Authors: Salman Rushdie
Neither Sir Darius Xerxes Cama nor William Methwold ever believed for a moment that either of the great maligned scholars, dead Max or living Georges, had had a single racial-supremacist cell in his body. But when language is stolen and poisoned, the poison works its way backwards through time and sideways into the reputations of innocent men. The word “Aryan,” which, for Max Müller and his generation, had a purely linguistic meaning, was now in the hands of less academic persons, poisoners, who were speaking of races of men, races of masters and races of servants and other races too, races whose fundamental impurity necessitated drastic measures, races who were not wanted on the voyage, who were surplus to requirements, races to be cut, blackballed and deposited in the bin of history. By one of the wild improbabilities that, taken collectively, represent the history of the human race, the arcane field of research in which Sir Darius and William Methwold had chosen to sequester themselves had been twisted and pressed into the service of the great evil of the age. History had captured their field, and their love of it had placed them on the wrong side—the side of the poisoners, of the unutterable, of those whose crime was beyond words.
At the moment when things changed for them, Sir Darius and Methwold had been full of the delight of examining the parallels between the Viewing from the Walls in the
(when the Trojans survey the besieging army while, for their benefit, Helen identifies Agamemnon, Odysseus, Idomeneus and the greater Ajax) and the similar scene in the
(in which a pair of spies, standing with the abductor Ravana on the ramparts of his fortress, identify the heroes Rama, Lakshmana, Vibhishana and Hanuman). Sir Darius read the scrap of newspaper that had blown in through the window and passed it to Methwold without saying a word. When the Englishman had finished reading, he shook himself, as if emerging from a long sleep, and said, “Let’s call it quits.” Sir Darius inclined his head and began to close
the beloved books. It was September 1939. Rip van Cama and William Winkle stumbled blinking into the light, the roar, the stink of the real world.
“One of these days,” Sir Darius mumbled as Methwold replaced his wig on his head and took his leave, “let’s have that game of squash.”
After he gave up the study of comparative mythology, Sir Darius Xerxes Cama began to change. He saw little of William Methwold, who, it was rumoured, had developed a predilection for Indian women from the bottom of the social scale. Breaking the vow he had made after injuring his son Ardaviraf, Sir Darius also returned to the pursuit of sporting excellence: not cricket, admittedly, but wrestling, badminton, squash. His regular opponent was the much younger Homi Catrack, and even though Sir Darius was the more gifted athlete of the two, and a tormented soul who needed the release of physical effort, the years had taken their toll, and he lost more contests than he won. The two individuals who suffered most as a result of Sir Darius’s decline were his sons Cyrus and Ormus, both of whom he took to berating regularly on the subject of the decay of Parsi youth, whose alleged feebleness Sir Darius had begun to hold in contempt. The worse he played, the more vociferously he accused the next generation of decadence, of defeatism, of weakness, of homosexuality. He made the boys arm-wrestle him and laughed in their faces when he won. In that apartment which had grown accustomed to many different kinds of tragic silence, to those collected silences which had driven away friends, colleagues, even my own parents, this new, bullying sound of bombast was doubly shocking.
Three years went by. Sir Darius Xerxes Cama took to drink. (It was a time of total prohibition, but for men of Sir Darius’s breeding and connections, there was always a bottle to be found.) He took to hemp and opium. Homi Catrack led him into the dark side of the city and showed him a world whose existence he had never suspected. The lower he sank, the louder grew his remonstrations. Returning from the cages of Kamathipura, from the rooms of the dancing whores, he would often shake his sons awake to accuse them of moral turpitude, of going to hell, to the dogs, to pot. Ten-year-old Cyrus and five-year-old Ormus heard him out and never said a word. Being Camas, they
knew how to armour themselves in dumbness. Whatever they said would have fanned his hypocritical fire; elder and younger child knew enough to remain mute.
The early years of Ormus Cama imprisoned him within an emotional isolation so oppressive that he temporarily lost the ability to sing. From the moment of his birth, he had given many extraordinary indications of the depth of his precocious musical talent—not only the chord progressions of his finger movements but also the syncopated drumming of his tiny feet against his crib and the perfect-pitch gurgles that went up and down the musical scale,
saregama padhanisa, sanidhapa magaresa
. But his mother was lost in mysticism, his brother Virus was cocooned in silence, and his father wasn’t listening. Only Cyrus Cama, his older brother, was paying attention, and Cyrus’s heart was full of hatred.
