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Full text of "The Satanic Verses"

Salman Rushdie 



The Satanic Verses 



For Marianne 



Contents 



I. The Angel Gibreel 



II. Mahound 



III. Ellowen Deeowen 



IV. Ayesha 



V. A City Visible but Unseen 



VI. Return to Jahilia 



VII. The Angel Azraeel 



VIII. The Parting of the Arabian Seas 

IX. A Wonderful Lamp 

Satan, being thus confined to a vagabond, wandering, unsettled 
condition, is without any certain abode; for though he has, in 
consequence of his angelic nature, a kind of empire in the liquid waste 
or air, yet this is certainly part of his punishment, that he is . . . without 
any fixed place, or space, allowed him to rest the sole of his foot upon. 



Daniel Defoe, _The History of the Devil_ 



I. The Angel Gibreel 



1 



"To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, 
"first you have to die. Hoji! Hoji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first 
one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first 
you won't cry? How to win the darling's love, mister, without a sigh? 
Baba, if you want to get born again . . ." Just before dawn one winter's 
morning, New Year's Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living 
men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, 
towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, 
out of a clear sky. 

"I tell you, you must die, I tell you, I tell you," and thusly and so 
beneath a moon of alabaster until a loud cry crossed the night, "To the 
devil with your tunes," the words hanging crystalline in the iced white 
night, "in the movies you only mimed to playback singers, so spare me 
these infernal noises now." 

Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he 
sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast- 
stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the 
almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, 
rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily 
towards the sardonic voice. "Ohe, Salad baba, it's you, too good. What- 
ho, old Chumch." At which the other, a fastidious shadow falling 
headfirst in a grey suit with all the jacket buttons done up, arms by his 
sides, taking for granted the improbability of the bowler hat on his 
head, pulled a nickname-hater's face. "Hey, Spoono," Gibreel yelled, 



eliciting a second inverted wince, "Proper London, bhai! Here we come! 
Those bastards down there won't know what hit them. Meteor or 
lightning or vengeance of God. Out of thin air, baby. 
_Dharrraaammm!_ Wham, na? What an entrance, yaar. I swear: splat." 

Out of thin air: a big bang, followed by falling stars. A universal 
beginning, a miniature echo of the birth of time . . . the jumbo jet 
_Bostan_, Flight AI-420, blew apart without any warning, high above 
the great, rotting, beautiful, snow-white, illuminated city, Mahagonny, 
Babylon, Alphaville. But Gibreel has already named it, I mustn't 
interfere: Proper London, capital of Vilayet, winked blinked nodded in 
the night. While at Himalayan height a brief and premature sun burst 
into the powdery January air, a blip vanished from radar screens, and 
the thin air was full of bodies, descending from the Everest of the 
catastrophe to the milky paleness of the sea. 

Who am I? 

Who else is there? 

The aircraft cracked in half, a seed-pod giving up its spores, an egg 
yielding its mystery. Two actors, prancing Gibreel and buttony, pursed 
Mr. Saladin Chamcha, fell like titbits of tobacco from a broken old 
cigar. Above, behind, below them in the void there hung reclining seats, 
stereophonic headsets, drinks trolleys, motion discomfort receptacles, 
disembarkation cards, duty-free video games, braided caps, paper cups, 
blankets, oxygen masks. Also -- for there had been more than a few 
migrants aboard, yes, quite a quantity of wives who had been grilled by 
reasonable, doing-their-job officials about the length of and 
distinguishing moles upon their husbands' genitalia, a sufficiency of 
children upon whose legitimacy the British Government had cast its 
ever reasonable doubts -- mingling with the remnants of the plane, 
equally fragmented, equally absurd, there floated the debris of the soul, 
broken memories, sloughed-off selves, severed mother tongues, violated 



privacies, untranslatable jokes, extinguished futures, lost loves, the 
forgotten meaning of hollow, booming words, _land_, _belonging_, 
_home_. Knocked a little silly by the blast, Gibreel and Saladin 
plummeted like bundles dropped by some carelessly open-beaked stork, 
and because Chamcha was going down head first, in the recommended 
position for babies entering the birth canal, he commenced to feel a low 
irritation at the other's refusal to fall in plain fashion. Saladin 
nosedived while Farishta embraced air, hugging it with his arms and 
legs, a flailing, overwrought actor without techniques of restraint. 
Below, cloud-covered, awaiting their entrance, the slow congealed 
currents of the English Sleeve, the appointed zone of their watery 
reincarnation. 

"O, my shoes are Japanese," Gibreel sang, translating the old song into 
English in semi-conscious deference to the uprushing host-nation, 
"These trousers English, if you please. On my head, red Russian hat; my 
heart's Indian for all that." The clouds were bubbling up towards them, 
and perhaps it was on account of that great mystification of cumulus 
and cumulo-nimbus, the mighty rolling thunderheads standing like 
hammers in the dawn, or perhaps it was the singing (the one busy 
performing, the other booing the performance), or their blast--delirium 
that spared them full foreknowledge of the imminent . . . but for 
whatever reason, the two men, Gibreelsaladin Farishtachamcha, 
condemned to this endless but also ending angelic devilish fall, did not 
become aware of the moment at which the processes of their 
transmutation began. 

Mutation? 

Yessir, but not random. Up there in air-space, in that soft, 
imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and 
which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its 
defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet- 
shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, 



illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic, -- because when you throw 
everything up in the air anything becomes possible - way up there, at 
any rate, changes took place in delirious actors that would have 
gladdened the heart of old Mr. Lamarck: under extreme environmental 
pressure, characteristics were acquired. 

What characteristics which? Slow down; you think Creation happens in 
a rush? So then, neither does revelation . . . take a look at the pair of 
them. Notice anything unusual? Just two brown men, falling hard, 
nothing so new about that, you may think; climbed too high, got above 
themselves, flew too close to the sun, is that it? 

That's not it. Listen: 

Mr. Saladin Chamcha, appalled by the noises emanating from Gibreel 
Farishta's mouth, fought back with verses of his own. What Farishta 
heard wafting across the improbable night sky was an old song, too, 
lyrics by Mr. James Thomson, seventeen hundred to seventeen-forty- 
eight. ". . . at Heaven's command," Chamcha carolled through lips 
turned jingoistically red white blue by the cold, "arooooose from out 
the aaaazure main." Farishta, horrified, sang louder and louder of 
Japanese shoes, Russian hats, inviolately subcontinental hearts, but 
could not still Saladin's wild recital: "And guardian aaaaangels sung 
the strain." 

Let's face it: it was impossible for them to have heard one another, 
much less conversed and also competed thus in song. Accelerating 
towards the planet, atmosphere roaring around them, how could they? 
But let's face this, too: they did. 

Down down they hurtled, and the winter cold frosting their eyelashes 
and threatening to freeze their hearts was on the point of waking them 
from their delirious daydream, they were about to become aware of the 
miracle of the singing, the rain of limbs and babies of which they were a 



part, and the terror of the destiny rushing at them from below, when 
they hit, were drenched and instantly iced by, the degree-zero boiling of 
the clouds. 

They were in what appeared to be a long, vertical tunnel. Chamcha, 
prim, rigid, and still upside-down, saw Gibreel Farishta in his purple 
bush-shirt come swimming towards him across that cloud-walled 
funnel, and would have shouted, "Keep away, get away from me," except 
that something prevented him, the beginning of a little fluttery screamy 
thing in his intestines, so instead of uttering words of rejection he 
opened his arms and Farishta swam into them until they were 
embracing head-to-tail, and the force of their collision sent them 
tumbling end over end, performing their geminate cartwheels all the 
way down and along the hole that went to Wonderland; while pushing 
their way out of the white came a succession of cloudforms, ceaselessly 
metamorphosing, gods into bulls, women into spiders, men into wolves. 
Hybrid cloud-creatures pressed in upon them, gigantic flowers with 
human breasts dangling from fleshy stalks, winged cats, centaurs, and 
Chamcha in his semi-consciousness was seized by the notion that he, 
too, had acquired the quality of cloudiness, becoming metamorphic, 
hybrid, as if he were growing into the person whose head nestled now 
between his legs and whose legs were wrapped around his long, 
patrician neck. 

This person had, however, no time for such "high falutions"; was, 
indeed, incapable of faluting at all; having just seen, emerging from the 
swirl of cloud, the figure of a glamorous woman of a certain age, 
wearing a brocade sari in green and gold, with a diamond in her nose 
and lacquer defending her high-coiled hair against the pressure of the 
wind at these altitudes, as she sat, equably, upon a flying carpet. 
"Rekha Merchant," Gibreel greeted her. "You couldn't find your way to 
heaven or what?" Insensitive words to speak to a dead woman! But his 
concussed, plummeting condition may be offered in mitigation 



. . . Chamcha, clutching his legs, made an uncomprehending query: 
"What the hell?" 

"You don't see her?" Gibreel shouted. "You don't see her goddamn 
Bokhara rug?" 

No, no, Gibbo, her voice whispered in his ears, don't expect him to 
confirm. I am strictly for your eyes only, maybe you are going crazy, 
what do you think, you namaqool, you piece of pig excrement, my love. 
With death comes honesty, my beloved, so I can call you by your true 
names. 

Cloudy Rekha murmured sour nothings, but Gibreel cried again to 
Chamcha: "Spoono? You see her or you don't?" 

Saladin Chamcha saw nothing, heard nothing, said nothing. Gibreel 
faced her alone. "You shouldn't have done it," he admonished her. "No, 
sir. A sin. A suchmuch thing." 

O, you can lecture me now, she laughed. You are the one with the high 
moral tone, that's a good one. It was you who left me, her voice 
reminded his ear, seeming to nibble at the lobe. It was you, O moon of 
my delight, who hid behind a cloud. And I in darkness, blinded, lost, for 
love. 

He became afraid. "What do you want? No, don't tell, just go." 

When you were sick I could not see you, in case of scandal, you knew I 
could not, that I stayed away for your sake, but afterwards you 
punished, you used it as your excuse to leave, your cloud to hide 
behind. That, and also her, the icewoman. Bastard. Now that I am dead 
I have forgotten how to forgive. I curse you, my Gibreel, may your life 
be hell. Hell, because that's where you sent me, damn you, where you 
came from, devil, where you're going, sucker, enjoy the bloody dip. 
Rekha's curse; and after that, verses in a language he did not 



understand, all harshnesses and sibilance, in which he thought he made 
out, but maybe not, the repeated name _Al-Lat_. 

He clutched at Chamcha; they burst through the bottom of the clouds. 

Speed, the sensation of speed, returned, whistling its fearful note. The 
roof of cloud fled upwards, the water-floor zoomed closer, their eyes 
opened. A scream, that same scream that had fluttered in his guts when 
Gibreel swam across the sky, burst from Chamcha's lips; a shaft of 
sunlight pierced his open mouth and set it free. But they had fallen 
through the transformations of the clouds, Chamcha and Farishta, and 
there was a fluidity, an indistinctness, at the edges of them, and as the 
sunlight hit Chamcha it released more than noise: 

"Fly," Chamcha shrieked at Gibreel. "Start flying, now." And added, 
without knowing its source, the second command: "And sing." 

How does newness come into the world? How is it born? 

Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? 

How does it survive, extreme and dangerous as it is? What compromises, 
what deals, what betrayals of its secret nature must it make to stave off 
the wrecking crew, the exterminating angel, the guillotine? 

Is birth always a fall? 

Do angels have wings? Can men fly? 

When Mr. Saladin Chamcha fell out of the clouds over the English 
Channel he felt his heart being gripped by a force so implacable that he 
understood it was impossible for him to die. Afterwards, when his feet 
were once more firmly planted on the ground, he would begin to doubt 
this, to ascribe the implausibilities of his transit to the scrambling of 
his perceptions by the blast, and to attribute his survival, his and 



Gibreel's, to blind, dumb luck. But at the time he had no doubt; what 
had taken him over was the will to live, unadulterated, irresistible, pure, 
and the first thing it did was to inform him that it wanted nothing to 
do with his pathetic personality, that half-reconstructed affair of 
mimicry and voices, it intended to bypass all that, and he found himself 
surrendering to it, yes, go on, as if he were a bystander in his own mind, 
in his own body, because it began in the very centre of his body and 
spread outwards, turning his blood to iron, changing his flesh to steel, 
except that it also felt like a fist that enveloped him from outside, 
holding him in a way that was both unbearably tight and intolerably 
gentle; until finally it had conquered him totally and could work his 
mouth, his fingers, whatever it chose, and once it was sure of its 
dominion it spread outward from his body and grabbed Gibreel 
Farishta by the balls. 

"Fly," it commanded Gibreel. "Sing." 

Chamcha held on to Gibreel while the other began, slowly at first and 
then with increasing rapidity and force, to flap his arms. Harder and 
harder he flapped, and as he flapped a song burst out of him, and like 
the song of the spectre of Rekha Merchant it was sung in a language he 
did not know to a tune he had never heard. Gibreel never repudiated the 
miracle; unlike Chamcha, who tried to reason it out of existence, he 
never stopped saying that the gazal had been celestial, that without the 
song the flapping would have been for nothing, and without the 
flapping it was a sure thing that they would have hit the waves like 
rocks or what and simply burst into pieces on making contact with the 
taut drum of the sea. Whereas instead they began to slow down. The 
more emphatically Gibreel flapped and sang, sang and flapped, the 
more pronounced the deceleration, until finally the two of them were 
floating down to the Channel like scraps of paper in a breeze. 

They were the only survivors of the wreck, the only ones who fell from 
_Bostan_ and lived. They were found washed up on a beach. The more 



10 



voluble of the two, the one in the purple shirt, swore in his wild 
ramblings that they had walked upon the water, that the waves had 
borne them gently in to shore; but the other, to whose head a soggy 
bowler hat clung as if by magic, denied this. "God, we were lucky," he 
said. "How lucky can you get?" 

I know the truth, obviously. I watched the whole thing. As to 
omnipresence and -potence, I'm making no claims at present, but I can 
manage this much, I hope. Chamcha willed it and Farishta did what was 
willed. 

Which was the miracle worker? 

Of what type -- angelic, Satanic -- was Farishta's song? 

Who am I? 

Let's put it this way: who has the best tunes? 

These were the first words Gibreel Farishta said when he awoke on the 
snowbound English beach with the improbability of a starfish by his 
ear: "Born again, Spoono, you and me. Happy birthday, mister; happy 
birthday to you." 

Whereupon Saladin Chamcha coughed, spluttered, opened his eyes, and, 
as befitted a new-born babe, burst into foolish tears. 



Reincarnation was always a big topic with Gibreel, for fifteen years the 
biggest star in the history of the Indian movies, even before he 
"miraculously" defeated the Phantom Bug that everyone had begun to 
believe would terminate his contracts. So maybe someone should have 
been able to forecast, only nobody did, that when he was up and about 



11 



again he would sotospeak succeed where the germs had failed and walk 
out of his old life forever within a week of his fortieth birthday, 
vanishing, poof!, like a trick, _into thin air_. 

The first people to notice his absence were the four members of his 
film-studio wheelchair-team. Long before his illness he had formed the 
habit of being transported from set to set on the great D. W. Rama lot 
by this group of speedy, trusted athletes, because a man who makes up 
to eleven movies "sy-multaneous" needs to conserve his energies. 
Guided by a complex coding system of slashes, circles and dots which 
Gibreel remembered from his childhood among the fabled lunch- 
runners of Bombay (of which more later), the chair-men zoomed him 
from role to role, delivering him as punctually and unerringly as once 
his father had delivered lunch. And after each take Gibreel would skip 
back into the chair and be navigated at high speed towards the next set, 
to be re-costumed, made up and handed his lines. "A career in the 
Bombay talkies," he told his loyal crew, "is more like a wheelchair race 
with one-two pit stops along the route." 

After the illness, the Ghostly Germ, the Mystery Malaise, the Bug, he 
had returned to work, easing himself in, only seven pictures at a time . . 
. and then, justlikethat, he wasn't there. The wheelchair stood empty 
among the silenced sound-stages; his absence revealed the tawdry 
shamming of the sets. Wheelchairmen, one to four, made excuses for 
the missing star when movie executives descended upon them in wrath: 
Ji, he must be sick, he has always been famous for his punctual, no, why 
to criticize, maharaj, great artists must from time to time be permitted 
their temperament, na, and for their protestations they became the first 
casualties of Farishta's unexplained hey-presto, being fired, four three 
two one, ekdumjaldi, ejected from studio gates so that a wheelchair lay 
abandoned and gathering dust beneath the painted coco-palms around 
a sawdust beach. 



12 



Where was Gibreel? Movie producers, left in seven lurches, panicked 
expensively. See, there, at the Willingdon Club golf links -- only nine 
holes nowadays, skyscrapers having sprouted out of the other nine like 
giant weeds, or, let's say, like tombstones marking the sites where the 
torn corpse of the old city lay -- there, right there, upper-echelon 
executives, missing the simplest putts; and, look above, tufts of 
anguished hair, torn from senior heads, wafting down from high-level 
windows. The agitation of the producers was easy to understand, 
because in those days of declining audiences and the creation of 
historical soap operas and contemporary crusading housewives by the 
television network, there was but a single name which, when set above a 
picture's title, could still offer a sure-fire, cent-per-cent guarantee of an 
Ultrahit, a Smashation, and the owner of said name had departed, up, 
down or sideways, but certainly and unarguably vamoosed . . . 

All over the city, after telephones, motorcyclists, cops, frogmen and 
trawlers dragging the harbour for his body had laboured mightily but 
to no avail, epitaphs began to be spoken in memory of the darkened 
star. On one of Rama Studios' seven impotent stages, Miss Pimple 
Billimoria, the latest chilli-and-spices bombshell -- _she's no flibberti- 
gibberti mamzel!, but a whir-stir-get-lost-sir bundla dynamite_ -- clad 
in temple--dancer veiled undress and positioned beneath writhing 
cardboard representations of copulating Tantric figures from the 
Chandela period, -- and perceiving that her major scene was not to be, 
her big break lay in pieces -- offered up a spiteful farewell before an 
audience of sound recordists and electricians smoking their cynical 
beedis. Attended by a dumbly distressed ayah, all elbows, Pimple 
attempted scorn. "God, what a stroke of luck, for Pete's sake," she 
cried. "I mean today it was the love scene, chhi chhi, I was just dying 
inside, thinking how to go near to that fatmouth with his breath of 
rotting cockroach dung." Bell-heavy anklets jingled as she stamped. 
"Damn good for him the movies don't smell, or he wouldn't get one job 
as a leper even." Here Pimple's soliloquy climaxed in such a torrent of 



13 



obscenities that the beedi-smokers sat up for the first time and 
commenced animatedly to compare Pimple's vocabulary with that of 
the infamous bandit queen Phoolan Devi whose oaths could melt rifle 
barrels and turn journalists' pencils to rubber in a trice. 

Exit Pimple, weeping, censored, a scrap on a cutting-room floor. 
Rhinestones fell from her navel as she went, mirroring her tears. . . in 
the matter of Farishta's halitosis she was not, however, altogether 
wrong; if anything, she had a little understated the case. Gibreel's 
exhalations, those ochre clouds of sulphur and brimstone, had always 
given him -- when taken together with his pronounced widow's peak 
and crowblack hair -- an air more saturnine than haloed, in spite of his 
archangelic name. It was said after he disappeared that he ought to have 
been easy to find, all it took was a halfway decent nose . . . and one week 
after he took off, an exit more tragic than Pimple Billimoria's did much 
to intensify the devilish odour that was beginning to attach itself to 
that forsolong sweet-smelling name. You could .say that he had stepped 
out of the screen into the world, and in life, unlike the cinema, people 
know it if you stink. 

_We are creatures of air, Our roots in dreams And clouds, reborn In 
flight. Goodbye_. The enigmatic note discovered by the police in 
Gibreel Farishta's penthouse, located on the top floor of the Everest 
Vilas skyscraper on Malabar Hill, the highest home in the highest 
building on the highest ground in the city, one of those double-vista 
apartments from which you could look this way across the evening 
necklace of Marine Drive or that way out to Scandal Point and the sea, 
permitted the newspaper headlines to prolong their cacophonies. 
FARISHTA DIVES UNDERGROUND, opined _Blitz_ in somewhat 
macabre fashion, while Busybee in _The Daily_ preferred GIBREEL 
FLIES coop. Many photographs were published of that fabled residence 
in which French interior decorators bearing letters of commendation 
from Reza Pahlevi for the work they had done at Persepolis had spent a 



14 



million dollars recreating at this exalted altitude the effect of a Bedouin 
tent. Another illusion unmade by his absence; GIBREEL STRIKES 
CAMP, the headlines yelled, but had he gone up or down or sideways? 
No one knew. In that metropolis of tongues and whispers, not even the 
sharpest ears heard anything reliable. But Mrs. Rekha Merchant, 
reading all the papers, listening to all the radio broadcasts, staying 
glued to the Doordarshan TV programmes, gleaned something from 
Farishta's message, heard a note that eluded everyone else, and took her 
two daughters and one son for a walk on the roof of her high-rise home. 
Its name was Everest Vilas. 

His neighbour; as a matter of fact, from the apartment directly beneath 
his own. His neighbour and his friend; why should I say any more? Of 
course the scandal-pointed malice-magazines of the city filled their 
columns with hint innuendo and nudge, but that's no reason for 
sinking to their level. Why tarnish her reputation now? 

Who was she? Rich, certainly, but then Everest Vilas was not exactly a 
tenement in Kurla, eh? Married, yessir, thirteen years, with a husband 
big in ball-bearings. Independent, her carpet and antique showrooms 
thriving at their prime Colaba sites. She called her carpets _klims_ and 
_kleens_ and the ancient artefacts were _anti-queues_. Yes, and she was 
beautiful, beautiful in the hard, glossy manner of those rarefied 
occupants of the city's sky-homes, her bones skin posture all bearing 
witness to her long divorce from the impoverished, heavy, pullulating 
earth. Everyone agreed she had a strong personality, drank _like a fish_ 
from Lalique crystal and hung her hat _shameless_ on a Chola Natraj 
and knew what she wanted and how to get it, fast. The husband was a 
mouse with money and a good squash wrist. Rekha Merchant read 
Gibreel Farishta's farewell note in the newspapers, wrote a letter of her 
own, gathered her children, summoned the elevator, and rose 
heavenward (one storey) to meet her chosen fate. 



15 



"Many years ago," her letter read, "I married out of cowardice. Now, 
finally, I'm doing something brave." She left a newspaper on her bed 
with Gibreel's message circled in red and heavily underscored -- three 
harsh lines, one of them ripping the page in fury. So naturally the 
bitch-journals went to town and it was all LOVELY"S LOVELORN 
LEAP, and BROKEN-HEARTED BEAUTY TAKES LAST DIVE. But: 

Perhaps she, too, had the rebirth bug, and Gibreel, not understanding 
the terrible power of metaphor, had recommended flight. _To be born 
again, first you have to_ and she was a creature of the sky, she drank 
Lalique champagne, she lived on Everest, and one of her fellow- 
Olympians had flown; and if he could, then she, too, could be winged, 
and rooted in dreams. 

She didn't make it. The lala who was employed as gatekeeper of the 
Everest Vilas compound offered the world his blunt testimony. "I was 
walking, here here, in the compound only, when there came a thud, 
_tharaap_. I turned. It was the body of the oldest daughter. Her skull 
was completely crushed. I looked up and saw the boy falling, and after 
him the younger girl. What to say, they almost hit me where I stood. I 
put my hand on my mouth and came to them. The young girl was 
whining softly. Then I looked up a further time and the Begum was 
coming. Her sari was floating out like a big balloon and all her hair was 
loose. I took my eyes away from her because she was falling and it was 
not respectful to look up inside her clothes." 

Rekha and her children fell from Everest; no survivors. The whispers 
blamed Gibreel. Let's leave it at that for the moment. 

Oh: don't forget: he saw her after she died. He saw her several times. It 
was a long time before people understood how sick the great man was. 
Gibreel, the star. Gibreel, who vanquished the Nameless Ailment. 
Gibreel, who feared sleep. 



16 



After he departed the ubiquitous images of his face began to rot. On the 
gigantic, luridly coloured hoardings from which he had watched over 
the populace, his lazy eyelids started flaking and crumbling, drooping 
further and further until his irises looked like two moons sliced by 
clouds, or by the soft knives of his long lashes. Finally the eyelids fell 
off, giving a wild, bulging look to his painted eyes. Outside the picture 
palaces of Bombay, mammoth cardboard effigies of Gibreel were seen to 
decay and list. Dangling limply on their sustaining scaffolds, they lost 
arms, withered, snapped at the neck. His portraits on the covers of 
movie magazines acquired the pallor of death, a nullity about the eye, a 
hollowness. At last his images simply faded off the printed page, so that 
the shiny covers of _Celebrity_ and _Society_ and _Illustrated Weekly_ 
went blank at the bookstalls and their publishers fired the printers and 
blamed the quality of the ink. Even on the silver screen itself, high 
above his worshippers in the dark, that supposedly immortal 
physiognomy began to putrefy, blister and bleach; projectors jammed 
unaccountably every time he passed through the gate, his films ground 
to a halt, and the lamp-heat of the malfunctioning projectors burned 
his celluloid memory away: a star gone supernova, with the consuming 
fire spreading outwards, as was fitting, from his lips. 

It was the death of God. Or something very like it; for had not that 
outsize face, suspended over its devotees in the artificial cinematic 
night, shone like that of some supernal Entity that had its being at 
least halfway between the mortal and the divine? More than halfway, 
many would have argued, for Gibreel had spent the greater part of his 
unique career incarnating, with absolute conviction, the countless 
deities of the subcontinent in the popular genre movies known as 
"theologicals". It was part of the magic of his persona that he 
succeeded in crossing religious boundaries without giving offence. 
Blue-skinned as Krishna he danced, flute in hand, amongst the 
beauteous gopis and their udder-heavy cows; with upturned palms, 
serene, he meditated (as Gautama) upon humanity's suffering beneath a 



17 



studio-rickety bodhi-tree. On those infrequent occasions when he 
descended from the heavens he never went too far, playing, for example, 
both the Grand Mughal and his famously wily minister in the classic 
_Akbar and Birbal_. For over a decade and a half he had represented, to 
hundreds of millions of believers in that country in which, to this day, 
the human population outnumbers the divine by less than three to one, 
the most acceptable, and instantly recognizable, face of the Supreme. 
For many of his fans, the boundary separating the performer and his 
roles had longago ceased to exist. 

The fans, yes, and? How about Gibreel? 

That face. In real life, reduced to life-size, set amongst ordinary 
mortals, it stood revealed as oddly un-starry. Those low-slung eyelids 
could give him an exhausted look. There was, too, something coarse 
about the nose, the mouth was too well fleshed to be strong, the ears 
were long-lobed like young, knurled jackfruit. The most profane of 
faces, the most sensual of faces. In which, of late, it had been possible 
to make out the seams mined by his recent, near-fatal illness. And yet, 
in spite of profanity and debilitation, this was a face inextricably mixed 
up with holiness, perfection, grace: God stuff. No accounting for tastes, 
that's all. At any rate, you'll agree that for such an actor (for any actor, 
maybe, even for Chamcha, but most of all for him) to have a bee in his 
bonnet about avatars, like much-metamorphosed Vishnu, was not so 
very surprising. Rebirth: that's God stuff, too. 

Or, but, then again . . . not always. There are secular reincarnations, 
too. Gibreel Farishta had been born Ismail Najmuddin in Poona, British 
Poona at the empire's fag-end, long before the Pune of Rajneesh etc. 
(Pune, Vadodara, Mumbai; even towns can take stage names nowadays.) 
Ismail after the child involved in the sacrifice of Ibrahim, and 
Najmuddin, _star of the faith_; he'd given up quite a name when he 
took the angel's. 



Afterwards, when the aircraft _Bostan_ was in the grip of the hijackers, 
and the passengers, fearing for their futures, were regressing into their 
pasts, Gibreel confided to Saladin Chamcha that his choice of 
pseudonym had been his way of making a homage to the memory of his 
dead mother, "my mummyji, Spoono, my one and only Mamo, because 
who else was it who started the whole angel business, her personal 
angel, she called me, _farishta_, because apparently I was too damn 
sweet, believe it or not, I was good as goddamn gold." 

Poona couldn't hold him; he was taken in his infancy to the bitch-city, 
his first migration; his father got a job amongst the fleet-footed 
inspirers of future wheelchair quartets, the lunch-porters or 
dabbawallas of Bombay. And Ismail the farishta followed, at thirteen, in 
his father's footsteps. 

Gibreel, captive aboard AI-420, sank into forgivable rhapsodies, fixing 
Chamcha with his glittering eye, explicating the mysteries of the 
runners' coding system, black swastika red circle yellow slash dot, 
running in his mind's eye the entire relay from home to office desk, 
that improbable system by which two thousand dabbawallas delivered, 
each day, over one hundred thousand lunch-pails, and on a bad day, 
Spoono, maybe fifteen got mislaid, we were illiterate, mostly, but the 
signs were our secret tongue. 

_Bostan_ circled London, gunmen patrolling the gangways, and the 
lights in the passenger cabins had been switched off, but Gibreel's 
energy illuminated the gloom. On the grubby movie screen on which, 
earlier in the journey, the inflight inevitability of Walter Matthau had 
stumbled lugubriously into the aerial ubiquity of Goldie Hawn, there 
were shadows moving, projected by the nostalgia of the hostages, and 
the most sharply defined of them was this spindly adolescent, Ismail 
Najmuddin, mummy's angel in a Gandhi cap, running tiffins across the 
town. The young dabbawalla skipped nimbly through the shadow- 
crowd, because he was used to such conditions, think, Spoono, picture, 



19 



thirty-forty tiffins in a long wooden tray on your head, and when the 
local train stops you have maybe one minute to push on or off, and 
then running in the streets, flat out, yaar, with the trucks buses 
scooters cycles and what-all, one-two, one-two, lunch, lunch, the dabbas 
must get through, and in the monsoon running down the railway line 
when the train broke down, or waist-deep in water in some flooded 
street, and there were gangs, Salad baba, truly, organized gangs of 
dabba-stealers, it's a hungry city, baby, what to tell you, but we could 
handle them, we were everywhere, knew everything, what thieves could 
escape our eyes and ears, we never went to any policia, we looked after 
our own. 

At night father and son would return exhausted to their shack by the 
airport runway at Santacruz and when Ismail's mother saw him 
approaching, illuminated by the green red yellow of the departing jet- 
planes, she would say that simply to lay eyes on him made all her 
dreams come true, which was the first indication that there was 
something peculiar about Gibreel, because from the beginning, it 
seemed, he could fulfil people's most secret desires without having any 
idea of how he did it. His father Najmuddin Senior never seemed to 
mind that his wife had eyes only for her son, that the boy's feet received 
nightly pressings while the father's went unstroked. A son is a blessing 
and a blessing requires the gratitude of the blest. 

Naima Najmuddin died. A bus hit her and that was that, Gibreel wasn't 
around to answer her prayers for life. Neither father nor son ever spoke 
of grief. Silently, as though it were customary and expected, they buried 
their sadness beneath extra work, engaging in an inarticulate contest, 
who could carry the most dabbas on his head, who could acquire the 
most new contracts per month, who could run faster, as though the 
greater labour would indicate the greater love. When he saw his father 
at night, the knotted veins bulging in his neck and at his temples, 
Ismail Najmuddin would understand how much the older man had 



20 



resented him, and how important it was for the father to defeat the son 
and regain, thereby, his usurped primacy in the affections of his dead 
wife. Once he realized this, the youth eased off, but his father's zeal 
remained unrelenting, and pretty soon he was getting promotion, no 
longer a mere runner but one of the organizing muqaddams. When 
Gibreel was nineteen, Najmuddin Senior became a member of the 
lunch-runners' guild, the Bombay Tiffin Carriers' Association, and 
when Gibreel was twenty, his father was dead, stopped in his tracks by a 
stroke that almost blew him apart. "He just ran himself into the 
ground," said the guild's General Secretary, Babasaheb Mhatre himself. 
"That poor bastard, he just ran out of steam." But the orphan knew 
better. He knew that his father had finally run hard enough and long 
enough to wear down the frontiers between the worlds, he had run clear 
out of his skin and into the arms of his wife, to whom he had proved, 
once and for all, the superiority of his love. Some migrants are happy to 
depart. 

Babasaheb Mhatre sat in a blue office behind a green door above a 
labyrinthine bazaar, an awesome figure, buddha-fat, one of the great 
moving forces of the metropolis, possessing the occult gift of remaining 
absolutely still, never shifting from his room, and yet being everywhere 
important and meeting everyone who mattered in Bombay. The day 
after young Ismail's father ran across the border to see Naima, the 
Babasaheb summoned the young man into his presence. "So? Upset or 
what?" The reply, with downcast eyes: ji, thank you, Babaji, I am okay. 
"Shut your face," said Babasaheb Mhatre. "From today you live with 
me." Butbut, Babaji ... "But me no buts. Already I have informed my 
goodwife. I have spoken." Please excuse Babaji but how what why? "I 
have _spoken_." 

Gibreel Farishta was never told why the Babasaheb had decided to take 
pity on him and pluck him from the futurelessness of the streets, but 
after a while he began to have an idea. Mrs. Mhatre was a thin woman, 



21 



like a pencil beside the rubbery Babasaheb, but she was filled so full of 
mother-love that she should have been fat like a potato. When the Baba 
came home she put sweets into his mouth with her own hands, and at 
nights the newcomer to the household could hear the great General 
Secretary of the B T C A protesting, Let me go, wife, I can undress 
myself. At breakfast she spoon-fed Mhatre with large helpings of malt, 
and before he went to work she brushed his hair. They were a childless 
couple, and young Najmuddin understood that the Babasaheb wanted 
him to share the load. Oddly enough, however, the Begum did not treat 
the young man as a child. "You see, he is a grown fellow," she told her 
husband when poor Mhatre pleaded, "Give the boy the blasted spoon of 
malt." Yes, a grown fellow, "we must make a man of him, husband, no 
babying for him." "Then damn it to hell," the Babasaheb exploded, 
"why do you do it to me?" Mrs. Mhatre burst into tears. "But you are 
everything to me," she wept, "you are my father, my lover, my baby too. 
You are my lord and my suckling child. If I displease you then I have no 
life." 

Babasaheb Mhatre, accepting defeat, swallowed the tablespoon of malt. 

He was a kindly man, which he disguised with insults and noise. To 
console the orphaned youth he would speak to him, in the blue office, 
about the philosophy of rebirth, convincing him that his parents were 
already being scheduled for re-entry somewhere, unless of course their 
lives had been so holy that they had attained the final grace. So it was 
Mhatre who started Farishta off on the whole reincarnation business, 
and not just reincarnation. The Babasaheb was an amateur psychic, a 
tapper of table-legs and a bringer of spirits into glasses. "But I gave 
that up," he told his protege, with many suitably melodramatic 
inflections, gestures, frowns, "after I got the fright of my bloody life." 

Once (Mhatre recounted) the glass had been visited by the most co- 
operative of spirits, such a too-friendly fellow, see, so I thought to ask 
him some big questions. _Is there a God_, and that glass which had 



22 



been running round like a mouse or so just stopped dead, middle of 
table, not a twitch, completely phutt, kaput. So, then, okay, I said, if 
you won't answer that try this one instead, and I came right out with it, 
_Is there a Devil_. After that the glass -- baprebap! -- began to shake -- 
catch your ears! -- slowslow at first, then faster--faster, like a jelly, until 
it jumped! -- ai-hai! -- up from the table, into the air, fell down on its 
side, and -- o-ho! -- into a thousand and one pieces, smashed. Believe 
don't believe, Babasaheb Mhatre told his charge, but thenandthere I 
learned my lesson: don't meddle, Mhatre, in what you do not 
comprehend. 

This story had a profound effect on the consciousness of the young 
listener, because even before his mother's death he had become 
convinced of the existence of the supernatural world. Sometimes when 
he looked around him, especially in the afternoon heat when the air 
turned glutinous, the visible world, its features and inhabitants and 
things, seemed to be sticking up through the atmosphere like a 
profusion of hot icebergs, and he had the idea that everything 
continued down below the surface of the soupy air: people, motor-cars, 
dogs, movie billboards, trees, nine-tenths of their reality concealed 
from his eyes. He would blink, and the illusion would fade, but the 
sense of it never left him. He grew up believing in God, angels, demons, 
afreets, djinns, as matter-of-factly as if they were bullock-carts or lamp- 
posts, and it struck him as a failure in his own sight that he had never 
seen a ghost. He would dream of discovering a magic optometrist from 
whom he would purchase a pair of greentinged spectacles which would 
correct his regrettable myopia, and after that he would be able to see 
through the dense, blinding air to the fabulous world beneath. 

From his mother Naima Najmuddin he heard a great many stories of 
the Prophet, and if inaccuracies had crept into her versions he wasn't 
interested in knowing what they were. "What a man!" he thought. 
"What angel would not wish to speak to him?" Sometimes, though, he 



23 



caught himself in the act of forming blasphemous thoughts, for 
example when without meaning to, as he drifted off to sleep in his cot 
at the Mhatre residence, his somnolent fancy began to compare his own 
condition with that of the Prophet at the time when, having been 
orphaned and short of funds, he made a great success of his job as the 
business manager of the wealthy widow Khadija, and ended up marrying 
her as well. As he slipped into sleep he saw himself sitting on a rose- 
strewn dais, simpering shyly beneath the sari-pallu which he had placed 
demurely over his face, while his new husband, Babasaheb Mhatre, 
reached lovingly towards him to remove the fabric, and gaze at his 
features in a mirror placed in his lap. This dream of marrying the 
Babasaheb brought him awake, flushing hotly for shame, and after that 
he began to worry about the impurity in his make-up that could create 
such terrible visions. 

Mostly, however, his religious faith was a low-key thing, a part of him 
that required no more special attention than any other. When 
Babasaheb Mhatre took him into his home it confirmed to the young 
man that he was not alone in the world, that something was taking care 
of him, so he was not entirely surprised when the Babasaheb called him 
into the blue office on the morning of his twenty-first birthday and 
sacked him without even being prepared to listen to an appeal. 

"You're fired," Mhatre emphasized, beaming. "Cashiered, had your 
chips. Dis-_miss_." 

"But, uncle," 

"Shut your face." 

Then the Babasaheb gave the orphan the greatest present of his life, 
informing him that a meeting had been arranged for him at the studios 
of the legendary film magnate Mr. D. W. Rama; an audition. "It is for 
appearance only," the Babasaheb said. "Rama is my good friend and we 



24 



have discussed. A small part to begin, then it is up to you. Now get out 
of my sight and stop pulling such humble faces, it does not suit." 

"But, uncle," 

"Boy like you is too damn goodlooking to carry tiffins on his head all 
his life. Get gone now, go, be a homosexual movie actor. I fired you five 
minutes back." 

"But, uncle," 

"I have spoken. Thank your lucky stars." 

He became Gibreel Farishta, but for four years he did not become a star, 
serving his apprenticeship in a succession of minor knockabout comic 
parts. He remained calm, unhurried, as though he could see the future, 
and his apparent lack of ambition made him something of an outsider 
in that most self-seeking of industries. He was thought to be stupid or 
arrogant or both. And throughout the four wilderness years he failed to 
kiss a single woman on the mouth. 

On-screen, he played the fall guy, the idiot who loves the beauty and 
can't see that she wouldn't go for him in a thousand years, the funny 
uncle, the poor relation, the village idiot, the servant, the incompetent 
crook, none of them the type of part that ever rates a love scene. 
Women kicked him, slapped him, teased him, laughed at him, but never, 
on celluloid, looked at him or sang to him or danced around him with 
cinematic love in their eyes. Off-screen, he lived alone in two empty 
rooms near the studios and tried to imagine what women looked like 
without clothes on. To get his mind off the subject of love and desire, 
he studied, becoming an omnivorous autodidact, devouring the 
metamorphic myths of Greece and Rome, the avatars of Jupiter, the boy 
who became a flower, the spider-woman, Circe, everything; and the 
theosophy of Annie Besant, and unified field theory, and the incident of 



25 



the Satanic verses in the early career of the Prophet, and the politics of 
Muhammad's harem after his return to Mecca in triumph; and the 
surrealism of the newspapers, in which butterflies could fly into young 
girls' mouths, asking to be consumed, and children were born with no 
faces, and young boys dreamed in impossible detail of earlier 
incarnations, for instance in a golden fortress filled with precious 
stones. He filled himself up with God knows what, but he could not 
deny, in the small hours of his insomniac nights, that he was full of 
something that had never been used, that he did not know how to begin 
to use, that is, love. In his dreams he was tormented by women of 
unbearable sweetness and beauty, so he preferred to stay awake and 
force himself to rehearse some part of his general knowledge in order to 
blot out the tragic feeling of being endowed with a larger-than-usual 
capacity for love, without a single person on earth to offer it to. 

His big break arrived with the coming of the theological movies. Once 
the formula of making films based on the puranas, and adding the 
usual mixture of songs, dances, funny uncles etc., had paid off, every 
god in the pantheon got his or her chance to be a star. When D. W. 
Rama scheduled a production based on the story of Ganesh, none of the 
leading box-office names of the time were willing to spend an entire 
movie concealed inside an elephant's head. Gibreel jumped at the 
chance. That was his first hit, _Ganpati Baba_, and suddenly he was a 
superstar, but only with the trunk and ears on. After six movies playing 
the elephantheaded god he was permitted to remove the thick, 
pendulous, grey mask and put on, instead, a long, hairy tail, in order to 
play Hanuman the monkey king in a sequence of adventure movies that 
owed more to a certain cheap television series emanating from Hong 
Kong than it did to the Ramayana. This series proved so popular that 
monkey-tails became de rigueur for the city's young bucks at the kind 
of parties frequented by convent girls known as "firecrackers" because 
of their readiness to go off with a bang. 



26 



After Hanuman there was no stopping Gibreel, and his phenomenal 
success deepened his belief in a guardian angel. But it also led to a more 
regrettable development. 

(I see that I must, after all, spill poor Rekha's beans.) 

Even before he replaced false head with fake tail he had become 
irresistibly attractive to women. The seductions of his fame had grown 
so great that several of these young ladies asked him if he would keep 
the Ganesh-mask on while they made love, but he refused out of respect 
for the dignity of the god. Owing to the innocence of his upbringing he 
could not at that time differentiate between quantity and quality and 
accordingly felt the need to make up for lost time. He had so many 
sexual partners that it was not uncommon for him to forget their 
names even before they had left his room. Not only did he become a 
philanderer of the worst type, but he also learned the arts of 
dissimulation, because a man who plays gods must be above reproach. 
So skilfully did he conceal his life of scandal and debauch that his old 
patron, Babasaheb Mhatre, lying on his deathbed a decade after he sent 
a young dabbawalla out into the world of illusion, black-money and 
lust, begged him to get married to prove he was a man. "God-sake, 
mister," the Babasaheb pleaded, "when I told you back then to go and 
be a homo I never thought you would take me seriously, there is a limit 
to respecting one's elders, after all." Gibreel threw up his hands and 
swore that he was no such disgraceful thing, and that when the right 
girl came along he would of course undergo nuptials with a will. "What 
you waiting? Some goddess from heaven? Greta Garbo, Gracekali, 
who?" cried the old man, coughing blood, but Gibreel left him with the 
enigma of a smile that allowed him to die without having his mind set 
entirely at rest. 

The avalanche of sex in which Gibreel Farishta was trapped managed to 
bury his greatest talent so deep that it might easily have been lost 
forever, his talent, that is, for loving genuinely, deeply and without 



27 



holding back, the rare and delicate gift which he had never been able to 
employ. By the time of his illness he had all but forgotten the anguish 
he used to experience owing to his longing for love, which had twisted 
and turned in him like a sorcerer's knife. Now, at the end of each 
gymnastic night, he slept easily and long, as if he had never been 
plagued by dream-women, as if he had never hoped to lose his heart. 

"Your trouble," Rekha Merchant told him when she materialized out of 
the clouds, "is everybody always forgave you, God knows why, you 
always got let off, you got away with murder. Nobody ever held you 
responsible for what you did." He couldn't argue. "God's gift," she 
screamed at him, "God knows where you thought you were from, 
jumped-up type from the gutter, God knows what diseases you 
brought." 

But that was what women did, he thought in those days, they were the 
vessels into which he could pour himself, and when he moved on, they 
would understand that it was his nature, and forgive. And it was true 
that nobody blamed him for leaving, for his thousand and one pieces of 
thoughtlessness, how many abortions, Rekha demanded in the cloud- 
hole, how many broken hearts. In all those years he was the beneficiary 
of the infinite generosity of women, but he was its victim, too, because 
their forgiveness made possible the deepest and sweetest corruption of 
all, namely the idea that he was doing nothing wrong. 

Rekha: she entered his life when he bought the penthouse at Everest 
Vilas and she offered, as a neighbour and businesswoman, to show him 
her carpets and antiques. Her husband was at a world-wide congress of 
ball-bearings manufacturers in Gothenburg, Sweden, and in his absence 
she invited Gibreel into her apartment of stone lattices from Jaisalmer 
and carved wooden handrails from Kcralan palaces and a stone Mughal 
chhatri or cupola turned into a whirlpool bath; while she poured him 
French champagne she leaned against marbled walls and felt the cool 
veins of the stone against her back. When he sipped the champagne she 



28 



teased him, surely gods should not partake of alcohol, and he answered 
with a line he had once read in an interview with the Aga Khan, O, you 
know, this champagne is only for outward show, the moment it touches 
my lips it turns to water. After that it didn't take long for her to touch 
his lips and deliquesce into his arms. By the time her children returned 
from school with the ayah she was immaculately dressed and coiffed, 
and sat with him in the drawing-room, revealing the secrets of the 
carpet business, confessing that art silk stood for artificial not artistic, 
telling him not to be fooled by her brochure in which a rug was 
seductively described as being made of wool plucked from the throats 
of baby lambs, which means, you see, only _low-grade wool_, 
advertising, what to do, this is how it is. 

He did not love her, was not faithful to her, forgot her birthdays, failed 
to return her phone calls, turned up when it was most inconvenient 
owing to the presence in her home of dinner guests from the world of 
the ball-bearing, and like everyone else she forgave him. But her 
forgiveness was not the silent, mousy let-off he got from the others. 
Rekha complained like crazy, she gave him hell, she bawled him out and 
cursed him for a useless lafanga and haramzada and salah and even, in 
extremis, for being guilty of the impossible feat of fucking the sister he 
did not have. She spared him nothing, accusing him of being a creature 
of surfaces, like a movie screen, and then she went ahead and forgave 
him anyway and allowed him to unhook her blouse. Gibreel could not 
resist the operatic forgiveness of Rekha Merchant, which was all the 
more moving on account of the flaw in her own position, her infidelity 
to the ball-bearing king, which Gibreel forbore to mention, taking his 
verbal beatings like a man. So that whereas the pardons he got from the 
rest of his women left him cold and he forgot them the moment they 
were uttered, he kept coming back to Rekha, so that she could abuse 
him and then console him as only she knew how. 

Then he almost died. 



29 



He was filming at Kanya Kumari, standing on the very tip of Asia, 
taking part in a fight scene set at the point on Cape Comorin where it 
seems that three oceans are truly smashing into one another. Three sets 
of waves rolled in from the west east south and collided in a mighty 
clapping of watery hands just as Gibreel took a punch on the jaw, 
perfect timing, and he passed out on the spot, falling backwards into 
tri-oceanic spume. He did not get up. 

To begin with everybody blamed the giant English stunt-man Eustace 
Brown, who had delivered the punch. He protested vehemently. Was he 
not the same fellow who had performed opposite Chief Minister N. T. 
Rama Rao in his many theological movie roles? Had he not perfected 
the art of making the old man look good in combat without hurting 
him? Had he ever complained that NTR never pulled his punches, so 
that he, Eustace, invariably ended up black and blue, having been 
beaten stupid by a little old guy whom he could've eaten for breakfast, 
on _toast_, and had he ever, even once, lost his temper? Well, then? 
How could anyone think he would hurt the immortal Gibreel? -- They 
fired him anyway and the police put him in the lock-up, just in case. 

But it was not the punch that had flattened Gibreel. After the star had 
been flown into Bombay's Breach Candy Hospital in an Air Force jet 
made available for the purpose; after exhaustive tests had come up with 
almost nothing; and while he lay unconscious, dying, with a blood- 
count that had fallen from his normal fifteen to a murderous four 
point two, a hospital spokesman faced the national press on Breach 
Candy's wide white steps. "It is a freak mystery," he gave out. "Call it, if 
you so please, an act of God." 

Gibreel Farishta had begun to haemorrhage all over his insides for no 
apparent reason, and was quite simply bleeding to death inside his skin. 
At the worst moment the blood began to seep out through his rectum 
and penis, and it seemed that at any moment it might burst torrentially 
through his nose and ears and out of the corners of his eyes. For seven 



30 



days he bled, and received transfusions, and every clotting agent known 
to medical science, including a concentrated form of rat poison, and 
although the treatment resulted in a marginal improvement the doctors 
gave him up for lost. 

The whole of India was at Gibreel's bedside. His condition was the lead 
item on every radio bulletin, it was the subject of hourly news-flashes 
on the national television network, and the crowd that gathered in 
Warden Road was so large that the police had to disperse it with lathi- 
charges and tear-gas, which they used even though every one of the half- 
million mourners was already tearful and wailing. The Prime Minister 
cancelled her appointments and flew to visit him. Her son the airline 
pilot sat in Farishta's bedroom, holding the actor's hand. A mood of 
apprehension settled over the nation, because if God had unleashed 
such an act of retribution against his most celebrated incarnation, what 
did he have in store for the rest of the country? If Gibreel died, could 
India be far behind? In the mosques and temples of the nation, packed 
congregations prayed, not only for the life of the dying actor, but for 
the future, for themselves. 

Who did not visit Gibreel in hospital? Who never wrote, made no 
telephone call, despatched no flowers, sent in no tiffins of delicious 
home cooking? While many lovers shamelessly sent him get-well cards 
and lamb pasandas, who, loving him most of all, kept herself to herself, 
unsuspected by her ball--bearing of a husband? Rekha Merchant placed 
iron around her heart, and went through the motions of her daily life, 
playing with her children, chit-chatting with her husband, acting as his 
hostess when required, and never, not once, revealed the bleak 
devastation of her soul. 

He recovered. 

The recovery was as mysterious as the illness, and as rapid. It, too, was 
called (by hospital, journalists, friends) an act of the Supreme. A 



31 



national holiday was declared; fireworks were set off up and down the 
land. But when Gibreel regained his strength, it became clear that he 
had changed, and to a startling degree, because he had lost his faith. 

On the day he was discharged from hospital he went under police escort 
through the immense crowd that had gathered to celebrate its own 
deliverance as well as his, climbed into his Mercedes and told the driver 
to give all the pursuing vehicles the slip, which took seven hours and 
fifty-one minutes, and by the end of the manoeuvre he had worked out 
what had to be done. He got out of the limousine at the Taj hotel and 
without looking left or right went directly into the great dining-room 
with its buffet table groaning under the weight of forbidden foods, and 
he loaded his plate with all of it, the pork sausages from Wiltshire and 
the cured York hams and the rashers of bacon from godknowswhere; 
with the gammon steaks of his unbelief and the pig's trotters of 
secularism; and then, standing there in the middle of the hall, while 
photographers popped up from nowhere, he began to eat as fast as 
possible, stuffing the dead pigs into his face so rapidly that bacon 
rashers hung out of the sides of his mouth. 

During his illness he had spent every minute of consciousness calling 
upon God, every second of every minute. Ya Allah whose servant lies 
bleeding do not abandon me now after watching oven me so long. Ya 
Allah show me some sign, some small mark of your favour, that I may 
find in myself the strength to cure my ills. O God most beneficent most 
merciful, be with me in this my time of need, my most grievous need. 
Then it occurred to him that he was being punished, and for a time that 
made it possible to suffer the pain, but after a time he got angry. 
Enough, God, his unspoken words demanded, why must I die when I 
have not killed, are you vengeance or are you love? The anger with God 
carried him through another day, but then it faded, and in its place 
there came a terrible emptiness, an isolation, as he realized he was 
talking to _thin air_, that there was nobody there at all, and then he 



32 



felt more foolish than ever in his life, and he began to plead into the 
emptiness, ya Allah, just be there, damn it, just be. But he felt nothing, 
nothing nothing, and then one day he found that he no longer needed 
there to be anything to feel. On that day of metamorphosis the illness 
changed and his recovery began. And to prove to himself the non- 
existence of God, he now stood in the dining-hall of the city's most 
famous hotel, with pigs falling out of his face. 

He looked up from his plate to find a woman watching him. Her hair 
was so fair that it was almost white, and her skin possessed the colour 
and translucency of mountain ice. She laughed at him and turned away. 

"Don't you get it?" he shouted after her, spewing sausage fragments 
from the corners of his mouth. "No thunderbolt. That's the point." 

She came back to stand in front of him. "You're alive," she told him. 
"You got your life back. _That's_ the point." 

He told Rekha: the moment she turned around and started walking 
back I fell in love with her. Alleluia Cone, climber of mountains, 
vanquisher of Everest, blonde yahudan, ice queen. Her challenge, 
_change your life, or did you get it back for nothing_, I couldn't resist. 

"You and your reincarnation junk," Rekha cajoled him. "Such a 
nonsense head. You come out of hospital, back through death's door, 
and it goes to your head, crazy boy, at once you must have some 
escapade thing, and there she is, hey presto, the blonde mime. Don't 
think I don't know what you're like, Gibbo, so what now, you want me 
to forgive you or what?" 

No need, he said. He left Rekha's apartment (its mistress wept, face- 
down, on the floor); and never entered it again. 

Three days after he met her with his mouth full of unclean meat Allie 
got into an aeroplane and left. Three days out of time behind a do-not- 



33 



disturb sign, but in the end they agreed that the world was real, what 
was possible was possible and what was impossible was im--, brief 
encounter, ships that pass, love in a transit lounge. After she left, 
Gibreel rested, tried to shut his ears to her challenge, resolved to get his 
life back to normal. Just because he'd lost his belief it didn't mean he 
couldn't do his job, and in spite of the scandal of the ham-eating 
photographs, the first scandal ever to attach itself to his name, he 
signed movie contracts and went back to work. 

And then, one morning, a wheelchair stood empty and he had gone. A 
bearded passenger, one Ismail Najmuddin, boarded Flight AI-420 to 
London. The 747 was named after one of the gardens of Paradise, not 
Gulistan but _Bostan_. "To be born again," Gibreel Farishta said to 
Saladin Chamcha much later, "first you have to die. Me, I only half- 
expired, but I did it on two occasions, hospital and plane, so it adds up, 
it counts. And now, Spoono my friend, here I stand before you in Proper 
London, Vilayet, regenerated, a new man with a new life. Spoono, is this 
not a bloody fine thing?" 

Why did he leave? 

Because of her, the challenge of her, the newness, the fierceness of the 
two of them together, the inexorability of an impossible thing that was 
insisting on its right to become. 

And, or, maybe: because after he ate the pigs the retribution began, a 
nocturnal retribution, a punishment of dreams. 



Once the flight to London had taken off, thanks to his magic trick of 
crossing two pairs of fingers on each hand and rotating his thumbs, the 
narrow, fortyish fellow who sat in a non-smoking window seat watching 



34 



the city of his birth fall away from him like old snakeskin allowed a 
relieved expression to pass briefly across his face. This face was 
handsome in a somewhat sour, patrician fashion, with long, thick, 
downturned lips like those of a disgusted turbot, and thin eyebrows 
arching sharply over eyes that watched the world with a kind of alert 
contempt. Mr. Saladin Chamcha had constructed this face with care -- it 
had taken him several years to get it just right -- and for many more 
years now he had thought of it simply as _his own_ -- indeed, he had 
forgotten what he had looked like before it. Furthermore, he had 
shaped himself a voice to go with the face, a voice whose languid, 
almost lazy vowels contrasted disconcertingly with the sawn--off 
abruptness of the consonants. The combination of face and voice was a 
potent one; but, during his recent visit to his home town, his first such 
visit in fifteen years (the exact period, I should observe, of Gibreel 
Farishta's film stardom), there had been strange and worrying 
developments. It was unfortunately the case that his voice (the first to 
go) and, subsequently, his face itself, had begun to let him down. 

It started -- Chamcha, allowing fingers and thumbs to relax and hoping, 
in some embarrassment, that his last remaining superstition had gone 
unobserved by his fellow-passengers, closed his eyes and remembered 
with a delicate shudder of horror -- on his flight east some weeks ago. 
He had fallen into a torpid sleep, high above the desert sands of the 
Persian Gulf, and been visited in a dream by a bizarre stranger, a man 
with a glass skin, who rapped his knuckles mournfully against the thin, 
brittle membrane covering his entire body and begged Saladin to help 
him, to release him from the prison of his skin. Chamcha picked up a 
stone and began to batter at the glass. At once a latticework of blood 
oozed up through the cracked surface of the stranger's body, and when 
Chamcha tried to pick off the broken shards the other began to scream, 
because chunks of his flesh were coming away with the glass. At this 
point an air stewardess bent over the sleeping Chamcha and demanded, 
with the pitiless hospitality of her tribe: _Something to drink, sir? A 



35 



drink?_, and Saladin, emerging from the dream, found his speech 
unaccountably metamorphosed into the Bombay lilt he had so 
diligently (and so long ago!) unmade. "Achha, means what?" he 
mumbled. "Alcoholic beverage or what?" And, when the stewardess 
reassured him, whatever you wish, sir, all beverages are gratis, he heard, 
once again, his traitor voice: "So, okay, bibi, give one whiskysoda only." 

What a nasty surprise! He had come awake with a jolt, and sat stiffly in 
his chair, ignoring alcohol and peanuts. How had the past bubbled up, 
in transmogrified vowels and vocab? What next? Would he take to 
putting coconut-oil in his hair? Would he take to squeezing his nostrils 
between thumb and forefinger, blowing noisily and drawing forth a 
glutinous silver arc of muck? Would he become a devotee of 
professional wrestling? What further, diabolic humiliations were in 
store? He should have known it was a mistake to _go home_, after so 
long, how could it be other than a regression; it was an unnatural 
journey; a denial of time; a revolt against history; the whole thing was 
bound to be a disaster. 

_I'm not myself_, he thought as a faint fluttering feeling began in the 
vicinity of his heart. But what does that mean, anyway, he added 
bitterly. After all, "les acteurs ne sont pas des gens", as the great ham 
Frederick had explained in _Les Enfants du Paradis_. Masks beneath 
masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull. 

The seatbelt light came on, the captain's voice warned of air turbulence, 
they dropped in and out of air pockets. The desert lurched about 
beneath them and the migrant labourer who had boarded at Qatar 
clutched at his giant transistor radio and began to retch. Chamcha 
noticed that the man had not fastened his belt, and pulled himself 
together, bringing his voice back to its haughtiest English pitch. "Look 
here, why don't you. . ." he indicated, but the sick man, between bursts 
of heaving into the paper bag which Saladin had handed him just in 
time, shook his head, shrugged, replied: "Sahib, for what? If Allah 



36 



wishes me to die, I shall die. If he does not, I shall not. Then of what 
use is the safety?" 

Damn you, India, Saladin Chamcha cursed silently, sinking back into 
his seat. To hell with you, I escaped your clutches long ago, you won't 
get your hooks into me again, you cannot drag me back. 

Once upon a time -- _it was and it was not so_, as the old stories used 
to say, _it happened and it never did_ -- maybe, then, or maybe not, a 
ten-year-old boy from Scandal Point in Bombay found a wallet lying in 
the Street outside his home. He was on the way home from school, 
having just descended from the school bus on which he had been 
obliged to sit squashed between the adhesive sweatiness of boys in 
shorts and be deafened by their noise, and because even in those days he 
was a person who recoiled from raucousness, jostling and the 
perspiration of strangers he was feeling faintly nauseated by the long, 
bumpy ride home. However, when he saw the black leather billfold lying 
at his feet, the nausea vanished, and he bent down excitedly and 
grabbed, -- opened, -- and found, to his delight, that it was full of cash, 
-- and not merely rupees, but real money, negotiable on black markets 
and international exchanges, -- pounds! Pounds sterling, from Proper 
London in the fabled country of Vilayet across the black water and far 
away. Dazzled by the thick wad of foreign currency, the boy raised his 
eyes to make sure he had not been observed, and for a moment it 
seemed to him that a rainbow had arched down to him from the 
heavens, a rainbow like an angel's breath, like an answered prayer, 
coming to an end in the very spot on which he stood. His fingers 
trembled as they reached into the wallet, towards the fabulous hoard. 

"Give it." It seemed to him in later life that his father had been spying 
on him throughout his childhood, and even though Changez 
Chamchawala was a big man, a giant even, to say nothing of his wealth 
and public standing, he still always had the lightness of foot and also 
the inclination to sneak up behind his son and spoil whatever he was 



37 



doing, whipping the young Salahuddin's bedsheet off at night to reveal 
the shameful penis in the clutching, red hand. And he could smell 
money from a hundred and one miles away, even through the stink of 
chemicals and fertilizer that always hung around him owing to his 
being the country's largest manufacturer of agricultural sprays and 
fluids and artificial dung. Changez Chamchawala, philanthropist, 
philanderer, living legend, leading light of the nationalist movement, 
sprang from the gateway of his home to pluck a bulging wallet from his 
son's frustrated hand. "Teh tch," he admonished, pocketing the pounds 
sterling, "you should not pick things up from the street. The ground is 
dirty, and money is dirtier, anyway." 

On a shelf of Changez Chamchawala's teak-lined study, beside a ten- 
volume set of the Richard Burton translation of the Arabian Nights, 
which was being slowly devoured by mildew and bookworm owing to 
the deep-seated prejudice against books which led Changez to own 
thousands of the pernicious things in order to humiliate them by 
leaving them to rot unread, there stood a magic lamp, a brightly 
polished copper--and--brass avatar of Aladdin's very own genie- 
container: a lamp begging to be rubbed. But Changez neither rubbed it 
nor permitted it to be rubbed by, for example, his son. "One day," he 
assured the boy, "you'll have it for yourself. Then rub and rub as much 
as you like and see what doesn't come to you. Just now, but, it is mine." 
The promise of the magic lamp infected Master Salahuddin with the 
notion that one day his troubles would end and his innermost desires 
would be gratified, and all he had to do was wait it out; but then there 
was the incident of the wallet, when the magic of a rainbow had worked 
for him, not for his father but for him, and Changez Chamchawala had 
stolen the crock of gold. After that the son became convinced that his 
father would smother all his hopes unless he got away, and from that 
moment he became desperate to leave, to escape, to place oceans 
between the great man and himself. 



38 



Salahuddin Chamchawala had understood by his thirteenth year that he 
was destined for that cool Vilayet full of the crisp promises of pounds 
sterling at which the magic billfold had hinted, and he grew 
increasingly impatient of that Bombay of dust, vulgarity, policemen in 
shorts, transvestites, movie fanzines, pavement sleepers and the 
rumoured singing whores of Grant Road who had begun as devotees of 
the Yellamma cult in Karnataka but ended up here as dancers in the 
more prosaic temples of the flesh. He was fed up of textile factories and 
local trains and all the confusion and superabundance of the place, and 
longed for that dream-Vilayet of poise and moderation that had come 
to obsess him by night and day. His favourite playground rhymes were 
those that yearned for foreign cities: kitchy--con kitchy-ki kitchy-con 
stanty-eye kitchy-ople kitchy-cople kitchyCon-stanti-nople. And his 
favourite game was the version ofgrandmother's footsteps in which, 
when he was it, he would turn his back on upcreeping playmates to 
gabble out, like a mantra, like a spell, the six letters of his dream--city, 
_ellowen deeowen_. In his secret heart, he crept silently up on London, 
letter by letter, just as his friends crept up to him. _Ellowen deeowen 
London_. 

The mutation of Salahuddin Chamchawala into Saladin Chamcha 
began, it will be seen, in old Bombay, long before he got close enough 
to hear the lions of Trafalgar roar. When the England cricket team 
played India at the Brabourne Stadium, he prayed for an England 
victory, for the game's creators to defeat the local upstarts, for the 
proper order of things to be maintained. (But the games were invariably 
drawn, owing to the featherbed somnolence of the Brabourne Stadium 
wicket; the great issue, creator versus imitator, colonizer against 
colonized, had perforce to remain unresolved.) 

In his thirteenth year he was old enough to play on the rocks at Scandal 
Point without having to be watched over by his ayah, Kasturba. And one 
day (it was so, it was not so), he strolled out of the house, that ample, 



39 



crumbling, salt-caked building in the Parsi style, all columns and 
shutters and little balconies, and through the garden that was his 
father's pride and joy and which in a certain evening light could give 
the impression of being infinite (and which was also enigmatic, an 
unsolved riddle, because nobody, not his father, not the gardener, could 
tell him the names of most of the plants and trees), and out through 
the main gateway, a grandiose folly, a reproduction of the Roman 
triumphal arch of Septimius Severus, and across the wild insanity of the 
street, and over the sea wall, and so at last on to the broad expanse of 
shiny black rocks with their little shrimpy pools. Christian girls giggled 
in frocks, men with furled umbrellas stood silent and fixed upon the 
blue horizon. In a hollow of black stone Salahuddin saw a man in a 
dhoti bending over a pool. Their eyes met, and the man beckoned him 
with a single finger which he then laid across his lips. _Shh_, and the 
mystery of rock-pools drew the boy towards the stranger. He was a 
creature of bone. Spectacles framed in what might have been ivory. His 
finger curling, curling, like a baited hook, come. When Salahuddin 
came down the other grasped him, put a hand around his mouth and 
forced his young hand between old and fleshless legs, to feel the 
fleshbone there. The dhoti open to the winds. Salahuddin had never 
known how to fight; he did what he was forced to do, and then the 
other simply turned away from him and let him go. 

After that Salahuddin never went to the rocks at Scandal Point; nor did 
he tell anyone what had happened, knowing the neurasthenic crises it 
would unleash in his mother and suspecting that his father would say it 
was his own fault. It seemed to him that everything loathsome, 
everything he had come to revile about his home town, had come 
together in the stranger's bony embrace, and now that he had escaped 
that evil skeleton he must also escape Bombay, or die. He began to 
concentrate fiercely upon this idea, to fix his will upon it at all times, 
eating shitting sleeping, convincing himself that he could make the 
miracle happen even without his father's lamp to help him out. He 



40 



dreamed of flying out of his bedroom window to discover that there, 
below him, was -- not Bombay -- but Proper London itself, Bigben 
Nelsonscolumn Lordstavern Bloodytower Queen. But as he floated out 
over the great metropolis he felt himself beginning to lose height, and 
no matter how hard he struggled kicked swam-in-air he continued to 
spiral slowly downwards to earth, then faster, then faster still, until he 
was screaming headfirst down towards the city, Saintpauls, 
Puddinglane, Threadneedlestreet, zeroing in on London like a bomb. 



When the impossible happened, and his father, out of the blue, offered 
him an English education, _to get me out of the way_, he thought, 
_otherwise why, it's obvious, but don't look a gift horse andsoforth_, 
his mother Nasreen Chamchawala refused to cry, and volunteered, 
instead, the benefit of her advice. "Don't go dirty like those English," 
she warned him. "They wipe their bee tee ems with paper only. Also, 
they get into each other's dirty bathwater." These vile slanders proved 
to Salahuddin that his mother was doing her damnedest to prevent him 
from leaving, and in spite of their mutual love he replied, "It is 
inconceivable, Ammi, what you say. England is a great civilization, what 
are you talking, bunk." 

She smiled her little nervy smile and did not argue. And, later, stood 
dry-eyed beneath the triumphal arch of a gateway and would not go to 
Santacruz airport to see him off. Her only child. She heaped garlands 
around his neck until he grew dizzy with the cloying perfumes of 
mother-love. 

Nasreen Chamchawala was the slightest, most fragile of women, her 
bones like tinkas, like minute slivers of wood. To make up for her 
physical insignificance she took at an early age to dressing with a 
certain outrageous, excessive verve. Her sari-- patterns were dazzling, 
even garish: lemon silk adorned with huge brocade diamonds, dizzy 



41 



black-and-white Op Art swirls, gigantic lipstick kisses on a bright white 
ground. People forgave her her lurid taste because she wore the 
blinding garments with such innocence; because the voice emanating 
from that textile cacophony was so tiny and hesitant and proper. And 
because of her soirees. 

Each Friday of her married life, Nasreen would fill the halls of the 
Chamchawala residence, those usually tenebrous chambers like great 
hollow burial vaults, with bright light and brittle friends. When 
Salahuddin was a little boy he had insisted on playing doorman, and 
would greet the jewelled and lacquered guests with great gravity, 
permitting them to pat him on the head and call him _cuteso_ and 
_chweetie-pie_. On Fridays the house was full of noise; there were 
musicians, singers, dancers, the latest Western hits as heard on Radio 
Ceylon, raucous puppet-shows in which painted clay rajahs rode 
puppet-stallions, decapitating enemy marionettes with imprecations 
and wooden swords. During the rest of the week, however, Nasreen 
would stalk the house warily, a pigeon of a woman walking on tiptoed 
feet through the gloom, as if she were afraid to disturb the shadowed 
silence; and her son, walking in her footsteps, also learned to lighten 
his footfall lest he rouse whatever goblin or afreet might be lying in 
wait. 

But: Nasreen Chamchawala's caution failed to save her life. The horror 
seized and murdered her when she believed herself most safe, clad in a 
sari covered in cheap newspaper photos and headlines, bathed in 
chandelier-light, surrounded by her friends. 



By then five and a half years had passed since young Salahuddin, 
garlanded and warned, boarded a Douglas D C-8 and journeyed into the 
west. Ahead of him, England; beside him, his father, Changez 



42 



Chamchawala; below him, home and beauty. Like Nasreen, the future 
Saladin had never found it easy to cry. 

On that first aeroplane he read science fiction tales of interplanetary 
migration: Asimov's _Foundation_, Ray Bradbury's _Martian 
Chronicles_. He imagined the DC--8 was the mother ship, bearing the 
Chosen, the Elect of God and man, across unthinkable distances, 
travelling for generations, breeding eugenically, that their seed might 
one day take root somewhere in a brave new world beneath a yellow sun. 
He corrected himself: not the mother but the father ship, because there 
he was, after all, the great man, Abbu, Dad. Thirteen-year--old 
Salahuddin, setting aside recent doubts and grievances, entered once 
again his childish adoration of his father, because he had, had, had 
worshipped him, he was a great father until you started growing a mind 
of your own, and then to argue with him was called a betrayal of his 
love, but never mind that now, _I accuse him of becoming my supreme 
being, so that what happened was like a loss of faith_ . . . yes, the father 
ship, an aircraft was not a flying womb but a metal phallus, and the 
passengers were spermatozoa waiting to be spilt. 

Five and a half hours of time zones; turn your watch upside down in 
Bombay and you see the time in London. _My father_, Chamcha would 
think, years later, in the midst of his bitterness. _I accuse him of 
inverting Time_. 

How far did they fly? Five and a half thousand as the crow. Or: from 
Indianness to Englishness, an immeasurable distance. Or, not very far 
at all, because they rose from one great city, fell to another. The 
distance between cities is always small; a villager, travelling a hundred 
miles to town, traverses emptier, darker, more terrifying space. 

What Changez Chamchawala did when the aeroplane took off: trying 
not to let his son see him doing it, he crossed two pairs of fingers on 
each hand, and rotated both his thumbs. 



43 



And when they were installed in a hotel within a few feet of the ancient 
location of the Tyburn tree, Changez said to his son: "Take. This 
belongs to you." And held out, at arm's length, a black billfold about 
whose identity there could be no mistake. "You are a man now. Take." 

The return of the confiscated wallet, complete with all its currency, 
proved to be one of Changez Chamchawala's little traps. Salahuddin 
had been deceived by these all his life. Whenever his father wanted to 
punish him, he would offer him a present, a bar of imported chocolate 
or a tin of Kraft cheese, and would then grab him when he came to get 
it. "Donkey," Changez scorned his infant son. "Always, always, the 
carrot leads you to my stick." 

Salahuddin in London took the proffered wallet, accepting the gift of 
manhood; whereupon his father said: "Now that you are a man, it is for 
you to look after your old father while we are in London town. You pay 
all the bills." 

January, 1961. A year you could turn upside down and it would still, 
unlike your watch, tell the same time. It was winter; but when 
Salahuddin Chamchawala began to shiver in his hotel room, it was 
because he was scared halfway out of his wits; his crock of gold had 
turned, suddenly, into a sorcerer's curse. 

Those two weeks in London before he went to his boarding school 
turned into a nightmare of cash--tills and calculations, because 
Changez had meant exactly what he said and never put his hand into 
his own pocket once. Salahuddin had to buy his own clothes, such as a 
double-breasted blue serge mackintosh and seven blue-and-white 
striped Van Heusen shirts with detachable semi--stiff collars which 
Changez made him wear every day, to get used to the studs, and 
Salahuddin felt as if a blunt knife were being pushed in just beneath his 
newly broken Adam"s-apple; and he had to make sure there would be 
enough for the hotel room, and everything, so that he was too nervous 



44 



co ask his father if they could go to a movie, not even one, not even 
_The Pure Hell of St Trinians_, or to eat out, not a single Chinese meal, 
and in later years he would remember nothing of his first fortnight in 
his beloved Ellowen Deeowen except pounds shillings pence, like the 
disciple of the philosopher--king Chanakya who asked the great man 
what he meant by saying one could live in the world and also not live in 
it, and who was told to carry a brim-full pitcher of water through a 
holiday crowd without spilling a drop, on pain of death, so that when 
he returned he was unable to describe the day's festivities, having been 
like a blind man, seeing only the jug on his head. 

Changez Chamchawala became very still in those days, seeming not to 
care if he ate or drank or did any damn thing, he was happy sitting in 
the hotel room watching television, especially when the Flintstones 
were on, because, he told his son, that Wilma bibi reminded him of 
Nasreen. Salahuddin tried to prove he was a man by fasting right along 
with his father, trying to outlast him, but he never managed it, and 
when the pangs got too strong he went out of the hotel to the cheap 
joint nearby where you could buy take-away roast chickens that hung 
greasily in the window, turning slowly on their spits. When he brought 
the chicken into the hotel lobby he became embarrassed, not wanting 
the staff to see, so he stuffed it inside doublebreasted serge and went up 
in the lift reeking of spit--roast, his mackintosh bulging, his face 
turning red. Chicken-breasted beneath the gaze of dowagers and 
liftwallahs he felt the birth of that implacable rage which would burn 
within him, undiminished, for over a quarter of a century; which would 
boil away his childhood father-worship and make him a secular man, 
who would do his best, thereafter, to live without a god of any type; 
which would fuel, perhaps, his determination to become the thing his 
father was-not-could-never-be, that is, a goodandproper Englishman. 
Yes, an English, even if his mother had been right all along, even if 
there was only paper in the toilets and tepid, used water full of mud 
and soap to step into after taking exercise, even if it meant a lifetime 



45 



spent amongst winter—naked trees whose fingers clutched despairingly 
at the few, pale hours of watery, filtered light. On winter nights he, who 
had never slept beneath more than a sheet, lay beneath mountains of 
wool and felt like a figure in an ancient myth, condemned by the gods 
to have a boulder pressing down upon his chest; but never mind, he 
would be English, even if his classmates giggled at his voice and 
excluded him from their secrets, because these exclusions only 
increased his determination, and that was when he began to act, to find 
masks that these fellows would recognize, paleface masks, clown-masks, 
until he fooled them into thinking he was _okay_, he was _people-like- 
us_. He fooled them the way a sensitive human being can persuade 
gorillas to accept him into their family, to fondle and caress and stuff 
bananas in his mouth. 

(After he had settled up the last bill, and the wallet he had once found 
at a rainbow's end was empty, his father said to him: "See now. You pay 
your way. I've made a man of you." But what man? That's what fathers 
never know. Not in advance; not until it's too late.) 

One day soon after he started at the school he came down to breakfast 
to find a kipper on his plate. He sat there staring at it, not knowing 
where to begin. Then he cut into it, and got a mouthful of tiny bones. 
And after extracting them all, another mouthful, more bones. His 
fellow-pupils watched him suffer in silence; not one of them said, here, 
let me show you, you eat it in this way. It took him ninety minutes to 
eat the fish and he was not permitted to rise from the table until it was 
done. By that time he was shaking, and if he had been able to cry he 
would have done so. Then the thought occurred to him that he had 
been taught an important lesson. England was a peculiar-tasting 
smoked fish full of spikes and bones, and nobody would ever tell him 
how to eat it. He discovered that he was a bloody-minded person. "I'll 
show them all," he swore. "You see if I don't." The eaten kipper was his 
first victory, the first step in his conquest of England. 



46 



William the Conqueror, it is said, began by eating a mouthful of 
English sand. 



Five years later he was back home after leaving school, waiting until the 
English university term began, and his transmutation into a Vilayeti 
was well advanced. "See how well he complains," Nasreen teased him in 
front of his father. "About everything he has such big-big criticisms, 
the fans are fixed too. loosely to the roof and will fall to slice our heads 
off in our sleep, he says, and the food is too fattening, why we don't 
cook some things without frying, he wants to know, the top-floor 
balconies are unsafe and the paint is peeled, why can't we take pride in 
our surroundings, isn't it, and the garden is overgrown, we are just 
junglee people, he thinks so, and look how coarse our movies are, now 
he doesn't enjoy, and so much disease you can't even drink water from 
the tap, my god, he really got an education, husband, our little Sallu, 
England—returned, and talking so fine and all." 

They were walking on the lawn in the evening, watching the sun dive 
into the sea, wandering in the shade of those great spreading trees, 
some snaky some bearded, which Salahuddin (who now called himself 
Saladin after the fashion of the English school, but would remain 
Chamchawala for a while yet, until a theatrical agent shortened his 
name for commercial reasons) had begun to be able to name, jackfruit, 
banyan, jacaranda, flame of the forest, plane. Small chhooi-mooi touch- 
me-not plants grew at the foot of the tree of his own life, the walnut- 
tree that Changez had planted with his own hands on the day of the 
coming of the son. Father and son at the birth-tree were both awkward, 
unable to respond properly to Nasreen's gentle fun. Saladin had been 
seized by the melancholy notion that the garden had been a better place 
before he knew its names, that something had been lost which he would 
never be able to regain. And Changez Chamchawala found that he could 
no longer look his son in the eye, because the bitterness he saw came 



47 



close to freezing his heart. When he spoke, turning roughly away from 
the eighteen-year-old walnut in which, at times during their long 
separations, he had imagined his only son's soul to reside, the words 
came out incorrectly and made him sound like the rigid, cold figure he 
had hoped he would never become, and feared he could not avoid. 

"Tell your son," Changez boomed at Nasreen, "that if he went abroad 
to learn contempt for his own kind, then his own kind can feel nothing 
but scorn for him. What is he? A fauntleroy, a grand panjandrum? Is 
this my fate: to lose a son and find a freak?" 

"Whatever I am, father dear," Saladin told the older man, "I owe it all 
to you." 

It was their last family chat. All that summer feelings continued to run 
high, for all Nasreen's attempts at mediation, _you must apologize to 
your father, darling, poor man is suffering like the devil but his pride 
won't let him hug you_. Even the ayah Kasturba and the old bearer 
Vallabh, her husband, attempted to mediate but neither father nor son 
would bend. "Same material is the problem," Kasturba told Nasreen. 
"Daddy and sonny, same material, same to same." 

