 will return from the East to “discover” Andalusia. In a dynastic prelude occupying the first third of the novel, Moraes’s genealogy is traced back as far as his great-grandparents, the da Gamas. Francisco da Gama is a wealthy spice exporter based in Cochin in what is now Kerala State. A progressive and a nationalist, he soon disappears from the action (Rushdie gives short shrift to characters whose usefulness has ended), but his wife Epifania, faithful to “England, God, philistinism, the old ways,” survives to trouble succeeding generations and to utter the curse that will blight the life of the unborn Moraes.

Their son Camoens, after flirting with Communism, becomes a Nehru man, dreaming of an independent, unitary India which will be “above religion because secular, above class

because socialist, above caste because enlightened.” He dies in 1939, though not before he has had a premonition of the violent, conflict-riven India that will in fact emerge.

Camoens’s daughter Aurora falls in love with a humble Jewish clerk, Abraham Zogoiby. Neither Jewish nor Christian authorities will solemnize their marriage, so their son Moraes is raised “neither as Catholic nor as Jew,…a jewholic-anonymous.” Abandoning the declining Jewish community of Cochin, Abraham transfers the family business to Bombay and settles in a fashionable suburb, where he branches out into more lucrative activities: supplying girls to the city’s brothels, smuggling heroin, speculating in property, trafficking in arms and eventually in nuclear weapons.

 Aurora is a  complex character and , in many ways the emotional centre of the book. A painter of genius but a distracted mother, she suffers intermittent remorse for not loving her children enough, but prefers finally to see them through the lens of her art. Thus Moraes is worked into a series of her paintings of “Mooristan,” a place where (in Aurora’s free and easy Indian English) “worlds collide, flow in and out of one another, and washofy away…. One universe, one dimension, one country, one dream, bumpo’ing into another, or being under, or on top of. Call it Palimpstine.” In these paintings, with increasing desperation, she tries to paint old, tolerant Moorish Spain over India, overlaying, or palimpsesting, the ugly reality of the present with “a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation.”

Aurora’s paintings give a clear hint of what Rushdie is up to in this, his own “Palimpstine” project: not overpainting India in the sense of blotting it out with a fantasy alternative, but laying an alternative, promised-land text over it.

But The Moor’s Last Sigh is not an optimistic book, and the paintings of Aurora’s high period become darker and darker. Into them she pours not only her unexpressed maternal love but also “her larger, prophetic, even Cassandran fears for the nation.” Her last painting, which gives the book its title, shows her son “lost in limbo like a wandering shade: a portrait of a soul in Hell.”

Moraes is born under the curse of two witch-grandmothers, so it is no surprise that he has a clublike right hand and a metabolism that dooms him to live “double-quick,” growing—and aging—twice as fast as ordinary mortals.  The comparison was made with Oscar in The Tin Drum, previously discussed by the Group.

Venturing into the world, he is caught in the toils of the beautiful but evil rival artist Uma Sarasvati. A pawn in the war between this demon mistress and his mother, Moraes first finds himself expelled from his parental home and then in jail, accused of Uma’s murder. Released, he joins the Bombay underworld as a strikebreaker and enforcer in the pay of one Raman Fielding, boss of a Hindu paramilitary group.

Moraes’s grandfather Camoens had faith in Nehru but not in Gandhi. In the village India to which Gandhi appealed, he saw forces brewing that spelled trouble for India’s minorities: “In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram… In the end I am afraid the villagers will march on the cities and people like us will have to lock our doors and there will come a Battering Ram.” His prophecy begins to fulfil itself in Moraes’s lifetime when the doors of the Babri mosque at Ayodhy are battered down by crowds of fanatical Hindus.

Camoens is prescient but ineffectual. Aurora, an activist as well as an artist, is the only da Gama with the strength to confront the dark forces at work in India. When the annual festival procession of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, a show of “Hindu-fundamentalist triumphalism,” passes by their house, she dances in view of the celebrants, dancing against the god, though, alas, her dance is read by them as part of the spectacle (Hinduism notoriously absorbs its rivals). Every year she dances on the hillside; dancing at the age of sixty-three, she slips and falls to her death.

Raman Fielding, rising star of the Hindu movement, is a thinly disguised caricature of Bal Thackeray, the Bombay leader of the Shiv Shena Party, which Rushdie elsewhere calls “the most overtly Hindu-fundamentalist grouping ever to achieve office anywhere in India.” Closely linked with Bombay’s criminal underworld, Fielding is “against unions,…against working women, in favour of sati, against poverty and in favour of wealth,…against ‘immigrants’ to the city,…against the corruption of the Congress [Party] and for ‘direct action,’ by which he meant paramilitary activity in support of his political aims.” He looks forward to a theocracy in which “one particular variant of Hinduism would rule.”

The underworld struggle between Fielding and Moraes’s father culminates in the murder of Fielding and the destruction of half of Bombay. Sick of this new “barbarism,” Moraes retires to Andalusia, there to confront another monster or evil, Vasco Miranda. Miranda is a Goan painter who has made a fortune selling kitsch to Westerners. Obsessively jealous of Aurora, he has stolen her Moor paintings; to reclaim them, Moraes finds his way into Miranda’s Daliesque fortress. Here Miranda imprisons him and lets him live only as long as (shades of Scheherazade) he writes the story of his life. Rushdie of course at the time of writing the book was in hiding, a form of captivity, to avoid the same fate as Scheherazade.

Locked up with Moraes is a beautiful Japanese picture restorer named Aoi who perishes; Moraes, with Miranda’s blood on his hands, escapes. It is 1993, he is thirty-six years old, but his inner clock says he is seventy-two and ready to die.