Unnerved by his twin brother Ardaviraf’s transformation into a zip-lipped zombie, and unwilling to blame either his father or poor Virus himself for the calamity, Cyrus had decided to blame his baby brother. “If Daddy hadn’t been up all night waiting for Ormus to get himself born,” he wrote in the diary he kept hidden under his mattress, “then it is certain-sure that his hit would have gone straight down one of those stupid hecklers’ throats.” In those days Cyrus worshipped his father and spared no effort to please him. But when he topped the class he returned home, report card in hand, to hear a tirade on the decline of the intellect of Parsi children; when he starred in junior races at the Brabourne Stadium Sports Day, his father declined to come and watch. Afterwards, when Cyrus came home loaded with little silver trophies, Sir Darius would pour scorn on his competitors. “Such namby-pamby weaklings you must’ve run and jumped against, no wonder you beat the lot.” Cyrus, unable to blame his father for these cruelties, directed all his anger towards his brother Ormus instead.
One night in 1942, Cyrus Cama was woken in the middle of the night by the sound of little Ormus, with whom he still shared a room, singing in his sleep, so sweetly that birds had woken, thinking the dawn had come, and gathered on his windowsill to listen. This sleeper’s melody contained such joy in life, such optimism and hope, that it drove Cyrus Cama insane, and clutching his pillow in his hand he went to Ormus’s bed, intent on murder. The family ayah, Roxana, was asleep
on a mat on the bedroom floor. This was the same slow-reacting ayah who had been standing beside Virus Cama when the cricket ball struck him, but on this occasion she more than redeemed herself, because she too had been woken by Ormus’s singing, she had been lying peacefully on her mat in the moonlit bedroom, enjoying the sleeping child’s song, so she saw Cyrus place his pillow over his brother’s face and hold it there. The song stopped, the birds screamed, little Ormus’s arms and legs began to kick, and Roxana threw herself at Cyrus Cama and dragged him weeping away.
“I couldn’t stand it,” was Cyrus’s only explanation to his parents, Lady Spenta loose of hair and wild of eye, Sir Darius in his dressing gown, rubbing his head. “I couldn’t stand the noise.”
Sound and silence, silence and sound. This is a story of lives pulled together and pushed apart by what happens in (and between) our ears. Cyrus Cama was sent away to boarding school, still with murder in his eyes, banished to an implacable hill-station establishment which based its methods upon the tried and true British principles of cold baths, bad food, regular beatings and high-quality academic instruction, and which helped him to develop into the full-blooded psychopath he afterwards became.
And Ormus? Ormus Cama did not sing again for fourteen years. Not a ditty, not a warble, not a note. Not until Vina Apsara set his music free.
Sir Darius Xerxes Cama’s gradual decline slowly stripped away the stiff veneer of decorum beneath which his true nature had lain concealed most of his life, revealing the prodigious vanity under that formal exterior, taking the brakes off the love of showing off which was his Achilles’ heel. At the wealthy Malabar Hill Masonic Lodge, where he spent much of his leisure time among the leading officials of the fraying Raj and their local cronies, there was ample opportunity for self-display. In 1942, at one of the grand, men-only, bimonthly dinners held by the lodge, Sir Darius Xerxes Cama in his cups gave a performance that nobody who witnessed it ever forgot. After eating heartily, in a manner resolutely unaffected by the food shortages and rationing laws, the membership retired to a noble smoking room complete with humidor and string quartet, where the blackout drapes over the windows
were the only concessions to the realities of the age; however, by way of compensation, an excellent supply of imported brandies and whiskies was available to members, in spite of the prohibition laws. In this congenial setting, the great men relaxed, telling ribald jokes, demonstrating bits of card magic, oiling the wheels of business and Empire, and doing party tricks. Sir Darius—drunk, opium-addled, filled with self-hatred—ordered the tail-coated musicians to “have a bash” at the movie tune “We’re Off to See the Wizard (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).” Sir Darius, the music hater! Sir Darius, the declaimer of interminable jeremiads against anything with a tune, making a musical request! Well,
got everyone’s attention.
