Tuesday, June 02, 2009

'Moor' than required?

True. I have read quite a bit of Rushdie. In fact from everything he has written I have probably read more than 50% of it. And yes. I have immensely enjoyed the whimsical liberties he takes with his audience – be it in prose or in the stitching together of a scene that – and this has to be said: sometimes turns out less surprising than what you’d have probably expected from him. True: I know I am not reading a spy novel, but still. A dash of tangy twist never hurt anyone, Sir. Also true: Rushdie isn’t the greatest when it comes to unexpected turns like some of the other authors (well, the classics being O Henry and the like) I have come across. But if ever there was an author who could pen down words you’d have never heard of – Rushdie is your man. If not for nothing else, I sincerely urge you to pick up a Rushdie just for the sheer headiness with which he makes one entire paragraph get to print without using a single full stop. A habit I find myself getting used to these days. A dangerous habit, I must confess.

With that little bit about SR, we come to his work ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’. This book was originally released in ’95 and took me over a decade to get around to reading it because well, it just did. One of the reasons I am currently catching up with the backlog of Rushdie’s work may have been a result of the exuberant egging on that ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ gave me with its unique combination of simple to understand Moguls and impossible to remember Italiano references!. Since then, I have not only re-read ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ but also I am currently reading his take on Pak and its historical journey post-Independence - ‘Shame’, which I must admit is good reading. You can expect a review on that shortly too. I also intend to re-read ‘Midnight’s Children’ since well, I need the rush of high voltage vocabulary from the mouth of Sinai once more!

‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’ is segmented into 4 parts – ‘A house divided’, ‘Malabar Masala’, ‘Bombay Central’ and, like having a song with the title track in a music album, ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’. The plot follows the family line of one Moraes Zogoiby also known as ‘Moor’. He is the fourth and final child of Abraham Zogoiby and Aurora da Gama, whose roots are seeded in the Christian/Jew existent region of good old coconut oiled fish-curry laced Cochin in God’s own country. They are basically a spicy family – literally, since they deal with all sorts of condiments. From cardamom to clove. From whole pepper to cumin. They’ve got it all. And the spice that runs in their blood – O brother. One look at every woman in their family and you will know who runs the ship! Right from white haired Epifania (Moor’s Gread Grand Mummy!), through to her daughter Isabella Souza and then to her tough nut of a daughter Aurora da Gama. Each of these women contain a specific din of confidence and power that, it sometimes seems, is embedded by their hereditary allegiance to all the spices!

Moor is a man with a bizarre disability – he is aging twice as fast as he should. Meaning, if he is 5 years old, his body resembles that of a 10 year old boy. So by the time he is 20, he looks like he is 40…and so on. Or as SR puts it his age is ‘2x’ – you get the point. Needless to say this leads to several interesting subplots with his anatomy and the fact that at some point he looks as old as his own mother. The base for the title comes from the tale of Boabdil (I had to look this fellow up after reading this book), who was apparently the last king of Granada. Aurora, Moor’s mother, is a gifted painter and a very serious influence in the way Moor grows up in a house with 3 elder sisters – Ini, Meeni, Myna…well, of course, and then Moor. Each of the girls meet a fate that, to put it blandly, isn’t the most ideal. Each one of them is a victim of the choices they make, much like the rest of us I suppose.

The book, through its 4 major chapters, traces the origins of the Zogoibys right from the shores of Cochin all the way to the hedonistic cocaine hub called Bombay (this is a story set in the 60s – 80s Bombay so the word ‘Mumbai’ hadn’t quite stuck yet) and then ends in a quiet little pocket of Spain called Benengeli, where Moor eventually meets his fate and takes stock of his life thus far. Moor’s journey is peppered (pun intended!) with some very strong female influences – his mother Aurora, his sisters, his first love and sex partner (his tutor Dilly Hormuz), and the maniacal crazed she ‘thing’ called Uma who seeds, successfully, the fruit of mistrust in Moor which essentially tears the family apart. Hmm…where have I heard that before? As I said, if Rushdie’s books were stripped off of all the verbal gloss, you’d find a pretty straight forward tale almost every time. That’s the one thing I’ve always felt was Rushdie’s most painful Achilles Heel.

The one thing I noticed right away about Moor’s narrator-like approach to the tale was how similar it was to ‘Midnight’s Children’ where Saleem Sinai does the same by recalling his grandparents from Kashmir and then on towards himself. But unlike Saleem’s tale, there is no major progressive connection to the nation’s story in ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’. Rushdie is famous for this ‘magic realism’ approach which very easily blends magical contexts into a realistic scenario. Even here, that takes place almost in every page. As the reader follows the roots of Moor and how he came about to exist, we start noticing patterns of the divine, the supernatural, the inexplicable and the prophetic, all stitched into the same fabric that Moor’s reality is shown as being set against. What with his fast slipping age-disability factor (actually I never saw that aspect as a disability at all!) and the constant feminine shadows under whom Moor continues to discover his past, present and future, SR very daftly combines the themes of an India still yawning from its Independence and the dizziness with which Bombay was finally getting the unique definition we all are so proud of today. Right from its ‘Ganapati bappa maurya’ to its reverence to Bollywood with strong inclusions of Nargis (yes! From Mother India!) and her, the then beau, Dutt Sr., SR captures it all in his unique flair.

Alright: things I didn’t find too exciting – the routine deaths. There came a time when I wasn’t sure if I was reading Rushdie or G.D.Roberts’ ‘Shantaram’! What with the, almost, intense underlining of the mafia world in Bombay and its role in Moor’s life, I somehow felt at one point that the story was definitely inspired by a lot of Bollywood masala. Also, the generous injection of sex that always seems to find its way in Rushdie’s books (well maybe with the exception of ‘Haroun…’, I think…) and leaves you feeling a tad surprised at its occurance. Moor, despite his age related disability and a seriously deformed hand (of course which he uses to knock down tough blokes in rings once, and then makes a career of it) seems to be getting regular bedroom action with what one can only imagine are ‘too easy’ girls! Somewhere there, right there, I felt a tad shortchanged with Moor’s characterization given its shockingly ironic reality.

Ah well: ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’, despite everything else, still makes for complex reading just like any other SR book. If you are looking for an appetite that needs catering in the form of Herculean metaphorical references dished out with a mélange of word soups and whimsically placed scenes, then this book is a good one. Some of his sentences, seriously, just go on and on! For a humble and ‘A-B-A-C’ reader like me it becomes a tad too hard to grasp what it was I just read. But then, as I always say, with SR, the struggle is the glory.

So here is to another struggle and another glory. A little less ‘Bollywood action’ next time, Sir? Maybe, just maybe, a few shorter sentences? And something genuinely subtle and thought provoking, albeit, with your usual dash of ‘magic realism’? Yes? Please? Pretty please? OK then. Thanks.


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