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Authors: Salman Rushdie

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“Arré, come on, then, take me, why not, O death be my dominion,” Lady Spenta squalled. The two grandly Valkyrian ladies by her bedside frowned disapprovingly. Ute Schaapsteker, the chief consultant gynaecologist at the Maria Gratiaplena (known throughout the city’s upper echelons as “Snooty Utie” or, alternatively, “Sister Adolf”), made a number of sharply admonitory remarks concerning the impropriety of prematurely wishing for death, which would certainly come, unwished for, at the proper time. Her aide, the midwife Sister John, was still young in those days but was well on the way to becoming that dark galleon of a bedside presence whose formidable gloom and upper-lip mole blighted many a Bombay birth over the next fifty years. “Great tidings of gladness and joy!” she boomed sourly. “For He that is Mighty hath harvested unto Himself the soul of this fortunate infant, like as though it were a grain of blessed rice.” The pair of them would no doubt have continued in this vein for some considerable time, had Lady Spenta not suddenly added, in entirely altered, indeed comprehensively astonished tones, “Such pressure on my back passage, either I am in danger of passing a stool or else there is some other
trying to make an appearance.”

It had not been her death wriggling inside her, of course. Nor were her bowels in danger of opening. She quickly gave birth to a small but healthy baby, a little four-and-a-half-pound eel of a boy whose living form had been concealed from Dr. Schaapsteker’s examinations, during both pregnancy and labour, by his dead twin’s larger body. Remarkably, the Camas already had a five-year-old pair of dizygotic male twins, Khusro and Ardaviraf, known to one and all as “Cyrus and Virus.” Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, who knew his Greek mythology, was familiar with the Olympian deities’ practice of inserting a babe (Idas, Polydeuces) of semi-divine parentage into a womb that was also preparing to bear (Lynceus, Castor) a fully human child. In the case of the precocious, multi-talented Khusro—a child with the genuinely malign ruthlessness of a true hero—and the slow-witted, sweet-natured Ardaviraf, the ancient Greeks would have had little difficulty in identifying the child with a god for a father. On this second occasion, presumably, the dead Gayo was the earthly child and the living Ormus
the one with the immortal pedigree as well as yearnings. Thus Sir Darius would be deemed the father of one duffer and one corpse, an inglorious fate. But scholarship is one thing, parenthood quite another, and Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, “the Apollonian of Apollo Bunder,” was a staunch Cantabrigian rationalist and an eminent barrister-at-law who had “eaten his dinners” at Middle Temple and had subsequently dedicated his life to what he called, in an intentionally oxymoronic flash of wit, “the miracle of reason.” He yielded up rights of paternity to no god, whatever his origin, took up the reins of fatherhood and, in strict fairness, oppressed all his children equally.

The living baby was taken away to the incubator by scowling Sister John, who found it harder to celebrate a birth than a “harvesting.” The dead baby was removed (there are sights too powerful for mere men’s eyes), and at last Sir Darius Xerxes Cama was allowed to enter the delivery room. Spenta was gripped by remorse. “In the moment of his birth I allowed the servants of the Lie to seize my tongue,” she confessed. Sir Darius had long found the various manifestations of his wife’s literalist religiosity difficult to handle. He did his best to conceal his unease, but could not shut out the image of Lady Spenta’s tongue being worked by little bat-winged creatures despatched by Angra Mainyu, a.k.a. Ahriman himself. He closed his eyes and shuddered.

Lady Spenta rallied. “Whose idea was it to name that poor boy Gayo, anyway?” she demanded, forgetting in the heat and emotional ambiguity of the moment that it had been her own. Her husband, too gallant to remind her, bowed his head and took the blame. The First-Created Man, Gayomart, had indeed been killed by Angra Mainyu long ago. “Bad choice of name,” Lady Spenta cried, bursting once again into tears. Sir Darius Xerxes Cama’s head bowed lower; Lady Spenta found herself addressing the tasselled top of his fez. She knocked on it, firmly. It yielded a hollow sound. “The only way of compensating,” she insisted, sobbing, “is at once to name the surviving boy with the name of god.”

Hormuz or Ormazd, local derivatives of Ahura Mazda, were her stated options, which Sir Darius Xerxes Cama the classicist at once Latinized as Ormus. His wife was placated. She dried her eyes and together the couple visited the incubator room, where Ute Schaapsteker confirmed that the child was expected to live. “My little
Ormie,” Lady Spenta Cama purred at the under-sized little fellow through incubator glass. “My little shrimpy boy. Now you’re safe from Hell. Now they can’t open up the ground and take you down.”