As the band struck up, Sir Darius Xerxes Cama stripped off his dress shirt and treated the cream of British-Indian Bombay—wartime Bombay, in which the nationalist movement was gathering momentum and every one of these high colonial nights felt a little more like a last waltz than the one before—to the idiosyncratic art of Musical Muscle Control. His pectoral and abdominal muscles jerking along to the music like tango dancers with roses between their teeth, or skirt-swirling, sliding and twirling queens of the jitterbug or lindy hop, he cried out, “This is what we could do in our heyday! Behold mind and body working as one! Behold the perfect union of the intellectual and physical spheres!” At the end of the performance, buttoning up his shirt, he bowed and declared, like a fabulist delivering the moral of his tale:
“Mens sana in corpore sano.”
His fellow Masons responded with a weary politeness that concealed their mild, end-of-Empire ennui.
I can only imagine that Sir Darius was introduced to this garish skill by some louche crony of his fellow Mason Homi Catrack’s, in a den on Falkland Road. That he had not walked away from the demonstration with a haughty laugh, that he had, in fact, returned week after week and actually learned the trick of it, is a sign of how far he had fallen, of the vulgarity that had entered that once noble soul. Or to put it another way: it showed that for all his bluster, he was indeed his son’s father. His son Ormus, I mean, the future star of stars.
In more robust imperial times such outré exhibitionism—too extreme even by Masonic standards—would undoubtedly have tarnished Sir Darius’s reputation and might have damaged his legal practice, but he had retired and was therefore invulnerable; besides, these
were demoralized, rudderless days for the smart set that revolved around the British Presence in India. Suicides and crack-ups were not infrequent events. A cigar-smoking Parsi grandee removing his shirt and twitching his muscles to music seemed relatively mild by comparison. All present understood his pain and could foretell the future: his future, their own. Anglophilia, for so long the basis of these people’s ascendancy, would henceforth be like the mark of Cain. It would be the dark star hanging over their interminable but also irreversible decline.
One day in 1942, soon after the Quit India Resolution was launched from the maidan at Gowalia Tank, leading to the eruption across the city of violent demonstrations, lootings and acts of arson in the wake of Mr. Gandhi’s immediate arrest, Sir Darius Xerxes Cama spoke heated words on the subject of the “country’s surrender to mob rule and firestarters” and added, for the first time, a thought that was to become an obsession. “Anyway, Bombay isn’t India. The British built her and the Parsis gave her her character. Let them have their independence elsewhere if they must, but leave us our Bombay under beneficent Parsi-British rule.”
Sir Darius was persuaded by Homi Catrack, to whom he had addressed this
cri de coeur
, to venture out of his shrinking Anglocentric milieu and “meet the future.” Homi was a cards-and-horses gambler and a movie producer with—in spite of his rolled trouser leg and his activities “on the square”—a surprising commitment to the nationalist movement concealed behind his Brylcreem-and-cravat, playboy-or-gigolo smoothery. Sir Darius had started regarding him as something of a race traitor (for were not the Parsis’ interests inseparable from those of the British, whose presence they had so vigorously supported, whose culture they had so successfully integrated with their own?). But the fellow’s charm was irresistible, and his prowess at badminton and squash and even golf was the equal—all too often, gallingly, more than the equal!—of Sir Darius’s own. “Rackets and clubs,” Homi Catrack panted as they sweated happily in the nude democracy of the Wellesley Club locker room. “That’s the kind of guy you’re dealing with here. A clubman, par
. And, in his very water, a racketeer.” He actually winked at Sir Darius to emphasize the play on words.
Wink or no wink, Homi was telling the simple truth, for in addition
to being a member of every worthwhile club in the city, from the (now-defunct) Wellesley to the Governors of the Mahalaxmi Racecourse, he had also, during those days of scarcities, made a rogues fortune by cornering the market in cement, and also from a chain of bootleg stills and illegal speakeasies. It is said that Homi Catrack was the first man to use the term “parallel economy” and that his stashes of black money would, if piled high, have formed an edifice larger than the Gateway of India. It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that this same Homi, who profited so greatly from the turmoil of the 1940s, was one of the greatest admirers of the “honest men who would clean up India,” as he called the Congress leadership. His rage at Gandhi’s arrest was genuine and intense.