When the war with Pakistan began that September Nasreen decided, 
with a kind of defiance, that she would not cancel her Friday parties, 
"to show that Hindus--Muslims can love as well as hate," she pointed 
out. Changez saw a look in her eyes and did not attempt to argue, but 
set the servants to putting blackout curtains over all the windows 
instead. That night, for the last time, Saladin Chamchawala played his 
old role of doorman, dressed up in an English dinner-jacket, and when 
the guests came -- the same old guests, dusted with the grey powders of 
age but otherwise the same -- they bestowed upon him the same old 
pats and kisses, the nostalgic benedictions of his youth. "Look how 
grown," they were saying. "Just a darling, what to say." They were all 
trying to hide their fear of the war, _danger of air-raids_, the radio said, 



48 



and when they ruffled Saladin's hair their hands were a little too shaky, 
or alternatively a little too rough. 

Late that evening the sirens sang and the guests ran for cover, hiding 
under beds, in cupboards, anywhere. Nasreen Chamchawala found 
herself alone by a food-laden table, and attempted to reassure the 
company by standing there in her newsprint sari, munching a piece of 
fish as if nothing were the matter. So it was that when she started 
choking on the fishbone of her death there was nobody to help her, they 
were all crouching in corners with their eyes shut; even Saladin, 
conqueror of kippers, Saladin of the England-returned upper lip, had 
lost his nerve. Nasreen Chamchawala fell, twitched, gasped, died, and 
when the all--clear sounded the guests emerged sheepishly to find their 
hostess extinct in the middle of the dining-room, stolen away by the 
exterminating angel, khali--pili khalaas, as Bombay--talk has it, 
finished off for no reason, gone for good. 



Less than a year after the death of Nasreen Chamchawala from her 
inability to triumph over fishbones in the manner of her foreign- 
educated son, Changez married again without a word of warning to 
anyone. Saladin in his English college received a letter from his father 
commanding him, in the irritatingly orotund and obsolescent 
phraseology that Changez always used in correspondence, to be happy. 
"Rejoice," the letter said, "for what is lost is reborn." The explanation 
for this somewhat cryptic sentence came lower down in the 
aerogramme, and when Saladin learned that his new stepmother was 
also called Nasreen, something went wrong in his head, and he wrote 
his father a letter full of cruelty and anger, whose violence was of the 
type that exists only between fathers and sons, and which differs from 
that between daughters and mothers in that there lurks behind it the 
possibility of actual, jaw--breaking fisticuffs. Changez wrote back by 
return of post; a brief letter, four lines of archaic abuse, cad rotter 



49 



bounder scoundrel varlet whoreson rogue. "Kindly consider all family 
connections irreparably sundered," it concluded. "Consequences your 
responsibility." 

After a year of silence, Saladin received a further communication, a 
letter of forgiveness that was in all particulars harder to take than the 
earlier, excommunicatory thunderbolt. "When you become a father, O 
my son," Changez Chamchawala confided, "then shall you know those 
moments -- ah! Too sweet! -- when, for love, one dandies the bonny 
babe upon one's knee; whereupon, without warning or provocation, the 
blessed creature -- may I be frank? -- it _wets_ one. Perhaps for a 
moment one feels the gorge rising, a tide of anger swells within the 
blood -- but then it dies away, as quickly as it came. For do we not, as 
adults, understand that the little one is not to blame? He knows not 
what he does." 

Deeply offended at being compared to a urinating baby, Saladin 
maintained what he hoped was a dignified silence. By the time of his 
graduation he had acquired a British passport, because he had arrived 
in the country just before the laws tightened up, so he was able to 
inform Changez in a brief note that he intended to settle down in 
London and look for work as an actor. Changez Chamchawala's reply 
came by express mail. "Might as well be a confounded gigolo. It's my 
belief some devil has got into you and turned your wits. You who have 
been given so much: do you not feel you owe anything to anyone? To 
your country? To the memory of your dear mother? To your own mind? 
Will you spend your life jiggling and preening under bright lights, 
kissing blonde women under the gaze of strangers who have paid to 
watch your shame? You are no son of mine, but a _ghoul_, a _hoosh_, a 
demon up from hell. An actor! Answer me this: what am I to tell my 
friends?" 



50 



And beneath a signature, the pathetic, petulant postscript. "Now that 
you have your own bad djinni, do not think you will inherit the magic 
lamp." 



After that, Changez Chamchawala wrote to his son at irregular 
intervals, and in every letter he returned to the theme of demons and 
possession: "A man untrue to himself becomes a two-legged lie, and 
such beasts are Shaitan's best work," he wrote, and also, in more 
sentimental vein: "I have your soul kept safe, my son, here in this 
walnut-tree. The devil has only your body. When you are free of him, 
return and claim your immortal spirit. It flourishes in the garden." 

The handwriting in these letters altered over the years, changing from 
the florid confidence that had made it instantly identifiable and 
becoming narrower, undecorated, purified. Eventually the letters 
stopped, but Saladin heard from other sources that his father's 
preoccupation with the supernatural had continued to deepen, until 
finally he had become a recluse, perhaps in order to escape this world in 
which demons could steal his own son's body, a world unsafe for a man 
of true religious faith. 

His father's transformation disconcerted Saladin, even at such a great 
distance. His parents had been Muslims in the lackadaisical, light 
manner of Bombayites; Changez Chamchawala had seemed far more 
godlike to his infant son than any Allah. That this father, this profane 
deity (albeit now discredited), had dropped to his knees in his old age 
and started bowing towards Mecca was hard for his godless son to 
accept. 

"I blame that witch," he told himself, falling for rhetorical purposes 
into the same language of spells and goblins that his father had 
commenced to employ. "That Nasreen Two. Is it I who have been the 



51 



subject of devilment, am I the one possessed? It's not my handwriting 
that changed." 

The letters didn't come any more. Years passed; and then Saladin 
Chamcha, actor, self-made man, returned to Bombay with the Prospero 
Players, to interpret the role of the Indian doctor in _The 
Millionairess_ by George Bernard Shaw. On stage, he tailored his voice 
to the requirements of the part, but those long-suppressed locutions, 
those discarded vowels and consonants, began to leak out of his mouth 
out of the theatre as well. His voice was betraying him; and he 
discovered his component parts to be capable of other treasons, too. 



A man who sets out to make himself up is taking on the Creator's role, 
according to one way of seeing things; he's unnatural, a blasphemer, an 
abomination of abominations. From another angle, you could see 
pathos in him, heroism in his struggle, in his willingness to risk: not all 
mutants survive. Or, consider him sociopolitically: most migrants learn, 
and can become disguises. Our own false descriptions to counter the 
falsehoods invented about us, concealing for reasons of security our 
secret selves. 

A man who Invents himself needs someone to believe in him, to prove 
he's managed it. Playing God again, you could say. Or you could come 
down a few notches, and think of Tinkerbell; fairies don't exist if 
children don't clap their hands. Or you might simply say: it's just like 
being a man. 

Not only the need to be believed in, but to believe in another. You've 
got it: Love. 

Saladin Chamcha met Pamela Lovelace five and a half days before the 
end of the 1960s, when women still wore bandannas in their hair. She 



52 



stood at the centre of a room full of Trotskyist actresses and fixed him 
with eyes so bright, so bright. He monopolized her all evening and she 
never stopped smiling and she left with another man. He went home to 
dream of her eyes and smile, the slenderness of her, her skin. He 
pursued her for two years. England yields her treasures with reluctance. 
He was astonished by his own perseverance, and understood that she 
had become the custodian of his destiny, that if she did not relent then 
his entire attempt at metamorphosis would fail. "Let me," he begged 
her, wrestling politely on her white rug that left him, at his midnight 
bus stops, covered in guilty fluff. "Believe me. I'm the one." 

One night, _out of the blue_, she let him, she said she believed. He 
married her before she could change her mind, but never learned to 
read her thoughts. When she was unhappy she would lock herself in the 
bedroom until she felt better. "It's none of your business," she told 
him. "I don't want anybody to see me when I'm like that." He used to 
call her a clam. "Open up," he hammered on all the locked doors of 
their lives together, basement first, then maisonette, then mansion. "I 
love you, let me in." He needed her so badly, to reassure himself of his 
own existence, that he never comprehended the desperation in her 
dazzling, permanent smile, the terror in the brightness with which she 
faced the world, or the reasons why she hid when she couldn't manage 
to beam. Only when it was too late did she tell him that her parents had 
committed suicide together when she had just begun to menstruate, 
over their heads in gambling debts, leaving her with the aristocratic 
bellow of a voice that marked her out as a golden girl, a woman to envy, 
whereas in fact she was abandoned, lost, her parents couldn't even be 
bothered to wait and watch her grow up, that's how much _she_ was 
loved, so of course she had no confidence at all, and every moment she 
spent in the world was full of panic, so she smiled and smiled and 
maybe once a week she locked the door and shook and felt like a husk, 
like an empty peanut-shell, a monkey without a nut. 



53 



They never managed to have children; she blamed herself. After ten 
years Saladin discovered that there was something the matter with some 
of his own chromosomes, two sticks too long, or too short, he couldn't 
remember. His genetic inheritance; apparently he was lucky to exist, 
lucky not to be some sort of deformed freak. Was it his mother or his 
father from whom? The doctors couldn't say; he blamed, it's easy to 
guess which one, after all, it wouldn't do to think badly of the dead. 

They hadn't been getting along lately. 

He told himself that afterwards, but not during. 

Afterwards, he told himself, we were on the rocks, maybe it was the 
missing babies, maybe we just grew away from each other, maybe this, 
maybe that. 

During, he looked away from all the strain, all the scratchiness, all the 
fights that never got going, he closed his eyes and waited until her 
smile came back. He allowed himself to believe in that smile, that 
brilliant counterfeit of joy. 

He tried to invent a happy future for them, to make it come true by 
making it up and then believing in it. On his way to India he was 
thinking how lucky he was to have her, I'm lucky yes I am don't argue 
I'm the luckiest bastard in the world. And: how wonderful it was to 
have before him the stretching, shady avenue of years, the prospect of 
growing old in the presence of her gentleness. 

He had worked so hard and come so close to convincing himself of the 
truth of these paltry fictions that when he went to bed with Zeeny Vakil 
within forty-eight hours of arriving in Bombay, the first thing he did, 
even before they made love, was to faint, to pass out cold, because the 
messages reaching his brain were in such serious disagreement with one 



54 



another, as if his right eye saw the world moving to the left while his 
left eye saw it sliding to the right. 



Zeeny was the first Indian woman he had ever made love to. She barged 
into his dressing-room after the first night of _The Millionairess_, with 
her operatic arms and her gravel voice, as if it hadn't been years. 
_Years_. "Yaar, what a disappointment, I swear, I sat through the whole 
thing just to hear you singing "Goodness Gracious Me" like Peter 
Sellers or what, I thought, let's find out if the guy learned to hit a note, 
you remember when you did Elvis impersonations with your squash 
racket, darling, too hilarious, completely cracked. But what is this? 
Song is not in drama. The hell. Listen, can you escape from all these 
palefaces and come out with us wogs? Maybe you forgot what that is 
like." 

He remembered her as a stick-figure of a teenager in a lopsided Quant 
hairstyle and an equal-but-oppositely lopsided smile. A rash, bad girl. 
Once for the hell of it she walked into a notorious adda, a dive, on 
Falkland Road, and sat there smoking a cigarette and drinking Coke 
until the pimps who ran the joint threatened to cut her face, no 
freelances permitted. She stared them down, finished her cigarette, left. 
Fearless. Maybe crazy. Now in her middle thirties she was a qualified 
doctor with a consultancy at Breach Candy Hospital, who worked with 
the city's homeless, who had gone to Bhopal the moment the news 
broke of the invisible American cloud that ate people's eyes and lungs. 
She was an art critic whose book on the confining myth of authenticity, 
that folkloristic straitjacket which she sought to replace by an ethic of 
historically validated eclecticism, for was not the entire national 
culture based on the principle of borrowing whatever clothes seemed to 
fit, Aryan, Mughal, British, take--the-best-and--leave-the-rest? -- had 
created a predictable stink, especially because of its title. She had called 
it _The Only Good Indian_. "Meaning, is a dead," she told Chamcha 



55 



when she gave him a copy. "Why should there be a good, right way of 
being a wog? That's Hindu fundamentalism. Actually, we're all bad 
Indians. Some worse than others." 

She had come into the fullness of her beauty, long hair left loose, and 
she was no stick--figure these days. Five hours after she entered his 
dressing-room they were in bed, and he passed out. When he awoke she 
explained "I slipped you a mickey finn." He never worked out whether 
or not she had been telling the truth. 

Zeenat Vakil made Saladin her project. "The reclamation of," she 
explained. "Mister, we're going to get you back." At times he thought 
she intended to achieve this by eating him alive. She made love like a 
cannibal and he was her long pork. "Did you know," he asked her, "of 
the well-established connection between vegetarianism and the man- 
eating impulse?" Zeeny, lunching on his naked thigh, shook her head. 
"In certain extreme cases," he went on, "too much vegetable 
consumption can release into the system biochemicals that induce 
cannibal fantasies." She looked up and smiled her slanting smile. 
Zeeny, the beautiful vampire. "Come off it," she said. "We are a nation 
of vegetarians, and ours is a peaceful, mystical culture, everybody 
knows." 

He, for his part, was required to handle with care. The first time he 
touched her breasts she spouted hot astounding tears the colour and 
consistency of buffalo milk. She had watched her mother die like a bird 
being carved for dinner, first the left breast then the right, and still the 
cancer had spread. Her fear of repeating her mother's death placed her 
chest off limits. Fearless Zeeny's secret terror. She had never had a child 
but her eyes wept milk. 

After their first lovemaking she started right in on him, the tears 
forgotten now. "You know what you are, I'll tell you. A deserter is what, 



56 



more English than, your Angrez accent wrapped around you like a flag, 
and don't think it's so perfect, it slips, baba, like a false moustache." 

"There's something strange going on," he wanted to say, "my voice," 
but he didn't know how to put it, and held his tongue. 

"People like you," she snorted, kissing his shoulder. "You come back 
after so long and think godknowswhat of yourselves. Well, baby, we got 
a lower opinion of you." Her smile was brighter than Pamela's. "I see," 
he said to her, "Zeeny, you didn't lose your Binaca smile." 

_Binaca_. Where had that come from, the long forgotten toothpaste 
advertisement? And the vowel sounds, distinctly unreliable. Watch out, 
Chamcha, look out for your shadow. That black fellow creeping up 
behind. 

On the second night she arrived at the theatre with two friends in tow, 
a young Marxist film-maker called George Miranda, a shambling whale 
of a man with rolled-up kurta sleeves, a flapping waistcoat bearing 
ancient stains, and a surprisingly military moustache with waxed 
points; and Bhupen Gandhi, poet and journalist, who had gone 
prematurely grey but whose face was baby-innocent until he unleashed 
his sly, giggling laugh. "Come on, Salad baba," Zeeny announced. 
"We're going to show you the town." She turned to her companions. 
"These _Asians_ from foreign got no shame," she declared. "Saladin, 
like a bloody lettuce, I ask you." 

"There was a TV reporter here some days back," George Miranda said. 
"Pink hair. She said her name was Kerleeda. I couldn't work it out." 

"Listen, George is too unworldly," Zeeny interrupted. "He doesn't know 
what freaks you guys turn into. That Miss Singh, outrageous. I told her, 
the name's Khalida, dearie, rhymes with Dalda, that's a cooking 
medium. But she couldn't say it. Her own name. Take me to your 



57 



kerleader. You types got no culture. Just wogs now. Ain't it the truth?" 
she added, suddenly gay and round-eyed, afraid she'd gone too far. 
"Stop bullying him, Zeenat," Bhupen Gandhi said in his quiet voice. 
And George, awkwardly, mumbled: "No offence, man. Joke-shoke." 

Chamcha decided to grin and then fight back. "Zeeny," he said, "the 
earth is full of Indians, you know that, we get everywhere, we become 
tinkers in Australia and our heads end up in Idi Amin's fridge. 
Columbus was right, maybe; the world's made up of Indies, East, West, 
North. Damn it, you should be proud of us, our enterprise, the way we 
push against frontiers. Only thing is, we're not Indian like you. You 
better get used to us. What was the name of that book you wrote?" 

"Listen," Zeeny put her arm through his. "Listen to my Salad. Suddenly 
he wants to be Indian after spending his life trying to turn white. All is 
not lost, you see. Something in there still alive." And Chamcha felt 
himself flushing, felt the confusion mounting. India; it jumbled things 
up. 

"For Pete's sake," she added, knifing him with a kiss. "_Chamcha_. I 
mean, fuck it. You name yourself Mister Toady and you expect us not to 
laugh." 



In Zeeny's beaten--up Hindustan, a car built for a servant culture, the 
back seat better upholstered than the front, he felt the night closing in 
on him like a crowd. India, measuring him against her forgotten 
immensity, her sheer presence, the old despised disorder. An Amazonic 
hijra got up like an Indian Wonder Woman, complete with silver 
trident, held up the traffic with one imperious arm, sauntered in front 
of them. Chamcha stared into herhis glaring eyes. Gibreel Farishta, the 
movie star who had unaccountably vanished from view, rotted on the 
hoardings. Rubble, litter, noise. Cigarette advertisements smoking past: 



58 



SCISSORS -- FOR THE MAN OF ACTION, SATISFACTION. And, more 
improbably: PANAMA - PART OF THE GREAT INDIAN SCENE. 

"Where are we going?" The night had acquired the quality of green 
neon strip — lighting. Zeeny parked the car. "You're lost," she accused 
him. "What do you know about Bombay? Your own city, only it never 
was. To you, it's a dream of childhood. Growing up on Scandal Point is 
like living on the moon. No bustees there, no sirree, only servants' 
quarters. Did Shiv Sena elements come there to make communal 
trouble? Were your neighbours starving in the textile strike? Did Datta 
Samant stage a rally in front of your bungalows? How old were you 
when you met a trade unionist? How old the first time you got on a 
local train instead of a car with driver? That wasn't Bombay, darling, 
excuse me. That was Wonderland, Peristan, NeverNever, Oz." 

"And you?" Saladin reminded her. "Where were you back then?" 

"Same place," she said fiercely. "With all the other bloody Munchkins." 

Back streets. A Jain temple was being re--painted and all the saints were 
in plastic bags to protect them from the drips. A pavement magazine 
vendor displayed newspapers full of horror: a railway disaster. Bhupcn 
Gandhi began to speak in his mild whisper. After the accident, he said, 
the surviving passengers swam to the shore (the train had plunged off a 
bridge) and were met by local villagers, who pushed them under the 
water until they drowned and then looted their bodies. 

"Shut your face," Zeeny shouted at him. "Why are you telling him such 
things? Already he thinks we're savages, a lower form." 

A shop was selling sandalwood to burn in a nearby Krishna temple and 
sets of enamelled pink-and-white Krishna--eyes that saw everything. 
"Too damn much to see," Bhupen said. "That is fact of matter." 



59 



In a crowded dhaba that George had started frequenting when he was 
making contact, for movie purposes, with the dadas or bosses who ran 
the city's flesh trade, dark rum was consumed at aluminium tables and 
George and Bhupen started, a little boozily, to quarrel. Zeeny drank 
Thums Up Cola and denounced her friends to Chamcha. "Drinking 
problems, both of them, broke as old pots, they both mistreat their 
wives, sit in dives, waste their stinking lives. No wonder I fell for you, 
sugar, when the local product is so low grade you get to like goods from 
foreign." 

George had gone with Zeeny to Bhopal and was becoming noisy on the 
subject of the catastrophe, interpreting it ideologically. "What is 
Amrika for us?" he demanded. "It's not a real place. Power in its purest 
form, disembodied, invisible. We can't see it but it screws us totally, no 
escape." He compared the Union Carbide company to the Trojan Horse. 
"We invited the bastards in." It was like the story of the forty thieves, 
he said. Hiding in their amphoras and waiting for the night. "We had 
no Ali Baba, misfortunately, " he cried. "Who did we have? Mr. Rajiv G." 

At this point Bhupen Gandhi stood up abruptly, unsteadily, and began, 
as though possessed, as though a spirit were upon him, to testify. "For 
me," he said, "the issue cannot be foreign intervention. We always 
forgive ourselves by blaming outsiders, America, Pakistan, any damn 
place. Excuse me, George, but for me it all goes back to Assam, we have 
to start with that." The massacre of the innocents. Photographs of 
children's corpses, arranged neatly in lines like soldiers on parade. They 
had been clubbed to death, pelted with stones, their necks cut in half by 
knives. Those neat ranks of death, Chamcha remembered. As if only 
horror could sting India into orderliness. 

Bhupen spoke for twenty-nine minutes without hesitations or pauses. 
"We are all guilty of Assam," he said. "Each person of us. Unless and 
until we face it, that the children's deaths were our fault, we cannot call 
ourselves a civilized people." He drank rum quickly as he spoke, and his 



60 



voice got louder, and his body began to lean dangerously, but although 
the room fell silent nobody moved towards him, nobody tried to stop 
him talking, nobody called him a drunk. In the middle of a sentence, 
_everyday blindings, or shootings, or corruptions, who do we think we_, 
he sat down heavily and stared into his glass. 

Now a young man stood up in a far corner of the joint and argued back. 
Assam had to be understood politically, he cried, there were economic 
reasons, and yet another fellow came to his feet to reply, cash matters 
do not explain why a grown man clubs a little girl to death, and then 
another fellow said, if you think that, you have never been hungry, 
salah, how bloody romantic to suppose economics cannot make men 
into beasts. Chamcha clutched at his glass as the noise level rose, and 
the air seemed to thicken, gold teeth flashed in his face, shoulders 
rubbed against his, elbows nudged, the air was turning into soup, and 
in his chest the irregular palpitations had begun. George grabbed him 
by the wrist and dragged him out into the street. "You okay, man? You 
were turning green." Saladin nodded his thanks, gasped in lungfuls of 
the night, calmed down. "Rum and exhaustion," he said. "I have the 
peculiar habit of getting my nerves after the show. Quite often I get 
wobbly. Should have known." Zeeny was looking at him, and there was 
more in her eyes than sympathy. A glittering look, triumphant, hard. 
_Something got through to you_, her expression gloated. _About 
bloody time_. 

After you recover from typhoid, Chamcha reflected, you remain immune 
to the disease for ten years or so. But nothing is forever; eventually the 
antibodies vanish from your blood. He had to accept the fact that his 
blood no longer contained the immunizing agents that would have 
enabled him to suffer India's reality. Rum, heart palpitations, a 
sickness of the spirit. Time for bed. 

She wouldn't take him to her place. Always and only the hotel, with the 
gold-medallioned young Arabs strutting in the midnight corridors 



61 



holding bottles of contraband whisky. He lay on the bed with his shoes 
on, his collar and tie loose, his right arm flung across his eyes; she, in 
the hotel's white bathrobe, bent over him and kissed his chin. "I'll tell 
you what happened to you tonight," she said. "You could say we 
cracked your shell." 

He sat up, angry. "Well, this is what's inside," he blazed at her. "An 
Indian translated into English-medium. When I attempt Hindustani 
these days, people look polite. This is me." Caught in the aspic of his 
adopted language, he had begun to hear, in India's Babel, an ominous 
warning: don't come back again. When you have stepped through the 
looking-glass you step back at your peril. The mirror may cut you to 
shreds. 

"I was so proud of Bhupen tonight," Zeeny said, getting into bed. "In 
how many countries could you go into some bar and start up a debate 
like that? The passion, the seriousness, the respect. You keep your 
civilization, Toadji; I like this one plenty fine." 

"Give up on me," he begged her. "I don't like people dropping in to see 
me without warning, I have forgotten the rules of seven--tiles and 
kabaddi, I can't recite my prayers, I don't know what should happen at 
a nikah ceremony, and in this city where I grew up I get lost if I'm on 
my own. This isn't home. It makes me giddy because it feels like home 
and is not. It makes my heart tremble and my head spin." 

"You're a stupid," she shouted at him. "A stupid. Change back! Damn 
fool! Of course you can." She was a vortex, a siren, tempting him back 
to his old self. But it was a dead self, a shadow, a ghost, and he would 
not become a phantom. There was a return ticket to London in his 
wallet, and he was going to use it. 



62 



"You never married," he said when they both lay sleepless in the small 
hours. Zeeny snorted. "You've really been gone too long. Can't you see 
me? I'm a blackie." Arching her back and throwing off the sheet to 
show off her lavishness. When the bandit queen Phoolan Devi came out 
of the ravines to surrender and be photographed, the newspapers at 
once uncreated their own myth of her _legendary beauty_. She became 
_plain, a common creature, unappetizing_ where she had been 
_toothsome_. Dark skin in north India. "I don't buy it," Saladin said. 
"You don't expect me to believe that." 

She laughed. "Good, you're not a complete idiot yet. Who needs to 
marry? I had work to do." 

And after a pause, she threw his question back at him. _So, then. And 
you?_ 

Not only married, but rich. "So tell, na. How you live, you and the 
mame." In a five-storey mansion in Notting Hill. He had started feeling 
insecure there of late, because the most recent batch of burglars had 
taken not only the usual video and stereo but also the wolfhound guard 
dog. It was not possible, he had begun to feel, to live in a place where 
the criminal elements kidnapped the animals. Pamela told him it was an 
old local custom. In the Olden Days, she said (history, for Pamela, was 
divided into the Ancient Era, the Dark Ages, the Olden Days, the British 
Empire, the Modern Age and the Present), petnapping was good 
business. The poor would steal the canines of the rich, train them to 
forget their names, and sell them back to their grieving, helpless owners 
in shops on Portobello Road. Pamela's local history was always detailed 
and frequently unreliable. "But, my God," Zeeny Vakil said, "you must 
sell up pronto and move. I know those English, all the same, riff-raff 
and nawabs. You can't fight their bloody traditions." 



63 



_My wife, Pamela Lovelace, frail as porcelain, graceful as gazelles_, he 
remembered. _I put down roots in the women I love_. The banalities of 
infidelity. He put them away and talked about his work. 

When Zeeny Vakil found out how Saladin Chamcha made his money, 
she let fly a series of shrieks that made one of the medallioned Arabs 
knock at the door to make sure everything was all right. He saw a 
beautiful woman sitting up in bed with what looked like buffalo milk 
running down her face and dripping off the point of her chin, and, 
apologizing to Chamcha for the intrusion, he withdrew hastily, _sorry, 
sport, hey, you're some lucky guy_. 

"You poor potato," Zeeny gasped between peals of laughter. "Those 
Angrez bastards. They really screwed you up." 

So now his work was funny. "I have a gift for accents," he said 
haughtily. "Why I shouldn't employ?" 

"'Why I should not employ?_'" she mimicked him, kicking her legs in 
the air. "Mister actor, your moustache just slipped again." 

Oh my God. 

What's happening to me? 

What the devil? 

Help. 

Because he did have that gift, truly he did, he was the Man of a 
Thousand Voices and a Voice. If you wanted to know how your ketchup 
bottle should talk in its television commercial, if you were unsure as to 
the ideal voice for your packet of garlicflavoured crisps, he was your 
very man. He made carpets speak in warehouse advertisements, he did 
celebrity impersonations, baked beans, frozen peas. On the radio he 



64 



could convince an audience that he was Russian, Chinese, Sicilian, the 
President of the United States. Once, in a radio play for thirty--seven 
voices, he interpreted every single part under a variety of pseudonyms 
and nobody ever worked it out. With his female equivalent, Mimi 
Mamoulian, he ruled the airwaves of Britain. They had such a large slice 
of the voiceover racket that, as Mimi said, "People better not mention 
the Monopolies Commission around us, not even in fun." Her range was 
astonishing; she could do any age, anywhere in the world, any point on 
the vocal register, angelic Juliet to fiendish Mae West. "We should get 
married sometime, when you're free," Mimi once suggested to him. 
"You and me, we could be the United Nations." 

"You're Jewish," he pointed out. "I was brought up to have views on 
Jews." 

"So I'm Jewish," she shrugged. "You're the one who's circumcised. 
Nobody's perfect." 

Mimi was tiny with tight dark curls and looked like a Michelin poster. 
In Bombay, Zeenat Vakil stretched and yawned and drove other women 
from his thoughts. "Too much," she laughed at him. "They pay you to 
imitate them, as long as they don't have to look at you. Your voice 
becomes famous but they hide your face. Got any ideas why? Warts on 
your nose, cross--eyes, what? Anything come to mind, baby? You 
goddamn lettuce brain, I swear." 

It was true, he thought. Saladin and Mimi were legends of a sort, but 
crippled legends, dark stars. The gravitational field of their abilities 
drew work towards them, but they remained invisible, shedding bodies 
to put on voices. On the radio, Mimi could become the Botticelli Venus, 
she could be Olympia, Monroe, any damn woman she pleased. She 
didn't give a damn about the way she looked; she had become her voice, 
she was worth a mint, and three young women were hopelessly in love 
with her. Also, she bought property. "Neurotic behaviour," she would 



65 



confess unashamedly. "Excessive need for rooting owing to upheavals of 
Armenian—Jewish history. Some desperation owing to advancing years 
and small polyps detected in the throat. Property is so soothing, I do 
recommend it." She owned a Norfolk vicarage, a farmhouse in 
Normandy, a Tuscan belltower, a sea--coast in Bohemia. "All haunted," 
she explained. "Clanks, howls, blood on the rugs, women in nighties, 
the works. Nobody gives up land without a fight." 

Nobody except me, Chamcha thought, a melancholy clutching at him as 
he lay beside Zeenat Vakil. Maybe I'm a ghost already. But at least a 
ghost with an airline ticket, success, money, wife. A shade, but living in 
the tangible, material world. With _assets_. Yes, sir. 

Zeeny stroked the hairs curling over his ears. "Sometimes, when you're 
quiet," she murmured, "when you aren't doing funny voices or acting 
grand, and when you forget people are watching, you look just like a 
blank. You know? An empty slate, nobody home. It makes me mad, 
sometimes, I want to slap you. To sting you back into life. But I also get 
sad about it. Such a fool, you, the big star whose face is the wrong 
colour for their colour T Vs, who has to travel to wogland with some 
two-bit company, playing the babu part on top of it, just to get into a 
play. They kick you around and still you stay, you love them, bloody 
slave mentality, I swear. Chamcha," she grabbed his shoulders and 
shook him, sitting astride him with her forbidden breasts a few inches 
from his face, "Salad baba, whatever you call yourself, for Pete's sake 
_come home_." 

His big break, the one that could soon make money lose its meaning, 
had started small: children's television, a thing called _The Aliens 
Show_, by _The Munsters_ out of _Star Wars_ by way of _Sesame 
Street_. It was a situation comedy about a group of extraterrestrials 
ranging from cute to psycho, from animal to vegetable, and also 
mineral, because it featured an artistic space-- rock that could quarry 
itself for its raw material, and then regenerate itself in time for the next 



66 



week's episode; this rock was named Pygmalien, and owing to the 
stunted sense of humour of the show's producers there was also a 
coarse, belching creature like a puking cactus that came from a desert 
planet at the end of time: this was Matilda, the Australien, and there 
were the three grotesquely pneumatic, singing space sirens known as 
the Alien Korns, maybe because you could lie down among them, and 
there was a team of Venusian hip-hoppers and subway spraypainters 
and soul-brothers who called themselves the Alien Nation, and under a 
bed in the spaceship that was the programme's main location there 
lived Bugsy the giant dung-beetle from the Crab Nebula who had run 
away from his father, and in a fish-tank you could find Brains the 
super-intelligent giant abalone who liked eating Chinese, and then 
there was Ridley, the most terrifying of the regular cast, who looked 
like a Francis Bacon painting" of a mouthful of teeth waving at the end 
of a sightless pod, and who had an obsession with the actress Sigourney 
Weaver. The stars of the show, its Kermit and Miss Piggy, were the very 
fashionable, slinkily attired, stunningly hairstyled duo, Maxim and 
Mamma Alien, who yearned to be -- what else? -- television 
personalities. They were played by Saladin Chamcha and Mimi 
Mamoulian, and they changed their voices along with their clothes, to 
say nothing of their hair, which could go from purple to vermilion 
between shots, which could stand diagonally three feet up from their 
heads or vanish altogether; or their features and limbs, because they 
were capable of changing all of them, switching legs, arms, noses, ears, 
eyes, and every switch conjured up a different accent from their 
legendary, protean gullets. What made the show a hit was its use of the 
latest computer-generated imagery. The backgrounds were all 
simulated: spaceship, other--world landscapes, intergalactic game-show 
studios; and the actors, too, were processed through machines, obliged 
to spend four hours every day being buried under the latest in 
prosthetic make-up which -- once the videocomputers had gone to work 
-- made them look just like simulations, too. Maxim Alien, space 
playboy, and Mamma, undefeated galactic wrestling champion and 



67 



universal all--corners pasta queen, were overnight sensations. Prime- 
time beckoned; America, Eurovision, the world. 

As _The Aliens Show_ got bigger it began to attract political criticism. 
Conservatives attacked it for being too frightening, too sexually explicit 
(Ridley could become positively erect when he thought too hard about 
Miss Weaver), too _weird_. Radical commentators began to attack its 
stereotyping, its reinforcement of the idea of aliens-as-freaks, its lack of 
positive images. Charncha came under pressure to quit the show; 
refused; became a target. "Trouble waiting when I go home," he told 
Zeeny. "The damn show isn't an allegory. It's an entertainment. It aims 
to please." 

"To please whom?" she wanted to know. "Besides, even now they only 
let you on the air after they cover your face with rubber and give you a 
red wig. Big deal deluxe, say I." 

"The point is," she said when they awoke the next morning, "Salad 
darling, you really are good looking, no quesch. Skin like milk, England 
returned. Now that Gibreel has done a bunk, you could be next in line. 
I'm serious, yaar. They need a new face. Come home and you could be 
the next, bigger than Bachchan was, bigger than Farishta. Your face 
isn't as funny as theirs." 

When he was young, he told her, each phase of his life, each self he tried 
on, had seemed reassuringly temporary. Its imperfections didn't matter, 
because he could easily replace one moment by the next, one Saladin by 
another. Now, however, change had begun to feel painful; the arteries of 
the possible had begun to harden. "It isn't easy to tell you this, but I'm 
married now, and not just to wife but life." _The accent slippage 
again_. "I really came to Bombay for one reason, and it wasn't the play. 
He's in his late seventies now, and I won't have many more chances. He 
hasn't been to the show; Muhammad must go to the mountain." 



68 



_My father, Changez Chamchawala, owner of a magic lamp_. "Changez 
Chamchawala, are you kidding, don't think you can leave me behind," 
she clapped her hands. "I want to check out the hair and toenails." His 
father, the famous recluse. Bombay was a culture of re--makes. Its 
architecture mimicked the skyscraper, its cinema endlessly re-invented 
_The Magnificent Seven_ and _Love Story_, obliging all its heroes to 
save at least one village from murderous dacoits and all its heroines to 
die of leukaemia at least once in their careers, preferably at the start. Its 
millionaires, too, had taken to importing their lives. Changez's 
invisibility was an Indian dream of the crorepati penthoused wretch of 
Las Vegas; but a dream was not a photograph, after all, and Zeeny 
wanted to see with her own eyes. "He makes faces at people if he's in a 
bad mood," Saladin warned her. "Nobody believes it till it happens, but 
it's true. Such faces! Gargoyles. Also, he's a prude and he'll call you a 
tart and anyway I'll probably have a fight with him, it's on the cards." 

What Saladin Chamcha had come to India for: forgiveness. That was his 
business in his old home town. But whether to give or to receive, he was 
not able to say. 



Bizarre aspects of the present circumstances of Mr. Changez 
Chamchawala: with his new wife, Nasreen the Second, he lived for five 
days every week in a high-walled compound nicknamed the Red Fort in 
the Pali Hill district beloved of movie stars; but every weekend he 
returned without his wife to the old house at Scandal Point, to spend 
his days of rest in the lost world of the past, in the company of the first, 
and dead, Nasreen. Furthermore: it was said that his second wife 
refused to set foot in the old place. "Or isn't allowed to," Zeeny 
hypothesized in the back of the black-glass-windowed Mercedes 
limousine which Changez had sent to collect his son. As Saladin 
finished filling in the background, Zeenat Vakil whistled appreciatively. 
"Crazee." 



69 



The Chamchawala fertilizer business, Changez's empire ofdung, was to 
be investigated for tax fraud and import duty evasion by a Government 
commission, but Zeeny wasn't interested in that. "Now," she said, "I'll 
get to find out what you're really like." 

Scandal Point unfurled before them. Saladin felt the past rush in like a 
tide, drowning him, filling his lungs with its revenant saltiness. _I'm 
not myself today_, he thought. The heart flutters. Life damages the 
living. None of us are ourselves. None of us are _like this_. 

These days there were steel gates, operated by remote control from 
within, sealing the crumbling triumphal arch. They opened with a slow 
whirring sound to admit Saladin into that place of lost time. When he 
saw the walnut-tree in which his father had claimed that his soul was 
kept, his hands began to shake. He hid behind the neutrality of facts. 
"In Kashmir," he told Zeeny, "your birth-tree is a financial investment 
of a sort. When a child comes of age, the grown walnut is comparable to 
a matured insurance policy; it's a valuable tree, it can be sold, to pay for 
weddings, or a start in life. The adult chops down his childhood to help 
his grown-up self. The unsentimentality is appealing, don't you think?" 

The car had stopped under the entrance porch. Zeeny fell silent as the 
two of them climbed the six stairs to the front door, where they were 
greeted by a composed and ancient bearer in white, brass-buttoned 
livery, whose shock of white hair Chamcha suddenly recognized, by 
translating it back into black, as the mane of that same Vallabh who 
had presided over the house as its major-domo in the Olden Days. "My 
God, Vallabhbhai," he managed, and embraced the old man. The servant 
smiled a difficult smile. "I grow so old, baba, I was thinking you would 
not recognize." He led them down the crystal-heavy corridors of the 
mansion and Saladin realized that the lack of change was excessive, and 
plainly deliberate. It was true, Vallabh explained to him, that when the 
Begum died Changez Sahib had sworn that the house would be her 
memorial. As a result nothing had changed since the day she died, 



70 



paintings, furniture, soap--dishes, the red-glass figures of fighting bulls 
and china ballerinas from Dresden, all left in their exact positions, the 
same magazines on the same tables, the same crumpled balls of paper in 
the wastebaskets, as though the house had died, too, and been 
embalmed. "Mummified," Zeeny said, voicing the unspeakable as usual. 
"God, but it's spooky, no?" It was at this point, while Vallabh the 
bearer was opening the double doors leading into the blue 
drawingroom, that Saladin Chamcha saw his mother's ghost. 

He let out a loud cry and Zeeny whirled on her heel. "There," he 
pointed towards the far, darkened end of the hallway, "no question, 
that blasted newsprint sari, the big headlines, the one she wore the day 
she, she," but now Vallabh had begun to flap his arms like a weak, 
flightless bird, you see, baba, it was only Kasturba, you have not 
forgotten, my wife, only my wife. _My ayah Kasturba with whom I 
played in rock-pools. Until I grew up and went without her and in a 
hollow a man with ivory glasses_. "Please, baba, nothing to be cross, 
only when the Begum died Changez Sahib donated to my wife some few 
garments, you do not object? Your mother was a so-generous woman, 
when alive she always gave with an open hand." Chamcha, recovering 
his equilibrium, was feeling foolish. "For God's sake, Vallabh," he 
muttered. "For God's sake. Obviously I don't object." An old stiffness 
re-entered Vallabh; the right to free speech of the old retainer permitted 
him to reprove, "Excuse, baba, but you should not blaspheme." 

"See how he's sweating," Zeeny stage-whispered. "He looks scared 
stiff." Kasturba entered the room, and although her reunion with 
Chamcha was warm enough there was still a wrongness in the air. 
Vallabh left to bring beer and Thums Up, and when Kasturba also 
excused herself, Zeeny at once said: "Something fishy. She walks like 
she owns the dump. The way she holds herself. And the old man was 
afraid. Those two are up to something, I bet." Chamcha tried to be 
reasonable. "They stay here alone most of the time, probably sleep in 



71 



the master bedroom and eat off the good plates, it must get to feeling 
like their place." But he was thinking how strikingly, in that old sari, 
his ayah Kasturba had come to resemble his mother. 

"Stayed away so long," his father's voice spoke behind him, "that now 
you can't tell a living ayah from your departed ma." 

Saladin turned around to take in the melancholy sight of a father who 
had shrivelled like an old apple, but who insisted nevertheless on 
wearing the expensive Italian suits of his opulently fleshy years. Now 
that he had lost both Popeye-forearms and Bluto-belly, he seemed to be 
roaming about inside his clothes like a man in search of something he 
had not quite managed to identify. He stood in the doorway looking at 
his son, his nose and lips curled, by the withering sorcery of the years, 
into a feeble simulacrum of his former ogre--face. Chamcha had barely 
begun to understand that his father was no longer capable of 
frightening anybody, that his spell had been broken and he was just an 
old geezer heading for the grave; while Zeeny had noted with some 
disappointment that Changez Chamchawala's hair was conservatively 
short, and since he was wearing highly polished Oxford lace-ups it 
didn't seem likely that the eleveninch toenail story was true either; 
when the ayah Kasturba returned, smoking a cigarette, and strolled past 
the three of them, father son mistress, towards a blue velour-covered 
button-backed Chesterfield sofa, upon which she arranged her body as 
sensually as any movie starlet, even though she was a woman well 
advanced in years. 

No sooner had Kasturba completed her shocking entrance than 
Changez skipped past his son and planted himself beside the erstwhile 
ayah. Zeeny Vakil, her eyes sparkling with scandalpoints of light, hissed 
at Chamcha: "Close your mouth, dear. It looks bad." And in the 
doorway, the bearer Vallabh, pushing a drinks trolley, watched 
unemotionally while his employer of many long years placed an arm 
around his uncomplaining wife. 



72 



When the progenitor, the creator is revealed as satanic, the child will 
frequently grow prim. Chamcha heard himself inquire: "And my 
stepmother, father dear? She is keeping well?" 

The old man addressed Zeeny. "He is not such a goody with you, I hope 
so. Or what a sad time you must have." Then to his son in harsher 
tones. "You have an interest in my wife these days? But she has none in 
you. She won't meet you now. Why should she forgive? You are no son 
to her. Or, maybe, by now, to me." 

_I did not come to fight him. Look, the old goat. I mustn't fight. But 
this, this is intolerable_. "In my mother's house," Chamcha cried 
melodramatically, losing his battle with himself. "The state thinks your 
business is corrupt, and here is the corruption of your soul. Look what 
you've done to them. Vallabh and Kasturba. With your money. How 
much did it take? To poison their lives. You're a sick man." He stood 
before his father, blazing with righteous rage. 

Vallabh the bearer, unexpectedly, intervened. "Baba, with respect, 
excuse me but what do you know? You have left and gone and now you 
come to judge us." Saladin felt the floor giving way beneath his feet; he 
was staring into the inferno. "It is true he pays us," Vallabh went on. 
"For our work, and also for what you see. For this." Changez 
Chamchawala tightened his grip on the ayah's unresisting shoulders. 

"How much?" Chamcha shouted. "Vallabh, how much did you two men 
decide upon? How much to prostitute your wife?" 

"What a fool," Kasturba said contemptuously. "Englandeducated and 
what-all, but still with a head full of hay. You come talking so big--big, 
_in your mother's house_ etcetera, but maybe you didn't love her so 
much. But we loved her, we all. We three. And in this manner we may 
keep her spirit alive." 



73 



"It is pooja, you could say," came Vallabh's quiet voice. "An act of 
worship." 

"And you," Changez Chamchawala spoke as softly as his servant, "you 
come here to this temple. With your unbelief. Mister, you've got a 
nerve." 

And finally, the treason of Zeenat Vakil. "Come off it, Salad," she said, 
moving to sit on the arm of the Chesterfield next to the old man. "Why 
be such a sourpuss? You're no angel, baby, and these people seem to 
have worked things out okay." 

Saladin's mouth opened and shut. Changez patted Zeeny on the knee. 
"He came to accuse, dear. He came to avenge his youth, but we have 
turned the tables and he is confused. Now we must let him have his 
chance, and you must referee. I will not be sentenced by him, but I will 
accept the worst from you." 

_The bastard. Old bastard. He wanted me off-balance, and here 1 am, 
knocked sideways. I won't speak, why should I, not like this, the 
humiliation_. "There was," said Saladin Chamcha, "a wallet of pounds, 
and there was a roasted chicken." 



Of what did the son accuse the father? Of everything: espionage on 
child-self, rainbow-pot-stealing, exile. Of turning him into what he 
might not have become. Of making-a-man of. Of whatwill-I-tell-my- 
friends. Of irreparable sunderings and offensive forgiveness. Of 
succumbing to Allah-worship with new wife and also to blasphemous 
worship of late spouse. Above all, of magic-lampism, of being an open- 
sesamist. Everything had come easily to him, charm, women, wealth, 
power, position. Rub, poof, genie, wish, at once master, hey presto. He 
was a father who had promised, and then withheld, a magic lamp. 



74 



Changez, Zeeny, Vallabh, Kasturba remained motionless and silent until 
Saladin Chamcha came to a flushed, embarrassed halt. "Such violence 
of the spirit after so long," Changez said after a silence. "So sad. A 
quarter of a century and still the son begrudges the peccadilloes of the 
past. O my son. You must stop carrying me around like a parrot on your 
shoulder. What am I? Finished. I'm not your Old Man of the Sea. Face 
it, mister: I don't explain you any more." 

Through a window Saladin Chamcha caught sight of a fortyyear-old 
walnut-tree. "Cut it down," he said to his father. "Cut it, sell it, send 
me the cash." 

Chamchawala rose to his feet, and extended his right hand. Zeeny, also 
rising, took it like a dancer accepting a bouquet; at once, Vallabh and 
Kasturba diminished into servants, as if a clock had silently chimed 
pumpkin-time. "Your book," he said to Zeeny. "I have something you'd 
like to see." 

The two of them left the room; impotent Saladin, after a moment's 
floundering, stamped petulantly in their wake. "Sourpuss," Zeeny 
called gaily over her shoulder. "Come on, snap out of it, grow up." 

The Chamchawala art collection, housed here at Scandal Point, 
included a large group of the legendary _Hamza-nama_ cloths, members 
of that sixteenth-century sequence depicting scenes from the life of a 
hero who may or may not have been the same Hamza as the famous one, 
Muhammad's uncle whose liver was eaten by the Meccan woman Hind 
as he lay dead on the battlefield of Uhud. "I like these pictures," 
Changez Chamchawala told Zeeny, "because the hero is permitted to 
fail. See how often he has to be rescued from his troubles." The pictures 
also provided eloquent proof of Zeeny Vakil's thesis about the eclectic, 
hybridized nature of the Indian artistic tradition. The Mughals had 



75 



brought artists from every part of India to work on the paintings; 
individual identity was submerged to create a many-headed, many- 
brushed Overartist who, literally, _was_ Indian painting. One hand 
would draw the mosaic floors, a second the figures, a third would paint 
the Chinese-looking cloudy skies. On the backs of the cloths were the 
stories that accompanied the scenes. The pictures would be shown like a 
movie: held up while someone read out the hero's tale. In the _Hamza- 
nama_ you could see the Persian miniature fusing with Kannada and 
Keralan painting styles, you could see Hindu and Muslim philosophy 
forming their characteristically late--Mughal synthesis. 

A giant was trapped in a pit and his human tormentors were spearing 
him in the forehead. A man sliced vertically from the top of his head to 
his groin still held his sword as he fell. Everywhere, bubbling spillages 
of blood. Saladin Chamcha took a grip on himself. "The savagery," he 
said loudly in his English voice. "The sheer barbaric love of pain." 

Changez Chamchawala ignored his son, had eyes only for Zeeny; who 
gazed straight back into his own. "Ours is a government of philistines, 
young lady, don't you agree? I have offered this whole collection free 
gratis, did you know? Let them only house it properly, let them build a 
place. Condition of cloths is not A-l, you see . . . they won't do it. No 
interest. Meanwhile I get offers every month from Amrika. Offers of 
what-what size! You wouldn't believe. I don't sell. Our heritage, my 
dear, every day the U S A is taking it away. Ravi Varma paintings, 
Chandela bronzes, Jaisalmer lattices. We sell ourselves, isn't it? They 
drop their wallets on the ground and we kneel at their feet. Our Nandi 
bulls end up in some gazebo in Texas. But you know all this. You know 
India is a free country today." He stopped, but Zeeny waited; there was 
more to come. It came: "One day I will also take the dollars. Not for the 
money. For the pleasure of being a whore. Of becoming nothing. Less 
than nothing." And now, at last, the real storm, the words behind the 
words, _less than nothing_. "When I die," Changez Chamchawala said 



76 



co Zeeny, "what will I be? A pair of emptied shoes. That is my fate, that 
he has made for me. This actor. This pretender. He has made himself 
into an imitator of non-existing men. I have nobody to follow me, to 
give what I have made. This is his revenge: he steals from me my 
posterity." He smiled, patted her hand, released her into the care of his 
son. "I have told her," he said to Saladin. "You are still carrying your 
take-away chicken. I have told her my complaint. Now she must judge. 
That was the arrangement." 

Zeenat Vakil walked up to the old man in his outsize suit, put her 
hands on his cheeks, and kissed him on the lips. 



After Zeenat betrayed him in the house of his father's perversions, 
Saladin Chamcha refused to see her or answer the messages she left at 
the hotel desk. _The Millionairess_ came to the end of its run; the tour 
was over. Time to go home. After the closing-night party Chamcha 
headed for bed. In the elevator a young and clearly honeymooning 
couple were listening to music on headphones. The young man 
murmured to his wife: "Listen, tell me. Do I still seem a stranger to you 
sometimes?" The girl, smiling fondly, shook her head, _can't hear_, 
removed the headphones. He repeated, gravely: "A stranger, to you, 
don't I still sometimes seem?" She, with unfaltering smile, laid her 
cheek for an instant on his high scrawny shoulder. "Yes, once or twice," 
she said, and put the headphones on again. He did the same, seeming 
fully satisfied by her answer. Their bodies took on, once again, the 
rhythms of the playback music. Chamcha got out of the lift. Zeeny was 
sitting on the floor with her back against his door. 



Inside the room, she poured herself a large whisky and soda. "Behaving 
like a baby," she said. "You should be ashamed." 



77 



That afternoon he had received a package from his father. Inside it was 
a small piece of wood and a large number of notes, not rupees but 
sterling pounds: the ashes, so to speak, of a walnut-tree. He was full of 
inchoate feeling and because Zeenat had turned up she became the 
target. "You think I love you?" he said, speaking with deliberate 
viciousness. "You think I'll stay with you? I'm a married man." 

"I didn't want you to stay for me," she said. "For some reason, I wanted 
it for you." 

A few days earlier, he had been to see an Indian dramatization of a story 
by Sartre on the subject of shame. In the original, a husband suspects 
his wife of infidelity and sets a trap to catch her out. He pretends to 
leave on a business trip, but returns a few hours later to spy on her. He 
is kneeling to look through the keyhole of their front door. Then he 
feels a presence behind him, turns without rising, and there she is, 
looking down at him with revulsion and disgust. This tableau, he 
kneeling, she looking down, is the Sartrean archetype. But in the Indian 
version the kneeling husband felt no presence behind him; was 
surprised by the wife; stood to face her on equal terms; blustered and 
shouted; until she wept, he embraced her, and they were reconciled. 

"You say I should be ashamed," Chamcha said bitterly to Zeenat. "You, 
who are without shame. As a matter of fact, this may be a national 
characteristic. I begin to suspect that Indians lack the necessary moral 
refinement for a true sense of tragedy, and therefore cannot really 
understand the idea of shame." 

Zeenat Vakil finished her whisky. "Okay, you don't have to say any 
more." She held up her hands. "I surrender. I'm going. Mr. Saladin 
Chamcha. I thought you were still alive, only just, but still breathing, 
but I was wrong. Turns out you were dead all the time." 



78 



And one more thing before going milk-eyed through the door. "Don't 
let people get too close to you, Mr. Saladin. Let people through your 
defences and the bastards go and knife you in the heart." 

After that there had been nothing to stay for. The aeroplane lifted and 
banked over the city. Somewhere below him, his father was dressing up 
a servant as his dead wife. The new traffic scheme had jammed the city 
centre solid. Politicians were trying to build careers by going on 
padyatras, pilgrimages on foot across the country. There were graffiti 
that read: _Advice to politicos. Only step to take: padyatra to hell_. Or, 
sometimes: _to Assam_. 

Actors were getting mixed up in politics: MGR, N.T. Rama Rao, 
Bachchan. Durga Khote complained that an actors' association was a 
"red front". Saladin Chamcha, on Flight 420, closed his eyes; and felt, 
with deep relief, the tell--tale shiftings and settlings in his throat which 
indicated that his voice had begun of its own accord to revert to its 
reliable, English self. 

The first disturbing thing that happened to Mr. Chamcha on that flight 
was that he recognized, among his fellow-passengers, the woman of his 
dreams. 



The dream-woman had been shorter and less graceful than the real one, 
but the instant Chamcha saw her walking calmly up and down the aisles 
of _Bostan_ he remembered the nightmare. After Zeenat Vakil's 
departure he had fallen into a troubled sleep, and the premonition had 
come to him: the vision of a woman bomber with an almost inaudibly 
soft, Canadian-accented voice whose depth and melody made it sound 
like an ocean heard from a long way away. The dream-woman had been 



79 



so loaded down with explosives that she was not so much the bomber as 
the bomb; the woman walking the aisles held a baby that seemed to be 
sleeping noiselessly, a baby so skilfully swaddled and held so close to 
the breast that Chamcha could not see so much as a lock of new-born 
hair. Under the influence of the remembered dream he conceived the 
notion that the baby was in fact a bundle of dynamite sticks, or some 
sort of ticking device, and he was on the verge of crying out when he 
came to his senses and admonished himself severely. This was precisely 
the type of superstitious flummery he was leaving behind. He was a neat 
man in a buttoned suit heading for London and an ordered, contented 
life. He was a member of the real world. 

He travelled alone, shunning the company of the other members of the 
Prospero Players troupe, who had scattered around the economy class 
cabin wearing Fancy-a-Donald T-shirts and trying to wiggle their necks 
in the manner of natyam dancers and looking absurd in Benarsi saris 
and drinking too much cheap airline champagne and importuning the 
scorn--laden stewardesses who, being Indian, understood that actors 
were cheap-type persons; and behaving, in short, with normal thespian 
impropriety. The woman holding the baby had a way of looking 
through the paleface players, of turning them into wisps of smoke, 
heat-mirages, ghosts. For a man like Saladin Chamcha the debasing of 
Englishness by the English was a thing too painful to contemplate. He 
turned to his newspaper in which a Bombay "rail roko" demonstration 
was being broken up by police lathicharges. The newspaper's reporter 
suffered a broken arm; his camera, too, was smashed. The police had 
issued a "note". _Neither the reporter nor any other person was 
assaulted intentionally_. Chamcha drifted into airline sleep. The city of 
lost histories, felled trees and unintentional assaults faded from his 
thoughts. When he opened his eyes a little later he had his second, 
surprise of that macabre journey. A man was passing him on the way to 
the toilet. He was bearded and wore cheap tinted spectacles, but 
Chamcha recognized him anyway: here, travelling incognito in the 



80 



economy class of Flight A 1--420, was the vanished superstar, the living 
legend, Gibreel Farishta himself. 

"Sleep okay?" He realized the question was addressed to him, and 
turned away from the apparition of the great movie actor to stare at the 
equally extraordinary sight sitting next to him, an improbable American 
in baseball cap, metal--rim spectacles and a neon--green bush--shirt 
across which there writhed the intertwined and luminous golden forms 
of a pair of Chinese dragons. Chamcha had edited this entity out of his 
field of vision in an attempt to wrap himself in a cocoon of privacy, but 
privacy was no longer possible. 

"Eugene Dumsday at your service," the dragon man stuck out a huge 
red hand. "At yours, and at that of the Christian guard." 

Sleep-fuddled Chamcha shook his head. "You are a military man?" 

"Ha! Ha! Yes, sir, you could say. A humble foot soldier, sir, in the army 
of Guard Almighty." Oh, _almighty_ guard, why didn't you say. "I am a 
man of science, sir, and it has been my mission, my mission and let me 
add my privilege, to visit your great nation to do battle with the most 
pernicious devilment ever got folks' brains by the balls." 

"I don't follow." 

Dumsday lowered his voice. "I'm talking monkey-crap here, sir. 
Darwinism. The evolutionary heresy of Mr. Charles Darwin." His tones 
made it plain that the name of anguished, God-ridden Darwin was as 
distasteful as that of any other forktail fiend, Beelzebub, Asmodeus or 
Lucifer himself. "I have been warning your fellow-men," Dumsday 
confided, "against Mr. Darwin and his works. With the assistance of my 
personal fifty-seven-slide presentation. I spoke most recently, sir, at the 
World Understanding Day banquet of the Rotary Club, Cochin, Kerala. I 
spoke of my own country, of its young people. I see them lost, sir. The 



young people of America: I see them in their despair, turning to 
narcotics, even, for I'm a plain--speaking man, to pre-marital sexual 
relations. And I said this then and I say it now to you. If I believed my 
great-granddaddy was a chimpanzee, why, I'd be pretty depressed 
myself." 

Gibreel Farishta was seated across the way, staring out of the window. 
The inflight movie was starting up, and the aircraft lights were being 
dimmed. The woman with the baby was still on her feet, walking up and 
down, perhaps to keep the baby quiet. "How did it go down?" Chamcha 
asked, sensing that some contribution from him was being required. 

A hesitancy came over his neighbour. "I believe there was a glitch in the 
sound system," he said finally. "That would be my best guess. I can't 
see how those good people would've set to talking amongst themselves 
if they hadn't've thought I was through." 

Chamcha felt a little abashed. He had been thinking that in a country 
of fervent believers the notion that science was the enemy of God would 
have an easy appeal; but the boredom of the Rotarians of Cochin had 
shown him up. In the flickering light of the inflight movie, Dumsday 
continued, in his voice of an innocent ox, to tell stories against himself 
without the faintest indication of knowing what he was doing. He had 
been accosted, at the end of a cruise around the magnificent natural 
harbour of Cochin, to which Vasco da Gama had come in search of 
spices and so set in motion the whole ambiguous history of east-and- 
west, by an urchin full of pssts and hey-mister--okays. "Hi there, yes! 
You want hashish, sahib? Hey, misteramerica. Yes, unclesam, you want 
opium, best quality, top price? Okay, you want _cocaine?_" 

Saladin began, helplessly, to giggle. The incident struck him as 
Darwin's revenge: if Dumsday held poor, Victorian, starchy Charles 
responsible for American drug culture, how delicious that he should 
himself be seen, across the globe, as representing the very ethic he 



82 



battled so fervently against. Dumsday fixed him with a look of pained 
reproof. It was a hard fate to be an American abroad, and not to suspect 
why you were so disliked. 

After the involuntary giggle had escaped Saladin's lips, Dumsday sank 
into a sullen, injured drowse, leaving Chamcha to his own thoughts. 
Should the inflight movie be thought of as a particularly vile, random 
mutation of the form, one that would eventually be extinguished by 
natural selection, or were they the future of the cinema? A future of 
screwball caper movies eternally starring Shelley Long and Chevy Chase 
was too hideous to contemplate; it was a vision of Hell . . . Chamcha 
was drifting back into sleep when the cabin lights came on; the movie 
stopped; and the illusion of the cinema was replaced by one of watching 
the television news, as four armed, shouting figures came running down 
the aisles. 



The passengers were held on the hijacked aircraft for one hundred and 
eleven days, marooned on a shimmering runway around which there 
crashed the great sand-waves of the desert, because once the four 
hijackers, three men one woman, had forced the pilot to land nobody 
could make up their minds what to do with them. They had come down 
not at an international airport but at the absurd folly of a jumbo-sized 
landing strip which had been built for the pleasure of the local sheikh 
at his favourite desert oasis, to which there now also led a six-lane 
highway very popular among single young men and women, who would 
cruise along its vast emptiness in slow cars ogling one another through 
the windows . . . once 420 had landed here, however, the highway was 
full of armoured cars, troop transports, limousines waving flags. And 
while diplomats haggled over the airliner's fate, to storm or not to 
storm, while they tried to decide whether to concede or to stand firm at 
the expense of other people's lives, a great stillness settled around the 
airliner and it wasn't long before the mirages began. 



83 



In the beginning there had been a constant flow of event, the hijacking 
quartet full of electricity, jumpy, trigger-happy. These are the worst 
moments, Chamcha thought while children screamed and fear spread 
like a stain, here's where we could all go west. Then they were in 
control, three men one woman, all tall, none of them masked, all 
handsome, they were actors, too, they were stars now, shootingstars or 
falling, and they had their own stage-names. Dara Singh Buta Singh 
Man Singh. The woman was Tavleen. The woman in the dream had been 
anonymous, as if Chamcha's sleeping fancy had no time for 
pseudonyms; but, like her, Tavleen spoke with a Canadian accent, 
smooth-edged, with those give-away rounded O's. After the plane 
landed at the oasis of Al-Zamzam it became plain to the passengers, 
who were observing their captors with the obsessive attention paid to a 
cobra by a transfixed mongoose, that there was something posturing in 
the beauty of the three men, some amateurish love of risk and death in 
them that made them appear frequently at the open doors of the 
airplane and flaunt their bodies at the professional snipers who must 
have been hiding amid the palm-trees of the oasis. The woman held 
herself aloof from such silliness and seemed to be restraining herself 
from scolding her three colleagues. She seemed insensible to her own 
beauty, which made her the most dangerous of the four. It struck 
Saladin Chamcha that the young men were too squeamish, too 
narcissistic, to want blood on their hands. They would find it difficult 
to kill; they were here to be on television. But Tavleen was here on 
business. He kept his eyes on her. The men do not know, he thought. 
They want to behave the way they have seen hijackers behaving in the 
movies and on TV; they arc reality aping a crude image of itself, they are 
worms swallowing their tails. But she, the woman, _knows_ . . . while 
Dara, Buta, Man Singh strutted and pranced, she became quiet, her eyes 
turned inwards, and she scared the passengers stiff. 

What did they want? Nothing new. An independent homeland, religious 
freedom, release of political detainees, justice, ransom money, a safe- 



84 



conduct to a country of their choice. Many of the passengers came to 
sympathize with them, even though they were under constant threat of 
execution. If you live in the twentieth century you do not find it hard to 
see yourself in those, more desperate than yourself, who seek to shape it 
to their will. 

After they landed the hijackers released all but fifty of the passengers, 
having decided that fifty was the largest number they could 
comfortably supervise. Women, children, Sikhs were all released. It 
turned out that Saladin Chamcha was the only member of Prospero 
Players who was not given his freedom; he found himself succumbing to 
the perverse logic of the situation, and instead of feeling upset at 
having been retained he was glad to have seen the back of his badly 
behaved colleagues; good riddance to bad rubbish, he thought. 

The creationist scientist Eugene Dumsday was unable to bear the 
realization that the hijackers did not intend to release him. He rose to 
his feet, swaying at his great height like a skyscraper in a hurricane, and 
began shouting hysterical incoherences. A stream of dribble ran out of 
the corner of his mouth; he licked at it feverishly with his tongue. _Now 
just hold hard here, busters, now goddamn it enough is ENO UGH, 
whaddya wheredya get the idea you can_ and so forth, in the grip of his 
waking nightmare he drivelled on and on until one of the four, 
obviously it was the woman, came up, swung her rifle butt and broke 
his flapping jaw. And worse: because slobbering Dumsday had been 
licking his lips as his jaw slammed shut, the tip of his tongue sheared 
off and landed in Saladin Chamcha's lap; followed in quick time by its 
former owner. Eugene Dumsday fell tongueless and insensate into the 
actor's arms. 

Eugene Dumsday gained his freedom by losing his tongue; the 
persuader succeeded in persuading his captors by surrendering his 
instrument of persuasion. They didn't want to look after a wounded 
man, risk of gangrene and so on, and so he joined the exodus from the 



85 



plane. In those first wild hours Saladin Chamcha's mind kept throwing 
up questions of detail, are those automatic rifles or sub-machine guns, 
how did they smuggle all that metal on board, in which parts of the 
body is it possible to be shot and still survive, how scared they must be, 
the four of them, how full of their own deaths. . . once Dumsday had 
gone, he had expected to sit alone, but a man came and sat in the 
creationist's old seat, saying you don't mind, yaar, in such circs a guy 
needs company. It was the movie star, Gibreel. 



After the first nervous days on the ground, during which the three 
turbaned young hijackers went perilously close to the edges of insanity, 
screaming into the desert night _you bastards, come and get us_, or, 
alternatively, _o god o god they're going to send in the fucking 
commandos, the motherfucking Americans, yaar, the sisterfucking 
British_, -- moments during which the remaining hostages closed their 
eyes and prayed, because they were always most afraid when the 
hijackers showed signs of weakness, -- everything settled down into 
what began to feel like normality. Twice a day a solitary vehicle carried 
food and drink to _Bostan_ and left it on the tarmac. The hostages had 
to bring in the cartons while the hijackers watched them from the 
safety of the plane. Apart from this daily visit there was no contact with 
the outside world. The radio had gone dead. It was as if the incident 
had been forgotten, as if it were so embarrassing that it had simply 
been erased from the record. "The bastards are leaving us to rot," 
screamed Man Singh, and the hostages joined in with a will. "Hijras! 
Chootias! Shits!" 

They were wrapped in heat and silence and now the spectres began to 
shimmer out of the corners of their eyes. The most highly strung of the 
hostages, a young man with a goatee beard and close-cropped curly 
hair, awoke at dawn, shrieking with fear because he had seen a skeleton 
riding a camel across the dunes. Other hostages saw coloured globes 



86 



hanging in the sky, or heard the beating of gigantic wings. The three 
male hijackers fell into a deep, fatalistic gloom. One day Tavleen 
summoned them to a conference at the far end of the plane; the 
hostages heard angry voices. "She's telling them they have to issue an 
ultimatum," Gibreel Farishta said to Chamcha. "One of us has to die, 
or such." But when the men returned Tavleen wasn't with them and the 
dejection in their eyes was tinged, now, with shame. "They lost their 
guts," Gibreel whispered. "No can do. Now what is left for our Tavleen 
bibi? Zero. Story funtoosh." 

What she did: 

In order to prove to her captives, and also to her fellow-captors, that 
the idea of failure, or surrender, would never weaken her resolve, she 
emerged from her momentary retreat in the first--class cocktail lounge 
to stand before them like a stewardess demonstrating safety procedures. 
But instead of putting on a lifejacket and holding up blow--tube whistle 
etcetera, she quickly lifted the loose black djellabah that was her only 
garment and stood before them stark naked, so that they could all see 
the arsenal of her body, the grenades like extra breasts nestling in her 
cleavage, the gelignite taped around her thighs, just the way it had been 
in Chamcha's dream. Then she slipped her robe back on and spoke in 
her faint oceanic voice. "When a great idea comes into the world, a 
great cause, certain crucial questions are asked of it," she murmured. 
"History asks us: what manner of cause are we? Are we 
uncompromising, absolute, strong, or will we show ourselves to be 
timeservers, who compromise, trim and yield?" Her body had provided 
her answer. 

The days continued to pass. The enclosed, boiling circumstances of his 
captivity, at once intimate and distant, made Saladin Chamcha want to 
argue with the woman, unbendingness can also be monomania, he 
wanted to say, it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what 
is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last. But he didn't 



87 



say anything, of course, he fell into the torpor of the days. Gibreel 
Farishta discovered in the seat pocket in front of him a pamphlet 
written by the departed Dumsday. By this time Chamcha had noticed 
the determination with which the movie star resisted the onset of sleep, 
so it wasn't surprising to see him reciting and memorizing the lines of 
the creationist's leaflet, while his already heavy eyelids drooped lower 
and lower until he forced them to open wide again. The leaflet argued 
that even the scientists were busily re--inventing God, that once they 
had proved the existence of a single unified force of which 
electromagnetism, gravity and the strong and weak forces of the new 
physics were all merely aspects, avatars, one might say, or angels, then 
what would we have but the oldest thing of all, a supreme entity 
controlling all creation . . . "You see, what our friend says is, if you have 
to choose between some type of disembodied force-field and the actual 
living God, which one would you go for? Good point, na? You can't 
pray to an electric current. No point asking a wave-form for the key to 
Paradise." He closed his eyes, then snapped them open again. "All 
bloody bunk," he said fiercely. "Makes me sick." 

After the first days Chamcha no longer noticed Gibreel's bad breath, 
because nobody in that world of sweat and apprehension was smelling 
any better. But his face was impossible to ignore, as the great purple 
welts of his wakefulness spread outwards like oil--slicks from his eyes. 
Then at last his resistance ended and he collapsed on to Saladin's 
shoulder and slept for four days without waking once. 

When he returned to his senses he found that Chamcha, with the help 
of the mouse-like, goateed hostage, a certain Jalandri, had moved him 
to an empty row of seats in the centre block. He went to the toilet to 
urinate for eleven minutes and returned with a look of real terror in his 
eyes. He sat down by Chamcha again, but wouldn't say a word. Two 
nights later, Chamcha heard him fighting, once again, against the onset 
of sleep. Or, as it turned out: of dreams. 



88 



"Tenth highest peak in the world," Chamcha heard him mutter, "is 
Xixabangma Feng, eight oh one three metres. Annapurna ninth, eighty 
seventy-eight." Or he would begin at the other end: "One, 
Chomolungma, eight eight four eight. Two, K2, eighty-six eleven. 
Kanchenjunga, eighty-five ninety-eight, Makalu, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu. 
Nanga Parbat, metres eight thousand one hundred and twenty-six." 

"You count eight thousand metre peaks to fall asleep?" Chamcha asked 
him. Bigger than sheep, but not so numerous. 

Gibreel Farishta glared at him; then bowed his head; came to a decision. 
"Not to sleep, my friend. To stay awake." 

That was when Saladin Chamcha found out why Gibreel Farishta had 
begun to fear sleep. Everybody needs somebody to talk to and Gibreel 
had spoken to nobody about what had happened after he ate the 
unclean pigs. The dreams had begun that very night. In these visions he 
was always present, not as himself but as his namesake, and I don't 
mean interpreting a role, Spoono, I am him, he is me, I am the bloody 
archangel, Gibreel himself, large as bloody life. 

_Spoono_. Like Zeenat Vakil, Gibreel had reacted with mirth to 
Saladin's abbreviated name. "Bhai, wow. I'm tickled, truly. Tickled 
pink. So if you are an English chamcha these days, let it be. Mr. Sally 
Spoon. It will be our little joke." Gibreel Farishta had a way of failing 
to notice when he made people angry. _Spoon, Spoono, my old 
Chumch_: Saladin hated them all. But could do nothing. Except hate. 

Maybe it was because of the nicknames, maybe not, but Saladin .found 
Gibreel's revelations pathetic, anticlimactic, what was so strange if his 
dreams characterized him as the angel, dreams do every damn thing, did 
it really display more than a banal kind of egomania? But Gibreel was 
sweating from fear: "Point is, Spoono," he pleaded, "every time I go to 
sleep the dream starts up from where it stopped. Same dream in the 



89 



same place. As if somebody just paused the video while I went out of the 
room. Or, or. As if he's the guy who's awake and this is the bloody 
nightmare. His bloody dream: us. Here. All of it." Chamcha stared at 
him. "Crazy, right," he said. "Who knows if angels even sleep, never 
mind dream. I sound crazy. Am I right or what?" 

"Yes. You sound crazy." 

"Then what the hell," he wailed, "is going on in my head?" 



The longer he spent without going to sleep the more talkative he 
became, he began to regale the hostages, the hijackers, as well as the 
dilapidated crew of Flight 420, those formerly scornful stewardesses 
and shining flight-deck personnel who were now looking mournfully 
moth-eaten in a corner of the plane and even losing their earlier 
enthusiasm for endless games of rummy, -- with his increasingly 
eccentric reincarnation theories, comparing their sojourn on that 
airstrip by the oasis of Al-Zamzam to a second period of gestation, 
telling everybody that they were all dead to the world and in the process 
of being regenerated, made anew. This idea seemed to cheer him up 
somewhat, even though it made many of the hostages want to string 
him up, and he leapt up on to a seat to explain that the day of their 
release would be the day of their rebirth, a piece of optimism that 
calmed his audience down. "Strange but true!" he cried. "That will be 
day zero, and because we will all share the birthday we will all be exactly 
the same age from that day on, for the rest of our lives. How do you call 
it when fifty kids come out of the same mother? God knows. Fiftuplets. 
Damn!" 

Reincarnation, for frenzied Gibreel, was a term beneath whose shield 
many notions gathered a-babeling: phoenix-from-ashes, the 
resurrection of Christ, the transmigration, at the instant of death, of 



90 



the soul of the Dalai Lama into the body of a new-born child . . . such 
matters got mixed up with the avatars of Vishnu, the metamorphoses of 
Jupiter, who had imitated Vishnu by adopting the form of a bull; and so 
on, including of course the progress of human beings through 
successive cycles of life, now as cockroaches, now as kings, towards the 
bliss of no-morereturns. _To be born again, first you have to die_. 
Chamcha did not bother to protest that in most of the examples Gibreel 
provided in his soliloquies, metamorphosis had not required a death; 
the new flesh had been entered into through other gates. Gibreel in full 
flight, his arms waving like imperious wings, brooked no interruptions. 
"The old must die, you get my message, or the new cannot be whatnot." 

Sometimes these tirades would end in tears. Farishta in his exhaustion- 
beyond-exhaustion would lose control and place his sobbing head on 
Chamcha's shoulder, while Saladin -- prolonged captivity erodes certain 
reluctances among the captives -- would stroke his face and kiss the top 
of his head, _There, there, there_. On other occasions Chamcha's 
irritation would get the better of him. The seventh time that Farishta 
quoted the old Gramsci chestnut, Saladin shouted out in frustration, 
maybe that's what's happening to you, loudmouth, your old self is 
dying and that dream-angel of yours is trying to be born into your 
flesh. 



"You want to hear something really crazy?" Gibreel after a hundred and 
one days offered Chamcha more confidences. "You want to know why 
I'm here?" And told him anyway: "For a woman. Yes, boss. For the 
bloody love of my bloody life. With whom I have spent a sum total of 
days three point five. Doesn't that prove I really am cracked? QED, 
Spoono, old Chumch." 

And: "How to explain it to you? Three and a half days of it, how long do 
you need to know that the best thing has happened, the deepest thing, 



91 



the has-to--be-it? I swear: when I kissed her there were mother--fucking 
sparks, yaar, believe don't believe, she said it was static electricity in the 
carpet but I've kissed chicks in hotel rooms before and this was a 
definite first, a definite one-and-only. Bloody electric shocks, man, I 
had to jump back with pain." 

He had no words to express her, his woman of mountain ice, to express 
how it had been in that moment when his life had been in pieces at his 
feet and she had become its meaning. "You don't see," he gave up. 
"Maybe you never met a person for whom you'd cross the world, for 
whom you'd leave everything, walk out and take a plane. She climbed 
Everest, man. Twenty-nine thousand and two feet, or maybe twenty-nine 
one four one. Straight to the top. You think I can't get on a jumbo-jet 
for a woman like that?" 

The harder Gibreel Farishta tried to explain his obsession with the 
mountain—climber Alleluia Cone, the more Saladin tried to conjure up 
the memory of Pamela, but she wouldn't come. At first it would be 
Zeeny who visited him, her shade, and then after a time there was 
nobody at all. Gibreel's passion began to drive Chamcha wild with 
anger and frustration, but Farishta didn't notice it, slapped him on the 
back, _cheer up, Spoono, won't be long now_. 



On the hundred and tenth day Tavleen walked up to the little goateed 
hostage, Jalandri, and motioned with her finger. Our patience has been 
exhausted, she announced, we have sent repeated ultimatums with no 
response, it is time for the first sacrifice. She used that word: sacrifice. 
She looked straight into Jalandri's eyes and pronounced his death 
sentence. "You first. Apostate traitor bastard." She ordered the crew to 
prepare for take-off, she wasn't going to risk a storming of the plane 
after the execution, and with the point of her gun she pushed Jalandri 
towards the open door at the front, while he screamed and begged for 



92 



mercy. "She's got sharp eyes," Gibreel said to Chamcha. "He's a cut- 
sird." Jalandri had become the first target because of his decision to 
give up the turban and cut his hair, which made him a traitor to his 
faith, a shorn Sirdarji. _Cut-Sird_. A seven--letter condemnation; no 
appeal. 

Jalandri had fallen to his knees, stains were spreading on the seat of his 
trousers, she was dragging him to the door by his hair. Nobody moved. 
Dara Buta Man Singh turned away from the tableau. He was kneeling 
with his back to the open door; she made him turn round, shot him in 
the back of the head, and he toppled out on to the tarmac. Tavleen shut 
the door. 

Man Singh, youngest and jumpiest of the quartet, screamed at her: 
"Now where do we go? In any damn place they'll send the commandos 
in for sure. We're gone geese now." 

"Martyrdom is a privilege," she said softly. "We shall be like stars; like 
the sun." 



Sand gave way to snow. Europe in winter, beneath its white, 
transforming carpet, its ghost-white shining up through the night. The 
Alps, France, the coastline of England, white cliffs rising to whitened 
meadowlands. Mr. Saladin Chamcha jammed on an anticipatory bowler 
hat. The world had rediscovered Flight A 1-420, the Boeing 747 
_Bostan_. Radar tracked it; radio messages crackled. _Do you want 
permission to land?_ But no permission was requested. _Bostan_ circled 
over England's shore like a gigantic sea-bird. Gull. Albatross. Fuel 
indicators dipped: towards zero. 

When the fight broke out, it took all the passengers by surprise, because 
this time the three male hijackers didn't argue with Tavleen, there were 



93 



no fierce whispers about the _fuel_ about _what the fuck you're doing_ 
but just a mute stand-off, they wouldn't even talk to one another, as if 
they had given up hope, and then it was Man Singh who cracked and 
went for her. The hostages watched the fight to the death, unable to 
feel involved, because a curious detachment from reality had come over 
the aircraft, a kind of inconsequential casualness, a fatalism, one might 
say. They fell to the floor and her knife went up through his stomach. 
That was all, the brevity of it adding to its seeming unimportance. Then 
in the instant when she rose up it was as if everybody awoke, it became 
clear to them all that she really meant business, she was going through 
with it, all the way, she was holding in her hand the wire that connected 
all the pins of all the grenades beneath her gown, all those fatal breasts, 
and although at that moment Buta and Dara rushed at her she pulled 
the wire anyway, and the walls came tumbling down. 

No, not death: birth. 



II. Mahound 



1 



Gibreel when he submits to the inevitable, when he slides heavy-lidded 
towards visions of his angeling, passes his loving mother who has a 
different name for him, Shaitan, she calls him, just like Shaitan, same 
to same, because he has been fooling around with the tiffins to be 
carried into the city for the office workers' lunch, mischeevious imp, 
she slices the air with her hand, rascal has been putting Muslim meat 
compartments into Hindu non-veg tiffin-carriers, customers are up in 
arms. Little devil, she scolds, but then folds him in her arms, my little 
farishta, boys will be boys, and he falls past her into sleep, growing 



94 



bigger as he falls and the falling begins to feel like flight, his mother's 
voice wafts distantly up to him, baba, look how you grew, enor_mouse_, 
wah-wah, applause. He is gigantic, wingless, standing with his feet upon 
the horizon and his arms around the sun. In the early dreams he sees 
beginnings, Shaitan cast down from the sky, making a grab for a branch 
of the highest Thing, the lote-tree of the uttermost end that stands 
beneath the Throne, Shaitan missing, plummeting, splat. But he lived 
on, was not couldn't be dead, sang from heilbelow his soft seductive 
verses. O the sweet songs that he knew. With his daughters as his 
fiendish backing group, yes, the three of them, Lat Manat Uzza, 
motherless girls laughing with their Abba, giggling behind their hands 
at Gibreel, what a trick we got in store for you, they giggle, for you and 
for that businessman on the hill. But before the businessman there are 
other stories, here he is, Archangel Gibreel, revealing the spring of 
Zamzam to Hagar the Egyptian so that, abandoned by the prophet 
Ibrahim with their child in the desert, she might drink the cool spring 
waters and so live. And later, after the Jurhum filled up Zamzam with 
mud and golden gazelles, so that it was lost for a time, here he is again, 
pointing it out to that one, Muttalib of the scarlet tents, father of the 
child with the silver hair who fathered, in turn, the businessman. The 
businessman: here he comes. 

