And Now, Some Books Not About Gardening
Soon I will start writing about our trip to Japan in some detail. However, before we get to that I want to post about some books I’ve read lately that left an impression on me. Let’s start with The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie.
This is the story of the fall of the da Gamas, an old family of Portugese-Indian spice traders from Cochin (which, along with Goa, was once occupied by the Portugese).
The focus is on the 20th century and the lives of the family’s last two generations. In that time the family business becomes a corporate empire based in Bombay, dealing in products both legal and illegal. There are three main characters: Aurora da Gama, a distinguished painter; her husband Abraham Zagoiby, who marries into the family and becomes its patriarch; and their son Moraes, the last da Gama.
The fall of the da Gamas coincides with the rise of fundamentalist Hindu nationalism (which dominates Indian politics today), and the decline of the pluralistic ethos that was embraced at the time of India’s independence. The da Gama family were active in the independence movement, but as Catholics they are marginalized by the new emerging power.
I loved this book, as I’ve loved most of the Rushdie books I’ve gotten hold of. When they’re good they resonate powerfully, and especially so at this moment. For example, there is this passage about the fictional Hindu nationalist politician Raman Fielding:
There was a thing that Raman Fielding knew, which was his power’s secret source: that it is not the civil social norm for which men yearn, but the outrageous, the outsize, the out-of-bounds – for that by which our wild potency may be unleashed. We crave permission openly to become our secret selves.
Then there is Rushdie’s ability to tell the story of the mixing and melding of cultures that is at the heart of Indian history. This is a reality that he embraces:
I wanted to cling to love as the blending of spirits, as melange, as the triumph of the impure, mongrel, conjoining best of us over what there is in us of the solitary, the isolated, the austere, the dogmatic, the pure.
Rushdie’s language can be powerful, but also playful, poking gentle fun at English as it has been adopted by certain strata of Indian society. Here is Aurora da Gama instructing a painter on how he should decorate her children’s nursery as a cartoon paradise:
“You go to the pictures? You read comic-cuts? Then, that mouse, that duck, and what is the name of that bunny. Also that sailor and his saag saga. Maybe the cat that never catchoes the mouse, the other cat that never catchoes the bird, or the other bird that runs too fast for the coy-oat. Give me boulders that only temporarily flattofy you when they drop down on your head, bombs that give black faces only, and running-over-empty-air-until-you-looko-down.”
To which the painter replies:
“Madam, money talks. You have the hit-fortune to be addressing the absolutely greatest number-one-in-the-parade Paradise-painter in Bombay.”
“Hit-fortune?” Aurora wondered.
“Like hit-take, hit-alliance, hit-conception, hit-terious,” Vasco explained. “Opposite of mis-.”
The title of the book refers to the legend of Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada. He is expelled from Spain with the rest of the Moors, to be followed shortly by the Jews, leaving Ferdinand and Isabel with a purely Catholic country. Family legend has it that Abraham, a converted Jew, can trace his ancestry to Boabdil, and Moraes’ nickname is “the Moor”.
Rushdie is most famous for The Satanic Verses (not one of his best books, in my opinion). Fundamentalist Muslims were so outraged by the book that Rushdie, in fear for his life, had to go into hiding. The Moor’s Last Sigh similarly outraged the Hindu nationalists. Rushdie did not go into hiding, but the threat of violence kept the book scarce in Indian bookstores.
The Moor’s Last Sigh tells a story from the other side of the world, which for me made it fascinating but not opaque. It is a book of humor and tragedy, with just a hint of hope at its conclusion.