Authors: Salman Rushdie
Villa Thracia, where I was raised, was one of the series of wedding-cake fantasy bungalows that formerly lined that gracious promenade like proud courtiers standing in a row before their queen, the sea. On Cuffe Parade in the cool of Bombay evenings, the city’s strollers, complete with kids and pets, would come out to amble and flirt and “eat the air.” From itinerant vendors they would buy channa for the children, Gold Flake cigarettes for the gents, and fragile garlands of chambeli flowers to wind into the ladies’ hair. My memories of that childhood home seem now like dreams of Olympus, of a sojourn with the gods in the days before I was cast out into the world. Clutching at what remains of the past, I hear its spooky laughter as it eludes me. I snatch at wisps of faery dresses but yesterday’s creatures no longer return. I must do the best I can with echoes.
That Cuffe Parade has gone now, and the process of its going was assisted, if one believes certain unsubstantiated suggestions regarding the laying of a fire, by the young Vina Apsara; and what Vina may or may not have facilitated was completed by my mother, who loved the city but for whom the future was a force more powerful than love. Cities are not immortal; nor are memories; nor are gods. Of the deities of childhood’s Olympus, hardly any now remain.
For many Indians, our parents are as gods. Vina, who had most reason to deny her parentage, took to saying, at the height of her fame and after reading Erich von Däniken, that her true ancestors had been godlike entities who arrived in silver chariots from outer space, tall, lucent, androgynous beings one of whom had extruded her painlessly from “her” navel. “They watch over me always,” she told more than one bewildered reporter. “I am in permanent contact. Permanent.” In those days she was presenting herself as an androgynous alien on stage as well as off, and no doubt such guff was good for business. But I could hear the savagery beneath her airhead quotes. I could hear the goat songs of her past.
(“Goat songs”? Excuse me. A literal translation, from the Greek, of
a more familiar word: “tragedies.” And Vina’s story, with its echoes of the high old yarns of, oh, Helen, Eurydice, Sita, Rati and Persephone—tall Vina’s tall tale, which in my circumambulatory way I am hastening to tell, certainly had a tragic dimension. But it also had a good deal to do with goats.)
If our parents are to be thought of as godlike, might the gods actually be our parents? Tales of divine paternity began, let us agree, at the beginning of things, and will end only at the end of time. As I learned in boyhood from my father, the gods themselves quarrelled over the “putative procreative interventions” of other deities. Shiva, suspecting that the new-born Ganesh might not be his son, struck off the baby’s head; then remorse set in, and in a panic, he replaced the lost head with the first that came to hand: viz., the trunker’s noddle we know and love today. And who was the father of Orpheus, by the by; Apollo the glorious Sun God, or merely Oeagrus, ruler of the outlying, the more than somewhat hickish, province of Thrace? For that matter, who was the father of Jesus Christ?
As we grow, we lose our belief in our progenitors’ superhuman nature. They shrivel into more or less unimpressive men and women. Apollo turns out to be Oeagrus, god and Joseph the carpenter end up being one and the same. The gods we worship, we discover, are not different from ourselves.
I’m in this god-bothered mood because it’s time to unveil the central mysteries of my own family life. Without further ado, therefore, I present you with an image from childhood of my own at-that-time divine-seeming father, Mr.V.V. Merchant. On Juhu Beach,
1956, in his middle forties, skinny as an excuse, earnest as a promise, joyful as a birth, grinning his shy, buck-toothed grin; bare-footed, hairlessly bare-chested, with his trouser legs rolled up; straw hat on head, sweat pouring down his cheeks, spade in hand; and digging.
How my father loved to dig! Other parents stood by, bored, while their eager children scrabbled in sand; or, leaving the world of silicon to urchins and ayahs, strolled off to take (and also shoot) the breeze. In my case, it was a question of having to go flat out to keep up with my feverishly burrowing sire. At the age of nine I was, I must admit, hankering for forms of beach life existing beyond the bucket and spade. Juhu Beach was an idyllic spot in those days, not the urbanized
Bombay-Bondi it has become. A journey there felt like a trip beyond the frontier of the city into enchanted space. And slowly, as I grew older and raised my eyes from the sand and beyond the conventional weekend pleasures of snack vendors, and boys shinning up coco-palms, and racing camels, I heard a new voice speaking to me, not in any language I had ever learned, but in the secret language of my heart.
