Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly publication about things I’ve read

“What, not one hit?” Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh

 |  2282 words

At a crucial moment in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), the narrator, Moraes Zogoiby, known as “Moor”, discovers that there are certain lengths — and depths — to which he is not willing to go. His father, Abraham Zogoiby, whom Moor has belatedly come to recognize as the shadowy “Mogambo” (p. 168) figure who runs most of Bombay’s criminal gangs from behind the facade of an unassuming businessman, asks Moor to help to source, illegally and in secret, a powerful supercomputer to be used in the development of an “Islamic” H-bomb. Knowing who the obvious target of such a weapon would be, Moor refuses:

”To my astonishment,” I told this shadow-Jehovah, this anti-Almighty, this black hole in the sky, my Daddyji, “excuse me, but I find that I’m a Jew.” (pp. 336–7)

In fact, Moor is at most half Jewish, his mother Aurora being of Christian and Portuguese origins, the heiress to a prosperous firm of spice merchants. But there’s also a question mark over his blood-relationship to Abraham. As the result of a curse most likely pronounced by Abraham’s mother, Moor has always grown at twice the standard speed: when he is 35 he looks and feels as if he were 70. The semi-official story is that he was conceived 4½ months before his birth, when his parents briefly ended a long period of sexual abstinance from each other.

That in turn had come about because Abraham, previously just an ordinary employee, had been promoted to manage his fiancée’s business. Having lost two ships and their cargoes to enemy action at the start of the Second World War — all his ventures failed, not one hit — he was forced to borrow capital from his mother, Flory, to stay in business. In return, Flory made him promise her his firstborn son. Now, after he’s repaid her loan and offered a bonus in lieu of the firstborn, Flory makes it clear that she’ll insist on what had been promised. She craves the law, the penalty and forfeit of her bond. When Aurora eventually hears about this — Abraham had understandably been in no hurry to tell her — she resolves that there would be no firstborn son while Flory remains alive. Immediately after Flory’s death, Moor’s conception occurs. And then, four-and-a-half months later …

There’s a complicating factor, inevitably. Some nine months before Moor was born, Aurora had publicly lost her temper with the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, expressing jealousy of his attachment to Edwina Mountbatten (p. 176), after which she remained in Delhi for an unexplained extra night. Are we to assume that Moor’s accelerated development was already happening before he was born? Perhaps if we accept that such a departure from the natural order is possible after birth, we should accept that it was in operation from the moment of conception?

Abraham never quite disclaims his paternity of Moor, though he does unofficially “adopt” an adult replacement, as we’ll see. But Moor’s refusal to involve himself in the H-bomb project puts a further strain on a relationship that has just recently been patched up.

Abraham had put the unsuspecting Moor in charge of his Baby Softo talcum powder enterprise, a rather obvious cover for smuggling drugs. Partly because he wasn’t yet ready to believe the worst about his father, Moor was taken by surprise when the business was raided and he was placed in solitary confinement in a tiny, stifling, dark, infested cell in Bombay Central. He is sprung by a man he had always known as Lambajan Chandiwala (Long John Silverfellow, real name Borkar) who lost a leg because of Aurora’s appallingly careless driving and, partly in recompense, had been given the job of security guard at Elephanta, the grand home of Moor’s parents. Lambajan taught the child Moor to box, to make effective use of his misshapen, club-like right hand.

After Moor’s release, Lambajan reveals what Moor hadn’t at all suspected, that he is a follower of Raman Fielding, an influential though unelected Hindu political leader. The character Fielding is a remarkably unflattering depiction of a real-life figure, Bal Thackeray, founder of Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist organization that has been mentioned in disparaging terms in some of the earlier novels, notably The Satanic Verses. Like Thackeray, Fielding started out as a cartoonist. (Fielding signed his cartoons with a drawing of a frog and was widely known as “Mainduck”, meaning “frog”.) Fielding’s fictional counterpart to Shiv Sena is called “Mumbai’s Axis” or simply the MA (pp. 230–1).

