Authors: Salman Rushdie
“I’m going, then,” she screamed.
“I can’t go.”
Then she was in the helicopter, and it was rising, and I had not gone with her, and I never saw her again, none of us did, and the last words she screamed down at me break my heart every time I think of them, and I think of them a few hundred times a day, every day, and then there are the endless, sleepless nights.
I began to use the workname “Rai” when I was taken on by the famous Nebuchadnezzar Agency. Pseudonyms, stage names, work-names: for writers, for actors, for spies, these are useful masks, hiding or altering one’s true identity. But when I began to call myself
, prince, it felt like removing a disguise, because I was letting the world in on my most cherished secret, which was that ever since childhood this had been Vina’s private pet name for me, the badge of my puppy love. “Because you carry yourself like a little rajah,” she’d told me, fondly, when I was only nine and had braces on my teeth, “so it’s only your friends who know you’re just some no-account jerk.”
That was Rai: a boy princeling. But childhood ends, and in adult life it was Ormus Cama who became Vina’s Prince Charming, not I. Still, the nickname clung to me. And Ormus was good enough to use it too, or let’s say he caught it off Vina like an infection, or let’s say he never dreamed I could give him any competition, that I could be a threat, and that’s why he could think of me as a friend.… But never mind that just now.
. It also meant desire: a man’s personal inclination, the direction he chose to go in; and will, the force of a man’s character. All that I liked. I liked that it was a name that travelled easily; everyone could say it, it sounded good on every tongue. And if on occasion I
turned into “Hey, Ray” in that mighty democracy of mispronunciation, the United States, then I was not disposed to argue, I just took the plum assignments and left town. And in another part of the world, Rai was music. In the home of this music, alas, religious fanatics have lately started killing the musicians. They think the music is an insult to god, who gave us voices but does not wish us to sing, who gave us free will,
, but prefers us not to be free.
Anyway, now everybody says it: Rai. Just the one name, it’s easy, it’s a style. Most people don’t even know my real name. Umeed Merchant, did I mention that? Umeed Merchant, raised in a different universe, a different dimension of time, in a bungalow on Cuffe Parade, Bombay, which burned down long ago. The name Merchant, I should perhaps explain, means “merchant.” Bombay families often bear names derived from some deceased ancestor’s line of work. Engineers, Contractors, Doctors. And let’s not forget the Readymoneys, the Cashondeliveris, the Fishwalas. And a Mistry is a mason and a Wadia is a shipbuilder and a lawyer is a Vakil and a banker is a Shroff And from the thirsty city’s long love affair with aerated drinks comes not only Batliwala but also Sodawaterbatliwala, and not only Sodawaterbatliwala but Sodawater-batliopewerwala too.
Cross my heart and hope to die.
“Goodbye, Hope,” cried Vina, and the helicopter went into a steep banking climb and was gone.
Umeed, you see. Noun, feminine. Meaning hope.
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 our selves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world.
Five mysteries hold the keys to the unseen: the act of love, and the birth of a baby, and the contemplation of great art, and being in the presence of death or disaster, and hearing the human voice lifted in song. These are the occasions when the bolts of the universe fly open and we are given a glimpse of what is hidden; an eff of the ineffable. Glory bursts upon us in such hours: the dark glory of earthquakes, the slippery wonder of new life, the radiance of Vina’s singing.