It was the sea. Its come-hither murmur, its seductive roar. That was the music that could wash my soul. The lure of a different element, its promises of elsewhere, gave me my first intimation of something hidden within me that would pull me across the water, leaving my parents stranded. The sea, the wine-dark, the fish-rich. The lap and suck of waves dying on sand. Rumours of mermaids. Touch the sea and at once you’re joined to its farthest shore, to Araby (it was the Arabian Sea), Suez (it was the year of the Crisis), and Europa beyond. Perhaps even—I remember the thrill of the whispered word on my young lips—America. America, the open-sesame. America, which got rid of the British long before we did. Let Sir Darius Xerxes Cama dream his colonialist dreams of England. My dream-ocean led to America, my private, my unfound land.
(Allow me to add: while you’re in the sea, the bugs don’t bite.)
I was, I remain, a strong swimmer. Even my nine-year-old self would strike boldly out beyond my depth, heedless of danger. My mother would wade anxiously after me, her sari ballooning in the water like a jellyfish. When I swam safely back to shore, she cuffed me on the ear. “Don’t you know the Old Man of the Sea is waiting to drag you down?” Mother, I know, I know.
That sandy shore, on which my barefoot father dug like an overworked undertaker, that beloved homeland, came to seem like a prison to me. The sea—over the sea, under the sea, it scarcely seemed to matter—the sea and only the sea would take me where I could be free.
V.V. Merchant, however, dreamed of the past. That was his promised land. The past was the truth, and like all truths, it lay hidden. You had to dig it out. Not just any past; just the city’s. V.V. was a Bombayite through and through. And yes, many Bombayites now associate those initials with the crooked billionaire financier V.V. “Crocodile” Nandy, but my father is not under any circumstances to be confused with that mighty rogue. Of all Nandy’s many embezzlements, swindles and
thefts, his purloining of Vivvy Merchant’s initial letters is the one that rankles most with me. But that’s life, I guess. A big crook counts for more in the world than a small and honest man.
My father’s given names were Vasim Vaqar, in case you were wondering, the inaccurate Ws of his names’ traditional transliterations from the Urdu having been replaced by phonetically correct Vs. However, in spite of the switch, my strongly secularist father much disliked the “unacceptably religious iambs” of his names and wouldn’t have been pleased to see them given an airing here; the more informal, and ideologically neutral, “Vivvy” had long been good enough for him. Still, he was the Digger of Bombay, and even if he did choose to bury his own names, he’d be on shaky ground if he complained that I’d dug them up.
(He’s dead. He can’t complain.)
The rest of India held no interest for Vivvy, while his home town—single grain of sand whirling through the immensity of the cosmos—contained, for him, all the mysteries of the universe. And as his only son, I, of course, was his preferred repository of knowledge, his deposit account, his security box. Every father wishes his son to inherit the best of himself, and Bombay was what my father gave to me. Instead of children’s books, I got local legends. The
Chronicles of Bimb
In the end I ran a mile from the place. Hundreds of miles. Thousands.
Bombay? Don’t ask. I could pass any exam you care to set. I can see the ghosts of old times walking down new streets. Take me to Churchgate and I’ll show you where the Church Gate once stood. Show me Rampart Row and I’ll show you the Ropewalk, where the British Navy’s ropemakers plied their twisting, twining trade. I can tell you where the bodies are buried (F. W. Stevens, the city’s architect supreme, d. 5 March 1900, lies in the Sewri cemetery), where the ashes are spilled, where the vultures fly. Graveyards, burning ghats, doonger-wadis. I can even locate the bodies of islands, reclaimed long ago into the downtown peninsula. Old Woman’s Island—dig into that name and you get
—is now a somewhat raised lump of ground on the east side of Colaba Bazaar. My father liked digging into place names, so allow me to inform you, just off the top of my head, that Chinchpokli is “tamarind hollow” and Cumballa Hill is named after
the lotus flower and Bhendi Bazaar is situated where once the ladies’-fingers grew.
From this kindergarten vegetable stuff, this urban “eatymology,” as Vivvy Merchant called it, we proceeded on to more adult territory. Vivvy is digging on Juhu Beach, but what of Chowpatty? No problem. “Four rivulets,” though nobody now knows where they might trickle … And Foras Road? If you know it, you’ll know it’s a street of whores. But V.V. dug down beneath the brothels, dug down in time as well as earth, down through one meaning to another, and showed me the building of the “foras dykes” which had reclaimed this old marshland from the sea. Where a swamp of morals now stands, was once simply a swamp.… And Apollo Bunder, where Ormus Cama grew up? Originally Palva Bunder, of course. “Apollo,” my father pronounced, “was a nomenclatural interloper.” He spoke like that. Nomenclatural interloper, putative procreative interventions, subterranean veracity. “Greek gods, like everybody else, have invaded India from time to time.”
