I had planned to write a post about Salman Rushdie’s 1999 novel, The Ground beneath Her Feet, but I’ve been reluctantly forced to conclude that I haven’t yet absorbed it sufficiently to be confident in saying much about it. It’s a turning point in Rushdie’s fiction, it marks a change of direction and I haven’t quite been able to make up my mind in which way it leaves him pointing. (More than once in the novel, Rushdie jokes about “disorientation” meaning “loss of the East”.) It’s certainly a book of two halves. On first reading, I thought that was a bad thing, but after a third reading I’m very nearly persuaded that it’s actually good (though I’m not yet ready to say why).
The first half is set in the city of Rushdie’s birth, Bombay, where two of the three central characters were born and the third came to live after a catastrophic childhood in the United States. In adulthood, they pass, separately and at different times, through a “membrane” on the other side of which they find themselves in “the West”. Two of them spend some time in London; the narrator, Rai, goes straight to New York, where Vina has already established herself after a brief stint in London, and Ormus will eventually, inevitably follow.
The novel as a whole, but particularly the second, “Western” half, is sprawling, complicated, full of detail and mysterious puzzles. It’s partly a tale of rock music: Ormus has been a musical prodigy from birth and Vina has a fabulous voice and they both achieve fame as part of the band VTO. But Rai (who is telling the story) is not musical, and keeps a measure of distance from the rock shenanigans, becoming instead an esteemed war-and-fashion photographer and occupying one floor of a centally located converted warehouse that he acquired with a number of (mostly visual) artists. The earth, East and West alike, is being riven by ever more frequent earthquakes, one of which, in Mexico, ends Vina’s life, to the distress of her millions of fans, as well as of Ormus and Rai, both of whom were in love with her (though only Ormus became her husband).
There are hints of other realities, some of which may be on a collision course with the world of the novel, which isn’t quite the same as that of the reader. One difference is that assassinations which, in our world, took place at different times, occur in the novel simultaneously. So, Mrs Gandhi and her sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, are all killed at once (along with a Hindu nationalist leader, a relative of Vina’s, who had won a mayoral election while serving a long prison term for fraud, and was immediately pardoned), in the event dubbed the Four Assassinations. Similarly, former US president John F Kennedy, who had survived a previous attempt in Dallas during his first term, was killed alongside his brother and successor as President, Bobby Kennedy.
My first impression on reading The Ground beneath Her Feet when it first came out in paperback was that the second half was a bit of a mess: confusing, shapeless and unsatisfying. I started to wonder if Rushie might be at his best while writing about Bombay, and less compelling when his subject matter is located somewhere else. That argument could be made to fit my opinions on his earlier works. I had been and still am unreservedly enthusiastic about Midnight’s Children, not all of which is set in Bombay. There are episodes in Kashmir, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Sundarbans and Delhi, but there’s no doubt that Bombay is at the novel’s centre.
The next book, Shame is about Pakistan and (as I’ve said before) I’ve never found it very satisfactory. After that comes The Satanic Verses, which is largely set in London, though some of its most effective and moving passages occur near the end, when Salahuddin Chamchawala goes back to Bombay where his father is dying. And then comes The Moor’s Last Sigh, which is very much a Bombay novel, and comes closest to equalling the position of Midnight’s Children in Rushdie’s oeuvre. So, the idea that the author is at his best, his inventiveness most engaged, when he writes about that city, can be made to sound plausible. However, this is no longer an argument I wish to make following my most recent reading of The Ground beneath Her Feet. Instead, I see that I need to go back and read again The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh and this novel, and to write something longer and more detailed about the three of them as a sequence.
Apart from my recent rereading of The Ground beneath Her Feet itself, what persuaded me of this was an essay by Rushdie in the collection Languages of Truth: Essays 2003–2020 (2021). In “Autobiography and the Novel”, he writes:
All writers start out with a “given”, some little or large nugget of good or bad feeling, funny-ha-ha or funny-peculiar stories, some little moral or sexual twistedness, some unexpected angle on the language, some unscratched itch that makes them want to write in the first place. Some writers are able to mine that seam for a lifetime. Others — most of us, I believe — eventually feel that we have exhausted what we started out with and have to find a second act.