Sometimes when he sleeps Gibreel becomes aware, without the dream, 
of himself sleeping, of himself dreaming his own awareness of his 
dream, and then a panic begins, O God, he cries out, O allgood 
allahgod, I've had my bloody chips, me. Got bugs in the brain, full mad, 
a looney tune and a gone baboon. Just as he, the businessman, felt when 
he first saw the archangel: thought he was cracked, wanted to throw 
himself down from a rock, from a high rock, from a rock on which there 
grew a stunted lote-tree, a rock as high as the roof of the world. 

He's coming: making his way up Cone Mountain to the cave. Happy 
birthday: he's forty-four today. But though the city behind and below 



95 



him throngs with festival, up he climbs, alone. No new birthday suit for 
him, neatly pressed and folded at the foot of his bed. A man of ascetic 
tastes. (What strange manner of businessman is this?) 

Question: What is the opposite of faith? 

Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief. 

Doubt. 

The human condition, but what of the angelic? Halfway between 
Allahgod and homosap, did they ever doubt? They did: challenging 
God's will one day they hid muttering beneath the Throne, daring to 
ask forbidden things: antiquestions. Is it right that. Could it not be 
argued. Freedom, the old antiquest. He calmed them down, naturally, 
employing management skills a la god. Flattered them: you will be the 
instruments of my will on earth, of the salvationdamnation of man, all 
the usual etcetera. And hey presto, end of protest, on with the haloes, 
back to work. Angels are easily pacified; turn them into instruments 
and they'll play your harpy tune. Human beings are tougher nuts, can 
doubt anything, even the evidence of their own eyes. Of behind-their- 
own eyes. Of what, as they sink heavy-lidded, transpires behind closed 
peepers. . . angels, they don't have much in the way of a will. To will is 
to disagree; not to submit; to dissent. 

I know; devil talk. Shaitan interrupting Gibreel. 

Me? 

The businessman: looks as he should, high forehead, eaglenose, broad 
in the shoulders, narrow in the hip. Average height, brooding, dressed 
in two pieces of plain cloth, each four ells in length, one draped around 
his body, the other over his shoulder. Large eyes; long lashes like a 
girl's. His strides can seem too long for his legs, but he's a light-footed 
man. Orphans learn to be moving targets, develop a rapid walk, quick 



96 



reactions, hold-yourtongue caution. Up through the thorn-bushes and 
opobalsam trees he comes, scrabbling on boulders, this is a fit man, no 
softbellied usurer he. And yes, to state it again: takes an odd sort of 
business wallah to cut off into the wilds, up Mount Cone, sometimes 
for a month at a stretch, just to be alone. 

His name: a dream-name, changed by the vision. Pronounced correctly, 
it means he-for-whom-thanks-should-be-given, but he won't answer to 
that here; nor, though he's well aware of what they call him, to his 
nickname in Jahilia down below -- _he-who-goes-up-and-down-old- 
Coney_. Here he is neither Mahomet nor MocHammered; has adopted, 
instead, the demon-tag the farangis hung around his neck. To turn 
insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride 
the names they were given in scorn; likewise, our mountain-climbing, 
prophetmotivated solitary is to be the medieval baby--frightener, the 
Devil's synonym: Mahound. 

That's him. Mahound the businessman, climbing his hot mountain in 
the Hijaz. The mirage of a city shines below him in the sun. 



The city of Jahilia is built entirely of sand, its structures formed of the 
desert whence it rises. It is a sight to wonder at: walled, four-gated, the 
whole of it a miracle worked by its citizens, who have learned the trick 
of transforming the fine white dune-sand of those forsaken parts, -- the 
very stuff of inconstancy, -- the quintessence of unsettlement, shifting, 
treachery, lack--of--form, -- and have turned it, by alchemy, into the 
fabric of their newly invented permanence. These people are a mere 
three or four generations removed from their nomadic past, when they 
were as rootless as the dunes, or rather rooted in the knowledge that 
the journeying itself was home. 



97 



-- Whereas the migrant can do without the journey altogether; it's no 
more than a necessary evil; the point is to arrive. --. 

Quite recently, then, and like the shrewd businessmen they were, the 
Jahilians settled down at the intersection — point of the routes of the 
great caravans, and yoked the dunes to their will. Now the sand serves 
the mighty urban merchants. Beaten into cobbles, it paves Jahilia's 
tortuous streets; by night, golden flames blaze out from braziers of 
burnished sand. There is glass in the windows, in the long, slitlike 
windows set in the infinitely high sand-walls of the merchant palaces; 
in the alleys of Jahilia, donkey-carts roll forward on smooth silicon 
wheels. I, in my wickedness, sometimes imagine the coming of a great 
wave, a high wall of foaming water roaring across the desert, a liquid 
catastrophe full of snapping boats and drowning arms, a tidal wave that 
would reduce these vain sandcastles to the nothingness, to the grains 
from which they came. But there are no waves here. Water is the enemy 
in Jahilia. Carried in earthen pots, it must never be spilled (the penal 
code deals fiercely with offenders), for where it drops the city erodes 
alarmingly. Holes appear in roads, houses tilt and sway. The 
watercarriers of Jahilia are loathed necessities, pariahs who cannot be 
ignored and therefore can never be forgiven. It never rains in Jahilia; 
there are no fountains in the silicon gardens. A few palms stand in 
enclosed courtyards, their roots travelling far and wide below the earth 
in search of moisture. The city's water comes from underground 
streams and springs, one such being the fabled Zamzam, at the heart of 
the concentric sand-- city, next to the House of the Black Stone. Here, 
at Zamzam, is a beheshti, a despised water—carrier, drawing up the 
vital, dangerous fluid. He has a name: Khalid. 

A city of businessmen, Jahilia. The name of the tribe is _Shark_. 

In this city, the businessman-turned-prophet, Mahound, is founding 
one of the world's great religions; and has arrived, on this day, his 



98 



birthday, at the crisis of his life. There is a voice whispering in his ear: 
_What kind of idea are you? Man-or-mouse?_ 

We know that voice. We've heard it once before. 



While Mahound climbs Coney, Jahilia celebrates a different anniversary. 
In ancient time the patriarch Ibrahim came into this valley with Hagar 
and Ismail, their son. Here, in this waterless wilderness, he abandoned 
her. She asked him, can this be God's will? He replied, it is. And left, 
the bastard. From the beginning men" used God to justify the 
unjustifiable. He moves in mysterious ways: men say. Small wonder, 
then, that women have turned to me. -- But I'll keep to the point; Hagar 
wasn't a witch. She was trusting: _then surely He will not let me 
perish_. After Ibrahim left her, she fed the baby at her breast until her 
milk ran out. Then she climbed two hills, first Safa then Marwah, 
running from one to the other in her desperation, trying to sight a tent, 
a camel, a human being. She saw nothing. That was when he came to 
her, Gibreel, and showed her the waters of Zamzam. So Hagar survived; 
but why now do the pilgrims congregate? To celebrate her survival? No, 
no. They are celebrating the honour done the valley by the visit of, 
you've guessed it, Ibrahim. In that loving consort's name, they gather, 
worship and, above all, spend. 

Jahilia today is all perfume. The scents of Araby, of _Arabia Odorifera_, 
hang in the air: balsam, cassia, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh. The 
pilgrims drink the wine of the date-palm and wander in the great fair of 
the feast of Ibrahim. And, among them, one wanders whose furrowed 
brow sets him apart from the cheerful crowd: a tall man in loose white 
robes, he'd stand almost a full head higher than Mahound. His beard is 
shaped close to his slanting, high--boned face; his gait contains the lilt, 
the deadly elegance of power. What's he called? -- The vision yields his 
name eventually; it, too, is changed by the dream. Here he is, Karim Abu 



99 



Simbel, Grandee of Jahilia, husband to the ferocious, beautiful Hind. 
Head of the ruling council of the city, rich beyond numbering, owner of 
the lucrative temples at the city gates, wealthy in camels, comptroller of 
caravans, his wife the greatest beauty in the land: what could shake the 
certainties of such a man? And yet, for Abu Simbel, too, a crisis is 
approaching. A name gnaws at him, and you can guess what it is, 
Mahound Mahound Mahound. 

O the splendour of the fairgrounds of Jahilia! Here in vast scented tents 
are arrays of spices, of senna leaves, of fragrant woods; here the perfume 
vendors can be found, competing for the pilgrims' noses, and for their 
wallets, too. Abu Simbel pushes his way through the crowds. Merchants, 
Jewish, Monophysite, Nabataean, buy and sell pieces of silver and gold, 
weighing them, biting coins with knowing teeth. There is linen from 
Egypt and silk from China; from Basra, arms and grain. There is 
gambling, and drinking, and dance. There are slaves for sale, Nubian, 
Anatolian, Aethiop. The four factions of the tribe of Shark control 
separate zones of the fair, the scents and spices in the Scarlet Tents, 
while in the Black Tents the cloth and leather. The SilverHaired 
grouping is in charge of precious metals and swords. Entertainment -- 
dice, belly-dancers, palm-wine, the smoking of hashish and afeem -- is 
the prerogative of the fourth quarter of the tribe, the Owners of the 
Dappled Camels, who also run the slave trade. Abu Simbel looks into a 
dance tent. Pilgrims sit clutching money-bags in their left hands; every 
so often a coin is moved from bag to right-hand palm. The dancers 
shake and sweat, and their eyes never leave the pilgrims' fingertips; 
when the coin transfer ceases, the dance also ends. The great man 
makes a face and lets the tent-flap fall. 

Jahilia has been built in a series of rough circles, its houses spreading 
outwards from the House of the Black Stone, approximately in order of 
wealth and rank. Abu Simbel's palace is in the first circle, the 
innermost ring; he makes his way down one of the rambling, windy 



100 



radial roads, past the city's many seers who, in return for pilgrim 
money, are chirping, cooing, hissing, possessed variously by djinnis of 
birds, beasts, snakes. A sorceress, failing for a moment to look up, 
squats in his path: "Want to capture a girlie's heart, my dear? Want an 
enemy under your thumb? Try me out; try my little knots!" And raises, 
dangles a knotty rope, ensnarer of human lives -- but, seeing now to 
whom she speaks, lets fall her disappointed arm and slinks away, 
mumbling, into sand. 

Everywhere, noise and elbows. Poets stand on boxes and declaim while 
pilgrims throw coins at their feet. Some bards speak rajaz verses, their 
four--syllable metre suggested, according to legend, by the walking pace 
of the camel; others speak the qasidah, poems of wayward mistresses, 
desert adventure, the hunting of the onager. In a day or so it will be 
time for the annual poetry competition, after which the seven best 
verses will be nailed up on the walls of the House of the Black Stone. 
The poets are getting into shape for their big day; Abu Simbel laughs at 
minstrels singing vicious satires, vitriolic odes commissioned by one 
chief against another, by one tribe against its neighbour. And nods in 
recognition as one of the poets falls into step beside him, a sharp 
narrow youth with frenzied fingers. This young lampoonist already has 
the most feared tongue in all Jahilia, but to Abu Simbel he is almost 
deferential. "Why so preoccupied, Grandee? If you were not losing your 
hair I'd tell you to let it down." Abu Simbel grins his sloping grin. 
"Such a reputation," he muses. "Such fame, even before your milk-teeth 
have fallen out. Look out or we'll have to draw those teeth for you." He 
is teasing, speaking lightly, but even this lightness is laced with menace, 
because of the extent of his power. The boy is unabashed. Matching Abu 
Simbel stride for stride, he replies: "For every one you pull out, a 
stronger one will grow, biting deeper, drawing hotter spurts of blood." 
The Grandee, vaguely, nods. "You like the taste of blood," he says. The 
boy shrugs. "A poet's work," he answers. "To name the unnamable, to 
point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop 



101 



it from going to sleep." And if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his 
verses inflict, then they will nourish him. He is the satirist, Baal. 

A curtained litter passes by; some fine lady of the city, out to see the 
fair, borne on the shoulders of eight Anatolian slaves. Abu Simbel takes 
the young Baal by the elbow, under the pretext of steering him out of 
the road; murmurs, "I hoped to find you; if you will, a word." Baa! 
marvels at the skill of the Grandee. Searching for a man, he can make 
his quarry think he has hunted the hunter. Abu Simbel's grip tightens; 
by the elbow, he steers his companion towards the holy of holies at the 
centre of the town. 

"I have a commission for you," the Grandee says. "A literary matter. I 
know my limitations; the skills of rhymed malice, the arts of metrical 
slander, are quite beyond my powers. You understand." 

But Baal, the proud, arrogant fellow, stiffens, stands on his dignity. "It 
isn't right for the artist to become the servant of the state." Simbel's 
voice falls lower, acquires silkier rhythms. "Ah, yes. Whereas to place 
yourself at the disposal of assassins is an entirely honourable thing." A 
cult of the dead has been raging in J ahilia. When a man dies, paid 
mourners beat themselves, scratch their breasts, tear hair. A hamstrung 
camel is left on the grave to die. And if the man has been murdered his 
closest relative takes ascetic vows and pursues the murderer until the 
blood has been avenged by blood; whereupon it is customary to 
compose a poem of celebration, but few revengers are gifted in rhyme. 
Many poets make a living by writing assassination songs, and there is 
general agreement that the finest of these blood--praising versifiers is 
the precocious polemicist, Baal. Whose professional pride prevents him 
from being bruised, now, by the Grandee's little taunt. "That is a 
cultural matter," he replies. Abu Simbel sinks deeper still into silkiness. 
"Maybe so," he whispers at the gates of the House of the Black Stone, 
"but, Baal, concede: don't I have some small claim upon you? We both 
serve, or so I thought, the same mistress." 



102 



Now the blood leaves Baal's cheeks; his confidence cracks, falls from 
him like a shell. The Grandee, seemingly oblivious to the alteration, 
sweeps the satirist forward into the House. 

They say in Jahilia that this valley is the navel of the earth; that the 
planet, when it was being made, went spinning round this point. Adam 
came here and saw a miracle: four emerald pillars bearing aloft a giant 
glowing ruby, and beneath this canopy a huge white stone, also glowing 
with its own light, like a vision of his soul. He built strong walls around 
the vision to bind it forever to the earth. This was the first House. It 
was rebuilt many times -- once by Ibrahim, after Hagar's and Ismail's 
angel-- assisted survival -- and gradually the countless touchings of the 
white stone by the pilgrims of the centuries darkened its colour to 
black. Then the time of the idols began; by the time of Mahound, three 
hundred and sixty stone gods clustered around God's own stone. 

What would old Adam have thought? His own sons are here now: the 
colossus of Hubal, sent by the Amalekites from Hit, stands above the 
treasury well, Hubal the shepherd, the waxing crescent moon; also, 
glowering, dangerous Kain. He is the waning crescent, blacksmith and 
musician; he, too, has his devotees. 

Hubal and Kain look down on Grandee and poet as they stroll. And the 
Nabataean proto-Dionysus, He-Of-Shara; the morning star, Astarte, and 
saturnine Nakruh. Here is the sun god, Manaf! Look, there flaps the 
giant Nasr, the god in eagleform! See Quzah, who holds the rainbow ... 
is this not a glut of gods, a stone flood, to feed the glutton hunger of 
the pilgrims, to quench their unholy thirst. The deities, to entice the 
travellers, come -- like the pilgrims -- from far and wide. The idols, too, 
are delegates to a kind of international fair. 

There is a god here called Allah (means simply, the god). Ask the 
Jahilians and they'll acknowledge that this fellow has some sort of 



103 



overall authority, but he isn't very popular: an all--rounder in an age of 
specialist statues. 

Abu Simbel and newly perspiring Baal have arrived at the shrines, 
placed side by side, of the three best-beloved goddesses in Jahilia. They 
bow before all three: Uzza of the radiant visage, goddess of beauty and 
love; dark, obscure Manat, her face averted, her purposes mysterious, 
sifting sand between her fingers -- she's in charge of destiny -- she's 
Fate; and lastly the highest of the three, the mother-goddess, whom the 
Greeks called Lato. Hat, they call her here, or, more frequently, Al--Lat. 
_The goddess_. Even her name makes her Allah's opposite and equal. 
Lat the omnipotent. His face showing sudden relief, Baal flings himself 
to the ground and prostrates himself before her. Abu Simbel stays on 
his feet. 

The family of the Grandee, Abu Simbel -- or, to be more precise, of his 
wife Hind -- controls the famous temple of Lat at the city's southern 
gate. (They also draw the revenues from the Manat temple at the east 
gate, and the temple of Uzza in the north.) These concessions are the 
foundations of the Grandee's wealth, so he is of course, Baal 
understands, the servant of Lat. And the satirist's devotion to this 
goddess is well known throughout Jahilia. So that was all he meant! 
Trembling with relief, Baal remains prostrate, giving thanks to his 
patron Lady. Who looks upon him benignly; but a goddess's expresson 
is not to be relied upon. Baal has made a serious mistake. 

Without warning, the Grandee kicks the poet in the kidney. Attacked 
just when he has decided he's safe, Baa! squeals, rolls over, and Abu 
Simbel follows him, continuing to kick. There is the sound of a 
cracking rib. "Runt," the Grandee remarks, his voice remaining low and 
good natured. "High-voiced pimp with small testicles. Did you think 
that the master of Lat's temple would claim comradeship with you just 
because of your adolescent passion for her?" And more kicks, regular, 
methodical. Baal weeps at Abu Simbel's feet. The House of the Black 



104 



Stone is far from empty, but who would come between the Grandee and 
his wrath? Abruptly, Baal's tormentor squats down, grabs the poet by 
the hair, jerks his head up, whispers into his ear: "Baal, she wasn't the 
mistress I meant," and then Baal lets out a howl of hideous scif-pity, 
because he knows his life is about to end, to end when he has so much 
still to achieve, the poor guy. The Grandee's lips brush his ear. "Shit of 
a frightened camel," Abu Simbel breathes, "I know you fuck my wife." 
He observes, with interest, that Baal has acquired a prominent erection, 
an ironic monument to his fear. 

Abu Simbel, the cuckolded Grandee, stands up, commands, "On your 
feet", and Baal, bewildered, follows him outside. 

The graves of Ismail and his mother Hagar the Egyptian lie by the 
north--west face of the House of the Black Stone, in an enclosure 
surrounded by a low wall. Abu Simbel approaches this area, halts a little 
way off. In the enclosure is a small group of men. The water-carrier 
Khalid is there, and some sort of bum from Persia by the outlandish 
name of Salman, and to complete this trinity of scum there is the slave 
Bilal, the one Mahound freed, an enormous black monster, this one, 
with a voice to match his size. The three idlers sit on the enclosure wall. 
"That bunch of riff-raff," Abu Simbel says. "Those are your targets. 
Write about them; and their leader, too." Baa!, for all his terror, cannot 
conceal his disbelief. "Grandee, those _goons_ -- those fucking 
_clowns?_ You don't have to worry about them. What do you think? 
That Mahound's one God will bankrupt your temples? Three-sixty 
versus one, and the one wins? Can't happen." He giggles, close to 
hysteria. Abu Simbel remains calm: "Keep your insults for your verses." 
Giggling Baa! can't stop. "A revolution of water--carriers, immigrants 
and slaves . . . wow, Grandee. I'm really scared." Abu Simbel looks 
carefully at the tittering poet. "Yes," he answers, "that's right, you 
should be afraid. Get writing, please, and I expect these verses to be 



105 



your masterpieces." Baa! crumples, whines. "But they are a waste of my, 
my small talent . . ." He sees that he has said too much. 

"Do as you're told," are Abu Simbel's last words to him. "You have no 
choice." 



The Grandee lolls in his bedroom while concubines attend to his needs. 
Coconut--oil for his thinning hair, wine for his palate, tongues for his 
delight. _The boy was right. Why do I fear Mahound?_ He begins, idly, 
to count the concubines, gives up at fifteen with a flap of his hand. 
_The boy. Hind will go on seeing him, obviously; what chance does he 
have against her will?_ It is a weakness in him, he knows, that he sees 
too much, tolerates too much. He has his appetites, why should she not 
have hers? As long as she is discreet; and as long as he knows. He must 
know; knowledge is his narcotic, his addiction. He cannot tolerate what 
he does not know and for that reason, if for no other, Mahound is his 
enemy, Mahound with his raggle-taggle gang, the boy was right to 
laugh. He, the Grandee, laughs less easily. Like his opponent he is a 
cautious man, he walks on the balls of his feet. He remembers the big 
one, the slave, Bilal: how his master asked him, outside the Lat temple, 
to enumerate the gods. "One," he answered in that huge musical voice. 
Blasphemy, punishable by death. They stretched him out in the 
fairground with a boulder on his chest. _How many did you say?_ One, 
he repeated, one. A second boulder was added to the first. _One one 
one_. Mahound paid his owner a large price and set him free. 

No, Abu Simbel reflects, the boy Baal was wrong, these men are worth 
our time. Why do I fear Mahound? For that: one one one, his terrifying 
singularity. Whereas I am always divided, always two or three or fifteen. 
I can even see his point of view; he is as wealthy and successful as any of 
us, as any of the councillors, but because he lacks the right sort of 
family connections, we haven't offered him a place amongst our group. 



106 



Excluded by his orphaning from the mercantile elite, he feels he has 
been cheated, he has not had his due. He always was an ambitious 
fellow. Ambitious, but also solitary. You don't rise to the top by 
climbing up a hill all by yourself. Unless, maybe, you meet an angel 
there . . . yes, that's it. I see what he's up to. He wouldn't understand 
me, though. _What kind of idea am I?_ I bend. I sway. I calculate the 
odds, trim my sails, manipulate, survive. That is why I won't accuse 
Hind of adultery. We are a good pair, ice and fire. Her family shield, the 
fabled red lion, the many-toothed manticore. Let her play with her 
satirist; between us it was never sex. I'll finish him when she's finished 
with. Here's a great lie, thinks the Grandee of Jahilia drifting into sleep: 
the pen is mightier than the sword. 



The fortunes of the city of Jahilia were built on the supremacy of sand 
over water. In the old days it had been thought safer to transport goods 
across the desert than over the seas, where monsoons could strike at 
any time. In those days before meteorology such matters were 
impossible to predict. For this reason the cara-- vanserais prospered. 
The produce of the world came up from Zafar to Sheba, and thence 
tojahilia and the oasis of Yathrib and on to Midian where Moses lived; 
thence to Aqabah and Egypt. From Jahilia other trails began: to the east 
and north--east, towards Mesopotamia and the great Persian empire. To 
Petra and to Palmyra, where once Solomon loved the Queen of Sheba. 
Those were fatted days. But now the fleets plying the waters around the 
peninsula have grown hardier, their crews more skilful, their 
navigational instruments more accurate. The camel trains are losing 
business to the boats. Desert-ship and sea-ship, the old rivalry, sees a 
tilt in the balance of power. Jahilia's rulers fret, but there is little they 
can do. Sometimes Abu Simbel suspects that only the pilgrimage stands 
between the city and its ruin. The council searches the world for statues 
of alien gods, to attract new pilgrims to the city of sand; but in this, 



107 



coo, they have competitors. Down in Sheba a great temple has been 
built, a shrine to rival the House of the Black Stone. Many pilgrims 
have been tempted south, and the numbers at the Jahilia fairgrounds 
are falling. 

At the recommendation of Abu Simbel, the rulers of Jahilia have added 
to their religious practices the tempting spices of profanity. The city 
has become famous for its licentiousness, as a gambling den, a 
whorehouse, a place of bawdy songs and wild, loud music. On one 
occasion some members of the tribe of Shark went too far in their greed 
for pilgrim money. The gatekeepers at the House began demanding 
bribes from weary voyagers; four of them, piqued at receiving no more 
than a pittance, pushed two travellers to their deaths down the great, 
steep flight of stairs. This practice backfired, discouraging return visits. 
. . Today, female pilgrims are often kidnapped for ransom, or sold into 
concubinage. Gangs of young Sharks patrol the city, keeping their own 
kind of law. It is said that Abu Simbel meets secretly with the 
gangleaders and organizes them all. This is the world into which 
Mahound has brought his message: one one one, Amid such 
multiplicity, it sounds like a dangerous word. 

The Grandee sits up and at once concubines approach to resume their 
oilings and smoothings. He waves them away, claps his hands. The 
eunuch enters. "Send a messenger to the house of the kahin Mahound," 
Abu Simbel commands. _We will set him a little test. A fair contest: 
three against one_. 



Water-carrier immigrant slave: Mahound's three disciples are washing 
at the well of Zamzam. In the sand--city, their obsession with water 
makes them freakish. Ablutions, always ablutions, the legs up to the 
knees, the arms down to the elbows, the head down to the neck. Dry- 
torsoed, wet-limbed and damp-headed, what eccentrics they look! 



108 



Splish, splosh, washing and praying. On their knees, pushing arms, legs, 
heads back into the ubiquitous sand, and then beginning again the 
cycle of water and prayer. These are easy targets for Baal's pen. Their 
water--loving is a treason of a sort; the people of Jahilia accept the 
omnipotence of sand. It lodges between their fingers and toes, cakes 
their lashes and hair, clogs their pores. They open themselves to the 
desert: come, sand, wash us in aridity. That is the Jahilian way from the 
highest citizen to the lowest of the low. They are people of silicon, and 
water-lovers have come among them. 

Baal circles them from a safe distance -- Bilal is not a man to trifle with 
-- and yells gibes. "If Mahound's ideas were worth anything, do you 
think they'd only be popular with trash like you?" Salman restrains 
Bilal: "We should be honoured that the mighty Baal has chosen to 
attack us," he smiles, and Bilal relaxes, subsides. Khalid the water- 
carrier is jumpy, and when he sees the heavy figure of Mahound's uncle 
Hamza approaching he runs towards him anxiously. Hamza at sixty is 
still the city's most renowned fighter and lion-hunter. Though the 
truth is less glorious than the eulogies: Hamza has many times been 
defeated in combat, saved by friends or lucky chances, rescued from 
lions' jaws. He has the money to keep such items out of the news. And 
age, and survival, bestow a sort of validation upon a martial legend. 
Bilal and Salman, forgetting Baal, follow Khalid. All three are nervous, 
young. 

He's still not home, Hamza reports. And Khalid, worried: But it's been 
hours, what is that bastard doing to him, torture, thumbscrews, whips? 
Salman, once again, is the calmest: That isn't Simbel's style, he says, 
it's something sneaky, depend upon it. And Bilal bellows loyally: 
Sneaky or not, I have faith in him, in the Prophet. He won't break. 
Hamza offers only a gentle rebuke: Oh, Bilal, how many times must he 
tell you? Keep your faith for God. The Messenger is only a man. The 
tension bursts out of Khalid: he squares up to old Hamza, demands, Are 



109 



you saying that the Messenger is weak? You may be his uncle . . . Hamza 
clouts the water-carrier on the side of the head. Don't let him see your 
fear, he says, not even when you're scared half to death. 

The four of them are washing once more when Mahound arrives; they 
cluster around him, whowhatwhy. Hamza stands back. "Nephew, this is 
no damn good," he snaps in his soldier's bark. "When you come down 
from Coney there's a brightness on you. Today it's something dark." 

Mahound sits on the edge of the well and grins. "I've been offered a 
deal." _By Abu Simbel?_ Khalid shouts. _Unthinkable. Refuse_. Faithful 
Bilal admonishes him: Do not lecture the Messenger. Of course, he has 
refused. Salman the Persian asks: What sort of deal. Mahound smiles 
again. "At least one of you wants to know." 

"It's a small matter," he begins again. "A grain of sand. Abu Simbel 
asks Allah to grant him one little favour." Hamza sees the exhaustion in 
him. As if he had been wrestling with a demon. The water—carrier is 
shouting: "Nothing! Not a jot! " Hamza shuts him up. 

"If our great God could find it in his heart to concede -- he used that 
word, _concede_ -- that three, only three of the three hundred and sixty 
idols in the house are worthy of worship . . ." 

"There is no god but God!" Bilal shouts. And his fellows join in: "Ya 
Allah!" Mahound looks angry. "Will the faithful hear the Messenger?" 
They fall silent, scuffing their feet in the dust. 

"He asks for Allah's approval of Lat, Uzza and Manat. In return, he 
gives his guarantee that we will be tolerated, even officially recognized; 
as a mark of which, I am to be elected to the council of Jahilia. That's 
the offer." 

Salman the Persian says: "It's a trap. If you go up Coney and come 
down with such a Message, he'll ask, how could you make Gibreel 



110 



provide just the right revelation? He'll be able to call you a charlatan, a 
fake." Mahound shakes his head. "You know, Salman, that I have 
learned how to listen. This _listening_ is not of the ordinary kind; it's 
also a kind of asking. Often, when Gibreel comes, it's as if he knows 
what's in my heart. It feels to me, most times, as if he comes from 
within my heart: from within my deepest places, from my soul." 

"Or it's a different trap," Salman persists. "How long have we been 
reciting the creed you brought us? There is no god but God. What are 
we if we abandon it now? This weakens us, renders us absurd. We cease 
to be dangerous. Nobody will ever take us seriously again." 

Mahound laughs, genuinely amused. "Maybe you haven't been here 
long enough," he says kindly. "Haven't you noticed? The people do not 
take us seriously. Never more than fifty in the audience when I speak, 
and half of those are tourists. Don't you read the lampoons that Baal 
pins up all over town?" He recites: 

_Messenger, do please lend a_ 

_careful ear. Your monophilia_, 

_your one one one, ain't for Jahilia_. 

_Return to sender_. 

"They mock us everywhere, and you call us dangerous," he cried. 

Now Hamza looks worried. "You never worried about their opinions 
before. Why now? Why after speaking to Simbel?" 

Mahound shakes his head. "Sometimes I think I must make it easier for 
the people to believe." 

An uneasy silence covers the disciples; they exchange looks, shift their 
weight. Mahound cries out again. "You all know what has been 



111 



happening. Our failure to win converts. The people will not give up 
their gods. They will not, not." He stands up, strides away from them, 
washes by himself on the far side of the Zamzam well, kneels to pray. 

"The people are sunk in darkness," says Bilal, unhappily. "But they will 
see. They will hear. God is one." Misery infects the four of them; even 
Hamza is brought low. Mahound has been shaken, and his followers 
quake. 

He stands, bows, sighs, comes round to rejoin them. "Listen to me, all 
of you," he says, putting one arm around Bilal's shoulders, the other 
around his uncle's. "Listen: it is an interesting offer." 

Unembraced Khalid interrupts bitterly: "It is a _tempting_ deal." The 
others look horrified. Hamza speaks very gently to the water--carrier. 
"Wasn't it you, Khalid, who wanted to fight me just now because you 
wrongly assumed that, when I called the Messenger a man, I was really 
calling him a weakling? Now what? Is it my turn to challenge you to a 
fight?" 

Mahound begs for peace. "If we quarrel, there's no hope." He tries to 
raise the discussion to the theological level. "It is not suggested that 
Allah accept the three as his equals. Not even Lat. Only that they be 
given some sort of intermediary, lesser status." 

"Like devils," Bilal bursts out. 

"No," Salman the Persian gets the point. "Like archangels. The 
Grandee's a clever man." 

"Angels and devils," Mahound says. "Shaitan and Gibreel. We all, 
already, accept their existence, halfway between God and man. Abu 
Simbel asks that we admit just three more to this great company. Just 
three, and, he indicates, alljahilia's souls will be ours." 



112 



"And the House will be cleansed of statues?" Salman asks. Mahound 
replies that this was not specified. Salman shakes his head. "This is 
being done to destroy you." And Bilal adds: "God cannot be four." And 
Khalid, close to tears: "Messenger, what are you saying? Lat, Manat, 
Uzza -- they're all _females!_ For pity's sake! Are we to have goddesses 
now? Those old cranes, herons, hags?" 

Misery strain fatigue, etched deeply into the Prophet's face. Which 
Hamza, like a soldier on a battlefield comforting a wounded friend, 
cups between his hands. "We can't sort this out for you, nephew," he 
says. "Climb the mountain. Go ask Gibreel." 



Gibreel: the dreamer, whose point of view is sometimes that of the 
camera and at other moments, spectator. When he's a camera the pee oh 
vee is always on the move, he hates static shots, so he's floating up on a 
high crane looking down at the foreshortened figures of the actors, or 
he's swooping down to stand invisibly between them, turning slowly on 
his heel to achieve a threehundred-and-sixty-degree pan, or maybe he'll 
try a dolly shot, tracking along beside Baal and Abu Simbel as they 
walk, or hand--held with the help of a steadicam he'll probe the secrets 
of the Grandee's bedchamber. But mostly he sits up on Mount Cone 
like a paying customer in the dress circle, and Jahilia is his silver screen. 
He watches and weighs up the action like any movie fan, enjoys the 
fights infidelities moral crises, but there aren't enough girls for a real 
hit, man, and where are the goddamn songs? They should have built up 
that fairground scene, maybe a cameo role for Pimple Billimoria in a 
show-tent, wiggling her famous bazooms. 

And then, without warning, Hamza says to Mahound: "Go ask Gibreel," 
and he, the dreamer, feels his heart leaping in alarm, who, me? I'm 
supposed to know the answers here? I'm sitting here watching this 
picture and now this actor points his finger out at me, who ever heard 



113 



the like, who asks the bloody audience of a "theological" to solve the 
bloody plot? -- But as the dream shifts, it's always changing form, he, 
Gibreel, is no longer a mere spectator but the central player, the star. 
With his old weakness for taking too many roles: yes, yes,, he's not just 
playing the archangel but also him, the businessman, the Messenger, 
Mahound, coming up the mountain when he comes. Nifty cutting is 
required to pull off this double role, the two of them can never be seen 
in the same shot, each must speak to empty air, to the imagined 
incarnation of the other, and trust to technology to create the missing 
vision, with scissors and Scotch tape or, more exotically, with the help 
of a travelling mat. Not to be confused ha ha with any magic carpet. 

He has understood: that he is afraid of the other, the business-man, 
isn't it crazy? The archangel quaking before the mortal man. It's true, 
but: the kind of fear you feel when you're on a film set for the very first 
time and there, about to make his entrance, is one of the living legends 
of the cinema; you think, I'll disgrace myself, I'll dry, I'll corpse, you 
want like mad to be _worthy_. You will be sucked along in the 
slipstream of his genius, he can make you look good, like a high flier, 
but you will know if you aren't pulling your weight and even worse so 
will he Gibreel's fear, the fear of the self his dream creates, makes him 
struggle against Mahound's arrival, to try and put it off, but he's 
coming now, no quesch, and the archangel holds his breath. 

Those dreams of being pushed out on stage when you've no business 
being there, you don't know the story haven't learned any lines, but 
there's a full house watching, watching: feels like that. Or the true story 
of the white actress playing a black woman in Shakespeare. She went on 
stage and then realized she still had her glasses on, eck, but she had 
forgotten to blacken her hands so she couldn't reach up to take the 
specs off, double eek: like that also. _Mahound comes to me for 
revelation, asking me to choose between monotheist and henotheist 



114 



alternatives, and I'm just some idiot actor having a bhaenchud 
nightmare, what the fuck do I know, yaar, what to tell you, help. Help_. 



To reach Mount Cone from Jahilia one must walk into dark ravines 
where the sand is not white, not the pure sand filtered long ago 
through the bodies of sea-cucumbers, but black and dour, sucking light 
from the sun. Coney crouches over you like an imaginary beast. You 
ascend along its spine. Leaving behind the last trees, white--flowered 
with thick, milky leaves, you climb among the boulders, which get 
larger as you get higher, until they resemble huge walls and start 
blotting out the sun. The lizards arc blue as shadows. Then you are on 
the peak, Jahilia behind you, the featureless desert ahead. You descend 
on the desert side, and about five hundred feet down you reach the cave, 
which is high enough to stand upright in, and whose floor is covered in 
miraculous albino sand. As you climb you hear the desert doves calling 
your name, and the rocks greet you, too, in your own language, crying 
Mahound, Mahound. When you reach the cave you are tired, you lie 
down, you fall asleep. 



But when he has rested he enters a different sort of sleep, a sort of not — 
sleep, the condition that he calls his _listening_, and he feels a 
dragging pain in the gut, like something trying to be born, and now 
Gibreel, who has been hovering-above-looking-down, feels a confusion, 
_who am I_, in these moments it begins to seem that the archangel is 
actually _inside the Prophet_, I am the dragging in the gut, I am the 
angel being extruded from the sleeper's navel, I emerge, Gibreel 
Farishta, while my other self, Mahound, lies _listening_, entranced, I 
am bound to him, navel to navel, by a shining cord of light, not 
possible to say which of us is dreaming the other. We flow in both 
directions along the umbilical cord. 



115 



Today, as well as the overwhelming intensity of Mahound, Gibreel feels 
his despair: his doubts. Also, that he is in great need, but Gibreel still 
doesn't know his lines ... he listens to the listening-which-is-also-an- 
asking. Mahound asks: They were shown miracles but they didn't 
believe. They saw you come to me, in full view of the city, and open my 
breast, they saw you wash my heart in the waters of Zamzam and 
replace it inside my body. Many of them saw this, but still they worship 
stones. And when you came at night and flew me to Jerusalem and I 
hovered above the holy city, didn't I return and describe it exactly as it 
is, accurate down to the last detail? So that there could be no doubting 
the miracle, and still they went to Lat. Haven't I already done my best 
to make things simple for them? When you carried me up to the Throne 
itself, and Allah laid upon the faithful the great burden of forty prayers 
a day. On the return journey I met Moses and he said, the burden is too 
heavy, go back and plead for less. Four times I went back, four times 
Moses said, still too many, go back again. But by the fourth time Allah 
had reduced the duty to five prayers and I refused to return. I felt 
ashamed to beg any more. In his bounty he asks for five instead of 
forty, and still they love Manat, they want Uzza. What can I do? What 
shall I recite? 

Gibreel remains silent, empty of answers, for Pete's sake, bhai, don't go 
asking me. Mahound's anguish is awful. He _asks_: is it possible that 
they _are_ angels? Lat, Manat, Uzza . . . can I call them angelic? Gibreel, 
have you got sisters? Are these the daughters of God? And he castigates 
himself, O my vanity, I am an arrogant man, is this weakness, is it just a 
dream of power? Must I betray myself for a seat on the council? Is this 
sensible and wise or is it hollow and self-loving? I don't even know if 
the Grandee is sincere. Does he know? Perhaps not even he. I am weak 
and he's strong, the offer gives him many ways of ruining me. But I, 
too, have much to gain. The souls of the city, of the world, surely they 
are worth three angels? Is Allah so unbending that he will not embrace 
three more to save the human race? -- I don't know anything. -- Should 



116 



God be proud or humble, majestic or simple, yielding or un-? _What 
kind of idea is he? What kind am I? 



Halfway into sleep, or halfway back to wakefulness, Gibreel Farishta is 
often filled with resentment by the non-appearance, in his persecuting 
visions, of the One who is supposed to have the answers, _He_ never 
turns up, the one who kept away when I was dying, when I needed 
needed him. The one it's all about, Allah lshvar God. Absent as ever 
while we writhe and suffer in his name. 

The Supreme Being keeps away; what keeps returning is this scene, the 
entranced Prophet, the extrusion, the cord of light, and then Gibreel in 
his dual role is both above-looking-down and below-staring-up. And 
both of them scared out of their minds by the transcendence of it. 
Gibreel feels paralysed by the presence of the Prophet, by his greatness, 
thinks I can't make a sound I'd seem such a goddamn fool. Hamza's 
advice: never show your fear: archangels need such advice as well as 
water-carriers. An archangel must look composed, what would the 
Prophet think if God's Exalted began to gibber with stage fright? 

It happens: revelation. Like this: Mahound, still in his notsicep, 
becomes rigid, veins bulge in his neck, he clutches at his centre. No, no, 
nothing like an epileptic fit, it can't be explained away that easily; what 
epileptic fit ever caused day to turn to night, caused clouds to mass 
overhead, caused the air to thicken into soup while an angel hung, 
scared silly, in the sky above the sufferer, held up like a kite on a golden 
thread? The dragging again the dragging and now the miracle starts in 
his my our guts, he is straining with all his might at something, forcing 
something, and Gibreel begins to feel that strength that force, here it is 
_at my own jaw_ working it, opening shutting; and the power, starting 
within Mahound, reaching up to _my vocal cords_ and the voice comes. 



117 



_Not my voice_ I'd never know such words I'm no classy speaker never 
was never will be but this isn't my voice it's a Voice. 

Mahound's eyes open wide, he's seeing some kind of vision, staring at 
it, oh, that's right, Gibreel remembers, me. He's seeing me. My lips 
moving, being moved by. What, whom? Don't know, can't say. 
Nevertheless, here they are, coming out of my mouth, up my throat, 
past my teeth: the Words. 

Being God's postman is no fun, yaar. 

Butbutbut: God isn't in this picture. 

God knows whose postman I've been. 



In Jahilia they are waiting for Mahound by the well. Khalid the water- 
carrier, as ever the most impatient, runs off to the city gate to keep a 
look--out. Hamza, like all old soldiers accustomed to keeping his own 
company, squats down in the dust and plays a game with pebbles. There 
is no sense of urgency; sometimes he is away for days, even weeks. And 
today the city is all but deserted; everybody has gone to the great tents 
at the fairground to hear the poets compete. In the silence, there is only 
the noise of Hamza's pebbles, and the gurgles of a pair of rock-doves, 
visitors from Mount Cone. Then they hear the running feet. 

Khalid arrives, out of breath, looking unhappy. The Messenger has 
returned, but he isn't coming to Zamzam. Now they are all on their 
feet, perplexed by this departure from established practice. Those who 
have been waiting with palm-fronds and steles ask Hamza: Then there 
will be no Message? But Khalid, still catching his breath, shakes his 
head. "I think there will be. He looks the way he does when the Word 
has been given. But he didn't speak to me and walked towards the 
fairground instead." 



118 



Hamza takes command, forestalling discussion, and leads the way. The 
disciples -- about twenty have gathered -- follow him to the fleshpots of 
the city, wearing expressions of pious disgust. Hamza alone seems to be 
looking forward to the fair. 

Outside the tents of the Owners of the Dappled Camels they find 
Mahound, standing with his eyes closed, steeling himself to the task. 
They ask anxious questions; he doesn't answer. After a few moments, he 
enters the poetry tent. 



Inside the tent, the audience reacts to the arrival of the unpopular 
Prophet and his wretched followers with derision. But as Mahound 
walks forward, his eyes firmly closed, the boos and catcalls die away and 
a silence falls. Mahound does not open his eyes for an instant, but his 
steps are sure, and he reaches the stage without stumblings or 
collisions. He climbs the few steps up into the light; still his eyes stay 
shut. The assembled lyric poets, composers of assassination eulogies, 
narrative versifiers and satirists -- Baal is here, of course -- gaze with 
amusement, but also with a little unease, at the sleepwalking Mahound. 
In the crowd his disciples jostle for room. The scribes fight to be near 
him, to take down whatever he might say. 

The Grandee Abu Simbel rests against bolsters on a silken carpet 
positioned beside the stage. With him, resplendent in golden Egyptian 
neckwear, is his wife Hind, that famous Grecian profile with the black 
hair that is as long as her body. Abu Simbel rises and calls to Mahound, 
"Welcome." He is all urbanity. "Welcome, Mahound, the seer, the 
kahin." It's a public declaration of respect, and it impresses the 
assembled crowd. The Prophet's disciples are no longer shoved aside, 
but allowed to pass. Bewildered, half-pleased, they come to the front. 
Mahound speaks without opening his eyes. 



119 



"This is a gathering of many poets," he says clearly, "and I cannot claim 
to be one of them. But I am the Messenger, and I bring verses from a 
greater One than any here assembled." 

The audience is losing patience. Religion is for the temple; J ahilians 
and pilgrims alike are here for entertainment. Silence the fellow! Throw 
him out! -- But Abu Simbel speaks again. "If your God has really 
spoken to you," he says, "then all the world must hear it." And in an 
instant the silence in the great tent is complete. 

"_The Star_," Mahound cries out, and the scribes begin to write. 

"In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful! 

"By the Pleiades when they set: Your companion is not in error; neither 
is he deviating. 

"Nor does he speak from his own desires. It is a revelation that has been 
revealed: one mighty in power has taught him. 

"He stood on the high horizon: the lord of strength. Then he came 
close, closer than the length of two bows, and revealed to his servant 
that which is revealed. 

"The servant's heart was true when seeing what he saw. Do you, then, 
dare to question what was seen? 

"I saw him also at the lote--tree of the uttermost end, near which lies 
the Garden of Repose. When that tree was covered by its covering, my 
eye was not averted, neither did my gaze wander; and I saw some of the 
greatest signs of the Lord." 

At this point, without any trace of hesitation or doubt, he recites two 
further verses. 



120 



"Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza, and Manat, the third, the 
other?" -- After the first verse, Hind gets to her feet; the Grandee of 
Jahilia is already standing very straight. And Mahound, with silenced 
eyes, recites: "They are the exalted birds, and their intercession is 
desired indeed." 

As the noise -- shouts, cheers, scandal, cries of devotion to the goddess 
Al-Lat -- swells and bursts within the marquee, the already astonished 
congregation beholds the doubly sensational spectacle of the Grandee 
Abu Simbel placing his thumbs upon the lobes of his ears, fanning out 
the fingers of both hands and uttering in a loud voice the formula: 
"Allahu Akbar." After which he falls to his knees and presses a 
deliberate forehead to the ground. His wife, Hind, immediately follows 
his lead. 

The water-carrier Khalid has remained by the open tent-flap throughout 
these events. Now he stares in horror as everyone gathered there, both 
the crowd in the tent and the overflow of men and women outside it, 
begins to kneel, row by row, the movement rippling outwards from 
Hind and the Grandee as though they were pebbles thrown into a lake; 
until the entire gathering, outside the tent as well as in, kneels bottom-- 
in--air before the shuteye Prophet who has recognized the patron 
deities of the town. The Messenger himself remains standing, as if loth 
to join the assembly in its devotions. Bursting into tears, the water-- 
carrier flees into the empty heart of the city of the sands. His teardrops, 
as he runs, burn holes in the earth, as if they contain some harsh 
corrosive acid. 

Mahound remains motionless. No trace of moisture can be detected on 
the lashes of his unopened eyes. 



121 



On that night of the desolating triumph of the businessman in the tent 
of the unbelievers, there take place certain murders for which the first 
lady of Jahilia will wait years to take her terrible revenge. 

The Prophet's uncle Hamza has been walking home alone, his head 
bowed and grey in the twilight of that melancholy victory, when he 
hears a roar and looks up, to see a gigantic scarlet lion poised to leap at 
him from the high battlements of the city. He knows this beast, this 
fable. _The iridescence of its scarlet hide blends into the shimmering 
brightness of the desert sands. Through its nostrils it exhales the 
horror of the lonely places of the earth. It spits out pestilence, and 
when armies venture into the desert, it consumes them utterly_. 
Through the blue last light of evening he shouts at the beast, preparing, 
unarmed as he is, to meet his death. "Jump, you bastard, manticore. I've 
strangled big cats with my bare hands, in my time." When I was 
younger. When I was young. 

There is laughter behind him, and distant laughter echoing, or so it 
seems, from the battlements. He looks around him; the manticore has 
vanished from the ramparts. He is surrounded by a group of Jahilians in 
fancy dress, returning from the fair and giggling. "Now that these 
mystics have embraced our Lat, they are seeing new gods round every 
corner, no?" Hamza, understanding that the night will be full of 
terrors, returns home and calls for his battle sword. "More than 
anything in the world," he growls at the papery valet who has served 
him in war and peace for forty-four years, "I hate admitting that my 
enemies have a point. Damn sight better to kill the bastards, I've always 
thought. Neatest bloody solution." The sword has remained sheathed in 
its leather scabbard since the day of his conversion by his nephew, but 
tonight, he confides to the valet, "The lion is loose. Peace will have to 
wait." 

It is the last night of the festival of Ibrahim. Jahilia is masquerade and 
madness. The oiled fatty bodies of the wrestlers have completed their 



122 



writhings and the seven poems have been nailed to the walls of the 
House of the Black Stone. Now singing whores replace the poets, and 
dancing whores, also with oiled bodies, are at work as well; night- 
wrestling replaces the daytime variety. The courtesans dance and sing in 
golden, bird-beaked masks, and the gold is reflected in their clients' 
shining eyes. Gold, gold everywhere, in the palms of the profiteering 
Jahilians and their libidinous guests, in the flaming sand--braziers, in 
the glowing walls of the night city. Hamza walks dolorously through 
the streets of gold, past pilgrims who lie unconscious while cutpurses 
earn their living. He hears the wine--blurred carousing through every 
golden-gleaming doorway, and feels the song and howling laughter and 
coin-chinkings hurting him like mortal insults. But he doesn't find 
what he's looking for, not here, so he moves away from the illuminated 
revelry of gold and begins to stalk the shadows, hunting the apparition 
of the lion. 

And finds, after hours of searching, what he knew would be waiting, in 
a dark corner of the city's outer walls, the thing of his vision, the red 
manticore with the triple row of teeth. The manticorc has blue eyes and 
a mannish face and its voice is half-- trumpet and half-flute. It is fast as 
the wind, its nails are corkscrew talons and its tail hurls poisone& 
quills. It loves to feed on human flesh ... a brawl is taking place. 
Knives hissing in the silence, at times the clash of metal against metal. 
Hamza recognizes the men under attack: Khalid, Salman, Bilal. A lion 
himself now, Hamza draws his sword, roars the silence into shreds, runs 
forward as fast as sixty--year--old legs will go. His friends' assailants are 
unrecognizable behind their masks. 

It has been a night of masks. Walking the debauched Jahilian streets, 
his heart full of bile, Hamza has seen men and women in the guise of 
eagles, jackals, horses, gryphons, salamanders, wart-- hogs, rocs; welling 
up from the murk of the alleys have come two-headed amphisbaenae 
and the winged bulls known as Assyrian sphinxes. Djinns, houris, 



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demons populate the city on this night of phantasmagoria and lust. But 
only now, in this dark place, does he see the red masks he's been 
looking for. The manlion masks: he rushes towards his fate. 



In the grip of a self-destructive unhappiness the three disciples had 
started drinking, and owing to their unfamiliarity with alcohol they 
were soon not just intoxicated but stupid-drunk. They stood in a small 
piazza and started abusing the passers--by, and after a while the water- 
carrier Khalid brandished his water-- skin, boasting. He could destroy 
the city, he carried the ultimate weapon. Water: it would cleanse Jahilia 
the filthy, wash it away, so that a new start could be made from the 
purified white sand. That was when the lion--men started chasing them, 
and after a long pursuit they were cornered, the booziness draining out 
of them on account of their fear, they were staring into the red masks 
of death when Hamza arrived just in time. 

. . . Gibreel floats above the city watching the fight. It's quickly over 
once Hamza gets to the scene. Two masked assailants run away, two lie 
dead. Bilal, Khalid and Salman have been cut, but not too badly. Graver 
than their wounds is the news behind the lion--masks of the dead. 
"Hind's brothers," Hamza recognizes. "Things are finishing for us 
now." 

Slayers of manticores, water-terrorists, the followers of Mahound sit 
and weep in the shadow of the city wall. 



As for him, Prophet Messenger Businessman: his eyes are open now. He 
paces the inner courtyard of his house, his wife's house, and will not go 
in to her. She is almost seventy and feels these days more like a mother 
than a. She, the rich woman, who employed him to manage her caravans 



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long ago. His management skills were the first things she liked about 
him. And after a time, they were in love. It isn't easy to be a brilliant, 
successful woman in a city where the gods are female but the females 
are merely goods. Men had either been afraid of her, or had thought her 
so strong that she didn't need their consideration. He hadn't been 
afraid, and had given her the feeling of constancy she needed. While he, 
the orphan, found in her many women in one: mother sister lover sibyl 
friend. When he thought himself crazy she was the one who believed in 
his visions. "It is the archangel," she told him, "not some fog out of 
your head. It is Gibreel, and you are the Messenger of God." 

He can't won't see her now. She watches him through a stonelatticed 
window. He can't stop walking, moves around the courtyard in a 
random sequence of unconscious geometries, his footsteps tracing out a 
series of ellipses, trapeziums, rhomboids, ovals, rings. While she 
remembers how he would return from the caravan trails full of stories 
heard at wayside oases. A prophet, Isa, born to a woman named 
Maryam, born of no man under a palm--tree in the desert. Stories that 
made his eyes shine, then fade into a distantness. She recalls his 
excitability: the passion with which he'd argue, all night if necessary, 
that the old nomadic times had been better than this city of gold where 
people exposed their baby daughters in the wilderness. In the old tribes 
even the poorest orphan would be cared for. God is in the desert, he'd 
say, not here in this miscarriage of a place. And she'd reply, Nobody's 
arguing, my love, it's late, and tomorrow there are the accounts. 

She has long ears; has already heard what he said about Lat, Uzza, 
Manat. So what? In the old days he wanted to protect the baby 
daughters of Jahilia; why shouldn't he take the daughters of Allah 
under his wing as well? But after asking herself this question she shakes 
her head and leans heavily on the cool wall beside her stone-screened 
window. While below her, her husband walks in pentagons, 
parallelograms, six--pointed stars, and then in abstract and increasingly 



125 



labyrinthine patterns for which there are no names, as though unable to 
find a simple line. 

When she looks into the courtyard some moments later, however, he 
has gone. 



The Prophet wakes between silk sheets, with a bursting headache, in a 
room he has never seen. Outside the window the sun is near its savage 
zenith, and silhouetted against the whiteness is a tall figure in a black 
hooded cloak, singing softly in a strong, low voice. The song is one that 
the women of Jahilia chorus as they drum the men to war. 

_Advance and we embrace you_, 

_embrace you, embrace you_, 

_advance and we embrace you_ 

_and soft carpets spread_. 

_Turn back and we desert you_, 

_we leave you, desert you_, 

_retreat and we'll not love you_, 

_not in love's bed_. 

He recognizes Hind's voice, sits up, and finds himself naked beneath 
the creamy sheet. He calls to her: "Was I attacked?" Hind turns to him, 
smiling her Hind smile. "Attacked?" she mimics him, and claps her 
hands for breakfast. Minions enter, bring, serve, remove, scurry off. 
Mahound is helped into a silken robe of black and gold; Hind, 
exaggeratedly, averts her eyes. "My head," he asks again. "Was I 



126 



struck?" She stands at the window, her head hung low, playing the 
demure maid. "Oh, Messenger, Messenger," she mocks him. "What an 
ungallant Messenger it is. Couldn't you have come to my room 
consciously, of your own will? No, of course not, I repel you, I'm sure." 
He will not play her game. "Am I a prisoner?" he asks, and again she 
laughs at him. "Don't be a fool." And then, shrugging, relents: "I was 
walking the city streets last night, masked, to see the festivities, and 
what should I stumble over but your unconscious body? Like a drunk in 
the gutter, Mahound. I sent my servants for a litter and brought you 
home. Say thank you." 

"Thank you." 

"I don't think you were recognized," she says. "Or you'd be dead, 
maybe. You know how the city was last night. People overdo it. My own 
brothers haven't come home yet." 

It comes back to him now, his wild anguished walk in the corrupt city, 
staring at the souls he had supposedly saved, looking at the simurgh- 
effigies, the devil-masks, the behemoths and hippogriffs. The fatigue of 
that long day on which he climbed down from Mount Cone, walked to 
the town, underwent the strain of the events in the poetry marquee, -- 
and afterwards, the anger of the disciples, the doubt, -- the whole of it 
had overwhelmed him. "I fainted," he remembers. 

She comes and sits close to him on the bed, extends a finger, finds the 
gap in his robe, strokes his chest. "Fainted," she murmurs. "That's 
weakness, Mahound. Are you becoming weak?" 

She places the stroking finger over his lips before he can reply. "Don't 
say anything, Mahound. I am the Grandee's wife, and neither of us is 
your friend. My husband, however, is a weak man. In Jahilia they think 
he's cunning, but I know better. He knows I take lovers and he does 
nothing about it, because the temples are in my family's care. Lat's, 



127 



Uzza's, Manat's. The -- shall I call them _mosques?_ -- of your new 
angels." She offers him melon cubes from a dish, tries to feed him with 
her fingers. He will not let her put the fruit into his mouth, takes the 
pieces with his own hand, eats. She goes on. "My last lover was the boy, 
Baal." She sees the rage on his face. "Yes," she says contentedly. "I 
heard he had got under your skin. But he doesn't matter. Neither he 
nor Abu Simbel is your equal. But I am." 

"I must go," he says. "Soon enough," she replies, returning to the 
window. At the perimeter of the city they are packing away the tents, 
the long camel--trains are preparing to depart, convoys of carts are 
already heading away across the desert; the carnival is over. She turns to 
him again. 

"I am your equal," she repeats, "and also your opposite. I don't want 
you to become weak. You shouldn't have done what you did." 

"But you will profit," Mahound replies bitterly. "There's no threat now 
to your temple revenues." 

"You miss the point," she says softly, coming closer to him, bringing 
her face very close to his. "If you are for Allah, I am for Al-Lat. And she 
doesn't believe your God when he recognizes her. Her opposition to 
him is implacable, irrevocable, engulfing. The war between us cannot 
end in truce. And what a truce! Yours is a patronizing, condescending 
lord. Al-Lat hasn't the slightest wish to be his daughter. She is his 
equal, as I am yours. Ask Baal: he knows her. As he knows me." 

"So the Grandee will betray his pledge," Mahound says. 

"Who knows?" scoffs Hind. "He doesn't even know himself. He has to 
work out the odds. Weak, as I told you. But you know I'm telling the 
truth. Between Allah and the Three there can be no peace. I don't want 



128 



it. I want the fight. To the death; that is the kind of idea I am. What 
kind are you?" 

"You are sand and I am water," Mahound says. "Water washes sand 
away." 

"And the desert soaks up water," Hind answers him. "Look around 
you." 

Soon after his departure the wounded men arrive at the Grandee's 
palace, having screwed up their courage to inform Hind that old Hamza 
has killed her brothers. But by then the Messenger is nowhere to be 
found; is heading, once again, slowly towards Mount Cone. 



Gibreel, when he's tired, wants to murder his mother for giving him 
such a damn fool nickname, _angel_, what a word, he begs _what? 
whom?_ to be spared the dream--city of crumbling sandcastles and lions 
with three-tiered teeth, no more heart—washing of prophets or 
instructions to recite or promises of paradise, let there be an end to 
revelations, finito, khattam-shud. What he longs for: black, dreamless 
sleep. Mother-fucking dreams, cause of all the trouble in the human 
race, movies, too, if I was God I'd cut the imagination right out of 
people and then maybe poor bastards like me could get a good night's 
rest. Fighting against sleep, he forces his eyes to stay open, unblinking, 
until the visual purple fades off the retinas and sends him blind, but 
he's only human, in the end he falls down the rabbit-hole and there he 
is again, in Wonderland, up the mountain, and the businessman is 
waking up, and once again his wanting, his need, goes to work, not on 
my jaws and voice this time, but on my whole body; he diminishes me to 
his own size and pulls me in towards him, his gravitational field is 
unbelievable, as powerful as a goddamn megastar . . . and then Gibreel 
and the Prophet are wrestling, both naked, rolling over and over, in the 



129 



cave of the fine white sand that rises around them like a veil. _As if he's 
learning me, searching me, as if I'm the one undergoing the test_. 

In a cave five hundred feet below the summit of Mount Cone, Mahound 
wrestles the archangel, hurling him from side to side, and let me tell 
you he's getting in _everywhere_, his tongue in my ear his fist around 
my balls, there was never a person with such a rage in him, he has to has 
to know he has to K N OW and I have nothing to tell him, he's twice as 
physically fit as I am and four times as knowledgeable, minimum, we 
may both have taught ourselves by listening a lot but as is plaintosee 
he's even a better listener than me; so we roll kick scratch, he's getting 
cut up quite a bit but of course my skin stays smooth as a baby, you 
can't snag an angel on a bloody thorn-bush, you can't bruise him on a 
rock. And they have an audience, there are djinns and afreets and all 
sorts of spooks sitting on the boulders to watch the fight, and in the 
sky are the three winged creatures, looking like herons or swans or just 
women depending on the tricks of the light . . . Mahound finishes it. He 
throws the fight. 

After they had wrestled for hours or even weeks Mahound was pinned 
down beneath the angel, it's what he wanted, it was his will filling me 
up and giving me the strength to hold him down, because archangels 
can't lose such fights, it wouldn't be right, it's only devils who get 
beaten in such circs, so the moment I got on top he started weeping for 
joy and then he did his old trick, forcing my mouth open and making 
the voice, the Voice, pour out of me once again, made it pour all over 
him, like sick. 



At the end of his wrestling match with the Archangel Gibreel, the 
Prophet Mahound falls into his customary, exhausted, postrevelatory 
sleep, but on this occasion he revives more quickly than usual. When he 
comes to his senses in that high wilderness there is nobody to be seen, 



130 



no winged creatures crouch on rocks, and hejumps to his feet, filled 
with the urgency of his news. "It was the Devil," he says aloud to the 
empty air, making it true by giving it voice. "The last time, it was 
Shaitan." This is what he has _heard_ in his _listening_, that he has 
been tricked, that the Devil came to him in the guise of the archangel, 
so that the verses he memorized, the ones he recited in the poetry tent, 
were not the real thing but its diabolic opposite, not godly, but satanic. 
He returns to the city as quickly as he can, to expunge the foul verses 
that reek of brimstone and sulphur, to strike them from the record for 
ever and ever, so that they will survive in just one or two unreliable 
collections of old traditions and orthodox interpreters will try and 
unwrite their story, but Gibreel, hovering-watching from his highest 
camera angle, knows one small detail, just one tiny thing that's a bit of 
a problem here, namely that _it was me both times, baba, me first and 
second also me_. From my mouth, both the statement and the 
repudiation, verses and converses, universes and reverses, the whole 
thing, and we all know how my mouth got worked. 

"First it was the Devil," Mahound mutters as he rushes to Jahilia. "But 
this time, the angel, no question. He wrestled me to the ground." 



The disciples stop him in the ravines near the foot of Mount Cone to 
warn him of the fury of Hind, who is wearing white mourning garments 
and has loosened her black hair, letting it fly about her like a storm, or 
trail in the dust, erasing her footsteps so that she seems like an 
incarnation of the spirit of vengeance itself. They have all fled the city, 
and Hamza, too, is lying low; but the word is that Abu Simbel has not, 
as yet, acceded to his wife's pleas for the blood that washes away blood. 
He is still calculating the odds in the matter of Mahound and the 
goddesses Mahound, against his followers' advice, returns to Jahilia, 
going straight to the House of the Black Stone. The disciples follow 
him in spite of their fear. A crowd gathers in the hope of further 



131 



scandal or dismemberment or some such entertainment. Mahound does 
not disappoint them. 

He stands in front of the statues of the Three and announces the 
abrogation of the verses which Shaitan whispered in his ear. These 
verses are banished from the true recitation, _al-qur"an_. New verses 
are thundered in their place. 

"Shall He have daughters and you sons?" Mahound recites. "That 
would be a fine division! 

"These are but names you have dreamed of, you and your fathers. Allah 
vests no authority in them." 

He leaves the dumbfounded House before it occurs to anybody to pick 
up, or throw, the first stone. 



After the repudiation of the Satanic verses, the Prophet Mahound 
returns home to find a kind of punishment awaiting him. A kind of 
vengeance -- whose? Light or dark? Goodguy badguy? -- wrought, as is 
not unusual, upon the innocent. The Prophet's wife, seventy years old, 
sits by the foot of a stone--latticed window, sits upright with her back 
to the wall, dead. 

Mahound in the grip of his misery keeps himself to himself, hardly says 
a word for weeks. The Grandee of Jahilia institutes a policy of 
persecution that advances too slowly for Hind. The name of the new 
religion is _Submission_; now Abu Simbel decrees that its adherents 
must submit to being sequestered in the most wretched, hovel-filled 
quarter of the city; to a curfew; to a ban on employment. And there are 
many physical assaults, women spat upon in shops, the manhandling of 
the faithful by the gangs of young turks whom the Grandee secretly 
controls, fire thrown at night through a window to land amongst 



132 



unwary sleepers. And, by one of the familiar paradoxes of history, the 
numbers of the faithful multiply, like a crop that miraculously 
flourishes as conditions of soil and climate grow worse and worse. 

An offer is received, from the citizens of the oasis--settlement of 
Yathrib to the north: Yathrib will shelter those--who-submit, if they 
wish to leave Jahilia. Hamza is of the opinion that they must go. "You'll 
never finish your Message here, nephew, take my word. Hind won't be 
happy till she's ripped out your tongue, to say nothing of my balls, 
excuse me." Mahound, alone and full of echoes in the house of his 
bereavement, gives his consent, and the faithful depart to make their 
plans. Khalid the water-carrier hangs back and the hollow-eyed Prophet 
waits for him to speak. Awkwardly, he says: "Messenger, I doubted you. 
But you were wiser than we knew. First we said, Mahound will never 
compromise, and you compromised. Then we said, Mahound has 
betrayed us, but you were bringing us a deeper truth. You brought us 
the Devil himself, so that we could witness the workings of the Evil 
One, and his overthrow by the Right. You have enriched our faith. I am 
sorry for what I thought." 

Mahound moves away from the sunlight falling through the window. 
"Yes." Bitterness, cynicism. "It was a wonderful thing I did. Deeper 
truth. Bringing you the Devil. Yes, that sounds like me." 



From the peak of Mount Cone, Gibreel watches the faithful escaping 
Jahilia, leaving the city of aridity for the place of cool palms and water, 
water, water. In small groups, almost empty-- handed, they move across 
the empire of the sun, on this first day of the first year at the new 
beginning of Time, which has itself been born again, as the old dies 
behind them and the new waits ahead. And one day Mahound himself 
slips away. When his escape is discovered, Baal composes a valedictory 
ode: 



133 



_What kind of idea_ 

_does "Submission" seem today?_ 

_One full of fear_. 

_An idea that runs away_. 

Mahound has reached his oasis; Gibreel is not so lucky. Often, now, he 
finds himself alone on the summit of Mount Cone, washed by the cold, 
falling stars, and then they fall upon him from the night sky, the three 
winged creatures, Lat Uzza Manat, flapping around his head, clawing at 
his eyes, biting, whipping him with their hair, their wings. He puts up 
his hands to protect himself, but their revenge is tireless, continuing 
whenever he rests, whenever he drops his guard. He struggles against 
them, but they are faster, nimbler, winged. 

He has no devil to repudiate. Dreaming, he cannot wish them away. 



III. Ellowen Deeowen 



I know what a ghost is, the old woman affirmed silently. Her name was 
Rosa Diamond; she was eighty-eight years old; and she was squinting 
beakily through her salt-caked bedroom windows, watching the full 
moon's sea. And I know what it isn't, too, she nodded further, it isn't a 
scarification or a flapping sheet, so pooh and pish to all _that_ 
bunkum. What's a ghost? Unfinished business, is what. -- At which the 
old lady, six feet tall, straight--backed, her hair hacked short as any 
man's, jerked the corners of her mouth downwards in a satisfied, 
tragedy-mask pout, -- pulled a knitted blue shawl tight around bony 



134 



shoulders, -- and closed, for a moment, her sleepless eyes, to pray for 
the past's return. Come on, you Norman ships, she begged: let's have 
you, Willie-the-Conk. 

Nine hundred years ago all this was under water, this portioned shore, 
this private beach, its shingle rising steeply towards the little row of 
flaky-paint villas with their peeling boathouses crammed full of 
deckchairs, empty picture frames, ancient tuckboxes stuffed with 
bundles of letters tied up in ribbons, mothballed silk--and-lace lingerie, 
the tearstained reading matter of once--young girls, lacrosse sticks, 
stamp albums, and all the buried treasure--chests of memories and lost 
time. The coastline had changed, had moved a mile or more out to sea, 
leaving the first Norman castle stranded far from water, lapped now by 
marshy land that afflicted with all manner of dank and boggy agues the 
poor who lived there on their whatstheword _estates_. She, the old lady, 
saw the castle as the ruin of a fish betrayed by an antique ebbing tide, 
as a sea-monster petrified by time. Nine hundred years! Nine centuries 
past, the Norman fleet had sailed right through this Englishwoman's 
home. On clear nights when the moon was full, she waited for its 
shining, revenant ghost. 

Best place to see 'em come, she reassured herself, grandstand view. 
Repetition had become a comfort in her antiquity; the well-worn 
phrases, _unfinished business, grandstand view_, made her feel solid, 
unchanging, sempiternal, instead of the creature of cracks and absences 
she knew herself to be. -- When the full moon sets, the dark before the 
dawn, that's their moment. Billow of sail, flash of oars, and the 
Conqueror himself at the flagship's prow, sailing up the beach between 
the barnacled wooden breakwaters and a few inverted sculls. -- O, I've 
seen things in my time, always had the gift, the phantom-sight. -- The 
Conqueror in his pointy metal-nosed hat, passing through her front 
door, gliding betwixt the cakestands and antimacassared sofas, like an 



135 



echo resounding faintly through that house of remembrances and 
yearnings; then falling silent; _as the grave_. 

-- Once as a girl on Battle Hill, she was fond of recounting, always in 
the same time--polished words, -- once as a solitary child, I found 
myself, quite suddenly and with no sense of strangeness, in the middle 
of a war. Longbows, maces, pikes. The flaxen-Saxon boys, cut down in 
their sweet youth. Harold Arroweye and William with his mouth full of 
sand. Yes, always the gift, the phantom-sight. -- The story of the day on 
which the child Rosa had seen a vision of the battle of Hastings had 
become, for the old woman, one of the defining landmarks of her being, 
though it had been told so often that nobody, not even the teller, could 
confidently swear that it was true. _I long for them sometimes_, ran 
Rosa's practised thoughts. _Les beaux jours: the dear, dead days_. She 
closed, once more, her reminiscent eyes. When she opened them, she 
saw, down by the water's edge, no denying it, something beginning to 
move. 

What she said aloud in her excitement: "I don't believe it!" -- "It isn't 
true!" -- "He's never _here!_" -- On unsteady feet, with bumping chest, 
Rosa went for her hat, cloak, stick. While, on the winter seashore, 
Gibreel Farishta awoke with a mouth full of, no, not sand. 



Snow. 



Ptui! 



Gibreel spat; leapt up, as if propelled by expectorated slush; wished 
Chamcha -- as has been reported -- many happy returns of the day; and 
commenced to beat the snow from sodden purple sleeves. "God, yaar," 
he shouted, hopping from foot to foot, "no wonder these people grow 
hearts of bloody ice." 



136 



Then, however, the pure delight of being surrounded by such a quantity 
of snow quite overcame his first cynicism -- for he was a tropical man -- 
and he started capering about, saturnine and soggy, making snowballs 
and hurling them at his prone companion, envisioning a snowman, and 
singing a wild, swooping rendition of the carol "Jingle Bells". The first 
hint of light was in the sky, and on this cosy sea-coast danced Lucifer, 
the morning's star. 

His breath, it should be mentioned, had somehow or other wholly 
ceased to smell . . . 

"Come on, baby," cried invincible Gibreel, in whose behaviour the 
reader may, not unreasonably, perceive the delirious, dislocating effects 
of his recent fall. "Rise "n" shine! Let's take this place by storm." 
Turning his back on the sea, blotting out the bad memory in order to 
make room for the next things, passionate as always for newness, he 
would have planted (had he owned one) a flag, to claim in the name of 
whoknowswho this white country, his new-found land. "Spoono," he 
pleaded, "shift, baba, or are you bloody dead?" Which being uttered 
brought the speaker to (or at least towards) his senses. He bent over the 
other's prostrate form, did not dare to touch. "Not now, old Chumch," 
he urged. "Not when we came so far." 

Saladin: was not dead, but weeping. The tears of shock freezing on his 
face. And all his body cased in a fine skin of ice, smooth as glass, like a 
bad dream come true. In the miasmic semi--consciousness induced by 
his low body temperature he was possessed by the nightmare-fear of 
cracking, of seeing his blood bubbling up from the ice-breaks, of his 
flesh coming away with the shards. He was full of questions, did we 
truly, I mean, with your hands flapping, and then the waters, you don't 
mean to tell me they _actually_, like in the movies, when Charlton 
Heston stretched out his staff, so that we could, across the ocean--floor, 
it never happened, couldn't have, but if not then how, or did we in 
some way underwater, escorted by the mermaids, the sea passing 



137 



through us as if we were fish or ghosts, was that the truth, yes or no, I 
need to have to.. . but when his eyes opened the questions acquired the 
indistinctness of dreams, so that he could no longer grasp them, their 
tails flicked before him and vanished like submarine fins. He was 
looking up at the sky, and noticed that it was the wrong colour entirely, 
blood-orange flecked with green, and the snow was blue as ink. He 
blinked hard but the colours refused to change, giving rise to the 
notion that he had fallen out of the sky into some wrongness, some 
other place, not England or perhaps not-England, some counterfeit 
zone, rotten borough, altered state. Maybe, he considered briefly: Hell? 
No, no, he reassured himself as unconsciousness threatened, that can't 
be it, not yet, you aren't dead yet; but dying. 

Well then: a transit lounge. 

He began to shiver; the vibration grew so intense that it occurred to 
him that he might break up under the stress, like a, like a, plane. 

Then nothing existed. He was in a void, and if he were to survive he 
would have to construct everything from scratch, would have to invent 
the ground beneath his feet before he could take a step, only there was 
no need now to worry about such matters, because here in front of him 
was the inevitable: the tall, bony figure of Death, in a wide-brimmed 
straw hat, with a dark cloak flapping in the breeze. Death, leaning on a 
silverheaded cane, wearing olive-green Wellington boots. 

"What do you imagine yourselves to be doing here?" Death wanted to 
know. "This is private property. There's a sign." Said in a woman's 
voice that was somewhat tremulous and more than somewhat thrilled. 

A few moments later, Death bent over him -- _to kiss me_, he panicked 
silently. _To suck the breath from my body_. He made small, futile 
movements of protest. 



138 



"He's alive all right," Death remarked to, who was it, Gibreel. "But, my 
dear. His breath: what a pong. When did he last clean his teeth?" 



One man's breath was sweetened, while another's, by an equal and 
opposite mystery, was soured. What did they expect? Falling like that 
out of the sky: did they imagine there would be no sideeffects? Higher 
Powers had taken an interest, it should have been obvious to them both, 
and such Powers (I am, of course, speaking of myself) have a 
mischievous, almost a wanton attitude to tumbling flies. And another 
thing, let's be clear: great falls change people. You think _they_ fell a 
long way? In the matter of tumbles, I yield pride of place to no 
personage, whether mortal or im--. From clouds to ashes, down the 
chimney you might say, from heavenlight to hellfire. . . under the stress 
of a long plunge, I was saying, mutations are to be expected, not all of 
them random. Unnatural selections. Not much of a price to pay for 
survival, for being reborn, for becoming new, and at their age at that. 

What? I should enumerate the changes? 

Good breath/bad breath. 

And around the edges of Gibreel Farishta's head, as he stood with his 
back to the dawn, it seemed to Rosa Diamond that she discerned a 
faint, but distinctly golden, _glow_. 

And were those bumps, at Chamcha's temples, under his sodden and 
still-in-place bowler hat? 

And, and, and. 



139 



When she laid eyes on the bizarre, satyrical figure of Gibreel Farishta 
prancing and dionysiac in the snow, Rosa Diamond did not think of 
_say it_ angels. Sighting him from her window, through salt--cloudy 
glass and age--clouded eyes, she felt her heart kick out, twice, so 
painfully that she feared it might stop; because in that indistinct form 
she seemed to discern the incarnation of her soul's most deeply buried 
desire. She forgot the Norman invaders as if they had never been, and 
struggled down a slope of treacherous pebbles, too quickly for the 
safety of her not-quitenonagenarian limbs, so that she could pretend to 
scold the impossible stranger for trespassing on her land. 

Usually she was implacable in defence of her beloved fragment of the 
coast, and when summer weekenders strayed above the high tide line 
she descended upon them _like a wolf on the fold_, her phrase for it, to 
explain and to demand: -- This is my garden, do you see. -- And if they 
grew brazen, -- getoutofitsillyoldmoo, itsthesoddingbeach, -- she would 
return home to bring out a long green garden hose and turn it 
remorselessly upon their tartan blankets and plastic cricket bats and 
bottles of sun--tan lotion, she would smash their children's sandcastles 
and soak their liver-- sausage sandwiches, smiling sweetly all the while: 
_You won't mind if I fust water my lawn?_ . . . O, she was a One, known 
in the village, they couldn't lock her away in any old folks' home, sent 
her whole family packing when they dared to suggest it, never darken 
her doorstep, she told them, cut the whole lot off without a penny or a 
by your leave. All on her own now, she was, never a visitor from week to 
blessed week, not even Dora Shufflebotham who went in and did for her 
all those years, Dora passed over September last, may she rest, still it's a 
wonder at her age how the old trout manages, all those stairs, she may 
be a bit of a bee but give the devil her due, there's many"s'd go barmy 
being that alone. 

For Gibreel there was neither a hosepipe nor the _sharp end_ of her 
tongue. Rosa uttered token words of reproof, held her nostrils while 



140 



examining the fallen and newly sulphurous Saladin (who had not, at 
this point, removed his bowler hat), and then, with an access of shyness 
which she greeted with nostalgic astonishment, stammered an 
invitation, yyou bbetter bring your ffriend in out of the cccold, and 
stamped back up the shingle to put the kettle on, grateful to the bite of 
the winter air for reddening her cheeks and _saving_, in the old 
comforting phrase, _her blushes_. 



As a young man Saladin Chamcha had possessed a face of quite 
exceptional innocence, a face that did not seem ever to have 
encountered disillusion or evil, with skin as soft and smooth as a 
princess's palm. It had served him well in his dealings with women, and 
had, in point of fact, been one of the first reasons his future wife 
Pamela Lovelace had given for falling in love with him. "So round and 
cherubic," she marvelled, cupping her hands under his chin. "Like a 
rubber ball." 

He was offended. "I've got bones," he protested. "Bone _structure_." 

"Somewhere in there," she conceded. "Everybody does." 

After that he was haunted for a time by the notion that he looked like a 
featureless jellyfish, and it was in large part to assuage this feeling that 
he set about developing the narrow, haughty demeanour that was now 
second nature to him. It was, therefore, a matter of some consequence 
when, on arising from a long slumber racked by a series of intolerable 
dreams, prominent among which were images of Zeeny Vakil, 
transformed into a mermaid, singing to him from an iceberg in tones of 
agonizing sweetness, lamenting her inability to join him on dry land, 
calling him, calling; -- but when he went to her she shut him up fast in 
the heart of her ice-mountain, and her song changed to one of triumph 
and revenge. . . it was, I say, a serious matter when Saladin Chamcha 



141 



woke up, looked into a mirror framed in blue-and-gold Japonaiserie 
lacquer, and found that old cherubic face staring out at him once again; 
while, at his temples, he observed a brace of fearfully discoloured 
swellings, indications that he must have suffered, at some point in his 
recent adventures, a couple of mighty blows. 