Sir Darius, having received Snooty Utie’s reassurances about little Ormus’s prospects, made his excuses, went so far as to kiss his wife and rushed off, somewhat too eagerly for Lady Spentas taste, to play cricket. It was a big match. That year the annual Quadrangular Tournament between the city’s British, Hindu, Muslim and Parsi teams had become Pentangular, and on this day Sir Darius had been put down to turn out for the Parsis against the new boys, The Rest, an XI drawn from the ranks of Bombay’s Christians, Anglo-Indians and Jews. Sir Darius Xerxes Cama at forty-three still possessed the physical strength and godlike musculature of an all-round sporting hero, body-builder and ex-amateur wrestling champion. His elegant left-handed batsmanship remained much in demand; his trademark stroke was a lazily executed, and therefore alarming, but still highly effective late cut. And in short spells he could still produce bowling of discomforting speed: “the thunderbolts of Darius,” as they had long been known. When he pulled on his whites, divesting himself of the long coat and high fez of a Parsi gentleman after his anxious nocturnal hours at the nursing home, he felt a sense of proud relief steal over him. No longer was he obliged to prowl peripherally at the edges of women’s business! He was a tiger unchained, and his bursting pride at becoming the father of a third male child would shortly be visited upon the enemy in the form of doughty deeds with bat and ball. This transformation from citizen to sportsman in the privacy of a changing tent at the edge of the great Maidan was, of all life’s rituals, the one Sir Darius most keenly enjoyed. (When, after a day’s ferocious advocacy, he would strip away the gown and wig of the Law and take up his willow cudgel, he felt as if he were entering into his better nature, into a finer self of Olympian fibre and grace.) His fellow opening batsman, a dashing young blade named Homi Catrack, asked him if he felt able to play after missing a night’s sleep. “Pish!” cried Sir Darius, and strode forth to do battle for his race.

On the Maidan, a large, noisy crowd awaited his coming. Sir Darius had always disapproved of the behaviour of Bombay’s spectators. It was the one small blemish on these otherwise delightful days. The hooting,
the shrieking, the blaring of tin horns, the banging of
, the rising chant as a pace merchant ran in to bowl, the barracking, the cries of snack vendors, the howling laughter, in short the incessant clamour, created, in Sir Darius’s opinion, an unsuitable environment for the practice of the game’s noble arts. The country’s imperial overlords, observing the bawdiness of the populace, could only feel disappointed at the continuing backwardness of those over whom they had ruled so wisely for so long. Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, walking out to bat, wanted to cry aloud, “Brace up! Do yourselves justice! The British are watching.”

It was a “fine day,” the day of Ormus Cama’s birth. This old Bombay term, long fallen into disuse, used to mean a day on which unexpected cloud cover brought cool relief from the heat. Schoolchildren had been given a “fine day holiday,” as was the occasional practice in those far-off times. This particular fine day, however, was ill-starred. True, a child had been born alive, but another had been born dead. Demons, Daevas, had been conjured, and there were disapprovals hanging in the air. At the Sisters of Maria Gratiaplena Nursing Home, Snooty Utie Schaapsteker’s disapproval of Lady Spenta’s self-pity had mingled with Sir Darius’s disapproval of what he might on another occasion have called his wife’s “superstitions,” to create a less than celebratory mood. Here at the cricket ground, too, there were unexpected noises of reproof. A band of nationalist sympathizers had arrived with a variety of deafening musical instruments, and from the beginning of the game they set out to disrupt the players’ concentration by what Sir Darius thought to be a particularly tasteless type of musical heckling.

“Don’t be wicket,” the hecklers chanted, to the beat of drums and the tooting of trumpets, “Ban communal cricket.” Sir Darius Xerxes Cama was aware that Mahatma Gandhi and his followers had denounced the Pentangular Tournament as a communally divisive, anti-national throwback, in which men of colonialized mentality performed like monkeys for the amusement of the British and gave unhelpful assistance to the policy of divide-and-rule. Sir Darius was no Independence merchant. Nationalists! He entertained the gravest doubts about the wisdom of surrendering the governance of India to men of such limited musical sense. For Mr. Gandhi personally he conceded
a grudging respect but felt that if he could only persuade the great man to don flannels and learn the basics of the game, the Mahatma was bound to be persuaded of the tournament’s value in honing that spirit of competition without which no people can take its place at the forefront of the world community.

