Monday, 17 June 2013

Fiction Reads: The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

A sigh isn't just a sigh. We inhale the world and breathe out meaning. While we can. While we can.”

The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie is a blend of magical realism and both historical (perhaps in my opinion) and speculative fiction. Impish, quirky and treacherous are what this book is all about; an account of a family traced to four generations: “There is a thing that lives in us, eating our food, breathing our air, looking out through our eyes, and when it comes out to play nobody is immune; possessed, we turn murderously upon one another, thing-darkness in our eyes and real weapons in our hands, neighbour against thing-ridden neighbour, thing-driven cousin against cousin, brother-thing against brother-thing, thing-child against thing-child.” This quote summarizes the theme of the story although one does not know what one is in for and what to expect at the end of the read. Narrated by Moraes Zogoiby (nicknamed Moor & the protagonist), from the fourth generation of the da Gama – Zogoiby family, it is a tale of people from multi-cultural origins and it takes us across varied geographies and histories. As Moor defines himself as - “I, however, was raised neither as Catholic nor as Jew. I was both, and nothing: a jewholic-anonymous, a cathjew nut, a stewpot, a mongrel cur. I was--what's the word these days?--atomised. Yessir: a real Bombay mix. ”

Spanning Mumbai, Cochin and Spain, the story begins where it ends.  It unfolds in an estate in Cochin where the da Gamas settled, the descendants of Vasco da Gama after all – “they (da Gama and the Portuguese) came in search of the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a tart.” Moor elucidates, “What was true of history was true of our family in particular – pepper, the coveted Black Gold of Malabar, was the original stock-in-trade of my filthy-rich folks, the wealthiest spice, nut, bean and leaf merchants in Cochin, who without any evidence save centuries of tradition claimed the wrong side-side-of-the-blanket descent from great Vasco da Gama himself.” It is the early nineteen hundreds when Francisco da Gama and Epifania Menzes are the spice grandees of Cochin. It is a time when the society spells fusion despite the different environs and neighborhoods while history is in the making –  ‘the tales of Communist troublemaking and Congresswallah politics, the names Gandhi and Nehru, the rumours of famine in the east and hunger strikes in the north, the songs and drums of oral storytellers, and the heavy rolling sound (as they broke against Cabral Island’s rickety jetty) of the incoming tides of history’. Francisco is a patriot and so is his younger son, Camoens for ‘Francisco was all bustle and energy, so Aeres (the older son affected indolence, learned how to infuriate his father by the luxuriant ease of his lounging’.

Times are changing and so are the opinions in the da Gama household. Camoens and Aeres marry and attitudes run passionate. Francisco’s arrest being part of the Home Rule Movement and staging a protest against the British pick the momentum of the story. His beliefs are avant garde at a time when masses and classes cannot be part of the same club. His writings on the ‘dynamics networks of spiritual energy’ turn him into a laughing stock from an ‘emerging hero’.  He retires to his home which is like a ‘place lost in a fog’. His death brings several warring family members, Epiphania’s folks, the Menzes and Aeres’ wife Carmen’s folks, the Lobos at war for hegemony over the spice business until of course Belle, Camoens’ wife takes over the reins and revives it. This is the old world. Belle and Camoens’ daughter, Aurora is a child prodigy; after Belle’s death she emerges as the gifted, strong and gutsy artist with a lust for life. She falls in love with Abraham Zogoiby, a member of the da Gama business staff from the Jewish quarters of Cochin. There is a secret behind the Zogoiby lineage; he is a supposed descendant of Boabdil, the last Nasrid ruler of Granada in Iberia. Aurora and Zogoiby raise three daughters and a son, Moor. They move to Bombay where their trade flourishes.

Cutting a long story short, The Moor’s Last Sigh is a tale of love and betrayal, thievery and cunning, helplessness and lashes of power, and eccentricity and innocence. Rushdie reveals a world marked by both the old and the new; the illustration of cultural assimilation runs stark with descriptions of Cochin and Bombay. The title, The Moor’s Last Sigh inspired by Boabdil’s sigh on looking at the Alhambra for that one last time after his defeat shows the twilight of multi-cultured dynasties at another time and place. The distinction is well-etched and beautifully subtle. It is also the tale of a world marked by intolerance where Voltaire’s belief that ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it’ does not hold true enough and perhaps borders on ignorance and malevolence.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

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