Looking into the mirror at his altered face, Chamcha attempted to 
remind himself of himself. I am a real man, he told the mirror, with a 
real history and a planned-out future. I am a man to whom certain 
things are of importance: rigour, self—discipline, reason, the pursuit of 
what is noble without recourse to that old crutch, God. The ideal of 
beauty, the possibility of exaltation, the mind. I am: a married man. But 
in spite of his litany, perverse thoughts insisted on visiting him. As for 
instance: that the world did not exist beyond that beach down there, 
and, now, this house. That if he weren't careful, if he rushed matters, 
he would fall off the edge, into clouds. Things had to be _made_. Or 
again: that if he were to telephone his home, right now, as he should, if 
he were to inform his loving wife that he was not dead, not blown to 
bits in mid-air but right here, on solid ground, if he were to do this 
eminently sensible thing, the person who answered the phone would 
not recognize his name. Or thirdly: that the sound of footsteps ringing 
in his ears, distant footsteps, but coming closer, was not some 
temporary tinnitus caused by his fall, but the noise of some 
approaching doom, drawing closer, letter by letter, ellowen, deeowen, 
London. _Here I am, in Grandmother's house. Her big eyes, hands, 
teeth_. 

There was a telephone extension on his bedside table. There, he 
admonished himself. Pick it up, dial, and your equilibrium will be 
restored. Such maunderings: they aren't like you, not worthy of you. 
Think of her grief; call her now. 

It was night-time. He didn't know the hour. There wasn't a clock in the 
room and his wristwatch had disappeared somewhere along the line. 



142 



Should he shouldn't he? -- He dialled the nine numbers. A man's voice 
answered on the fourth ring. 

"What the hell?" Sleepy, unidentifiable, familiar. 

"Sorry," Saladin Chamcha said. "Excuse, please. Wrong number." 

Staring at the telephone, he found himself remembering a drama 
production seen in Bombay, based on an English original, a story by, by, 
he couldn't put his finger on the name, Tennyson? No, no. Somerset 
Maugham? -- To hell with it. -- In the original and now authorless text, 
a man, long thought dead, returns after an absence of many years, like a 
living phantom, to his former haunts. He visits his former home at 
night, surreptitiously, and looks in through an open window. He finds 
that his wife, believing herself widowed, has re-married. On the 
window-sill he sees a child's toy. He spends a period of time standing in 
the darkness, wrestling with his feelings; then picks the toy off the 
ledge; and departs forever, without making his presence known. In the 
Indian version, the story had been rather different. The wife had 
married her husband's best friend. The returning husband arrived at 
the door and marched in, expecting nothing. Seeing his wife and his old 
friend sitting together, he failed to understand that they were married. 
He thanked his friend for comforting his wife; but he was home now, 
and so all was well. The married couple did not know how to tell him 
the truth; it was, finally, a servant who gave the game away. The 
husband, whose long absence was apparently due to a bout of amnesia, 
reacted to the news of the marriage by announcing that he, too, must 
surely have re-married at some point during his long absence from 
home; unfortunately, however, now that the memory of his former life 
had returned he had forgotten what had happened during the years of 
his disappearance. He went off to ask the police to trace his new wife, 
even though he could remember nothing about her, not her eyes, not 
the simple fact of her existence. 



143 



The curtain fell. 

Saladin Chamcha, alone in an unknown bedroom in unfamiliar red-and- 
white striped pyjamas, lay face downwards on a narrow bed and wept. 
"Damn all Indians," he cried into the muffling bedclothes, his fists 
punching at frilly--edged pillowcases from Harrods in Buenos Aires so 
fiercely that the fifty-year--old fabric was ripped to shreds. "_What the 
hell_. The vulgarity of it, the _sod it sod it_ indelicacy. _What the hell_. 
That bastard, those bastards, their lack of _bastard_ taste." 

It was at this moment that the police arrived to arrest him. 



On the night after she had taken the two of them in from the beach, 
Rosa Diamond stood once again at the nocturnal window of her old 
woman's insomnia, contemplating the nine-hundredyear--old sea. The 
smelly one had been sleeping ever since they put him to bed, with hot- 
water bottles packed in tightly around him, best thing for him, let him 
get his strength. She had put them upstairs, Chamcha in the spare room 
and Gibreel in her late husband's old study, and as she watched the 
great shining plain of the sea she could hear him moving up there, amid 
the ornithological prints and bird-call whistles of the former Henry 
Diamond, the bolas and bullwhip and aerial photographs of the Los 
Alamos estancia far away and long ago, a man's footsteps in that room, 
how reassuring they felt. Farishta was pacing up and down, avoiding 
sleep, for reasons of his own. And below his footfall Rosa, looking up at 
the ceiling, called him in a whisper by a long-unspoken name. Martin 
she said. His last name the same as that of his country's deadliest 
snake, the viper. The vibora, _de la Cruz_. 

At once she saw the shapes moving on the beach, as if the forbidden 
name had conjured up the dead. Not again, she thought, and went for 
her opera-glasses. She returned to find the beach full of shadows, and 



144 



this time she was afraid, because whereas the Norman fleet came 
sailing, when it came, proudly and openly and without recourse to 
subterfuge, these shades were sneaky, emitting stifled imprecations and 
alarming, muted yaps and barks, they seemed headless, crouching, arms 
and legs a--dangle like giant, unshelled crabs. Scuttling, sidelong, heavy 
boots crunching on shingle. Lots of them. She saw them reach her 
boathouse on which the fading image of an eyepatched pirate grinned 
and brandished a cutlass, and that was too much, _I'm not having it_, 
she decided, and, stumbling downstairs for warm clothing, she fetched 
the chosen weapon of her retribution: a long coil of green garden hose. 
At her front door she called out in a clear voice. "I can see you quite 
plainly. Come out, come out, whoever you are." 

They switched on seven suns and blinded her, and then she panicked, 
illuminated by the seven blue-white floodlights around which, like 
fireflies or satellites, there buzzed a host of smaller lights: lanterns 
torches cigarettes. Her head was spinning, and for a moment she lost 
her ability to distinguish between _then_ and _now_, in her 
consternation she began to say Put out that light, don't you know 
there's a blackout, you'll be having Jerry down on us if you carry on so. 
"I'm raving," she realized disgustedly, and banged the tip of her stick 
into her doormat. Whereupon, as if by magic, policemen materialized in 
the dazzling circle of light. 

It turned out that somebody had reported a suspicious person on the 
beach, remember when they used to come in fishingboats, the illegals, 
and thanks to that single anonymous telephone call there were now 
fifty-seven uniformed constables combing the beach, their flashlights 
swinging crazily in the dark, constables from as far away as Hastings 
Eastbourne Bexhill-upon-Sea, even a deputation from Brighton because 
nobody wanted to miss the fun, the thrill of the chase. Fifty-seven 
beachcombers were accompanied by thirteen dogs, all sniffing the sea 
air and lifting excited legs. While up at the house away from the great 



145 



posse of men and dogs, Rosa Diamond found herself gazing at the five 
constables guarding the exits, front door, ground-floor windows, 
scullery door, in case the putative miscreant attempted an alleged 
escape; and at the three men in plain clothes, plain coats and plain hats 
with faces to match; and in front of the lot of them, not daring to look 
her in the eye, young Inspector Lime, shuffling his feet and rubbing his 
nose and looking older and more bloodshot than his forty years. She 
tapped him on the chest with the end of her stick, _at this time of 
night, Frank, u"hat's the meaning of_, but he wasn't going to allow her 
to boss him around, not tonight, not with the men from the 
immigration watching his every move, so he drew himself up and pulled 
in his chins. 

"Begging your pardon, Mrs. D. -- certain allegations, -- information laid 
before us, -- reason to believe, -- merit investigation, -- necessary to 
search your, -- a warrant has been obtained." 

"Don't be absurd, Frank dear," Rosa began to say, but just then the 
three men with the plain faces drew themselves up and seemed to 
stiffen, each of them with one leg slightly raised, like pointer dogs; the 
first began to emit an unusual hiss of what sounded like pleasure, while 
a soft moan escaped from the lips of the second, and the third 
commenced to roll his eyes in an oddly contented way. Then they all 
pointed past Rosa Diamond, into her floodlit hallway, where Mr. 
Saladin Chamcha stood, his left hand holding up his pyjamas because a 
button had come off when he hurled himself on to his bed. With his 
right hand he was rubbing at an eye. 

"Bingo," said the hissing man, while the moaner clasped .his hands 
beneath his chin to indicate that all his prayers had been answered, and 
the roller of eyes shouldered past Rosa Diamond, without standing on 
ceremony, except that he did mutter, "Madam, pardon _me_." 



146 



Then there was a flood, and Rosa was jammed into a corner of her own 
sitting-room by that bobbing sea of police helmets, so that she could no 
longer make out Saladin Chamcha or hear what he was saying. She 
never heard him explain about the detonation of the _Bostan_ -- there's 
been a mistake, he cried, I'm not one of your fishing-boat sneakers-in, 
not one of your ugandokenyattas, me. The policemen began to grin, I 
see, sir, at thirty thousand feet, and then you swam ashore. You have 
the right to remain silent, they tittered, but quite soon they burst out 
into uproarious guffaws, we've got a right one here and no mistake. But 
Rosa couldn't make out Saladin's protests, the laughing policemen got 
in the way, you've got to believe me, I'm a British, he was saying, with 
right of abode, too, but when he couldn't produce a passport or any 
other identifying document they began to weep with mirth, the tears 
streaming down even the blank faces of the plain-clothes men from the 
immigration service. Of course, don't tell me, they giggled, they fell out 
of your jacket during your tumble, or did the mermaids pick your 
pocket in the sea? Rosa couldn't see, in that laughter-heaving surge of 
men and dogs, what uniformed arms might be doing to Chamcha's 
arms, or fists to his stomach, or boots to his shins; nor could she be 
sure if it was his voice crying out or just the howling of the dogs. But 
she did, finally, hear his voice rise in a last, despairing shout: "Don't 
any of you watch TV? Don't you see? I'm Maxim. Maxim Alien." 

"So you are," said the popeyed officer. "And I am Kermit the Frog." 

What Saladin Chamcha never said, not even when it was clear that 
something had gone badly wrong: "Here is a London number," he 
neglected to inform the arresting policemen. "At the other end of the 
line you will find, to vouch for me, for the truth of what I'm saying, my 
lovely, white, English wife." No, sir. _What the hell_. 

Rosa Diamond gathered her strength. "Just one moment, Frank Lime," 
she sang out. "You look here," but the three plain men had begun their 
bizarre routine of hiss moan roll--eye once again, and in the sudden 



147 



silence of that room the eye-roller pointed a trembling finger at 
Chamcha and said, "Lady, if it's proof you're after, you couldn't do 
better than _those_." 

Saladin Chamcha, following the line of Popeye's pointing finger, raised 
his hands to his forehead, and then he knew that he had woken into the 
most fearsome of nightmares, a nightmare that had only just begun, 
because there at his temples, growing longer by the moment, and sharp 
enough to draw blood, were two new, goaty, unarguable horns. 



Before the army of policemen took Saladin Chamcha away into his new 
life, there was one more unexpected occurrence. Gibreel Farishta, seeing 
the blaze of lights and hearing the delirious laughter of the law- 
enforcement officers, came downstairs in a maroon smoking jacket and 
jodhpurs, chosen from Henry Diamond's wardrobe. Smelling faintly of 
mothballs, he stood on the first-floor landing and observed the 
proceedings without comment. He stood there unnoticed until 
Chamcha, handcuffed and on his way out to the Black Maria, barefoot, 
still clutching his pyjamas, caught sight of him and cried out, "Gibreel, 
for the love of God tell them what's what." 

Hisser Moaner Popeye turned eagerly towards Gibreel. "And who might 
this be?" inquired Inspector Lime. "Another skydiver?" 

But the words died on his lips, because at that moment the floodlights 
were switched off, the order to do so having been given when Chamcha 
was handcuffed and taken in charge, and in the aftermath of the seven 
suns it became clear to everyone there that a pale, golden light was 
emanating from the direction of the man in the smoking jacket, was in 
fact streaming softly outwards from a point immediately behind his 
head. Inspector Lime never referred to that light again, and if he had 



148 



been asked about it would have denied ever having seen such a thing, a 
halo, in the late twentieth century, pull the other one. 

But at any rate, when Gibreel asked, "What do these men want?", every 
man there was seized by the desire to answer his question in literal, 
detailed terms, to reveal their secrets, as if he were, as if, but no, 
ridiculous, they would shake their heads for weeks, until they had all 
persuaded themselves that they had done as they did for purely logical 
reasons, he was Mrs. Diamond's old friend, the two of them had found 
the rogue Chamcha halfdrowned on the beach and taken him in for 
humanitarian reasons, no call to harass either Rosa or Mr. Farishta any 
further, a more reputable looking gentleman you couldn't wish to see, 
in his smoking jacket and his, his, well, eccentricity never was a crime, 
anyhow. 

"Gibreel," said Saladin Chamcha, "help." 

But Gibreel's eye had been caught by Rosa Diamond. He looked at her, 
and could not look away. Then he nodded, and went back upstairs. No 
attempt was made to stop him. 

When Chamcha reached the Black Maria, he saw the traitor, Gibreel 
Farishta, looking down at him from the little balcony outside Rosa's 
bedroom, and there wasn't any light shining around the bastard's head. 



_Kan an ma kan/Fi qadim azzaman_ ... It was so, it was not, in a time 
long forgot, that there lived in the silver-land of Argentina a certain 
Don Enrique Diamond, who knew much about birds and little about 
women, and his wife, Rosa, who knew nothing about men but a good 
deal about love. One day it so happened that when the sefiora was out 
riding, sitting sidesaddle and wearing a hat with a feather in it, she 



149 



arrived at the Diamond estancia's great stone gates, which stood 
insanely in the middle of the empty pampas, to find an ostrich running 
at her as hard as it could, running for its life, with all the tricks and 
variations it could think of; for the ostrich is a crafty bird, difficult to 
catch. A little way behind the ostrich was a cloud of dust full of the 
noises of hunting men, and when the ostrich was within six feet of her 
the cloud sent bolas to wrap around its legs and bring it crashing to the 
ground at her grey mare's feet. The man who dismounted to kill the 
bird never took his eyes off Rosa's face. He took a silver-hafted knife 
from a scabbard at his belt and plunged it into the bird's throat, all the 
way up to the hilt, and he did it without once looking at the dying 
ostrich, staring into Rosa Diamond's eyes while he knelt on the wide 
yellow earth. His name was Martin de la Cruz. 

After Chamcha had been taken away, Gibreel Farishta often wondered 
about his own behaviour. In that dreamlike moment when he had been 
trapped by the eyes of the old Englishwoman it had seemed to him that 
his will was no longer his own to command, that somebody else's needs 
were in charge. Owing to the bewildering nature of recent events, and 
also to his determination to stay awake as much as possjble, it was a few 
days before he connected what was going on to the world behind his 
eyelids, and only then did he understand that he had to get away, 
because the universe of his nightmares had begun to leak into his 
waking life, and if he was not careful he would never manage to begin 
again, to be reborn with her, through her, Alleluia, who had seen the 
roof of the world. 

He was shocked to realize that he had made no attempt to contact Allie 
at all; or to help Chamcha in his time of need. Nor had he been at all 
perturbed by the appearance on Saladin's head of a pair of fine new 
horns, a thing that should surely have occasioned some concern. He had 
been in some sort of trance, and when he asked the old dame what she 
thought of it all she smiled weirdly and told him that there was nothing 



150 



new under the sun, she had seen things, the apparitions of men with 
horned helmets, in an ancient land like England there was no room for 
new stories, every blade of turf had already been walked over a hundred 
thousand times. For long periods of the day her talk became rambling 
and confused, but at other times she insisted on cooking him huge 
heavy meals, shepherd's pies, rhubarb crumble with thick custard, 
thick--gravied hotpots, all manner of weighty soups. And at all times 
she wore an air of inexplicable contentment, as if his presence had 
satisfied her in some deep, unlookedfor way. He went shopping in the 
village with her; people stared; she ignored them, waving her imperious 
stick. The days passed. Gibreel did not leave. 

"Blasted English mame," he told himself. "Some type of extinct species. 
What the hell am I doing here?" But stayed, held by unseen chains. 
While she, at every opportunity, sang an old song, in Spanish, he 
couldn't understand a word. Some sorcery there? Some ancient Morgan 
Le Fay singing a young Merlin into her crystal cave? Gibreel headed for 
the door; Rosa piped up; he stopped in his tracks. "Why not, after all," 
he shrugged. "The old woman needs company. Faded grandeur, I swear! 
Look what she's come to here. Anyhow, I need the rest. Gather my 
forces. Just a coupla days." 

In the evenings they would sit in that drawing-room stuffed with silver 
ornaments, including on the wall a certain silver-hafted knife, beneath 
the plaster bust of Henry Diamond that stared down from the top of 
the corner cabinet, and when the grandfather clock struck six he would 
pour two glasses of sherry and she would begin to talk, but not before 
she said, as predictably as clockwork, _Grandfather is always four 
minutes late, for good manners, he doesn't like to be too punctual_. 
Then she began without bothering with onceuponatime, and whether it 
was all true or all false he could see the fierce energy that was going 
into the telling, the last desperate reserves of her will that she was 
putting into her story, _the only bright time I can remember_, she told 



151 



him, so that he perceived that this memory-jumbled rag-bag of material 
was in fact the very heart of her, her self-portrait, the way she looked in 
the mirror when nobody else was in the room, and that the silver land 
of the past was her preferred abode, not this dilapidated house in which 
she was constantly bumping into things, -- knocking over coffee-tables, 
bruising herself on doorknobs -- bursting into tears, and crying out: 
_Everything shrinks_. 

When she sailed to Argentina in 1935 as the bride of the Anglo- 
Argentine Don Enrique of Los Alamos, he pointed to the ocean and 
said, that's the pampa. You can't tell how big it is by looking at it. You 
have to travel through it, the unchangingness, day after day. In some 
parts the wind is strong as a fist, but it's completely silent, it'll knock 
you flat but you'll never hear a thing. No trees is why: not an ombii, not 
a poplar, nada. And you have to watch out for ombii leaves, by the way. 
Deadly poison. The wind won't kill you but the leaf-juice can. She 
clapped her hands like a child: Honestly, Henry, silent winds, poisonous 
leaves. You make it sound like a fairy-story. Henry, fairhaired, soft- 
bodied, wide-eyed and ponderous, looked appalled. _Oh, no_, he said. 
_It's not so bad as that_. 

She arrived in that immensity, beneath that infinite blue vault of sky, 
because Henry popped the question and she gave the only answer that a 
forty-year-old spinster could. But when she arrived she asked herself a 
bigger question: of what was she capable in all that space? What did she 
have the courage for, how could she _expand?_ To be good or bad, she 
told herself: but to be _new_. Our neighbour Doctor Jorge Babington, 
she told Gibreel, never liked me, you know, he would tell me tales of the 
British in South America, always such gay blades, he said 
contemptuously, spies and brigands and looters. _Are you such exotics 
in your cold England?_ he asked her, and answered his own question, 
_sefiora, I don't think so. Crammed into that coffin of an island, you 
must find wider horizons to express these secret selves_. 



152 



Rosa Diamond's secret was a capacity for love so great that it soon 
became plain that her poor prosaic Henry would never fulfil it, because 
whatever romance there was in that jellied frame was reserved for birds. 
Marsh hawks, screamers, snipe. In a small rowing boat on the local 
lagunas he spent his happiest days amid the buirushes with his field- 
glasses to his eyes. Once on the train to Buenos Aires he embarrassed 
Rosa by demonstrating his favourite bird-calls in the dining-car, 
cupping his hands around his mouth: sleepyhead bird, vanduria ibis, 
trupial. Why can't you love me this way, she wanted to ask. But never 
did, because for Henry she was a good sort, and passion was an 
eccentricity of other races. She became the generalissimo of the 
homestead, and tried to stifle her wicked longings. At night she took to 
walking out into the pampa and lying on her back to look at the galaxy 
above, and sometimes, under the influence of that bright flow of 
beauty, she would begin to tremble all over, to shudder with a deep 
delight, and to hum an unknown tune, and this star-music was as close 
as she came to joy. 

Gibreel Farishta: felt her stories winding round him like a web, holding 
him in that lost world where _fifty sat down to dinner every day, what 
men they were, our gauchos, nothing servile there, very fierce and 
proud, very. Pure carnivores; you can see it in the pictures_. During the 
long nights of their insomnia she told him about the heat-haze that 
would come over the pampa so that the few trees stood out like islands 
and a rider looked like a mythological being, galloping across the 
surface of the ocean. _It was like the ghost of the sea_. She told him 
campfire stories, for example about the atheist gaucho who disproved 
Paradise, when his mother died, by calling upon her spirit to return, 
every night for seven nights. On the eighth night he announced that she 
had obviously not heard him, or she would certainly have come to 
console her beloved son; therefore, death must be the end. She snared 
him in descriptiSns of the days when the Peron people came in their 
white suits and slicked down hair and the peons chased them off, she 



153 



cold him how the railroads were built by the Anglos to service their 
estancias, and the dams, too, the story, for example, of her friend 
Claudette, "a real heartbreaker, my dear, married an engineer chap 
name of Granger, disappointed half the Hurlingham. Off they went to 
some dam he was building, and next thing they heard, the rebels were 
coming to blow it up. Granger went with the men to guard the dam, 
leaving Claudette alone with the maid, and wouldn't you know, a few 
hours later, the maid came running, senora, ees one hombre at the door, 
ees as beeg as a house. What else? A rebel captain. -- "And your spouse, 
madame?" -- "Waiting for you at the dam, as he should be." -- "Then 
since he has not seen fit to protect you, the revolution will." And he left 
guards outside the house, my dear, quite a thing. But in the fighting 
both men were killed, husband and captain and Claudette insisted on a 
joint funeral, watched the two coffins going side by side into the 
ground, mourned for them both. After that we knew she was a 
dangerous lot, _trop fatale_, eh? What? _Trop_ jolly _fatale_." In the 
tall story of the beautiful Clau-- dette, Gibreel heard the music of 
Rosa's own longings. At such moments he would catch sight of her 
looking at him from the corners of her eyes, and he would feel a 
tugging in the region of his navel, as if something were trying to come 
out. Then she looked away, and the sensation faded. Perhaps it was only 
a sideeffect of stress. 

He asked her one night if she had seen the horns growing on Chamcha's 
head, but she went deaf and, instead of answering, told him how she 
would sit on a camp stool by the galpon or bull-pen at Los Alamos and 
the prize bulls would come up and lay their horned heads in her lap. 
One afternoon a girl named Aurora del Sol, who was the fiancee of 
Martin de la Cruz, let fall a saucy remark: I thought they only did that 
in the laps of virgins, she stage-whispered to her giggling friends, and 
Rosa turned to her sweetly and replied, Then perhaps, my dear, you 
would like to try? From that time Aurora del Sol, the best dancer at the 



154 



estancia and the most desirable oi all the peon women, became the 
deadly enemy of the too-tall, too-bony woman from over the sea. 

"You look just like him," Rosa Diamond said as they stood at her night- 
time window, side by side, looking out to sea. "His double. Martin de la 
Cruz." At the mention of the cowboy's name Gibreel felt so violent a 
pain in his navel, a pulling pain, as if somebody had stuck a hook in his 
stomach, that a cry escaped his lips. Rosa Diamond appeared not to 
hear. "Look," she cried happily, "over there." 

Running along the midnight beach in the direction of the Martello 
tower and the holiday camp, -- running along the water's edge so that 
the incoming tide washed away its footprints, -- swerving and feinting, 
running for its life, there came a fullgrown, large--as--life ostrich. Down 
the beach it fled, and Gibreel's eyes followed it in wonder, until he 
could no longer make it out in the dark. 



The next thing that happened took place in the village. They had gone 
into town to collect a cake and a bottle of champagne, because Rosa 
had remembered that it was her eighty-ninth birthday. Her family had 
been expelled from her life, so there had been no cards or telephone 
calls. Gibreel insisted that they should hold some sort of celebration, 
and showed her the secret inside his shirt, a fat money-belt full of 
pounds sterling acquired on the black market before leaving Bombay. 
"Also credit cards galore," he said. "I am no indigent fellow. Come, let 
us go. My treat." He was now so deeply in thrall to Rosa's narrative 
sorcery that he hardly remembered from day to day that he had a life to 
go to, a woman to surprise by the simple fact of his being alive, or any 
such thing. Trailing behind her meekly, he carried Mrs. Diamond's 
shopping-bags. 



155 



He was loafing around on a Street corner while Rosa chatted to the 
baker when he felt, once again, that dragging hook in his stomach, and 
he fell against a lamp--post and gasped for air. He heard a clip-clopping 
hoise, and then around the corner came an archaic pony-trap, full of 
young people in what seemed at first sight to be fancy dress: the men in 
tight black trousers studded at the calf with silver buttons, their white 
shirts open almost to the waist; the women in wide skirts of frills and 
layers and bright colours, scarlet, emerald, gold. They were Singing in a 
foreign language and their gaiety made the street look dim and tawdry, 
but Gibreel realized that something weird was afoot, because nobody 
else in the street took the slightest notice of the ponytrap. Then Rosa 
emerged from the baker's with the cake-box dangling by its ribbon from 
the index finger of her left hand, and exclaimed: "Oh, there they are, 
arriving for the dance. We always had dances, you know, they like it, it's 
in their blood." And, after a pause: "That was the dance at which he 
killed the vulture." 

That was the dance at which a certain Juan Julia, nicknamed The 
Vulture on account of his cadaverous appearance, drank too much and 
insulted the honour of Aurora del Sol, and didn't stop until Martin had 
no option but to fight, _hey Martin, why you enjoy fi4cking with this 
one, I thought she was pretty dull_. "Let us go away from the dancing," 
Martin said, and in the darkness, silhouetted against the fairy-lights 
hung from the trees around the dance-floor, the two men wrapped 
ponchas around their forearms, drew their knives, circled, fought. Juan 
died. Martin de la Cruz picked up the dead man's hat and threw it at 
the feet of Aurora del Sol. She picked up the hat and watched him walk 
away. 

Rosa Diamond at eighty-nine in a long silver sheath dress with a 
cigarette holder in one gloved hand and a silver turban on her head 
drank gin-and-sin from a green glass triangle and told stories of the 



156 



good old days. "I want to dance," she announced suddenly. "It's my 
birthday and I haven't danced once." 



The exertions of that night on which Rosa and Gibreel danced until 
dawn proved too much for the old lady, who collapsed into bed the next 
day with a low fever that induced ever more delirious apparitions: 
Gibreel saw Martin de la Cruz and Aurora del Sol dancing flamenco on 
the tiled and gabled roof of the Diamond house, and Peronistas in 
white suits stood on the boathouse to address a gathering of peons 
about the future: "Under Peron these lands will be expropriated and 
distributed among the people. The British railroads also will become 
the property of the state. Let's chuck them out, these brigands, these 
privateers ..." The plaster bust of Henry Diamond hung in mid-air, 
observing the scene, and a white--suited agitator pointed a finger at 
him and cried, That's him, your oppressor; there is the enemy. Gibreel's 
stomach ached so badly that he feared for his life, but at the very 
moment that his rational mind was considering the possibility of an 
ulcer or appendicitis, the rest of his brain whispered the truth, which 
was that he was being held prisoner and manipulated by the force of 
Rosa's will, just as the Angel Gibreel had been obliged to speak by the 
overwhelming need of the Prophet, Mahound. 

"She's dying," he realized. "Not long to go, either." Tossing in her bed 
in the fever's grip Rosa Diamond muttered about ombii poison and the 
enmity of her neighbour Doctor Babington, who asked Henry, is your 
wife perhaps quiet enough for the pastoral life, and who gave her (as a 
present for recovering from typhus) a copy of Amerigo Vespucci's 
account of his voyages. "The man was a notorious fantasist, of course," 
Babington smiled, "but fantasy can be stronger than fact; after all, he 
had continents named after him." As she grew weaker she poured more 
and more of her remaining strength into her own dream of Argentina, 
and Gibreel's navel felt as if it had been set on fire. He lay slumped in 



157 



an armchair at her bedside and the apparitions multiplied by the hour. 
Woodwind music filled the air, and, most wonderful of all, a small 
white island appeared just off the shore, bobbing on the waves like a 
raft; it was white as snow, with white sand sloping up to a clump of 
albino trees, which were white, chalk--white, paper--white, to the very 
tips of their leaves. 

After the arrival of the white island Gibreel was overcome by a deep 
lethargy. Slumped in an armchair in the bedroom of the dying woman, 
his eyelids drooping, he felt the weight of his body increase until all 
movement became impossible. Then he was in another bedroom, in 
tight black trousers, with silver buttons along the calves and a heavy 
silver buckle at the waist. _You sent for me, Don Enrique_, he was 
saying to the soft, heavy man with a face like a white plaster bust, but 
he knew who had asked for him, and he never took his eyes from her 
face, even when he saw the colour rising from the white frill around her 
neck. 

Henry Diamond had refused to permit the authorities to become 
involved in the matter of Martin de la Cruz, _these people are my 
responsibility_, he told Rosa, _it is a question of honour_. Instead he 
had gone to some lengths to demonstrate his continuing trust in the 
killer, de la Cruz, for example by making him the captain of the 
estancia polo team. But Don Enrique was never really the same once 
Martin had killed the Vulture. He was more and more easily exhausted, 
and became listless, uninterested even in birds. Things began to come 
apart at Los Alamos, imperceptibly at first, then more obviously. The 
men in the white suits returned and were not chased away. When Rosa 
Diamond contracted typhus, there were many at the estancia who took 
it for an allegory of the old estate's decline. 

_What am I doing here_, Gibreel thought in great alarm, as he stood 
before Don Enrique in the rancher's study, while Dona Rosa blushed in 
the background, _this is someone else's place_. -- Great confidence in 



158 



you, Henry was saying, not in English but Gibreel could still 
understand. -- My wife is to undertake a motor tour, for her 
convalescence, and you will accompany . . . Responsibilities at Los 
Alamos prevent me from going along. _Now I must speak, what to say_, 
but when his mouth opened the alien words emerged, it will be my 
honour, Don Enrique, click of heels, swivel, exit. 

Rosa Diamond in her eighty-nine-year-old weakness had begun to 
dream her story of stories, which she had guarded for more than half a 
century, and Gibreel was on a horse behind her Hispano-Suiza, driving 
from estancia to estancia, through a wood of arayana trees, beneath the 
high cordillera, arriving at grotesque homesteads built in the style of 
Scottish castles or Indian palaces, visiting the land of Mr. Cadwallader 
Evans, he of the seven wives who were happy enough to have only one 
night of duty each per week, and the territory of the notorious 
MacSween who had become enamoured of the ideas arriving in 
Argentina from Germany, and had started flying, from his estancia's 
flagpole, a red flag at whose heart a crooked black cross danced in a 
white circle. It was on the MacSween estancia that they came across the 
lagoon, and Rosa saw for the first time the white island of her fate, and 
insisted on rowing out for a picnic luncheon, accompanied neither by 
maid nor by chauffeur, taking only Martin de la Cruz to row the boat 
and to spread a scarlet cloth upon the white sand and to serve her with 
meat and wine. 

_As white as snow and as red as blood and as black as ebony_. As she 
reclined in black skirt and white blouse, lying upon scarlet which itself 
lay over white, while he (also wearing black and white) poured red wine 
into the glass in her white-gloved hand, -- and then, to his own 
astonishment, _bloody goddamn_, as he caught at her hand and began 
to kiss, -- something happened, the scene grew blurred, one minute they 
were lying on the scarlet cloth, rolling all over it so that cheeses and 
cold cuts and salads and pates were crushed beneath the weight of their 



159 



desire, and when they returned to the Hispano-Suiza it was impossible 
to conceal anything from chauffeur or maid on account of the 
foodstains all over their clothes, -- while the next minute she was 
recoiling from him, not cruelly but in sadness, drawing her hand away 
and making a tiny gesture of the head, no, and he stood, bowed, 
retreated, leaving her with virtue and lunch intact, -- the two 
possibilities kept alternating, while dying Rosa tossed on her bed, did- 
she-didn't-she, making the last version of the story of her life, unable 
to decide what she wanted to be true. 



"I'm going crazy," Gibreel thought. "She's dying, but I'm losing my 
mind." The moon was out, and Rosa's breathing was the only sound in 
the room: snoring as she breathed in and exhaling heavily, with small 
grunting noises. Gibreel tried to rise from his chair, and found he could 
not. Even in these intervals between the visions his body remained 
impossibly heavy. As if a boulder had been placed upon his chest. And 
the images, when they came, continued to be confused, so that at one 
moment he was in a hayloft at Los Alamos, making love to her while she 
murmured his name, over and over, _Martin of the Cross_, -- and the 
next moment she was ignoring him in broad daylight beneath the 
watching eyes of a certain Aurora del Sol, -- so that it was not possible 
to distinguish memory from wishes, or guilty reconstructions from 
confessional truths, -- because even on her deathbed Rosa Diamond did 
not know how to look her history in the eye. 

Moonlight streamed into the room. As it struck Rosa's face it appeared 
to pass right through her, and indeed Gibreel was beginning to be able 
to make out the pattern of the lace embroidery on her pillowcase. Then 
he saw Don Enrique and his friend, the puritanical and disapproving 
Dr. Babington, standing on the balcony, as solid as you could wish. It 
occurred to him that as the apparitions increased in clarity Rosa grew 
fainter and fainter, fading away, exchanging places, one might say, with 



160 



the ghosts. And because he had also understood that the manifestations 
depended on him, his stomach--ache, his stone--like weightiness, he 
began to fear for his own life as well. 

"You wanted me to falsify Juan Julia's death certificate," Dr. Babington 
was saying. "I did so out of our old friendship. But it was wrong to do 
so; and I see the result before me. You have sheltered a killer and it is, 
perhaps, your conscience that is eating you away. Go home, Enrique. Go 
home, and take that wife of yours, before something worse happens." 

"I am home," Henry Diamond said. "And I take exception to your 
mention of my wife." 

"Wherever the English settle, they never leave England," Dr. Babington 
said as he faded into the moonlight. "Unless, like Dona Rosa, they fall 
in love." 

A cloud passed across the moonlight, and now that the balcony was 
empty Gibreel Farishta finally managed to force himself out of the chair 
and on to his feet. Walking was like dragging a ball and chain across the 
floor, but he reached the window. In every direction, and as far as he 
could see, there were giant thistles waving in the breeze. Where the sea 
had been there was now an ocean of thistles, extending as far as the 
horizon, thistles as high as a full-grown man. He heard the disembodied 
voice of Dr. Babington mutter in his ear: "The first plague of thistles 
for fifty years. The past, it seems, returns." He saw a woman running 
through the thick, rippling growth, barefoot, with loose dark hair. "She 
did it," Rosa's voice said clearly behind him. "After betraying him with 
the Vulture and making him into a murderer. He wouldn't look at her 
after that. Oh, she did it all right. Very dangerous one, that one. Very." 
Gibreel lost sight of Aurora del Sol in the thistles; one mirage obscured 
another. 



161 



He felt something grab him from behind, spin him around and fling 
him flat on his back. There was nobody to be seen, but Rosa Diamond 
was sitting bolt upright in bed, staring at him wide-eyed, making him 
understand that she had given up hope of clinging on to life, and 
needed him to help her complete the last revelation. As with the 
businessman of his dreams, he felt helpless, ignorant . . . she seemed to 
know, however, how to draw the images from him. Linking the two of 
them, navel to navel, he saw a shining cord. 

Now he was by a pond in the infinity of the thistles, allowing his horse 
to drink, and she came riding up on her mare. Now he was embracing 
her, loosening her garments and her hair, and now they were making 
love. Now she was whispering, how can you like me, I am so much older 
than you, and he spoke comforting words. 

Now she rose, dressed, rode away, while he remained there, his body 
languid and warm, failing to notice the moment when a woman's hand 
stole out of the thistles and took hold of his silver--hafted knife. . . 

No! No! No, this way! 

Now she rode up to him by the pond, and the moment she dismounted, 
looking nervously at him, he fell upon her, he told her he couldn't bear 
her rejections any longer, they fell to the ground together, she 
screamed, he tore at her clothes, and her hands, clawing at his body, 
came upon the handle of a knife... 

No! No, never, no! This way: here! 

Now the two of them were making love, tenderly, with many slow 
caresses; and now a third rider entered the clearing by the pool, and the 
lovers rushed apart; now Don Enrique drew his small pistol and aimed 
at his rival's heart, --. 



162 



-- and he felt Aurora stabbing him in the heart, over and over, this is for 
Juan, and this is for abandoning me, and this is for your grand English 
whore, --. 

-- and he felt his victim's knife entering his heart, as Rosa stabbed him, 
once, twice, and again, --. 

-- and after Henry's bullet had killed him the Englishman took the dead 
man's knife and stabbed him, many times, in the bleeding wound. 

Gibreel, screaming loudly, lost consciousness at this point. 

When he regained his senses the old woman in the bed was speaking to 
herself, so softly that he could barely make out the words. "The 
pampero came, the south-west wind, flattening the thistles. That's 
when they found him, or was it before." The last of the story. How 
Aurora del Sol spat in Rosa Diamond's face at the funeral of Martin de 
la Cruz. How it was arranged that nobody was to be charged for the 
murder, on condition that Don Enrique took Dona Rosa and returned 
to England with all speed. How they boarded the train at the Los 
Alamos station and the men in white suits stood on the platform, 
wearing borsalino hats, making sure they really left. How, once the 
train had started moving, Rosa Diamond opened the holdall on the seat 
beside her, and said defiantly, _I brought something. A little souvenir_. 
And unwrapped a cloth bundle to reveal a gaucho's silver-hafted knife. 

"Henry died the first winter home. Then nothing happened. The war. 
The end." She paused. "To diminish into this, after being in that 
vastness. It isn't to be borne." And, after a further silence: "Everything 
shrinks." 

There was a change in the moonlight, and Gibreel felt a weight lifting 
from him, so rapidly that he thought he might float up towards the 
ceiling. Rosa Diamond lay still, eyes closed, her arms resting on the 



163 



patchwork counterpane. She looked: _normal_. Gibreel realized that 
there was nothing to prevent him from walking out of the door. 

He made his way downstairs carefully, his legs still a little unsteady; 
found the heavy gabardine overcoat that had once belonged to Henry 
Diamond, and the grey felt trilby inside which Don Enrique's name had 
been sewn by his wife's own hand; and left, without looking back. The 
moment he got outside a wind snatched his hat and sent it skipping 
down the beach. He chased it, caught it, jammed it back on. _London 
shareef, here I come_. He had the city in his pocket: Geographers' 
London, the whole dog-eared metropolis, A to Z. 

"What to do?" he was thinking. "Phone or not phone? No, just turn up, 
ring the bell and say, baby, your wish came true, from sea bed to your 
bed, takes more than a plane crash to keep me away from you. -- Okay, 
maybe not quite, but words to that effect. -- Yes. Surprise is the best 
policy. Allie Bibi, boo to you." 

Then he heard the singing. It was coming from the old boathouse with 
the one-eyed pirate painted on the outside, and the song was foreign, 
but familiar: a song that Rosa Diamond had often hummed, and the 
voice, too, was familiar, although a little different, less quavery; 
_younger_. The boathouse door was unaccountably unlocked, and 
banging in the wind. He went towards the song. 

"Take your coat off," she said. She was dressed as she had been on the 
day of the white island: black skirt and boots, white silk blouse, hatless. 
He spread the coat on the boathouse floor, its bright scarlet lining 
glowing in the confined, moonlit space. She lay down amid the random 
clutter of an English life, cricket stumps, a yellowed lampshade, 
chipped vases, a folding table, trunks; and extended an arm towards 
him. He lay down by her side. 

"How can you like me?" she murmured. "I am so much older than you." 



164 



When they pulled his pyjamas down in the windowless police van and 
he saw the thick, tightly curled dark hair covering his thighs, Saladin 
Chamcha broke down for the second time that night; this time, 
however, he began to giggle hysterically, infected, perhaps, by the 
continuing hilarity of his captors. The three immigration officers were 
in particularly high spirits, and it was one of these -- the popeyed fellow 
whose name, it transpired, was Stein -- who had "de— bagged" Saladin 
with a merry cry of, "Opening time, Packy; let's see what you're made 
of!" Red-and-white stripes were dragged off the protesting Chamcha, 
who was reclining on the floor of the van with two stout policemen 
holding each arm and a fifth constable's boot placed firmly upon his 
chest, and whose protests went unheard in the general mirthful din. His 
horns kept banging against things, the wheel--arch, the uncarpeted 
floor or a policeman's shin -- on these last occasions he was soundly 
buffeted about the face by the understandably irate law—enforcement 
officer -- and he was, in sum, in as miserably low spirits as he could 
recall. Nevertheless, when he saw what lay beneath his borrowed 
pyjamas, he could not prevent that disbelieving giggle from escaping 
past his teeth. 

His thighs had grown uncommonly wide and powerful, as well as hairy. 
Below the knee the hairiness came to a halt, and his legs narrowed into 
tough, bony, almost fleshless calves, terminating in a pair of shiny, 
cloven hoofs, such as one might find on any billy-goat. Saladin was also 
taken aback by the sight of his phallus, greatly enlarged and 
embarrassingly erect, an organ that he had the greatest difficulty in 
acknowledging as his own. "What's this, then?" joked Novak -- the 
former "Hisser" -- giving it a playful tweak. "Fancy one of us, maybe?" 
Whereupon the "moaning" immigration officer, Joe Bruno, slapped his 
thigh, dug Novak in the ribs, and shouted, "Nah, that ain't it. Seems 



165 



like we really got his goat." "I get it," Novak shouted back, as his fist 
accidentally punched Saladin in his newly enlarged testicles. "Hey! 
Hey!" howled Stein, with tears in his eyes. "Listen, here's an even better 
... no wonder he's so fucking _horny_." 

At which the three of them, repeating many times "Got his goat. . . 
horny.. ." fell into one another's arms and howled with delight. 
Chamcha wanted to speak, but was afraid that he would find his voice 
mutated into goat--bleats, and, besides, the policeman's boot had 
begun to press harder than ever on his chest, and it was hard to form 
any words. What puzzled Chamcha was that a circumstance which 
struck him as utterly bewildering and unprecedented -- that is, his 
metamorphosis into this supernatural imp -- was being treated by the 
others as if it were the most banal and familiar matter they could 
imagine. "This isn't England," he thought, not for the first or last time. 
How could it be, after all; where in all that moderate and common-- 
sensical land was there room for such a police van in whose interior 
such events as these might plausibly transpire? He was being forced 
towards the conclusion that he had indeed died in the exploding 
aeroplane and that everything that followed had been some sort of 
after-life. If that were the case, his long—standing rejection of the 
Eternal was beginning to look pretty foolish. -- But where, in all this, 
was any sign of a Supreme Being, whether benevolent or malign? Why 
did Purgatory, or Hell, or whatever this place might be, look so much 
like that Sussex of rewards and fairies which every schoolboy knew? -- 
Perhaps, it occurred to him, he had not actually perished in the 
_Bostan_ disaster, but was lying gravely ill in some hospital ward, 
plagued by delirious dreams? This explanation appealed to him, not 
least because it unmade the meaning of a certain late-night telephone 
call, and a man's voice that he was trying, unsuccessfully, to forget . . . 
He felt a sharp kick land on his ribs, painful and realistic enough to 
make him doubt the truth of all such hallucination-theories. He 
returned his attention to the actual, to this present comprising a sealed 



166 



police van containing three immigration officers and five policemen 
that was, for the moment at any rate, all the universe he possessed. It 
was a universe of fear. 

Novak and the rest had snapped out of their happy mood. "Animal," 
Stein cursed him as he administered a series of kicks, and Bruno joined 
in: "You're all the same. Can't expect animals to observe civilized 
standards. Eh?" And Novak took up the thread: "We're talking about 
fucking personal hygiene here, you little fuck." 

Chamcha was mystified. Then he noticed that a large number of soft, 
pellety objects had appeared on the floor of the Black Maria. He felt 
consumed by bitterness and shame. It seemed that even his natural 
processes were goatish now. The humiliation of it! He was -- had gone 
to some lengths to become -- a sophisticated man! Such degradations 
might be all very well for riff-raff from villages in Sylhet or the bicycle- 
repair shops of Gujranwala, but he was cut from different cloth! "My 
good fellows," he began, attempting a tone of authority that was pretty 
difficult to bring off from that undignified position on his back with 
his hoofy legs wide apart and a soft tumble of his own excrement all 
about him, "my good fellows, you had best understand your mistake 
before it's too late." 

Novak cupped a hand behind an ear. "What's that? What was that 
noise?" he inquired, looking about him, and Stein said, "Search me." 
"Tell you what it sounded like," Joe Bruno volunteered, and with his 
hands around his mouth he bellowed: "Maaaa-aa!" Then the three of 
them all laughed once more, so that Saladin had no way of telling if 
they were simply insulting him or if his vocal cords had truly been 
infected, as he feared, by this macabre demoniasis that had overcome 
him without the slightest warning. He had begun to shiver again. The 
night was extremely cold. 



167 



The officer, Stein, who appeared to be the leader of the trinity, or at 
least the primus inter pares, returned abruptly to the subject of the 
pellety refuse rolling around the floor of the moving van. "In this 
country," he informed Saladin, "we clean up our messes." 

The policemen stopped holding him down and pulled him into a 
kneeling position. "That's right," said Novak, "clean it up." Joe Bruno 
placed a large hand behind Chamcha's neck and pushed his head down 
towards the pellet-littered floor. "Off you go," he said, in a 
conversational voice. "Sooner you start, sooner you'll polish it off." 



Even as he was performing (having no option) the latest and basest 
ritual of his unwarranted humiliation, -- or, to put it another way, as 
the circumstances of his miraculously spared life grew ever more 
infernal and outre -- Saladin Chamcha began to notice that the three 
immigration officers no longer looked or acted nearly as strangely as at 
first. For one thing, they no longer resembled one another in the 
slightest. Officer Stein, whom his colleagues called "Mack" or "Jockey", 
turned out to be a large, burly man with a thick roller--coaster of a 
nose; his accent, it now transpired, was exaggeratedly Scottish. "Tha's 
the ticket," he remarked approvingly as Chamcha munched miserably 
on. "An actor, was it? I'm partial to watchin" a guid man perform." 

This observation prompted Officer Novak -- that is, "Kim" -- who had 
acquired an alarmingly pallid colouring, an ascetically bony face that 
reminded one of medieval icons, and a frown suggesting some deep 
inner torment, to burst into a short peroration about his favourite 
television soap--opera stars and gameshow hosts, while Officer Bruno, 
who struck Chamcha as having grown exceedingly handsome all of a 
sudden, his hair shiny with styling gel and centrally divided, his blond 
beard contrasting dramatically with the darker hair on his head, -- 
Bruno, the youngest of the three, asked lasciviously, what about 



168 



watchin" girls, then, that's my game. This new notion set the three of 
them off into all manner of half-completed anecdotes pregnant with 
suggestions of a certain type, but when the five policemen attempted to 
join in they joined ranks, grew stern, and put the constables in their 
places. "Little children," Mr. Stein admonished them, "should be seen 
an" no hearrud." 

By this time Chamcha was gagging violently on his meal, forcing 
himself not to vomit, knowing that such an error would only prolong 
his misery. He was crawling about on the floor of the van, seeking out 
the pellets of his torture as they rolled from side to side, and the 
policemen, needing an outlet for the frustration engendered by the 
immigration officer's rebuke, began to abuse Saladin roundly and pull 
the hair on his rump to increase both his discomfort and his 
discomfiture. Then the five policemen defiantly started up their own 
version of the immigration officers' conversation, and set to analysing 
the merits of divers movie stars, darts players, professional wrestlers 
and the like; but because they had been put into a bad humour by the 
loftiness of "Jockey" Stein, they were unable to maintain the abstract 
and intellectual tone of their superiors, and fell to quarrelling over the 
relative merits of the Tottenham Hotspur "double" team of the early 
1960s and the mighty Liverpool side of the present day, -- in which the 
Liverpool supporters incensed the Spurs fans by alleging that the great 
Danny Blanchflower was a "luxury" player, a cream puff, fldwer by 
name, pansy by nature; -- whereupon the offended claque responded by 
shouting that in the case of Liverpool it was the supporters who were 
the bum-boys, the Spurs mob could take them apart with their arms 
tied behind their backs. Of course all the constables were familiar with 
the techniques of football hooligans, having spent many Saturdays with 
their backs to the game watching the spectators in the various stadiums 
up and down the country, and as their argument grew heated they 
reached the point of wishing to demonstrate, to their opposing 
colleagues, exactly what they meant by "tearing apart", " bollocking", 



169 



"bottling" and the like. The angry factions glared at one another and 
then, all together, they turned to gaze upon the person of Saladin 
Chamcha. 

Well, the ruckus in that police van grew noisier and noisier, -- and it's 
true to say that Chamcha was partly to blame, because he had started 
squealing like a pig, -- and the young bobbies were thumping and 
gouging various parts of his anatomy, using him both as a guinea-pig 
and a safety-valve, remaining careful, in spite of their excitation, to 
confine their blows to his softer, more fleshy parts, to minimize the risk 
of breakages and bruises; and when Jockey, Kim and Joey saw what their 
juniors were getting up to, they chose to be tolerant, because boys 
would have their fun. 

Besides, all this talk of watching had brought Stein, Bruno and Novak 
round to an examination of weightier matters, and now, with solemn 
faces and judicious voices, they were speaking of the need, in this day 
and age, for an increase in observation, not merely in the sense of 
"spectating", but in that of "watchfulness", and "surveillance". The 
young constables' experience was extremely relevant, Stein intoned: 
watch the crowd, not the game. "Eternal vigilance is the price o" 
liberty," he proclaimed. 

"Eek," cried Chamcha, unable to avoid interrupting. "Aargh, unnhh, 
owoo." 



After a time a curious mood of detachment fell upon Saladin. He no 
longer had any idea of how long they had been travelling in the Black 
Maria of his hard fall from grace, nor could he have hazarded a guess as 
to the proximity of their ultimate destination, even though the tinnitus 
in his ears was growing gradually louder, those phantasmal 
grandmother's footsteps, ellowen, deeowen, London. The blows raining 



170 



down on him now felt as soft as a lover's caresses; the grotesque sight 
of his own metamorphosed body no longer appalled him; even the last 
pellets of goatexcrement failed to stir his much--abused stomach. 
Numbly, he crouched down in his little world, trying to make himself 
smaller and smaller, in the hope that he might eventually disappear 
altogether, and so regain his freedom. 

The talk of surveillance techniques had reunited immigration officers 
and policemen, healing the breach caused by Jockey Stein's words of 
puritanical reproof. Chamcha, the insect on the floor of the van, heard, 
as if through a telephone scrambler, the faraway voices of his captors 
speaking eagerly of the need for more video equipment at public events 
and of the benefits of computerized information, and, in what appeared 
to be a complete contradiction, of the efficacy of placing too rich a 
mixture in the nosebags of police horses on the night before a big 
match, because when equine stomach--upsets led to the marchers being 
showered with shit it always provoked them into violence, _an" then we 
can really get amongst them, can't we just_. Unable to find a way of 
making this universe of soap operas, matchoftheday, cloaks and daggers 
cohere into any recognizable whole, Chamcha closed his ears to the 
chatter and listened to the footsteps in his ears. 

Then the penny dropped. 

"Ask the Computer!" 

Three immigration officers and five policemen fell silent as the foul-- 
smelling creature sat up and hollered at them. "What's he on about?" 
asked the youngest policeman -- one of the Tottenham supporters, as it 
happened -- doubtfully. "Shall I fetch him another whack?" 

"My name is Salahuddin Chamchawala, professional name Saladin 
Chamcha," the demi-goat gibbered. "I am a member of Actors' Equity, 



171 



the Automobile Association and the Garrick Club. My car registration 
number is suchandsuch. Ask the Computer. Please." 

"Who're you trying to kid?" inquired one of the Liverpool fans, but he, 
too, sounded uncertain. "Look at yourself. You're a fucking Packy billy. 
Sally-who? -- What kind of name is that for an Englishman?" 

Chamcha found a scrap of anger from somewhere. "And what about 
them?" he demanded, jerking his head at the immigration officers. 
"They don't sound so Anglo-Saxon to me." 

For a moment it seemed that they might all fall upon him and tear him 
limb from limb for such temerity, but at length the skull-faced Officer 
Novak merely slapped his face a few times while replying, "I'm from 
Weybridge, you cunt. Get it straight: Weybridge, where the fucking 
_Beatles_ used to live." 

Stein said: "Better check him out." Three and a half minutes later the 
Black Maria came to a halt and three immigration officers, five 
constables and one police driver held a crisis conference -- _here's a 
pretty effing pickle_ -- and Chamcha noted that in their new mood all 
nine had begun to look alike, rendered equal and identical by their 
tension and fear. Nor was it long before he understood that the call to 
the Police National Computer, which had promptly identified him as a 
British Citizen first class, had not improved his situation, but had 
placed him, if anything, in greater danger than before. 

-- We could say, -- one of the nine suggested, -- that he was lying 
unconscious on the beach. -- Won't work, -- came the reply, on account 
of the old lady and the other geezer. -- Then he resisted arrest and 
turned nasty and in the ensuing altercation he kind of fainted. -- Or the 
old bag was ga-ga, made no sense to any of us, and the other guy 
wossname never spoke up, and as for this bugger, you only have to 
clock the bleeder, looks like the very devil, what were we supposed to 



172 



chink? -- And then he went and passed out on us, so what could we do, 
in all fairness, I ask you, your honour, but bring him in to the medical 
facility at the Detention Centre, for proper care followed by observation 
and questioning, using our reason-to-believe guidelines; what do you 
reckon on something of that nature? -- It's nine against one, but the 
old biddy and the second bloke make it a bit of a bastard. -- Look, we 
can fix the tale later, first thing like I keep saying is to get him 
unconscious. -- Right. 



Chamcha woke up in a hospital bed with green slime coming up from 
his lungs. His bones felt as if somebody had put them in the icebox for 
a long while. He began to cough, and when the fit ended nineteen and a 
half minutes later he fell back into a shallow, sickly sleep without 
having taken in any aspect of his present whereabouts. When he 
surfaced again a friendly woman's face was looking down at him, 
smiling reassuringly. "You goin to be fine," she said, patting him on the 
shoulder. "A lickle pneumonia is all you got." She introduced herself as 
his physiotherapist, Hyacinth Phillips. And added, "I never judge a 
person by appearances. No, sir. Don't you go thinking I do." 

With that, she rolled him over on to his side, placed a small cardboard 
box by his lips, hitched up her white housecoat, kicked off her shoes, 
and leaped athletically on to the bed to sit astride him, for all the world 
as if he were a horse that she meant to ride right through the screens 
surrounding his bed and out into goodness knew what manner of 
transmogrified landscape. "Doctor's orders," she explained. "Thirty-- 
minute sessions, twice a day." Without further preamble, she began 
pummelling him briskly about the middle body, with fightly clenched, 
but evidently expert, fists. 

For poor Saladin, fresh from his beating in the police van, this new 
assault was the last straw. He began to struggle beneath her pounding 



173 



fists, crying loudly, "Let me out of here; has anybody informed my 
wife?" The effort of shouting out induced a second coughing spasm 
that lasted seventeen and three--quarter minutes and earned him a 
telling off from the physiotherapist, Hyacinth. "You wastin my time," 
she said. "I should be done with your right lung by now and instead I 
hardly get started. You go behave or not?" She had remained on the 
bed, straddling him, bouncing up and down as his body convulsed, like 
a rodeo rider hanging on for the nine-second bell. He subsided in 
defeat, and allowed her to beat the green fluid out of his inflamed 
lungs. When she finished he was obliged to admit that he felt a good 
deal better. She removed the little box which was now half-full of slime 
and said cheerily, "You be standin up firm in no time," and then, 
colouring in confusion, apologized, "Excuse _me_," and fled without 
remembering to pull back the encircling screens. 

"Time to take stock of the situation," he told himself. A quick physical 
examination informed him that his new, mutant condition had 
remained unchanged. This cast his spirits down, and he realized that he 
had been half-hoping that the nightmare would have ended while he 
slept. He was dressed in a new pair of alien pyjamas, this time of an 
undifferentiated pale green colour, which matched both the fabric of 
the screens and what he could see of the walls and ceiling of that 
cryptic and anonymous ward. His legs still ended in those distressing 
hoofs, and the horns on his head were as sharp as before ... he was 
distracted from this morose inventory by a man's voice from nearby, 
crying out in heart-rending distress: "Oh, if ever a body suffered ... !" 

"What on earth?" Chamcha thought, and determined to investigate. But 
now he was becoming aware of many other sounds, as unsettling as the 
first. It seemed to him that he could hear all sorts of animal noises: the 
snorting of bulls, the chattering of monkeys, even the pretty--polly 
mimic-squawks of parrots or talking budgerigars. Then, from another 
direction, he heard a woman grunting and shrieking, at what sounded 



174 



like the end of a painful labour; followed by the yowling of a new-born 
baby. However, the woman's cries did not subside when the baby's 
began; if anything, they redoubled in their intensity, and perhaps 
fifteen minutes later Chamcha distinctly heard a second infant's voice 
joining the first. Still the woman's birth-agony refused to end, and at 
intervals ranging from fifteen to thirty minutes for what seemed like an 
endless time she continued to add new babies to the already improbable 
numbers marching, like conquering armies, from her womb. 

His nose informed him that the sanatorium, or whatever the place 
called itself, was also beginning to stink to the heavens; jungle and 
farmyard odours mingled with a rich aroma similar to that of exotic 
spices sizzling in clarified butter -- coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, 
cardamoms, cloves. "This is too much," he thought firmly. "Time to get 
a few things sorted out." He swung his legs out of bed, tried to stand 
up, and promptly fell to the floor, being utterly unaccustomed to his 
new legs. It took him around an hour to overcome this problem -- 
learning to walk by holding on to the bed and stumbling around it 
until his confidence grew. At length, and not a little unsteadily, he 
made his way to the nearest screen; whereupon the face of the 
immigration officer Stein appeared, Cheshire-Cat--like, between two of 
the screens to his left, followed rapidly by the rest of the fellow, who 
drew the screens together behind him with suspicious rapidity. 

"Doing all right?" Stein asked, his smile remaining wide. 

"When can I see the doctor? When can I go to the toilet? When can I 
leave?" Chamcha asked in a rush. Stein answered equably: the doctor 
would be round presently; Nurse Phillips would bring him a bedpan; he 
could leave as soon as he was well. "Damn decent of you to come down 
with the lung thing," Stein added, with the gratitude of an author 
whose character had unexpectedly solved a ticklish technical problem. 
"Makes the story much more convincing. Seems you were that sick, you 
did pass out on us after all. Nine of us remember it well. Thanks." 



175 



Chamcha could not find any words. "And another thing," Stein went 
on. "The old burd, Mrs. Diamond. Turns out to be dead in her bed, cold 
as mutton, and the other gentleman vanished clear away. The 
possibility of foul play has no as yet been eliminated." 

"In conclusion," he said before disappearing forever from Saladin's new 
life, "I suggest, Mr. Citizen Saladin, that you dinna trouble with a 
complaint. You'll forgive me for speaking plain, but with your wee 
horns and your great hoofs you wouldna look the most reliable of 
witnesses. Good day to you now." 

Saladin Chamcha closed his eyes and when he opened them his 
tormentor had turned into the nurse and physiotherapist, Hyacinth 
Phillips. "Why you wan go walking?" she asked. "Whatever your heart 
desires, you jus ask me, Hyacinth, and we'll see what we can fix." 



"Ssst." 

That night, in the greeny light of the mysterious institution, Saladin 
was awakened by a hiss out of an Indian bazaar. 

"Ssst. You, Beelzebub. Wake up." 

Standing in front of him was a figure so impossible that Chamcha 
wanted to bury his head under the sheets; yet could not, for was not he 
himself. . . ? "That's right," the creature said. "You see, you're not 
alone." 

It had an entirely human body, but its head was that of a ferocious 
tiger, with three rows of teeth. "The night guards often doze off," it 
explained. "That's how we manage to get to talk." 



176 



Just then a voice from one of the other beds -- each bed, as Chamcha 
now knew, was protected by its own ring of screens -- wailed loudly: 
"Oh, if ever a body suffered!" and the man-tiger, or manticore, as it 
called itself, gave an exasperated growl. "That Moaner Lisa," it 
exclaimed. "All they did to him was make him blind." 

"Who did what?" Chamcha was confused. 

"The point is," the manticore continued, "are you going to put up with 
it?" 

Saladin was still puzzled. The other seemed to be suggesting that these 
mutations were the responsibility of-- of whom? How could they be? -- 
"I don't see," he ventured, "who can be blamed . . ." 

The manticore ground its three rows of teeth in evident frustration. 
"There's a woman over that way," it said, "who is now mostly water- 
buffalo. There are businessmen from Nigeria who have grown sturdy 
tails. There is a group of holidaymakers from Senegal who were doing 
no more than changing planes when they were turned into slippery 
snakes. I myself am in the rag trade; for some years now I have been a 
highly paid male model, based in Bombay, wearing a wide range of 
suitings and shirtings also. But who will employ me now?" he burst 
into sudden and unexpected tears. "There, there," said Saladin 
Chamcha, automatically. "Everything will be all right, I'm sure of it. 
Have courage." 

The creature composed itself. "The point is," it said fiercely, "some of 
us aren't going to stand for it. We're going to bust out of here before 
they turn us into anything worse. Every night I feel a different piece of 
me beginning to change. I've started, for example, to break wind 
continually ... I beg your pardon you see what I mean? By the way, try 
these," he slipped Chamcha a packet of extra-strength peppermints. 



177 



"They'll help your breath. I've bribed one of the guards to bring in a 
supply." 

"But how do they do it?" Chamcha wanted to know. 

"They describe us," the other whispered solemnly. "That's all. They 
have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they 
construct." 

"It's hard to believe," Chamcha argued. "I've lived here for many years 
and it never happened before ..." His words dried up because he saw the 
manticore looking at him through narrow, distrustful eyes. "Many 
years?" it asked. "How could that be? -- Maybe you're an informer? -- 
Yes, that's it, a spy?" 

Just then a wail came from a far corner of the ward. "Lemme go," a 
woman's voice howled. "OJesus I want to go. Jesus Mary I gotta go, 
lemme go, O God, O Jesus God." A very lecherouslooking wolf put its 
head through Saladin's screens and spoke urgently to the manticore. 
"The guards'll be here soon," it hissed. "It's her again, Glass Bertha." 

"Glass . . .?" Saladin began. "Her skin turned to glass," the manticore 
explained impatiently, not knowing that he was bringing Chamcha's 
worst dream to life. "And the bastards smashed it up for her. Now she 
can't even walk to the toilet." 

A new voice hissed out across the greeny night. "For God's sake, 
woman. Go in the fucking bedpan." 

The wolf was pulling the manticore away. "Is he with us or not?" it 
wanted to know. The manticore shrugged. "He can't make up his 
mind," it answered. "Can't believe his own eyes, that's his trouble." 

They fled, hearing the approaching crunch of the guards' heavy boots. 



178 



The next day there was no sign of a doctor, or of Pamela, and Chamcha 
in his utter bewilderment woke and slept as if the two conditions no 
longer required to be thought of as opposites, but as states that flowed 
into and out of one another to create a kind of unending delirium of 
the senses.. . he found himself dreaming of the Queen, of making tender 
love to the Monarch. She was the body of Britain, the avatar of the 
State, and he had chosen her, joined with her; she was his Beloved, the 
moon of his delight. 

Hyacinth came at the appointed times to ride and pummel him, and he 
submitted without any fuss. But when she finished she whispered into 
his ear: "You in with the rest?" and he understood that she was involved 
in the great conspiracy, too. "If you are," he heard himself saying, "then 
you can count me in." She nodded, looking pleased. Chamcha felt a 
warmth filling him up, and he began to wonder about taking hold of 
one of the physiotherapist's exceedingly dainty, albeit powerful, little 
fists; but just then a shout came from the direction of the blind man: 
"My stick, I've lost my stick." 

"Poor old bugger," said Hyacinth, and hopping off Chamcha she darted 
across to the sightless fellow, picked up the fallen stick, restored it to 
its owner, and came back to Saladin. "Now," she said. "I'll see you this 
pm; okay, no problems?" 

He wanted her to stay, but she acted brisk. "I'm a busy woman, Mr. 
Chamcha. Things to do, people to see." 

When she had gone he lay back and smiled for the first time in a long 
while. It did not occur to him that his metamorphosis must be 
continuing, because he was actually entertaining romantic notions 
about a black woman; and before he had time to think such complex 
thoughts, the blind man next door began, once again, to speak. 



179 



"I have noticed you," Chamcha heard him say, "I have noticed you, and 
come to appreciate your kindness and understanding." Saladin realized 
that he was making a formal speech of thanks to the empty space where 
he clearly believed the physiotherapist was still standing. "I am not a 
man who forgets a kindness. One day, perhaps, I may be able to repay it, 
but for the moment, please know that it is remembered, and fondly, 
too. . ." Chamcha did not have the courage to call out, _she isn't there, 
old man, she left some time back_. He listened unhappily until at 
length the blind man asked the thin air a question: "I hope, perhaps, 
you may also remember me? A little? On occasion?" Then came a 
silence; a dry laugh; the sound of a man sitting down, heavily, all of a 
sudden. And finally, after an unbearable pause, bathos: "Oh," the 
soliloquist bellowed, "oh, if ever a body suffered. . . !" 

We strive for the heights but our natures betray us, Chamcha thought; 
clowns in search of crowns. The bitterness overcame him. _Once I was 
lighter, happier, warm. Now the black water is in my veins_. 

Still no Pamela. _What the hell_. That night, he told the manticore and 
the wolf that he was with them, all the way. 



The great escape took place some nights later, when Saladin's lungs had 
been all but emptied of slime by the ministrations of Miss Hyacinth 
Phillips. It turned out to be a well-organized affair on a pretty large 
scale, involving not only the inmates of the sanatorium but also the 
detenus, as the manticore called them, held behind wire fences in the 
Detention Centre nearby. Not being one of the grand strategists of the 
escape, Chamcha simply waited by his bed as instructed until Hyacinth 
brought him word, and then they ran out of that ward of nightmares 
into the clarity of a cold, moonlit sky, past several bound, gagged men: 
their former guards. There were many shadowy figures running through 
the glowing night, and Chamcha glimpsed beings he could never have 



180 



imagined, men and women who were also partially plants, or giant 
insects, or even, on occasion, built partly of brick or stone; there were 
men with rhinoceros horns instead of noses and women with necks as 
long as any giraffe. The monsters ran quickly, silently, to the edge of 
the Detention Centre compound, where the manticore and other sharp- 
toothed mutants were waiting by the large holes they had bitten into 
the fabric of the containing fence, and then they were out, free, going 
their separate ways, without hope, but also without shame. Saladin 
Chamcha and Hyacinth Phillips ran side by side, his goat-hoofs clip- 
clopping on the hard pavements: _east_ she told him, as he heard his 
own footsteps replace the tinnitus in his ears, east east east they ran, 
taking the low roads to London town. 



4 



Jumpy Joshi had become Pamela Chamcha's lover by what she 
afterwards called "sheer chance" on the night she learned of her 
husband's death in the _Bostan_ explosion, so that the sound of his old 
college friend Saladin's voice speaking from beyond the grave in the 
middle of the night, uttering the five gnomic words _sorry, excuse 
please, wrong number_, -- speaking, moreover, less than two hours after 
Jumpy and Pamela had made, with the assistance of two bottles of 
whisky, the two-- backed beast, -- put him in a tight spot. "Who was 
_that?_" Pamela, still mostly asleep, with a blackout mask over her eyes, 
rolled over to inquire, and he decided to reply, "Just a breather, don't 
worry about it," which was all very well, except then he had to do the 
worrying all by himself, sitting up in bed, naked, and sucking, for 
comfort, as he had all his life, the thumb on his right hand. 

He was a small person with wire coathanger shoulders and an enormous 
capacity for nervous agitation, evidenced by his pale, sunken--eyed face; 
his thinning hair -- still entirely black and curly -- which had been 



181 



ruffled so often by his frenzied hands that it no longer took the 
slightest notice of brushes or combs, but stuck out every which way and 
gave its owner the perpetual air of having just woken up, late, and in a 
hurry; and his endearingly high, shy and self-deprecating, but also 
hiccoughy and over--excited, giggle; all of which had helped turn his 
name, Jamshed, into this Jumpy that everybody, even first-time 
acquaintances, now automatically used; everybody, that is, except 
Pamela Chamcha. Saladin's wife, he thought, sucking away feverishly. -- 
Or widow? -- Or, God help me, wife, after all. He found himself 
resenting Chamcha. A return from a watery grave: so operatic an event, 
in this day and age, seemed almost indecent, an act of bad faith. 

He had rushed over to Pamela's place the moment he heard the news, 
and found her dry-eyed and composed. She led him into her clutter- 
lover's study on whose walls watercolours of rose-gardens hung between 
clenched--fist posters reading _Partido Socialista_, photographs of 
friends and a cluster of African masks, and as he picked his way across 
the floor between ashtrays and the _Voice_ newspaper and feminist 
science--fiction novels she said, flatly, "The surprising thing is that 
when they told me I thought, well, shrug, his death will actually make a 
pretty small hole in my life." Jumpy, who was close to tears, and 
bursting with memories, stopped in his tracks and flapped his arms, 
looking, in his great shapeless black coat, and with his pallid, terror- 
stricken face, like a vampire caught in the unexpected and hideous light 
of day. Then he saw the empty whisky bottles. Pamela had started 
drinking, she said, some hours back, and since then she had been going 
at it steadily, rhythmically, with the dedication of a long-distance 
runner. He sat down beside her on her low, squashy sofa-bed, and 
offered to act as a pacemaker. "Whatever you want," she said, and 
passed him the bottle. 

Now, sitting up in bed with a thumb instead of a bottle, his secret and 
his hangover banging equally painfully inside his head (he had never 



182 



been a drinking or a secretive man), Jumpy felt tears coming on once 
again, and decided to get up and walk himself around. Where he went 
was upstairs, to what Saladin had insisted on calling his "den", a large 
loft--space with skylights and windows looking down on an expanse of 
communal gardens dotted with comfortable trees, oak, larch, even the 
last of the elms, a survivor of the plague years. _First the elms, now us_, 
Jumpy reflected. _Maybe the trees were a warning_. He shook himself to 
banish such small-hour morbidities, and perched on the edge of his 
friend's mahogany desk. Once at a college party he had perched, just so, 
on a table soggy with spilled wine and beer next to an emaciated girl in 
black lace minidress, purple feather boa and eyelids like silver helmets, 
unable to pluck up the courage to say hello. Finally he did turn to her 
and stutter out some banality or other; she gave him a look of absolute 
contempt and said without moving her black--lacquer lips, 
conversation's dead, man_. He had been pretty upset, so upset that he 
blurted out, _tell me, why are all the girls in this town so rude?_, and 
she answered, without pausing to think, _because most of the boys are 
like you_. A few moments later Chamcha came up, reeking of patchouli, 
wearing a white kurta, everybody's goddamn cartoon of the mysteries of 
the East, and the girl left with him five minutes later. The bastard, 
Jumpy Joshi thought as the old bitterness surged back, he had no 
shame, he was ready to be anything they wanted to buy, that read-your- 
palm bedspread-jacket HareKrishna dharma-bum, you wouldn't have 
caught me dead. That stopped him, that word right there. Dead. Face it, 
Jamshed, the girls never went for you, that's the truth, and the rest is 
envy. Well, maybe so, he half-conceded, and then again. Maybe dead, he 
added, and then again, maybe not. 

Chamcha's room struck the sleepless intruder as contrived, and 
therefore sad: the caricature of an actor's room full of signed 
photographs of colleagues, handbills, framed programmes, production 
stills, citations, awards, volumes of movie--star memoirs, a room 
bought off the peg, by the yard, an imitation of life, a mask's mask. 



183 



Novelty items on every surface: ashtrays in the shape of pianos, china 
pierrots peeping out from behind a shelf of books. And everywhere, on 
the walls, in the movie posters, in the glow of the lamp borne by bronze 
Eros, in the mirror shaped like a heart, oozing up through the blood- 
red carpet, dripping from the ceiling, Saladin's need for love. In the 
theatre everybody gets kissed and everybody is darling. The actor's life 
offers, on a daily basis, the simulacrum of love; a mask can be satisfied, 
or at least consoled, by the echo of what it seeks. The desperation there 
was in him, Jumpy recognized, he'd do anything, put on any damnfool 
costume, change into any shape, if it earned him a loving word. Saladin, 
who wasn't by any means unsuccessful with women, see above. The poor 
stumblebum. Even Pamela, with all her beauty and brightness, hadn't 
been enough. 

It was clear he'd been getting to be a long way from enough for her. 
Somewhere around the bottom of the second whisky bottle she leaned 
her head on his shoulder and said boozily, "You can't imagine the relief 
of being with someone with whom I don't have to have a fight every 
time I express an opinion. Someone on the side of the goddamn 
angels." He waited; after a pause, there was more. "Him and his Royal 
Family, you wouldn't believe. Cricket, the Houses of Parliament, the 
Queen. The place never stopped being a picture postcard to him. You 
couldn't get him to look at what was really real." She closed her eyes 
and allowed her hand, by accident, to rest on his. "He was a real 
Saladin," Jumpy said. "A man with a holy land to conquer, his England, 
the one he believed in. You were part of it, too." She rolled away from 
him and stretched out on top of magazines, crumpled balls of waste 
paper, mess. "Part of it? I was bloody Britannia. Warm beer, mince pies, 
common-sense and me. But I'm really real, too, J.J.; I really really am." 
She reached over to him, pulled him across to where her mouth was 
waiting, kissed him with a great un-Pamela-like slurp. "See what I 
mean?" Yes, he saw. 



184 



"You should have heard him on the Falklands war," she said later, 
disengaging herself and fiddling with her hair. "'Pamela, suppose you 
heard a noise downstairs in the middle of the night and went to 
investigate and found a huge man in the livingroom with a shotgun, 
and he said, Go back upstairs, what would you do?' I'd go upstairs, I 
said. 'Well, it's like that. Intruders in the home. It won't do.' Jumpy 
noticed her fists had clenched and her knuckles were bone-white. "I 
said, if you must use these blasted cosy metaphors, then get them right. 
What it's _like_ is if two people claim they own a house, and one of 
them is squatting the place, and _then_ the other turns up with the 
shotgun. That's what it's _like_." "That's what's really real," Jumpy 
nodded, seriously. "_Right_," she slapped his knee. "That's really right, 
Mr. Real Jam . . . it's really truly like that. Actually. Another drink." 

She leaned over to the tape deck and pushed a button. Jesus, Jumpy 
thought, _Boney M?_ Give me a break. For all her tough, race-- 
professional attitudes, the lady still had a lot to learn about music. 
Here it came, boomchickaboom. Then, without warning, he was crying, 
provoked into real tears by counterfeit emotion, by a disco-beat 
imitation of pain. It was the one hundred and thirty-seventh psalm, 
"Super flumina". King David calling out across the centuries. How shall 
we sing the Lord's song in a strange land. 

"I had to learn the psalms at school," Pamela Chamcha said, sitting on 
the floor, her head leaning against the sofa-bed, her eyes shut tight. _By 
the river of Babylon, where we sat down, oh oh we wept_ . . . she 
stopped the tape, leaned back again, began to recite. "If I forget thee, O 
Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning; if I do not remember 
thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; yea, if I prefer not 
Jerusalem in my mirth." 

Later, asleep in bed, she dreamed of her convent school, of matins and 
evensong, of the chanting of psalms, when Jumpy rushed in and shook 



185 



her awake, shouting, "It's no good, I've got to tell you. He isn't dead. 
Saladin: he's bloody well alive." 



She came wide awake at once, plunging her hands into her thick, curly, 
hennaed hair, in which the first strands of white were just beginning to 
be noticeable; she knelt on the bed, naked, with her hands in her hair, 
unable to move, until Jumpy had finished speaking, and then, without 
warning, she began to hit out at him, punching him on the chest and 
arms and shoulders and even his face, as hard as she could hit. He sat 
down on the bed beside her, looking ridiculous in her frilly dressing- 
gown, while she beat him; he allowed his body to go loose, to receive the 
blows, to submit. When she ran out of punches her body was covered in 
perspiration and he thought she might have broken one of his arms. 
She sat down beside him, panting, and they were silent. 

Her dog entered the bedroom, looking worried, and padded over to 
offer her his paw, and to lick at her left leg. Jumpy stirred, cautiously. 
"I thought he got stolen," he said eventually. Pamela jerked her head 
for _yes, but_. "The thieves got in touch. I paid the ransom. He now 
answers to the name of Glenn. That's okay; I could never pronounce 
Sher Khan properly, anyway." 

After a while, Jumpy found that he wanted to talk. "What you did, just 
now," he began. 

"Oh, God." 

"No. It's like a thing I once did. Maybe the most sensible thing I ever 
did." In the summer of 1967, he had bullied the "apolitical" twenty- 
year-old Saladin along on an anti-war demonstration. "Once in your 
life, Mister Snoot; I'm going to drag you down to my level." Harold 
Wilson was coming to town, and because of the Labour Government's 



186 



support of U S involvement in Vietnam, a mass protest had been 
planned. Chamcha went along, "out of curiosity," he said. "I want to 
see how allegedly intelligent people turn themselves into a mob." 

That day it rained an ocean. The demonstrators in Market Square were 
soaked through. Jumpy and Chamcha, swept along by the crowd, found 
themselves pushed up against the steps of the town hail; _grandstand 
view_, Chamcha said with heavy irony. Next to them stood two students 
disguised as Russian assassins, in black fedoras, greatcoats and dark 
glasses, carrying shoeboxes filled with ink-dipped tomatoes and labelled 
in large block letters, bombs. Shortly before the Prime Minister's 
arrival, one of them tapped a policeman on the shoulder and said: 
"Excuse, please. When Mr. Wilson, self--styled Prime Meenster, comes in 
long car, kindly request to wind down weendow so my friend can throw 
with him the bombs." The policeman answered, "Ho, ho, sir. Very good. 
Now I'll tell you what. You can throw eggs at him, sir, "cause that's all 
right with me. And you can throw tomatoes at him, sir, like what you've 
got there in that box, painted black, labelled bombs, "cause that's all 
right with me. You throw anything hard at him, sir, and my mate here'll 
get you with his gun." O days of innocence when the world was young . 
. . when the car arrived there was a surge in the crowd and Chamcha and 
Jumpy were separated. Then Jumpy appeared, climbed on to the bonnet 
of Harold Wilson's limousine, and began to jump up and down on the 
bonnet, creating large dents, leaping like a wild man to the rhythm of 
the crowd's chanting: _We shall fight, we shall win, long live Ho Chi 
Minh_. 

