It’s important that I mention how I’ve tried to read Salman Rushdie at least thrice before. I tried reading “Midnight’s Children” twice in my early 20s, but could never get beyond the first dozen pages because of the flowery metaphor overload. Next attempt was ‘Satanic Verses’ which is banned in India, so I got a friend to download a pirated copy years ago, and yet, despite all the excitement about getting to read ‘banned’ content, I couldn’t read beyond a few pages. Safe to say, Salman Rushdie didn’t seem like my kind of writer at all.
Cut to September 2021, and an online literature course required me to read ‘East, West’, a short story collection by Salman Rushdie. With very little enthusiasm, I started to read it, but was pleasantly surprised by the stories. As the title suggests, the book is an anthology of tales from two different civilizations – the east and the west. The first one titled ‘Advice is Rarer Than Rubies’ about a woman trying to get a spouse visa is mildly intriguing and encourages the reader to look forward to rest of the stories. Next one called “Free Radio” is set in the 1970s, during the controversial ‘compulsory sterilization’ program in India, which seemed to be a tragi-comedy of sorts, but is a mediocre tale at best. It deals with the issue of poor men willing to give up their manhood on the promise of a petty freebie (that’s beyond their means) by the government. The third story “The Prophet’s Hair” is easily the best told story in the collection, which is set in the beautiful Kashmir and is based on a real story of a religious relic going missing from a mosque. It interestingly combines religion with fantasy and resembles a lore from an ancient text. The entire collection is worth a read for just this one story in the book.
As far as the other stories are concerned, they weren’t very compelling and I had a hard time being interested. But at least I could survive a lot more pages than his long-form work. His language is a lot less pretentious and easy to read in this anthology. Some bits are even relatable and can evoke pleasant laughter. A story titled “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” was the most tedious in the collection, it’s futuristic and dystopian in nature, and the action is happening at an auction, where a pair of slippers is up for sale and all sorts of people come to the auction to catch a glimpse. The tale is supposed to be biting commentary on the absurd nature of man, but came across as a boring-pointless tale to me, I was really not interested in any deeper meanings.
I didn’t see the author catching the essence of a vibrant India in any of the stories, although, from the point of view of a foreign reader – the text definitely offers a unique slice of life from a culture they are not familiar with. Rushdie cleverly weaves fictional yarns in political contexts and if you are interested in reading a Rushdie title, this book might be an interesting place to start.
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