For a character based on an individual who was alive when the book was published, Fielding is drawn in strikingly hostile and insulting terms:

Mostly he was a brooding stillness; but every so often, goaded by some visitor’s injudicious remark, speech would burst from him, foul-tongued, terrifying, lethal. And in his low cane chair with his great belly slung across his knees like a burglar’s sack, with his frog’s croak of a voice bursting through his fat frog’s lips and his little dart of a tongue licking at the edges of his mouth, with his hooded froggy eyes gazing greedily down upon the little beedi-rolls of money with which his quaking petitioners sought to pacify him, and which he rolled lusciously between his plump little fingers until at length he broke slowly into a huge, red-gummed smile, he was indeed a Frog King, a Mainduck Raja whose commands could not be gainsaid. (p. 232)

This, of course, is written in Moor’s voice, from his perspective. Later, when he has been released from jail, Moor readily agrees to work for Fielding, having first shown what he is capable of doing with his right fist. Following a period of probation, he becomes “one of the MA’s élite enforcers” (p. 305), breaking strikes, dispersing demonstrations and cleansing the city of its “Communist scum” (p. 306). Afterwards, he admits that he is “a man who has delivered many beatings” (p. 305), and he reflects on the life-altering effects that such beatings have, on both the deliverer and the recipient:

A man who is beaten seriously … will be irreversibly changed. His relationship to his own body, to his mind, to the world beyond himself alters in ways both subtle and overt. A certain confidence, a certain idea of liberty is beaten out for good, always provided the beater knows his job. Often, what is beaten in is detachment. The victim — how often I saw this! — detaches himself from the event, and sends his consciousness to float in the air above. He seems to look down upon himself, on his own body as it convulses and perhaps breaks. Afterwards, he will never fully re-enter himself, and invitations to join any larger, collective entity — a union, for example — are instantly rebuffed.
Beatings in different zones of the body affect different parts of the soul. To be beaten for a long time upon the soles of the feet, for example, affects laughter. Those who are so beaten never laugh again. (p. 307)

But Moor’s service to Mainduck and the MA inevitably comes to an end — neither Fielding nor his own teammates have ever completely trusted him, and Moor is reconciled with his father, for a time.

Moor is never sure what, of the various things that different untrustworthy people tell him, he can believe. The woman who “transformed, exalted and ruined” (p. 237) his life, Uma Sarasvati, has clearly lied flagrantly, attempting to cut him off from his family — successfully so in the case of his mother — not to mention her farcically backfiring attempt to poison him just before he’s arrested for drug smuggling. But does that mean he should disbelieve everything she told him? What about her claim that Aurora had three lovers contemporaneously, including Mainduck? Moor can’t entirely dismiss the suspicion that this is true, notwithstanding Fielding’s repulsive qualities.

Before their permanent estrangement (engineered by Uma), Aurora had told him that in fact Uma was the one who had three lovers (including himself) at the same time. Were both these claims true, or one, or neither? Similarly symmetric allegations are made about the death of Aurora. This had seemed to be an accident. For many years, she had been in the habit of dancing “higher than the gods”. Once a year, thousands of idols of Ganesha and other deities would be brought to bathe in the sea at Chowpatty Beach. Each year when this happened, Aurora would dance extravagantly on the ramparts of her home, Elephanta, on Malabar Hill. This went on for 41 years till one day, at the age of 62, she lost her footing and fell.

Much later, Abraham tells Moor that her fall was not an accident but had been engineered by Fielding, who was angered and humiliated by Aurora’s rejection. So informed, Moor beats Fielding to death. (Fielding is too canny to allow Moor to get into a position where he could use his deadly right hand, so Moor has to use his left, holding the green, frog-shaped telephone that Mainduck kept on his desk.)