"Saladin started yelling at me to get off, partly because the crowd was 
full of Special Branch types converging on the limo, but mainly because 
he was so damn embarrassed." But he kept leaping, up higher and down 
harder, drenched to the bone, long hair flying: Jumpy the jumper, 
leaping into the mythology of those antique years. And Wilson and 
Marcia cowered in the back seat. Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh! At the last 



187 



possible moment Jumpy took a deep breath, and dived head-first into a 
sea of wet and friendly faces; and vanished. They never caught him: fuzz 
pigs filth. "Saladin wouldn't speak to me for over a week," Jumpy 
remembered. "And when he did, all he said was, 'I hope you realize 
those cops could have shot you to pieces, but they didn't.' 

They were still sitting side by side on the edge of the bed. Jumpy 
touched Pamela on the forearm. "I just mean I know how it feels. 
Wham, barn. It felt incredible. It felt necessary." 

"Oh, my God," she said, turning to him. "Oh, my God, I'm sorry, but 
yes, it did." 



In the morning it took an hour to get through to the airline on account 
of the volume of calls still being generated by the catastrophe, and then 
another twenty-five minutes of insistence -- _but he telephoned, it was 
his voice_ -- while at the other end of the phone a woman's voice, 
professionally trained to deal with human beings in crisis, understood 
how she felt and sympathized with her in this awful moment and 
remained very patient, but clearly didn't believe a word she said. .I'm 
sorry, madam, I don't mean to be brutal, but the plane broke up in mid- 
air at thirty thousand feet_. By the end of the call Pamela Chamcha, 
normally the most controlled of women, who locked herself in a 
bathroom when she wanted to cry, was shrieking down the line, for 
God's sake, woman, will you shut up with your little good-samaritan 
speeches and listen to what I'm saying? Finally she slammed down the 
receiver and rounded on Jumpy Joshi, who saw the expression in her 
eyes and spilled the coffee he had been bringing her because his limbs 
began to tremble in fright. "You fucking creep," she cursed him. "Still 
alive, is he? I suppose he flew down from the sky on fucking _wings_ 
and headed straight for the nearest phone booth to change out of his 
fucking Superman costume and ring the little wife." They were in the 



188 



kitchen and Jumpy noticed a group of kitchen knives attached to a 
magnetic strip on the wall next to Pamela's left arm. He opened his 
mouth to speak, but she wouldn't let him. "Get out before I do 
something," she said. "I can't believe I fell for it. You and voices on the 
phone: I should have fucking known." 

In the early 1970S Jumpy had run a travelling disco out of the back of 
his yellow mini-van. He called it Finn's Thumb in honour of the 
legendary sleeping giant of Ireland, Finn MacCool, another sucker, as 
Chamcha used to say. One day Saladin had played a practical joke on 
Jumpy, by ringing him up, putting on a vaguely Mediterranean accent, 
and requesting the services of the musical Thumb on the island of 
Skorpios, on behalf of Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, offering a fee 
of ten thousand dollars and transportation to Greece, in a private 
aircraft, for up to six persons. This was a terrible thing to do to a man 
as innocent and upright as Jamshed Joshi. "I need an hour to think," he 
had said, and then fallen into an agony of the soul. When Saladin rang 
back an hour later and heard that Jumpy was turning down Mrs. 
Onassis's offer for political reasons, he understood that his friend was 
in training to be a saint, and it was no good trying to pull his leg. "Mrs. 
Onassis will be broken in the heart for sure," he had concluded, and 
Jumpy had worriedly replied, "Please tell her it's nothing personal, as a 
matter of fact personally I admire her a great deal." 

We have all known one another too long, Pamela thought as Jumpy left. 
We can hurt each other with memories two decades old. 



On the subject of mistakes with voices, she thought as she drove much 
too fast down the M4 that afternoon in the old MG hardtop from which 
she got a degree of pleasure that was, as she had always cheerfully 
confessed, "quite ideologically unsound", -- on that subject, I really 
ought to be more charitable. 



189 



Pamela Chamcha, nee Lovelace, was the possessor of a voice for which, 
in many ways, the rest of her life had been an effort to compensate. It 
was a voice composed of tweeds, headscarves, summer pudding, hockey- 
sticks, thatched houses, saddle-soap, house--parties, nuns, family pews, 
large dogs and philistinism, and in spite of all her attempts to reduce 
its volume it was loud as a dinner-jacketed drunk throwing bread rolls 
in a Club. It had been the tragedy of her younger days that thanks to 
this voice she had been endlessly pursued by the gentlemen farmers and 
debs' delights and somethings in the city whom she despised with all 
her heart, while the greenies and peacemarchers and world--changers 
with whom she instinctively felt at home treated her with deep 
suspicion, bordering on resentment. How could one be _on the side of 
the angels_ when one sounded like a no-goodnik every time one moved 
one's lips? Accelerating past Reading, Pamela gritted her teeth. One of 
the reasons she had decided to _admit it_ end her marriage before fate 
did it for her was that she had woken up one day and realized that 
Chamcha was not in love with her at all, but with that voice stinking of 
Yorkshire pudding and hearts of oak, that hearty, rubicund voice of ye 
olde dream-England which he so desperately wanted to inhabit. It had 
been a marriage of crossed purposes, each of them rushing towards the 
very thing from which the other was in flight. 

_No survivors_. And in the middle of the night, Jumpy the idiot and his 
stupid false alarm. She was so shaken up by it that she hadn't even got 
round to being shaken up by having gone to bed with Jumpy and made 
love in what _admit it_ had been a pretty satisfying fashion, _spare me 
your nonchalance_, she rebuked herself, _when did you last have so 
much fun_. She had a lot to deal with and so here she was, dealing with 
it by running away as fast as she could go. A few days of pampering 
oneself in an expensive country hotel and the world may begin to seem 
less like a fucking hellhole. Therapy by luxury: okayokay, she allowed, I 
know: I'm _reverting to class_. Fuck it; watch me go. If you've got any 
objections, blow them out of your ass. Arse. Ass. 



190 



One hundred miles an hour past Swindon, and the weather turned 
nasty. Sudden, dark clouds, lightning, heavy rain; she kept her foot on 
the accelerator. _No survivors_. People were always dying on her, 
leaving her with a mouth full of words and nobody to spit them at. Her 
father the classical scholar who could make puns in ancient Greek and 
from whom she inherited the Voice, her legacy and curse; and her 
mother who pined for him during the War, when he was a Pathfinder 
pilot, obliged to fly home from Germany one hundred and eleven times 
in a slow aeroplane through a night which his own flares had just 
illuminated for the benefit of the bombers, -- and who vowed, when he 
returned with the noise of the ack-ack in his ears, that she would never 
leave him, -- and so followed him everywhere, into the slow hollow of 
depression from which he never really emerged, -- and into debt, 
because he didn't have the face for poker and used her money when he 
ran out of his own, -- and at last to the top of a tall building, where 
they found their way at last. Pamela never forgave them, especially for 
making it impossible for her to tell them of her unforgiveness. To get 
her own back, she set about rejecting everything of them that remained 
within her. Her brains, for example: she refused to go to college. And 
because she could not shake off her voice, she made it speak ideas 
which her conservative suicides of parents would have anathematized. 
She married an Indian. And, because he turned out to be too much like 
them, would have left him. Had decided to leave. When, once again, she 
was cheated by a death. 

She was overtaking a frozen-food road train, blinded by the spray 
kicked up by its wheels, when she hit the expanse of water that had 
been waiting for her in a slight declivity, and then the M G was 
aquaplaning at terrifying speed, swerving out of the fast lane and 
spinning round so that she saw the headlights of the road train staring 
at her like the eyes of the exterminating angel, Azrael. "Curtains," she 
thought; but her car swung and skidded out of the path of the 
juggernaut, slewing right across all three lanes of the motorway, all of 



191 



them miraculously empty, and coming to rest with rather less of a 
thump than one might have expected against the crash barrier at the 
edge of the hard shoulder, after spinning through a further one 
hundred and eighty degrees to face, once again, into the west, where 
with all the corny timing of real life, the sun was breaking up the storm. 



The fact of being alive compensated for what life did to one. That 
night, in an oak-panelled dining-room decorated with medieval flags, 
Pamela Chamcha in her most dazzling gown ate venison and drank a 
bottle of Chateau Talbot at a table heavy with silver and crystal, 
celebrating a new beginning, an escape from the jaws of, a fresh start, to 
be born again first you have to: well, almost, anyway. Under the 
lascivious eyes of Americans and salesmen she ate and drank alone, 
retiring early to a princess's bedroom in a stone tower to take a long 
bath and watch old movies on television. In the aftermath of her brush 
with death she felt the past dropping away from her: her adolescence, 
for example, in the care of her wicked uncle Harry Higham, who lived in 
a seventeenth-century manor house once owned by a distant relative, 
Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder-General, who had named it 
Gremlins in, no doubt, a macabre attempt at humour. Remembering 
Mr. Justice Higham in order to forget him, she murmured to the absent 
Jumpy that she, too, had her Vietnam story. After the first big 
Grosvenor Square demonstration at which many people threw marbles 
under the feet of charging police horses, there occurred the one and 
only instance in British law in which the marble was deemed to be a 
lethal weapon, and young persons were jailed, even deported, for 
possessing the small glass spheres. The presiding judge in the case of 
the Grosvenor Marbles was this same Henry (thereafter known as 
"Hang"em") Higham, and to be his niece had been a further burden for 
a young woman already weighed down by her right-wing voice. Now, 
warm in bed in her temporary castle, Pamela Chamcha rid herself of 



192 



this old demon, _goodbye, Hang"eni, I've no more time for you_; and of 
her parents' ghosts; and prepared to be free of the most recent ghost of 
all. 

Sipping cognac, Pamela watched vampires on TV and allowed herself to 
take pleasure in, well, in herself. Had she not invented herself in her 
own image? I am that I am, she toasted herself in Napoleon brandy. I 
work in a community relations council in the borough of Brickhall, 
London, NET; deputy community relations officer and damn good at it, 
ifisaysomyself. Cheers! We just elected our first black Chair and all the 
votes cast against him were white. Down the hatch! Last week a 
respected Asian street trader, for whom M Ps of all parties had 
interceded, was deported after eighteen years in Britain because, fifteen 
years ago, he posted a certain form forty-eight hours late. Chin-chin! 
Next week in Brickhall Magistrates' Court the police will be trying to 
fit up a fifty-year-old Nigerian woman, accusing her of assault, having 
previously beaten her senseless. Skol! This is my head: see it? What I 
call my job: bashing my head against Brickhall. 

Saladin was dead and she was alive. 

She drank to that. There were things I was waiting to tell you, Saladin. 
Some big things: about the new high-rise office building in Brickhall 
High Street, across from McDonald"s; -- they built it to be perfectly 
sound-proof, but the workers were so disturbed by the silence that now 
they play tapes of white noise on the tannoy system. -- You'd have liked 
that, eh? -- And about this Parsi woman I know, Bapsy, that's her name, 
she lived in Germany for a while and fell in love with a Turk. -- Trouble 
was, the only language they had in common was German; now Bapsy has 
forgotten almost all she knew, while his gets better and better; he writes 
her increasingly poetic letters and she can hardly reply in nursery 
rhyme. -- Love dying, because of an inequality of language, what do you 
think of that? -- Love dying. There's a subject for us, eb? Saladin? What 
do you say? 



193 



And a couple of tiny little things. There's a killer on the loose in my 
patch, specializes in killing old women; so don't worry, I'm safe. Plenty 
older than me. 

One more thing: I'm leaving you. It's over. We're through. 

I could never say anything to you, not really, not the least thing. If I 
said you were putting on weight you'd yell for an hour, as if it would 
change what you saw in the mirror, what the tightness of your own 
trousers was telling you. You interrupted me in public. People noticed 
it, what you thought of me. I forgave you, that was my fault; I could see 
the centre of you, that question so frightful that you had to protect it 
with all that posturing certainty. That empty space. 

Goodbye, Saladin. She drained her glass and set it down beside her. The 
returning rain knocked at her leaded windows; she drew her curtains 
shut and turned out the light. 

Lying there, drifting towards sleep, she thought of the last thing she 
needed to tell her late husband. "In bed," the words came, "you never 
seemed interested in me; not in my pleasure, what I needed, not really 
ever. I came to think you wanted, not a lover. A servant." There. Now 
rest in peace. 

She dreamed of him, his face, filling the dream. "Things are ending," he 
told her. "This civilization; things are closing in on it. It has been quite 
a culture, brilliant and foul, cannibal and Christian, the glory of the 
world. We should celebrate it while we can; until night falls." 

She didn't agree, not even in the dream, but she knew, as she dreamed, 
that there was no point telling him now. 



194 



After Pamela Chamcha threw him out, Jumpy Joshi went over to Mr. 
Sufyan's Shaandaar Cafe in Brickhall High Street and sat there trying 
to decide if he was a fool. It was early in the day, so the place was 
almost empty, apart from a fat lady buying a box of pista barfi and 
jalebis, a couple of bachelor garment workers drinking chaloo chai and 
an elderly Polish woman from the old days when it was the Jews who 
ran the sweatshops round here, who sat all day in a corner with two 
vegetable samosas, one pun and a glass of milk, announcing to everyone 
who came in that she was only there because "it was next best to kosher 
and today you must do the best you can". Jumpy sat down with his 
coffee beneath the lurid painting of a bare-breasted myth-woman with 
several heads and wisps of clouds obscuring her nipples, done life-size 
in salmon pink, neon-green and gold, and because the rush hadn't 
started yet Mr. Sufyan noticed he was down in the dumps. 

"Hey, Saint Jumpy," he sang out, "why you bringing your bad weather 
into my place? This country isn't full enough of clouds?" 

Jumpy blushed as Sufyan bounced over to him, his little white cap of 
devotion pinned in place as usual, the moustache-less beard hennaed 
red after its owner's recent pilgrimage to Mecca. Muhammad Sufyan 
was a burly, thick-forearmed fellow with a belly on him, as godly and as 
unfanatic a believer as you could meet, and Joshi thought of himas a 
sort of elder relative. "Listen, Uncle," he said when the cafe proprietor 
was standing over him, "you think I'm a real idiot or what?" 

"You ever make any money?" Sufyan asked. 

"Not me, Uncle." 

"Ever do any business? Import-export? Off-licence? Corner shop?" 

"I never understood figures." 

"And where your family members are?" 



195 



"I've got no family, Uncle. There's only me." 

"Then you must be praying to God continually for guidance in your 
loneliness?" 

"You know me, Uncle. I don't pray." 

"No question about it," Sufyan concluded. "You're an even bigger fool 
than you know." 

"Thanks, Uncle," Jumpy said, finishing his coffee. "You've been a great 
help." 

Sufyan, knowing that the affection in his teasing was cheering the other 
man up in spite of his long face, called across to the light-skinned, 
blue-eyed Asian man who had just come in wearing a snappy check 
overcoat with extra-wide lapels. "You, Hanif Johnson," he called out, 
"come here and solve a mystery. "Johnson, a smart lawyer and local boy 
made good, who maintained an office above the Shaandaar Cafe, tore 
himself away from Sufyan's two beautiful daughters and headed over to 
Jumpy's table. "You explain this fellow," Sufyan said. "Beats me. 
Doesn't drink, thinks of money like a disease, owns maybe two shirts 
and no V C R, forty years old and isn't married, works for two pice in 
the sports centre teaching martial arts and what--all, lives on air, 
behaves like a rishi or pir but doesn't have any faith, going nowhere but 
looks like he knows some secret. All this and a college education, you 
work it out." 

Hanif Johnson punched Jumpy on the shoulder. "He hears voices," he 
said. Sufyan threw up his hands in mock amazement. "Voices, oop- 
baba! Voices from where? Telephone? Sky? Sony Walkman hidden in his 
coat?" 



196 



"Inner voices," Hanif said solemnly. "Upstairs on his desk there's a 
piece of paper with some verses written on it. And a title: _The River of 
Blood_." 

Jumpy jumped, knocking over his empty cup. "I'll kill you," he shouted 
at Hanif, who skipped quickly across the room, singing out, "We got a 
poet in our midst, Sufyan Sahib. Treat with respect. Handle with care. 
He says a street is a river and we are the flow; humanity is a river of 
blood, that's the poet's point. Also the individual human being," he 
broke off to run around to the far side of an eight--seater table as 
Jumpy came after him, blushing furiously, flapping his arms. "In our 
very bodies, does the river of blood not flow?" _Like the Roman_, the 
ferrety Enoch Powell had said, _I seem to see the river Tiber foaming 
with much blood_. Reclaim the metaphor, Jumpy Joshi had told 
himself. Turn it; make it a thing we can use. "This is like rape," he 
pleaded with Hanif. "For God's sake, stop." 

"Voices that one hears are outside, but," the cafe proprietor was 
musing. "Joan of Arc, na. Or that what's his name with the cat: Turn- 
again Whittington. But with such voices one becomes great, or rich at 
least. This one however is not great, and poor." 

"Enough." Jumpy held both arms above his head, grinning without 
really wanting to. "I surrender." 

For three days after that, in spite of all the efforts of Mr. Sufyan, Mrs. 
Sufyan, their daughters Mishal and Anahita, and the lawyer Hanif 
Johnson, Jumpy Joshi was not really himself, "More a Dumpy than a 
Jumpy," as Sufyan said. He went about his business, at the youth clubs, 
at the offices of the film co-operative to which he belonged, and in the 
streets, distributing leaflets, selling certain newspapers, hanging out; 
but his step was heavy as he went his way. Then, on the fourth evening, 
the telephone rang behind the counter of the Shaandaar Cafe. 



197 



"Mr. Jamshed Joshi," Anahita Sufyan carolled, doing her imitation of 
an upper—class English accent. "Will Mr. Joshi please come to the 
instrument? There is a personal call." 

Her father took one look at the joy bursting out on Jumpy's face and 
murmured softly to his wife, "Mrs, the voice this boy is wanting to hear 
is not inner by any manner of means." 



The impossible thing came between Pamela and Jamshed after they had 
spent seven days making love to one another with inexhaustible 
enthusiasm, infinite tenderness and such freshness of spirit that you'd 
have thought the procedure had only just been invented. For seven days 
they remained undressed with the central heating turned high, and 
pretended to be tropical lovers in some hot bright country to the south. 
Jamshed, who had always been clumsy with women, told Pamela that he 
had not felt so wonderful since the day in his eighteenth year when he 
had finally learned how to ride a bicycle. The moment the words were 
out he became afraid that he had spoiled everything, that this 
comparison of the great love of his life to the rickety bike of his student 
days would be taken for the insult it undeniably was; but he needn't 
have worried, because Pamela kissed him on the mouth and thanked 
him for saying the most beautiful thing any man had ever said to any 
woman. At this point he understood that he could do no wrong, and for 
the first time in his life he began to. feel genuinely safe, safe as houses, 
safe as a human being who is loved; and so did Pamela Chamcha. 

On the seventh night they were awakened from dreamless sleep by the 
unmistakable sound of somebody trying to break into the house. "I've 
got a hockey-stick under my bed," Pamela whispered, terrified. "Give it 
to me," Jumpy, who was equally scared, hissed back. "I'm coming with 
you," quaked Pamela, and Jumpy quavered, "Oh, no you don't." In the 
end they both crept downstairs, each wearing one of Pamela's frilly 



198 



dressing-gowns, each with a hand on the hockey-stick that neither felt 
brave enough to use. Suppose it's a man with a shotgun, Pamela found 
herself thinking, a man with a shotgun saying, Go back upstairs . . . 
They reached the foot of the stairs. Somebody turned on the lights. 

Pamela and Jumpy screamed in unison, dropped the hockeystick and 
ran upstairs as fast as they could go; while down in the front hail, 
standing brightly illuminated by the front door with the glass panel it 
had smashed in order to turn the knob of the tongue-and-groove lock 
(Pamela in the throes of her passion had forgotten to use the security 
locks), was a figure out of a nightmare or a late-night TV movie, a 
figure covered in mud and ice and blood, the hairiest creature you ever 
saw, with the shanks and hoofs of a giant goat, a man's torso covered in 
goat's hair, human arms, and a horned but otherwise human head 
covered in muck and grime and the beginnings of a beard. Alone and 
unobserved, the impossible thing pitched forward on to the floor and 
lay still. 

Upstairs, at the very top of the house, that is to say in Saladin's "den", 
Mrs. Pamela Chamcha was writhing in her lover's arms, crying her heart 
out, and bawling at the top of her voice: "It isn't true. My husband 
exploded. No survivors. Do you hear me? I am the widow Chamcha 
whose spouse is beastly dead." 



Mr. Gibreel Farishta on the railway train to London was once again 
seized as who would not be by the fear that God had decided to punish 
him for his loss of faith by driving him insane. He had seated himself by 
the window in a first-class non-smoking compartment, with his back to 
the engine because unfortunately another fellow was already in the 
other place, and jamming his trilby down on his head he sat with his 



199 



fists deep in scarlet--lined gabardine and panicked. The terror of losing 
his mind to a paradox, of being unmade by what he no longer believed 
existed, of turning in his madness into the avatar of a chimerical 
archangel, was so big in him that it was impossible to look at it for 
long; yet how else was he to account for the miracles, metamorphoses 
and apparitions of recent days? "It's a straight choice," he trembled 
silently. "It's A, I'm off my head, or B, baba, somebody went and 
changed the rules." 

Now, however, there was the comforting cocoon of this railway 
compartment in which the miraculous was reassuringly absent, the arm- 
rests were frayed, the reading light over his shoulder didn't work, the 
mirror was missing from its frame, and then there were the regulations: 
the little circular red--and-- white signs forbidding smoking, the 
stickers penalizing the improper use of the chain, the arrows indicating 
the points to which -- and not beyond! -- it was permitted to open the 
little sliding windows. Gibreel paid a visit to the toilet and here, too, a 
small series of prohibitions and instructions gladdened his heart. By 
the time the conductor arrived with the authority of his crescent- 
cutting ticket-punch, Gibreel had been somewhat soothed by these 
manifestations of law, and began to perk up and invent 
rationalizations. He had had a lucky escape from death, a subsequent 
delirium of some sort, and now, restored to himself, could expect the 
threads of his old life -- that is, his old new life, the new life he had 
planned before the er interruption -- to be picked up again. As the train 
carried him further and further away from the twilight zone of his 
arrival and subsequent mysterious captivity, bearing him along the 
happy predictability of parallel metal lines, he felt the pull of the great 
city beginning to work its magic on him, and his old gift of hope 
reasserted itself, his talent for embracing renewal, for blinding himself 
to past hardships so that the future could come into view. He sprang up 
from his seat and thumped down on the opposite side of the 
compartment, with his face symbolically towards London, even though 



200 



it meant giving up the window. What did he care for windows? All the 
London he wanted was right there, in his mind's eye. He spoke her 
name aloud: "Alleluia." 

"Alleluia, brother," the compartment's only other occupant affirmed. 
"Hosanna, my good sir, and amen." 



"Although I must add, sir, that my beliefs are strictly non- 
denominational," the stranger continued. "Had you said 'La--ilaha', I 
would gladly have responded with a full-throated 'illallah'." 

Gibreel realized that his move across the compartment and his 
inadvertent taking of Allie's unusual name had been mistaken by his 
companion for overtures both social and theological. "John Maslama," 
the fellow cried, snapping a card out of a little crocodile-skin case and 
pressing it upon Gibreel. "Personally, I follow my own variant of the 
universal faith invented by the Emperor Akbar. God, I would say, is 
something akin to the Music of the Spheres." 

It was plain that Mr. Maslama was bursting with words, and that, now 
that he had popped, there was nothing for it but to sit it out, to permit 
the torrent to run its orotund course. As the fellow had the build of a 
prize-fighter, it seemed inadvisable to irritate him. In his eyes Farishta 
spotted the glint of the True Believer, a light which, until recently, he 
had seen in his own shaving-mirror every day. 

"I have done well for myself, sir," Maslama was boasting in his well- 
modulated Oxford drawl. "For a brown man, exceptionally well, 
considering the quiddity of the circumstances in which we live; as I 
hope you will allow." With a small but eloquent sweep of his thick ham 
of a hand, he indicated the opulence of his attire: the bespoke tailoring 
of his three-piece pin-stripe, the gold watch with its fob and chain, the 



201 



Italian shoes, the crested silk tie, the jewelled links at his starched 
white cuffs. Above this costume of an English milord there stood a head 
of startling size, covered with thick, slicked-down hair, and sprouting 
implausibly luxuriant eyebrows beneath which blazed the ferocious eyes 
of which Gibreel had already taken careful note. "Pretty fancy," Gibreel 
now conceded, some response being clearly required. Maslama nodded. 
"I have always tended," he admitted, "towards the ornate." 

He had made what he called his _first pile_ producing advertising 
jingles, "that ol" devil music", leading women into lingerie and lip- 
gloss and men into temptation. Now he owned record stores all over 
town, a successful nightclub called Hot Wax, and a store full of 
gleaming musical instruments that was his special pride and joy. He was 
an Indian from Guyana, "but there's nothing left in that place, sir. 
People are leaving it faster than planes can fly." He had made good in 
quick time, "by the grace of God Almighty. I'm a regular Sunday man, 
sir; I confess to a weakness for the English Hymnal, and I sing to raise 
the roof." 

The autobiography was concluded with a brief mention of the existence 
of a wife and some dozen children. Gibreel offered his congratulations 
and hoped for silence, but now Maslama dropped his bombshell. "You 
don't need to tell me about yourself," he said jovially. "Naturally I 
know who you are, even if one does not expect to see such a personage 
on the Eastbourne-Victoria line." He winked leeringly and placed a 
finger alongside his nose. "Mum's the word. I respect a man's privacy, 
no question about it; no question at all." 

"I? Who am I?" Gibreel was startled into absurdity. The other nodded 
weightily, his eyebrows waving like soft antlers. "The prize question, in 
my opinion. These are problematic times, sir, for a moral man. When a 
man is unsure of his essence, how may he know if he be good or bad? 
But you are finding me tedious. I answer my own questions by my faith 
in It, sir," -- here Maslama pointed to the ceiling of the railway 



202 



compartment -- "and of course you are not in the least confused about 
your identity, for you are the famous, the may I say legendary Mr. 
Gibreel Farishta, star of screen and, increasingly, I'm sorry to add, of 
pirate video; my twelve children, one wife and I are all long-standing, 
unreserved admirers of your divine heroics." He grabbed, and pumped 
Gibreel's right hand. 

"Tending as I do towards the pantheistic view," Maslama thundered on, 
"my own sympathy for your work arises out of your willingness to 
portray deities of every conceivable water. You, sir, are a rainbow 
coalition of the celestial; a walking United Nations of gods! You are, in 
short, the future. Permit me to salute you." He was beginning to give 
off the unmistakable odour of the genuine crazy, and even though he 
had not yet said or done anything beyond the merely idiosyncratic, 
Gibreel was getting alarmed and measuring the distance to the door 
with anxious little glances. "I incline, sir," Maslama was saying, 
"towards the opinion that whatever name one calls It by is no more 
than a code; a cypher, Mr. Farishta, behind which the true name lies 
concealed." 

Gibreel remained silent, and Maslama, making no attempt to hide his 
disappointment, was obliged to speak for him. "What is that true name, 
I hear you inquire," he said, and then Gibreel knew he was right; the 
man was a full-fledged lunatic, and his autobiography was very likely as 
much of a concoction as his "faith". Fictions were walking around 
wherever he went, Gibreel reflected, fictions masquerading as real 
human beings. "I have brought him upon me," he accused himself. "By 
fearing for my own sanity I have brought forth, from God knows what 
dark recess, this voluble and maybe dangerous nut." 

"You don't know it!" Maslama yelled suddenly, jumping to his feet. 
"Charlatan! Poser! Fake! You claim to be the screen immortal, avatar of 
a hundred and one gods, and you haven't a _foggy!_ How is it possible 



203 



that I, a poor boy made good from Bartica on the Essequibo, can know 
such things while Gibreel Farishta does not? Phoney! Phooey to you!" 

Gibreel got to his feet, but the other was filling almost all the available 
standing room, and he, Gibreel, had to lean over awkwardly to one side 
to escape Maslama's windmilling arms, one of which knocked off his 
grey trilby. At once Maslama's mouth fell open. He seemed to shrink 
several inches, and after a few frozen moments, he fell to his knees with 
a thud. 

What's he doing down there, Gibreel wondered, picking up my hat? But 
the madman was begging for forgiveness. "I never doubted you would 
come," he was saying. "Pardon my clumsy rage." The train entered a 
tunnel, and Gibreel saw that they were surrounded by a warm golden 
light that was coming from a point just behind his head. In the glass of 
the sliding door, he saw the reflection of the halo around his hair. 

Maslama was struggling with his shoelaces. "All my life, sir, I knew I 
had been chosen," he was saying in a voice as humble as it had earlier 
been menacing. "Even as a child in Bartica, I knew." He pulled off his 
right shoe and began to roll down his sock. "I was given," he said, "a 
sign." The sock was removed, revealing what looked to be a perfectly 
ordinary, if outsize, foot. Then Gibreel counted and counted again, 
from one to six. "The same on the other foot," Maslama said proudly. 
"I never doubted the meaning for a minute." He was the self--appointed 
helpmate of the Lord, the sixth toe on the foot of the Universal Thing. 
Something was badly amiss with the spiritual life of the planet, thought 
Gibreel Farishta. Too many demons inside people claiming to believe in 
God. 

The train emerged from the tunnel. Gibreel took a decision. "Stand, six- 
toed John," he intoned in his best Hindi movie manner. "Maslama, 
arise." 



204 



The other scrambled to his feet and stood pulling at his fingers, his 
head bowed. "What I want to know, sir," he mumbled, "is, which is it to 
be? Annihilation or salvation? Why have you returned?" 

Gibreel thought rapidly. "It is for judging," he finally answered. "Facts 
in the case must be sifted, due weight given pro and contra. Here it is 
the human race that is the undertrial, and it is a defendant with a 
rotten record: a history-sheeter, a bad egg. Careful evaluations must be 
made. For the present, verdict is reserved; will be promulgated in due 
course. In the meantime, my presence must remain a secret, for vital 
security reasons." He put his hat back on his head, feeling pleased with 
himself. 

Maslama was nodding furiously. "You can depend on me," he promised. 
"I'm a man who respects a person's privacy. Mum" -- for the second 
time! -- "is the word." 

Gibreel fled the compartment with the lunatic's hymns in hot pursuit. 
As he rushed to the far end of the train Maslama's paeans remained 
faintly audible behind him. "Alleluia! Alleluia!" Apparently his new 
disciple had launched into selections from Handel's _Messiah_. 

However: Gibreel wasn't followed, and there was, fortunately, a first- 
class carriage at the rear of the train, too. This one was of open--plan 
design, with comfortable orange seats arranged in fours around tables, 
and Gibreel settled down by a window, staring towards London, with 
his chest thumping and his hat jammed down on his head. He was 
trying to come to terms with the undeniable fact of the halo, and 
failing to do so, because what with the derangement of John Maslama 
behind him and the excitement of Alleluia Cone ahead it was hard to 
get his thoughts straight. Then to his despair Mrs. Rekha Merchant 
floated up alongside his window, sitting on her flying Bokhara, 
evidently impervious to the snowstorm that was building up out there 
and making England look like a television set after the day's 



205 



programmes end. She gave him a little wave and he felt hope ebbing 
from him. Retribution on a levitating rug: he closed his eyes and 
concentrated on trying not to shake. 



"I know what a ghost is," Allie Cone said to a classroom of teenage girls 
whose faces were illuminated by the soft inner light of worship. "In the 
high Himalayas it is often the case that climbers find themselves being 
accompanied by the ghosts of those who failed in the attempt, or the 
sadder, but also prouder, ghosts of those who succeeded in reaching the 
summit, only to perish on the way down." 

Outside, in the Fields, the snow was settling on the high, bare trees, and 
on the flat expanse of the park. Between the low, dark snow-clouds and 
the white-carpeted city the light was a dirty yellow colour, a narrow, 
foggy light that dulled the heart and made it impossible to dream. Up 
_there_, Allie remembered, up there at eight thousand metres, the light 
was of such clarity that it seemed to resonate, to sing, like music. Here 
on the flat earth the light, too, was flat and earthbound. Here nothing 
flew, the sedge was withered, and no birds sang. Soon it would be dark. 

"Ms Cone?" The girls' hands, waving in the air, drew her back into the 
classroom. "Ghosts, miss? Straight up?" "You're pulling our legs, 
right?" Scepticism wrestled with adoration in their faces. She knew the 
question they really wanted to ask, and probably would not: the 
question of the miracle of her skin. She had heard them whispering 
excitedly as she entered the classroom, 's true, look, how _pale_, 's 
incredible. Alleluia Cone, whose iciness could resist the heat of the 
eight-thousand-metre sun. Allie the snow maiden, the icequeen. _Miss, 
how come you never get a tan?_ When she went up Everest with the 
triumphant Collingwood expedition, the papers called them Snow 
White and the Seven Dwarfs, though she was no Disneyish cutie, her 
full lips pale rather than rose--red, her hair ice-blonde instead of black, 



206 



her eyes not innocently wide but narrowed, out of habit, against the 
high snowglare. A memory of Gibreel Farishta welled up, catching her 
unawares: Gibreel at some point during their three and a half days, 
booming with his usual foot-in-mouth lack of restraint, "Baby, you're 
no iceberg, whatever they say. You're a passionate lady, bibi. Hot, like a 
kachori." He had pretended to blow on scalded fingertips, and shook 
his hand for emphasis: _0, too hot. O, throw water_. Gibreel Farishta. 
She controlled herself: Hi ho, it's off to work. 

"Ghosts," she repeated firmly. "On the Everest climb, after I came 
through the ice-fall, I saw a man sitting on an outcrop in the lotus 
position, with his eyes shut and a tartan tam--o"--shanter on his head, 
chanting the old mantra: om mani padme hum." She had guessed at 
once, from his archaic clothing and surprising behaviour, that this was 
the spectre of Maurice Wilson, the yogi who had prepared for a solo 
ascent of Everest, back in 1934, by starving himself for three weeks in 
order to cement so deep a union between his body and soul that the 
mountain would be too weak to tear them apart. He had gone up in a 
light aircraft as high as it would take him, crash-landed deliberately in 
a snowfield, headed upwards, and never returned. Wilson opened his 
eyes as Allie approached, and nodded lightly in greeting. He strolled 
beside her for the rest of that day, or hung in the air while she worked 
her way up a face. Once he belly-flopped into the snow of a sharp 
incline and glided upwards as if he were riding on an invisible anti- 
gravity toboggan. Allie had found herself behaving quite naturally, as if 
she'd just bumped into an old acquaintance, for reasons afterwards 
obscure to her. 

Wilson chattered on a fair bit -- "Don't get a lot of company these days, 
one way and another" -- and expressed, among other things, his deep 
irritation at having had his body discovered by the Chinese expedition 
of 1960. "Little yellow buggers actually had the gall, the sheer face, to 
film my corpse." Alleluia Cone was struck by the bright, yellow-and- 



207 



black tartan of his immaculate knickerbockers. All this she told the 
girls at Brickhall Fields Girls' School, who had written so many letters 
pleading for her to address them that she had not been able to refuse. 
"You've got to," they pleaded in writing. "You even live here." From the 
window of the classroom she could see her flat across the park, just 
visible through the thickening fall of snow. 

What she did not tell the class was this: as Maurice Wilson's ghost 
described, in patient detail, his own ascent, and also his posthumous 
discoveries, for example the slow, circuitous, infinitely delicate and 
invariably unproductive mating ritual of the yeti, which he had 
witnessed recently on the South Col, -- so it occurred to her that her 
vision of the eccentric of 1934, the first human being ever to attempt to 
scale Everest on his own, a sort of abominable snowman himself, had 
been no accident, but a kind of signpost, a declaration of kinship. A 
prophecy of the future, perhaps, for it was at that moment that her 
secret dream was born, the impossible thing: the dream of the 
unaccompanied climb. It was possible, also, that Maurice Wilson was 
the angel of her death. 

"I wanted to talk about ghosts," she was saying, "because most 
mountaineers, when they come down from the peaks, grow embarrassed 
and leave these stories out of their accounts. But they do exist, I have to 
admit it, even though I'm the type who's always kept her feet on solid 
ground." 

That was a laugh. Her feet. Even before the ascent of Everest she had 
begun to suffer from shooting pains, and was informed by her general 
practitioner, a no-nonsense Bombay woman called Dr. Mistry, that she 
was suffering from fallen arches. "In common parlance, flat feet." Her 
arches, always weak, had been further weakened by years of wearing 
sneakers and other unsuitable shoes. Dr. Mistry couldn't recommend 
much: toe-clenching exercises, running upstairs barefoot, sensible 
footwear. "You're young enough," she said. "If you take care, you'll 



208 



live. If not, you'll be a cripple at forty." When Gibreel -- damn it! -- 
heard that she had climbed Everest with spears in her feet he took to 
calling her his silkie. He had read a Bumper Book of fairy-tales in which 
he found the story of the sea-woman who left the ocean and took on 
human form for the sake of the man she loved. She had feet instead of 
fins, but every step she took was an agony, as if she were walking over 
broken glass; yet she went on walking, forward, away from the sea and 
over land. You did it for a bloody mountain, he said. Would you do it 
for a man? 

She had concealed her foot-ache from her fellow-mountaineers because 
the lure of Everest had been so overwhelming. But these days the pain 
was still there, and growing, if anything, worse. Chance, a congenital 
weakness, was proving to be her footbinder. Adventure's end, Allie 
thought; betrayed by my feet. The image of footbinding stayed with her. 
_Goddamn Chinese_, she mused, echoing Wilson's ghost. 

"Life is so easy for some people," she had wept into Gibreel Farishta's 
arms. "Why don't _their_ blasted feet give out?" He had kissed her 
forehead. "For you, it may always be a struggle," he said. "You want it 
too damn much." 

The class was waiting for her, growing impatient with all this talk of 
phantoms. They wanted _the_ story, her story. They wanted to stand on 
the mountain-top. _Do you know how it feels_, she wanted to ask them, 
_to have the whole of your life concentrated into one moment, a few 
hours long? Do you know what it's like when the only direction is 
down?_ "I was in the second pair with Sherpa Pemba," she said. "The 
weather was perfect, perfect. So clear you felt you could look right 
through the sky into whatever lay beyond. The first pair must have 
reached the summit by now, I said to Pemba. Conditions are holding 
and we can go. Pemba grew very serious, quite a change, because he was 
one of the expedition clowns. He had never been to the summit before, 
either. At that stage I had no plans to go without oxygen, but when I 



209 



saw that Pemba intended it, I thought, okay, me too. It was a stupid 
whim, unprofessional, really, but I suddenly wanted to be a woman 
sitting on top of that bastard mountain, a human being, not a 
breathing machine. Pemba said, Allie Bibi, don't do, but I just started 
up. In a while we passed the others coming down and I could see the 
wonderful thing in their eyes. They were so high, possessed of such an 
exaltation, that they didn't even notice I wasn't wearing the oxygen 
equipment. Be careful, they shouted over to us, Look out for the angels. 
Pemba had fallen into a good breathing pattern and I fell into step with 
it, breathing in with his in, out with his out. I could feel something 
lifting off the top of my head and I was grinning, just grinning from ear 
to ear, and when Pemba looked my way I could see he was doing the 
same. It looked like a grimace, like pain, but it was just foolish joy." 
She was a woman who had been brought to transcendence, to the 
miracles of the soul, by the hard physical labour of hauling herself up 
an icebound height of rock. "At that moment," she told the girls, who 
were climbing beside her every step of the way, "I believed it all: that 
the universe has a sound, that you can lift a veil and see the face of 
God, everything. I saw the Himalayas stretching below me and that was 
God's face, too. Pemba must have seen something in my expression that 
bothered him because he called across, Look out, Allie Bibi, the height. 
I recall sort of floating over the last overhang and up to the top, and 
then we were there, with the ground falling away on every side. Such 
light; the universe purified into light. I wanted to tear off my clothes 
and let it soak into my skin." Not a titter from the class; they were 
dancing naked with her on the roof of the world. "Then the visions 
began, the rainbows looping and dancing in the sky, the radiance 
pouring down like a waterfall from the sun, and there were angels, the 
others hadn't been joking. I saw them and so did Sherpa Pemba. We 
were on our knees by then. His pupils looked pure white and so did 
mine, I'm sure. We would probably have died there, I'm sure, snow- 
blind and mountain-foolish, but then I heard a noise, a loud, sharp 
report, like a gun. That snapped me out of it. I had to yell at Pem until 



210 



he, too, shook himself and we started down. The weather was changing 
rapidly; a blizzard was on the way. The air was heavy now, heaviness 
instead of that light, that lightness. We just made it to the meeting 
point and the four of us piled into the little tent at Camp Six, twenty- 
seven thousand feet. You don't talk much up there. We all had our 
Everests to re-climb, over and over, all night. But at some point I asked: 
"What was that noise? Did anyone fire a gun?" They looked at me as if I 
was touched. Who'd do such a damnfool thing at this altitude, they 
said, and anyway, Allie, you know damn well there isn't a gun anywhere 
on the mountain. They were right, of course, but I heard it, I know that 
much: wham bam, shot and echo. That's it," she ended abruptly. "The 
end. Story of my life." She picked up a silver-headed cane and prepared 
to depart. The teacher, Mrs. Bury, came forward to utter the usual 
platitudes. But the girls were not to be denied. "So what was it, then, 
Allie?" they insisted; and she, looking suddenly ten years older than her 
thirty-three, shrugged. "Can't say," she told them. "Maybe it was 
Maurice Wilson's ghost." 

She left the classroom, leaning heavily on her stick. 



The city -- Proper London, yaar, no bloody less! -- was dressed in white, 
like a mourner at a funeral. -- Whose bloody funeral, mister, Gibreel 
Farishta asked himself wildly, not mine, I bloody hope and trust. When 
the train pulled into Victoria station he plunged out without waiting 
for it to come to a complete halt, turned his ankle and went sprawling 
beneath the baggage trolleys and sneers of the waiting Londoners, 
clinging, as he fell, on to his increasingly battered hat. Rekha Merchant 
was nowhere to be seen, and seizing the moment Gibreel ran through 
the scattering crowd like a man possessed, only to find her by the ticket 
barrier, floating patiently on her carpet, invisible to all eyes but his 
own, three feet off the ground. 



211 



"What do you want," he burst out, "what's your business with me?" 
"To watch you fall," she instantly replied. "Look around," she added, 
"I've already made you look like a pretty big fool." 

People were clearing a space around Gibreel, the wild man in an outsize 
overcoat and trampy hat, _that man's talking to himself_, a child's 
voice said, and its mother answered _shh, dear, it's wicked to mock the 
afflicted_. Welcome to London. Gibreel Farishta rushed towards the 
stairs leading down towards the Tube. Rekha on her carpet let him go. 

But when he arrived in a great rush at the northbound platform of the 
Victoria Line he saw her again. This time she was a colour photograph 
in a 48--sheet advertising poster on the wall across the track, 
advertising the merits of the international direct—dialling system. 
_Send your voice on a magic-carpet ride to India_, she advised. _No 
djinns or lamps required_. He gave a loud cry, once again causing his 
fellow-travellers to doubt his sanity, and fled over to the southbound 
platform, where a train was just pulling in. He leapt aboard, and there 
was Rekha Merchant facing him with her carpet rolled up and lying 
across her knees. The doors closed behind him with a bang. 

That day Gibreel Farishta fled in every direction around the 
Underground of the city of London and Rekha Merchant found him 
wherever he went; she sat beside him on the endless up-escalator at 
Oxford Circus and in the tightly packed elevators of Tufnell Park she 
rubbed up against him from behind in a manner that she would have 
thought quite outrageous during her lifetime. On the outer reaches of 
the Metropolitan Line she hurled the phantoms of her children from 
the tops of claw--like trees, and when he came up for air outside the 
Bank of England she flung herself histrionically from the apex of its 
neo-classical pediment. And even though he did not have any idea of 
the true shape of that most protean and chameleon of cities he grew 
convinced that it kept changing shape as he ran around beneath it, so 
that the stations on the Underground changed lines and followed one 



212 



another in apparently random sequence. More than once he emerged, 
suffocating, from that subterranean world in which the laws of space 
and time had ceased to operate, and tried to hail a taxi; not one was 
willing to stop, however, so he was obliged to plunge back into that 
hellish maze, that labyrinth without a solution, and continue his epic 
flight. At last, exhausted beyond hope, he surrendered to the fatal logic 
of his insanity and got out arbitrarily at what he conceded must be the 
last, meaningless station of his prolonged and futile journey in search 
of the chimera of renewal. He came out into the heartbreaking 
indifference of a litter-blown street by a lorry--infested roundabout. 
Darkness had already fallen as he walked unsteadily, using the last 
reserves of his optimism, into an unknown park made spectral by the 
ectoplasmic quality of the tungsten lamps. As he sank to his knees in 
the isolation of the winter night he saw the figure of a woman moving 
slowly towards him across the snow-shrouded grass, and surmised that 
it must be his nemesis, Rekha Merchant, coming to deliver her death- 
kiss, to drag him down into a deeper underworld than the one in which 
she had broken his wounded spirit. He no longer cared, and by the time 
the woman reached him he had fallen forward on to his forearms, his 
coat dangling loosely about him and giving him the look of a large, 
dying beetle who was wearing, for obscure reasons, a dirty grey trilby 
hat. 

As if from a great distance he heard a shocked cry escape the woman's 
lips, a gasp in which disbelief, joy and a strange resentment were all 
mixed up, and just before his senses left him he understood that Rekha 
had permitted him, for the time being, to reach the illusion of a safe 
haven, so that her triumph over him could be the sweeter when it came 
at the last. 

"You're alive," the woman said, repeating the first words she had ever 
spoken to his face. "You got your life back. That's the point., 

Smiling, he fell asleep at Allie's flat feet in the falling snow. 

213 



IV. Ayesha 

Even the serial visions have migrated now; they know the city better 
than he. And in the aftermath of Rosa and Rekha the dream-worlds of 
his archangelic other self begin to seem as tangible as the shifting 
realities he inhabits while he's awake. This, for instance, has started 
coming: a mansion block built in the Dutch style in a part of London 
which he will subsequently identify as Kensington, to which the dream 
flies him at high speed past Barkers department store and the small 
grey house with double bay windows where Thackeray wrote _Vanity 
Fair_ and the square with the convent where the little girls in uniform 
are always going in, but never come out, and the house where 
Talleyrand lived in his old age when after a thousand and one 
chameleon changes of allegiance and principle he took on the outward 
form of the French ambassador to London, and arrives at a seven- 
storey corner block with green wrought — iron balconies up to the 
fourth, and now the dream rushes him up the outer wall of the house 
and on the fourth floor it pushes aside the heavy curtains at the living- 
room window and finally there he sits, unsleeping as usual, eyes wide in 
the dim yellow light, staring into the future, the bearded and turbaned 
Imam. 

Who is he? An exile. Which must not be confused with, allowed to run 
into, all the other words that people throw around: emigre, expatriate, 
refugee, immigrant, silence, cunning. Exile is a dream of glorious 
return. Exile is a vision of revolution: Elba, not St Helena. It is an 
endless paradox: looking forward by always looking back. The exile is a 
ball hurled high into the air. He hangs there, frozen in time, translated 
into a photograph; denied motion, suspended impossibly above his 
native earth, he awaits the inevitable moment at which the photograph 
must begin to move, and the earth reclaim its own. These are the things 



214 



the Imam thinks. His home is a rented flat. It is a waiting-- room, a 
photograph, air. 

The thick wallpaper, olive stripes on a cream ground, has faded a little, 
enough to emphasize the brighter rectangles and ovals that indicate 
where pictures used to hang. The Imam is the enemy of images. When 
he moved in the pictures slid noiselessly from the walls and slunk from 
the room, removing themselves from the rage of his unspoken 
disapproval. Some representations, however, are permitted to remain. 
On the mantelpiece he keeps a small group of postcards bearing 
conventional images of his homeland, which he calls simply Desh: a 
mountain looming over a city; a picturesque village scene beneath a 
mighty tree; a mosque. But in his bedroom, on the wall facing the hard 
cot where he lies, there hangs a more potent icon, the portrait of a 
woman of exceptional force, famous for her profile of a Grecian statue 
and the black hair that is as long as she is high. A powerful woman, his 
enemy, his other: he keeps her close. Just as, far away in the palaces of 
her omnipotence she will be clutching his portrait beneath her royal 
cloak or hiding it in a locket at her throat. She is the Empress, and her 
name is -- what else? -- Ayesha. On this island, the exiled Imam, and at 
home in Desh, She. They plot each other's deaths. 

The curtains, thick golden velvet, are kept shut all day, because 
otherwise the evil thing might creep into the apartment: foreignness, 
Abroad, the alien nation. The harsh fact that he is here and not There, 
upon which all his thoughts are fixed. On those rare occasions when the 
Imam goes out to take the Kensington air, at the centre of a square 
formed by eight young men in sunglasses and bulging suits, he folds his 
hands before him and fixes his gaze upon them, so that no element or 
particle of this hated city, -- this sink of iniquities which humiliates 
him by giving him sanctuary, so that he must be beholden to it in spite 
of the lustfulness, greed and vanity of its ways, -- can lodge itself, like a 
dust--speck, in his eyes. When he leaves this loathed exile to return in 



215 



triumph to that other city beneath the postcard-mountain, it will be a 
point of pride to be able to say that he remained in complete ignorance 
of the Sodom in which he had been obliged to wait; ignorant, and 
therefore unsullied, unaltered, pure. 

And another reason for the drawn curtains is that of course there are 
eyes and ears around him, not all of them friendly. The orange 
buildings are not neutral. Somewhere across the street there will be 
zoom lenses, video equipment, jumbo mikes; and always the risk of 
snipers. Above and below and beside the Imam are the safe apartments 
occupied by his guards, who stroll the Kensington streets disguised as 
women in shrouds and silvery beaks; but it is as well to be too careful. 
Paranoia, for the exile, is a prerequisite of survival. 

A fable, which he heard from one of his favourites, the American 
convert, formerly a successful singer, now known as Bilal X. In a certain 
nightclub to which the Imam is in the habit of sending his lieutenants 
to listen in to certain other persons belonging to certain opposed 
factions, Bilal met a young man from Desh, also a singer of sorts, so 
they fell to talking. It turned out that this Mahmood was a badly scared 
individual. He had recently _shacked up_ with a gori, a long red woman 
with a big figure, and then it turned out that the previous lover of his 
beloved Renata was the exiled boss of the S A V A K torture 
organization of the Shah of Iran. The number one Grand Panjandrum 
himself, not some minor sadist with a talent for extracting toenails or 
setting fire to eyelids, but the great haramzada in person. The day after 
Mahmood and Renata moved in to their new apartment a letter arrived 
for Mahmood. _Okay, shit-eater, you're fucking my woman, I just 
wanted to say hello_. The next day a second letter arrived. _By the way, 
prick, I forgot to mention, here is your new telephone number_. At that 
point Mahmood and Renata had asked for an exdirectory listing but 
had not as yet been given their new number by the telephone company. 
When it came through two days later and was exactly the same as the 



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one on the letter, Mahmood's hair fell out all at once. Then, seeing it 
lying on the pillow, he joined his hands together in front of Renata and 
begged, "Baby, I love you, but you're too hot for me, please go 
somewhere, far far." When the Imam was told this story he shook his 
head and said, that whore, who will touch her now, in spite of her 
lustcreating body? She put a stain on herself worse than leprosy; thus 
do human beings mutilate themselves. But the true moral of the fable 
was the need for eternal vigilance. London was a city in which the ex- 
boss of S A V A K had great connections in the telephone company and 
the Shah's ex-chef ran a thriving restaurant in Hounslow. Such a 
welcoming city, such a refuge, they take all types. Keep the curtains 
drawn. 

Floors three to five of this block of mansion flats are, for the moment, 
all the homeland the Imam possesses. Here there are rifles and short- 
wave radios and rooms in which the sharp young men in suits sit and 
speak urgently into several telephones. There is no alcohol here, nor are 
playing cards or dice anywhere in evidence, and the only woman is the 
one hanging on the old man's bedroom wall. In this surrogate 
homeland, which the insomniac saint thinks of as his waiting-room or 
transit lounge, the central heating is at full blast night and day, and the 
windows are tightly shut. The exile cannot forget, and must therefore 
simulate, the dry heat of Desh, the once and future land where even the 
moon is hot and dripping like a fresh, buttered chapati. O that longed- 
for part of the world where the sun and moon are male but their hot 
sweet light is named with female names. At night the exile parts his 
curtains and the alien moonlight sidles into the room, its coldness 
striking his eyeballs like a nail. He winces, narrows his eyes. Loose- 
robed, frowning, ominous, awake: this is the Imam. 

Exile is a soulless country. In exile, the furniture is ugly, expensive, all 
bought at the same time in the same store and in too much of a hurry: 
shiny silver sofas with fins like old Buicks DeSotos Oldsmobiles, glass- 



217 



fronted bookcases containing not books but clippings files. In exile the 
shower goes scalding hot whenever anybody turns on a kitchen tap, so 
that when the Imam goes to bathe his entire retinue must remember not 
to fill a kettle or rinse a dirty plate, and when the Imam goes to the 
toilet his disciples leap scalded from the shower. In exile no food is ever 
cooked; the dark-spectacled bodyguards go out for takeaway. In exile all 
attempts to put down roots look like treason: they are admissions of 
defeat. 

The Imam is the centre of a wheel. 

Movement radiates from him, around the clock. His son, Khalid, enters 
his sanctum bearing a glass of water, holding it in his right hand with 
his left palm under the glass. The Imam drinks water constantly, one 
glass every five minutes, to keep himself clean; the water itself is 
cleansed of impurities, before he sips, in an American filtration 
machine. All the young men surrounding him are well aware of his 
famous Monograph on Water, whose purity, the Imam believes, 
communicates itself to the drinker, its thinness and simplicity, the 
ascetic pleasures of its taste. "The Empress," he points out, "drinks 
wine." Burgundies, clarets, hocks mingle their intoxicating corruptions 
within that body both fair and foul. The sin is enough to condemn her 
for all time without hope of redemption. The picture on his bedroom 
wall shows the Empress Ayesha holding, in both hands, a human skull 
filled with a dark red fluid. The Empress drinks blood, but the Imam is 
a water man. "Not for nothing do the peoples of our hot lands offer it 
reverence," the Monograph proclaims. "Water, preserver of life. No 
civilized individual can refuse it to another. A grandmother, be her 
limbs ever so arthritically stiff, will rise at once and go to the tap if a 
small child should come to her and ask, pani, nani. Beware all those 
who blaspheme against it. Who pollutes it, dilutes his soul." 

The Imam has often vented his rage upon the memory of the late Aga 
Khan, as a result of being shown the text of an interview in which the 



218 



head of the Ismailis was observed drinking vintage champagne. _0, sir, 
this champagne is only for outward show. The instant it touches my 
lips, it turns to water_. Fiend, the Imam is wont to thunder. Apostate, 
blasphemer, fraud. When the future comes such individuals will be 
judged, he tells his men. Water will have its day and blood will flow like 
wine. Such is the miraculous nature of the future of exiles: what is first 
uttered in the impotence of an overheated apartment becomes the fate 
of nations. Who has not dreamed this dream, of being a king for a day? 
-- But the Imam dreams of more than a day; feels, emanating from his 
fingertips, the arachnid strings with which he will control the 
movement of history. 

No: not history. 

His is a stranger dream. 



His son, water-carrying Khalid, bows before his father like a pilgrim at a 
shrine, informs him that the guard on duty outside the sanctum is 
Salman Farsi. Bilal is at the radio transmitter, broadcasting the day's 
message, on the agreed frequency, to Desh. 

The Imam is a massive stillness, an immobility. He is living stone. His 
great gnarled hands, granite--grey, rest heavily on the wings of his high- 
backed chair. His head, looking too large for the body beneath, lolls 
ponderously on the surprisingly scrawny neck that can be glimpsed 
through the grey-black wisps of beard. The Imam's eyes are clouded; his 
lips do not move. He is pure force, an elemental being; he moves 
without motion, acts without doing, speaks without uttering a sound. 
He is the conjurer and history is his trick. 

No, not history: something stranger. 



219 



The explanation of this conundrum is to be heard, at this very moment, 
on certain surreptitious radio waves, on which the voice of the 
American convert Bilal is singing the Imam's holy song. Bilal the 
muezzin: his voice enters a ham radio in Kensington and emerges in 
dreamed-of Desh, transmuted into the thunderous speech of the Imam 
himself. Beginning with ritual abuse of the Empress, with lists of her 
crimes, murders, bribes, sexual relations with lizards, and so on, he 
proceeds eventually to issue in ringing tones the Imam's nightly call to 
his people to rise up against the evil of her State. "We will make a 
revolution," the Imam proclaims through him, "that is a revolt not only 
against a tyrant, but against history." For there is an enemy beyond 
Ayesha, and it is History herself. History is the blood--wine that must 
no longer be drunk. History the intoxicant, the creation and possession 
of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies -- progress, 
science, rights -- against which the Imam has set his face. History is a 
deviation from the Path, knowledge is a delusion, because the sum of 
knowledge was complete on the day AlLah finished his revelation to 
Mahound. "We will unmake the veil of history," Bilal declaims into the 
listening night, "and when it is unravelled, we will see Paradise 
standing there, in all its glory and light." The Imam chose Bilal for this 
task on account of the beauty of his voice, which in its previous 
incarnation succeeded in climbing the Everest of the hit parade, not 
once but a dozen times, to the very top. The voice is rich and 
authoritative, a voice in the habit of being listened to; well--nourished, 
highly trained, the voice of American confidence, a weapon of the West 
turned against its makers, whose might upholds the Empress and her 
tyranny. In the early days Bilal X protested at such a description of his 
voice. He, too, belonged to an oppressed people, he insisted, so that it 
was unjust to equate him with the Yankee imperialists. The Imam 
answered, not without gentleness: Bilal, your suffering is ours as well. 
But to be raised in the house of power is to learn its ways, to soak them 
up, through that very skin that is the cause of your oppression. The 
habit of power, its timbre, its posture, its way of being with others. It is 



220 



a disease, Bilal, infecting all who come too near it. If the powerful 
trample over you, you are infected by the soles of their feet. 

Bilal continues to address the darkness. "Death to the tyranny of the 
Empress Ayesha, of calendars, of America, of time! We seek the eternity, 
the timelessness, of God. His still waters, not her flowing wines." Burn 
the books and trust the Book; shred the papers and hear the Word, as it 
was revealed by the Angel Gibreel to the Messenger Mahound and 
explicated by your interpreter and Imam. "Ameen," Bilal said, 
concluding the night's proceedings. While, in his sanctum, the Imam 
sends a message of his own: and summons, conjures up, the archangel, 
Gibreel. 



He sees himself in the dream: no angel to look at, just a man in his 
ordinary street clothes, Henry Diamond's posthumous handme-downs: 
gabardine and trilby over outsize trousers held up by braces, a 
fisherman's woollen pullover, billowy white shirt. This dream-Gibreel, 
so like the waking one, stands quaking in the sanctum of the Imam, 
whose eyes are white as clouds. 

Gibreel speaks querulously, to hide his fear. 

"Why insist on archangels? Those days, you should know, are gone." 

The Imam closes his eyes, sighs. The carpet extrudes long hairy tendrils, 
which wrap themselves around Gibreel, holding him fast. 

"You don't need me," Gibreel emphasizes. "The revelation is complete. 
Let me go." 

The other shakes his head, and speaks, except that his lips do not move, 
and it is Bilal's voice that fills Gibreel's ears, even though the 



221 



broadcaster is nowhere to be seen, _tonight's the night_, the voice says, 
_and you must fly me to Jerusalem_. 

Then the apartment dissolves and they are standing on the roof beside 
the water--tank, because the Imam, when he wishes to move, can remain 
still and move the world around him. His beard is blowing in the wind. 
It is longer now; if it were not for the wind that catches at it as if it 
were a flowing chiffon scarf, it would touch the ground by his feet; he 
has red eyes, and his voice hangs around him in the sky. Take me. 
Gibreel argues, Seems you can do it easily by yourself: but the Imam, in 
a single movement of astonishing rapidity, slings his beard over his 
shoulder, hoists up his skirts to reveal two spindly legs with an almost 
monstrous covering of hair, and leaps high into the night air, twirls 
himself about, and settles on Gibreel's shoulders, clutching on to him 
with fingernails that have grown into long, curved claws. Gibreel feels 
himself rising into the sky, bearing the old man of the sea, the Imam 
with hair that grows longer by the minute, streaming in every direction, 
his eyebrows like pennants in the wind. 

Jerusalem, he wonders, which way is that? -- And then, it's a slippery 
word, Jerusalem, it can be an idea as well as a place: a goal, an 
exaltation. Where is the Imam's Jerusalem? "The fall of the harlot," the 
disembodied voice resounds in his ears. "Her crash, the Babylonian 
whore." 

They zoom through the night. The moon is heating up, beginning to 
bubble like cheese under a grill; he, Gibreel, sees pieces of it falling off 
from time to time, moon-drips that hiss and bubble on the sizzling 
griddle of the sky. Land appears below them. The heat grows intense. 

It is an immense landscape, reddish, with flat-topped trees. They fly 
over mountains that are also flat-topped; even the stones, here, are 
flattened by the heat. Then they come to a high mountain of almost 
perfectly conical dimensions, a mountain that also sits postcarded on a 



222 



mantelpiece far away; and in the shadow of the mountain, a city, 
sprawling at its feet like a supplicant, and on the mountain's lower 
slopes, a palace, the palace, her place: the Empress, whom radio 
messages have unmade. This is a revolution of radio hams. 

Gibreel, with the Imam riding him like a carpet, swoops lower, and in 
the steaming night it looks as if the streets are alive, they seem to be 
writhing, like snakes; while in front of the palace of the Empress's 
defeat a new hill seems to be growing, _while we watch, baba, what's 
going on here?_ The Imam's voice hangs in the sky: "Come down. I will 
show you Love." 

They are at rooftop--level when Gibreel realizes that the streets are 
swarming with people. Human beings, packed so densely into those 
snaking paths that they have blended into a larger, composite entity, 
relentless, serpentine. The people move slowly, at an even pace, down 
alleys into lanes, down lanes into side streets, down side streets into 
highways, all of them converging upon the grand avenue, twelve lanes 
wide and lined with giant eucalyptus trees, that leads to the palace 
gates. The avenue is packed with humanity; it is the central organ of the 
new, manyheaded being. Seventy abreast, the people walk gravely 
towards the Empress's gates. In front of which her household guards 
are waiting in three ranks, lying, kneeling and standing, with machine- 
guns at the ready. The people are walking up the slope towards the 
guns; seventy at a time, they come into range; the guns babble, and they 
die, and then the next seventy climb over the bodies of the dead, the 
guns giggle once again, and the hill of the dead grows higher. Those 
behind it commence, in their turn, to climb. In the dark doorways of 
the city there are mothers with covered heads, pushing their beloved 
sons into the parade, _go, be a martyr, do the needful, die_. "You see 
how they love me," says the disembodied voice. "No tyranny on earth 
can withstand the power of this slow, walking love." 



223 



"This isn't love," Gibreel, weeping, replies. "It's hate. She has driven 
them into your arms." The explanation sounds thin, superficial. 

"They love me," the Imam's voice says, "because I am water. I am 
fertility and she is decay. They love me for my habit of smashing clocks. 
Human beings who turn away from God lose love, and certainty, and 
also the sense of His boundless time, that encompasses past, present 
and future; the timeless time, that has no need to move. We long for the 
eternal, and I am eternity. She is nothing: a tick, or tock. She looks in 
her mirror every day and is terrorized by the idea of age, of time 
passing. Thus she is the prisoner of her own nature; she, too, is in the 
chains of Time. After the revolution there will be no clocks; we'll smash 
the lot. The word _clock_ will be expunged from our dictionaries. After 
the revolution there will be no birthdays. We shall all be born again, all 
of us the same unchanging age in the eye of Almighty God." 

He falls silent, now, because below us the great moment has come: the 
people have reached the guns. Which are silenced in their turn, as the 
endless serpent of the people, the gigantic python of the risen masses, 
embraces the guards, suffocating them, and silences the lethal 
chuckling of their weapons. The Imam sighs heavily. "Done." 

The lights of the palace are extinguished as the people walk towards it, 
at the same measured pace as before. Then, from within the darkened 
palace, there rises a hideous sound, beginning as a high, thin, piercing 
wail, then deepening into a howl, an ululation loud enough to fill every 
cranny of the city with its rage. Then the golden dome of the palace 
bursts open like an egg, and rising from it, glowing with blackness, is a 
mythological apparition with vast black wings, her hair streaming 
loose, as long and black as the Imam's is long and white: Al--Lat, 
Gibreel understands, bursting out of Ayesha's shell. 

"Kill her," the Imam commands. 



224 



Gibreel sets him down on the palace's ceremonial balcony, his arms 
outstretched to encompass the joy of the people, a sound that drowns 
even the howls of the goddess and rises up like a song. And then he is 
being propelled into the air, having no option, he is a marionette going 
to war; and she, seeing him coming, turns, crouches in air, and, 
moaning dreadfully, comes at him with all her might. Gibreel 
understands that the Imam, fighting by proxy as usual, will sacrifice 
him as readily as he did the hill of corpses at the palace gate, that he is 
a suicide soldier in the service of the cleric's cause. I am weak, he 
thinks, I am no match for her, but she, too, has been weakened by her 
defeat. The Imam's strength moves Gibreel, places thunderbolts in his 
hands, and the battle is joined; he hurls lightning spears into her feet 
and she plunges comets into his groin, _we are killing each other_, he 
thinks, _we will die and there will be two new constellations in space: 
Al-Lat, and Gibreel_. Like exhausted warriors on a corpse-- littered 
field, they totter and slash. Both are failing fast. 

She falls. 

Down she tumbles, Al-Lat queen of the night; crashes upsidedown to 
earth, crushing her head to bits; and lies, a headless black angel, with 
her wings ripped off, by a little wicket gate in the palace gardens, all in 
a crumpled heap. -- And Gibreel, looking away from her in horror, sees 
the Imam grown monstrous, lying in the palace forecourt with his 
mouth yawning open at the gates; as the people march through the 
gates he swallows them whole. 

The body of Al-Lat has shrivelled on the grass, leaving behind only a 
dark stain; and now every clock in the capital city of Desh begins to 
chime, and goes on unceasingly, beyond twelve, beyond twenty-four, 
beyond one thousand and one, announcing the end of Time, the hour 
that is beyond measuring, the hour of the exile's return, of the victory 
of water over wine, of the commencement of the Untimc of the Imam. 



225 



When the nocturnal story changes, when, without warning, the progress 
of events injahilia and Yathrib gives way to the struggle of Imam and 
Empress, Gibreel briefly hopes that the curse has ended, that his dreams 
have been restored to the random eccentricity of ordinary life; but then, 
as the new story, too, falls into the old pattern, continuing each time he 
drops off from the precise point at which it was interrupted, and as his 
own image, translated into an avatar of the archangel, re-enters the 
frame, so his hope dies, and he succumbs once more to the inexorable. 
Things have reached the point at which some of his night-sagas seem 
more bearable than others, and after the apocalypse of the Imam he 
feels almost pleased when the next narrative begins, extending his 
internal repertory, because at least it suggests that the deity whom he, 
Gibreel, has tried unsuccessfully to kill can be a God of love, as well as 
one of vengeance, power, duty, rules and hate; and it is, too, a nostalgic 
sort of tale, of a lost homeland; it feels like a return to the past . . . 
what story is, this? Coming right up. To begin at the beginning: On the 
morning of his fortieth birthday, in a room full of butterflies, Mirza 
Saeed Akhtar watched his sleeping wife. 



On the fateful morning of his fortieth birthday, in a room full of 
butterflies, the zamindar Mirza Saeed Akhtar watched over his sleeping 
wife, and felt his heart fill up to the bursting-point with love. He had 
awoken early for once, rising before dawn with a bad dream souring his 
mouth, his recurring dream of the end of the world, in which the 
catastrophe was invariably his fault. He had been reading Nietzsche the 
night before -- "the pitiless end of that small, overextended species 
called Man" -- and had fallen asleep with the book resting face 
downwards on his chest. Waking to the rustle of butterfly wings in the 
cool, shadowy bedroom, he was angry with himself for being so foolish 
in his choice of bedside reading matter. He was, however, wide awake 



226 



now. Getting up quietly, he slipped his feet into chappals and strolled 
idly along the verandas of the great mansion, still in darkness on 
account of their lowered blinds, and the butterflies bobbed like 
courtiers at his back. In the far distance, someone was playing a flute. 
Mirza Saecd drew up the chick blinds and fastened their cords. The 
gardens were deep in mist, through which the butterfly clouds were 
swirling, one mist intersecting another. This remote region had always 
been renowned for its lepidoptera, for these miraculous squadrons that 
filled the air by day and night, butterflies with the gift of chameleons, 
whose wings changed colour as they settled on vermilion flowers, ochre 
curtains, obsidian goblets or amber finger-rings. In the zamindar's 
mansion, and also in the nearby village, the miracle of the butterflies 
had become so familiar as to seem mundane, but in fact they had only 
returned nineteen years ago, as the servant women would recall. They 
had been the familiar spirits, or so the legend ran, of a local saint, the 
holy woman known only as Bibiji, who had lived to the age of two 
hundred and forty-two and whose grave, until its location was 
forgotten, had the property of curing impotence and warts. Since the 
death of Bibiji one hundred and twenty years ago the butterflies had 
vanished into the same realm of the legendary as Bibiji herself, so that 
when they came back exactly one hundred and one years after their 
departure it looked, at first, like an omen of some imminent, wonderful 
thing. After Bibiji's death -- it should quickly be said -- the village had 
continued to prosper, the potato crops remained plentiful, but there 
had been a gap in many hearts, even though the villagers of the present 
had no memory of the time of the old saint. So the return of the 
butterflies lifted many spirits, but when the expected wonders failed to 
materialize the locals sank back, little by little, into the insufficiency of 
the day-to-day. The name of the zamindar's mansion, _Peristan_, may 
have had its origins in the magical creatures' fairy wings, and the 
village's name, _Titlipur_, certainly did. But names, once they are in 
common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being 
buried, like so many of the earth's marvels, beneath the dust of habit. 



227 



The human inhabitants of Titlipur, and its butterfly hordes, moved 
amongst one another with a kind of mutual disdain. The villagers and 
the zamindar's family had long ago abandoned the attempt to exclude 
the butterflies from their homes, so that now whenever a trunk was 
opened, a batch of wings would fly out of it like Pandora's imps, 
changing colour as they rose; there were butterflies under the closed 
lids of the thunderboxes in the toilets of Peristan, and inside every 
wardrobe, and between the pages of books. When you awoke you found 
the butterflies sleeping on your cheeks. 

The commonplace eventually becomes invisible, and Mirza Saeed had 
not really noticed the butterflies for a number of years. On the morning 
of his fortieth birthday, however, as the first light of dawn touched the 
house and the butterflies began instantly to glow, the beauty of the 
moment took his breath away. He ran at once to the bedroom in the 
zenana wing in which his wife Mishal lay sleeping, veiled in a mosquito- 
-net. The magic butterflies were resting on her exposed toes, and a 
mosquito had evidently found its way inside as well, because there was a 
line of little bites along the raised edge of her collar--bone. He wanted 
to lift the net, crawl inside and kiss the bites until they faded away. 
How inflamed they looked! How, when she awoke, they would itch! But 
he held himself back, preferring to enjoy the innocence of her sleeping 
form. She had soft, red-brown hair, white white skin, and her eyes, 
behind the closed lids, were silky grey. Her father was a director of the 
state bank, so it had been an irresistible match, an arranged marriage 
which restored the fortunes of the Mirza's ancient, decaying family and 
then ripened, over time and in spite of their failure to have children, 
into a union of real love. Full of emotion, Mirza Saeed watched Mishal 
sleep and chased the last shreds of his nightmare from his mind. "How 
can the world be done for," he reasoned contentedly to himself, "if it 
can offer up such instances of perfection as this lovely dawn?" 



228 



Continuing down the line of these happy thoughts, he formulated a 
silent speech to his resting wife. "Mishal, I'm forty years old and as 
contented as a forty-day babe. I see now that I've been falling deeper 
and deeper into our love over the years, and now I swim, like some fish, 
in that warm sea." How much she gave him, he marvelled; how much he 
needed her! Their marriage transcended mere sensuality, was so 
intimate that a separation was unthinkable. "Growing old beside you," 
he told her while she slept, "will be, Mishal, a privilege." He permitted 
himself the sentimentality of blowing a kiss in her direction and then 
tiptoeing from the room. Out once more on the main veranda of his 
private quarters on the mansion's upper storey, he glanced across to the 
gardens, which were coming into view as the dawn lifted the mist, and 
saw the sight that would destroy his peace of mind forever, smashing it 
beyond hope of repair at the very instant in which he had become 
certain of its invulnerability to the ravages of fate. 

A young woman was squatting on the lawn, holding out her left palm. 
Butterflies were settling on this surface while, with her right hand, she 
picked them up and put them in her mouth. Slowly, methodically, she 
breakfasted on the acquiescent wings. 

Her lips, cheeks, chin were heavily stained by the many different colours 
that had rubbed off the dying butterflies. 

When Mirza Saeed Akhtar saw the young woman eating her gossamer 
breakfast on his lawn, he felt a surge of lust so powerful that he 
instantly felt ashamed. "It's impossible," he scolded himself, "I am not 
an animal, after all." The young woman wore a saffron yellow sari 
wrapped around her nakedness, after the fashion of the poor women of 
that region, and as she stooped over the butterflies the sari, hanging 
loosely forwards, bared her small breasts to the gaze of the transfixed 
zamindar. Mirza Saeed stretched out his hands to grip the balcony 
railing, and the slight movement of his white kurta must have caught 



229 



her eye, because she lifted her head quickly and looked right into his 
face. 

And did not immediately look down again. Nor did she get up and run 
away, as he had half expected. 

What she did: waited for a few seconds, as though to see if he intended 
to speak. When he did not, she simply resumed her strange meal 
without taking her eyes from his face. The strangest aspect of it was 
that the butterflies seemed to be funnelling downwards from the 
brightening air, going willingly towards her outstretched palms and 
their own deaths. She held them by the wingtips, threw her head back 
and flicked them into her mouth with the tip of her narrow tongue. 
Once she kept her mouth open, the dark lips parted defiantly, and 
Mirza Saced trembled to see the butterfly fluttering within the dark 
cavern of its death, yet making no attempt to escape. When she was 
satisfied that he had seen this, she brought her lips together and began 
to chew. They remained thus, peasant woman below, landowner above, 
until her eyes unexpectedly rolled upwards in their sockets and she fell 
heavily, twitching violently, on to her left side. 

After a few seconds of transfixed panic, the Mirza shouted, "Ohe, 
house! Ohe, wake up, emergency!" At the same time he ran towards the 
stately mahogany staircase from England, brought here from some 
unimaginable Warwickshire, some fantastic location in which, in a 
damp and lightless priory, King Charles I had ascended these same 
steps, before losing his head, in the seventeenth century of another 
system of time. Down these stairs hurtled Mirza Saeed Akhtar, last of 
his line, trampling over the ghostly impressions of beheaded feet as he 
sped towards the lawn. 

The girl was having convulsions, crushing butterflies beneath her 
rolling, kicking body. Mirza Saeed got to her first, although the 
servants and Mishal, awakened by his cry, were not far behind. He 



230 



grasped the girl by the jaw and forced it open, inserting a nearby twig, 
which she at once bit in half. Blood trickled from her cut mouth, and 
he feared for her tongue, but the sickness left her just then, she became 
calm, and slept. Mishal had her carried to her own bedroom, and now 
Mirza Saeed was obliged to gaze on a second sleeping beauty in that 
bed, and was stricken for a second time by what seemed too rich and 
deep a sensation to be called by the crude name, _lust_. He found that 
he was at once sickened by his own impure designs and also elated by 
the feelings that were coursing within him, fresh feelings whose 
newness excited him greatly. Mishal came to stand beside her husband. 
"Do you know her?" Saeed asked, and she nodded. "An orphan girl. She 
makes small enamel animals and sells them at the trunk road. She has 
had the falling sickness since she was very little." Mirza Saeed was 
awed, not for the first time, by his wife's gift of involvement with other 
human beings. He himself could hardly recognize more than a handful 
of the villagers, but she knew each person's pet names, family histories 
and incomes. They even told her their dreams, although few of them 
dreamed more than once a month on account of being too poor to 
afford such luxuries. The overflowing fondness he had felt at dawn 
returned, and he placed his arm around her shoulders. She leaned her 
head against him and said softly: "Happy birthday." He kissed the top 
of her hair. They stood embracing, watching the sleeping girl. Ayesha: 
his wife told him the name. 



After the orphan girl Ayesha arrived at puberty and became, on account 
of her distracted beauty and her air of staring into another world, the 
object of many young men's desires, it began to be said that she was 
looking for a lover from heaven, because she thought herself too good 
for mortal men. Her rejected suitors complained that in practical terms 
she had no business acting so choosy, in the first place because she was 
an orphan, and in the second, because she was possessed by the demon 



231 



of epilepsy, who would certainly put off any heavenly spirits who might 
otherwise have been interested. Some embittered youths went so far as 
to suggest that as Ayesha's defects would prevent her from ever finding 
a husband she might as well start taking lovers, so as not to waste that 
beauty, which ought in all fairness to have been given to a less 
problematic individual. In spite of these attempts by the young men of 
Titlipur to turn her into their whore, Ayesha remained chaste, her 
defence being a look of such fierce concentration on patches of air 
immediately above people's left shoulders that it was regularly 
mistaken for contempt. Then people heard about her new habit of 
swallowing butterflies and they revised their opinion of her, convinced 
that she was touched in the head and therefore dangerous to lie with in 
case the demons crossed over into her lovers. After this the lustful 
males of her village left her alone in her hovel, alone with her toy 
animals and her peculiar fluttering diet. One young man, however, took 
to sitting a little distance from her doorway, facing discreetly in the 
opposite direction, as if he were on guard, even though she no longer 
had any need of protectors. He was a former untouchable from the 
neighbouring village of Chatnapatna who had been converted to Islam 
and taken the name of Osman. Ayesha never acknowledged Osman's 
presence, nor did he ask for such acknowledgement. The leafy branches 
of the village waved over their heads in the breeze. 

The village of Titlipur had grown up in the shade of an immense ban 
yan--tree, a single monarch that ruled, with its multiple roots, over an 
area more than half a mile in diameter. By now the growth of tree into 
village and village into tree had become so intricate that it was 
impossible to differentiate between the two. Certain districts of the tree 
had become well-known lovers' nooks; others were chicken runs. Some 
of the poorer labourers had constructed rough-and-ready shelters in the 
angles of stout branches, and actually lived inside the dense foliage. 
There were branches that were used as pathways across the village, and 
children's swings made out of the old tree's beards, and in places where 



232 



the tree stooped low down towards the earth its leaves formed roofs for 
many a hutment that seemed to hang from the greenery like the nest of 
a weaver bird. When the village panchayat assembled, it sat on the 
mightiest branch of all. The villagers had grown accustomed to 
referring to the tree by the name of the village, and to the village simply 
as "the tree". The banyan's non-human inhabitants -- honey ants, 
squirrels, owls -- were accorded the respect due to fellow-citizens. Only 
the butterflies were ignored, like hopes long since shown to be false. 

