This is a saga of love, tragedy, and quite simply, life. I have been tapping my keyboard for 15 minutes wondering how to summarize the book and the tale. I don’t think I can satisfactorily do so. At the heart of it, it is an intense story of relentless love that two men have for the sensual, angelic singer, Vina Apsara. Ormus Cama is a musical genius, and Umeed Rai is a talented photojournalist. Both are friends, and both love the same woman, but she loves only one. Their lives are entwined from their young days in post-colonial Bombay, all the way to New York, where Ormus and Vina create a rock sensation of their own. The tale is about passion and the depths to which arts such as music and photography can sink into our soul and meld within us.
The novel is about so many things that surround a simple love story. Its about life’s hypocrisies, injustices, cruelties, and all the million ironies and unpredictabilities. Salman Rushdie writes evocatively and passionately. What impressed me the most was his insouciant and seamless style of loading a single sentence with so many divergent but related thoughts and topics. He spans a wide breadth of subjects with just a few casual sentences that are most of the time, deep and powerful. His details are sharp, almost pungent, and they kick and punch you with their vividness and imagery. The lines that stayed with me the most from the book are:
“A photograph is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second, or one sixteenth, or one hundred and twenty eighth. Snap your fingers; a snapshot’s faster. Halfway between your voyeur and witness, high artist and low scum, that’s where I’ve made my life, making my eye-blink choices.
Long ago I developed a knack for invisibility. It allowed me to go right up to the actors in the world’s drama, the sick, the dying, the crazed, the mourning, the rich, the greedy, the ecstatic, the bereft, the angry, the murderous, the secretive, the bad, the children, the good, the newsworthy; to shimmy into their charmed space, into the midst of their rage or grief or transcendent arousal, to penetrate the defining instant of their being-in-the-world and get my f****** picture.”
“In the beginning was the tribe, clustering around a fire, a single multi-bodied collective entity standing back-to-back against the enemy, which was the rest of everything-that-was. Then for a little while we broke away, we got names and individuality and privacy and big ideas, and that started a wider fracturing, because if we could do it - us, the planet kings, the gobblers with the lock on the food chain, the guys in the catbird seat - if we could cut ourselves loose, then so could everything else, so could event and space and time and description and fact, so could reality itself. Well, we weren’t expecting to be followed, we didn’t realize we were starting anything, and it looks like it’s scared us so profoundly, this fracturing, this tumbling of walls, this forgodsake freedom, that at top speed we’re rushing back into our skins and war paint, postmodern into premodern, back to the future. That’s what I see when I’m a camera: the battle lines, the corrals, the stockades, the pales, the secret handshakes, the insignia, the uniforms, the lingo, the closing in, the shallow graves, the high priests, the non-negotiable currencies, the junk, the booze, the fifty year old ten year olds, the blood dimm’d tide, the slouching towards Bethlehem, the suspicion, the loathing, the closed shutters, the pre-judgments, the scorn, the hunger, the thirst, the cheap lives, the cheap shots, the anathemas, the minefields, the demons, the demonized, the fuhrers, the warriors, the veils, the mutilations, the no-man’s-land, the paranoias, the dead, the dead.”
There are better lines in the book, but I don’t know why these bleak, harsh, and strong words (or their essence) stayed with me. This is a long (575 pages long) book that tells a complicated, yet simple story. Too many references, mythical and real, are drawn from mythology, theology, the music industry, the rock movement, history and politics to weave this web of a saga. The one thing that I didn’t much understand the need for, was Rushdie’s typical inclusion of something absurd and fantastical, eerie and magical. The tale could have done without his touch of magical realism. I often don’t get it.
I should also mention something about the zillion characters that show up in this tale. I find it fascinating that Rushdie’s characters seem like caricatures on the surface - very little physical or outward descriptions, but the few descriptions that he gives are so potent that you instantly draw a sketch of them in your mind. With each character, he brings out a persona - a whole range of clustered mini-characters within one gigantic one. He gives the characters a cartoonish absurdity, but this ridiculous absurdity sticks and frames the characters. And of course, the dialogues and slangs and wordplays he incorporates through his characters, are witty and ring true. My favorite character (for his portrayal) is Piloo Doodhwala. His introduction sealed the character in my mind:
“On this golden afternoon or another, bronzer p.m., at this instant or that one, the celebrated Mr. Piloo Doodhwala and his famous “magnificentourage” marched forth on to Juhu’s sands. I was wholly ignorant of his growing citywide renown as a “character” and “coming man” and statewide purveyor of milk; I had no idea that his real name was Shetty-but nobody called him that anymore, because, as he himself liked to say, “milkman by fame, Milkman by name”; I had never heard of the term he had coined to describe the intimate clique of family members and servitors with which he liked to surround himself - a term gleefully taken up by the local rags and much satirised (“magnificentestine”, arrogantourage”, etc.); but Piloo Shetty alias Doodhwala was impervious to satire. I simply beheld a small, plump, white-kurta-pajamaed man in his middle twenties, a young man with so great a sense of his own value that he already looked middle-aged, a fellow with a strutting walk like a peacock’s and plentiful dark hair so sleekly plastered down with oil that it resembled a sleeping mongoose. He carried himself like a king, Caligula or Akbar, monarchs who entertained fantasies of being divine.”
This is an interesting, but a very long, dense, and powerful read. Parts of it are engaging and intense, but other parts are far too deep. Nothing propels you to pick it up and read it, but when you do start reading, Rushdie’s words pull you into his world until their power sucks your energy out. And then, you would put the book down and watch it gather some dust, until one fine day something in you (perhaps your library reminders) urges you to finish it. It took me 2 months to finish the last 100 pages, but a couple of days to finish the first 300. The book’s charm waxes and wanes, but in the end, it emerges as an interesting read.