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2009-02-02 | |
THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET
I. Salman Rushdie
Anglo-Indian novelist, who uses in his works tales from various genres - fantasy, mythology, religion, oral tradition. Rushdie's narrative technique has connected his books to magic realism, which includes such English-language authors as Peter Carey, Angela Carter, E.L. Doctorow, John Fowles, Mark Helprin or Emma Tennant. Salman Rushdie was condemned to death by the former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989, after publishing SATANIC VERSES. Naguib Mahfouz, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, criticized Khomeini for 'intellectual terrorism' but changed his view later and said that Rushdie did not have 'the right to insult anything, especially a prophet or anything considered holy.' The Nobel writer V.S. Naipaul described Khomeini's fatwa as "an extreme form of literary criticism."
"Insults are mysteries. What seems to the bystander to be the cruelest, most destructive sledgehammer of an assault, whore! slut! tart!, can leave its target undamaged, while an apparently lesser gibe, thank god you're not my child, can fatally penetrate the finest suits of armour, you're nothing to me, you're less than the dirt on the soles of my shoes, and strike directly at the heart." (from The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 1999)
Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay, India, to a middle-class Moslem family. His paternal grandfather was an Urdu poet, and his father a Cambridge-educated businessman. At the age of fourteen Rushdie was sent to Rugby School in England. In 1964 Rushdie's parents moved to Karachi, Pakistan, joining reluctantly the Muslim exodus - during these years there was a war between India and Pakistan, and the choosing of sides and divided loyalties burdened Rushdie heavily.
Rushdie continued his studies at King's College, Cambridge, where he read history. After graduating in 1968 he worked for a time in television in Pakistan. He was an actor in a theatre group at the Oval House in Kennington and from 1971 to 1981 he worked intermittently as a freelance advertising copywriter for Ogilvy and Mather and Charles Barker.
As a novelist Rushdie made his debut with GRIMUS in 1975, an exercise in fantastical science fiction, which draws on the 12th-century Sufi poem The Conference of Birds. The title of the novel is an anagram of the name 'Simurg', the immense, all-wise, fabled bird of pre-Islamic Persian mythology. Rushdie's next novel, MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN (1981), won the Booker Prize and brought him international fame. Written in exuberant style, the comic allegory of Indian history revolves around the lives of the narrator Saleem Sinai and the 1000 children born after the Declaration of Independence. All of the children are given some magical property. Saleem has a very large nose, which grants him the ability to see "into the hearts and minds of men." His chief rival is Shiva, who has the power of war. Saleem, dying in a pickle factory near Bombay, tells his tragic story with special interest in its comical aspects. The work aroused a great deal of controversy in India because of its unflattering portrait of Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, who was involved in a controversial sterilization campaign. Midnight's Children took its title from Nehru's speech delivered at the stroke of midnight, 14 August 1947, as India gained its independence from England.
SHAME (1983) centered on a well-to-do Pakistan family, using the family history as a metaphor for the country. The story included two thinly veiled historical characters - Iskander Harappa, a playboy turned politician, modeled on the former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and General Raza Hyder, Iskander's associate and later his executioner. HAROUN AND THE SEA OF STORIES (1990) was written for children, and wove into the story an affable robot, genies, talking fish, dark villains, and an Arabian princess in need of saving.
Rushdie won in 1988 the Whitbread Award with his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. The story opens spectacularly. Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, two Indian actors, fall to earth after an Air India jumbo jet explodes 30,000 feet above the English Channel. This refers to real act of terrorism, when an Air India Boeing 747 was blown up in 1985 - supposedly by Sikh terrorist. Gibreel Farishta in Urdu, means Gabriel Angel, which makes him the archangel whom Islamic tradition regards as "bringing down" the Qur'an from God to Muhammad. "'To be born again,' sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, 'first you have to die. Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won't cry? How to win the darling's love, mister, without a sigh? Baba, if you want to get born again...' Just before dawn one winter's morning, New Year's Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky." (from The Satanic Verses) Gibreel Farishta and Saladin are miraculously saved, and chosen as protagonist in the fight between Good and Evil. In the following cycle of bizarre adventures, dreams, and tales of past and future, the reader meets Mahound, the Prophet of Jahilia, the recipient of a revelation in which satanic verses mingle with divine. "'I told you a long time back,' Gibreel Farishta quietly said, 'that if I thought the sickness would never leave me, that it would always return, I would not be able to bear up to it.' Then, very quickly, before Salahuddin could move a finger, Gobreel put the barrel of the gun into his own mouth; and pulled the trigger; and was free." The character modelled on the Prophet Muhammad and his transcription of the Quran is portrayed in an unconventional light. The quotations from the Quran are composites of the English version of N.J. Dawood and of Maulana Muhammad Ali, with a few touches of Rushdie's own.