It was a Muslim village, which was why the convert Osman had come 
here with his clown's outfit and his "boom-boom" bullock after he had 
embraced the faith in an act of desperation, hoping that changing to a 
Muslim name would do him more good than earlier re-namings, for 
example when untouchables were renamed "children of God". As a child 
of God in Chatnapatna he had not been permitted to draw water from 
the town well, because the touch of an outcaste would have polluted the 
drinking water. . Landless and, like Ayesha, an orphan, Osman earned 
his living as a clown. His bullock wore bright red paper cones over its 
horns and much tinselly drapery over its nose and back. He went from 
village to village performing an act, at marriages and other celebrations, 
in which the bullock was his essential partner and foil, nodding in 
answer to his questions, one nod for no, twice for yes. 

"Isn't this a nice village we've come to?" Osman would ask. 

Boom, the bullock disagreed. 

"It isn't? Oh yes it is. Look: aren't the people good?" 

Boom. 

"What? Then it's a village full of sinners?" 

Boom, boom. 



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"Baapu-re! Then, will everybody go to hell?" 

Boom, boom. 

"But, bhaijan. Is there any hope for them?" 

Boom, boom, the bullock offered salvation. Excitedly, Osman bent 
down, placing his ear by the bullock's mouth. "Tell, quickly. What 
should they do to be saved?" At this point the bullock plucked Osman's 
cap off his head and carried it around the crowd, asking for money, and 
Osman would nod, happily: Boom, boom. 

Osman the convert and his boom-boom bullock were well liked in 
Titlipur, but the young man only wanted the approval of one person, 
and she would not give it. He had admitted to her that his conversion 
to Islam had been largely tactical, "Just so I could get a drink, bibi, 
what's a man to do?" She had been outraged by his confession, 
informed him that he was no Muslim at all, his soul was in peril and he 
could go back to Chatnapatna and die of thirst for all she cared. Her 
face coloured, as she spoke, with an unaccountably strong 
disappointment in him, and it was the vehemence of this 
disappointment that gave him the optimism to remain squatting a 
dozen paces from her home, day after day, but she continued to stalk 
past him, nose in air, without so much as a good morning or hope- 
you"re-well. 

Once a week, the potato carts of Titlipur trundled down the rutted, 
narrow, four-hour track to Chatnapatna, which stood at the point at 
which the track met the grand trunk road. In Chatnapatna stood the 
high, gleaming aluminium silos of the potato wholesalers, but this had 
nothing to do with Ayesha's regular visits to the town. She would hitch 
a ride on a potato cart, clutching a little sackcloth bundle, to take her 
toys to market. Chatnapatna was known throughout the region for its 
kiddies' knick-knacks, carved wooden toys and enamelled figurines. 



234 



Osman and his bullock stood at the edge of the banyan-tree, watching 
her bounce about on top of the potato sacks until she had diminished 
to a dot. 

In Chatnapatna she made her way to the premises of Sri Srinivas, owner 
of the biggest toy factory in town. On its walls were the political graffiti 
of the day: _Vote for Hand_. Or, more politely: _Please to vote for CP 
(M)_. Above these exhortations was the proud announcement: 
_Srinivas's Toy Univas. Our Moto: Sinceriety & Creativity_. 
Srinivas was inside: a large jelly of a man, his head a hairless sun, a 
fiftyish fellow whom a lifetime of selling toys had failed to sour. Ayesha 
owed him her livelihood. He had been so taken with the artistry of her 
whittling that he had agreed to buy as many as she could produce. But 
in spite of his habitual bonhomie his expression darkened when Ayesha 
undid her bundle to show him two dozen figures of a young man in a 
clown hat, accompanied by a decorated bullock that could dip its 
tinselled head. Understanding that Ayesha had forgiven Osman his 
conversion, Sri Srinivas cried, "That man is a traitor to his birth, as you 
well know. What kind of a person will change gods as easily as his 
dhotis? God knows what got into you, daughter, but I don't want these 
dolls." On the wall behind his desk hung a framed certificate which 
read, in elaborately cur-- licued print: _This is to certify that MR SRI S. 
SRINIVAS is an Expert on the Geological History of the Planet Earth, 
having flown through Grand Canyon with SCENIC AIRLINES_. Srinivas 
closed his eyes and folded his arms, an unlaughing Buddha with the 
indisputable authority of one who had flown. "That boy is a devil," he 
said with finality, and Ayesha folded the dolls into her piece of 
sackcloth and turned to leave, without arguing. Srinivas's eyes flew 
open. "Damn you," he shouted, "aren't you going to give me a hard 
time? You think I don't know you need the money? Why you did such a 
damn stupid thing? What are you going to do now? just go and make 
some FP dolls, double quick, and I will buy at best rate plus, because I 
am generous to a fault." Mr. Srinivas's personal invention was the 



235 



Family Planning doll, a socially responsible variant of the old Russian- 
doll notion. Inside a suited-and-booted Abba-doll was a demure, sari- 
clad Amma, and inside her a daughter containing a son. Two children 
are plenty: that was the message of the dolls. "Make quickly quickly," 
Srinivas called after the departing Ayesha. "FP dolls have high 
turnover." Ayesha turned, and smiled. "Don't worry about me, 
Srinivasji," she said, and left. 

Ayesha the orphan was nineteen years old when she began her walk back 
to Titlipur along the rutted potato track, but by the time she turned up 
in her village some forty--eight hours later she had attained a kind of 
agelessness, because her hair had turned as white as snow while her skin 
had regained the luminous perfection of a new-born child's, and 
although she was completely naked the butterflies had settled upon her 
body in such thick swarms that she seemed to be wearing a dress of the 
most delicate material in the universe. The clown Osman was practising 
routines with the boom-boom bullock near the track, because even 
though he had been worried sick by her extended absence, and had 
spent the whole of the previous night searching for her, it was still 
necessary to earn a living. When he laid eyes on her, that young man 
who had never respected God because ofhaving been born untouchable 
was filled with holy terror, and did not dare to approach the girl with 
whom he was so helplessly in love. 

She went into her hut and slept for a day and a night without waking 
up. Then she went to see the village headman, Sarpanch Muhammad 
Din, and informed him matter-of-factly that the Archangel Gibreel had 
appeared to her in a vision and had lain down beside her to rest. 
"Greatness has come among us," she informed the alarmed Sarpanch, 
who had until then been more concerned with potato quotas than 
transcendence. "Everything will be required of us, and everything will 
be given to us also." 



236 



In another part of the tree, the Sarpanch's wife Khadija was consoling a 
weeping clown, who was finding it hard to accept that he had lost his 
beloved Ayesha to a higher being, for when an archangel lies with a 
woman she is lost to men forever. Khadija was old and forgetful and 
frequently clumsy when she tried to be loving, and she gave Osman cold 
comfort: "The sun always sets when there is fear of tigers," she quoted 
the old saying: bad news always comes all at once. 

Soon after the story of the miracle got out, the girl Ayesha was 
summoned to the big house, and in the following days she spent long 
hours closeted with the zamindar's wife, Begum Mishal Akhtar, whose 
mother had also arrived on a visit, and fallen for the archangel's white- 
haired wife. 



The dreamer, dreaming, wants (but is unable) to protest: I never laid a 
finger on her, what do you think this is, some kind of wet dream or 
what? Damn me if I know from where that girl was getting her 
information/inspiration. Not from this quarter, that's for sure. 

This happened: she was walking back to her village, but then she 
seemed to grow weary all of a sudden, and went off the path to lie in the 
shade of a tamarind--tree and rest. The moment her eyes closed he was 
there beside her, dreaming Gibreel in coat and hat, sweltering in the 
heat. She looked at him but he couldn't say what she saw, wings maybe, 
haloes, the works. Then he was lying there and finding he could not get 
up, his limbs had become heavier than iron bars, it seemed as if his 
body might be crushed by its own weight into the earth. When she 
finished looking at him she nodded, gravely, as if he had spoken, and 
then she took off her scrap of a sari and stretched out beside him, nude. 
Then in the dream he fell asleep, out cold as if somebody pulled out the 
plug, and when dreamed himself awake again she was standing in front 
of him with that loose white hair and the butterflies clothing her: 



237 



transformed. She was still nodding, with a rapt expression on her face, 
receiving a message from somewhere that she called Gibreel. Then she 
left him lying there and returned to the village to make her entrance. 

So now I have a dream-wife, the dreamer becomes conscious enough to 
think. What the hell to do with her? -- But it isn't up to him. Aycsha 
and Mishal Akhtar are together in the big house. 



Ever since his birthday Mirza Saeed had been full of passionate desires, 
"as if life really does begin at forty", his wife marvelled. Their marriage 
became so energetic that the servants had to change the bedsheets three 
times per day. Mishal hoped secretly that this heightening of her 
husband's libido would lead her to conceive, because she was of the 
firm opinion that enthusiasm mattered, whatever doctors might say to 
the contrary, and that the years of taking her temperature every 
morning before getting out of bed, and then plotting the results on 
graph paper in order to establish her pattern of ovulation, had actually 
dissuaded the babies from being born, partly because it was difficult to 
be properly ardent when science got into bed along with you, and 
partly, too, in her view, because no self--respecting foetus would wish to 
enter the womb of so mechanically programmed a mother; Mishal still 
prayed for a child, although she no longer mentioned the fact to Saeed 
so as to spare him the sense of having failed her in this respect. Eyes 
shut, feigning sleep, she would call on God for a sign, and when Saeed 
became so loving, so frequently, she wondered if maybe this might not 
be it. As a result, his strange request that from now on, whenever they 
came to stay at Periscan, she should adopt the "old ways" and retreat 
into purdah, was not treated by her with the contempt it deserved. In 
the city, where they kept a large and hospitable house, the zamindar 
and his wife were known as one of the most "modern" and "go--go" 
couples on the scene; they collected contemporary art and threw wild 
parties and invited friends round for fumbles in the dark on sofas while 



238 



watching soft-porno VCRs. So when Mirza Saeed said, "Would it not be 
sort of delicious, Mishu, if we tailored our behaviour to fit this old 
house," she should have laughed in his face. Instead she replied, "What 
you like, Saeed," because he gave her to understand that it was a sort of 
erotic game. He even hinted that his passion for her had become so 
overwhelming that he might need to express it at any moment, and if 
she were out in the open at the time it might embarrass the staff; 
certainly her presence would make it impossible for him to concentrate 
on any of his tasks, and besides, in the city, "we will still be completely 
up-to-date". From this she understood that the city was full of 
distractions for the Mirza, so that her chances of conceiving were 
greatest right here in Titlipur. She resolved to stay put. This was when 
she invited her mother to come and stay, because if she were to confine 
herself to the zenana she would need company. Mrs. Qureishi arrived 
wobbling with plump fury, determined to scold her son-in-law until he 
gave up this purdah foolishness, but Mishal amazed her mother by 
begging: "Please don't." Mrs. Qureishi, the wife of the state bank 
director, was quite a sophisticate herself. "In fact, all your teenage, 
Mishu, you were the grey goose and I was the hipster. I thought you 
dragged yourself out of that ditch but I see he pushed you back in there 
again." The financier's wife had always been of the opinion that her 
son-in--law was a secret cheapskate, an opinion which had survived 
intact in spite of being starved of any scrap of supporting evidence. 
Ignoring her daughter's veto, she sought out Mirza Saeed in the formal 
garden and launched into him, wobbling, as was her wont, for 
emphasis. "What type of life are you living?" she demanded. "My 
daughter is not for locking up, but for taking out! What is all your 
fortune for, if you keep it also under lock and key? My son, unlock both 
wallet and wife! Take her away, renew your love, on some enjoyable 
_outing!_" Mirza Saeed opened his mouth, found no reply, shut it 
again. Dazzled by her own oratory, which had given rise, quite on the 
spur of the moment, to the idea of a holiday, Mrs. Qureishi warmed to 
her theme. "Just get set, and go!" she urged. "Go, man, go! Go away 



239 



with her, or will you lock her up until she goes away," -- here she jabbed 
an ominous finger at the sky -- "_forever?_" 

Guiltily, Mirza Saeed promised to consider the idea. 

"What are you waiting for?" she cried in triumph. "You big softo? You .. 
• you _Hamlet?_" 

His mother-in-law's attack brought on one of the periodic bouts of self- 
reproach which had been plaguing Mirza Saced ever since he persuaded 
Mishal to take the veil. To console himself he settled down to read 
Tagore's story _Ghare-Baire_ in which a zamindar persuades his wife to 
come out of purdah, whereupon she takes up with a firebrand politico 
involved in the "swadeshi" campaign, and the zamindar winds up dead. 
The novel cheered him up momentarily, but then his suspicions 
returned. Had he been sincere in the reasons he gave his wife, or was he 
simply finding a way of leaving the coast clear for his pursuit of the 
madonna of the butterflies, the epileptic, Ayesha? "Some coast," he 
thought, remembering Mrs. Qureishi with her eyes of an accusative 
hawk, "some clear." His mother-in-law's presence, he argued to himself, 
was further proof of his bona fides. Had he not positively encouraged 
Mishal to send for her, even though he knew perfectly well that the old 
fatty couldn't stand him and would suspect him of every damn slyness 
under the sun? "Would I have been so keen for her to come if I was 
planning on hanky panky?" he asked himself. But the nagging inner 
voices continued: "All this recent sexology, this renewed interest in 
your lady wife, is simple transference. Really, you are longing for your 
peasant floozy to come and flooze with you." 

Guilt had the effect of making the zamindar feel entirely worthless. His 
mother--in--law's insults came to seem, in his unhappiness, like the 
literal truth. "Softo," she called him, and sitting in his study, 
surrounded by bookcases in which worms were munching contentedly 
upon priceless Sanskrit texts such as were not to be found even in the 



240 



national archives, and also, less upliftingly, on the complete works of 
Percy Westerman, G. A. Henty and Dornford Yates, Mirza Saeed 
admitted, yes, spot on, I am soft. The house was seven generations old 
and for seven generations the softening had been going on. He walked 
down the corridor in which his ancestors hung in baleful, gilded 
frames, and contemplated the mirror which he kept hanging in the last 
space as a reminder that one day he, too, must step up on to this wall. 
He was a man without sharp corners or rough edges; even his elbows 
were covered by little pads of flesh. In the mirror he saw the thin 
moustache, the weak chin, the lips stained by paan. Cheeks, nose, 
forehead: all soft, soft, soft. "Who would see anything in a type like 
me?" he cried, and when he realized that he had been so agitated that 
he had spoken aloud he knew he must be in love, that he was sick as a 
dog with love, and that the object of his affections was no longer his 
loving wife. 

"Then what a damn, shallow, tricksy and self-deceiving fellow I am," he 
sighed to himself, "to change so much, so fast. I deserve to be finished 
off without ceremony." But he was not the type to fall on his sword. 
Instead, he strolled a while around the corridors of Peristan, and pretty 
soon the house worked its magic and restored him to something like a 
good mood once again. 

The house: in spite of its faery name, it was a solid, rather prosy 
building, rendered exotic only by being in the wrong country. It had 
been built seven generations ago by a certain Perowne, an English 
architect much favoured by the colonial authorities, whose only style 
was that of the neo-classical English country house. In those days the 
great zamindars were crazy for European architecture. Saeed's great-- 
great--great--great--grand-father had hired the fellow five minutes after 
meeting him at the Viceroy's reception, to indicate publicly that not all 
Indian Muslims had supported the action of the Meerut soldiers or 
been in sympathy with the subsequent uprisings, no, not by any means; 



241 



-- and then given him carte blanche; -- so here Peristan now stood, in 
the middle of near-tropical potato fields and beside the great banyan- 
tree, covered in bougainvillaea creeper, with snakes in the kitchens and 
butterfly skeletons in the cupboards. Some said its name owed more to 
the Englishman's than to anything more fanciful: it was a mere 
contraction of _Perownistan_. 

After seven generations it was at last beginning to look as if it belonged 
in this landscape of bullock carts and palm-trees and high, clear, star-- 
heavy skies. Even the stained--glass window looking down on the 
staircase of King Charles the Headless had been, in an indefinable 
manner, naturalized. Very few of these old zamindar houses had 
survived the egalitarian depredations of the present, and accordingly 
there hung over Peristan something of the musty air of a museum, even 
though -- or perhaps because -- Mirza Saeed took great pride in the old 
place and had spent lavishly to keep it in trim. He slept under a high 
canopy of worked and beaten brass in a ship-like bed that had been 
occupied by three Viceroys. In the grand salon he liked to sit with 
Mishal and Mrs. Qureishi in the unusual three-way love seat. At one end 
of this room a colossal Shiraz carpet stood rolled up, on wooden blocks, 
awaiting the glamorous reception which would merit its unfurling, and 
which never came. In the dining-room there were stout classical 
columns with ornate Corinthian tops, and there were peacocks, both 
real and stone, strolling on the main steps to the house, and Venetian 
chandeliers tinkling in the hail. The original punkahs were still in full 
working order, all their operating cords travelling by way of pulleys and 
holes in walls and floors to a little, airless boot-room where the 
punkah-wallah sat and tugged the lot together, trapped in the irony of 
the foetid air of that tiny windowless room while he despatched cool 
breezes to all other parts of the house. The servants, too, went back 
seven generations and had therefore lost the art of complaining. The 
old ways ruled: even the Titlipur sweet-vendor was required to seek the 
zamindar's approval before commencing to sell any innovative 



242 



sweetmeat he might have invented. Life in Peristan was as soft as it was 
hard under the tree; but, even into such cushioned existences, heavy 
blows can fall. 



The discovery that his wife was spending most of her time closeted with 
Ayesha filled the Mirza with an insupportable irritation, an eczema of 
the spirit that maddened him because there was no way of scratching it. 
Mishal was hoping that the archangel, Ayesha's husband, would grant 
her a baby, but because she couldn't tell that to her husband she grew 
sullen and shrugged petulantly when he asked her why she wasted so 
much time with the village's craziest girl. Mishal's new reticence 
worsened the itch in Mirza Saeed's heart, and made him jealous, too, 
although he wasn't sure if he was jealous of Ayesha, or Mishal. He 
noticed for the first time that the mistress of the butterflies had eyes of 
the same lustrous grey shade as his wife, and for some reason this made 
him cross, too, as if it proved that the women were ganging up on him, 
whispering God knew what secrets; maybe they were chittcring and 
chattering about him! This zenana business seemed to have backfired; 
even that old jelly Mrs. Qureishi had been taken in by Ayesha. Quite a 
threesome, thought Mirza Saeed; when mumbo-jumbo gets in through 
your door, good sense leaves by the window. 

As for Ayesha: when she encountered the Mirza on the balcony, or in 
the garden as he wandered reading Urdu love-poetry, she was invariably 
deferential and shy; but her good behaviour, coupled with the total 
absence of any spark of erotic interest, drove Saeed further and further 
into the helplessness of his despair. So it was that when, one day, he 
spied Ayesha entering his wife's quarters and heard, a few minutes later, 
his mother--in-- law's voice rise in a melodramatic shriek, he was seized 
by a mood of mulish vengefulness and deliberately waited a full three 
minutes before going to investigate. He found Mrs. Qureishi tearing her 
hair and sobbing like a movie queen, while Mishal and Ayesha sat cross- 



243 



legged on the bed, facing each other, grey eyes staring into grey, and 
Mishal's face was cradled between Ayesha's outstretched palms. 

It turned out that the archangel had informed Ayesha that the 
zamindar's wife was dying of cancer, that her breasts were full of the 
malign nodules of death, and that she had no more than a few months 
to live. The location of the cancer had proved to Mishal the cruelty of 
God, because only a vicious deity would place death in the breast of a 
woman whose only dream was to suckle new life. When Saeed entered, 
Ayesha had been whispering urgently to Mishal: "You mustn't think 
that way. God will save you. This is a test of faith." 

Mrs. Qureishi told Mirza Saeed the bad news with many shrieks and 
howls, and for the confused zamindar it was the last straw. He flew into 
a temper and started yelling loudly and trembling as if he might at any 
moment start smashing up the furniture in the room and its occupants 
as well. 

"To hell with your spook cancer," he screamed at Ayesha in his 
exasperation. "You have come into my house with your craziness and 
angels and dripped poison into my family's ears. Get out of here with 
your visions and your invisible spouse. This is the modern world, and it 
is medical doctors and not ghosts in potato fields who tell us when we 
are ill. You have created this bloody hullabaloo for nothing. Get out 
and never come on to my land again." 

Ayesha heard him out without removing her eyes or hands from Mishal. 
When Saeed stopped for breath, clenching and unclenching his fists, 
she said softly to his wife: "Everything will be required of us, and 
everything will be given." When he heard this formula, which people all 
over the village were beginning to parrot as if they knew what it meant, 
Mirza Saeed Akhtar went briefly out of his mind, raised his hand and 
knocked Ayesha senseless. She fell to the floor, bleeding from the 
mouth, a tooth loosened by his fist, and as she lay there Mrs. Qureishi 



244 



hurled abuse at her son-in-law. "O God, I have put my daughter in the 
care of a killer. O God, a woman hitter. Go on, hit me also, get some 
practice. Defiler of saints, blasphemer, devil, unclean." Saeed left the 
room without saying a word. 

The next day Mishal Akhtar insisted on returning to the city for a 
complete medical check-up. Saeed took a stand. "If you want to indulge 
in superstition, go, but don't expect me to come along. It's eight hours' 
drive each way; so, to hell with it." Mishal left that afternoon with her 
mother and the driver, and as a result Mirza Saeed was not where he 
should have been, that is, at his wife's side, when the results of the tests 
were communicated to her: positive, inoperable, too far advanced, the 
claws of the cancer dug in deeply throughout her chest. A few months, 
six if she was lucky, and before that, coming soon, the pain. Mishal 
returned to Peristan and went straight to her rooms in the zenana, 
where she wrote her husband a formal note on lavender stationery, 
telling him of the doctor's diagnosis. When he read her death sentence, 
written in her own hand, he wanted very badly to burst into tears, but 
his eyes remained obstinately dry. He had had no time for the Supreme 
Being for many years, but now a couple of Aycsha's phrases popped 
back into his mind. _God will save you. Everything will be given_. A 
bitter, superstitious notion occurred to him: "It is a curse," he thought. 
"Because I lusted after Ayesha, she has murdered my wife." 

When he went to the zenana, Mishal refused to see him, but her mother, 
barring the doorway, handed Saeed a second note on scented blue 
notepaper. "I want to see Ayesha," it read. "Kindly permit this." Bowing 
his head, Mirza Saeed gave his assent, and crept away in shame. 



With Mahound, there is always a struggle; with the Imam, slavery; but 
with this girl, there is nothing. Gibreel is inert, usually asleep in the 
dream as he is in life. She comes upon him under a tree, or in a ditch, 



245 



hears what he isn't saying, takes what she needs, and leaves. What does 
he know about cancer, for example? Not a solitary thing. 

All around him, he thinks as he half--dreams, half-wakes, are people 
hearing voices, being seduced by words. But not his; never his original 
material. -- Then whose? Who is whispering in their ears, enabling them 
to move mountains, halt clocks, diagnose disease? 

He can't work it out. 



The day after Mishal Akhtar's return to Titlipur, the girl Ayesha, whom 
people were beginning to call a kahin, a pir, disappeared completely for 
a week. Her hapless admirer, Osman the clown, who had been following 
her at a distance along the dusty potato track to Chatnapatna, told the 
villagers that a breeze got up and blew dust into his eyes; when he got it 
out again she had "just gone". Usually, when Osman and his bullock 
started telling their tall tales about djinnis and magic lamps and open-- 
sesames, the villagers looked tolerant and teased him, okay, Osman, 
save it for those idiots in Chatnapatna; they may fall for that stuff but 
here in Titlipur we know which way is up and that palaces do not 
appear unless a thousand and one labourers build them, nor do they 
disappear unless the same workers knock them down. On this occasion, 
however, nobody laughed at the clown, because where Ayesha was 
concerned the villagers were willing to believe anything. They had 
grown convinced that the snow-haired girl was the true successor to old 
Bibiji, because had the butterflies not reappeared in the year of her 
birth, and did they not follow her around like a cloak? Ayesha was the 
vindication of the longsoured hope engendered by the butterflies' 
return, and the evidence that great things were still possible in this life, 
even for the weakest and poorest in the land. 



246 



"The angel has taken her away," marvelled the Sarpanch's wife Khadija, 
and Osman burst into tears. "But no, it is a wonderful thing," old 
Khadija uncomprehendingly explained. The villagers teased the 
Sarpanch: "How you got to be village headman with such a tactless 
spouse, beats us." 

"You chose me," he dourly replied. 

On the seventh day after her disappearance Ayesha was sighted walking 
towards the village, naked again and dressed in golden butterflies, her 
silver hair streaming behind her in the breeze. She went directly to the 
home of Sarpanch Muhammad Din and asked that the Titlipur 
panchayat be convened for an immediate emergency meeting. "The 
greatest event in the history of the tree has come upon us," she 
confided. Muhammad Din, unable to refuse her, fixed the time of the 
meeting for that evening, after dark. 

That night the panchayat members took their places on the usual 
branch of the tree, while Ayesha the kahin stood before them on the 
ground. "I have flown with the angel into the highest heights," she said. 
"Yes, even to the lote--tree of the uttermost end. The archangel, Gibreel: 
he has brought us a message which is also a command. Everything is 
required of us, and everything will be given." 

Nothing in the life of the Sarpanch Muhammad Din had prepared him 
for the choice he was about to face. "What does the angel ask, Ayesha, 
daughter?" he asked, fighting to steady his voice. 

"It is the angel's will that all of us, every man, and woman and child in 
the village, begin at once to prepare for a pilgrimage. We are 
commanded to walk from this place to Mecca Sharif, to kiss the Black 
Stone in the Ka"aba at the centre of the Haram Sharif, the sacred 
mosque. There we must surely go." 



247 



Now the panchayat's quintet began to debate heatedly. There were the 
crops to consider, and the impossibility of abandoning their homes en 
masse. "It is not to be conceived of, child," the Sarpanch told her. "It is 
well known that Allah excuses haj and umra to those who are genuinely 
unable to go for reasons of poverty or health." But Ayesha remained 
silent and the elders continued to argue. Then it was as if her silence 
infected everyone else and for a long moment, in which the question 
was settled -- although by what means nobody ever managed to 
comprehend -- there were no words spoken at all. 

It was Osman the clown who spoke up at last, Osman the convert, for 
whom his new faith had been no more than a drink of water. "It's 
almost two hundred miles from here to the sea," he cried. "There are 
old ladies here, and babies. However can we go?" 

"God will give us the strength," Ayesha serenely replied. 

"Hasn't it occurred to you," Osman shouted, refusing to give up, "that 
there's a mighty ocean between us and Mecca Sharif? How will we ever 
cross? We have no money for the pilgrim boats. Maybe the angel will 
grow us wings, so we can fly?" 

Many villagers rounded angrily upon the blasphemer Osman. "Be quiet 
now," Sarpanch Muhammad Din rebuked him. "You haven't been long 
in our faith or our village. Keep your trap shut and learn our ways." 

Osman, however, answered cheekily, "So this is how you welcome new 
settlers. Not as equals, but as people who must do as they are told." A 
knot of red--faced men began to tighten around Osman, but before 
anything else could happen the kahin Ayesha changed the mood 
entirely by answering the clown's questions. 

"This, too, the angel has explained," she said quietly. "We will walk two 
hundred miles, and when we reach the shores of the sea, we will put our 



248 



feet into the foam, and the waters will open for us. The waves shall be 
parted, and we shall walk across the ocean-floor to Mecca." 



The next morning Mirza Saced Akhtar awoke in a house that had fallen 
unusually silent, and when he called for the servants there was no reply. 
The stillness had spread into the potato fields, too; but under the 
broad, spreading roof of the Titlipur tree all was hustle and bustle. The 
panchayat had voted unanimously to obey the command of the 
Archangel Gibreel, and the villagers had begun to prepare for departure. 
At first the Sarpanch had wanted the carpenter Isa to construct litters 
that could be pulled by oxen and on which the old and infirm could 
ride, but that idea had been knocked on the head by his own wife, who 
told him, "You don't listen, Sarpanch sahibji! Didn't the angel say we 
must walk? Well then, that is what we must do." Only the youngest of 
infants were to be excused the foot-pilgrimage, and they would be 
carried (it had been decided) on the backs of all the adults, in rotation. 
The villagers had pooled all their resources, and heaps of potatoes, 
lentils, rice, bitter gourds, chillies, aubergines and other vegetables were 
piling up next to the panchayat bough. The weight of the provisions 
was to be evenly divided between the walkers. Cooking utensils, too, 
were being gathered together, and whatever bedding could be found. 
Beasts of burden were to be taken, and a couple of carts carrying live 
chickens and such, but in general the pilgrims were under the 
Sarpanch's instructions to keep personal belongings to a minimum. 
Preparations had been under way since before dawn, so that by the time 
an incensed Mirza Saeed strode into the village, things were well 
advanced. For forty-five minutes the zamindar slowed things up by 
making angry speeches and shaking individual villagers by the 
shoulders, but then, fortunately, he gave up and left, so that the work 
could be continued at its former, rapid pace. As the Mirza departed he 
smacked his head repeatedly and called people names, such as _loonies, 



249 



simpletons_, very bad words, but he had always been a godless man, the 
weak end of a strong line, and he had to be left to find his own fate; 
there was no arguing with men like him. 

By sunset the villagers were ready to depart, and the Sarpanch told 
everyone to rise for prayers in the small hours so that they could leave 
immediately afterwards and thus avoid the worst heat of the day. That 
night, lying down on his mat beside old Khadija, he murmured, "At 
last. I've always wanted to see the Ka"aba, to circle it before I die." She 
reached out from her mat to take his hand. "I, too, have hoped for it, 
against hope," she said. "We'll walk through the waters together." 

Mirza Saeed, driven into an impotent frenzy by the spectacle of the 
packing village, burst in on his wife without ceremony. "You should see 
what's going on, Mishu," he exclaimed, gesticulating absurdly. "The 
whole of Titlipur has taken leave of its brains, and is off to the seaside. 
What is to happen to their homes, their fields? There is ruination in 
store. Must be political agitators involved. Someone has been bribing 
someone. -- Do you think if I offered cash they would stay here like sane 
persons?" His voice dried. Ayesha was in the room. 

"You bitch," he cursed her. She was sitting cross--legged on the bed 
while Mishal and her mother squatted on the floor, sorting through 
their belongings and working out how little they could manage with on 
the pilgrimage. 

"You're not going," Mirza Saeed ranted."! forbid it, the devil alone 
knows what germ this whore has infected the villagers with, but you are 
my wife and I refuse to let you embark upon this suicidal venture." 

"Good words," Mishal laughed bitterly. "Saeed, good choice of words. 
You know I can't live but you talk about suicide. Saeed, a thing is 
happening here, and you with your imported European atheism don't 



250 



know what it is. Or maybe you would if you looked beneath your 
English suitings and tried to locate your heart." 

"It's incredible," Saeed cried. "Mishal, Mishu, is this you? All of a 
sudden you've turned into this God-bothered type from ancient 
history?" 

Mrs. Qureishi said, "Go away, son. No room for unbelievers here. The 
angel has told Ayesha that when Mishal completes the pilgrimage to 
Mecca her cancer will have disappeared. Everything is required and 
everything will be given." 

Mirza Saeed Akhtar put his palms against a wall of his wife's bedroom 
and pressed his forehead against the plaster. After a long pause he said: 
"If it is a question of performing umra then for God's sake let's go to 
town and catch a plane. We can be in Mecca within a couple of days." 

Mishal answered, "We are commanded to walk." 

Saeed lost control of himself. "Mishal? Mishal?" he shrieked. 
"Commanded? Archangels, Mishu? _Gibreel?_ God with a long beard 
and angels with wings? Heaven and hell, Mishal? The Devil with a 
pointy tail and cloven hoofs? How far are you going with this? Do 
women have souls, what do you say? Or the other way: do souls have 
gender? Is God black or white? When the waters of the ocean part, 
where will the extra water go? Will it stand up sideways like walls? 
Mishal? Answer me. Are there miracles? Do you believe in Paradise? Will 
I be forgiven my sins?" He began to cry, and fell on to his knees, with 
his forehead still pressed against the wall. His dying wife came up and 
embraced him from behind. "Go with the pilgrimage, then," he said, 
dully. "But at least take the Mercedes station wagon. It's got air- 
conditioning and you can take the icebox full of Cokes." 



251 



"No," she said, gently. "We'll go like everybody else. We're pilgrims, 
Saeed. This isn't a picnic at the beach." 

"I don't know what to do," Mirza Saeed Akhtar wept. "Mishu, I can't 
handle this by myself." 

Aycsha spoke from the bed. "Mirza sahib, come with us," she said. 
"Your ideas are finished with. Come and save your soul." 

Saeed stood up, red-eyed. "A bloody outing you wanted," he said 
viciously to Mrs. Qureishi. "That chicken certainly came home to roost. 
Your outing will finish off the lot of us, seven generations, the whole 
bang shoot." 

Mishal leaned her cheek against his back. "Come with us, Saeed. Just 
come." 

He turned to face Ayesha. "There is no God," he said firmly. 

"There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet," she replied. 

"The mystical experience is a subjective, not an objective truth," he 
went on. "The waters will not open." 

"The sea will part at the angel's command," Ayesha answered. 

"You are leading these people into certain disaster." 

"I am taking them into the bosom of God." 

"I don't believe in you," Mirza Saeed insisted. "But I'm going to come, 
and will try to end this insanity with every step I take." 

"God chooses many means," Ayesha rejoiced, "many roads by which the 
doubtful may be brought into his certainty." 



252 



"Go to hell," shouted Mirza Saeed Akhtar, and ran, scattering 
butterflies, from the room. 



"Who is the madder," Osman the clown whispered into his bullock's ear 
as he groomed it in its small byre, "the madwoman, or the fool who 
loves the madwoman?" The bullock didn't reply. "Maybe we should 
have stayed untouchable," Osman continued. "A compulsory ocean 
sounds worse than a forbidden well." And the bullock nodded, twice for 
yes, boom, boom. 



V. A City Visible but Unseen 



"_Once I'm an owl, what is the spell or antidote for turning me back 
into myself?_" Mr. Muhammad Sufyan, prop. Shaandaar Cafe and 
landlord of the rooming-house above, mentor to the variegated, 
transient and particoloured inhabitants of both, seen-it-all type, least 
doctrinaire of hajis and most unashamed of V C R addicts, ex- 
schoolteacher, self-taught in classical texts of many cultures, dismissed 
from post in Dhaka owing to cultural differences with certain generals 
in the old days when Bangladesh was merely an East Wing, and 
therefore, in his own words, "not so much an immig as an emig runt" -- 
this last a good-natured allusion to his lack of inches, for though he 
was a wide man, thick of arm and waist, he stood no more than sixtyone 
inches off the ground, blinked in his bedroom doorway, awakened by 
Jumpy Joshi's urgent midnight knock, polished his half--rimmed 
spectacles on the edge of Bengali-style kurta (drawstrings tied at the 
neck in a neat bow), squeezed lids tightly shut open shut over myopic 



253 



eyes, replaced glasses, opened eyes, stroked moustacheless hennaed 
beard, sucked teeth, and responded to the now-indisputable horns on 
the brow of the shivering fellow whom Jumpy, like the cat, appeared to 
have dragged in, with the above impromptu quip, stolen, with 
commendable mental alacrity for one aroused from his slumbers, from 
Lucius Apuleius of Madaura, Moroccan priest, AD 120--180 approx., 
colonial of an earlier Empire, a person who denied the accusation of 
having bewitched a rich widow yet confessed, somewhat perversely, that 
at an early stage in his career he had been transformed, by witchcraft, 
into (not an owl, but) an ass. "Yes, yes," Sufyan continued, stepping out 
into the passage and blowing a white mist of winter breath into his 
cupped hands, "Poor misfortunate, but no point wallowing. 
Constructive attitude must be adopted. I will wake my wife." 

Chamcha was beard-fuzz and grime. He wore a blanket like a toga below 
which there protruded the comic deformity of goats' hoofs, while above 
it could be seen the sad comedy of a sheepskin jacket borrowed from 
Jumpy, its collar turned up, so that sheepish curls nestled only inches 
from pointy billy-goat horns. He seemed incapable of speech, sluggish 
of body, dull of eye; even though Jumpy attempted to encourage him -- 
"There, you see, we'll have this well sorted in a flash" -- he, Saladin, 
remained the most limp and passive of -- what? -- let us say: satyrs. 
Sufyan, meanwhile, offered further Apuleian sympathy. "In the case of 
the ass, reverse metamorphosis required personal intervention of 
goddess Isis," he beamed. "But old times are for old fogies. In your 
instance, young mister, first step would possibly be a bowl of good hot 
soup." 

At this point his kindly tones were quite drowned by the intervention of 
a second voice, raised high in operatic terror; moments after which, his 
small form was being jostled and shoved by the mountainous, fleshy 
figure of a woman, who seemed unable to decide whether to push him 
out of her way or keep him before her as a protective shield. Crouching 



254 



behind Sufyan, this new being extended a trembling arm at whose end 
was a quivering, pudgy, scarlet-nailed index finger. "That over there," 
she howled. "What thing is come upon us?" 

"It is a friend of Joshi's," Sufyan said mildly, and continued, turning to 
Chamcha, "Please forgive, -- the unexpectedness et cet, isn't it? -- 
Anyhow, may I present my Mrs; -- my Begum Sahiba, -- Hind." 

"What friend? How friend?" the croucher cried. "Ya Allah, eyes aren't 
next to your nose?" 

The passageway, -- bare-board floor, torn floral paper on the walls, -- 
was starting to fill up with sleepy residents. Prominent among whom 
were two teenage girls, one spike-haired, the other pony-tailed, and 
both relishing the opportunity to demonstrate their skills (learned 
from Jumpy) in the martial arts of karate and Wing Chun: Sufyan's 
daughters, Mishal (seventeen) and fifteenyear-old Anahita, leapt from 
their bedroom in fighting gear, Bruce Lee pajamas worn loosely over T- 
shirts bearing the image of the new Madonna; -- caught sight of 
unhappy Saladin; -- and shook their heads in wide-eyed delight. 

"Radical," said Mishal, approvingly. And her sister nodded assent: 
"Crucial. Fucking A." Her mother did not, however, reproach her for 
her language; Hind's mind was elsewhere, and she wailed louder than 
ever: "Look at this husband of mine. What sort of haji is this? Here is 
Shaitan himself walking in through our door, and I am made to offer 
him hot chicken yakhni, cooked by my own right hand." 

Useless, now, forjumpyjoshi to plead with Hind for tolerance, to 
attempt explanations and demand solidarity. "If he's not the devil on 
earth," the heaving-chested lady pointed out unanswerably, "from 
where that plague-breath comes that he's breathing? From, maybe, the 
Perfumed Garden?" 



255 



"Not Gulistan, but Bostan," said Chamcha, suddenly. "AI Flight 420." 
On hearing his voice, however, Hind squealed frightfully, and plunged 
past him, heading for the kitchen. 

"Mister," Mishal said to Saladin as her mother fled downstairs, "anyone 
who scares her that way has got to be seriously _bad_." 

"Wicked," Anahita agreed. "Welcome aboard." 



This Hind, now so firmly entrenched in exclamatory mode, had once 
been -- strangebuttrue! -- the most blushing of brides, the soul of 
gentleness, the very incarnation of tolerant good humour. As the wife of 
the erudite schoolteacher of Dhaka, she had entered into her duties 
with a will, the perfect helpmeet, bringing her husband cardamom- 
scented tea when he stayed up late marking examination papers, 
ingratiating herself with the school principal at the termly Staff 
Families Outing, struggling with the novels of Bibhutibhushan Banerji 
and the metaphysics of Tagore in an attempt to be more worthy of a 
spouse who could quote effortlessly from Rig--Veda as well as Quran- 
Sharif, from the military accounts of Julius Caesar as well as the 
Revelations of St John the Divine. In those days she had admired his 
pluralistic openness of mind, and struggled, in her kitchen, towards a 
parallel eclecticism, learning to cook the dosas and uttapams of South 
India as well as the soft meatballs of Kashmir. Gradually her espousal 
of the cause of gastronomic pluralism grew into a grand passion, and 
while secularist Sufyan swallowed the multiple cultures of the 
subcontinent -- "and let us not pretend that Western culture is not 
present; after these centuries, how could it not also be part of our 
heritage?" -- his wife cooked, and ate in increasing quantities, its food. 
As she devoured the highly spiced dishes of Hyderabad and the high- 
faluting yoghurt sauces of Lucknow her body began to alter, because all 
that food had to find a home somewhere, and she began to resemble the 



256 



wide rolling land mass itself, the subcontinent without frontiers, 
because food passes across any boundary you care to mention. 

Mr. Muhammad Sufyan, however, gained no weight: not a _tola_, not an 
_ounce_. 

His refusal to fatten was the beginning of the trouble. When she 
reproached him -- "You don't like my cooking? For whom I'm doing it 
all and blowing up like a balloon?" -- he answered, mildly, looking up at 
her (she was the taller of the two) over the top of half-rimmed specs: 
"Restraint is also part of our traditions, Begum. Eating two mouthfuls 
less than one's hunger: self-denial, the ascetic path." What a man: all 
the answers, but you couldn't get him to give you a decent fight. 

Restraint was not for Hind. Maybe, if Sufyan had ever complained; if 
just once he'd said, _I thought I was marrying one woman but these 
days you're big enough for two_; if he'd ever given her the incentive! -- 
then maybe she'd have desisted, why not, of course she would; so it was 
his fault, for having no aggression, what kind of a male was it who 
didn't know how to insult his fat lady wife? -- In truth, it was entirely 
possible that Hind would have failed to control her eating binges even 
if Sufyan had come up with the required imprecations and entreaties; 
but, since he did not, she munched on, content to dump the whole 
blame for her figure on him. 

As a matter of fact, once she had started blaming him for things, she 
found that there were a number of other matters she could hold against 
him; and found, too, her tongue, so that the schoolteacher's humble 
apartment resounded regularly to the kinds of tickings-off he was too 
much of a mouse to hand out to his pupils. Above all, he was berated 
for his excessively high principles, thanks to which, Hind told him, she 
knew he would never permit her to become a rich man's wife; -- for 
what could one say about a man who, finding that his bank had 
inadvertently credited his salary to his account twice in the same 



257 



month, promptly _drew the institution's notice_ to the error and 
handed back the cash?; -- what hope was there for a teacher who, when 
approached by the wealthiest of the schoolchildren's parents, flatly 
refused to contemplate accepting the usual remunerations in return for 
services rendered when marking the little fellows' examination papers? 

"But all of that I could forgive," she would mutter darkly at him, 
leaving unspoken the rest of the sentence, which was _if it hadn't been 
for your two real offences: your sexual, and political, crimes_. 

Ever since their marriage, the two of them had performed the sexual act 
infrequently, in total darkness, pin-drop silence and almost complete 
immobility. It would not have occurred to Hind to wiggle or wobble, 
and since Sufyan appeared to get through it all with an absolute 
minimum of motion, she took it -- had always taken it -- that the two of 
them were of the same mind on this matter, viz., that it was a dirty 
business, not to be discussed before or after, and not to be drawn 
attention to during, either. That the children took their time in coming 
she took as God's punishment for He only knew what misdeeds of her 
earlier life; that they both turned out to be girls she refused to blame 
on Allah, preferring, instead, to blame the weakling seed implanted in 
her by her unmanly spouse, an attitude she did not refrain from 
expressing, with great emphasis, and to the horror of the midwife, at 
the very moment of little Anahita's birth. "Another girl," she gasped in 
disgust. "Well, considering who made the baby, I should think myself 
lucky it's not a cockroach, or a mouse." After this second daughter she 
told Sufyan that enough was enough, and ordered him to move his bed 
into the hail. He accepted without any argument her refusal to have 
more children; but then she discovered that the lecher thought he could 
still, from time to time, enter her darkened room and enact that strange 
rite of silence and near-motionlessness to which she had only submitted 
in the name of reproduction. "What do you think," she shouted at him 
the first time he tried it, "I do this thing for fun?" 



258 



Once he had got it through his thick skull that she meant business, no 
more hanky-panky, no sir, she was a decent woman, not a lust--crazed 
libertine, he began to stay out late at night. It was during this period -- 
she had thought, mistakenly, that he was visiting prostitutes -- that he 
became involved with politics, and not just any old politics, either, oh 
no, Mister Brainbox had to go and join the devils themselves, the 
Communist Party, no less, so much for those principles of his; demons, 
that's what they were, worse by far than whores. It was because of this 
dabbling in the occult that she had to pack up her bags at such short 
notice and leave for England with two small babies in tow; because of 
this ideological witchcraft that she had had to endure all the privations 
and humiliations of the process of immigration; and on account of this 
diabolism of his that she was stuck forever in this England and would 
never see her village again. "England," she once said to him, "is your 
revenge upon me for preventing you from performing your obscene acts 
upon my body." He had not given an answer; and silence denotes assent. 

And what was it that made them a living in this Vilayet of her exile, this 
Yuke of her sex-obsessed husband's vindictiveness? What? His book 
learning? His _Gitanjali_, _Eclogues_, or that play _Othello_ that he 
explained was really Attallah or Attaullah except the writer couldn't 
spell, what sort of writer was that, anyway? 

It was: her cooking. "Shaandaar," it was praised. "Outstanding, 
brilliant, delicious." People came from all over London to eat her 
samosas, her Bombay chaat, her gulab jamans straight from Paradise. 
What was there for Sufyan to do? Take the money, serve the tea, run 
from here to there, behave like a servant for all his education. O, yes, of 
course the customers liked his personality, he always had an appealing 
character, but when you're running an eatery it isn't the conversation 
they pay for on the bill. Jalebis, barfi, Special of the Day. How life had 
turned out! She was the mistress now. 

Victory! 

259 



And yet it was also a fact that she, cook and breadwinner, chiefest 
architect of the success of the Shaandaar Cafe, which had finally 
enabled them to buy the whole four-storey building and start renting 
out its rooms, -- _she_ was the one around whom there hung, like bad 
breath, the miasma of defeat. While Sufyan twinkled on, she looked 
extinguished, like a lightbulb with a broken filament, like a fizzled star, 
like a flame. -- Why? -- Why, when Sufyan, who had been deprived of 
vocation, pupils and respect, bounded about like a young lamb, and 
even began to put on weight, fattening up in Proper London as he had 
never done back home; why, when power had been removed from his 
hands and delivered into hers, did she act -- as her husband put it -- the 
"sad sack", the "glum chum" and the "moochy pooch"? Simple: not in 
spite of, but on account of. Everything she valued had been upset by the 
change; had in this process of translation, been lost. 

Her language: obliged, now, to emit these alien sounds that made her 
tongue feel tired, was she not entitled to moan? Her familiar place: 
what matter that they had lived, in Dhaka, in a teacher's humble flat, 
and now, owing to entrepreneurial good sense, savings and skill with 
spices, occupied this four--storey terraced house? Where now was the 
city she knew? Where the village of her youth and the green waterways 
of home? The customs around which she had built her life were lost, 
too, or at least were hard to find. Nobody in this Vilayet had time for 
the slow courtesies of life back home, or for the many observances of 
faith. Furthermore: was she not forced to put up with a husband of no 
account, whereas before she could bask in his dignified position? Where 
was the pride in being made to work for her living, for his living, 
whereas before she could sit at home in much-befitting pomp? -- And 
she knew, how could she not, the sadness beneath his bonhomie, and 
that, too, was a defeat; never before had she felt so inadequate as a wife, 
for what kind of a Mrs. is it that cannot cheer up her man, but must 
observe the counterfeit of happiness and make do, as if it were the 
genuine McCoy? -- Plus also: they had come into a demon city in which 



260 



anything could happen, your windows shattered in the middle of the 
night without any cause, you were knocked over in the street by 
invisible hands, in the shops you heard such abuse you felt like your 
ears would drop off but when you turned in the direction of the words 
you saw only empty air and smiling faces, and every day you heard 
about this boy, that girl, beaten up by ghosts. -- Yes, a land of phantom 
imps, how to explain; best thing was to stay home, not go out for so 
much as to post a letter, stay in, lock the door, say your prayers, and the 
goblins would (maybe) stay away. -- Reasons for defeat? Baba, who 
could count them? Not only was she a shopkeeper's wife and a kitchen 
slave, but even her own people could not be relied on; -- there were men 
she thought of as respectable types, sharif, giving telephone divorces to 
wives back home and running off with some haramzadi female, and 
girls killed for dowry (some things could be brought through the 
foreign customs without duty); -- and worst of all, the poison of this 
devil-island had infected her baby girls, who were growing up refusing 
to speak their mothertongue, even though they understood every word, 
they did it just to hurt; and why else had Mishal cut off all her hair and 
put rainbows into it; and every day it was fight, quarrel, disobey, -- and 
worst of all, there was not one new thing about her complaints, this is 
how it was for women like her, so now she was no longer just one, just 
herself, just Hind wife of teacher Sufyan; she had sunk into the 
anonymity, the characterless plurality, of being merely one-of-the- 
women--like-her. This was history's lesson: nothing for women-like-her 
to do but suffer, remember, and die. 

What she did: to deny her husband's weakness, she treated him, for the 
most part, like a lord, like a monarch, for in her lost world her glory 
had lain in his; to deny the ghosts outside the cafe, she stayed indoors, 
sending others out for kitchen provisions and household necessities, 
and also for the endless supply of Bengali and Hindi movies on VCR 
through which (along with her ever-increasing hoard of Indian movie 
magazines) she could stay in touch with events in the "real world", such 



261 



as the bizarre disappearance of the incomparable Gibreel Farishta and 
the subsequent tragic announcement of his death in an airline accident; 
and to give her feelings of defeated, exhausted despair some outlet, she 
shouted at her daughters. The elder of whom, to get her own back, 
hacked off her hair and permitted her nipples to poke through shirts 
worn provocatively tight. 

The arrival of a fully developed devil, a horned goat-man, was, in the 
light of the foregoing, something very like the last, or at any rate the 
penultimate, straw. 



Shaandaar residents gathered in the night--kitchen for an impromptu 
crisis summit. While Hind hurled imprecations into chicken soup, 
Sufyan placed Chamcha at a table, drawing up, for the poor fellow's 
use, an aluminium chair with a blue plastic seat, and initiated the 
night's proceedings. The theories of Lamarck, I am pleased to report, 
were quoted by the exiled schoolteacher, who spoke in his best didactic 
voice. When Jumpy had recounted the unlikely story of Chamcha's fall 
from the sky -- the protagonist himself being too immersed in chicken 
soup and misery to speak for himself-- Sufyan, sucking teeth, made 
reference to the last edition of _The Origin of Species_. "In which even 
great Charles accepted the notion of mutation in extremis, to ensure 
survival of species; so what if his followers -- always more Darwinian 
than man himselfl -- repudiated, posthumously, such Lamarckian 
heresy, insisting on natural selection and nothing but, -- however, I am 
bound to admit, such theory is not extended to survival of individual 
specimen but only to species as a whole; -- in addition, regarding nature 
of mutation, problem is to comprehend actual utility of the change." 

"Da-ad," Anahita Sufyan, eyes lifting to heaven, cheek lying ho-hum 
against palm, interrupted these cogitations. "Give over. Point is, how'd 
he turn into such a, such a," -- admiringly -- "freak?" 



262 



Upon which, the devil himself, looking up from chicken soup, cried out, 
"No, I'm not. I'm not a freak, O no, certainly I am not." His voice, 
seeming to rise from an unfathomable abyss of grief, touched and 
alarmed the younger girl, who rushed over to where he sat, and, 
impetuously caressing a shoulder of the unhappy beast, said, in an 
attempt to make amends: "Of course you aren't, I'm sorry, of course I 
don't think you're a freak; it's just that you look like one." 

Saladin Chamcha burst into tears. 

Mrs. Sufyan, meanwhile, had been horrified by the sight of her younger 
daughter actually laying hands on the creature, and turning to the 
gallery of nightgowned residents she waved a soup-ladle at them and 
pleaded for support. "How to tolerate? -- Honour, safety of young girls 
cannot be assured. -- That in my own house, such a thing. ..!" 

Mishal Sufyan lost patience. "Jesus, Mum." 

"_Jesus?_" 

"Dju think it's temporary?" Mishal, turning her back on scandalized 
Hind, inquired of Sufyan and Jumpy. "Some sort of possession thing -- 
could we maybe get it you know _exorcized?_" Omens, shinings, 
ghoulies, nightmares on Elm Street, stood excitedly in her eyes, and her 
father, as much the VCR aficionado as any teenager, appeared to 
consider the possibility seriously. "In _Der Steppenwolf_," he began, 
but Jumpy wasn't having any more of that. "The central requirement," 
he announced, "is to take an ideological view of the situation." 

That silenced everyone. 

"Objectively," he said, with a small self—deprecating smile, "what has 
happened here? A: Wrongful arrest, intimidation, violence. Two: Illegal 
detention, unknown medical experimentation in hospital," -- murmurs 
of assent here, as memories of intra-vaginal inspections, Depo-Provera 



263 



scandals, unauthorized post-partum sterilizations, and, further back, 
the knowledge of Third World drug-dumping arose in every person 
present to give substance to the speaker's insinuations, -- because what 
you believe depends on what you've seen, -- not only what is visible, but 
what you are prepared to look in the face, -- and anyhow, something 
had to explain horns and hoofs; in those policed medical wards, 
anything could happen -- "And thirdly," Jumpy continued, 
"psychological breakdown, loss of sense of self, inability to cope. We've 
seen it all before." 

Nobody argued, not even Hind; there were some truths from which it 
was impossible to dissent. "Ideologically," Jumpy said, "I refuse to 
accept the position of victim. Certainly, he has been victim _ized_, but 
we know that all abuse of power is in part the responsibility of the 
abused; our passiveness colludes with, permits such crimes." 
Whereupon, having scolded the gathering into shamefaced submission, 
he requested Sufyan to make available the small attic room that was 
presently unoccupied, and Sufyan, in his turn, was rendered entirely 
unable, by feelings of solidarity and guilt, to ask for a single p in rent. 
Hind did, it is true, mumble: "Now I know the world is mad, when a 
devil becomes my house guest," but she did so under her breath, and 
nobody except her elder daughter Mishal heard what she said. 

Sufyan, taking his cue from his younger daughter, went up to where 
Chamcha, huddled in his blanket, was drinking enormous quantities of 
Hind's unrivalled chicken yakhni, squatted down, and placed an arm 
around the still-shivering unfortunate. "Best place for you is here," he 
said, speaking as if to a simpleton or small child. "Where else would 
you go to heal your disfigurements and recover your normal health? 
Where else but here, with us, among your own people, your own kind?" 

Only when Saladin Chamcha was alone in the attic room at the very end 
of his strength did he answer Sufyan's rhetorical question. "I'm not 



264 



your kind," he said distinctly into the night. "You're not my people. 
I've spent half my life trying to get away from you." 



His heart began to misbehave, to kick and stumble as if it, too, wanted 
to metamorphose into some new, diabolic form, to substitute the 
complex unpredictability of tabla improvisations for its old 
metronomic beat. Lying sleepless in a narrow bed, snagging his horns in 
bedsheets and pillowcases as he tossed and turned, he suffered the 
renewal of coronary eccentricity with a kind of fatalistic acceptance: if 
everything else, then why not this, too? Badoomboom, went the heart, 
and his torso jerked. _Watch it or I'll really let you have it. 
Doomboombadoom_. Yes: this was Hell, all right. The city of London, 
transformed into Jahannum, Gehenna, Muspellheim. 

Do devils suffer in Hell? Aren't they the ones with the pitchforks? 

Water began to drip steadily through the dormer window. Outside, in 
the treacherous city, a thaw had come, giving the streets the unreliable 
consistency of wet cardboard. Slow masses of whiteness slid from 
sloping, grey-slate roofs. The footprints of delivery vans corrugated the 
slush. First light; and the dawn chorus began, chattering of road--drills, 
chirrup of burglar alarms, trumpeting of wheeled creatures clashing at 
corners, the deep whirr of a large olive--green garbage eater, screaming 
radio--voices from a wooden painter's cradle clinging to the upper 
storey of a Free House, roar of the great wakening juggernauts rushing 
awesomely down this long but narrow pathway. From beneath the earth 
came tremors denoting the passage of huge subterranean worms that 
devoured and regurgitated human beings, and from the skies the thrum 
of choppers and the screech of higher, gleaming birds. 

The sun rose, unwrapping the misty city like a gift. Saladin Chamcha 
slept. 



265 



Which afforded him no respite: but returned him, rather, to that other 
night-street down which, in the company of the physiotherapist 
Hyacinth Phillips, he had fled towards his destiny, clip-clop, on 
unsteady hoofs; and reminded him that, as captivity receded and the 
city drew nearer, Hyacinth's face and body had seemed to change. He 
saw the gap opening and widening between her central upper incisors, 
and the way her hair knotted and plaited itself into medusas, and the 
strange triangularity of her profile, which sloped outwards from her 
hairline to the tip of her nose, swung about and headed in an unbroken 
line inwards to her neck. He saw in the yellow light that her skin was 
growing darker by the minute, and her teeth more prominent, and her 
body as long as a child's stick-figure drawing. At the same time she was 
casting him glances of an ever more explicit lechery, and grasping his 
hand in fingers so bony and inescapable that it was as though a 
skeleton had seized him and was trying to drag him down into a grave; 
he could smell the freshly dug earth, the cloying scent of it, on her 
breath, on her lips . . . revulsion seized him. How could he ever have 
thought her attractive, even desired her, even gone so far as to 
fantasize, while she straddled him and pummelled fluid from his lungs, 
that they were lovers in the violent throes of sexual congress? . . . The 
city thickened around them like a forest; the buildings twined together 
and grew as matted as her hair. "No light can get in here," she 
whispered to him. "It's black; all black." She made as if to lie down and 
pull him towards her, towards the earth, but he shouted, "Quick, the 
church," and plunged into an unprepossessing box-like building, 
seeking more than one kind of sanctuary. Inside, however, the pews 
were full of Hyacinths, young and old, Hyacinths wearing shapeless 
blue two--piece suits, false pearls, and little pill--box hats decked out 
with bits of gauze, Hyacinths wearing virginal white nightgowns, every 
imaginable form of Hyacinth, all singing loudly, _Fix me, Jesus_; until 
they saw Chamcha, quit their spir-- itualling, and commenced to bawl 
in a most unspiritual manner, _Satan, the Goat, the Goat_, and 
suchlike stuff. Now it became clear that the Hyacinth with whom he'd 



266 



entered was looking at him with new eyes, just the way he'd looked at 
her in the street; that she, too, had started seeing something that made 
her feel pretty sick; and when he saw the disgust on that hideously 
pointy and clouded face he just let rip. "_Hubshees_," he cursed them 
in, for some reason, his discarded mother-tongue. Troublemakers and 
savages, he called them. "I feel sorry for you," he pronounced. "Every 
morning you have to look at yourself in the mirror and see, staring 
back, the darkness: the stain, the proof that you're the lowest of the 
low." They rounded upon him then, that congregation of Hyacinths, his 
own Hyacinth now lost among them, indistinguishable, no longer an 
individual but a woman-likethem, and he was being beaten frightfully, 
emitting a piteous bleating noise, running in circles, looking for a way 
out; until he realized that his assailants' fear was greater than their 
wrath, and he rose up to his full height, spread his arms, and screamed 
devilsounds at them, sending them scurrying for cover, cowering behind 
pews, as he strode bloody but unbowed from the battlefield. 

Dreams put things in their own way; but Chamcha, coming briefly 
awake as his heartbeat skipped into a new burst of syncopations, was 
bitterly aware that the nightmare had not been so very far from the 
truth; the spirit, at least, was right. -- That was the last of Hyacinth, he 
thought, and faded away again. -- To find himself shivering in the hail 
of his own home while, on a higher plane, Jumpy Joshi argued fiercely 
with Pamela. _With my wife_. 

And when dream-Pamela, echoing the real one word for word, had 
rejected her husband a hundred and one times, _he doesn't exist, it, 
such things are not so_, it was Jamshed the virtuous who, setting aside 
love and desire, helped. Leaving behind a weeping Pamela -- _Don't you 
dare bring that back here_, she shouted from the top floor -- from 
Saladin's den -- Jumpy, wrapping Chamcha in sheepskin and blanket, 
led enfeebled through the shadows to the Shaandaar Cafe, promising 
with empty kindness: "It'll be all right. You'll see. It'll all be fine." 



267 



When Saladin Chamcha awoke, the memory of these words filled him 
with a bitter anger. Where's Farishta, he found himself thinking. That 
bastard: I bet he's doing okay. -- It was a thought to which he would 
return, with extraordinary results; for the moment, however, he had 
other fish to fry. 

I am the incarnation of evil, he thought. He had to face it. However it 
had happened, it could not be denied. I am _no longer myself_, or not 
only. I am the embodiment of wrong, of whatwe--hate, of sin. 

Why? Why me? 

What evil had he done -- what vile thing could he, would he do? 

For what was he -- he couldn't avoid the notion -- being punished? And, 
come to that, by whom? (I held my tongue.) 

Had he not pursued his own idea of _the good_, sought to become that 
which he most admired, dedicated himself with a will bordering on 
obsession to the conquest of Englishness? Had he not worked hard, 
avoided trouble, striven to become new? Assiduity, fastidiousness, 
moderation, restraint, self—reliance, probity, family life: what did these 
add up to if not a moral code? Was it his fault that Pamela and he were 
childless? Were genetics his responsibility? Could it be, in this inverted 
age, that he was being victimized by -- the fates, he agreed with himself 
to call the persecuting agency -- precisely _because of_ his pursuit of 
"the good"? -- That nowadays such a pursuit was considered wrong- 
headed, even evil? -- Then how cruel these fates were, to instigate his 
rejection by the very world he had so determinedly courted; how 
desolating, to be cast from the gates of the city one believed oneself to 
have taken long ago! -- What mean small-mindedness was this, to cast 
him back into the bosom of _his people_, from whom he'd felt so 
distant for so long! -- Here thoughts of Zeeny Vakil welled up, and 
guiltily, nervously, he forced them down again. 



268 



His heart kicked him violently, and he sat up, doubled over, gasped for 
breath. _Calm down, or it's curtains. No place for such stressful 
cogitations: not any more_. He took deep breaths; lay back; emptied his 
mind. The traitor in his chest resumed normal service. 

No more of that, Saladin Chamcha told himself firmly. No more of 
thinking myself evil. Appearances deceive; the cover is not the best 
guide to the book. Devil, Goat, Shaitan? Not I. 

Not I: another. 



Who? 



Mishal and Anahita arrived with breakfast on a tray and excitement all 
over their faces. Chamcha devoured cornflakes and Nescafe while the 
girls, after a few moments of shyness, gabbled at him, simultaneously, 
non--stop. "Well, you've set the place buzzing and no mistake." -- "You 
haven't gone and changed back in the night or anything?" -- "Listen, 
it's not a trick, is it? I mean, it's not make-up or something theatrical? - 
- I mean, Jumpy says you're an actor, and I only thought, -- I mean," 
and here young Anahita dried up, because Chamcha, spewing 
cornflakes, howled angrily: "Make--up? Theatrical? _Trick?_" 

"No offence," Mishal said anxiously on her sister's behalf. "It's just 
we've been thinking, know what I mean, and well it'd just be awful if 
you weren't, but you are, "course you are, so that's all right," she 
finished hastily as Chamcha glared at her again. -- "Thing is," Anahita 
resumed, and then, faltering, "Mean to say, well, we just think it's 
great." -- "You, she means," Mishal corrected. "We think you're, you 
know." -- "Brilliant," Anahita said and dazzled the bewildered Chamcha 
with a smile. "Magic. You know. _Extreme_." 

"We didn't sleep all night," Mishal said. "We've got ideas." 



269 



"What we reckoned," Anahita trembled with the thrill of it, "as you've 
turned into, -- what you are, -- then maybe, well, probably, actually, 
even if you haven't tried it out, it could be, you could..." And the older 
girl finished the thought: "You could've developed -- you know -- 
_powers_." 

"We thought, anyway," Anahita added, weakly, seeing the clouds 
gathering on Chamcha's brow. And, backing towards the door, added: 
"But we're probably wrong. -- Yeh. We're wrong all right. Enjoy your 
meal." -- Mishal, before she fled, took a small bottle full of green fluid 
out of a pocket of her red-andblack-check donkey jacket, put it on the 
floor by the door, and delivered the following parting shot. "O, excuse 
me, but Mum says, can you use this, it's mouthwash, for your breath." 



That Mishal and Anahita should adore the disfiguration which he 
loathed with all his heart convinced him that "his people" were as 
crazily wrong-headed as he'd long suspected. That the two of them 
should respond to his bitterness -- when, on his second attic morning, 
they brought him a masala dosa instead of packet cereal complete with 
toy silver spacemen, and he cried out, ungratefully: "Now I'm supposed 
to eat this filthy foreign food?" -- with expressions of sympathy, made 
matters even worse. "Sawful muck," Mishal agreed with him. "No 
bangers in here, worse luck." Conscious of having insulted their 
hospitality, he tried to explain that he thought of himself, nowadays, 
as, well, British. . . "What about us?" Anahita wanted to know. "What 
do you think we are?" -- And Mishal confided: "Bangladesh in't nothing 
to me. Just some place Dad and Mum keep banging on about." -- And 
Anahita, conclusively: "Bungleditch." -- With a satisfied nod. -- "What I 
call it, anyhow." 

But they weren't British, he wanted to tell them: not _really_, not in 
any way he could recognize. And yet his old certainties were slipping 



270 



away by the moment, along with his old life. . . "Where's the 
telephone?" he demanded. "I've got to make some calls." 

It was in the hall; Anahita, raiding her savings, lent him the coins. His 
head wrapped in a borrowed turban, his body concealed in borrowed 
trousers (Jumpy"s) and Mishal's shoes, Chamcha dialled the past. 

"Chamcha," said the voice of Mimi Mamoulian. "You're dead." 

This happened while he was away: Mimi blacked out and lost her teeth. 
"A whiteout is what it was," she told him, speaking more harshly than 
usual because of difficulty with her jaw. "A reason why? Don't ask. Who 
can ask for reason in these times? What's your number?" she added as 
the pips went. "I'll call you right back." But it was a full five minutes 
before she did. "I took a leak. You have a reason why you're alive? Why 
the waters parted for you and the other guy but closed over the rest? 
Don't tell me you were worthier. People don't buy that nowadays, not 
even you, Chamcha. I was walking down Oxford Street looking for 
crocodile shoes when it happened: out cold in mid-stride and I fell 
forward like a tree, landed on the point of my chin and all the teeth fell 
out on the sidewalk in front of the man doing findthe-lady. People can 
be thoughtful, Chamcha. When I came to I found my teeth in a little 
pile next to my face. I opened my eyes and saw the little bastards staring 
at me, wasn't that nice? First thing I thought, thank God, I've got the 
money. I had them stitched back in, privately of course, great job, better 
than before. So I've been taking a break for a while. The voiceover 
business is in bad shape, let me tell you, what with you dying and my 
teeth, we just have no sense of responsibility. Standards have been 
lowered, Chamcha. Turn on the TV, listen to radio, you should hear 
how corny the pizza commercials, the beer ads with the Cherman 
accents from Central Casting, the Martians eating potato powder and 
sounding like they came from the Moon. They fired us from _The Aliens 
Show_. Get well soon. Incidentally, you might say the same for me." 



271 



So he had lost work as well as wife, home, a grip on life. "It's not just 
the dentals that go wrong," Mimi powered on. "The fucking plosives 
scare me stupid. I keep thinking I'll spray the old bones on the street 
again. Age, Chamcha: it's all humiliations. You get born, you get beaten 
up and bruised all over and finally you break and they shovel you into 
an urn. Anyway, if I never work again I'll die comfortable. Did you 
know I'm with Billy Battuta now? That's right, how could you, you've 
been swimming. Yeah, I gave up waiting for you so I cradlesnatched one 
of your ethnic co-persons. You can take it as a compliment. Now I gots 
to run. Nice talking to the dead, Chamcha. Next time dive from the low 
board. Toodle oo." 

I am by nature an inward man, he said silently into the disconnected 
phone. I have struggled, in my fashion, to find my way towards an 
appreciation of the high things, towards a small measure of fineness. 
On good days I felt it was within my grasp, somewhere within me, 
somewhere within. But it eluded me. I have become embroiled, in 
things, in the world and its messes, and I cannot resist. The grotesque 
has me, as before the quotidian had me, in its thrall. The sea gave me 
up; the land drags me down. 

He was sliding down a grey slope, the black water lapping at his heart. 
Why did rebirth, the second chance granted to Gibreel Farishta and 
himself, feel so much, in his case, like a perpetual ending? He had been 
reborn into the knowledge of death; and the inescapability of change, of 
things-never-the-same, of noway-back, made him afraid. When you lose 
the past you're naked in front of contemptuous Azraeel, the death- 
angel. Hold on if you can, he told himself. Cling to yesterdays. Leave 
your nail-marks in the grey slope as you slide. 

Billy Battuta: that worthless piece of shit. Playboy Pakistani, turned an 
unremarkable holiday business -- _Battuta's Travels_ -- into a fleet of 
supertankers. A con--man, basically, famous for his romances with 
leading ladies of the Hindi screen and, according to gossip, for his 



272 



predilection for white women with enormous breasts and plenty of 
rump, whom he "treated badly", as the euphemism had it, and 
"rewarded handsomely". What did Mimi want with bad Billy, his sexual 
instruments and his Maserati Biturbo? For boys like Battuta, white 
women -- never mind fat, Jewish, non-deferential white women -- were 
for fucking and throwing over. What one hates in whites -- love of 
brown sugar -- one must also hate when it turns up, inverted, in black. 
Bigotry is not only a function of power. 

Mimi telephoned the next evening from New York. Anahita called him 
to the phone in her best damnyankee tones, and he struggled into his 
disguise. When he got there she had rung off, but she rang back. 
"Nobody pays transatlantic prices for hanging on." "Mimi," he said, 
with desperation patent in his voice, "you didn't say you were leaving." 
"You didn't even tell me your damn address," she responded. "So we 
both have secrets." He wanted to say, Mimi, come home, you're going to 
get kicked. "I introduced him to the family," she said, too jokily. "You 
can imagine. Yassir Arafat meets the Begins. Never mind. We'll all live." 
He wanted to say, Mimi, you're all I've got. He managed, however, only 
to piss her off. "I wanted to warn you about Billy," was what he said. 

She went icy. "Chamcha, listen up. I'll discuss this with you one time 
because behind all your bulishit you do maybe care for me a little. So 
comprehend, please, that I am an intelligent female. I have read 
_Finnegans Wake_ and am conversant with postmodernist critiques of 
the West, e.g. that we have here a society capable only of pastiche: a 
'flattened' world. When I become the voice of a bottle of bubble bath, I 
am entering Flatland knowingly, understanding what I'm doing and 
why. Viz., I am earning cash. And as an intelligent woman, able to do 
fifteen minutes on Stoicism and more on Japanese cinema, I say to you, 
Chamcha, that I am fully aware of Billy boy's rep. Don't teach me about 
exploitation. We had exploitation when youplural were running round 



273 



in skins. Try being Jewish, female and ugly sometime. You'll beg to be 
black. Excuse my French: brown." 

"You concede, then, that he's exploiting you," Chamcha interposed, but 
the torrent swept him away. "What's the fuckin" diff?" she trilled in 
her Tweetie Pie voice. "Billy's a funny boy, a natural scam artist, one of 
the greats. Who knows for how long this is? I'll tell you some notions I 
do not require: patriotism, God and love. Definitely not wanted on the 
voyage. I like Billy because he knows the score." 

"Mimi," he said, "something's happened to me," but she was still 
protesting too much and missed it. He put the receiver down without 
giving her his address. 

She rang him once more, a few weeks later, and by now the unspoken 
precedents had been set; she didn't ask for, he didn't give his 
whereabouts, and it was plain to them both that an age had ended, they 
had drifted apart, it was time to wave goodbye. It was still all Billy with 
Mimi: his plans to make Hindi movies in England and America, 
importing the top stars, Vinod Khanna, Sridevi, to cavort in front of 
Bradford Town Hall and the Golden Gate Bridge -- "it's some sort of 
tax dodge, obviously," Mimi carolled gaily. In fact, things were heating 
up for Billy; Chamcha had seen his name in the papers, coupled with 
the terms _fraud squad_ and _tax evasion_, but once a scam man, 
always a ditto, Mimi said. "So he says to me, do you want a mink? I say, 
Billy, don't buy me things, but he says, who's talking about buying? 
Have a mink. It's business." They had been in New York again, and Billy 
had hired a stretched Mercedes limousine "and a stretched chauffeur 
also". Arriving at the furriers, they looked like an oil sheikh and his 
moll. Mimi tried on the five figure numbers, waiting for Billy's lead. At 
length he said, You like that one? It's nice. Billy, she whispered, it's 
_forty thousand_, but he was already smooth-talking the assistant: it 
was Friday afternoon, the banks were closed, would the store take a 
cheque. "Well, by now they know he's an oil sheikh, so they say yes, we 



274 



leave with the coat, and he takes me into another store right around the 
block, points to the coat, and says, Ijust bought this for forty thousand 
dollars, here's the receipt, will you give me thirty for it, I need the cash, 
big weekend ahead." -- Mimi and Billy had been kept waiting while the 
second store rang the first, where all the alarm bells went off in the 
manager's brain, and five minutes later the police arrived, arrested Billy 
for passing a dud cheque, and he and Mimi spent the weekend in jail. 
On Monday morning the banks opened and it turned out that Billy's 
account was in credit to the tune of forty-two thousand, one hundred 
and seventeen dollars, so the cheque had been good all the time. He 
informed the furriers of his intention to sue them for two million 
dollars damages, defamation of character, open and shut case, and 
within forty-eight hours they settled out of court for $250,000 on the 
nail. "Don't you love him?" Mimi asked Chamcha. "The boy's a genius. 
I mean, this was _class_." 

I am a man, Chamcha realized, who does not know the score, living in 
an amoral, survivalist, get--away--with--it--world. Mishal and Anahita 
Sufyan, who still unaccountably treated him like a kind of soul-mate, in 
spite of all his attempts to dissuade them, were beings who plainly 
admired such creatures as moonlighters, shoplifters, flichers: scam 
artists in general. He corrected himself: not admired, that wasn't it. 
Neither girl would ever steal a pin. But they saw such persons as 
representatives of the gestalt, of how-it-was. As an experiment he told 
them the story of Billy Battuta and the mink coat. Their eyes shone, and 
at the end they applauded and giggled with delight: wickedness 
unpunished made them laugh. Thus, Chamcha realized, people must 
once have applauded and giggled at the deeds of earlier outlaws, Dick 
Turpin, Ned Kelly, Phoolan Devi, and of course that other Billy: 
William Bonney, also a Kid. 

"Scrapheap Youths' Criminal Idols," Mishal read his mind and then, 
laughing at his disapproval, translated it into yellowpress headlines, 



275 



while arranging her long, and, Chamcha realized, astonishing body into 
similarly exaggerated cheesecake postures. Pouting outrageously, fully 
aware of having stirred him, she prettily added: "Kissy kissy?" 

Her younger sister, not to be outdone, attempted to copy Mishal's pose, 
with less effective results. Abandoning the attempt with some 
annoyance, she spoke sulkily. "Trouble is, we've got good prospects, us. 
Family business, no brothers, bob's your uncle. This place makes a 
packet, dunnit? Well then." The Shaandaar rooming-house was 
categorized as a Bed and Breakfast establishment, of the type that 
borough councils were using more and more owing to the crisis in 
public housing, lodging fiveperson families in single rooms, turning 
blind eyes to health and safety regulations, and claiming "temporary 
accommodation" allowances from the central government. "Ten quid 
per night per person," Anahita informed Chamcha in his attic. "Three 
hundred and fifty nicker per room per week, it comes to, as often as 
not. Six occupied rooms: you work it out. Right now, we're losing three 
hundred pounds a month on this attic, so I hope you feel really bad." 
For that kind of money, it struck Chamcha, you could rent pretty 
reasonable family-sized apartments in the private sector. But that 
wouldn't be classified as temporary accommodation; no central funding 
for such solutions. Which would also be opposed by local politicians 
committed to fighting the "cuts". _La lutte continue_; meanwhile, 
Hind and her daughters raked in the cash, unworldly Sufyan went to 
Mecca and came home to dispense homely wisdom, kindliness and 
smiles. And behind six doors that opened a crack every time Chamcha 
went to make a phone call or use the toilet, maybe thirty temporary 
human beings, with little hope of being declared permanent. 

The real world. 

"You needn't look so fish-faced and holy, anyway," Mishal Sufyan 
pointed out. "Look where all your law abiding got you." 



276 



"Your universe is shrinking." A busy man, Hal Valance, creator of _The 
Aliens Show_ and sole owner of the property, took exactly seventeen 
seconds to congratulate Chamcha on being alive before beginning to 
explain why this fact did not affect the show's decision to dispense with 
his services. Valance had started out in advertising and his vocabulary 
had never recovered from the blow. Chamcha could keep up, however. 
All those years in the voiceover business taught you a little bad 
language. In marketing parlance, _a universe_ was the total potential 
market for a given product or service: the chocolate universe, the 
slimming universe. The dental universe was everybody with teeth; the 
others were the denture cosmos. "I'm talking," Valance breathed down 
the phone in his best Deep Throat voice, "about the ethnic universe." 

_My people again_: Chamcha, disguised in turban and the rest of his ill- 
fitting drag, hung on a telephone in a passageway while the eyes of 
impermanent women and children gleamed through barely opened 
doors; and wondered what his people had done to him now. "No 
capeesh," he said, remembering Valance's fondness for Italian-- 
American argot -- this was, after all, the author of the fast food slogan 
_Getta pizza da action_. On this occasion, however, Valance wasn't 
playing. "Audience surveys show," he breathed, "that ethnics don't 
watch ethnic shows. They don't want "em, Chamcha. They want fucking 
_Dynasty_, like everyone else. Your profile's wrong, if you follow: with 
you in the show it's just too damn racial. _The Aliens Show_ is too big 
an idea to be held back by the racial dimension. The merchandising 
possibilities alone, but I don't have to tell you this." 

Chamcha saw himself reflected in the small cracked mirror above the 
phone box. He looked like a marooned genie in search of a magic lamp. 
"It's a point of view," he answered Valance, knowing argument to be 
useless. With Hal, all explanations were post facto rationalizations. He 
was strictly a seat--of--the--pants man, who took for his motto the 



277 



advice given by Deep Throat to Bob Woodward: _Follow the money_. He 
had the phrase set in large sans--serif type and pinned up in his office 
over a still from _All the President's Men_: Hal Holbrook (another 
Hal!) in the car park, standing in the shadows. Follow the money: it 
explained, as he was fond of saying, his five wives, all independently 
wealthy, from each of whom he had received a handsome divorce 
settlement. He was presently married to a wasted child maybe one- 
third his age, with waist--length auburn hair and a spectral look that 
would have made her a great beauty a quarter of a century earlier. "This 
one doesn't have a bean; she's taking me for all I've got and when she's 
taken it she'll bugger off," Valance had told Chamcha once, in happier 
days. "What the hell. I'm human, too. This time it's love." More 
cradlesnatching. No escape from it in these times. Chamcha on the 
telephone found he couldn't remember the infant's name. "You know 
my motto," Valance was saying. "Yes," Chamcha said neutrally. "It's the 
right line for the product." The product, you bastard, being you. 