But when Moor gets to Andalusia, to meet again with Vasco Miranda, his mother’s old friend (and rumoured lover), he learns that Aurora had feared that her life had been under threat from someone else entirely: Abraham. Had Moor once again underestimated his father’s capacity for wickedness?

As Moor leaves Fielding’s headquarters, the building is destroyed by an explosion, presumably obliterating the evidence of Moor’s crime. The explosion is one of a series killing various important figures in the story, including Moor’s longest surviving sister, Minnie, known as Sister Floreas (p. 374).

The explosives were planted by Moor’s former skipper in the élite enforcement team of Mumbai’s Axis, Sammy Hazaré. Though they both worked for the Hindu nationalist organization, Hazaré, like Moor himself, is not a Hindu, but “a Christian Maharashtrian, and had joined up with Fielding’s crew for regionalist, rather than religious reasons” (p. 312). Like Moor, he passed information about Fielding and his organization to Abraham Zogoiby (in Hazaré’s case for payment). He was comfortable with divided loyalties, “but no loyalties at all? That was confusing” (p. 357). Coming into a quantity of RDX, Hazaré declars a plague on all their houses and sets off an apocalyptic series of explosions. In the meantime, Moor has left Bombay (on Abraham’s advice) and travelled to Vasco Miranda’s “Little Alhambra” in Spain, where he meets a less spectacular, but no less final end.

The fully grown son whom Abraham “adopted”, as a substitute for the disappointing Moor was known as Adam Braganza, and then as Adam Zogoiby. But he was originally Aadam Sinai: officially the son of Midnight’s Children’s Saleem Sinai, and the biological son of Saleem’s alter ego, Shiva — the other, hidden child born at the exact moment of Indian independence. In other words, he represents the second generation of the Children, those in whom Saleem valiantly tried not to have too much hope. The way he has turned out isn’t very encouraging.

Moor (admittedly not the most disinterested of observers) describes his newly acquired sibling as “not only a scheming usurper but a moron”, and “a Jonah” whose arrival in the family “unleashed the chain reaction that knocked the magnate of Siodicorp [i.e. Abraham] off his high perch” (p. 359). Adam is arrested for his part in a massive fraud, and found to be involved (with Abraham) in the affairs of Khazana Bank International — counterpart of the real-life Bank of Credit and Commerce International — which is said to be involved “with terrorist organisations and the large-scale misappropriation of fissile material, delivery mechanisms and high-technology hard- and software” (p. 360). (Similar allegations were made against the actual BCCI, which collapsed sensationally in 1991, a few years before this novel appeared.) Shortly before his own death, and advising Moor to get out of the country, Abraham says that his newer son will rot in jail (p. 370). So much for the Children of Midnight.

So, The Moor’s Last Sigh is to some extent a companion piece to Midnight’s Children. Like the earier novel’s Saleem, Moor represents his country in microcosm. Saleem’s participation in many of the most shameful events of the years between independence and the Emergency of the 1970s, including his role as a “dog-man” in Bangladesh, have their parallel in Moor’s period as enforcer for the MA. While Saleem stands for the hopes and possibilities that came into existence with independence, Moor embodies the various different traditions, backgrounds, religions, classes and ethnicities that have gone to make up modern India, and which Mainduck and his nationalist followers have been trying to reduce to a single homogenized identity. Moor, in contrast, weaves together many threads.

I … 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. (p. 104)

Edition: Vintage paperback, 1996; ellipses added.

I’m even later than usual with this post, I’m afraid. I think I’ll have to accept that Rushdie’s novels are noticeably slower reads than they appear. The language is so vibrant and lively and what Ian McEwan called the “demonic narrative energy” so compelling that I feel sure I’m bouncing along at speed, then I look back and see that, while I thought I must have read about 60 pages, in fact it’s only been 20. So, the next time I write about one of his novels — it will probably be The Ground beneath Her Feet — I’ll try to make sure that I give myself more time to read it attentively.