The novel was banned in India and South Africa and burned on the streets of Bradford, Yorkshire. When Ayatollah Khomeini called on all zealous Muslims to execute the writer and the publishers of the book, Rushdie was forced into hiding. Also an aide to Khomeini offered a million-dollar reward for Rushdie's death. In 1993 Rushdie's Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was wounded in an attack outside his house. In 1997 the reward was doubled, and the next year the highest Iranian state prosecutor Morteza Moqtadale renewed the death sentence. During this period of fatwa violent protest in India, Pakistan, and Egypt caused several deaths. In 1990 Rushdie published an essay In Good Faith to appease his critics and issued an apology in which he reaffirmed his respect for Islam. However, Iranian clerics did not repudiate their death threat.
Since the religious decree, Rushdie has shunned publicity, hiding from assassins, but he has continued to write and publish books. THE MOORS LAST SIGHT (1995) focused on contemporary India, and explored those activities, directed at Indian Muslims and lower castes, of right-wing Hindu terrorists. THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET (1999) was set in the world of hedonistic rock stars, a mixture of mythology and elements from the repertoire of science fiction. In FURY (2001) Malik Solanka, a former Cambridge professor, tries to find a new life in New York City. He has left his wife and son and created an animated philosophising doll, Little Brain, which has its own successful TV series. In New York he has blackouts and violent rages and becomes involved with two women, Mila, who looks like Little Brain, and a beautiful freedom fighter named Neela Mahendra. "Though Mr. Rushdie weaves his favorite themes - of exile, metamorphosis and rootlessness - around Solanka's story, though he tries hard to lend his hero's experiences an allegorical weight, Fury lacks the fierce, visionary magic of The Moor's Last Sigh and Midnight's Children." (Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, August 31, 2001) In Newsweek (September 17, 2001) STEP ACROSS THIS LINE (2003) was a collection of non-fiction from 1992-2002. Most of its articles were written while the fatwa was in place.
Rushdie has been married four times, first in 1976 to Clarissa Luard and after divorce in 1988 to the American writer Marianne Wiggins. The marriage broke up during their enforced underground life. However, on September 1998 the Iranian government announced that the state is not going to put into effect the fatwa or encourage anybody to do so. According to interviews, Rushdie has decided to end his hiding. On February 1999 Ayatollah Hassan Sanei promised a 2,8 million dollar reward for killing the author. In the beginning of 2000 Rushdie left his third wife after falling in love with the actress Padma Lakshmi and moved from London to New York. They married in 2004, but in June 2007, Rushdie agreed to divorce.
After Rushdie was made a knight by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 2007, demonstrations broke out across the Islamic world. A government minister in Pakistan declared that Rushdie's knighthood justifies suicide bombing. THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE (2008), finished in the aftermath of divorce, was a historical romance about the mutual suspicion and mistrust between East and West, in this case Renaissance Florence and India's Mughal Empire. From 1982, Rushdie has played himself in several television films. In 2007 he appeared as Dr. Masani, a gynecologist, in Helen Hunt's comedy Then She Found Me.
II. The ground beneath her feet
Beginning with his first novel, Grimus (1975), Rushdie has indulged an obsession with the power of mythology to shape — for better and for worse — the society that created it. Indeed, it was his reduction of Koranic scripture to its mythic elements (and mischievous reworking of the same) that led to the Ayatollah Khomeini's decidedly unfunny valentine of 1989. For Rushdie, the fatwa shook the very foundations of the world he had known, leaving him precariously suspended between shifting realities. It is no mere coincidence, then, that this book opens on February 14, 1989, with the disappearance of the legendary rock diva Vina Apsara in a cataclysmic earthquake shortly after she sets Mexico all aquiver with an aria from Gluck's "Orfeo et Eurydice."