Vina, to whom even strangers would come, following her star, hoping to receive redemption from her voice, her large, damp eyes, her touch. How was it that so explosive, even amoral, a woman came to be seen as an emblem, an ideal, by more than half the population of the world? Because she was no angel, let me tell you that, but try saying so to Don Ángel. Maybe it’s just as well she was not born a Christian, or they’d have tried to make her a saint. Our Lady of the Stadiums, our arena madonna, baring her scars to the masses like Alexander the Great rousing his soldiers for war; our plastered Unvirgin, bleeding red tears from her eyes and hot music from her throat. As we retreat from religion, our ancient opiate, there are bound to be withdrawal symptoms, there will be many side effects of this Apsaran variety. The habit of worship is not easily broken. In the museums, the rooms with the icons are crowded. We always did prefer our iconic figures injured, stuck full of arrows or crucified upside down; we need them flayed and naked, we want to watch their beauty crumble slowly and to observe their narcissistic grief. Not in spite of their faults but
their faults we adore them, worshipping their weaknesses, their pettinesses, their bad marriages, their substance abuse, their spite. Seeing ourselves in Vina’s mirror, and forgiving her, we also forgave ourselves. She redeemed us by her sins.
I was no different. I always needed her to make things all right: some botched job, some bruise on my pride, some departing woman whose last cruel words succeeded in getting under my skin. But it was only near the very end of her life that I found the courage to ask for her love, to make my bid for her, and for a heady moment I truly believed I might tear her from Ormus’s clutches. Then she died, leaving me
with a pain that only her magic touch could have assuaged. But she wasn’t there to kiss my brow and say, It’s okay, Rai, you little jerk, let it pass, let me put my witchy ointment on those bad, naughty stings, come here to mama and watch the good times roll.
This is what I feel now when I think of Don Ángel Cruz weeping before her in his fragile distillery: envy. And jealousy too. I
wish I’d done that, opened my heart and begged for her before it was too late
, and also I
wish she hadn’t touched you, you snivelling squeaky-voiced bankrupt capitalist worm
We all looked to her for peace, yet she herself was not at peace. And so I’ve chosen to write here, publicly, what I can no longer whisper into her private ear: that is, everything. I have chosen to tell our story, hers and mine and Ormus Cama’s, all of it, every last detail, and then maybe she can find a sort of peace here, on the page, in this underworld of ink and lies, that respite which was denied her by life. So I stand at the gate of the inferno of language, there’s a barking dog and a ferryman waiting and a coin under my tongue for the fare.
“I have not been a bad man,” Don Ángel Cruz whimpered. Okay, I’ll do some whimpering of my own. Listen, Vina: I am not a bad man, either. Though, as I will fully confess, I have been a traitor in love, and being an only child have as yet no child, and in the name of art have stolen the images of the stricken and the dead, and philandered, and shrugged (dislodging from their perch on my shoulders the angels that watched over me), and worse things too, yet I hold myself to be a man among men, a man as men are, no better nor no worse. Though I be condemned to the stinging of insects, yet have I not led a wicked villain’s life. Depend upon it: I have not.
Do you know the Fourth
of the bard of Mantua, P. Vergilius Maro? Ormus Cama’s father, the redoubtable Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, classicist and honey-lover, knew his Virgil, and through him I learned some too. Sir Darius was an Aristaeus admirer, of course; Aristaeus, the first beekeeper in world literature, whose unwelcome advances to the dryad Eurydice led her to step on a snake, whereupon the wood nymph perished and mountains wept. Virgil’s treatment of the Orpheus story is extraordinary: he tells it in seventy-six blazing lines, writing with all the stops pulled out, and then, in a perfunctory thirty lines more, he allows Aristaeus to perform his expiatory ritual sacrifice,
and that’s that, end of poem, no more need to worry about those foolish doomed lovers. The real hero of the poem is the keeper of bees, the “Arcadian master,” the maker of a miracle far greater than that wretched Thracian singer’s art, which could not even raise his lover from the dead. This is what Aristaeus could do:
he could spontaneously generate new bees from the rotting carcase of a cow
. His was “the heavenly gift of honey from the air.”
Well, then. And Don Ángel could produce tequila from blue agave. And I, Umeed Merchant, photographer, can spontaneously generate new meaning from the putrefying carcase of what is the case. Mine is the hellish gift of conjuring response, feeling, perhaps even comprehension, from uncaring eyes, by placing before them the silent faces of the real. I, too, am compromised, no man knows better than I how irredeemably. Nor are there any sacrifices I can perform, or gods I can propitiate. Yet my names mean “hope” and “will,” and that counts for something, right? Vina, am I right?