Apollo grabbed the Bunder, but it was Dionysus who really made his mark. Came this way when young, conquering and boozing, and taught us Indians how to make wine. (Alas, we forgot his lessons, and had to settle for arrack and toddy, until the British taught us, much later, about beer and rum and yo-ho-ho.) Dionysus won all his battles, did his share of slaughtering and laying waste, and departed with many elephants; the usual. That kind of show-off behaviour just doesn’t impress us any more. Sounds like the old colonial boasting to me. No place for it in today’s world.
Dionysiac goddesses: that’s closer to my personal experience. What I know about is Vina. Vina, who came to us from abroad, who laid waste to all she saw, who conquered and then devastated every heart. Vina as female Dionysus. Vina, the first bacchante. That, I could buy.
Deeper and deeper my father delved beneath the ferocity of the Juhu sun, perhaps hoping to find Portuguese moidores (he dug into the name, naturally.
Moedas de ouros
, if you want to know; coins of gold) or maybe just the petrified skeletons of primeval fish. See him scoop away the present, behold the sands of time climb up around him in surprised
dunes crawling with tiny see-through crabs! Listen for his scholarly cries, “Aha! Oho!” as lo! he chances upon a buried bottle, empty, broken, containing no message, he pounces on it as if it were a relic of ancient kingdoms, Rome, Mohenjo-Daro, Gondwana, perhaps even Gondwanaland, the proto-continent upon which no man ever walked, let alone blew glass into bottle shapes, or poured Dionysian liquid into the same; but Gondwanaland is still where India began, if you dig down deep enough in time. India broke off it, sailed across the ocean and smashed into what remained of the northern proto-continent, thus bringing into being the Himalayas. (My father liked to shock me by saying, “The collision is still taking place, India continues to experience impactual consequences, meaning that the mountains are getting bigger.”) Now he’s invisible from the waist down, glowing, happy; and now only his hat can be seen; and down and down he digs, towards Hell or the Antipodes, while I splash about in the future, further and further out to sea until my mother the jellyfish calls me in.
For twenty years, through one of the greatest upheavals in the history of nations, the end of the British Empire, my father, architect, excavator and local historian, burrowed away into the underground memory of the city the British built, becoming the undisputed master of a subject in which nobody else had the slightest interest; for Bombay forgets its history with each sunset and rewrites itself anew with the coming of the dawn. Can it be that his preoccupations blinded him to the momentous nature of those years, to the Navy Strike and Partition and all that followed? In those days of upheaval the ground itself seemed uncertain, the land, the physical land, seemed to cry out for reconstruction, and before you took a step you had to test the earth to see if it would bear your weight. A great transformation was afoot; and if my father found the uncertainty too much to bear, if he dug himself into the past, seeking fixity in knowledge, seeking solid ground beneath the shifting sands of the age, well, there’s no shame in that.
We all have to deal with the uncertainty of the modern. The ground shivers, and we shake. To this day, when I’m strolling down a sidewalk, I always avoid the joins. Step on one of those cracks and they could widen, all of a sudden they could swallow you with a lazy yawn. And of course I know that superstition is a retreat, a way of not facing the
real. But the real was Vina, and it’s still hard to look her ending in the face.
I will. When I come to it, I will.
Finally, my father gave up his digging. We had ignored him for an eternity, the indolent beach-world had turned its gaze away from his absurd hyperactivity. Exhausted, he needed help to climb out of the hole he’d dug. Grinning coconut salesmen lent him their hands, keeping their baskets balanced on their heads. Even though I had not yet learned the word, I recognized, with some embarrassment, the kitschiness of the image. My father was wearily unconcerned. Happily smacking the sand off his body with his hat, he bought us coconuts from his helpers, waited while they hacked the tops off with their great knives, and then gulped down the coco-milk making loud gluggy noises, like a bath. A moment later, he was asleep in the shade of a coco-palm; whereupon, placing a finger against her lips for silence, smiling secretly, my mother embarked upon some sand madness of her own.