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Authors: Salman Rushdie

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Virus’s silence became familiar, even pleasant. Sir Darius realized he was actually relieved that his afflicted son never disturbed the peace
of the breakfast table by chirping up with goodness knows what meaningless childish remarks. His silence had gravitas. It was, Sir Darius decided, eloquent. History was going the wrong way. Virus’s silence began to look like a grand refusal. The Independence bandwagon was rolling now—Independence, whose mob of hooligan supporters had provoked Sir Darius into injuring his own child!—and the
Pax Britannica
would shortly be at an end. “Bad times ahead,” Sir Darius took to saying. “Too many people spouting too many words, and in the end those words will turn to bullets and stones. Ardaviraf’s silence speaks for all of us who fear the power of these metamorphic words.”

So it was that Sir Darius Xerxes Cama half persuaded himself that his son Virus’s muteness was in fact a kind of sophisticated speech. This made him feel a little better, but curiously, as he exonerated himself from at least some portion of blame, his anti-musical rhetoric grew more extreme. He began to hold music responsible for the world’s ills and would even argue, in his cups, that its practitioners should be wiped out, eradicated, like a disease. Music was a virus, an infection, and music-lovers were comparable to those globe-trotting sexual immoralists whose nameless activities had resulted in the global spread of syphilis. They were sick, and it was Virus Cama, with his dignified silence, who was well.

After Virus’s retreat into silence, Lady Spenta beat a retreat of her own, into that spiritual world which now, more than ever, seemed like a better habitation than our own. “I know where my son has gone,” she announced to her husband in a tone that brooked no argument. “He has crossed the Chinvat Bridge on his soul’s journey. It is for us to keep his body safe until his soul’s return.” With the aid of her ally the Angel Orderly Righteousness, she dedicated herself to this task, washing Virus’s body in the bath as if he were a baby, spoon-feeding him at mealtimes as if he did not know how to use his own hands. “All his efforts are engaged in his mighty journey through the otherworld,” she explained. “So we must spare him worldly exertion of all types.” To all these ministrations Virus Cama passively submitted, showing neither pleasure nor dislike. Nor could Sir Darius, with his heavy burden of guilt, find it in his heart to object.

The washing and feeding of Baby Ormus, however, was left in the hands of the households employees.

Virus Cama had been named after a Zoroastrian mystic who lived at some point between the third and seventh centuries of the Christian Era and left behind him a detailed account of the journey on which Lady Spenta was convinced that her son had also embarked. If she was right, then on the Chinvat Bridge to the world of the spirit Virus Cama first witnessed a dead souls encounter with the incarnation of his own good deeds, a beautiful girl whose enormous breasts “swelled downwards, which is charming to heart and soul,” and was then guided by the Angel Divine Obedience and the Angel Flaming Fire of Thought on a tour of the limbo of the Permanently Still, where those who were equally good and sinful were transformed into statues; the place of the stars and the moon, where those who were irreligious but good in other ways had ended up; and past higher levels of virtue and radiance to the pure light of Ahura Mazda himself; and then—for this was a journey in the opposite direction to Dante’s—he had a good long look at Hell, where snakes crawled into men’s arseholes and emerged from their mouths, etc. He would have noted the extraordinary concentration upon the female breast and also on excreta, and the ferocious glee with which the legions of the sinful were gnawed by Noxious Beasts. Adulteresses were hung by their breasts, or forced to gash their breasts with iron combs; women who had not breast-fed their children were obliged to use their breasts to dig into rocky hills. Urinating while standing up was punished especially harshly, and women who approached water or fire during menstruation were forced to eat cup after cup of male piss and shit. It is scarcely to be wondered at that Lady Spenta, imagining her Ardaviraf following her namesake on this jaunt, should become obsessed with keeping him clean and feeding him from less vilely replenished cups.

The longer Virus Cama’s silence lasted, the more desperate Lady Spenta grew. She had come to rely so much upon the fantasy of her son’s journey, from which he must surely return, that it began to engulf her, as if she were the soul crossing the Chinvat Bridge to see great and terrible sights, to be faced with the droopy-bosomed evidence of her good deeds and the suppurating manifestations of her sins. When she was not busy with Virus and his needs, she wore an absent yet uncalm
look, and behaved in a manner at once agitated and remote. (To Ormus she continued to be distant, never fond. Events had neutered her maternal feelings towards him. Raised by servants, he was left to find love where he could.)