The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the fullest expression to date of Rushdie's fascination with Indo-European mythology. Far from a straightforward retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the novel blends and blurs history, religion, philosophy, music, and pop culture to create an epic East-meets-West romance about love, death, and rock 'n' roll. At its center the love story of supernaturally gifted musician Ormus Cama and internationally adored pop diva Vina Apsara, narrated by Ormus's childhood friend (and, unknown to Ormus, Vina's sometime lover), Rai, a.k.a. Umeed Merchant.
As Rai steels himself to the task of revealing the truth of his shared history with Vina and Ormus, he delivers one of the book's finest passages:
“Why do we care about singers? Wherein lies the power of songs? Maybe it derives from the sheer strangeness of there being singing in the world. The note, the scale, the chord; melodies, harmonies, arrangements, symphonies, ragas, Chinese operas, jazz, the blues: that such things should exist, that we should have discovered the magical intervals and distances that yield the poor cluster of notes, all within the span of a human hand, from which we can build our cathedrals of sound, is as alchemical a mystery as mathematics, or wine, or love. Maybe the birds taught us. Maybe not. Maybe we are just creatures in search of exaltation. We don't have much of it. Our lives are not what we deserve; they are, let us agree, in many painful ways deficient. Song turns them into something else. Song shows us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us ourselves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world.”
Ormus Cama enters the world almost as an afterthought, preceded by his stillborn dizygotic twin, Gayomart. Within hours of his birth, Ormus has already begun to assert his nascent musicality with a virtuosic — and, for Bombay in 1937, somewhat puzzling — display of air-guitar playing. But through a series of tragic events involving his older twin brothers, Cyrus and Virus, Ormus's musical gifts are prematurely silenced for the next 17 years, impatiently awaiting release with true love's first kiss.
A world away in America, Vina — born Nissa Shetty to an Indian father and a Medea like mother of Greek heritage — narrowly survives a violent, goat-infested childhood in rural Virginia and upstate New York before being packed off to her only surviving relatives in India. There, in 1956, nine-year-old Umeed Merchant meets the already voluptuous, teenage Vina on Bombay's Juhu Beach and falls utterly, hopelessly in love.
Rushdie brilliantly describes the tragicomic complexities of each of his central characters' families. The rift created when Rai's paternal great-grandfather embraced Islam — "that least huggable of faiths" — still divides the various branches of the Merchant clan, though his parents — architects and excavators of the past and future Bombay — are only nominally religious.
Vina's viciously opportunistic guardian, Piloo Doodhwala, is a chauvinistic Hindu nationalist and an ambitious entrepreneur whose vast and utterly fictitious network of government-subsidized goat farms will one day provide Rai with a lurid scandal with which to launch his career as a photojournalist (though, as for Rushdie himself, the price of his fame is exile).
Ormus's father, Sir Darius Cama, is an unreconstructed Anglophile, ardent Freemason, eminent barrister-at-law, and arch classicist. Through his extensive study of comparative mythology with the English Lord Methwold, Sir Darius defines the triple concept of religious sovereignty, physical force, and fertility as the true unifying trinity of both Eastern and Western civilizations. To this tenet Rushdie interposes the novel's central theme, the crucial fourth function of outsideness: "in every generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, who are simply born not belonging." Forever linked in a mythic ménage à trois, Ormus, Vina, and Rai are Rushdie's quasi-divine outsiders, though ultimately it is Ormus — guided by his dead twin, Gayomart — who steps farthest outside the frame to see the whole, terrifying picture.
The first sign that this might not be the world as we know it comes when the 17-year-old Ormus — "quiffed, sideburned and pelvis swinging" — becomes outraged after hearing a recording of "Heartbreak Hotel" — a song that Ormus has been singing for years — by the American rock-'n'-roll icon Jesse Garon Parker. While communing with Gayomart in a meditative state he calls the Cama obscura, Ormus also channels "The Great Pretender" and a Rastafarian interpretation of "Blowin' in the Wind." (In Rushdie's alternate reality, "Bridge over Troubled Water" is sung by the duo of Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkel; JFK escapes dual assassins in Dallas only to be killed a few years later, along with his brother Bobby, by a single ricocheting bullet; and the British, not the Americans, are humiliated in Indochina.)
