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Critical Review by Aamer Hussein
SOURCE: "City of Mongrel Joy," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 369, September, 1995, pp. 39-40.
In the following review, Hussein relates the plot of The Moor's Last Sigh.
Moraes Zogoiby, nicknamed Moor—the half-Jewish, half-Christian narrator of The Moor's Last Sigh—is on his way to self-exile in Spain. At the conclusion of a harrowing portrayal of the events that lead up to his city's moral and physical devastation, he muses: "There was nothing holding me to Bombay anymore. It was no longer my Bombay, no longer special, no longer the city of mixed-up, mongrel joy."
For the city of Bombay—in reality, as in Salman Rushdie's stunningly accurate dark recreation in his latest and possibly finest novel—has fallen prey to violence, corruption and the likes of the novel's villainous Raman Fielding (nicknamed Mainduck, or frog).
Fielding is the leader of a party of chauvinists and thugs who masquerade as the religious and righteous, preach the Rule of Ram and advocate an ethnically cleansed Mahrashtrian capital. He is a twin soul of the real-life demagogue Bal Thackeray, whose pseudo-ideologies, proclaimed by his Shiv Sena party, Fielding shares. And Rushdie mischievously names him, like Thackeray, after one of English literatures's founding fathers.
Moor, who miraculously ages twice as fast as his contemporaries and bears a crippled and crippling right hand, comes to know Fielding quite intimately. His mother, Aurora Zogoiby, a secular Christian of partly Portuguese descent, is India's most esteemed painter and showcase example of the elevated position of minorities. His father, like Aurora from the Southern city of Cochin, is her Jewish plutocrat husband. (But Moor may, according to one of the novel's entertaining asides, be the product of a lost night his mother perhaps spent with Nehru.)
Moor is raised in the lap of secular, liberal beliefs. He falls in love with the beautiful Uma, a deranged and brilliant young Hindu artist. Uma sets herself up as a rival—personally and professionally—to his mother; Moor is quite unprepared for the onslaught of the opportunistic new India, with its artists ready to scavenge in the "dead sea" of their country's heritage or pass off—as Uma does—postmodernist vacuity as religious fervour.
Rejected by his parents as a result of Uma's mad machinations, Moor is forced, after a terrifying stint in prison, to abandon his privileged lifestyle. He is transported to the "Under World" over which Fielding, an ambiguously malign Hades, presides. But this underworld is closely connected to—is, in fact, the foundation of—the world of appearances Moor formerly inhabited. His own father's fortune is aided by judicious dabbling in "white powder". As Moor comes to learn: "they are not inhuman, these Mainduck-style little Hitlers, and it is in their humanity that we must locate our collective guilt … for if they are just monsters … then the rest of us are excused. I personally do not wish to be excused. I made my choice and lived my life."
The Moor's Last Sigh meditates with generosity on identity and exile, love and art. It is also a searing examination of personal responsibility, and of our complicity in the making of history. In earlier works, Rushdie's critiques of religious extremism often exist as scattered fragments; but here, his dismantling of the fanaticism and pseudo-religious mythologising that fuel Fielding's (and Thackeray's) denunciations of "invaders" and Mughals (ie Muslims), is thorough and incisive. The fundamentalist Ram of the rabble-rousers has little to do with the benign legend of the god-king himself.
Faced with the sectarian riots that follow the destruction of the Babri mosque in December 1992, Moor—himself the product of two "minority" groups—gives quarter to neither warring faction: not the ascendant One, nor the "justly enraged" Many. "There comes a point in the unfurling of communal violence in which it becomes irrelevant to ask, 'Who started it?' The lethal conjugations of death part company with any possibility of justification, let alone justice. They surge among us, left and right, Hindu and Muslim … Both their houses are damned by their deeds".
But to reduce The Moor's Last Sigh merely to its political sources and diagnoses would be unjust. The reason for the failure of Rushdie's many imitators lies in their inability to integrate fantastic narrative with historical insight. He and his friend Angela Carter stand almost alone among their contemporaries in their seminal impact on a generation of British (and Anglophone) writers. Their inventive zeal and astonishing ability to remake received texts remain inimitable.
Whereas for Carter's investigations, the world of artifice sufficed, Rushdie battles with the grand narratives of history. He voices its questions and occasionally delivers painfully apt answers. Like Márquez, the writer with whom he has often been ineptly compared, Rushdie can extract from a family saga the chronicle of a nation's yearnings. His tales within tales of the lives and loves of the Catholic da Gamas and the Jewish Zogoibys—and their zeals, loyalist or nationalist—tell of a century of upper-class Indian aspirations.
His technique is more ambitious than ever. Barriers between fiction and "real life" are made more permeable. Along with the quaintly named denizens of his re-imagined world, iconic figures from "real life"—Nehru and the film star Nargis (Mother India), cricketers, art critics, the writers Chughtai and Manto—mingle with his protagonists. One of Aurora's most famous paintings is inspired by the nonsense phrase uttered by the mad hero of "Toba Tek Singh", Manto's allegory of the partition of India. The irrepressible Rushdie has Aurora accused by the bigots of pro-Pakistan sympathies for her tribute to Manto's art.
The opulent and variegated prose abounds with allusions to Indian languages, Urdu poetry, folklore, film songs and "Bollywood" culture. The novel's tragic vision is framed in its author's humour; it is also sexier than anything he has written before. Its guiding metaphor is, however, contained in Aurora's paintings, which give the novel takes its title: a vision of an India that mirrors the last years of Moorish Spain.
With the self-aggrandisement of the obsessional artist, Aurora stages herself as Ayxa, that world's last empress, with Moor as the less-than worthy Sultan Boabdil. "In a way these were … an attempt to create a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation; she was using Arab Spain to reimagine India … there was a didacticism here, but what with the vivid surrealism of her images and the kingfisher brilliance of her colouring … it was easy not to feel preached at, to revel in the carnival without listening to the barker, to dance to the music without caring for the message in the song."
But this story's messages, to its teller's credit, refuse to be lost in its brightness and its ribaldry. The disaffected exiled Moor learns that it is better to have loved and lost, and reflects about his people and his lost land: "The best, and the worst, were in us, and fought in us, as they fought in the land at large. In some of us, the worst triumphed; but still we could say—and say truthfully—that we had loved the best."
This section contains 1,215 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)