As he arrived at the crease, one of the hecklers sang out, “Lady Darias come to play!” At once a distressingly large section of the crowd—must be Christians, Anglos or Jews, huffed Sir Darius in displeasure—took up the insulting chant. “Lady Cama, give us drama! Give a catch and be a charmer!” Toot, rattle, clank. “Give us drama, Lady Cama.”

Now Sir Darius noticed that his own boys, the five-year-old twins Cyrus and Virus, were sitting with their ayah on the grass close by the nationalist hecklers, grinning happily, giving every appearance of enjoying the spoilsports’ antics. He moved a few paces towards them, waving his bat. “Khusro! Ardaviraf! Move on!” he called. The boys and the ayah were unable to hear him in the din and assumed he was waving. They all waved back. The hecklers, thinking he was shaking his bat at them, and happy to have so provoked him, redoubled their efforts. The music of their merry hostility clamoured in his ears. Sir Darius Xerxes Cama faced the bowling in an imperfect frame of mind.

Mr. Aaron Abraham, opening the bowling for The Rest, was able to make the new ball swing discomfortingly in those overcast conditions. Sir Darius was lucky to survive his first three deliveries. Seeing him struggle, the nationalist claque grew even noisier. Clank, rattle, toot. The drummers and trumpeters improvised a tune, and over and over his tormentors sang, “Lady Daria, don’t be slack. Make a duck and off you quack.” And then came a variant, and evidently popular, version: “Lady Donald, make a duck.”

Sir Darius strode down the pitch to confer with his partner.

“Quack, is it?” he fumed, swishing his bat. “I’ll soon give them quack, but what is this Donald?” As he asked the question, however, he remembered a recent visit to the cinema with the twins to see Chaplin’s
Modern Times, a
film Sir Darius admired for, among other things, staying “silent.” In the supporting programme they had seen a cartoon short, “Orphans’ Benefit,” featuring a new, anarchically violent, web-footed
and horribly noisy anti-hero. Sir Darius brightened. “Donald, is it?” he roared. “Ha! Ha! Ha! I’ll quickly make those bounders Duck.”

Homi Catrack tried in vain to calm him. “Never mind the crowd. Play yourself in; then we’ll show them what-for.” But Sir Darius had lost his head. The fourth ball of Aaron Abraham’s over was a loose delivery, eminently hittable, and Sir Darius seized his chance. He swung with all his might, and there can be no question that he was trying to hit the ball right at the group of heckling nationalist musicians. Afterwards, in the grip of an unassuageable remorse, he conceded that his injured vanity had overcome the fatherly prudence that should have been his uppermost concern, but by then it was too late; the cricket ball had travelled towards the boundary at high velocity and could not be re-called.

It was not going to hit the hecklers and there was no way of correcting its course, but many spectators were diving out of its way, for it was travelling at genuinely frightening speed, and there, smack in its path, moving neither to left nor to right, were Sir Darius Xerxes Cama’s non-identical twin sons, standing up to applaud their father’s great stroke, fearless, because how could their beloved father possibly cause either of them the slightest harm?

No doubt the ayah’s slow reactions were partly responsible for the accident, but from the moment that he saw what was about to happen, Sir Darius never blamed anyone except himself. He bellowed out a warning at the top of his voice, but the drums and horns were louder than his screams, music prevented him from sounding the alarm, and an instant later, sweet, slow Ardaviraf Cama was struck by the rocketing cricket ball, right between the eyes, and fell down flat, as if he were made of wood, like a stump.

Perhaps at the very moment when the story of the Cama family was being re-written forever by the addition of that cruel line, the trajectory of a red cricket ball from a father’s bat to a son’s forehead, my mother and father were meeting for the first time at the Sisters of Maria Gratiaplena Nursing Home.

When it comes to love there’s no telling what people will convince themselves of. In spite of all the evidence that life is discontinuous, a valley of rifts, and that random chance plays a great part in our fates,
we go on believing in the continuity of things, in causation and meaning. But we live on a broken mirror, and fresh cracks appear in its surface every day. People (like Virus Cama) may slip through those cracks and be lost. Or, like my parents, they may be thrown by chance into each other’s arms, and fall in love. In direct contradiction of their predominantly rational philosophies of life, however, my father and mother always believed that they were drawn together by Destiny, which was so determined to unite them that it manifested itself in no less than four different forms: that is to say, social, genealogical, gastronomical and Sister John.

BOOK: The Ground Beneath Her Feet
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