When Ormus and the underage Vina do come together at last, he vows eternal love and makes the first of a series of "heroic oaths," promising not to touch her until she turns 16. Though neither Ormus nor Vina can foresee the consequences of this vow, it is this near-perpetual state of sexual tension that will fuel their creative careers and eventually give birth to VTO, the international supergroup through which they will rise to fame, if not fortune. Eventually, after a single night of Olympian lovemaking, Vina disappears to begin her singing career in America, leaving Ormus to stumble blindly after her.
So begins a decade of heartache and disappointment, during which Ormus pines for Vina, becomes increasingly aware of the looming collision of parallel worlds, and experiences a series of all-too-familiar rock-'n'-roll scenarios: exploitation by a powerful and avaricious producer; a nurturing, homosexual manager who takes him under his wing; and finally, a Dylanesque motor crash that leaves him in a deep coma, once again awaiting the kiss of life from his pop princess.
Given the established cycle of "waiting for her, briefly possessing her, then losing her," it doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict the arc of Ormus and Vina's personal and professional careers. However, readers willing to brave the obligatory "tragical history tour" of Vina's hot-and-cold-running karma and Ormus's dogged determination to achieve a Syd Barrett-like state of lunatic detachment will find that Rushdie still has a few satisfying — if not entirely unexpected — twists in store for them. The essential problem with this exhaustive recasting of the rock era's high- and lowlights is that readers who have grown up in the MTV/VH1 school of "Where Are They Now?," those of us who experienced the '60s and '70s firsthand, and anyone who has memorized the lyrics to "American Pie" are not likely to find this section of the book particularly enlightening.
The characters sit at "the frontier of the skin", the frontier of fiction and reality, as they grapple for a truth beyond their story. This is Darius Xerxes Camas' "forth function of outsideness", the rip in the surface of the real, where meaning is obscured.
Ormus, we're told, is ''the greatest popular singer of all,'' ''a musical sorcerer whose melodies could make city streets begin to dance and high buildings sway to their rhythm, a golden troubadour the jouncy poetry of whose lyrics could unlock the very gates of hell.'' Like Elvis, he is known for his pelvic gyrations and curling lip; like Elvis, he is haunted by memories of a dead twin brother, and like John Lennon, he is eventually gunned down by a crazed fan.
Vina, on her part, is described as ''a woman in extremis,'' an outlaw singer who is continually reinventing herself, a troubled woman who is mourned as a goddess by millions around the world after her tragic death.
As for Rai, he's a familiar Rushdie figure, a spiritual relative of Saladin, the displaced hero of ''The Satanic Verses,'' and Moor, the conflicted narrator of ''The Moor's Last Sigh.'' A photographer by vocation, Rai is a professional observer who finds his skepticism sorely tested by his encounters with Ormus and who finds his own detachment dissolving in his love for Vina.
The epigraph from Rilke tells us from the start (''We should not trouble / about other names. Once and for all / it's Orpheus when there's singing'') that we should look out for the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but there is also its inversion, embodied in the Indian myth of Kama and Rati, the love god and his wife, in which ''it was the woman who interceded with the deity and brought Love -- Love itself! -- back from the dead.'' In the novel a figure recalling Eurydice or Rati twice gets Ormus to come back to life, but then the original Western story still holds as well. In the end, or just before the end, when the stumbling actors come on, Orpheus fails once again to lead Eurydice out of the underworld. What is happening here? Rai unfolds the possibilities. Does Orpheus' failure prove that love dies? That music cannot vanquish death? That Orpheus didn't love Eurydice enough to join her in death but had to try to get her out? That the gods have hard hearts? And who was Eurydice? Was she perhaps, as Rai also asks, a child of death herself, merely going home and seeking to take Orpheus with her?
In the book's closing pages, Rai muses, "In my lifetime, the love of Ormus and Vina is as close as I've come to a knowledge of the mythic, the overweening, the divine." And it is in its exploration of the mythic, the overweening, and the divine that The Ground Beneath Her Feet is at its best.
1. Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie, ed. by M. Keith Booker (1999);
2. The Salman Rushdie Bibliography by Joel Kuortti (1997);
3. Unending Metamorphoses: Myth, Satire and Religion in Salman Rushdie's Novels by Margareta Petersson (1996);
4. Salman Rushdie by Catherine Cundy (1996);
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