By the time he met Hal Valance (how many years ago? Five, maybe six), 
over lunch at the White Tower, the man was already a monster: pure, 
self—created image, a set of attributes plastered thickly over a body that 
was, in Hal's own words, "in training to be Orson Welles". He smoked 
absurd, caricature cigars, refusing all Cuban brands, however, on 
account of his uncompromisingly capitalistic stance. He owned a Union 
Jack waistcoat and insisted on flying the flag over his agency and also 
above the door of his Highgate home; was prone to dress up as Maurice 
Chevalier and sing, at major presentations, to his amazed clients, with 
the help of straw boater and silver--headed cane; claimed to own the 
first Loire chateau to be fitted with telex and fax machines; and made 
much of his "intimate" association with the Prime Minister he referred 
to affectionately as "Mrs. Torture". The personification of philistine 
triumphalism, midatlantic--accented Hal was one of the glories of the 
age, the creative half of the city's hottest agency, the Valance & 
Lang Partnership. Like Billy Battuta he liked big cars driven by big 



278 



chauffeurs. It was said that once, while being driven at high speed down 
a Cornish lane in order to "heat up" a particularly glacial seven-foot 
Finnish model, there had been an accident: no injuries, but when the 
other driver emerged furiously from his wrecked vehicle he turned out 
to be even larger than Hal's minder. As this colossus bore down on him, 
Hal lowered his push-button window and breathed, with a sweet smile: 
"I strongly advise you to turn around and walk swiftly away; because, 
sir, if you do not do so within the next fifteen seconds, I am going to 
have you killed." Other advertising geniuses were famous for their 
work: Mary Wells for her pink Braniff planes, David Ogilvy for his 
eyepatchjerry della Femina for "From those wonderful folks who gave 
you Pearl Harbor". Valance, whose agency went in for cheap and 
cheerful vulgarity, all bums and honky-tonk, was renowned in the 
business for this (probably apocryphal) "I'm going to have you killed", 
a turn of phrase which proved, to those in the know, that the guy really 
was a genius. Chamcha had long suspected he'd made up the story, with 
its perfect ad-land components -- Scandinavian icequcen, two thugs, 
expensive cars, Valance in the Blofeld role and 007 nowhere on the 
scene -- and put it about himself, knowing it to be good for business. 

The lunch was by way of thanking Chamcha for his part in a recent, 
smash-hit campaign for Slimbix diet foods. Saladin had been the voice 
of a cutesy cartoon blob: _Hi. I'm Cal, and I'm one sad calorie_. Four 
courses and plenty of champagne as a reward for persuading people to 
starve. _How's a poor calorie to earn a salary? Thanks to Slimbix, I'm 
out of work_. Chamcha hadn't known what to expect from Valance. 
What he got was, at least, unvarnished. "You've done well," Hal 
congratulated him, "for a person of the tinted persuasion." And 
proceeded, without taking his eyes off Chamcha's face: "Let me tell you 
some facts. Within the last three months, we re--shot a peanut--butter 
poster because it researched better without the black kid in the 
background. We re-recorded a building society jingle because 
T"Chairman thought the singer sounded black, even though he was 



279 



white as a sodding sheet, and even though, the year before, we'd used a 
black boy who, luckily for him, didn't suffer from an excess of soul. We 
were told by a major airline that we couldn't use any blacks in their ads, 
even though they were actually employees oi the airline. A black actor 
came to audition for me and he was wearing a Racial Equality button 
badge, a black hand shaking a white one. I said this: don't think you're 
getting special treatment from me, chum. You follow me? You follow 
what I'm telling you?" It's a goddamn audition, Saladin realized. "I've 
never felt I belonged to a race," he replied. Which was perhaps why, 
when Hal Valance set up his production company, Chamcha was on his 
"A list"; and why, eventually, Maxim Alien came his way. 

When _The Aliens Show_ started coming in for stick from black 
radicals, they gave Chamcha a nickname. On account of his private- 
school education and closeness to the hated Valance, he was known as 
"Brown Uncle Tom". 

Apparently the political pressure on the show had increased in 
Chamcha's absence, orchestrated by a certain Dr. Uhuru Simba. 
"Doctor of what, beats me," Valance deepthroatcd down the phone. 
"Our ah researchers haven't come up with anything yet." Mass pickets, 
an embarrassing appearance on _Right to Reply_. "The guy's built like 
a fucking tank." Chamcha envisaged the pair of them, Valance and 
Simba, as one another's antitheses. It seemed that the protests had 
succeeded: Valance was "de--politicizing" the show, by firing Chamcha 
and putting a huge blond Teuton with pectorals and a quiff inside the 
prosthetic make-up and computergenerated imagery. A latex-and- 
Quantel Schwarzenegger, a synthetic, hip-talking version of Rutger 
Hauer in _Blade Runner_. The Jews were out, too: instead of Mimi, the 
new show would have a voluptuous shiksa doll. "I sent word to Dr. 
Simba: stick that up your fucking pee aitch dee. No reply has been 
received. He'll have to work harder than that if he's going to take over 
_this_ little country. I," Hal Valance announced, "love this fucking 



280 



country. That's why I'm going to sell it to the whole goddamn world, 
Japan, America, fucking Argentina. I'm going to sell the arse off it. 
That's what I've been selling all my fucking life: the fucking nation. 
The _flag_." He didn't hear what he was saying. When he got going on 
this stuff, he went puce and often wept. He had done just that at the 
White Tower, that first time, while stuffing himself full of Greek food. 
The date came back to Chamcha now: just after the Falklands war. 
People had a tendency to swear loyalty oaths in those days, to hum 
"Pomp and Circumstance" on the buses. So when Valance, over a large 
balloon of Armagnac, started up -- "I'll tell you why I love this country" 
-- Chamcha, pro-Falklands himself, thought he knew what was coming 
next. But Valance began to describe the research programme of a British 
aerospace company, a client of his, which had just revolutionized the 
construction of missile guidance systems by studying the flight pattern 
of the common housefly. "Inflight course corrections," he whispered 
theatrically. "Traditionally done in the line of flight: adjust the angle 
up a bit, down a touch, left or right a nadge. Scientists studying high- 
speed film of the humble fly, however, have discovered that the little 
buggers always, but always, make corrections _in right angles_." He 
demonstrated with his hand stretched out, palm flat, fingers together. 
"Bzzt! Bzzt! The bastards actually fly vertically up, down or sideways. 
Much more accurate. Much more fuel efficient. Try to do it with an 
engine that depends on nose-to-tail airflow, and what happens? The 
sodding thing can't breathe, stalls, falls out of the sky, lands on your 
fucking allies. Bad karma. You follow. You follow what I'm saying. So 
these guys, they invent an engine with three--way airflow: nose to tail, 
plus top to bottom, plus side to side. And bingo: a missile that flies like 
a goddamn fly, and can hit a fifty p coin travelling at a ground speed of 
one hundred miles an hour at a distance of three miles. What I love 
about this country is that: its genius. Greatest inventors in the world. 
It's beautiful: am I right or am I right?" He had been deadly serious. 
Chamcha answered: "You're right." "You're damn right I'm right," he 
confirmed. 



281 



They met for the last time just before Chamcha took off for Bombay: 
Sunday lunch at the flag-waving Highgate mansion. Rosewood 
panelling, a terrace with stone urns, a view down a wooded hill. Valance 
complaining about a new development that would louse up the scenery. 
Lunch was predictably jingoistic: _rosbif, boudin Yorkshire, choux de 
bruxelles_. Baby, the nymphet wife, didn't join them, but ate hot 
pastrami on rye while shooting pool in a nearby room. Servants, a 
thunderous Burgundy, more Armagnac, cigars. The self--made man's 
paradise, Chamcha reflected, and recognized the envy in the thought. 

After lunch, a surprise. Valance led him into a room in which there 
stood two clavichords of great delicacy and lightness. "I make "em," his 
host confessed. "To relax. Baby wants me to make her a fucking guitar." 
Hal Valance's talent as a cabinet--maker was undeniable, and somehow 
at odds with the rest of the man. "My father was in the trade," he 
admitted under Chamcha's probing, and Saladin understood that he 
had been granted a privileged glimpse into the only piece that remained 
of Valance's original self, the Harold that derived from history and 
blood and not from his own frenetic brain. 

When they left the secret chamber of the clavichords, the familiar Hal 
Valance instantly reappeared. Leaning on the balustrade of his terrace, 
he confided: "The thing that's so amazing about her is the size of what 
she's trying to do." Her? Baby? Chamcha was confused. "I'm talking 
about you-know-who," Valance explained helpfully. "Torture. Maggie 
the Bitch." Oh. "She's radical all right. What she wants -- what she 
actually thinks she can fucking _achieve_ -- is literally to invent a whole 
goddamn new middle class in this country. Get rid of the old woolly 
incompetent buggers from fucking Surrey and Hampshire, and bring in 
the new. People without background, without history. Hungry people. 
People who really _want_, and who know that with her, they can bloody 
well get. Nobody's ever tried to replace a whole fucking _class_ before, 
and the amazing thing is she might just do it if they don't get her first. 



282 



The old class. The dead men. You follow what I'm saying." "I think so," 
Chamcha lied. "And it's not just the businessmen," Valance said 
slurrily. "The intellectuals, too. Out with the whole faggoty crew. In 
with the hungry guys with the wrong education. New professors, new 
painters, the lot. It's a bloody revolution. Newness coming into this 
country that's stuffed full of fucking old _corpses_. It's going to be 
something to see. It already is." 

Baby wandered out to meet them, looking bored. "Time you were off, 
Chamcha," her husband commanded. "On Sunday afternoons we go to 
bed and watch pornography on video. It's a whole new world, Saladin. 
Everybody has to join sometime." 

No compromises. You're in or you're dead. It hadn't been Chamcha's 
way; not his, nor that of the England he had idolized and come to 
conquer. He should have understood then and there: he was being 
given, had been given, fair warning. 

And now the coup de grace. "No hard feelings," Valance was murmuring 
into his ear. "See you around, eh? Okay, right." 

"Hal," he made himself object, "I've got a contract." 

Like a goat to the slaughter. The voice in his ear was now openly 
amused. "Don't be silly," it told him. "Of course you haven't. Read the 
small print. Get a _lawyer_ to read the small print. Take me to court. 
Do what you have to do. It's nothing to me. Don't you get it? You're 
history." 

Dialling tone. 



Abandoned by one alien England, marooned within another, Mr. 
Saladin Chamcha in his great dejection received news of an old 



283 



companion who was evidently enjoying better fortunes. The shriek of 
his landlady -- "_Tini benche achen!_" -- warned him that something 
was up. Hind was billowing along the corridors of the Shaandaar B and 
B, waving, it turned out, a current copy of the imported Indian fanzine 
_Cine-Blitz_. Doors opened; temporary beings popped out, looking 
puzzled and alarmed. Mishal Sufyan emerged from her room with yards 
of midriff showing between shortie tank-top and 501s. From the office 
he maintained across the hall, Hanif Johnson emerged in the 
incongruity of a sharp three--piece suit, was hit by the midriff and 
covered his face. "Lord have mercy," he prayed. Mishal ignored him and 
yelled after her mother: "What's up? Who's alive?" 

"Shameless from somewhere," Hind shouted back along the passage, 
"cover your nakedness." 

"Fuck off," Mishal muttered under her breath, fixing mutinous eyes on 
Hanif Johnson. "What about the michelins sticking out between her 
sari and her choli, I want to know." Down at the other end of the 
passage, Hind could be seen in the half-light, thrusting _Cine-Blitz_ at 
the tenants, repeating, he's alive. With all the fervour of those Greeks 
who, after the disappearance of the politician Lambrakis, covered the 
country with the whitewashed letter _Z_. _Zi: he lives_. 

"Who?" Mishal demanded again. 

"_Gibreel_," came the cry of impermanent children. "_Farishta benche 
achen_." Hind, disappearing downstairs, did not observe her elder 
daughter returning to her room, -- leaving the door ajar; -- and being 
followed, when he was sure the coast was clear, by the well-known 
lawyer Hanif Johnson, suited and booted, who maintained this office to 
keep in touch with the grass roots, who was also doing well in a smart 
uptown practice, who was well connected with the local Labour Party 
and was accused by the sitting M P of scheming to take his place when 
reselection came around. 



284 



When was Mishal Sufyan's eighteenth birthday? -- Not for a few weeks 
yet. And where was her sister, her roommate, sidekick, shadow, echo 
and foil? Where was the potential chaperone? She was: out. 

But to continue: 

The news from _Cine-Blitz_ was that a new, London-based film 
production outfit headed by the whiz-kid tycoon Billy Battuta, whose 
interest in cinema was well known, had entered into an association with 
the reputable, independent Indian producer Mr. S. S. Sisodia for the 
purpose of producing a comeback vehicle for the legendary Gibreel, now 
exclusively revealed to have escaped the jaws of death for a second time. 
"It is true I was booked on the plane under the name of Najmuddin," 
the star was quoted as saying. "I know that when the investigating 
sleuths identified this as my incognito -- in fact, my real name -- it 
caused great grief back home, and for this I do sincerely apologize to 
my fans. You see, the truth is, that grace of God I somehow missed the 
flight, and as I had wished in any case to go to ground, excuse, please, 
no pun intended, I permitted the fiction of my demise to stand 
uncorrected and took a later flight. Such luck: truly, an angel must have 
been watching over me." After a time of reflection, however, he had 
concluded that it was wrong to deprive his public, in this 
unsportsmanlike and hurtful way, of the true data and also his presence 
on the screen. "Therefore I have accepted this project with full 
commitment and joy." The film was to be -- what else -- a theological, 
but of a new type. It would be set in an imaginary and fabulous city 
made of sand, and would recount the story of the encounter between a 
prophet and an archangel; also the temptation of the prophet, and his 
choice of the path of purity and not that of base compromise. "It is a 
film," the producer, Sisodia, informed _Cine -Blitz_, "about how 
newness enters the world." -- But would it not be seen as blasphemous, 
a crime against . . . -- "Certainly not," Billy Battuta insisted. "Fiction is 
fiction; facts are facts. Our purpose is not to make some farrago like 



285 



that movie _The Message_ in which, whenever Prophet Muhammad (on 
whose name be peace!) was heard to speak, you saw only the head of his 
camel, moving its mouth. _That_ -- excuse me for pointing out -- had 
no class. We are making a high--taste, quality picture. A moral tale: like 
-- what do you call them? -- fables." 

"Like a dream," Mr. Sisodia said. 

When the news was brought to Chamcha's attic later that day by 
Anahita and Mishal Sufyan, he flew into the vilest rage either of them 
had ever witnessed, a fury under whose fearful influence his voice rose 
so high that it seemed to tear, as if his throat had grown knives and 
ripped his cries to shreds; his pestilential breath all but blasted them 
from the room, and with arms raised high and goat--legs dancing he 
looked, at last, like the very devil whose image he had become. "Liar," 
he shrieked at the absent Gibreel. "Traitor, deserter, scum. Missed the 
plane, did you? -- Then whose head, in my own lap, with my own hands . 
. . ? -- who received caresses, spoke of nightmares, and fell at last 
singing from the sky?" 

"There, there," pleaded terrified Mishal. "Calm down. You'll have Mum 
up here in a minute." 

Saladin subsided, a pathetic goaty heap once again, no threat to anyone. 
"It's not true," he wailed. "What happened, happened to us both." 

"Course it did," Anahita encouraged him. "Nobody believes those movie 
magazines, anyway. They'll say anything, them." 

Sisters backed out of the room, holding their breath, leaving Chamcha 
to his misery, failing to observe something quite remarkable. For which 
they must not be blamed; Chamcha's antics were sufficient to have 
distracted the keenest eyes. It should also, in fairness, be stated that 
Saladin failed to notice the change himself. 



286 



What happened? This: during Chamcha's brief but violent outburst 
against Gibreel, the horns on his head (which, one may as well point 
out, had grown several inches while he languished in the attic of the 
Shaandaar B and B) definitely, unmistakably, -- by about three-quarters 
of an inch, -- _diminished_. 

In the interest of the strictest accuracy, one should add that, lower 
down his transformed body, -- inside borrowed pantaloons (delicacy 
forbids the publication of explicit details), -- something else, let us 
leave it at that, got a little smaller, too. 

Be that as it may: it transpired that the optimism of the report in the 
imported movie magazine had been ill founded, because within days of 
its publication the local papers carried news of Billy Battuta's arrest, in 
a midtown New York sushi bar, along with a female companion, 
Mildred Mamoulian, described as an actress, forty years of age. The 
story was that he had approached numbers of society matrons, "movers 
and shakers", asking for "very substantial" sums of money which he 
had claimed to need in order to buy his freedom from a sect of devil 
worshippers. Once a confidence man, always a confidence man: it was 
what Mimi Mamoulian would no doubt have described as a beautiful 
sting. Penetrating the heart of American religiosity, pleading to be 
saved -- "when you sell your soul you can't expect to buy back cheap" -- 
Billy had banked, the investigators alleged, "six figure sums". The 
world community of the faithful longed, in the late 1980s, for _direct 
contact with the supernal_, and Billy, claiming to have raised (and 
therefore to need rescuing from) infernal fiends, was on to a winner, 
especially as the Devil he offered was so democratically responsive to 
the dictates of the Almighty Dollar. What Billy offered the West Side 
matrons in return for their fat cheques was verification: yes, there is a 
Devil; I've seen him with my own eyes -- God, it was frightful! -- and if 
Lucifer existed, so must Gabriel; if Hellfire had been seen to burn, then 
somewhere, over the rainbow, Paradise must surely shine. Mimi 



287 



Mamoulian had, it was alleged, played a full part in the deceptions, 
weeping and pleading for all she was worth. They were undone by 
overconfidence, spotted at Takesushi (whooping it up and cracking 
jokes with the chef) by a Mrs. Aileen Struwelpeter who had, only the 
previous afternoon, handed the then-distraught and terrified couple a 
five-thousand-dollar cheque. Mrs. Struwelpeter was not without 
influence in the New York Police Department, and the boys in blue 
arrived before Mimi had finished her tempura. They both went quietly. 
Mimi was wearing, in the newspaper photographs, what Chamcha 
guessed was a forty-thousanddollar mink coat, and an expression on her 
face that could only be read one way. 

_The hell with you all_. 

Nothing further was heard, for some while, about Farishta's film. 



_It was so, it was not_, that as Saladin Chamcha's incarceration in the 
body of a devil and the attic of the Shaandaar B and B lengthened into 
weeks and months, it became impossible not to notice that his 
condition was worsening steadily. His horns (notwithstanding their 
single, momentary and unobserved diminution) had grown both thicker 
and longer, twirling themselves into fanciful arabesques, wreathing his 
head in a turban of darkening bone. He had grown a thick, long beard, a 
disorienting development in one whose round, moony face had never 
boasted much hair before; indeed, he was growing hairier all over his 
body, and had even sprouted, from the base of his spine, a fine tail that 
lengthened by the day and had already obliged him to abandon the 
wearing of trousers; he tucked the new limb, instead, inside baggy 
salwar pantaloons filched by Anahita Sufyan from her mother's 
generously tailored collection. The distress engendered in him by his 
continuing metamorphosis into some species of bottled djinn will 
readily be imagined. Even his appetites were altering. Always fussy 



288 



about his food, he was appalled to find his palate coarsening, so that all 
foodstuffs began to taste much the same, and on occasion he would 
find himself nibbling absently at his bedsheets or old newspapers, and 
come to his senses with a start, guilty and shamefaced at this further 
evidence of his progress away from manhood and towards -- yes -- 
goatishness. Increasing quantities of green mouthwash were required to 
keep his breath within acceptable limits. It really was too grievous to be 
borne. 

His presence in the house was a continual thorn in the side of Hind, in 
whom regret for the lost income mingled with the remnants of her 
initial terror, although it's true to say that the soothing processes of 
habituation had worked their sorceries on her, helping her to see 
Saladin's condition as some kind of Elephant Man illness, a thing to 
feel disgusted by but not necessarily to fear. "Let him keep out of my 
way and I'll keep out of his," she told her daughters. "And you, the 
children of my despair, why you spend your time sitting up there with a 
sick person while your youth is flying by, who can say, but in this 
Vilayet it seems everything I used to know is a lie, such as the idea that 
young girls should help their mothers, think of marriage, attend to 
studies, and not go sitting with goats, whose throats, on Big Eid, it is 
our old custom to slit." 

Her husband remained solicitous, however, even after the strange 
incident that took place when he ascended to the attic and suggested to 
Saladin that the girls might not have been so wrong, that perhaps the, 
how could one put it, possession of his body could be terminated by the 
intercession of a mullah? At the mention of a priest Chamcha reared up 
on his feet, raising both arms above his head, and somehow or other the 
room filled up with dense and sulphurous smoke while a highpitched 
vibrato screech with a kind of tearing quality pierced Sufyan's hearing 
like a spike. The smoke cleared quickly enough, because Chamcha flung 
open a window and fanned feverishly at the fumes, while apologizing to 



289 



Sufyan in tones of acute embarrassment: "I really can't say what came 
over me, -- but at times I fear I am changing into something, -- 
something one must call bad." 

Sufyan, kindly fellow that he was, went over to where Chamcha sat 
clutching at his horns, patted him on the shoulder, and tried to bring 
what good cheer he could. "Question of mutability of the essence of the 
self," he began, awkwardly, "has long been subject of profound debate. 
For example, great Lucretius tells us, in _De Rerum Natura_, this 
following thing: _quodcumque suis mutatumfinibus exit, continuo hoc 
mors est illius quodfuit ante_. Which being translated, forgive my 
clumsiness, is 'Whatever by its changing goes out of its frontiers,' -- 
that is, bursts its banks, -- or, maybe, breaks out of its limitations, -- so 
to speak, disregards its own rules, but that is too free, I am thinking . . 
'that thing', at any rate, Lucretius holds, 'by doing so brings immediate 
death to its old self. However," up went the ex-- schoolmaster's finger, 
"poet Ovid, in the _Metamorphoses_, takes diametrically opposed view. 
He avers thus: 'As yielding wax' -- heated, you see, possibly for the 
sealing of documents or such, -- 'is stamped with new designs And 
changes shape and seems not still the same, Yet is indeed the same, even 
so our souls,' -- you hear, good sir? Our spirits! Our immortal essences! 
-- 'Are still the same forever, but adopt In their migrations ever-varying 
forms.' " 

He was hopping, now, from foot to foot, full of the thrill of the old 
words. "For me it is always Ovid over Lucretius," he stated. "Your soul, 
my good poor dear sir, is the same. Only in its migration it has adopted 
this presently varying form." 

"This is pretty cold comfort," Chamcha managed a trace of his old 
dryness. "Either I accept Lucretius and conclude that some demonic 
and irreversible mutation is taking place in my inmost depths, or I go 
with Ovid and concede that everything now emerging is no more than a 
manifestation of what was already there." 



290 



"I have put my argument badly," Sufyan miserably apologized. "I meant 
only to reassure." 

"What consolation can there be," Chamcha answered with bitter 
rhetoric, his irony crumbling beneath the weight of his unhappiness, 
"for a man whose old friend and rescuer is also the nightly lover of his 
wife, thus encouraging -- as your old books would doubtless affirm -- 
the growth of cuckold's horns?" 



The old friend, Jumpy Joshi, was unable for a single moment of his 
waking hours to rid himself of the knowledge that, for the first time in 
as long as he could remember, he had lost the will to lead his life 
according to his own standards of morality. At the sports centre where 
he taught martial arts techniques to ever-- greater numbers of students, 
emphasizing the spiritual aspects of the disciplines, much to their 
amusement ("Ah so, Grasshopper," his star pupil Mishal Sufyan would 
tease him, "when honolable fascist swine jump at you flom dark 
alleyway, offer him teaching of Buddha before you kick him in 
honolable balls"), -- he began to display such _passionate intensity_ 
that his pupils, realizing that some inner anguish was being expressed, 
grew alarmed. When Mishal asked him about it at the end of a session 
that had left them both bruised and panting for breath, in which the 
two of them, teacher and star, had hurled themselves at one another 
like the hungriest of lovers, he threw her question back at her with an 
uncharacteristic lack of openness. "Talk about pot and kettle," he said. 
"Question of mote and beam." They were standing by the vending 
machines. She shrugged. "Okay," she said. "I confess, but keep the 
secret." He reached for his Coke: "What secret?" Innocent Jumpy. 
Mishal whispered in his ear: "I'm getting laid. By your friend: Mister 
Hanif Johnson, Bar At Law." 



291 



He was shocked, which irritated her. "O, come on. It's not like I'm 
_fifteen_." He replied, weakly, "If your mother ever," and once again 
she was impatient. "If you want to know," petulantly, "the one I'm 
worried about is Anahita. She wants whatever I've got. And she, by the 
way, really is fifteen." Jumpy noticed that he'd knocked over his paper- 
cup and there was Coke on his shoes. "Out with it," Mishal was 
insisting. "I owned up. Your turn." But Jumpy couldn't say; was still 
shaking his head about Hanif. "It'd be the finish of him," he said. That 
did it. Mishal put her nose in the air. "O, I get it," she said. "Not good 
enough for him, you reckon." And over her departing shoulder: "Here, 
Grasshopper. Don't holy men ever fuck?" 

Not so holy. He wasn't cut out for sainthood, any more than the David 
Carradine character in the old _Kung Fu_ programmes: like 
Grasshopper, like Jumpy. Every day he wore himself out trying to stay 
away from the big house in Notting Hill, and every evening he ended up 
at Pamela's door, thumb in mouth, biting the skin around the edges of 
the nail, fending off the dog and his own guilt, heading without 
wasting any time for the bedroom. Where they would fall upon one 
another, mouths searching out the places in which they had chosen, or 
learned, to begin: first his lips around her nipples, then hers moving 
along his lower thumb. 

She had come to love in him this quality of impatience, because it was 
followed by a patience such as she had never experienced, the patience 
of a man who had never been "attractive" and was therefore prepared to 
value what was offered, or so she had thought at first; but then she 
learned to appreciate his consciousness of and solicitude for her own 
internal tensions, his sense of the difficulty with which her slender, 
bony, small-breasted body found, learned and finally surrendered to a 
rhythm, his knowledge of time. She loved in him, too, his overcoming 
of himself; loved, knowing it to be a wrong reason, his willingness to 
overcome his scruples so that they might be together: loved the desire 



292 



in him that rode over all that had been imperative in him. Loved it, 
without being willing to see, in this love, the beginning of an end. 

Near the end of their lovemaking, she became noisy. "Yow!" she 
shouted, all the aristocracy in her voice crowding into the meaningless 
syllables of her abandonment. "Whoop! Hi! _Hah_." 

She was still drinking heavily, scotch bourbon rye, a stripe of redness 
spreading across the centre of her face. Under the influence of alcohol 
her right eye narrowed to half the size of the left, and she began, to his 
horror, to disgust him. No discussion of her boozing was permitted, 
however: the one time he tried he found himself on the street with his 
shoes clutched in his right hand and his overcoat over his left arm. Even 
after that he came back: and she opened the door and went straight 
upstairs as though nothing had happened. Pamela's taboos: jokes about 
her background, mentions of whisky-bottle "dead soldiers", and any 
suggestion that her late husband, the actor Saladin Chamcha, was still 
alive, living across town in a bed and breakfast joint, in the shape of a 
supernatural beast. 

These days, Jumpy -- who had, at first, badgered her incessantly about 
Saladin, telling her she should go ahead and divorce him, but this 
pretence of widowhood was intolerable: what about the man's assets, 
his rights to a share of the property, and so forth? Surely she would not 
leave him destitute? -- no longer protested about her unreasonable 
behaviour. "I've got a confirmed report of his death," she told him on 
the only occasion on which she was prepared to say anything at all. 
"And what have you got? A billy-goat, a circus freak, nothing to do with 
me." And this, too, like her drinking, had begun to come between them. 
Jumpy's martial arts sessions increased in vehemence as these problems 
loomed larger in his mind. 

Ironically, while Pamela refused point--blank to face the facts about her 
estranged husband, she had become embroiled, through her job at the 



293 



community relations committee, in an investigation into allegations of 
the spread of witchcraft among the officers at the local police station. 
Various stations did from time to time gain the reputation of being 
"out of control" -- Notting Hill, Kentish Town, Islington -- but 
witchcraft? Jumpy was sceptical. "The trouble with you," Pamela told 
him in her loftiest shootingstick voice, "is that you still think of 
normality as being normal. My God: look at what's happening in this 
country. A few bent coppers taking their clothes off and drinking urine 
out of helmets isn't so weird. Call it working-class Freemasonry, if you 
want. I've got black people coming in every day, scared out of their 
heads, talking about obeah, chicken entrails, the lot. The goddamn 
bastards are _enjoying_ this: scare the coons with their own ooga booga 
and have a few naughty nights into the bargain. Unlikely? Bloody _wake 
up_." Witchfinding, it seemed, ran in the family: from Matthew 
Hopkins to Pamela Lovelace. In Pamela's voice, speaking at public 
meetings, on local radio, even on regional news programmes on 
television, could be heard all the zeal and authority of the old 
Witchflnder-General, and it was only on account of that voice of a 
twentieth-century Gloriana that her campaign was not laughed 
instantly into extinction. _New Broomstick Needed to Sweep Out 
Witches_. There was talk of an official inquiry. What drove Jumpy wild, 
however, was Pamela's refusal to connect her arguments in the question 
of the occult policemen to the matter of her own husband: because, 
after all, the transformation of Saladin Chamcha had precisely to do 
with the idea that normality was no longer composed (if it had ever 
been) of banal, "normal" elements. "Nothing to do with it," she said 
flatly when he tried to make the point: imperious, he thought, as any 
hanging judge. 



After Mishal Sufyan told him about her illegal sexual relations with 
Hanif Johnson, Jumpy on his way over to Pamela Chamcha's had to 



294 



stifle a number of bigoted thoughts, such as _his father hadn't been 
white he'd never have done it_; Hanif, he raged, that immature bastard 
who probably cut notches in his cock to keep count of his conquests, 
this Johnson with aspirations to represent his people who couldn't wait 
until they were of age before he started shafting them! . . . couldn't he 
see that Mishal with her omniscient body was just a, just a, child? -- No 
she wasn't. -- Damn him, then, damn him for (and here Jumpy shocked 
himself) being the first. 

Jumpy en route to his mistress tried to convince himself that his 
resentments of Hanif, _his friend Hanif_, were primarily -- how to put 
it? -- _linguistic_. Hanif was in perfect control of the languages that 
mattered: sociological, socialistic, black--radical, anti--anti-- anti-- 
racist, demagogic, oratorical, sermonic: the vocabularies of power. _But 
you bastard you rummage in my drawers and laugh at my stupid poems. 
The real language problem: how to bend it shape it, how to let it be our 
freedom, how to repossess its poisoned wells, how to master the river of 
words of time of blood: about all that you haven't got a clue_. How 
hard that struggle, how inevitable the defeat. _Nobody's going to elect 
me to anything. No power-base, no constituency: just the battle with 
the words_. But he, Jumpy, also had to admit that his envy of Hanif was 
as much as anything rooted in the other's greater control of the 
languages of desire. Mishal Sufyan was quite something, an elongated, 
tubular beauty, but he wouldn't have known how, even if he'd thought 
of, he'd never have dared. Language is courage: the ability to conceive a 
thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true. 

When Pamela Chamcha answered the door he found that her hair had 
gone snow-white overnight, and that her response to this inexplicable 
calamity had been to shave her head right down to the scalp and then 
conceal it inside an absurd burgundy turban which she refused to 
remove. 



295 



"It just happened," she said. "One must not rule out the possibility 
that I have been bewitched." 

He wasn't standing for that. "Or the notion of a reaction, however 
delayed, to the news of your husband's altered, but extant, state." 

She swung to face him, halfway up the stairs to the bedroom, and 
pointed dramatically towards the open sitting-room door. "In that 
case," she triumphed, "why did it also happen to the dog?" 



He might have told her, that night, that he wanted to end it, that his 
conscience no longer permitted, -- he might have been willing to face 
her rage, and to live with the paradox that a decision could be 
simultaneously conscientious and immoral (because cruel, unilateral, 
selfish); but when he entered the bedroom she grabbed his face with 
both hands, and watching closely to see how he took the news she 
confessed to having lied about contraceptive precautions. She was 
pregnant. It turned out she was better at making unilateral decisions 
than he, and had simply taken from him the child Saladin Chamcha had 
been unable to provide. "I wanted it," she cried defiantly, and at close 
range. "And now I'm going to have it." 

Her selfishness had pre-empted his. He discovered that he felt relieved; 
absolved of the responsibility for making and acting upon moral 
choices, -- because how could he leave her now? -- he put such notions 
out of his head and allowed her, gently but with unmistakable intent, 
to push him backwards on to the bed. 



Whether the slowly transmogrifying Saladin Chamcha was turning into 
some sort of science-fiction or horror-video mutey, some random 
mutation shortly to be naturally selected out of existence, -- or whether 



296 



he was evolving into an avatar of the Master of Hell, -- or whatever was 
the case, the fact is (and it will be as well in the present matter to 
proceed cautiously, stepping from established fact to established fact, 
leaping to no conclusion until our yellowbrick lane of things- 
incontrovertibly-so has led us to within an inch or two of our 
destination) that the two daughters of Haji Sufyan had taken him 
under their wing, caring for the Beast as only Beauties can; and that, as 
time passed, he came to be extremely fond of the pair of them himself. 
For a long while Mishal and Anahita struck him as inseparable, fist and 
shadow, shot and echo, the younger girl seeking always to emulate her 
tall, feisty sibling, practising karate kicks and Wing Chun forearm 
smashes in flattering imitation of Mishal's uncompromising ways. 
More recently, however, he had noted the growth of a saddening 
hostility between the sisters. One evening at his attic window Mishal 
was pointing out some of the Street's characters, -- there, a Sikh 
ancient shocked by a racial attack into complete silence; he had not 
spoken, it was said, for nigh on seven years, before which he had been 
one of the city's few "black" justices of the peace . . . now, however, he 
pronounced no sentences, and was accompanied everywhere by a 
crotchety wife who treated him with dismissive exasperation, _0, ignore 
him, he never says a dicky bird_; -- and over there, a perfectly ordinary- 
looking "accountant type" (Mishal's term) on his way home with 
briefcase and box of sweetmeats; this one was known in the Street to 
have developed the strange need to rearrange his sitting-room furniture 
for half an hour each evening, placing chairs in rows interrupted by an 
aisle and pretending to be the conductor of a single-decker bus on its 
way to Bangladesh, an obsessive fantasy in which all his family were 
obliged to participate, _and after ha if an hour precisely he snaps out of 
it, and the rest of the time he's the dullest guy you could meet_; -- and 
after some moments of this, fifteen-year-old Anahita broke in 
spitefully: "What she means is, you're not the only casualty, round here 
the freaks are two a penny, you only have to look." 



297 



Mishal had developed the habit of talking about the Street as if it were 
a mythological battleground and she, on high at Chamcha's attic 
window, the recording angel and the exterminator, too. From her 
Chamcha learned the fables of the new Kurus and Pandavas, the white 
racists and black "self— help" or vigilante posses starring in this modern 
_Mahabharata_, or, more accurately, _Mahavila yet_. Up there, under 
the railway bridge, the National Front used to do battle with the 
fearless radicals of the Socialist Workers Party, "every Sunday from 
closing time to opening time," she sneered, "leaving us lot to clear up 
the wreckage the rest of the sodding week." -- Down that alley was 
where the Brickhall Three were done over by the police and then fitted 
up, verballed, framed; up that side-street he'd find the scene of the 
murder of the Jamaican, Ulysses E. Lee, and in that public house the 
stain on the carpet marking where Jatinder Singh Mehta breathed his 
last. "Thatcherism has its effect," she declaimed, while Chamcha, who 
no longer had the will or the words to argue with her, to speak ofjustice 
and the rule of law, watched Anahita's mounting rage. -- "No pitched 
battles these days," Mishal elucidated. "The emphasis is on small— scale 
enterprises and the cult of the individual, right? In other words, five or 
six white bastards murdering us, one individual at a time." These days 
the posses roamed the nocturnal Street, ready for aggravation. "It's our 
turf," said Mishal Sufyan of that Street without a blade of grass in 
sight. "Let "em come and get it if they can." 

"Look at her," Anahita burst out. "So ladylike, in"she? So refined. 
Imagine what Mum'd say if she knew." -- "If she knew what, you little 
grass --?" But Anahita wasn't to be cowed: "O, yes," she wailed. "O, yes, 
we know, don't think we don't. How she goes to the bhangra beat 
shows on Sunday mornings and changes in the ladies into those tarty— 
farty clothes -- who she wiggles with and jiggles with at the Hot Wax 
daytime disco that she thinks I never heard of before -- what went on at 
that bluesdance she crept off to with Mister You-know-who 
Cockybugger -- some big sister," she produced her grandstand finish, 



298 



"she'll probably wind up dead of wossname _ignorance_." Meaning, as 
Chamcha and Mishal well knew, -- those cinema commercials, 
expressionist tombstones rising from earth and sea, had left the residue 
of their slogan well implanted, no doubt of that -- _Aids_. 

Mishal fell upon her sister, pulling her hair, -- Anahita, in pain, was 
nevertheless able to get in another dig, "Least I didn't cut my hair into 
any weirdo pincushion, must be a flutter who fancies _that_," and the 
two departed, leaving Chamcha to wonder at Anahita's sudden and 
absolute espousal of her mother's ethic of femininity. _Trouble 
brewing_, he concluded. 

Trouble came: soon enough. 



More and more, when he was alone, he felt the slow heaviness pushing 
him down, until he fell out of consciousness, running down like a wind- 
up toy, and in those passages of stasis that always ended just before the 
arrival of visitors his body would emit alarming noises, the howlings of 
infernal wahwah pedals, the snare--drum cracking of satanic bones. 
These were the periods in which, little by little, he grew. And as he grew, 
so too did the rumours of his presence; you can't keep a devil locked up 
in the attic and expect to keep it to yourself forever. 

How the news got out (for the people in the know remained tight- 
lipped, the Sufyans because they feared loss of business, the temporary 
beings because their feeling of evanescence had rendered them unable, 
for the moment, to act, -- and all parties because of the fear of the 
arrival of the police, never exactly reluctant to enter such 
establishments, bump accidentally into a little furniture and step by 
chance on a few arms legs necks): he began to appear to the locals in 
their dreams. The mullahs at the Jamme Masjid which used to be the 
Machzikel HaDath synagogue which had in its turn replaced the 



299 



Huguenots' Calvinist church; -- and Dr. Uhuru Simba the man- 
mountain in African pill-box hat and red-yellow-black poncho who had 
led the successful protest against _The Aliens Show_ and whom Mishal 
Sufyan hated more than any other black man on account of his 
tendency to punch uppity women in the mouth, herself for example, in 
public, at a meeting, plenty of witnesses, but it didn't stop the Doctor, 
_he's a crazy bastard, that one_, she told Chamcha when she pointed 
him out from the attic one day, _capable of anything; he could've killed 
me, and all because I told everybody he wasn't no African, I knew him 
when he was plain Sylvester Roberts from down New Cross way;fucking 
witch doctor, if you ask me_; -- and Mishal herself, and Jumpy, and 
Hanif; -- and the Bus Conductor, too, they all dreamed him, rising up in 
the Street like Apocalypse and burning the town like toast. And in every 
one of the thousand and one dreams he, Saladin Chamcha, gigantic of 
limb and horn-turbaned of head, was singing, in a voice so diabolically 
ghastly and guttural that it proved impossible to identify the verses, 
even though the dreams turned out to have the terrifying quality of 
being serial, each one following on from the one the night before, and 
so on, night after night, until even the Silent Man, that former justice 
of the peace who had not spoken since the night in an Indian restaurant 
when a young drunk stuck a knife under his nose, threatened to cut 
him, and then committed the far more shocking offence of spitting all 
over his food, -- until this mild gentleman astounded his wife by sitting 
upright in his sleep, ducking his neck forwards like a pigeon's, clapping 
the insides of his wrists together beside his right ear, and roaring out a 
song at the top of his voice, which sounded so alien and full of static 
that she couldn't make out a word. 

Very quickly, because nothing takes a long time any more, the image of 
the dream-devil started catching on, becoming popular, it should be 
said, only amongst what Hal Valance had described as the _tinted 
persuasion_. While non-tint neo--Georgians dreamed of a suiphurous 
enemy crushing their perfectly restored residences beneath his smoking 



300 



heel, nocturnal browns-and-blacks found themselves cheering, in their 
sleep, this what--else--after--all— but— black--man, maybe a little twisted 
up by fate class race history, all that, but getting off his behind, bad 
and mad, to kick a little ass. 

At first these dreams were private matters, but pretty soon they started 
leaking into the waking hours, as Asian retailers and manufacturers of 
button-badges sweatshirts posters understood the power of the dream, 
and then all of a sudden he was everywhere, on the chests of young girls 
and in the windows protected against bricks by metal grilles, he was a 
defiance and a warning. Sympathy for the Devil: a new lease of life for 
an old tune. The kids in the Street started wearing rubber devil--horns 
on their heads, the way they used to wear pink-and-green balls jiggling 
on the ends of stiff wires a few years previously, when they preferred to 
imitate spacemen. The symbol of the Goatman, his fist raised in might, 
began to crop up on banners at political demonstrations, Save the Six, 
Free the Four, Eat the Heinz FiftySeven. _Pleasechu meechu_, the radios 
sang, _hopeyu guessma nayym_. Police community relations officers 
pointed to the "growing devil-cult among young blacks and Asians" as a 
"deplorable tendency", using this "Satanist revival" to fight back 
against the allegations of Ms Pamela Chamcha and the local CR C: 
"Who are the witches now?" "Chamcha," Mishal said excitedly, "you're 
a hero. I mean, people can really identify with you. It's an image white 
society has rejected for so long that we can really take it, you know, 
occupy it, inhabit it, reclaim it and make it our own. It's time you 
considered action." 

"Go away," cried Saladin, in his bewilderment. "This isn't what I 
wanted. This is not what I meant, at all." 

"You're growing out of the attic, anyhow," rejoined Mishal, miffed. "It 
won't be big enough for you in not too long a while." 

Things were certainly coming to a head. 



301 



"Another old lady get slice las' night," announced Hanif Johnson, 
affecting a Trinidadian accent in the way he had. "No mo soshaal 
security for she." Anahita Sufyan, on duty behind the counter of the 
Shaandaar Cafe, banged cups and plates. "I don't know why you do 
that," she complained. "Sends me spare." Hanif ignored her, sat down 
beside Jumpy, who muttered absently: "What're they saying?" -- 
Approaching fatherhood was weighing on Jumpy Joshi, but Hanif 
slapped him on the back. "The ol' poetry not goin great, bra," he 
commiserated. "Look like that river of blood get coagulate." A look 
from Jumpy changed his tune. "They sayin what they say," he answered. 
"Look out for coloureds cruisin in cars. Now if she was black, man, it'd 
be 'No grounds fi suspec racial motive.' I tell you," he went on, 
dropping the accent, "sometimes the level of aggression bubbling just 
under the skin of this town gets me really scared. It's not just the damn 
Granny Ripper. It's everywhere. You bump into a guy's newspaper in a 
rush-hour train and you can get your face broken. Everybody's so 
goddamn angry, seems like to me. Including, old friend, you," he 
finished, noticing. Jumpy stood, excused himself, and walked out 
without an explanation. Hanif spread his arms, gave Anahita his most 
winsome smile: "What'd I do?" 

Anahita smiled back sweetly. "Dju ever think, Hanif, that maybe people 
don't like you very much?" 

When it became known that the Granny Ripper had struck again, 
suggestions that the solution to the hideous killings of old women by a 
"human fiend", -- who invariably arranged his victims' internal organs 
neatly around their corpses, one lung by each ear, and the heart, for 
obvious reasons, in the mouth, -- would most likely be found by 
investigating the new occultism among the city's blacks which was 
giving the authorities so much cause for concern, -- began to be heard 
with growing frequency. The detention and interrogation of "tints" 



302 



intensified accordingly, as did the incidence of snap raids on 
establishments "suspected of harbouring underground occultist cells". 
What was happening, although nobody admitted it or even, at first, 
understood, was that everyone, black brown white, had started thinking 
of the dream-figure as _real_, as a being who had crossed the frontier, 
evading the normal controls, and was now roaming loose about the city. 
Illegal migrant, outlaw king, foul criminal or race--hero, Saladin 
Chamcha was getting to be true. Stories rushed across the city in every 
direction: a physiotherapist sold a shaggy--dog tale to the Sundays, was 
not believed, but _no smoke without fire_, people said; it was a 
precarious state of affairs, and it couldn't be long before the raid on 
the Shaandaar Cafe that would send the whole thing higher than the 
sky. Priests became involved, adding another unstable element -- the 
linkage between the term _black_ and the sin _blasphemy_--to the mix. 
In his attic, slowly, Saladin Chamcha grew. 



He chose Lucretius over Ovid. The inconstant soul, the mutability of 
everything, das Ich, every last speck. A being going through life can 
become so other to himself as to _be another_, discrete, severed from 
history. He thought, at times, of Zeeny Vakil on that other planet, 
Bombay, at the far rim of the galaxy: Zeeny, eclecticism, hybridity. The 
optimism of those ideas! The certainty on which they rested: of will, of 
choice! But, Zeeny mine, life just happens to you: like an accident. No: 
it happens to you as a result of your condition. Not choice, but -- at 
best -- process, and, at worst, shocking, total change. Newness: he had 
sought a different kind, but this was what he got. 

Bitterness, too, and hatred, all these coarse things. He would enter into 
his new self; he would be what he had become: loud, stenchy, hideous, 
outsize, grotesque, inhuman, powerful. He had the sense of being able 
to stretch out a little finger and topple church spires with the force 
growing in him, the anger, the anger, the anger. _Powers_. 



303 



He was looking for someone to blame. He, too, dreamed; and in his 
dreams, a shape, a face, was floating closer, ghostly still, unclear, but 
one day soon he would be able to call it by its name. 

_I am_, he accepted, _that I am_. 

Submission. 



His cocooned life at the Shaandaar B and B blew apart the evening 
Hanif Johnson came in shouting that they had arrested Uhuru Simba 
for the Granny Ripper murders, and the word was they were going to lay 
the Black Magic thing on him too, he was going to be the voodoo-priest 
baron-samedi fall guy, and the reprisals -- beatings--up, attacks on 
property, the usual -- were already beginning. "Lock your doors," Hanif 
told Sufyan and Hind. "There's a bad night ahead." 

Hanif was standing slap in the centre of the cafe, confident of the effect 
of the news he was bringing, so when Hind came across to him and hit 
him in the face with all her strength he was so unprepared for the blow 
that he actually fainted, more from surprise than pain. He was revived 
by Jumpy, who threw a glass of water at him the way he had been taught 
to do by the movies, but by then Hind was hurling his office equipment 
down into the street from upstairs; typewriter ribbons and red ribbons, 
too, the sort used for securing legal documents, made festive streamers 
in the air. Anahita Sufyan, unable any more to resist the demonic 
proddings of her jealousy, had told Hind about Mishal's relations with 
the up--and--coming lawyer-politico, and after that there had been no 
holding Hind, all the years of her humiliation had come pouring out of 
her, it wasn't enough that she was stuck in this country full of jews and 
strangers who lumped her in with the negroes, it wasn't enough that 
her husband was a weakling who performed the Haj but couldn't be 
bothered with godliness in his own home, but this had to happen to her 



304 



also; she went at Mishal with a kitchen knife and her daughter 
responded by "unleashing a painful series of kicks and jabs, self- 
defence only, otherwise it would have been matricide for sure. -- Hanif 
regained consciousness and Haji Sufyan looked down on him, moving 
his hands in small helpless circles by his sides, weeping openly, unable 
to find consolation in learning, because whereas for most Muslims a 
journey to Mecca was the great blessing, in his case it had turned out to 
be the beginning of a curse; -- "Go," he said, "Hanif, my friend, get 
out," -- but Hanif wasn't going without having his say, _I've kept my 
mouth shut for too long_, he cried, _you people who call yourself so 
moral while you make fortunes off the misery of your own race_, 
whereupon it became clear that Haji Sufyan had never known of the 
prices being charged by his wife, who had not told him, swearing her 
daughters to secrecy with terrible and binding oaths, knowing that if he 
discovered he'd find a way of giving the money back so that they could 
go on rotting in poverty; -- and he, the twinkling familiar spirit of the 
Shaandaar Cafe, after that lost all love of life. -- And now Mishal arrived 
in the cafe, O the shame of a family's inner life being enacted thus, like 
a cheap drama, before the eyes of paying customers, -- although in 
point of fact the last tea— drinker was hurrying from the scene as fast as 
her old legs would carry her. Mishal was carrying bags. "I'm leaving, 
too," she announced. "Try and stop me. It's only eleven days." 

When Hind saw her elder daughter on the verge of walking out of her 
life forever, she understood the price one pays for harbouring the 
Prince of Darkness under one's roof. She begged her husband to see 
reason, to realize that his good-hearted generosity had brought them 
into this hell, and that if only that devil, Chamcha, could be removed 
from the premises, then maybe they could become once again the happy 
and industrious family of old. As she finished speaking, however, the 
house above her head began to rumble and shake, and there was the 
noise of something coming down the stairs, growling and -- or so it 



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seemed -- singing, in a voice so vilely hoarse that it was impossible to 
understand the words. 

It was Mishal who went up to meet him in the end, Mishal with Hanif 
Johnson holding her hand, while the treacherous Anahita watched from 
the foot of the stairs. Chamcha had grown to a height of over eight feet, 
and from his nostrils there emerged smoke of two different colours, 
yellow from the left, and from the right, black. He was no longer 
wearing clothes. His bodily hair had grown thick and long, his tail was 
swishing angrily, his eyes were a pale but luminous red, and he had 
succeeded in terrifying the entire temporary population of the bed and 
breakfast establishment to the point of incoherence. Mishal, however, 
was not too scared to talk. "Where do you think you're going?" she 
asked him. "You think you'd last five minutes out there, looking like 
you do?" Chamcha paused, looked himself over, observed the sizeable 
erection emerging from his loins, and shrugged. "I am _considering 
action_," he told her, using her own phrase, although in that voice of 
lava and thunder it didn't seem to belong to her any more. "There is a 
person I wish to find." 

"Hold your horses," Mishal told him. "We'll work something out." 



What is to be found here, one mile from the Shaandaar, here where the 
beat meets the street, at Club Hot Wax, formerly the Blak-An-Tan? On 
this star-crossed and moonless night, let us follow the figures -- some 
strutting, decked out, hot-to-trot, others surreptitious, shadow- 
hugging, shy -- converging from all quarters of the neighbourhood to 
dive, abruptly, underground, and through this unmarked door. What's 
within? Lights, fluids, powders, bodies shaking themselves, singly, in 
pairs, in threes, moving towards possibilities. But what, then, are these 
other figures, obscure in the on--off rainbow brilliance of the space, 
these forms frozen in their attitudes amid the frenzied dancers? What 



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are these that hip-hop and hindi-pop but never move an inch? -- "You 
lookin good, Hot Wax posse!" Our host speaks: ranter, toaster, deejay 
nonpareil -- the prancing Pinkwalla, his suit of lights blushing to the 
beat. -- Truly, he is exceptional, a seven--foot albino, his hair the palest 
rose, the whites of his eyes likewise, his features unmistakably Indian, 
the haughty nose, long thin lips, a face from a _Hamza-nama_ cloth. An 
Indian who has never seen India, East--India--man from the West 
Indies, white black man. A star. 

Still the motionless figures dance between the shimmying of sisters, the 
jouncing and bouncing of youth. What are they? -- Why, waxworks, 
nothing more. -- Who are they? -- History. See, here is Mary Seacole, 
who did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamping Lady, but, 
being dark, could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence's candle; -- 
and, over there!, one Abdul Karim, aka The Munshi, whom Queen 
Victoria sought to promote, but who was done down by colour-barring 
ministers. They're all here, dancing motionlessly in hot wax: the black 
clown of Septimius Severus, to the right; to the left, George IV's barber 
dancing with the slave, Grace Jones. Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, the African 
prince who was sold for six feet of cloth, dances according to his 
ancient fashion with the slave's son Ignatius Sancho, who became in 
1782 the first African writer to be published in England. -- The 
migrants of the past, as much the living dancers' ancestors as their own 
flesh and blood, gyrate stilly while Pinkwalla rants toasts raps up on 
the stage, _Now-mi-feel - indignation-when-dem-talk-immigration- 
when-dem-make-insinuation - we-no-part-a-de-nation-an-mi-make- 
pro clamat ion -a-de-t rue-situation -how- we-make-contribut ion -sin ce-de- 
Rome-Occupation_, and from a different part of the crowded room, 
bathed in evil green light, wax villains cower and grimace: Mosley, 
Powell, Edward Long, all the local avatars of Legree. And now a murmur 
begins in the belly of the Club, mounting, becoming a single word, 
chanted over and over: "Meltdown," the customers demand. 
"Meltdown, meltdown, melt." 



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Pinkwalla takes his cue from the crowd, _So-it-meltdown-time-when-de- 
men-of-crime-gonna-get-in-line-for-some-hell-fi re-fr yin_, after which 
he turns to the crowd, arms wide, feet with the beat, to ask, _Who"s-it- 
gonna-be? Who-you-wanna-see?_ Names are shouted, compete, coalesce, 
until the assembled company is united once more, chanting a single 
word. Pinkwalla claps his hands. Curtains part behind him, allowing 
female attendants in shiny pink shorts and singlets to wheel out a 
fearsome cabinet: man--sized, glass-- fronted, internally—illuminated -- 
the microwave oven, complete with Hot Seat, known to Club regulars 
as: Hell's Kitchen. "All _right_," cries Pinkwalla. "Now we really 
cookin." 

Attendants move towards the tableau of hate-figures, pounce upon the 
night's sacrificial offering, the one most often selected, if truth be told; 
at least three times a week. Her permawaved coiffure, her pearls, her 
suit of blue. _Maggie-maggie-maggie_, bays the crowd. _Burn-burn- 
burn_. The doll, -- the _guy_, -- is strapped into the Hot Seat. Pinkwalla 
throws the switch. And O how prettily she melts, from the inside out, 
crumpling into formlessness. Then she is a puddle, and the crowd sighs 
its ecstasy: done. "The fire this time," Pinkwalla tells them. Music 
regains the night. 



When Pinkwalla the deejay saw what was climbing under cover of 
darkness into the back of his panel van, which his friends Hanif and 
Mishal had persuaded him to bring round the back of the Shaandaar, 
the fear of obeah filled his heart; but there was also the contrary 
exhilaration of realizing that the potent hero of his many dreams was a 
flesh-and-blood actuality. He stood across the street, shivering under a 
lamp--post though it wasn't particularly cold, and stayed there for half 
an hour while Mishal and Hanif spoke urgently to him, _he needs 
somewhere to go, we have to think about his future_. Then he shrugged, 



308 



walked over to the van, and started up the engine. Hanif sat beside him 
in the cab; Mishal travelled with Saladin, hidden from view. 

It was almost four in the morning when they bedded Chamcha down in 
the empty, locked-up nightclub. Pinkwalla -- his real name, Sewsunker, 
was never used -- had unearthed a couple of sleeping-bags from a back 
room, and they sufficed. Hanif Johnson, saying goodnight to the 
fearsome entity of whom his lover Mishal seemed entirely unafraid, 
tried to talk to him seriously, "You've got to realize how important you 
could be for us, there's more at stake here than your personal needs," 
but mutant Saladin only snorted, yellow and black, and Hanif backed 
quickly away. When he was alone with the waxworks Chamcha was able 
to fix his thoughts once again on the face that had finally coalesced in 
his mind's eye, radiant, the light streaming out around him from a 
point just behind his head, Mister Perfecto, portrayer of gods, who 
always landed on his feet, was always forgiven his sins, loved, praised, 
adored . . . the face he had been trying to identify in his dreams, Mr. 
Gibreel Farishta, transformed into the simulacrum of an angel as surely 
as he was the Devil's mirror--self. 

Who should the Devil blame but the Archangel, Gibreel? 

The creature on the sleeping--bags opened its eyes; smoke began to 
issue from its pores. The face on every one of the waxwork dummies was 
the same now, Gibreel's face with its widow's peak and its long thin 
saturnine good looks. The creature bared its teeth and let out a long, 
foul breath, and the waxworks dissolved into puddles and empty 
clothes, all of them, every one. The creature lay back, satisfied. And. 
fixed its mind upon its foe. 

Whereupon it felt within itself the most inexplicable sensations of 
compression, suction, withdrawal; it was racked by terrible, squeezing 
pains, and emitted piercing squeals that nobody, not even Mishal who 
was staying with Hanif in Pinkwalla's apartment above the Club, dared 



309 



co investigate. The pains mounted in intensity, and the creature 
thrashed and tossed around the dancefloor, wailing most piteously; 
until, at length, granted respite, it fell asleep. 

When Mishal, Hanif and Pinkwalla ventured into the clubroom several 
hours later, they observed a scene of frightful devastation, tables sent 
flying, chairs broken in half, and, of course, every waxwork -- good and 
evil -- Topsy and Legree -- melted like tigers into butter; and at the 
centre of the carnage, sleeping like a baby, no mythological creature at 
all, no iconic Thing of horns and hellsbreath, but Mr. Saladin Chamcha 
himself, apparently restored to his old shape, mother-naked but of 
entirely human aspect and proportions, _humanized_ -- is there any 
option but to conclude? -- by the fearsome concentration of his hate. 

He opened his eyes; which still glowed pale and red. 



Alleluia Cone, coming down from Everest, saw a city of ice to the west 
of Camp Six, across the Rock Band, glittering in the sunlight below the 
massifofCho Oyu. _Shangri-La_, she momentarily thought; however, 
this was no green vale of immortality but a metropolis of gigantic ice-- 
needles, thin, sharp and cold. Her attention was distracted by Sherpa 
Pemba warning her to maintain her concentration, and the city had 
gone when she looked back. She was still at twenty-seven thousand feet, 
but the apparition of the impossible city threw her back across space 
and time to the Bayswater study of old dark wooden furniture and 
heavy velvet curtains in which her father Otto Cone, the art historian 
and biographer of Picabia, had spoken to her in her fourteenth and his 
final year of "the most dangerous of all the lies we are fed in our lives", 
which was, in his opinion, the idea of the continuum. "Anybody ever 
tries to tell you how this most beautiful and most evil of planets is 



310 



somehow homogeneous, composed only of reconcilable elements, that it 
all _adds up_, you get on the phone to the straitjacket tailor," he 
advised her, managing to give the impression of having visited more 
planets than one before coming to his conclusions. "The world is 
incompatible, just never forget it: gaga. Ghosts, Nazis, saints, all alive 
at the same time; in one spot, blissful happiness, while down the road, 
the inferno. You can't ask for a wilder place." Ice cities on the roof of 
the world wouldn't have fazed Otto. Like his wife Alicja, Allie's mother, 
he was a Polish emigre, a survivor of a wartime prison camp whose 
name was never mentioned throughout Allie's childhood. "He wanted 
to make it as if it had not been," Alicja told her daughter later. "He was 
unrealistic in many ways. But a good man; the best I knew." She smiled 
an inward smile as she spoke, tolerating him in memory as she had not 
always managed to during his life, when he was frequently appalling. 
For example: he developed a hatred of communism which drove him to 
embarrassing extremes of behaviour, notably at Christmas, when this 
Jewish man insisted on celebrating with his Jewish family and others 
what he described as "an English rite", as a mark of respect to their new 
"host nation" -- and then spoiled it all (in his wife's eyes) by bursting 
into the salon where the assembled company was relaxing in the glow of 
log fire, Christmas tree lights and brandy, got up in pantomime Chinee, 
with droopy moustaches and all, crying: "Father Christmas is dead! I 
have killed him! I am The Mao: no presents for anyone! Hee! Hee! 
Hee!" Allie on Everest, remembering, winced -- her mother's wince, she 
realized, transferred to her frosted face. 

The incompatibility of life's elements: in a tent at Camp Four, 27,600 
feet, the idea which seemed at times to be her father's daemon sounded 
banal, emptied of meaning, of _atmosphere_, by the altitude. "Everest 
silences you," she confessed to Gibreel Far-- ishta in a bed above which 
parachute silk formed a canopy of hollow Himalayas. "When you come 
down, nothing seems worth saying, nothing at all. You find the 
nothingness wrapping you up, like a sound. Non-being. You can't keep 



311 



it up, of course. The world rushes in soon enough. What shuts you up 
is, I think, the sight you've had of perfection: why speak if you can't 
manage perfect thoughts, perfect sentences? It feels like a betrayal of 
what you've been through. But it fades; you accept that certain 
compromises, closures, are required if you're to continue." They spent 
most of their time in bed during their first weeks together: the appetite 
of each for the other seemingly inexhaustible, they made love six or 
seven times a day. "You opened me up," she told him. "You with the 
ham in your mouth. It was exactly as if you were speaking to me, as if I 
could read your thoughts. Not as if," she amended. "I did read them, 
right?" He nodded: it was true. "I read your thoughts and the right 
words just came out of my mouth," she marvelled. "Just flowed out. 
Bingo: love. In the beginning was the word." 

Her mother took a fatalistic view of this dramatic turn of events in 
Allie's life, the return of a lover from beyond the grave. "I'll tell you 
what I honestly thought when you gave me the news," she said over 
lunchtime soup and kreplach at the Whitechapel Bloom's. "I thought, 
oh dear, it's grand passion; poor Allie has to go through this now, the 
unfortunate child." Alicja's strategy was to keep her emotions strictly 
under control. She was a tall, ample woman with a sensual mouth but, 
as she put it, "I've never been a noise--maker." She was frank with Allie 
about her sexual passivity, and revealed that Otto had been, "Let's say, 
otherwise inclined. He had a weakness for grand passion, but it always 
made him so miserable I could not get worked up about it." She had 
been reassured by her knowledge that the women with whom her little, 
bald, jumpy husband consorted were "her type", big and buxom, 
"except they were brassy, too: they did what he wanted, shouting things 
out to spur him on, pretending for all they were worth; it was his 
enthusiasm they responded to, I think, and maybe his chequebook, too. 
He was of the old school and gave generous gifts." 



312 



Otto had called Alleluia his "pearl without price", and dreamed for her 
a great future, as maybe a concert pianist or, failing that, a Muse. "Your 
sister, frankly, is a disappointment to me," he said three weeks before 
his death in that study of Great Books and Picabian bric-a-brac -- a 
stuffed monkey which he claimed was a "first draft" of the notorious 
_Portrait of Cezanne, Portrait of Rembrandt, Portrait of Renoir_, 
numerous mechanical contraptions including sexual stimulators that 
delivered small electric shocks, and a first edition of Jarry's _Ubu Roi_. 
"Elena has wants where she should have thoughts." He Anglicized the 
name -- Yelyena into Ellaynah --just as it had been his idea to reduce 
"Alleluia" to Allie and bowdlerize himself, Cohen from Warsaw, into 
Cone. Echoes of the past distressed him; he read no Polish literature, 
turning his back on Herbert, on Milosz, on "younger fellows" like 
Baranczak, because for him the language was irredeemably polluted by 
history. "I am English now," he would say proudly in his thick East 
European accent. "Silly mid-offl Pish-Tush! Widow of Windsor! Bugger 
all." In spite of his reticences he seemed content enough being a 
pantomime member of the English gentry. In retrospect, though, it 
looked likely that he'd been only too aware of the fragility of the 
performance, keeping the heavy drapes almost permanently drawn in 
case the inconsistency of things caused him to see monsters out there, 
or moonscapes instead of the familiar Moscow Road. 

"He was strictly a melting--pot man," Alicja said while attacking a large 
helping of tsimmis. "When he changed our name I told him, Otto, it 
isn't required, this isn't America, it's London W-- two; but he wanted to 
wipe the slate clean, even his Jewishness, excuse me but I know. The 
fights with the Board of Deputies! All very civilized, parliamentary 
language throughout, but bareknuckle stuff none the less." After his 
death she went straight back to Cohen, the synagogue, Chanukah and 
Bloom's. "No more imitation of life," she munched, and waved a 
sudden, distracted fork. "That picture. I was crazy for it. Lana Turner, 
am I right? And Mahalia Jackson singing in a church." 



313 



Otto Cone as a man of seventy-plus jumped into an empty lift-shaft and 
died. Now there was a subject which Alicja, who would readily discuss 
most taboo matters, refused to touch upon: why does a survivor of the 
camps live forty years and then complete the job the monsters didn't 
get done? Does great evil eventually triumph, no matter how 
strenuously it is resisted? Does it leave a sliver of ice in the blood, 
working its way through until it hits the heart? Or, worse: can a man's 
death be incompatible with his life? Allie, whose first response on 
learning of her father's death had been fury, flung such questions as 
these at her mother. Who, stonefaced beneath a wide black hat, said 
only: "You have inherited his lack of restraint, my dear." 

After Otto's death Alicja ditched the elegant high style of dress and 
gesture which had been her offering on the altar of his lust for 
integration, her attempt to be his Cecil Beaton grande dame. "Phoo," 
she confided in Allie, "what a relief, my dear, to be shapeless for a 
change." She now wore her grey hair in a straggly bun, put on a 
succession of identical floral-print supermarket dresses, abandoned 
make-up, got herself a painful set of false teeth, planted vegetables in 
what Otto had insisted should be an English floral garden (neat 
flowerbeds around the central, symbolic tree, a "chimeran graft" of 
laburnum and broom) and gave, instead of dinners full of cerebral chat, 
a series of lunches -- heavy stews and a minimum of three outrageous 
puddings -- at which dissident Hungarian poets told convoluted jokes 
to Gurdjieffian mystics, or (if things didn't quite work out) the guests 
sat on cushions on the floor, staring gloomily at their loaded plates, 
and something very like total silence reigned for what felt like weeks. 
Allie eventually turned away from these Sunday afternoon rituals, 
sulking in her room until she was old enough to move out, with Alicja's 
ready assent, and from the path chosen for her by the father whose 
betrayal of his own act of survival had angered her so much. She turned 
towards action; and found she had mountains to climb. 



314 



Alicja Cohen, who had found Allie's change of course perfectly 
comprehensible, even laudable, and rooted for her all the way, could 
not (she admitted over coffee) quite see her daughter's point in the 
matter of Gibreel Farishta, the revenant Indian movie star. "To hear 
you talk, dear, the man's not in your league," she said, using a phrase 
she believed to be synonymous with _not your type_, and which she 
would have been horrified to hear described as a racial, or religious, 
slur: which was inevitably the sense in which her daughter understood 
it. "That's just fine by me," Allie riposted with spirit, and rose. "The 
fact is, I don't even like my league." 

Her feet ached, obliging her to limp, rather than storm, from the 
restaurant. "Grand passion," she could hear her mother behind her 
back announcing loudly to the room at large. "The gift of tongues; 
means a girl can babble out any blasted thing." 



Certain aspects of her education had been unaccountably neglected. 
One Sunday not long after her father's death she was buying the 
Sunday papers from the corner kiosk when the vendor announced: "It's 
the last week this week. Twenty--three years I've been on this corner and 
the Pakis have finally driven me out of business." She heard the word 
_p-a-c-h-y_, and had a bizarre vision of elephants lumbering down the 
Moscow Road, flattening Sunday news vendors. "What's a pachy?" she 
foolishly asked and the reply was stinging: "A brown Jew." She went on 
thinking of the proprietors of the local "C TN" (confectioner-- 
tobacconist-- newsagent) as _pach yderms_ for quite a while: as people 
set apart -- rendered objectionable -- by the nature of their skin. She 
told Gibreel this story, too. "Oh," he responded, crushingly, "an 
elephant joke." He wasn't an easy man. 

But there he was in her bed, this big vulgar fellow for whom she could 
open as she had never opened before; he could reach right into her chest 



315 



and caress her heart. Not for many years had she entered the sexual 
arena with such celerity, and never before had so swift a liaison 
remained wholly untainted by regret or self--disgust. His extended 
silence (she took it for that until she learned that his name was on the 
_Bostan"s_ passenger list) had been sharply painful, suggesting a 
difference in his estimation of their encounter; but to have been 
mistaken about his desire, about such an abandoned, hurtling thing, 
was surely impossible? The news of his death accordingly provoked a 
double response: on the one hand, there was a kind of grateful, relieved 
joy to be had from the knowledge that he had been racing across the 
world to surprise her, that he had given up his entire life in order to 
construct a new one with her; while, on the other, there was the hollow 
grief of being deprived of him in the very moment of knowing that she 
truly had been loved. Later, she became aware of a further, less 
generous, reaction. What had he thought he was doing, planning to 
arrive without a word of warning on her doorstep, assuming that she'd 
be waiting with open arms, an unencumbered life, and no doubt a large 
enough apartment for them both? It was the kind of behaviour one 
would expect of a spoiled movie actor who expects his desires simply to 
fall like ripe fruits into his lap ... in short, she had felt invaded, or 
potentially invaded. But then she had rebuked herself, pushing such 
notions back down into the pit where they belonged, because after all 
Gibreel had paid heavily for his presumption, if presumption it was. A 
dead lover deserves the benefit of the doubt. 

Then there he lay at her feet, unconscious in the snow, taking her 
breath away with the impossibility of his being there at all, leading her 
momentarily to wonder if he might not be another in the series of 
visual aberrations -- she preferred the neutral phrase to the more loaded 
_visions_ -- by which she'd been plagued ever since her decision to 
scorn oxygen cylinders and conquer Chomolungma on lung power 
alone. The effort of raising him, slinging his arm around her shoulders 
and half-carrying him to her flat -- more than half, if the truth be told - 



316 



- fully persuaded her that he was no chimera, but heavy flesh and blood. 
Her feet stung her all the way home, and the pain reawakened all the 
resentments she'd stifled when she thought him dead. What was she 
supposed to do with him now, the lummox, sprawled out across her 
bed? God, but she'd forgotten what a sprawler the man was, how during 
the night he colonized your side of the bed and denuded you entirely of 
bedclothes. But other sentiments, too, had re-emerged, and these won 
the day; for here he was, sleeping beneath her protection, the 
abandoned hope: at long last, love. 

He slept almost round the clock for a week, waking up only to satisfy 
the minimum requirements of hunger and hygiene, saying almost 
nothing. His sleep was tormented: he thrashed about the bed, and 
words occasionally escaped his lips: _Jahilia, Al-Lat, Hind_. In his 
waking moments he appeared to wish to resist sleep, but it claimed him, 
waves of it rolling over him and drowning him while he, almost 
piteously, waved a feeble arm. She was unable to guess what traumatic 
events might have given rise to such behaviour, and, feeling a little 
alarmed, telephoned her mother. Alicja arrived to inspect the sleeping 
Gibreel, pursed her lips, and pronounced: "He's a man possessed." She 
had receded more and more into a kind of Singer Brothers dybbukery, 
and her mysticism never failed to exasperate her pragmatic, mountain- 
climbing daughter. "Use maybe a suction pump on his ear," Alicja 
recommended. "That's the exit these creatures prefer." Allie shepherded 
her mother out of the door. "Thanks a lot," she said. "I'll let you 
know." 

On the seventh day he came wide awake, eyes popping open like a 
doll's, and instantly reached for her. The crudity of the approach made 
her laugh almost as much as its unexpectedness, but once again there 
was that feeling of naturalness, of Tightness; she grinned, "Okay, you 
asked for it," and slipped out of the baggy, elasticated maroon 
pantaloons and loose jacket -- she disliked clothes that revealed the 



317 



contours of her body -- and that was the beginning of the sexual 
marathon that left them both sore, happy and exhausted when it finally 
ground to a halt. 

He told her: he fell from the sky and lived. She took a deep breath and 
believed him, because of her father's faith in the myriad and 
contradictory possibilities of life, and because, too, of what the 
mountain had taught her. "Okay," she said, exhaling. "I'll buy it. Just 
don't tell my mother, all right?" The universe was a place of wonders, 
and only habituation, the anaesthesia of the everyday, dulled our sight. 
She had read, a couple of days back, that as part of their natural 
processes of combustion, the stars in the skies crushed carbon into 
diamonds. The idea of the stars raining diamonds into the void: that 
sounded like a miracle, too. If that could happen, so could this. Babies 
fell out of zillionthfloor windows and bounced. There was a scene about 
that in Francois Truffaut's movie _L"Argent du Poche_ . . . She focused 
her thoughts. "Sometimes," she decided to say, "wonderful things 
happen to me, too." 

She told him then what she had never told any living being: about the 
visions on Everest, the angels and the ice--city. "It wasn't only on 
Everest, either," she said, and continued after a hesitation. When she 
got back to London, she went for a walk along the Embankment to try 
and get him, as well as the mountain, out of her blood. It was early in 
the morning and there was the ghost of a mist and the thick snow made 
everything vague. Then the icebergs came. 

There were ten of them, moving in stately single file upriver. The mist 
was thicker around them, so it wasn't until they sailed right up to her 
that she understood their shapes, the precisely miniaturized 
configurations of the ten highest mountains in the world, in ascending 
order, with her mountain, _the_ mountain bringing up the rear. She 
was trying to work out how the icebergs had managed to pass under the 
bridges across the river when the mist thickened, and then, a few 



318 



instants later, dissolved entirely, taking the icebergs with it. "But they 
were there," she insisted to Gibreel. "Nanga Parbat, Dhaulagiri, 
Xixabangma Feng." .He didn't argue. "If you say it, then I know it truly 
was so." 

An iceberg is water striving to be land; a mountain, especially a 
Himalaya, especially Everest, is land's attempt to metamorphose into 
sky; it is grounded flight, the earth mutated -- nearly -- into air, and 
become, in the true sense, exalted. Long before she ever encountered the 
mountain, Allie was aware of its brooding presence in her soul. Her 
apartment was full of Himalayas. Representations of Everest in cork, in 
plastic, in tile, stone, acrylics, brick jostled for space; there was even 
one sculpted entirely out of ice, a tiny berg which she kept in the 
freezer and brought out from time to time to show off to friends. Why 
so many? _Because_ -- no other possible answer -- _they were there_. 
"Look," she said, stretching out a hand without leaving the bed and 
picking up, from her bedside table, her newest acquisition, a simple 
Everest in weathered pine. "A gift from the sherpas of Namche Bazar." 
Gibreel took it, turned it in his hands. Pemba had offered it to her shyly 
when they said goodbye, insisting it was from all the sherpas as a group, 
although it was evident that he'd whittled it himself. It was a detailed 
model, complete with the ice fall and the Hillary Step that is the last 
great obstacle on the way to the top, and the route they had taken to 
the summit was scored deeply into the wood. When Gibreel turned it 
upside down he found a message, scratched into the base in painstaking 
English. _To Ali Bibi. We were luck. Not to try again_. 

What Allie did not tell Gibreel was that the sherpa's prohibition had 
scared her, convincing her that if she ever set her foot again upon the 
goddess-mountain, she would surely die, because it is not permitted to 
mortals to look more than once upon the face of the divine; but the 
mountain was diabolic as well as transcendent, or, rather, its diabolism 
and its transcendence were one, so that even the contemplation of 



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Pemba's ban made her feel a pang of need so deep that it made her 
groan aloud, as if in sexual ecstasy or despair. "The Himalayas," she 
told Gibreel so as not to say what was really on her mind, "are 
emotional peaks as well as physical ones: like opera. That's what makes 
them so awesome. Nothing but the giddiest heights. A hard trick to pull 
off, though." Allie had a way of switching from the concrete to the 
abstract, a trope so casually achieved as to leave the listener half-- 
wondering if she knew the difference between the two; or, very often, 
unsure as to whether, finally, such a difference could be said to exist. 

Allie kept to herself the knowledge that she must placate the mountain 
or die, that in spite of the flat feet which made any serious 
mountaineering out of the question she was still infected by Everest, 
and that in her heart of hearts she kept hidden an impossible scheme, 
the fatal vision of Maurice Wilson, never achieved to this day. That is: 
the solo ascent. 

What she did not confess: that she had seen Maurice Wilson since her 
return to London, sitting among the chimneypots, a beckoning goblin 
in plus-fours and tam-o"-shanter hat. -- Nor did Gibreel Farishta tell 
her about his pursuit by the spectre of Rekha Merchant. There were still 
closed doors between them for all their physical intimacy: each kept 
secret a dangerous ghost. -- And Gibreel, on hearing of Allie's other 
visions, concealed a great agitation behind his neutral words -- _if you 
say it, then I know_ -- an agitation born of this further evidence that 
the world of dreams was leaking into that of the waking hours, that the 
seals dividing the two were breaking, and that at any moment the two 
firmaments could be joined, -- that is to say, the end of all things was 
near. One morning Allie, awaking from spent and dreamless sleep, 
found him immersed in her long-unopened copy of Blake's _Marriage 
of Heaven and Hell_, in which her younger self, disrespectful of books, 
had made a number of marks: underlinings, ticks in the margins, 
exclamations, multiple queries. Seeing that she had awoken, he read out 



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a selection of these passages with a wicked grin. "From the Proverbs of 
Hell," he began. "_The lust of the goat is the bounty of God_." She 
blushed furiously. "And what is more," he continued, "_The ancient 
tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six 
thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell_. Then, lower down 
the page: _This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual 
enjoyment_. Tell me, who is this? I found her pressed in the pages." He 
handed her a dead woman's photograph: her sister, Elena, buried here 
and forgotten. Another addict of visions; and a casualty of the habit. 
"We don't talk about her much." She was kneeling unclothed on the 
bed, her pale hair hiding her face. "Put her back where you found her." 

_I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my 
senses discover'd the infinite in every thing_. He riffled on through the 
book, and replaced Elena Cone next to the image of the Regenerated 
Man, sitting naked and splay-legged on a hill with the sun shining out 
of his rear end. _I have always found that Angels have the vanity to 
speak of themselves as the only wise_. Allie put her hands up and 
covered her face. Gibreel tried to cheer her up. "You have written in the 
flyleaf: 'Creation of world ace. Arch-- bish. Usher, 4004 BC. Estim'd 
date of apocalypse, ..., 1996.' So time for improvement of sensual 
enjoyment still remains." She shook her head: stop. He stopped. "Tell 
me," he said, putting away the book. 



Elena at twenty had taken London by storm. Her feral six-foot body 
winking through a golden chain-mail Rabanne. She had always carried 
herself with uncanny assurance, proclaiming her ownership of the 
earth. The city was her medium, she could swim in it like a fish. She was 
dead at twenty-one, drowned in a bathtub of cold water, her body full of 
psychotropic drugs. Can one drown in one's element, Allie had 
wondered long ago. If fish can drown in water, can human beings 
suffocate in air? In those days Allie, eighteen — nineteen, had envied 



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Elena her certainties. What was her element? In what periodic table of 
the spirit could it be found? -- Now, flat-footed, Himalayan veteran, she 
mourned its loss. When you have earned the high horizon it isn't easy 
to go back into your box, into a narrow island, an eternity of 
anticlimax. But her feet were traitors and the mountain would kill. 

Mythological Elena, the cover girl, wrapped in couture plastics, had 
been sure of her immortality. Allie, visiting her in her World's End 
crashpad, refused a proffered sugar-lump, mumbled something about 
brain damage, feeling inadequate, as usual in Elena's company. Her 
sister's face, the eyes too wide apart, the chin too sharp, the effect 
overwhelming, stared mockingly back. "No shortage of brain cells," 
Elena said. "You can spare a few." The spare capacity of the brain was 
Elena's capital. She spent her cells like money, searching for her own 
heights; trying, in the idiom of the day, to fly. Death, like life, came to 
her coated in sugar. 

