Now Rock with Rushdie

May 20, 1999

rushdie-1This review of Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) appeared in an edited form as “Read the U2 Lyrics, Dig the Song Later” in The Straits Times (20 May 1999).

In a new twist to Valentine’s Day 1989, Salman Rushdie tells us that this was not the day he earned the infamous fatwa from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It was the day Vina Apsara, the amorous singer-lover of musician Ormus Cama, disappeared forever into the bowels of the earth.

If these names do not sound familiar to you as yet, it seems devious enough to say that, in a matter of time and buzz, they will. Given the townspeak of Rushdie’s magical realism, his fascination with human anomalies that has so often placed him beside Günter Grass, still my master, there is no way anyone can hope to bypass the two.

Considering the fact that The Ground Beneath Her Feet was to have been released with U2’s newest album, featuring lyrics from the book itself, you may even be tempted to believe this effort at mass seduction to be damnably unstoppable.

As events turned out, God unwilling again in Rushdie’s big ideas, Bono played the proverbial hare and the ostentatious sixth novel hit the market first. If there is a reverse to pop literacy, then this must be it, for you will now get to read the words before you dig the music, and suddenly, Ormus’s song echoes too much wretchedness: It’s not supposed to be this way / it’s not supposed to be this day.

But listen on and, for a critical second, you may just hear what hype and salesman’s cunning can never translate as clearly: It’s not supposed to be this night / but you’re not here to put it right / and you’re just here to hold me tight / it’s not supposed to be this way.

Even better, pay attention to the title song for arguably the most poignant banality per square centimetre: All my life I worshipped her. Her golden voice, her beauty’s beat. How she made me feel, how she made me real, and the ground beneath her feet. / And now I can’t be sure of anything, black is white and cold is heat; for what I worshipped stole my love away, it was the ground beneath her feet.

This sums up the Rushdie I know these days: while aware of his natural talent in verbal somersaulting and his impeccable ear for shades of common feelings, he is visibly fatigued to a point of brazen recklessness.

Not in search of better ways to stab with blunt objects, he settles now for the Mod God Ormus, an essential half of VTO, the greatest rock band in a world where Watergate is fictitious, T. J. Eckleburg is a real optician, Simon and Garfunkel sang “Bridge over Troubled Water”, and Jesse Garon Parker is The King.

VTO’s other half gets wiped out pretty early in the novel and the whole tragedy, as narrated by photojournalist Umeed Merchant, Vina’s secret lover and self-professed serpent in the garden, is one of impossible loves locked in a kingdom with two underworlds, regardless which side is up.

Yes, go ahead and read all sorts of mythic nuances here because Rushdie actually encourages it. Ormus is Orpheus and, well, you know the basic pattern: musician falls in love with girl, musician loses girl, musician goes through Hell, quite literally ends up there, and inevitably loses girl a second time.

But Vina is also Orpheus or, if Cama is sub-intentionally Kama, she is also Rati who had so moved Shiva that He restored her beloved, earlier destroyed by His third eye. This is clearly an invertible myth that is at once allegorical of a cultural East-West relationship, the metaphor of which is rock ‘n’ roll.

It is also about Rushdie through his catastrophic decade, his sense of irretractable loss and current need for professional excuses, or can you not tell? Still, there is no need for cynicism if you are uneasy: read it as a modern love story, or a celebration of pop history or, if you are an Occidentalist, of Americana, and the fable emerges as morbidly satisfying.

In fact, you can almost certainly bet on Ormus and Vina entering Rushdie’s pantheon of bizarre dyads, albeit as lesser icons. For years to come, they will feed the shadows of the glorious Midnight’s Children, Saleem Sinai and Shiva, and the forcefully enigmatic pair, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha of The Satanic Verses.

So what if, unlike his culture-tested examples, they are each the quintessential twin of twins, Ormus’s haunting double having died at birth, his elder brothers, themselves twins, being destructive guardians of silence and insanity, and Vina of the dead possessing an exact duplicate Mira Celano, read “mirror”?

Doomed to be shadows and the generators of more shadows, Ormus blends into Umeed, usually called Rai, which means “desire”, who blends into Rushdie, who is always Ormus. You can try out the same dog-and-tail game with his siblings or Vina and squeal if you ever get something terribly different.

In the end, Rushdie’s triumph is with resolute comic individualism, seen in Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, Ormus’s father and Churchill-loving Anglophile, often heard conjuring some Eliot-inspired key to all mythologies, and the splendidly indomitable blind producer of Colchis Records, Yul Singh, pronounced “you sing” with the right accent.

And it is his one-off episodes that turn out positively dazzling and memorable, like that of Piloo Doodhwala’s investment fraud dealing with a hundred million purely fictitious goats, all of which Umeed is tasked with photographing.

Appearing near the book’s middle, this Great Goat Scam is itself the single clue to just about everything there is to say of the ground beneath Rushdie’s own two feet. Of course, it must be Ormus who puts it most crudely but well: Everything you think you see: it can’t be. There’s just me. Darling there’s just me, just me.

Gwee Li Sui

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