I have been unusually fortunate as a writer, in that my life has given me more than one such golden nugget. (pp. 160–1)
His first golden nugget was India, the subject of his truly great novel, Midnight’s Children and, though he doesn’t say so explicitly, I’d add that Bombay is at the heart of this particular nugget. The second nugget is the theme of migration. The Ground beneath Her Feet is not by any means the first of his novels to deal with this theme. It’s already there in Shame, where Rusdie writes about the hopefulness of migrant peoples. Of the foundation of Pakistan, he says:
At the time of the India-Pakistan Partition, that was the greatest mass migration in human history, and since then there have been others to rival it. (“Autobiography and the Novel”, p. 161)
Migration plays a major part in The Satanic Verses, where the journey of Salahuddin Chamchawala and Ismail Najmuddin (better known as Gibreel Farishta) parallels the passage through the membrane between East and West of Ormus Cama, Vina Apsara and Umeed “Rai” Merchant in the later novel. But The Ground beneath Her Feet is the novel in which the nugget of “migration” comes to replace that of “India”, the one in which there seems to be an intentional leaving behind of Rushdie’s first great theme. (But not permanently: he will return to India, and specifically to Kashmir, in Shalimar the Clown (2005), about which I’ll write eventually.)
The third of Rushdie’s golden nuggets he describes as:
… the desire to show how the world joins up, how here connects to there, how the little boxes we live in now open out into other little boxes, often very far away, and how, in order to explain our lives, we often need to understand things happening on the other side of the world. (p. 161)
As an example, he recounts an episode that is also mentioned in The Ground beneath Her Feet, about the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, when she married the English King Charles II, containing the colonial possession on which the British then built the city of Bombay. This constitutes a link between Bombay and the New York borough of Queens, which was originally named for Catherine.
But, while migration may be the main theme of The Ground beneath Her Feet, it seems to me to leave much about the novel unexplained. The cental metaphor of the book is the earthquake. That’s an ambiguous phenomenon, mostly bad — one of them killed Vina, after all — but capable of sometimes bringing good as well as evil. It seems to be wholly outside human control, though not everybody is convinced:
To many third-world observers it seems self-evident that earthquakes are the new hegemonic geopolitics, the tool by which the superpower quake-makers intend to shake and break the emergent economies of the South, the Southeast, the Rim. The boastful triumphalism of the West during the revolutionary upheavals of 1989–90 have come back to haunt it. (p. 554)
Rai had recognized that “boastful triumphalism” during the period of revolutionary upheavals:
Oh, man, the things these quakes are throwing up. Poets for presidents, the end of apartheid, the Nazi gold buried for fifty years deep in Swiss bank accounts, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Titanic, and we guess communism just got buried in the rubble there somewhere. And those Ceauşescus? So not missed.
When the changes are this big, you can be sure there will be politicians lining up to take the credit. Seems that the iron curtain quakes were the result of years of covert Western activity underground … Seems that earthquakes, the ultimate weapons of mass destruction, are now at our disposal. (p. 501)
If you claim credit for something, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get the blame too. That’s something of which Rai can’t help being aware.
The last time I wrote about one of Rushdie’s novels, I said that in future I’d try to give myself more time to read him attentively. I’m afraid I didn’t manage it this time and I’m again very late with this post (having got briefly back on schedule last time around). Anyway, I’ve now written about all his adult novels between Midnight’s Children and Fury inclusive. As suggested above, I’m likely to have something to say about Shalimar the Clown at some stage, though I’m not going to be in any rush. As I also said above, I want to reread The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Ground beneath Her Feet and write something longer and in more depth than I’ve managed so far about the three of them. But next time, I’m planning to take a look at Daphne du Maurier’s short stories in Don’t Look Now.
Editions: The Ground beneath Her Feet is cited from the Vintage paperback, 2000 (ellipsis added) and “Autobiography and the Novel” from Languages of Truth: Essays 2003–2020, Penguin paperback, 148–165.