What a cricket ball started could not be stopped. One by one, the members of the Cama family were seceding from reality into private worlds of their own.

Sir Darius Xerxes Cama himself became the next member of his family to withdraw from everyday life. The Law, which had given him such moral sustenance all his adult life, had become, as many of his colleagues had begun openly to proclaim, “an ass.” In this period the imperial administration had begun to use the full force of the legal system against the nationalists, and even though Sir Darius was a leading advocate of British civilisation and opponent of the Congress, he began to experience a profound sense of unease at what was going on. Many of his respected colleagues had joined the Independence johnnies, whose leader, Mr. Gandhi, was after all a pretty crafty legal eagle himself. Taken by surprise by the storm within himself, Sir Darius Xerxes Cama gave up his practice and retreated into the sumptuous library of classical texts which was the glory of the Apollo Bunder apartment, and he sought in the groves of scholarship that peace of mind which had been so comprehensively destroyed by the private and public history of his time.

Along with his fellow Freemason William Methwold, Sir Darius began an investigation of Indo-European myths. Methwold was a wealthy Englishman from a family of landowners and diplomats, and as a property developer had had a hand in many of the new villas and apartment blocks springing up on Malabar Hill and along Warden Road. Rendered egg-bald by alopecia, a condition which he concealed beneath a wig, he was a brilliant Greek scholar, and plunged into Sir Darius’s library with the thirst of a parched wanderer who stumbles upon the purest mountain stream. Sir Darius Xerxes Cama had in his younger days fallen under the influence of the German-born scholar Max Müller, whose work in comparative mythology had led him to the conclusion that all the ancient myths of the Proto-Indo-European or Aryan cultures—Zoroastrians, Indians, Greeks—were in essence stories about the sun. This theory pleased a secularized Parsi
like Sir Darius, who saw in it the rational source of the spiritual flummery that had gained almost complete mastery over his beloved wife. (Ahura Mazda, Ormazd, Hormuz was after all nothing else but Light; and Apollo was the sun.) However, after Müller’s disciples attempted to prove that Jesus Christ and his disciples were nothing more than fairy-tale versions of the sun and the twelve signs of the zodiac, William Methwold had turned against “solar mythology,” and at meetings of the Malabar Hill Lodge, to which they both belonged, he outraged Sir Darius by a brilliant series of spoof monologues in which he proved, first, that the Emperor Napoleon and his dozen generals were, like Christ and his followers, no more than zodiacal fictions; and, second, that Oxford University and Professor Müller himself could not possibly exist, either. Methwold hurled at Müller’s philosophy the attacks formulated by the Scots journalist Andrew Lang, who held that there was no need for these unprovable Aryan theories; the gods of the Greeks had simply emerged from the large number of savage beliefs the world over. “Savage beliefs?” Sir Darius had roared, coming to his feet, brandy in hand, and silencing the lodge. “Including ours, I suppose?” William Methwold held his ground. “There are barbarians the world over, my dear fellow,” he equably rejoined. “Present company excepted, of course.”

For a time, the two friends saw little of each other. They patched things up when William Methwold came over a few months before the day of Ormus’s birth and Virus’s accident to applaud Sir Darius’s victory in a local badminton tourney. Over tumblers of Scotch, Methwold admitted that he had been lured back into the Aryan fold by the work of the Frenchman Georges Dumézil, who had “shown” that the Greek god Ouranos was none other than India’s own Varuna, thus proving the common heritage of all Aryan culture. “Good show,” cried Sir Darius, happily. “We both turned out to be barbarians, after all.”

