Betwixt and between

Simurgh

East, West by Salman Rushdie.
Vintage 1995 (1994)

“East, West, home’s best.” — 19th-century proverb *

If one has a foot in two regions where then is home? In these nine short stories — three published for the first time in this collection — Salman Rushdie explores the disorientation that some experience when cultures collide.

These aren’t polemical essays, however, but character studies, thumbnail sketches which allow us insights into individual lives with all their comforts and dilemmas, and as such are a joy to read. They include vignettes, parodies, fables and mini-tragedies, each item with an independent life but all linked by themes, imagination and wit.

The Gateway of India, Bombay/Mumbai, from an undated postcard

The nine stories are presented in three sections — East, then West, finally East, West — and are written in a variety of contrasting styles and voices.

The first section includes three tales set in India: two are tragi-comedies from unnamed cities, one near Lahore in the Punjab and the other somewhere in the northern Deccan, while the third piece is a true tragedy from Srinagar in the state of Kashmir and Jammu in the first half of the 20th century. “Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies” describes a woman applying for a visa for an arranged marriage in England, but what are her true motives when she consults with a freelance adviser in the compound before the British consulate? “The Free Radio” tells of a handsome but gullible rickshaw wallah who, while setting up with a thief’s widow, harbours ambitions to be a Bollywood star. “The Prophet’s Hair” tells of the terrible fate that befalls a well-off family in Srinagar when a precious relic comes into their possession.

The second section also contains three tales, this time with connections to Western Europe. “Yorick” is written in the style of the author of the cock-and-bull story The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne, and has all the playfulness one might expect from that writer. It is simultaneously a conversational skit on Hamlet and on Shakespeare’s inspiration, the Danish legend of Amleth: Yorick is the comic gravedigger in the play, his name a version of the Scandinavian name Iorek but which also was the name of the persona assumed by Sterne himself for his chef-d’oeuvre and for A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. Rushdie has clearly had great fun writing this pastiche and playing around with characters’ roles, as too will the reader armed with this knowledge. This is followed by the author’s enthusiasm for The Wizard of Oz manifested in “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers”, another tour de force using the historic present for much of the narrative and indulging in joyous flights of fancy.

The third of this trio of tales is encumbered with the title “Christopher Columbus & Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship (Santa Fé, AD 1492)“. In the Iberian region of Grenada, with rulers deciding the fates of Moors and Jews, an Italian mariner petitions the monarch to finance a voyage into the unknown, a petitioning that comes close to a wooing when first one protagonist, then the other, plays hard to get. Courtiers give a running commentary. How will it end?

The final section highlights the uneasy relationship between the East, represented by India, and the essence of the West as vested in a Britain which the author knows all too well. The matters discussed in “The Harmony of the Spheres” may be familiar to anyone around in the sixties and later, especially in the curious hybrid cults that arose from submersion in occult and mystical traditions from both the Occident and the Orient. Welshman Eliot Crane retires to the Welsh Marches after a lifetime crossing the borders between sanity and madness. His friend, who’s not too far distant in nature from the author, observes matters both from afar and from much closer than he imagines.

“Chekhov and Zulu” begins as a humorous take on Star Trek fans hailing from the subcontinent; now that they’re ensconced in powerful diplomatic and security echelons in 1980s Britain at the time of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, it soon becomes apparent that beneath the surface levity more serious matters are afoot. Finally “The Courter” brings us close to autobiografiction with a story of a Pakistani family in London during the sixties, with a narrator applying for British citizenship during the time of Enoch Powell’s incendiary Rivers of Blood speech while observing the blossoming relationship between his aya and the porter at the entrance to the block of flats.

Taken together, this nonet of brief narratives offers us a wonderful gallery of canvases with clearly defined portraits and atmospheric settings. The language and speech patterns both characters and narrators to me seems spot on, and each tale comes across as distinct, precise and well crafted. There is darkness as well as light, grave issues tempered by laugh-out-loud moments, all couched in a range of tenses and voices and tones.

In East, West Rushdie transports us across the world on the wings of a simurgh, dropping us down in the midst of vibrant relationships; at the same time this collection feels like the literary equivalent of Mumbai’s monumental Gateway to India, the point at which East and West meet, the border crossing between cultures. Where then is home to be located when one is in transit?


* Walter Keating Kelly, Proverbs of all Nations (1859) translated a German proverb, Ost und West, daheim das Best, as ‘East and west, at home the best’, while Charles Spurgeon’s John Ploughman’s Talk (1869) rendered it as ‘East and west, Home is best.’

18 thoughts on “Betwixt and between

  1. JJ Lothin

    I haven’t read any Salman Rushdie since Midnight’s Children when it first came out, but you’re tempting me …

    And I love that Simurgh (?) picture – all life is there!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Simurgh hails from Iran and is a giant bird of prey which reminds me of the Roc in the Sinbad the Sailor story, though I’m not sure if they are related or not. It’s sometimes equated with the phoenix or the Firebird of Russian myth. I’m tempted to mug up on it now and post a piece here sometime—I’ve got enough books on mythical creatures to sink a ship (which is actually what the Roc was fabled to be able to do!).

      Yes, I read Midnight’s Children not long after it came out in 1981: it resonated quite a bit at the time since my parents were of Anglo-Indian heritage and both Rushdie and his protagonist Saleem were born the year before me, when India gained independence.

      However, I struggled at the time with the novel’s magic realism—forty years on I’d be interested to see what I made of it now.

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    1. Playful this particular tale is, even as it’s played out against a background of Sikh-Hindu tensions in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. I think you’d like the other pieces too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. piotrek

    Sounds very interesting, thanks.

    Rushdie has a unique perspective on these issues… I’ve read a few interviews, but only one novel – The Satanic Verses (it was excellent!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Worth a look, Piotrek, whenever it’s possible to easily access books in English…

      I’m hoping to have another go at finishing Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh — I found it personally upsetting as the domineering mother in the novel, in her turns of phrase and her attitudes, reminded me so much of my own; she was born and brought up in India until leaving just before the horrors of partition following independence. I’m not in a hurry to read The Satanic Verses until I’ve got a few other Rushdie novels under my belt!

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  3. After my experience with Midnight’s Children I never felt inclined to try Rushdie again. The style of this collection is much more to my taste – if only they were not short stories of which I’ve had my fill for this year already

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe reconsider in 2022‽ I was surprised at how self-contained as well as witty these were when compared to his longer works, even though thematically they shared a lot with each other.

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    1. You’re very welcome. 😊 In terms of my returning to Rushdie after an exceptionally long gap these were perfect, self-contained short stories, tales which I think could also be enjoyed by anybody coming to him as an author for the first time.

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