The final chapters of the book, and the opening chapter, to which they loop back, are packed (or palimpsested) with historical allusions. Moraes is not only Muhammad XI (Abu-Abd-Allah, or Boabdil, in the Spanish corruption of his name): he sees himself as Dante in “an infernal maze” of tourists, drifting yuppie zombies, and also as Martin Luther, looking for doors on which to nail the pages of his life story, as well as Jesus on the Mount of Olives, waiting for his persecutors to arrive. It is hard to avoid the impression that all the left-over analogues of the Moor fable from Rushdie’s notebooks have been poured into these chapters, which are as a result frantic and overwritten  while elementary rules of fiction, like not introducing new characters in the last pages, are ignored: Aoi is the case in point.

 As if unsure that the import of the Boabdil/Moraes parallel has come across, Rushdie glosses it as follows: Granada, in particular the Alhambra, is a “monument to a lost possibility,” a “testament…to that most profound of our needs,…for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of boundaries of the self.”  The palimpsesting of Moraes over Boabdil supports a less trite, more provocative thesis: that the Arab penetration of Iberia, like the later Iberian penetration of India, led to a creative mingling of peoples and cultures; that the victory of Christian intolerance in Spain was a tragic turn in history; and that Hindu intolerance in India bodes as ill for the world as did the sixteenth-century Inquisition in Spain.

Rushdie pursues palimpsesting with considerable vigour in The Moor’s Last Sigh, as a novelistic, historiographical, and autobiographical device. Thus Granada, Boabdil’s lost capital, is also Bombay, “inexhaustible Bombay of excess,” the sighed-for home of Moraes as well as of the author over whose person he is written. Both are cities from which a regenerative cross-fertilization of cultures might have taken place, but for ethnic and religious intolerance.

Like Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), and The Satanic Verses (1989), The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel with large ambitions composed on a large scale. In its architecture, however, the Group found it disappointing. Aside from the dynastic prelude set in Cochin, and the last fifty pages set in Spain, the body of the book belongs to Moraes’s life in Bombay. But instead of the interwoven development of character, theme, and action characteristic of the middle section of what might be called the classic novel, the middle section of Rushdie’s novel makes only fitful and episodic progress. New actors are introduced with enough inventiveness and wealth of detail to justify major roles; yet all too often their contribution to the action turns out to be slight, and they slipped (or were slipped) out of the picture almost whimsically. It was also argued by some in the Group that those without a good knowledge of the history of the period both in Bombay and wider India would struggle with the narrative.

To complaints of this kind—which have been voiced with regard to the earlier books as well—defenders of Rushdie have responded by arguing that he works, and should therefore be read, within two narrative traditions: of the Western novel (with its subgenre, the anti-novel à la Tristram Shandy), and of Eastern story-cycles like the Panchatantra, with their chainlike linking of self-contained, shorter narratives. To such critics, Rushdie is a multicultural writer not merely in the weak sense of having roots in more than one culture but in the strong sense of using one literary tradition to renew another.

It is not easy to counter this defence in its general form, particularly from the position of an outsider to India. But to take a single instance from The Moor’s Last Sigh: the episode in which Moraes’s father, Abraham Zogoiby, in a fit of enthusiasm for the modern, impersonal, “management” style in business, adopts a young go-getter named Adam over Moraes as his son and heir. For some fifteen pages Adam occupies centre stage. Then he is dropped from the book. The Group found the episode unsatisfying; further, we would hazard a guess that the reason why Adam disappears is not that Rushdie is following traditional Indian models but that he is only half-heartedly committed to satirizing the business-school ethos; he abandons this particular narrative strand because it is leading nowhere.

Others disagreed, enjoying the stories of Adam and other personages who blazed briefly across the pages of The Moor’s Last Sigh and then expired. 

Such characters as Vasco Miranda or Uma Sarasvati or even Abraham Zogoiby himself provide a comparable problem. In their extravagant villainy they seem to come straight out of Hollywood or Bollywood. 

In fact Rushdie is far from being a programmatic postmodernist. For instance, he is disinclined to treat the historical record as just one story among many. We see this in his treatment of the two histories out of which Moraes’s story grows: of the Moors in Spain, and of the Jews in India. In the case of the Moors, and of Muhammad/Boabdil in particular, Rushdie does not deviate from the historical record, which is probably most familiar to Westerners from Washington Irving’s nostalgic sketches in The Alhambra. As for the Jewish communities in India, their origins are ancient and will probably never be known with certainty. However, they preserved certain legends of origin, and to these legends Rushdie adheres without embroidering, save for one superadded fiction: that the Zogoibys descend from Sultan Muhammad (called by his subjects El-zogoybi, the Unfortunate) via a Jewish mistress who sailed for India pregnant with his child. This story is specifically (through not unequivocally) singled out as an invention by Moraes in his function as narrator.

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The overall reaction to the book was positive. It brought out the complexity and diversity of Indian society and history. It was a rich, extensive, humorous and complex story that was very enjoyable to read. There were reservations  ( see above) expressed by some of our number. The virtuosity and exuberance were entertaining and admirable but sometimes descended into showing off, stylistic confusion and incoherence.  Against this it was also pointed out that those writing in English but brought up outside England were able to call upon a wider range and background in their works, eg Kipling and Paul Scott in earlier times and Rushdie, Seth, Zadie Smith and others .

 Fielding is Bal Thakeray the founder of Shiv Sena see ayodhia  riots  and theBombay riots

QUOTES

“give up such delusive  Esperance you rotter “

Sarah “ a large full bodied  girl waiting like an undiscovered  continent, for Abrahams vessel to sail into her harbour”

Laurel and Hardon