During the next few years, Sir Darius and Methwold met from time to time to explore the relationships between the Homeric and Indian mythological traditions. The abduction of Helen of Troy by Paris and that of Sita of Ayodhya by the demon king Ravana; the relationship between Hanuman, the wily monkey god, and the devious Odysseus; the parallels between the tragedy of the House of Atreus and that of Rama’s clan: these and many other matters, like the gentlemen scholars
they were, they expatiated upon and enjoyed. Sir Darius was particularly drawn to the so-called tripartite theory of Dumézil. Could it be true that all Aryan cultures rested on the triple concept of religious sovereignty, physical force and fertility—that this was the real Trinity that defined both Eastern and Western civilisation, their common bond? In the time after he gave up the Bar, this became the great question of Sir Darius Xerxes Cama’s life. With William Methwold by his side, he plunged deeper and deeper into the technical aspects of the problem, and the further from the surface of life they journeyed, the happier they became. Outside the library, the last phases of the colonial history of England and India took their well-known course, and a great war, greater than the wars over Helen and Sita, was brewing. But Sir Darius and William Methwold had sealed themselves away from the contemporary and sought refuge in the eternal. Inside the Cama library, Odysseus became a monkey god and Paris a demon king, and the Parsi knight and the English property-wallah grew so close that it became hard to tell them apart. Sir Darius lost much of his hair; William Methwold divested himself of his black wig and hung it on the back of his chair. And in the privacy of the universe of books, at an oak table groaning with ancient learning, they worked in joyful solitude, eternally alone except, on occasion, for the silent phantomlike figure of Virus Cama, sitting solemnly on a step stool in a corner.

One day, however, Sir Darius took off his half-rimmed spectacles, banged his fist on the table and shouted: “It isn’t enough.”

William Methwold looked up from his books, startled. What wasn’t enough? Could Sir Darius conceivably be tiring of this idyllic existence, which had given them both such pleasure? “P-perhaps you could reconsider your self-denying ordinance,” he stammered, “and we could have a game of squash.
Mens sana
, you know,
in
bally
corpore sano.”
Sir Darius made a dismissive noise. He was trembling on the edge of new knowledge, and this was no time for squash.

“Three functions aren’t enough,” he said feverishly. “There must be a fourth.”

“Can’t be,” said Methwold. “Those three concepts of old Georges’s fill out the insides of the whole social picture.”

“Yes,” said Sir Darius. “But what about
outsideness?
What about all that which is beyond the pale, above the fray, beneath notice? What
about outcastes, lepers, pariahs, exiles, enemies, spooks, paradoxes? What about those who are remote? Damn it,” and here he turned to face his silent child, sitting in the shadows of the room,
“what about Virus?”

“I’m not sure I understand.” William Methwold was out of his depth.

“What about people who just don’t belong?”

“Where? Belong where?”

“Anywhere. To anything, to anyone. The psychically unattached. Comets travelling through space, staying free of all gravitational fields.”

“If there are people like that,” Methwold offered, “aren’t they, well,
rarae aves?
Few and far between? Does one really need a fourth concept to explain them? Aren’t they, well, like waste paper, and all the stuff one puts in the bin? Aren’t they simply surplus to requirements? Not wanted on the voyage? Don’t we just cross them off the list? Cut them? Blackball them out of the club?”

But Sir Darius Xerxes Cama wasn’t listening. He was standing at the great window of the library, staring out at the Arabian Sea. “The only people who see the whole picture,” he murmured, “are the ones who step out of the frame.”

Try to imagine the scene: the Parsi grandee in the sanctum of his library, with his English friend and the living ghost of his child, a man driven by life into books, standing by an open window. So he’s not completely sealed off, the library isn’t a closed tomb, and through the window comes all the tumultuous sensation of the city: the scents of channa and bhel, of tamarind and jasmine; the shouting voices, because nobody ever says anything in these parts without first raising his voice; and the quarrel of traffic, the hooves, the sputtering exhausts, the bicycle bells; the brilliant light of the sun on the harbour, the hooting of warships and the electricity of a society at a point of transformation.

Now imagine a gust of wind, sweeping a crumpled page of newsprint off the filthy street, tossing it upwards in slow spirals like a dirty butterfly; until at last it passes through the window, the outside world penetrates the world within, and lands neatly by Sir Darius’s polished oxfords, pleading for attention. This is a picture I keep seeing, although it couldn’t be, could it, how it really happened. Maybe someone
wrote Sir Darius a letter, or he chanced upon a learned journal which contained the information that broke his heart. Prefer, if you please, some such prosaic version, but I’ll stick with mine. Through the window came the newspaper, and Sir Darius, picking it up distastefully, was on the point of disposing of it when four words caught his eye.
Aryan, Nazi, Müller, Dumézil
.

BOOK: The Ground Beneath Her Feet
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