Sure, baby. Sure, Rai, honey. It counts
Music, love, death. Certainly a triangle of sorts; maybe even an eternal one. But Aristaeus, who brought death, also brought life, a little like Lord Shiva back home. Not just a dancer, but Creator and Destroyer, both. Not only stung by bees but a bringer into being of bee stings. So, music, love and life-death: these three. As once we also were three. Ormus, Vina and I. We did not spare each other. In this telling, therefore, nothing will be spared. Vina, I must betray you, so that I can let you go.
rmus Cama was born in Bombay, India, in the early hours of May 27, 1937, and within moments of his birth began making the strange, rapid finger movements with both hands which any guitarist could have identified as chord progressions. However, no guitar players were included among those invited to coo over the new-born baby at the Sisters of Maria Gratiaplena Nursing Home on Altamount Road, or, later, at the family apartment on Apollo Bunder, and the miracle might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the single reel of 8 mm monochrome film shot on June 17 on a hand-held Paillard Bolex, the property of my own father, Mr.V.V. Merchant, a keen amateur of home movies. The “Vivvy movie,” as it came to be known, luckily survived in reasonable condition until, many years later, the new computer technologies of film enhancement allowed the world to see, in digitally magnified close-ups, the pudgy hands of baby Ormus incontestably playing air guitar, moving soundlessly through a complex series of monster riffs and dizzy licks with a speed, and feeling, of which the instrument’s greatest practitioners would have been proud.
Back at the beginning, though, music was the last thing on anyone’s
mind. Ormus’s mother, Lady Spenta Cama, had been told in the thirty-fifth week of pregnancy that the child she was carrying had died in her womb. At that late date she had no choice but to go through the full agony of labour, and when she saw the stillborn corpse of Ormus’s elder brother Gayo, his non-identical, dizygotic twin, her wretchedness was so great that she believed the continued movement within her was her own death trying to be born, so that she could be united with her lifeless child at once.
Until that unhappy moment she had been a placid individual, an astigmatic endomorph, heavy-spectacled and heavy-bodied, given to a certain bovine rotation of the jaw, which her voluble, irascible, erratic husband, Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, tall, ectomorphic, extravagantly moustachioed, and gimlet-eyed under his red, golden-tasselled fez, often deliberately mistook for stupidity. It was not stupidity. It was the unflappability of a soul fully occupied on the spiritual level, or, more exactly, a soul who found in her everyday routines a means of communing with the divine. Lady Spenta Cama was on speaking terms with two of the Parsi angels, the Amesha Spentas for whom she was named: the Angel Good Thoughts, silent conversations with whom occupied her for an hour each morning (she steadfastly declined to reveal the nature of these chats to her husband or anyone else); and the Angel Orderly Righteousness, under whose tutelage she became minutely attentive to household affairs, the supervision of which took up most of her afternoons. Of the various supernatural Spentas, this was the duo with whom Lady Spenta Cama felt the most affinity. The Angel Excellence and the Angel Immortality were far beyond her, she humbly allowed, and as to the Angel Perfect Sovereignty and the Angel Divine Piety, it would have been immodest to claim too close a connection with them.
The Christian and Muslim concept of angels, she liked to boast, was “derived” from these Zoroastrian originals, just as devils descended from “our own Daevas”; such was her proprietorial feeling, her pride in Parsi primacy, that she spoke of these malignant forces as if they were personal pets, or one of the many china ornaments with which she littered the Camas’ thing-stuffed Apollo Bunder apartment, that much-coveted Bombay belvedere with its five high windows facing saltily out to sea. It was nevertheless startling that one so close to virtue
should give way so spectacularly to the Daevas Misery, False Appearance and Evil Mind, and wretchedly cry out for woe.