She had tried to "improve" the younger Alleluia. "Hey, you're a great 
looking kid, why hide it in those dungarees? I mean, God, darling, 
you've got all the equipment in there." One night she dressed Allie up, 
in an olive-green item composed of frills and absences that barely 
covered her body-stockinged groin: _sugaring me like candy_, was 
Allie's puritanical thought, _my own sister putting me on display in the 
shop-window, thanks a lot_. They went to a gaming club full of ecstatic 
lordlings, and Allie had left fast when Elena's attention was elsewhere. 
A week later, ashamed of herself for being such a coward, for rejecting 
her sister's attempt at intimacy, she sat on a beanbag at World's End 
and confessed to Elena that she was no longer a virgin. Whereupon her 
elder sister slapped her in the mouth and called her ancient names: 
tramp, slut, tart. "Elena Cone never allows a man to lay a _finger_," she 
yelled, revealing her ability to think of herself as a third person, "not a 
goddamn fingernail. I know what I'm worth, darling, I know how the 
mystery dies the moment they put their willies in, I should have known 



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you'd turn out to be a whore. Some fucking communist, I suppose," she 
wound down. She had inherited her father's prejudices in such matters. 
Allie, as Elena knew, had not. 

They hadn't met much after that, Elena remaining until her death the 
virgin queen of the city -- the post-mortem confirmed her as _virgo 
intacta_ -- while Allie gave up wearing underwear, took odd jobs on 
small, angry magazines, and because her sister was untouchable she 
became the other thing, every sexual act a slap in her sibling's 
glowering, whitelipped face. Three abortions in two years and the 
belated knowledge that her days on the contraceptive pill had put her, 
as far as cancer was concerned, in one of the highest-risk categories of 
all. 

She heard about her sister's end from a newsstand billboard, MODEL'S 
"ACID BATH" DEATH. You're not even safe from puns when you die, 
was her first reaction. Then she found she was unable to weep. 

"I kept seeing her in magazines for months," she told Gibreel. "On 
account of the glossies' long lead times." Elena's corpse danced across 
Moroccan deserts, clad only in diaphanous veils; or it was sighted in the 
Sea of Shadows on the moon, naked except for spaceman's helmet and 
half a dozen silk ties knotted around breasts and groin. Allie took to 
drawing moustaches on the pictures, to the outrage of newsagents; she 
ripped her late sister out of the journals of her zombie-like undeath and 
crumpled her up. Haunted by Elena's periodical ghost, Allie reflected 
on the dangers of attempting to _fly_; what flaming falls, what macabre 
hells were reserved for such Icarus types! She came to think of Elena as 
a soul in torment, to believe that this captivity in an immobile world of 
girlie calendars in which she wore black breasts of moulded plastic, 
three sizes larger than her own; of pseudo--erotic snarls; of advertising 
messages printed across her navel, was no less than Elena's personal 
hell. Allie began to see the scream in her sister's eyes, the anguish of 
being trapped forever in those fashion spreads. Elena was being 



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tortured by demons, consumed in fires, and she couldn't even move.. . 
after a time Allie had to avoid the shops in which her sister could be 
found staring from the racks. She lost the ability to open magazines, 
and hid all the pictures of Elena she owned. "Goodbye, Yel," she told 
her sister's memory, using her old nursery name. "I've got to look away 
from you." 

"But I turned out to be like her, after all." Mountains had begun to sing 
to her; whereupon she, too, had risked brain cells in search of 
exaltation. Eminent physicians expert in the problems facing 
mountaineers had frequently proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that 
human beings could not survive without breathing apparatus much 
above eight thousand metres. The eyes would haemorrhage beyond hope 
of repair, and the brain, too, would start to explode, losing cells by the 
billion, too many and too fast, resulting in the permanent damage 
known as High Altitude Deterioration, followed in quick time by death. 
Blind corpses would remain preserved in the permafrost of those 
highest slopes. But Allie and Sherpa Pemba went up and came down to 
tell the talc. Cells from the brain's deposit boxes replaced the current-- 
account casualties. Nor did her eyes blow out. Why had the scientists 
been wrong? "Prejudice, mostly," Allie said, lying curled around Gibreel 
beneath parachute silk. "They can't quantify the will, so they leave it 
out of their calculations. But it's will that gets you up Everest, will and 
anger, and it can bend any law of nature you care to mention, at least in 
the short term, gravity not excluded. If you don't push your luck, 
anyway." 

There had been some damage. She had been suffering unaccountable 
lapses of memory: small, unpredictable things. Once at the 
fishmonger's she had forgotten the word _fish_. Another morning she 
found herself in her bathroom picking up a toothbrush blankly, quite 
unable to work out its purpose. And one morning, waking up beside the 
sleeping Gibreel, she had been on the verge of shaking him awake to 



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demand, "Who the hell are you? How did you get in my bed?" -- when, 
just in time, the memory returned. "I'm hoping it's temporary," she 
told him. But kept to herself, even now, the appearances of Maurice 
Wilson's ghost on the rooftops surrounding the Fields, waving his 
inviting arm. 



She was a competent woman, formidable in many ways: very much the 
professional sportswoman of the 1980s, a client of the giant MacMurray 
public relations agency, sponsored to the gills. Nowadays she, too, 
appeared in advertisements, promoting her own range of outdoor 
products and leisurewear, aimed at holidaymakers and amateurs more 
than pro climbers, to maximize what Hal Valance would have called the 
universe. She was the golden girl from the roof of the world, the 
survivor of "my Teutonic twosome", as Otto Cone had been fond of 
calling his daughters. _Once again, Yel, I follow in your footsteps_. To 
be an attractive woman in a sport dominated by, well, hairy men was to 
be saleable, and the "icequeen" image didn't hurt either. There was 
money in it, and now that she was old enough to compromise her old, 
fiery ideals with no more than a shrug and a laugh, she was ready to 
make it, ready, even, to appear on TV talk-shows to fend off, with risque 
hints, the inevitable and unchanging questions about life with the boys 
at twenty-odd thousand feet. Such highprofile capers sat uneasily 
alongside the view of herself to which she still fiercely clung: the idea 
that she was a natural solitary, the most private of women, and that the 
demands of her business life were ripping her in half. She had her first 
fight with Gibreel over this, because he said, in his unvarnished way: "I 
guess it's okay to run from the cameras as long as you know they're 
chasing after you. But suppose they stop? My guess is you'd turn and 
run the other way." Later, when they'd made up, she teased him with 
her growing stardom (since she became the first sexually attractive 
blonde to conquer Everest, the noise had increased considerably, she 



325 



received photographs of gorgeous hunks in the mail, also invitations to 
high life soirees and a quantity of insane abuse): "I could be in movies 
myself now that you've retired. Who knows? Maybe I will." To which he 
responded, shocking her by the force of his words, "Over my goddamn 
dead body." 

In spite of her pragmatic willingness to enter the polluted waters of the 
real and swim in the general direction of the current, she never lost the 
sense that some awful disaster was lurking just around the corner -- a 
legacy, this, of her father's and sister's sudden deaths. This hairs-on- 
neck prickliness had made her a cautious climber, a "real percentage 
man", as the lads would have it, and as admired friends died on various 
mountains her caution increased. Away from mountaineering, it gave 
her, at times, an unrelaxed look, a jumpiness; she acquired the heavily 
defended air of a fortress preparing for an inevitable assault. This 
added to her reputation as a frosty berg of a woman; people kept their 
distance, and, to hear her tell it, she accepted loneliness as the price of 
solitude. -- But there were more contradictions here, for she had, after 
all, only recently thrown caution overboard when she chose to make the 
final assault on Everest without oxygen. "Aside from all the other 
implications," the agency assured her in its formal letter of 
congratulations, "this humanizes you, it shows you've got that what-- 
the--hell streak, and that's a positive new dimension." They were 
working on it. In the meantime, Allie thought, smiling at Gibreel in 
tired encouragement as he slipped down towards her lower depths, 
There's now you. Almost a total stranger and here you've gone and 
moved right in. God, I even carried you across the threshold, near as 
makes no difference. Can't blame you for accepting the lift. 

He wasn't housetrained. Used to servants, he left clothes, crumbs, used 
tea-bags where they fell. Worse: he _dropped_ them, actually let them 
fall where they would need picking up; perfectly, richly unconscious of 
what he was doing, he went on proving to himself that he, the poor boy 



326 



from the streets, no longer needed to tidy up after himself. It wasn't the 
only thing about him that drove her crazy. She'd pour glasses of wine; 
he'd drink his fast and then, when she wasn't looking, grab hers, 
placating her with an angelic--faced, ultra--innocent "Plenty more, isn't 
it?" His bad behaviour around the house. He liked to fart. He 
complained -- actually complained, after she'd literally scooped him out 
of the snow! -- about the smallness of the accommodations. "Every time 
I take two steps my face hits a wall." He was rude to telephone callers, 
_really_ rude, without bothering to find out who they were: 
automatically, the way film stars were in Bombay when, by some chance, 
there wasn't a flunkey available to protect them from such intrusions. 
After Alicja had weathered one such volley of obscene abuse, she said 
(when her daughter finally got on the end of the phone): "Excuse me for 
mentioning, darling, but your boyfriend is in my opinion a case." 

"A case, mother?" This drew out Alicja's grandest voice. She was still 
capable of grandeur, had a gift for it, in spite of her postOtto decision 
to disguise herself as a bag-lady. "A case," she announced, taking into 
consideration the fact that Gibreel was an Indian import, "of cashew 
and monkey nuts." 

Allie didn't argue with her mother, being by no means certain that she 
could continue to live with Gibreel, even if he had crossed the earth, 
even if he had fallen from the sky. The long term was hard to predict; 
even the medium term looked cloudy. For the moment, she 
concentrated on trying to get to know this man who had just assumed, 
right off, that he was the great love of her life, with a lack of doubt that 
meant he was either right or off his head. There were plenty of difficult 
moments. She didn't know what he knew, what she could take for 
granted: she tried, once, referring to Nabokov's doomed chess-player 
Luzhin, who came to feel that in life as in chess there were certain 
combinations that would inevitably arise to defeat him, as a way of 
explaining by analogy her own (in fact somewhat different) sense of 



327 



impending catastrophe (which had to do not with recurring patterns 
but with the inescapability of the unforeseeable), but he fixed her with 
a hurt stare that told her he'd never heard of the writer, let alone The 
Defence. Conversely, he surprised her by asking, oUt of the blue, "Why 
Picabia?" Adding that it was peculiar, was it not, for Otto Cohen, a 
veteran of the terror camps, to go in for all that neo-Fascistic love of 
machinery, brute power, dehumanization glorified. "Anybody who's 
spent any time with machines at all," he added, "and baby, that's us all, 
knows first and foremost there's only one thing certain about them, 
computer or bicycle. They go wrong." Where did you find out about, 
she began, and faltered because she didn't like the patronizing note she 
was striking, but he answered without vanity. The first time he'd heard 
about Marinetti, he said, he'd got the wrong end of the stick and 
thought Futurism was something to do with puppets. "Marionettes, 
kathputli, at that time I was keen to use advanced puppetry techniques 
in a picture, maybe to depict demons or other supernormal beings. So I 
got a book." _I got a book_: Gibreel the autodidact made it sound like 
an injection. To a girl from a house that revered books -- her father had 
made them all kiss any volume that fell by chance to the floor -- and 
who had reacted by treating them badly, ripping out pages she wanted 
or didn't like, scribbling and scratching at them to show them who was 
boss, Gibreel's form of irreverence, non-abusive, taking books for what 
they offered without feeling the need to genuflect or destroy, was 
something new; and, she accepted, pleasing. She learned from him. He, 
however, seemed impervious to any wisdom she might wish to impart, 
about, for example, the correct place in which to dispose of dirty socks. 
When she attempted to suggest he "did his share", he went into a 
profound, injured sulk, expecting to be cajoled back into a good 
humour. Which, to her disgust, she found herself willing, for the 
moment at any rate, to do. 

The worst thing about him, she tentatively concluded, was his genius 
for thinking himself slighted, belittled, under attack. It became almost 



328 



impossible to mention anything to him, no matter how reasonable, no 
matter how gently put. "Go, go, eat air," he'd shout, and retire into the 
tent of his wounded pride. -- And the most seductive thing about him 
was the way he knew instinctively what she wanted, how when he chose 
he could become the agent of her secret heart. As a result, their sex was 
literally electric. That first tiny spark, on the occasion of their 
inaugural kiss, wasn't any one-off. It went on happening, and 
sometimes while they made love she was convinced she could hear the 
crackle of electricity all around them; she felt, at times, her hair 
standing on end. "It reminds me of the electric dildo in my father's 
study," she told Gibreel, and they laughed. "Am I the love of your life?" 
she asked quickly, and he answered, just as quickly: "Of course." 

She admitted to him early on that the rumours about her 
unattainability, even frigidity, had some basis in fact. "After Yel died, I 
took on that side of her as well." She hadn't needed, any more, to hurl 
lovers into her sister's face. "Plus I really wasn't enjoying it any more. 
It was mostly revolutionary socialists at the time, making do with me 
while they dreamed about the heroic women they'd seen on their three- 
week trips to Cuba. Never touched them, of course; the combat fatigues 
and ideological purity scared them silly. They came home humming 
'Guantanamera' and rang me up." She opted out. "I thought, let the 
best minds of my generation soliloquize about power over some other 
poor woman's body, I'm off." She began climbing mountains, she used 
to say when she began, "because I knew they'd never follow me up 
there. But then I thought, bulishit. I didn't do it for them; I did it for 
me." 

For an hour every evening she would run barefoot up and down the 
stairs to the street, on her toes, for the sake of her fallen arches. Then 
she'd collapse into a heap of cushions, looking enraged, and he'd flap 
helplessly around, usually ending up pouring her a stiff drink: Irish 
whiskey, mostly. She had begun drinking a fair bit as the reality of her 



329 



foot problem sank in. ("For Christ's sake keep the feet quiet," a voice 
from the PR agency told her surreally on the phone. "If they get out it's 
finito, curtains, sayonara, go home, goodnight.") On their twenty-first 
night together, when she had worked her way through five doubles of 
Jameson's, she said: "Why I really went up there. Don't laugh: to escape 
from good and evil." He didn't laugh. "Are mountains above morality, 
in your estimation?" he asked seriously. "This's what I learned in the 
revolution," she went on. "This thing: information got abolished 
sometime in the twentieth century, can't say just when; stands to 
reason, that's part of the information that got aboish, abo_lished_. 
Since then we've been living in a fairy--story. Got me? Everything 
happens by magic. Us fairies haven't a fucking notion what's going on. 
So how do we know if it's right or wrong? We don't even know what it 
is. So what I thought was, you can either break your heart trying to 
work it all out, or you can go sit on a mountain, because that's where 
all the truth went, believe it or not, it just upped and ran away from 
these cities where even the stuff under our feet is all made up, a lie, and 
it hid up there in the thin thin air where the liars don't dare come after 
it in case their brains explode. It's up there all right. I've been there. 
Ask me." She fell asleep; he carried her to the bed. 

After the news of his death in the plane crash reached her, she had 
tormented herself by inventing him: by speculating, that is to say, about 
her lost lover. He had been the first man she'd slept with in more than 
five years: no small figure in her life. She had turned away from her 
sexuality, her instincts having warned her that to do otherwise might be 
to be absorbed by it; that it was for her, would always be, a big subject, 
a whole dark continent to map, and she wasn't prepared to go that way, 
be that explorer, chart those shores: not any more, or, maybe, not yet. 
But she'd never shaken off the feeling of being damaged by her 
ignorance of Love, of what it might be like to be wholly possessed by 
that archetypal, capitalized djinn, the yearning towards, the blurring of 
the boundaries of the self, the unbuttoning, until you were open from 



330 



your adam"s-apple to your crotch: just words, because she didn't know 
the thing. Suppose he had come to me, she dreamed. I could have 
learned him, step by step, climbed him to the very summit. Denied 
mountains by my weak-boned feet, I'd have looked for the mountain in 
him: establishing base camp, sussing out routes, negotiating ice--falls, 
crevasses, overhangs. I'd have assaulted the peak and seen the angels 
dance. O, but he's dead, and at the bottom of the sea. 

Then she found him. -- And maybe he'd invented her, too, a little bit, 
invented someone worth rushing out of one's old life to love. -- 
Nothing so remarkable in that. Happens often enough; and the two 
inventors go on, rubbing the rough edges off one another, adjusting 
their inventions, moulding imagination to actuality, learning how to be 
together: or not. It works out or it doesn't. But to suppose that Gibreel 
Farishta and Alleluia Cone could have gone along so familiar a path is 
to make the mistake of thinking their relationship ordinary. It wasn't; 
didn't have so much as a shot at ordinariness. 

It was a relationship with serious flaws. 

("The modern city," Otto Cone on his hobbyhorse had lectured his 
bored family at table, "is the locus classicus of incompatible realities. 
Lives that have no business mingling with one another sit side by side 
upon the omnibus. One universe, on a zebra crossing, is caught for an 
instant, blinking like a rabbit, in the headlamps of a motor-vehicle in 
which an entirely alien and contradictory continuum is to be found. 
And as long as that's all, they pass in the night, jostling on Tube 
stations, raising their hats in some hotel corridor, it's not so bad. But if 
they meet! It's uranium and plutonium, each makes the other 
decompose, boom." -- "As a matter of fact, dearest," Alicja said dryly, "I 
often feel a little incompatible myself.") 

The flaws in the grand passion of Alleluia Cone and Gibreel Farishta 
were as follows: her secret fear of her secret desire, that is, love; -- owing 



331 



co which she was wont to retreat from, even hit violently out at, the very 
person whose devotion she sought most; -- and the deeper the intimacy, 
the harder she kicked; -- so that the other, having been brought to a 
place of absolute trust, and having lowered all his defences, received the 
full force of the blow, and was devastated; -- which, indeed, is what 
befell Gibreel Farishta, when after three weeks of the most ecstatic 
lovemaking either of them had ever known he was told without 
ceremony that he had better find himself somewhere to live, pretty 
sharpish, because she, Allie, required more elbow-room than was 
presently available; -- 

-- and his overweening possessiveness and jealousy, of which he himself 
had been wholly unaware, owing to his never previously having thought 
of a woman as a treasure that had to be guarded at all costs against the 
piratical hordes who would naturally be trying to purloin her; -- and of 
which more will be said almost instantly; -- 

-- and the fatal flaw, namely, Gibreel Farishta's imminent realization -- 
or, if you will, _insane idea_, -- that he truly was nothing less than an 
archangel in human form, and not just any archangel, but the Angel of 
the Recitation, the most exalted (now that Shaitan had fallen) of them 
all. 



They had spent their days in such isolation, wrapped up in the sheets of 
their desires, that his wild, uncontrollable jealousy, which, as lago 
warned, "doth mock the meat it feeds on", did not instantly come to 
light. It first manifested itself in the absurd matter of the trio of 
cartoons which Allie had hung in a group by her front door, mounted in 
cream and framed in old gold, all bearing the same message, scrawled 
across the lower right--hand corner of the cream mounts: _To A., in 
hopes, from Brunel_. When Gibreel noticed these inscriptions he 
demanded an explanation, pointing furiously at the cartoons with fully 



332 



extended arm, while with his free hand he clutched a bedsheet around 
him (he was attired in this informal manner because he'd decided the 
time was ripe for him to make a full inspection of the premises, _can't 
spend one's whole ljfe on one's back, or even yours_, he'd said); Allie, 
forgivably, laughed. "You look like Brutus, all murder and dignity," she 
teased him. "The picture of an honourable man." He shocked her by 
shouting violently: "Tell me at once who the bastard is." 

"You can't be serious," she said. Jack Brunei worked as an animator, 
was in his late fifties and had known her father. She had never had the 
faintest interest in him, but he had taken to courting her by the 
strangulated, wordless method of sending her, from time to time, these 
graphic gifts. 

"Why you didn't throw them in the wpb?" Gibreel howled. Allie, still 
not fully understanding the size of his rage, continued lightly. She had 
kept the pictures because she liked them. The first was an old Punch 
cartoon in which Leonardo da Vinci stood in his atelier, surrounded by 
pupils, and hurled the Mona Lisa like a frisbee across the room. "_Mark 
my words_," he said in the caption, "_one day men shall fly to Padua in 
such as these_." In the second frame there was a page from _Toff_, a 
British boys' comic dating from World War II. It had been thought 
necessary in a time when so many children became evacuees to create, 
by way of explanation, a comic--strip version of events in the adult 
world. Here, therefore, was one of the weekly encounters between the 
home team -- the Toff (an appalling monocled child in Etonian bum- 
freezer and pin-striped trousers) and cloth--capped, scuffkneed Bert -- 
and the dastardly foe, Hawful Hadolf and the Nastiparts (a bunch of 
thuggish fiends, each of whom had one extremely nasty part, e.g. a steel 
hook instead of a hand, feet like claws, teeth that could bite through 
your arm). The British team invariably came out on top. Gibreel, 
glancing at the framed comic, was scornful. "You bloody _Angrez_. You 
really think like this; this is what the war was really like for you." Allie 



333 



decided not to mention her father, or to tell Gibreel that one of the 
_Toff_ artists, a virulently anti--Nazi Berlin man named Wolf, had been 
arrested one day and led away for internment along with all the other 
Germans in Britain, and, according to Brunei, his colleagues hadn't 
lifted a finger to save him. "Heartlessness," Jack had reflected. "Only 
thing a cartoonist really needs. What an artist Disney would have been 
if he hadn't had a heart. It was his fatal flaw." Brunei ran a small 
animation studio named Scarecrow Productions, after the character in 
_The Wizard of Oz_. 

The third frame contained the last drawing from one of the films of the 
great Japanese animator Yoji Kuri, whose uniquely cynical output 
perfectly exemplified Brunei's unsentimental view of the cartoonist's 
art. In this film, a man fell off a skyscraper; a fire engine rushed to the 
scene and positioned itself beneath the falling man. The roof slid back, 
permitting a huge steel spike to emerge, and, in the still on Allie's wall, 
the man arrived head first and the spike rammed into his brain. "Sick," 
Gibreel Farishta pronounced. 

These lavish gifts having failed to get results, Brunei was obliged to 
break cover and show up in person. He presented himself at Allie's 
apartment one night, unannounced and already considerably the worse 
for alcohol, and produced a bottle of dark rum from his battered 
briefcase. At three the next morning he had drunk the rum but showed 
no signs of leaving. Allie, going ostentatiously off to the bathroom to 
brush her teeth, returned to find the animator standing stark naked in 
the centre of her living-room rug, revealing a surprisingly shapely body 
covered by an inordinate amount of thick grey hair. When he saw her he 
spread his arms and cried: "Take me! Do what you will!" She made him 
dress, as kindly as she could, and put him and his briefcase gently out 
of the door. He never returned. 

Allie told Gibreel the story, in an open, giggling manner that suggested 
she was entirely unprepared for the storm it would unleash. It is 



334 



possible, however (things had been rather strained between them in 
recent days) that her innocent air was a little disingenuous, that she 
was almost hoping for him to begin the bad behaviour, so that what 
followed would be his responsibility, not hers ... at any rate, Gibreel 
blew sky--high, accusing Allie of having falsified the story's ending, 
suggesting that poor Brunei was still waiting by his telephone and that 
she intended to ring him the moment his, Farishta's, back was turned. 
Ravings, in short, jealousy of the past, the worst kind of all. As this 
terrible emotion took charge of him, he found himself improvising a 
whole series of lovers for her, imagining them to be waiting around 
every corner. She had used the Brunei story to taunt him, he shouted, it 
was a deliberate and cruel threat. "You want men down on their knees," 
he screamed, every scrap of his selfcontrol long gone. "Me, I do not 
kneel." 

"That's it," she said. "Out." 

His anger redoubled. Clutching his toga around him, he stalked into 
the bedroom to dress, putting on the only clothes he possessed, 
including the scarlet--lined gabardine overcoat and grey felt trilby of 
Don Enrique Diamond; Allie stood in the doorway and watched. "Don't 
think I'm coming back," he yelled, knowing his rage was more than 
sufficient to get him out of the door, waiting for her to begin to calm 
him down, to speak softly, to give him a way of staying. But she 
shrugged and walked away, and it was then, at that precise moment of 
his greatest wrath, that the boundaries of the earth broke, he heard a 
noise like the bursting of a dam, and as the spirits of the world of 
dreams flooded through the breach into the universe of the quotidian, 
Gibreel Farishta saw God. 

For Blake's Isaiah, God had simply been an immanence, an incorporeal 
indignation; but Gibreel's vision of the Supreme Being was not abstract 
in the least. He saw, sitting on the bed, a man of about the same age as 
himself, of medium height, fairly heavily built, with salt-and-pepper 



335 



beard cropped close to the line of the jaw. What struck him most was 
that the apparition was balding, seemed to suffer from dandruff and 
wore glasses. This was not the Almighty he had expected. "Who are 
you?" he asked with interest. (Of no interest to him now was Alleluia 
Cone, who had stopped in her tracks on hearing him begin to talk to 
himself, and who was now observing him with an expression of genuine 
panic.) 

"Ooparvala," the apparition answered. "The Fellow Upstairs." 

"How do I know you're not the other One," Gibreel asked craftily, 
"Neechayvala, the Guy from Underneath?" 

A daring question, eliciting a snappish reply. This Deity might look like 
a myopic scrivener, but It could certainly mobilize the traditional 
apparatus of divine rage. Clouds massed outside the window; wind and 
thunder shook the room. Trees fell in the Fields. "We're losing patience 
with you, Gibreel Farishta. You've doubted Us just about long enough." 
Gibreel hung his head, blasted by the wrath of God. "We are not obliged 
to explain Our nature to you," the dressing-down continued. "Whether 
We be multiform, plural, representing the union-by-hybridization of 
such opposites as _Oopar_ and _Neechay_, or whether We be pure, 
stark, extreme, will not be resolved here." The disarranged bed on which 
his Visitor had rested Its posterior (which, Gibreel now observed, was 
glowing faintly, like the rest of the Person) was granted a highly 
disapproving glance. "The point is, there will be no more dilly-dallying. 
You wanted clear signs of Our existence? We sent Revelation to fill your 
dreams: in which not only Our nature, but yours also, was clarified. But 
you fought against it, struggling against the very sleep in which We 
were awakening you. Your fear of the truth has finally obliged Us to 
expose Ourself, at some personal inconvenience, in this woman's 
residence at an advanced hour of the night. It is time, now, to shape up. 
Did We pluck you from the skies so that you could boff and spat with 
some (no doubt remarkable) flatfoot blonde? There's work to be done." 



336 



"I am ready," Gibreel said humbly. "I was just going, anyway." 

"Look," Allie Cone was saying, "Gibreel, goddamn it, never mind the 
fight. Listen: I love you." 

There were only the two of them in the apartment now. "I have to go," 
Gibreel said, quietly. She hung upon his arm. "Truly, I don't think 
you're really well." He stood upon his dignity. "Having commanded my 
exit, you no longer have jurisdiction re my health." He made his escape. 
Alleluia, trying to follow him, was afflicted by such piercing pains in 
both feet that, having no option, she fell weeping to the floor: like an 
actress in a masala movie; or Rekha Merchant on the day Gibreel walked 
out on her for the last time. Like, anyhow, a character in a story of a 
kind in which she could never have imagined she belonged. 



The meteorological turbulence engendered by God's anger with his 
servant had given way to a clear, balmy night presided over by a fat and 
creamy moon. Only the fallen trees remained to bear witness to the 
might of the now--departed Being. Gibreel, trilby jammed down on his 
head, money-belt firmly around his waist, hands deep in gabardine -- 
the right hand feeling, in there, the shape of a paperback book -- was 
giving silent thanks for his escape. Certain now of his archangelic 
status, he banished from his thoughts all remorse for his time of 
doubting, replacing it with a new resolve: to bring this metropolis of 
the ungodly, this latter-day "Ad or Thamoud, back to the knowledge of 
God, to shower upon it the blessings of the Recitation, the sacred Word. 
He felt his old self drop from him, and dismissed it with a shrug, but 
chose to retain, for the time being, his human scale. This was not the 
time to grow until he filled the sky from horizon to horizon -- though 
that, too, would surely come before long. 



337 



The city's streets coiled around him, writhing like serpents. London 
had grown unstable once again, revealing its true, capricious, 
tormented nature, its anguish of a city that had lost its sense of itself 
and wallowed, accordingly, in the impotence of its selfish, angry present 
of masks and parodies, stifled and twisted by the insupportable, 
unrejected burden of its past, staring into the bleakness of its 
impoverished future. He wandered its streets through that night, and 
the next day, and the next night, and on until the light and dark ceased 
to matter. He no longer seemed to need food or rest, but only to move 
constantly through that tortured metropolis whose fabric was now 
utterly transformed, the houses in the rich quarters being built of 
solidified fear, the government buildings partly of vainglory and partly 
of scorn, and the residences of the poor of confusion and material 
dreams. When you looked through an angel's eyes you saw essences 
instead of surfaces, you saw the decay of the soul blistering and 
bubbling on the skins of people in the street, you saw the generosity of 
certain spirits resting on their shoulders in the form of birds. As he 
roamed the metamorphosed city he saw bat-winged imps sitting on the 
corners of buildings made of deceits and glimpsed goblins oozing 
wormily through the broken tilework of public urinals for men. As once 
the thirteenth-century German monk Richalmus would shut his eyes 
and instantly see clouds of minuscule demons surrounding every man 
and woman on earth, dancing like dust-specks in the sunlight, so now 
Gibreel with open eyes and by the light of the moon as well as the sun 
detected everywhere the presence of his adversary, his -- to give the old 
word back its original meaning -- _shaitan_. 

Long before the Flood, he remembered -- now that he had reassumed 
the role of archangel, the full range of archangelic memory and wisdom 
was apparently being restored to him, little by little -- a number of 
angels (the names Semjaza and Azazel came first to mind) had been 
flung out of Heaven because they had been _lusting after the daughters 
of men_, who in due course gave birth to an evil race of giants. He 



338 



began to understand the degree of the danger from which he had been 
saved when he departed from the vicinity of Alleluia Cone. O most false 
of creatures! O princess of the powers of the air! -- When the Prophet, 
on whose name be peace, had first received the wahi, the Revelation, 
had he not feared for his sanity? -- And who had offered him the 
reassuring certainty he needed? -- Why, Khadija, his wife. She it was 
who convinced him that he was not some raving crazy but the 
Messenger of God. -- Whereas what had Alleluia done for him? _You're 
not yourself. I don't think you're really well_. -- O bringer of 
tribulation, creatrix of strife, of soreness of the heart! Siren, temptress, 
fiend in human form! That snowlike body with its pale, pale hair: how 
she had used it to fog his soul, and how hard he had found it, in the 
weakness of his flesh, to resist . . . enmeshed by her in the web of a love 
so complex as to be beyond comprehension, he had come to the very 
edge of the ultimate Fall. How beneficent, then, the OverEntity had 
been to him! -- He saw now that the choice was simple: the infernal love 
of the daughters of men, or the celestial adoration of God. He had 
found it possible to choose the latter; in the nick of time. 

He drew out of the right-hand pocket of his overcoat the book that had 
been there ever since his departure from Rosa's house a millennium 
ago: the book of the city he had come to save, Proper London, capital of 
Vilayet, laid out for his benefit in exhaustive detail, the whole bang 
shoot. He would redeem this city: Geographers' London, all the way 
from A to Z. 



On a street corner in a part of town once known for its population of 
artists, radicals and men in search of prostitutes, and now given over to 
advertising personnel and minor film producers, the Archangel Gibreel 
chanced to see a lost soul. It was young, male, tall, and of extreme 
beauty, with a strikingly aquiline nose and longish black hair oiled 
down and parted in the centre; its teeth were made of gold. The lost 



339 



soul stood at the very edge of the pavement, its back to the road, 
leaning forwards at a slight angle and clutching, in its right hand, 
something it evidently held very dear. Its behaviour was striking: first it 
would stare fiercely at the thing it held in its hand, and then look 
around, whipping its head from right to left, scrutinizing with blazing 
concentration the faces of the passers-by. Reluctant to approach too 
quickly, Gibreel on a first pass saw that the object the lost soul was 
clutching was a small passport-sized photograph. On his second pass he 
went right up to the stranger and offered his help. The other eyed him 
suspiciously, then thrust the photograph under his nose. "This man," 
he said, jabbing at the picture with a long index finger. "Do you know 
this man?" 

When Gibreel saw, staring out of the photograph, a young man of 
extreme beauty, with a strikingly aquiline nose and longish black hair, 
oiled, with a central parting, he knew that his instincts had been 
correct, that here, standing on a busy street corner watching the crowd 
in case he saw himself going by, was a Soul in search of its mislaid 
body, a spectre in desperate need of its lost physical casing -- for it is 
known to archangels that the soul or ka cannot exist (once the golden 
cord of light linking it to the body is severed) for more than a night and 
a day. "I can help you," he promised, and the young soul looked at him 
in wild disbelief. Gibreel leaned forward, grasped the ka's face between 
his hands, and kissed it firmly upon the mouth, for the spirit that is 
kissed by an archangel regains, at once, its lost sense of direction, and 
is set upon the true and righteous path. -- The lost soul, however, had a 
most surprising reaction to being favoured by an archangelic kiss. "Sod 
you," it shouted, "I may be desperate, mate, but I'm not that 
desperate," -- after which, manifesting a solidity most unusual in a 
disembodied spirit, it struck the Archangel of the Lord a resounding 
blow upon the nose with the very fist in which its image was clasped; -- 
with disorienting, and bloody, results. 



340 



When his vision cleared, the lost soul had gone but there, floating on 
her carpet a couple of feet off the ground, was Rekha Merchant, 
mocking his discomfiture. "Not such a great start," she snorted. 
"Archangel my foot. Gibreel janab, you're off your head, take it from 
me. You played too many winged types for your own good. I wouldn't 
trust that Deity of yours either, if I were you," she added in a more 
conspiratorial tone, though Gibreel suspected that her intentions 
remained satirical. "He hinted as much himself, fudging the answer to 
your Oopar--Neechay question like he did. This notion of separation of 
functions, light versus dark, evil versus good, may be straightforward 
enough in Islam -- _0, children of Adam, let not the Devil seduce you, 
as he expelled your parents from the garden, pulling off from them 
their clothing that he might show them their shame_ -- but go back a 
bit and you see that it's a pretty recent fabrication. Amos, eighth 
century BC, asks: 'Shall there be evil in a city and the Lord hath not 
done it?' Also Jahweh, quoted by Deutero-Isaiah two hundred years 
later, remarks: 'I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace and 
create evil; I the Lord do all these things.' It isn't until the Book of 
Chronicles, merely fourth century BC, that the word shaitan is used to 
mean a being, and not only an attribute of God." This speech was one 
of which the "real" Rekha would plainly have been incapable, coming as 
she did from a polytheistic tradition and never having evinced the 
faintest interest in comparative religion or, of all things, the 
Apocrypha. But the Rekha who had been pursuing him ever since he fell 
from _Bostan_ was, Gibreel knew, not real in any objective, 
psychologically or corporeally consistent manner. -- What, then, was 
she? It would be easy to imagine her as a thing of his own making -- his 
own accomplice-adversary, his inner demon. That would account for her 
case with the arcana. -- But how had he himself come by such 
knowledge? Had he truly, in days gone by, possessed it and then lost it, 
as his memory now informed him? (He had a nagging notion of 
inaccuracy here, but when he tried to fix his thoughts upon his "dark 
age", that is to say the period during which he had unaccountably come 



341 



co disbelieve in his angelhood, he was faced with a thick bank of clouds, 
through which, peer and blink as he might, he could make out little 
more than shadows.) -- Or could it be that the material now filling his 
thoughts, the echo, to give but a single example, of how his lieutenant- 
angels Ithuriel and Zephon had found the adversary _squat like a toad_ 
by Eve's ear in Eden, using his wiles "to reach/The organs of her fancy, 
and with them forge/Illusions as he list, phantasms and dreams", had 
in fact been planted in his head by that same ambiguous Creature, that 
Upstairs-Downstairs Thing, who had confronted him in Alleluia's 
boudoir, and awoken him from his long waking sleep? -- Then Rekha, 
too, was perhaps an emissary of this God, an external, divine antagonist 
and not an inner, guilt-produced shade; one sent to wrestle with him 
and make him whole again. 

His nose, leaking blood, began to throb painfully. He had never been 
able to tolerate pain. "Always a cry-baby," Rekha laughed in his face. 
Shaitan had understood more: 

_Lives there who loves his pain?_ 

_Who would not, finding way, break loose from hell_, 

_Though thither doomed? Thou wouldst thyself, no doubt_, 

_And boldly venture to whatever place_ 

_Farthest from pain, where thou mightst hope to change_ 

_Torment with ease_ . . . 

He couldn't have put it better. A person who found himself in an 
inferno would do anything, rape, extortion, murder, felo de se, whatever 
it took to get out ... he dabbed a handkerchief at his nose as Rekha, 
still present on her flying rug, and intuiting his ascent (descent?) into 
the realm of metaphysical speculation, attempted to get things back on 



342 



co more familiar ground. "You should have stuck with me," she opined. 
"You could have loved me, good and proper. I knew how to love. Not 
everybody has the capacity for it; I do, I mean did. Not like that self- 
centred blonde bombshell thinking secretly about having a child and 
not even mentioning same to you. Not like your God, either; it's not 
like the old days, when such Persons took proper interest." 

This needed contesting on several grounds. "You were married, start to 
finish," he replied. "Ball--bearings. I was your side dish. Nor will I, who 
waited so long for Him to manifest Himself, now speak poorly of Him 
post facto, after the personal appearance. Finally, what's all this baby- 
talk? You'll go to any extreme, seems like." 

"You don't know what hell is," she snapped back, dropping the mask of 
her imperturbability. "But, buster, you sure will. If you'd ever said, I'd 
have thrown over that ball-bearings bore in two sees, but you kept 
mum. Now I'll see you down there: Neechayvala's Hotel." 

"You'd never have left your children," he insisted. "Poor fellows, you 
even threw them down first when you jumped." That set her off. "Don't 
you talk! To dare to talk! Mister, I'll cook your goose! I'll fry your 
heart and eat it up on toast! -- And as to your Snow White princess, she 
is of the opinion that a child is a mother's property only, because men 
may come and men may go but she goes on forever, isn't it? You're only 
the seed, excuse me, she is the garden. Who asks a seed permission to 
plant? What do you know, damn fool Bombay boy messing with the 
modern ideas of mames." 

"And you," he came back strongly. "Did you, for example, ask their 
Daddyji's permission before you threw his kiddies off the roof?" 

She vanished in fury and yellow smoke, with an explosion that made 
him stagger and knocked the hat off his head (it lay upturned on the 
pavement at his feet). She unleashed, too, an olfactory effect of such 



343 



nauseous potency as to make thim gag and retch. Emptily: for he was 
perfectly void of all fcocdstuffs and liquids, having partaken of no 
nourishment for many days. Ah, immortality, he thought: ah, noble 
release from the tyranny of the body. He noticed that there were two 
individuals watching him curiously, one a violent-looking youth in 
studs and - leather, with a rainbow Mohican haircut and a streak of 
face-paint lightning zig-zagging down his nose, the other a kindly 
middle-aged woman in a headscarf. Very well then: seize the day. 
"Repent," he cried passionately. "For I am the Archangel of the Lord." 

"Poor bastard," said the Mohican and threw a coin into Farishta's 
fallen hat. He walked on; the kindly, twinkling lady, however, leaned 
confidentially towards Gibreel and passed him a leaflet. "You'll be 
interested in this." He quickly identified it as a racist text demanding 
the "repatriation" of the country's black citizenry. She took him, he 
deduced, for a white angel. So angels were not exempt from such 
categories, he wonderingly learned. "Look at it this way," the woman 
was saying, taking his silence for uncertainty -- and revealing, by 
slipping into an overarticulated, over-loud mode of delivery, that she 
thought him not quite pukka, a Levantine angel, maybe, Cypriot or 
Greek, in need of her best talking--to--the--afflicted voice. "If they came 
over and filled up wherever you come from, well! You wouldn't like 
that ." 



Punched in the nose, taunted by phantoms, given alms instead of 
reverence, and in divers ways shewn the depths to wihich the denizens 
of the city had sunk, the intransigence of "the evil manifest there, 
Gibreel became more determined than ever to commence the doing of 
good, to initiate the great work of rolling back the frontiers of the 
adversary's dominion. The atlas in his pocket was his master-plan. He 
would redeem the city square by square, from Hockley Farm in the 
north-west cornerr of the charted area to Chance Wood in the south- 



344 



east; after which, perhaps, he would celebrate the conclusion of his 
labours by playing a round of golf at the aptly named course situated at 
the very edge of the map: Wildernesse. 

And somewhere along the way the adversary himself would be waiting. 
Shaitan, Iblis, or whatever name he had adopted -- and in point of fact 
that name was on the tip of Gibreel's tongue -- just as the face of the 
adversary, horned and malevolent, was still somewhat out of focus . . . 
well, it would take shape soon enough, and the name would come back, 
Gibreel was sure of it, for were not his powers growing every day, was he 
not the one who, restored to his glory, would hurl the adversary down, 
once more, into the Darkest Deeps? -- That name: what was it? 
Tchsomething? Tchu Tche Tchin Tchow. No matter. All in good time. 



But the city in its corruption refused to submit to the dominion of the 
cartographers, changing shape at will and without warning, making it 
impossible for Gibreel to approach his quest in the systematic manner 
he would have preferred. Some days he would turn a corner at the end 
of a grand colonnade built of human flesh and covered in skin that bled 
when scratched, and find himself in an uncharted wasteland, at whose 
distant rim he could see tall familiar buildings, Wren's dome, the high 
metallic spark-plug of the Telecom Tower, crumbling in the wind like 
sandcastles. He would stumble across bewildering and anonymous 
parks and emerge into the crowded streets of the West End, upon 
which, to the consternation of the motorists, acid had begun to drip 
from the sky, burning great holes in the surfaces of the roads. In this 
pandemonium of mirages he often heard laughter: the city was mocking 
his impotence, awaiting his surrender, his recognition that what existed 
here was beyond his powers to comprehend, let alone to change. He 
shouted curses at his still--faceless adversary, pleaded with the Deity for 
a further sign, feared that his energies might, in truth, never be equal to 
the task. In brief, he was becoming the most wretched and bedraggled 



345 



of archangels, his garments filthy, his hair lank and greasy, his chin 
sprouting hair in uncontrollable tufts. It was in this sorry condition 
that he arrived at the Angel Underground. 

It must have been early in the morning, because the station staff drifted 
up as he watched, to unlock and then roll back the metal grille of night. 
He followed them in, shuffling along, head low, hands deep in pockets 
(the Street atlas had been discarded long ago); and raising his eyes at 
last, found himself looking into a face on the verge of dissolving into 
tears. 

"Good morning," he ventured, and the young woman in the ticket 
office responded bitterly, "What's good about it, that's what I want to 
know," and now her tears did come, plump, globular and plenteous. 
"There, there, child," he said, and she gave him a disbelieving look. 
"You're no priest," she opined. He answered, a little tentatively: "I am 
the Angel, Gibreel." She began to laugh, as abruptly as she had wept. 
"Only angels roun here hang from the lamp-posts at Christmas. 
Illuminations. Only the Council swing them by their necks." He was not 
to be put off. "I am Gibreel," he repeated, fixing her with his eye. 
"Recite." And, to her own emphatically expressed astonishment, _I 
cyaan believe I doin this, empt yin my heart to some tramp, I not like 
this, you know_, the ticket clerk began to speak. 

Her name was Orphia Phillips, twenty years old, both parents alive and 
dependent on her, especially now that her fool sister Hyacinth had lost 
her job as a physiotherapist by "gettin up to she nonsense". The young 
man's name, for of course there was a young man, was Uriah Moseley. 
The station had recently installed two gleaming new elevators and 
Orphia and Uriah were their operators. During rush-hours, when both 
lifts were working, they had little time for conversation; but for the rest 
of the day, only one lift was used. Orphia took up her position at the 
ticket—collection point just along from the elevator-shaft, and Uri 
managed to spend a good deal of time down there with her, leaning 



346 



against the door-jamb of his gleaming lift and picking his teeth with 
the silver toothpick his great--grandfather had liberated from some old- 
time plantation boss. It was true love. "But I jus get carry away," 
Orphia wailed at Gibreel. "I always too hasty for sense." One afternoon, 
during a lull, she had deserted her post and stepped up right in front of 
him as he leaned and picked teeth, and seeing the look in her eye he put 
away the pick. After that he came to work with a spring in his step; she, 
too, was in heaven as she descended each day into the bowels of the 
earth. Their kisses grew longer and more passionate. Sometimes she 
would not detach himself when the buzzer rang for the lift; Uriah 
would have to push her back, with a cry of, "Cool off, girl, the public." 
Uriah had a vocational attitude to his work. He spoke to her of his 
pride in his uniform, of his satisfaction at being in the public service, 
giving his life to society. She thought he sounded a shade pompous, 
and wanted to say, "Uri, man, you jus a elevator boy here," but 
intuiting that such realism would not be well received, she held her 
troublesome tongue, or, rather, pushed it into his mouth. 

Their embraces in the tunnel became wars. Now he was trying to get 
away, straightening his tunic, while she bit his ear and pushed her hand 
down inside his trousers. "You crazy," he said, but she, continuing, 
inquired: "So? You vex?" 

They were, inevitably, caught: a complaint was lodged by a kindly lady 
in headscarf and tweeds. They had been lucky to keep their jobs. Orphia 
had been "grounded", deprived of elevator-shafts and boxed into the 
ticket booth. Worse still, her place had been taken by the station 
beauty, Rochelle Watkins. "I know what goin on," she cried angrily. "I 
see Rochelle expression when she come up, fixin up her hair an all o" 
dat." Uriah, nowadays, avoided Orphia's eyes. 

"Can't figure out how you get me to tell you me business," she 
concluded, uncertainly. "You not no angel. That is for sure." But she 



347 



was unable, try as she might, to break away from his transfixing gaze. "I 
know," he told her, "what is in your heart." 

He reached in through the booth's window and took her unresisting 
hand. -- Yes, this was it, the force of her desires filling him up, enabling 
him to translate them back to her, making action possible, allowing her 
to say and do what she most profoundly required; this was what he 
remembered, this quality of being joined to the one to whom he 
appeared, so that what followed was the product of their joining. At 
last, he thought, the archangelic functions return. -- Inside the ticket 
booth, the clerk Orphia Phillips had her eyes closed, her body had 
slumped down in her chair, looking slow and heavy, and her lips were 
moving. -- And his own, in unison with hers. -- There. It was done. 

At this moment the station manager, a little angry man with nine long 
hairs, fetched from ear--level, plastered across his baldness, burst like a 
cuckoo from his little door. "What's your game?" he shouted at Gibreel. 
"Get out of it before I call the police." Gibreel stayed where he was. The 
station manager saw Orphia emerging from her trance and began to 
shriek. "You, Phillips. Never saw the like. Anything in trousers, but this 
is ridiculous. All my born days. And nodding off on the job, the idea." 
Orphia stood up, put on her raincoat, picked up her folding umbrella, 
emerged from ticket booth. "Leaving public property unattended. You 
get back in there this minute, or it's your job, sure as eggsis." Orphia 
headed for the spiral stairs and moved towards the lower depths. 
Deprived of his employee, the manager swung round to face Gibreel. 
"Go on," he said. "Eff off. Go crawl back under your stone." 

"I am waiting," replied Gibreel with dignity, "for the lift." 

When she reached the bottom of the stairs, Orphia Phillips turning a 
corner saw Uriah Moseley leaning against the ticketcollection booth in 
that way he had, and Rochelle Watkins simpering with delight. But 



348 



Orphia knew what to do. "You let "Chelle feel you toothpick yet, Uri?" 
she sang out. "She'd surely love to hold it." 

They both straightened up, stung. Uriah began blustering: "Don't be so 
common now, Orphia," but her eyes stopped him in his tracks. Then he 
began to walk towards her, dreamily, leaving Rochelle flat. "Thas right, 
Uri," she said softly, never looking away from him for an instant. 
"Come along now. Come to momma." _Now walk backwards to the lift 
and just suck him right in there, and after that it's up and away we go_. 
-- But something was wrong here. He wasn't walking any more. Rochelle 
Watkins was standing beside him, too damn close, and he'd come to a 
halt. "You tell her, Uriah," Rochelle said. "Her stupid obeah don't 
signify down here." Uriah was putting an arm around Rochelle Watkins. 
This wasn't the way she'd dreamed it, the way she'd suddenly been 
certain-sure it would be, after that Gibreel took her hand, just like that, 
as if they were _intended_; wee-yurd, she thought; what was happening 
to her? She advanced. -- "Get her offa me, Uriah," Rochelle shouted. 
"She mashin up me uniform and all." -- Now Uriah, holding the 
struggling ticket clerk by both wrists, gave out the news: "I aks her to 
get marry!" -- Whereupon the fight went out of Orphia. Beaded plaits 
no longer whirled and clicked. "So you out of order, Orphia Phillips," 
Uriah continued, puffing somewhat. "And like the lady say, no obeah na 
change nutten." Orphia, also breathing heavily, her clothes disarranged, 
flopped down on the floor with her back to the curved tunnel wall. The 
noise of a train pulling in came up towards them; the affianced couple 
hurried to their posts, tidying themselves up, leaving Orphia where she 
sat. "Girl," Uriah Moseley offered by way of farewell, "you too damn 
outrageous for me." Rochelle Watkins blew Uriah a kiss from her ticket- 
collection booth; he, lounging against his lift, picked his teeth. "Home 
cooking," Rochelle promised him. "And no surprises." 



349 



"You filthy bum," Orphia Phillips screamed at Gibreel after walking up 
the two hundred and forty-seven steps of the spiral staircase of defeat. 
"You no good devil bum. Who ask you to mash up me life so?" 



_Even the halo has gone out, like a broken bulb, and I don't know 
where's the store_. Gibreel on a bench in the small park near the 
station meditated over the futility of his efforts to date. And found 
blasphemies surfacing once again: if the dabba had the wrong markings 
and so went to incorrect recipient, was the dabbawalla to blame? If 
special effect -- travelling mat, or such -- didn't work, and you saw the 
blue outline shimmering at the edge of the flying fellow, how to blame 
the actor? Bythesametoken, if his angeling was proving insufficient, 
whose fault, please, was this? His, personally, or some other Personage? 
-- Children were playing in the garden of his doubting, among the 
midge-clouds and rosebushes and despair. Grandmother's footsteps, 
ghostbusters, tag. Ellowen deeowen, London. The fall of angels, Gibreel 
reflected, was not the same kettle as the Tumble of Woman and Man. In 
the case of human persons, the issue had been morality. Of the fruit of 
the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they shouldst not eat, and 
ate. Woman first, and at her suggestion man, acquired the verboten 
ethical standards, tastily apple-flavoured: the serpent brought them a 
value system. Enabling them, among other things, to judge the Deity 
Itself, making possible in good time all the awkward inquiries: why evil? 
Why suffering? Why death? -- So, out they went. It didn't want Its 
pretty creatures getting above their station. -- Children giggled in his 
face: _something straaange in the neighbourhood^ Armed with 
zapguns, they made as if to bust him like some common, lowdown 
spook. _Come away from there_, a woman commanded, a tightly 
groomed woman, white, a redhead, with a broad stripe of freckles across 
the middle of her face; her voice was full of distaste. _Did you hear me? 
Now!_ -- Whereas the angels' crash was a simple matter of power: a 



350 



straightforward piece of celestial police work, punishment for rebellion, 
good and tough "pour encourager les autres". -- Then how unconfident 
of Itself this Deity was, Who didn't want Its finest creations to know 
right from wrong; and Who reigned by terror, insisting upon the 
unqualified submission of even Its closest associates, packing off all 
dissidents to Its blazing Siberias, the gulag-infernos of Hell. . . he 
checked himself. These were satanic thoughts, put into his head by 
Iblis--Beelzebub-Shaitan. If the Entity were still punishing him for his 
earlier lapse of faith, this was no way to earn remission. He must simply 
continue until, purified, he felt his full potency restored. Emptying his 
mind, he sat in the gathering darkness and watched the children (now 
at some distance) play. _Ip-dipsky-blue who"s-there-not-you not- 
because-you"re-dirty not-becauseyou"re-clean_, and here, he was sure, 
one of the boys, a grave eleven--year--old with outsize eyes, stared 
straight at him: _mymother-says you"re-the-fairy-queen_. 

Rekha Merchant materialized, all jewels and finery. "Bachchas are 
making rude rhymes about you now, Angel of the Lord," she gibed. 
"Even that little ticket--girl back there, she isn't so impressed. Still 
doing badly, baba, looks like to me." 



On this occasion, however, the spirit of the suicide Rekha Merchant had 
not come merely to mock. To his astonishment she claimed that his 
many tribulations had been of her making: "You imagine there is only 
your One Thing in charge?" she cried. "Well, lover--boy, let me put you 
wise." Her smart--alec Bombay English speared him with a sudden 
nostalgia for his lost city, but she wasn't waiting for him to regain his 
composure. "Remember that I died for love of you, you creepo; this 
gives me rights. In particular, to be revenged upon you, by totally 
bungling up your life. A man must suffer for causing a lover's leap; 
don't you think so? That's the rule, anyway. For so long now I've 
turned you inside out; now I'm just fed up. Don't forget how I was so 



351 



good at forgiving! You liked it also, na? Therefore I have come to say 
that compromise solution is always possible. You want to discuss it, or 
you prefer to go on being lost in this craziness, becoming not an angel 
but a down-and-out hobo, a stupid joke?" 

Gibreel asked: "What compromise?" 

"What else?" she replied, her manner transformed, all gentleness, with a 
shine in her eyes. "My farishta, a so small thing." 

If he would only say he loved her: 

If he would only say it, and, once a week, when she came to lie with him, 
show his love: 

If on a night of his choice it could be as it was during the ball- 
bearings—man's absences on business: 

"Then I will terminate the insanities of the city, with which I am 
persecuting you; nor will you be possessed, any longer, by this crazy 
notion of changing, _redeeming_ the city like something left in a 
pawnshop; it'll all be calm--calm; you can even live with your paleface 
mame and be the greatest film star in the world; how could I be jealous, 
Gibreel, when I'm already dead, I don't want you to say I'm as 
important as her, no, just a second--rank love will do for me, a side-dish 
amour; the foot in the other boot. How about it, Gibreel, just three-- 
little-words, what do you say?" 

_Give me time_. 

"It isn't even as if I'm asking for something new, something you 
haven't already agreed to, done, indulged in. Lying with a phantom is 
not such a bad-bad thing. What about down at that old Mrs. Diamond's 
-- in the boathouse, that night? Quite a tamasha, you don't think so? 
So: who do you think put it on? Listen: I can take for you any form you 



352 



prefer; one of the advantages of my condition. You wish her again, that 
boathouse mame from the stone age? Hey presto. You want the mirror 
image of your own mountain-climber sweaty tomboy iceberg? Also, 
allakazoo, allakazam. Who do you think it was, waiting for you after the 
old lady died?" 

All that night he walked the city streets, which remained stable, banal, 
as if restored to the hegemony of natural laws; while Rekha -- floating 
before him on her carpet like an artiste on a stage, just above head- 
height -- serenaded him with the sweetest of love songs, accompanying 
herself on an old ivorysided harmonium, singing everything from the 
gazals of Faiz Ahmed Faiz to the best old film music, such as the 
defiant air sung by the dancer Anarkali in the presence of the Grand 
Mughal Akbar in the fifties classic _Mughal-e-Azam_, -- in which she 
declares and exults in her impossible, forbidden love for the Prince, 
Salim, --"Pyaar kiya to darna kya?" -- That is to say, more or less, _why 
be afraid of love?_ and Gibreel, whom she had accosted in the garden of 
his doubt, felt the music attaching strings to his heart and leading him 
towards her, because what she asked was, just as she said, such a little 
thing, after all. 

He reached the river; and another bench, cast--iron camels supporting 
the wooden slats, beneath Cleopatra's Needle. Sitting, he closed his 
eyes. Rekha sang Faiz: 

_Do not ask of me, my love_, 

_that love I once had for you_ . . . 

_How lovely you are still, my love_, 

_but I am helpless too_; 

_for the world has other sorrows than love_, 



353 



_and other pleasures too_. 

_Do not ask of me, my love_, 

_that love I once had for you_. 

Gibreel saw a man behind his closed eyes: not Faiz, but another poet, 
well past his heyday, a decrepit sort of fellow. -- Yes, that was his name: 
Baal. What was he doing here? What did he have to say for himself? -- 
Because he was certainly trying to say something; his speech, thick and 
slurry, made understanding difficult . . . _Any new idea, Mahound, is 
asked two questions. The first is asked when it's weak: WHA T KIND 
OF AN IDEA ARE YOU? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, 
accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are 
you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool 
notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? -- The kind 
that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, be 
smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world_. 

"What's the second question?" Gibreel asked aloud. 

Answer the first one first . 



Gibreel, opening his eyes at dawn, found Rekha unable to sing, silenced 
by expectations and uncertainties. He let her have it straight off. "It's a 
trick. There is no God but God. You are neither the Entity nor Its 
adversary, but only some caterwauling mist. No compromises; I won't 
do deals with fogs." He saw, then, the emeralds and brocades fall from 
her body, followed by the flesh, until only the skeleton remained, after 
which that, too, crumbled away; finally, there was a piteous, piercing 
shriek, as whatever was left of Rekha flew with vanquished fury into the 
sun. 



354 



And did not return: except at -- or near -- the end. 

Convinced that he had passed a test, Gibreel realized that a great weight 
had lifted from him; his spirits grew lighter by the second, until by the 
time the sun was in the sky he was literally delirious with joy. Now it 
could really begin: the tyranny of his enemies, of Rekha and Alleluia 
Cone and all the women who wished to bind him in the chains of 
desires and songs, was broken for good; now he could feel light 
streaming out, once more, from the unseen point just behind his head; 
and his weight, too, began to diminish. -- Yes, he was losing the last 
traces of his humanity, the gift of flight was being restored to him, as 
he became ethereal, woven of illumined air. -- He could simply step, this 
minute, off this blackened parapet and soar away above the old grey 
river; -- or leap from any of its bridges and never touch land again. So: 
it was time to show the city a great sight, for when it perceived the 
Archangel Gibreel standing in all his majesty upon the western horizon, 
bathed in the rays of the rising sun, then surely its people would be sore 
afraid and repent them of their sins. 

He began to enlarge his person. 

How astonishing, then, that of all the drivers streaming along the 
Embankment -- it was, after all, rush-hour -- not one should so much as 
look in his direction, or acknowledge him! This was in truth a people 
who had forgotten how to see. And because the relationship between 
men and angels is an ambiguous one -- in which the angels, or 
mala"ikah, are both the controllers of nature and the intermediaries 
between the Deity and the human race; but at the same time, as the 
Quran clearly states, _we said unto the angels, be submissive unto 
Adam_, the point being to symbolize man's ability to master, through 
knowledge, the forces of nature which the angels represented -- there 
really wasn't much that the ignored and infuriated malak Gibreel could 
do about it. Archangels could only speak when men chose to listen. 
What a bunch! Hadn't he warned the Over-Entity at the very beginning 



355 



about this crew of criminals and evildoers? "Wilt thou place in the 
earth such as make mischief in it and shed blood?" he had asked, and 
the Being, as usual, replied only that he knew better. Well, there they 
were, the masters of the earth, canned like tuna on wheels and blind as 
bats, their heads full of mischief and their newspapers of blood. 

It really was incredible. Here appeared a celestial being, all radiance, 
effulgence and goodness, larger than Big Ben, capable of straddling the 
Thames colossus--style, and these little ants remained immersed in 
drive-time radio and quarrels with fellowmotorists. "I am Gibreel," he 
shouted in a voice that shook every building on the riverbank: nobody 
noticed. Not one person came running out of those quaking edifices to 
escape the earthquake. Blind, deaf and asleep. 

He decided to force the issue. 

The stream of traffic flowed past him. He took a mighty breath, lifted 
one gigantic foot, and stepped out to face the cars. 



Gibreel Farishta was returned to Allie's doorstep, badly bruised, with 
many grazes on his arms and face, and jolted into sanity, by a tiny 
shining gentleman with an advanced stammer who introduced himself 
with some difficulty as the film producer S.S. Sisodia, "known as 
Whiwhisky because I'm papa partial to a titi tipple; mamadam, my caca 
card." (When they knew each other better, Sisodia would send Allie into 
convulsions of laughter by rolling up his right trouser-leg, exposing the 
knee, and pronouncing, while he held his enormous wraparound movie- 
man glasses to his shin: "Self pawpaw portrait." He was longsighted to 
a degree: "Don't need help to see moomovies but real life gets too damn 
cloclose up.") It was Sisodia's rented limo that hit Gibreel, a slow- 
motion accident luckily, owing to traffic congestion; the actor ended up 
on the bonnet, mouthing the oldest line in the movies: _Where am I_, 



356 



and Sisodia, seeing the legendary features of the vanished demigod 
squashed up against the limousine's windshield, was tempted to 
answer: _Baback where you bibi belong: on the iska iska iscreen_. -- "No 
bobobones broken," Sisodia told Allie. "A mimi miracle. He ista ista 
istepped right in fafa front of the weewee wehicle." 

_So you're back_, Allie greeted Gibreel silently. _Seems this is where 
you always land up after you fall_. 

"Also Scotch-and-Sisodia," the film producer reverted to the question 
of his sobriquets. "For hoohoo humorous reasons. My fafavourite pup 
pup poison." 

"It is very kind of you to bring Gibreel home," Allie belatedly got the 
point. "You must allow us to offer you a drink." 

"Sure! Sure!" Sisodia actually clapped his hands. "For me, for 
whowhole of heehee Hindi cinema, today is a baba banner day." 



"You have not heard perhaps the story of the paranoid schizophrenic 
who, believing himself to be the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, agreed 
to undergo a lie--detector test?" Alicja Cohen, eating gefilte fish 
hungrily, waved one of Bloom's forks under her daughter's nose. "The 
question they asked him: are you Napoleon? And the answer he gave, 
smiling wickedly, no doubt: No. So they watch the machine, which 
indicates with all the insight of modern science that the lunatic is 
lying." Blake again, Allie thought. _Then I asked: does afirm perswasion 
that a thing is so, make it so? He_ -- i.e. Isaiah -- _replied. All poets 
believe that it does. & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion 
removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of 
any thing_. "Are you listening to me, young woman? I'm serious here. 
That gentleman you have in your bed: he requires not your nightly 



357 



attentions -- excuse me but I'll speak plainly; seeing I must -- but, to be 
frank, a padded cell." 

"You'd do that, wouldn't you," Allie hit back. "You'd throw away the 
key. Maybe you'd even plug him in. Burn the devils out of his brain: 
strange how our prejudices never change." 

"Hmm," Alicja ruminated, adopting her vaguest and most innocent 
expression in order to infuriate her daughter. "What can it harm? Yes, 
maybe a little voltage, a little dose of the juice. . 

"What he needs is what he's getting, mother. Proper medical 
supervision, plenty of rest, and something you maybe forgot about." 
She dried suddenly, her tongue knotted, and it was in quite a different, 
low voice, staring at her untouched salad, that she got out the last 
word. "Love." 

"Ah, the power of love," Alicja patted her daughter's (at once 
withdrawn) hand. "No, it's not what I forgot, Alleluia. It's what you 
just begun for the first time in your beautiful life to learn. And who do 
you pick?" She returned to the attack. "An out-tolunch! A ninety- 
pennies-in-the-pound! A butterflies-in-thebrainbox! I mean, _angels_, 
darling, I never heard the like. Men are always claiming special 
privileges, but this one is a first." 

"Mother . . ." Allie began, but Alicja's mood had changed again, and 
this time, when she spoke, Allie was not listening to the words, but 
hearing the pain they both revealed and concealed, the pain of a woman 
to whom history had most brutally happened, who had already lost a 
husband and seen one daughter precede her to what she once, with 
unforgettable black humour, referred to (she must have read the sports 
pages, by some chance, to come across the phrase) as an _early bath_. 
"Allie, my baby," Alicja Cohen said, "we're going to have to take good 
care of you." 



358 



One reason why Allie was able to spot that panic-anguish in her 
mother's face was her recent sighting of the same combination on the 
features of Gibreel Farishta. After Sisodia returned him to her care, it 
became plain that Gibreel had been shaken to the very marrow, and 
there was a haunted look to him, a scarified popeyed quality, that quite 
pierced her heart. He faced the fact of his mental illness with courage, 
refusing to play it down or call it by a false name, but his recognition of 
it had, understandably, cowed him. No longer (for the present, anyway) 
the ebullient vulgarian for whom she had conceived her "grand 
passion", he became for her, in this newly vulnerable incarnation, more 
lovable than ever. She grew determined to lead him back to sanity, to 
stick it out; to wait out the storm, and conquer the peak. And he was, 
for the moment, the easiest and most malleable of patients, somewhat 
dopey as a result of the heavy-duty medication he was being given by 
the specialists at the Maudsley Hospital, sleeping long hours, and 
acquiescing, when awake, in all her requests, without a murmur of 
protest. In alert moments he filled in for her the full background to his 
illness: the strange serial dreams, and before that the near-fatal 
breakdown in India. "I am no longer afraid of sleep," he told her. 
"Because what's happened in my waking time is now so much worse." 
His greatest fear reminded her of Charles II's terror, after his 
Restoration, of being sent "on his travels" again: "I'd give anything 
only to know it won't happen any more," he told her, meek as a lamb. 

_Lives there who loves his pain?_ "It won't happen," she reassured him. 
"You've got the best help there is." He quizzed her about money, and, 
when she tried to deflect the questions, insisted that she withdraw the 
psychiatric fees from the small fortune stashed in his money--belt. His 
spirits remained low. "Doesn't matter what you say," he mumbled in 
response to her cheery optimisms. "The craziness is in here and it drives 
me wild to think it could get out any minute, right now, and he would 
be in charge again." He had begun to characterize his "possessed", 
"angel" self as another person: in the Beckettian formula, _Not I. He_. 



359 



His very own Mr. Hyde. Allie attempted to argue against such 
descriptions. "It isn't _he_, it's you, and when you're well, it won't be 
you any more." 

It didn't work. For a time, however, it looked as though the treatment 
was going to. Gibreel seemed calmer, more in control; the serial dreams 
were still there -- he would still speak, at night, verses in Arabic, a 
language he did not know: _tilk al-gharaniq al"ula wa inna shafa"ata- 
hunna la-turtaja_, for example, which turned out to mean (Allie, woken 
by his sleeptalk, wrote it down phonetically and went with her scrap of 
paper to the Brickhall mosque, where her recitation made a mullah's 
hair stand on end under his turban): "These are exalted females whose 
intercession is to be desired" -- but he seemed able to think of these 
nightshows as separate from himself, which gave both Allie and the 
Maudsley psychiatrists the feeling that Gibreel was slowly 
reconstructing the boundary wall between dreams and reality, and was 
on the road to recovery; whereas in fact, as it turned out, this 
separation was related to, was the same phenomenon as, his splitting of 
his sense of himself into two entities, one of which he sought heroically 
to suppress, but which he also, by characterizing it as other than 
himself, preserved, nourished, and secretly made strong. 

As for Allie, she lost, for a while, the prickly, wrong feeling of being 
stranded in a false milieu, an alien narrative; caring for Gibreel, 
investing in his brain, as she put it to herself, fighting to salvage him so 
that they could resume the great, exciting struggle of their love -- 
because they would probably quarrel all the way to the grave, she mused 
tolerantly, they'd be two old codgers flapping feebly at one another 
with rolled-up newspapers as they sat upon the evening verandas of 
their lives -- she felt more closely joined to him each day; rooted, so to 
speak, in his earth. It was some time since Maurice Wilson had been 
seen sitting among the chimneypots, calling her to her death. 



360 



Mr. "Whisky" Sisodia, that gleaming and charm-packed knee in 
spectacles, became a regular caller -- three or four visits a week -- during 
Gibreel's convalescence, invariably arriving with boxes full of goodies 
to eat. Gibreel had been literally fasting to death during his "angel 
period", and the medical opinion was that starvation had contributed 
in no small degree to his hallucinations. "So now we fafatten him up," 
Sisodia smacked his palms together, and once the invalid's stomach was 
up to it, "Whisky" plied him with delicacies: Chinese sweet--corn and 
chicken soup, Bombay-style bhel-puri from the new, chic but 
unfortunately named "Pagal Khana" restaurant whose "Crazy Food" 
(but the name could also be translated as _Madhouse_) had grown 
popular enough, especially among the younger set of British Asians, to 
rival even the long-standing pre-eminence of the Shaandaar Cafe, from 
which Sisodia, not wishing to show unseemly partisanship, also fetched 
eats -- sweetmeats, samosas, chicken patties -- for the increasingly 
voracious Gibreel. He brought, too, dishes made by his own hand, fish 
curries, raitas, sivayyan, khir, and doled out, along with the edibles, 
namedropping accounts of celebrity dinner parties: how Pavarotti had 
loved Whisky's lassi, and O but that poor James Mason had just adored 
his spicy prawns. Vanessa, Amitabh, Dustin, Sridevi, Christopher Reeve 
were all invoked. "One soosoo superstar should be aware of the tatastes 
of his pipi peers." Sisodia was something of a legend himself, Allie 
learned from Gibreel. The most slippery and silver-tongued man in the 
business, he had made a string of "quality" pictures on microscopic 
budgets, keeping going for over twenty years on pure charm and 
nonstop hustle. People on Sisodia projects got paid with the greatest 
difficulty, but somehow failed to mind. He had once quelled a cast 
revolt -- over pay, inevitably -- by whisking the entire unit off for a 
grand picnic in one of the most fabulous maharajah palaces in India, a 
place that was normally off limits to all but the high-born elite, the 
Gwaliors and Jaipurs and Kashmirs. Nobody ever knew how he fixed it, 
but most members of that unit had since signed up to work on further 
Sisodia ventures, the pay issue buried beneath the grandeur of such 



361 



gestures. "And if he's needed he is always there," Gibreel added. "When 
Charulata, a wonderful dancer-actress he'd often used, needed the 
cancer treatment, suddenly years of unpaid fees materialized 
overnight." 

These days, thanks to a string of surprise box-office hits based on old 
fables drawn from the _Katha-Sarit-Sagar_ compendium -- the "Ocean 
of the Streams of Story", longer than the Arabian Nights and equally as 
fantasticated -- Sisodia was no longer based exclusively in his tiny office 
on Bombay's Readymoney Terrace, but had apartments in London and 
New York, and Oscars in his toilets. The story was that he carried, in his 
wallet, a photograph of the Hong Kong-based kung-phooey producer 
Run Run Shaw, his supposed hero, whose name he was quite unable to 
say. "Sometimes four Runs, sometimes a sixer," Gibreel told Allie, who 
was happy to see him laugh. "But I can't swear. It's only a media 
rumour." 

Allie was grateful for Sisodia's attentiveness. The famous producer 
appeared to have limitless time at his disposal, whereas Allie's schedule 
had just then grown very full. She had signed a promotional contract 
with a giant chain of freezer--food centres whose advertising agent, Mr. 
Hal Valance, told Allie during a power breakfast -- grapefruit, dry toast, 
decaf, all at Dorchester prices -- that her _profile_, "uniting as it does 
the positive parameters (for our client) of 'coldness' and 'cool', is right 
on line. Some stars end up being vampires, sucking attention away from 
the brand name, you understand, but this feels like real synergy." So 
now there were freezer-mart openings to cut ribbons at, and sales 
conferences, and advertising shots with tubs of softscoop icecream; plus 
the regular meetings with the designers and manufacturers of her 
autograph lines of equipment and leisurewear; and, of course, her 
fitness programme. She had signed on for Mr. Joshi's highly 
recommended martial arts course at the local sports centre, and 
continued, too, to force her legs to run five miles a day around the 



362 



Fields, in spite of the soles-on-broken-glass pain. "No pop problem," 
Sisodia would send her off with a cheery wave. "I will iss iss issit here- 
only until you return. To be with Gigibreel is for me a pip pip 
privilege." She left him regaling Farishta with his inexhaustible 
anecdotes, opinions and general chitchat, and when she returned he 
would still be going strong. She came to identify several major themes; 
notably, his corpus of statements about The Trouble With The English. 
"The trouble with the Engenglish is that their hiss hiss history 
happened overseas, so they dodo don't know what it means." -- "The see 
secret of a dinner party in London is to ow ow outnumber the English. 
If they're outnumbered they bebehave; otherwise, you're in trouble." -- 
"Go to the Che Che Chamber of Horrors and you'll see what's rah rah 
wrong with the English. That's what they rereally like, caw corpses in 
bubloodbaths, mad barbers, etc. etc. etera. Their pay papers full of 
kinky sex and death. But they tell the whir world they're reserved, ist ist 
istiff upper lip and so on, and we're ist ist istupid enough to believe." 
Gibreel listened to this collection of prejudices with what seemed like 
complete assent, irritating Allie profoundly. Were these generalizations 
really all they saw of England? "No," Sisodia conceded with a shameless 
smile. "But it feels googood to let this ist ist istuff out." 

By the time the Maudsley people felt able to recommend a major 
reduction in Gibreel's dosages, Sisodia had become so much a fixture at 
his bedside, a sort of unofficial, eccentric and amusing layabout cousin, 
that when he sprung his trap Gibreel and Allie were taken completely by 
surprise. 



He had been in touch with colleagues in Bombay: the seven producers 
whom Gibreel had left in the lurch when he boarded Air India's Flight 
420, _Bostan_. "All are eel, elated by the news of your survival," he 
informed Gibreel. "Unf unf unfortunately, question of breach of 
contract ararises." Various other parties were also interested in suing 



363 



the renascent Farishta for plenty, in particular a starlet named Pimple 
Billimoria, who alleged loss of earnings and professional damage. 
"Could urn amount to curcrores," Sisodia said, looking lugubrious. 
Allie was angry. "You stirred up this hornets' nest," she said. "I should 
have known: you were too good to be true." 

Sisodia became agitated. "Damn damn damn." 

"Ladies present," Gibreel, still a little drug-woozy, warned; but Sisodia 
windmilled his arms, indicating that he was trying to force words past 
his overexcited teeth. Finally: "Damage limitation. My intention. Not 
betrayal, you mumust not thithithink." 

To hear Sisodia tell it, nobody back in Bombay really wanted to sue 
Gibreel, to kill in court the goose that laid the golden eggs. All parties 
recognized that the old projects were no longer capable of being 
restarted: actors, directors, key crew members, even sound stages were 
otherwise committed. All parties further recognized that Gibreel's 
return from the dead was an item of a commercial value greater than 
any of the defunct films; the question was how to utilize it best, to the 
advantage of all concerned. His landing up in London also suggested 
the possibility of an international connection, maybe overseas funding, 
use of non--Indian locations, participation of stars "from foreign", etc.: 
in short, it was time for Gibreel to emerge from retirement and face the 
cameras again. "There is no chochoice," Sisodia explained to Gibreel, 
who sat up in bed trying to clear his head. "If you refuse, they will move 
against you _en bloc_, and not even your four four fortune could 
suffice. Bankruptcy, jajajail, funtoosh." 

Sisodia had talked himself into the hot seat: all the principals had 
agreed to grant him executive powers in the matter, and he had put 
together quite a package. The British-based entrepreneur Billy Battuta 
was eager to invest both in sterling and in "blocked rupees", the non- 
repatriable profits made by various British film distributors in the 



364 



Indian subcontinent, which Battuta had taken over in return for cash 
payments in negotiable currencies at a knockdown (37-point discount) 
rate. All the Indian producers would chip in, and Miss Pimple 
Billimoria, to guarantee her silence, was to be offered a showcase 
supporting role featuring at least two dance numbers. Filming would be 
spread between three continents -- Europe, India, the North African 
coast. Gibreel got above-the--title billing, and three percentage points 
of producers' net profits . . . "Ten," Gibreel interrupted, "against two of 
the gross." His mind was obviously clearing. Sisodia didn't bat an 
eyelid. "Ten against two," he agreed. "Pre-publicity campaign to be as 
fo follows ..." 

"But what's the project?" Allie Cone demanded. Mr. "Whisky" Sisodia 
beamed from ear to ear. "Dear mamadam," he said. "He will play the 
archangel, Gibreel." 



The proposal was for a series of films, both historical and 
contemporary, each concentrating on one incident from the angel's 
long and illustrious career: a trilogy, at least. "Don't tell me," Allie 
said, mocking the small shining mogul. "_Gibreel in Jahilia, Gibreel 
Meets the Imam, Gibreel with the Butterfly Girl_." Sisodia wasn't one 
bit embarrassed, but nodded proudly. "Stostorylines, draft scenarios, 
cacasting options are already well in haha hand." That was too much 
for Allie. "It stinks," she raged at him, and he retreated from her, a 
trembling and placatory knee, while she. pursued him, until she was 
actually chasing him around the apartment, banging into the furniture, 
slamming doors. "It exploits his sickness, has nothing to do with his 
present needs, and shows an utter contempt for his own wishes. He's 
retired; can't you people respect that? He doesn't want to be a star. And 
will you please stand still. I'm not going to eat you." 



365 



He stopped running, but kept a cautious sofa between them. "Please see 
that this is imp imp imp," he cried, his stammer crippling his tongue 
on account of his anxiety. "Can the moomoon retire? Also, excuse, there 
are his seven sig sig sig. _Signatures_. Committing him absolutely. 
Unless and until you decide to commit him to a papapa." He gave up, 
sweating freely. 

"_A what?_" 

"Pagal Khana. Asylum. That would be another wwwway." 

Allie lifted a heavy brass inkwell in the shape of Mount Everest and 
prepared to hurl it. "You really are a skunk," she began, but then 
Gibreel was standing in the doorway, still rather pale, bony and hollow- 
-eyed. "Alleluia," he said, "I am thinking that maybe I want this. Maybe 
I need to go back to work." 



"Gibreel sahib! I can't tell you how delighted. A star is reborn." Billy 
Battuta was a surprise: no longer the hair-gel-and--fingerrings society 
column shark, he was unshowily dressed in brass-- buttoned blazer and 
blue jeans, and instead of the cocksure swagger Allie had expected there 
was an attractive, almost deferential reticence. He had grown a neat 
goatee beard which gave him a striking resemblance to the Christ-- 
image on the Turin Shroud. Welcoming the three of them (Sisodia had 
picked them up in his limo, and the driver, Nigel, a sharp dresser from 
St Lucia, spent the journey telling Gibreel how many other pedestrians 
his lightning reflexes had saved from serious injury or death, 
punctuating these reminiscences with car--phone conversations in 
which mysterious deals involving amazing sums of money were 
discussed), Billy had shaken Allie's hand warmly, and then fallen upon 
Gibreel and hugged him in pure, infectious joy. His companion Mimi 
Mamoulian was rather less low-key. "It's all fixed," she announced. 



366 



"Fruit, starlets, paparazzi, talk-- shows, rumours, little hints of scandal: 
everything a world figure requires. Flowers, personal security, zillion-- 
pound contracts. Make yourselves at home." 

That was the general idea, Allie thought. Her initial opposition to the 
whole scheme had been overcome by Gibreel's own interest, which, in 
turn, prompted his doctors to go along with it, estimating that his 
restoration to his familiar milieu -- _going home_, in a way -- might 
indeed be beneficial. And Sisodia's purloining of the dream-narratives 
he'd heard at Gibreel's bedside could be seen as serendipitous: for once 
those stories were clearly placed in the artificial, fabricated world of the 
cinema, it ought to become easier for Gibreel to see them as fantasies, 
too. That Berlin Wall between the dreaming and waking state might 
well be more rapidly rebuilt as a result. The bottom line was that it was 
worth the try. 

Things (being things) didn't work out quite as planned. Allie found 
herself resenting the extent to which Sisodia, Battuta and Mimi moved 
in on Gibreel's life, taking over his wardrobe and daily schedules, and 
moving him out of Allie's apartment, declaring that the time for a 
"permanent liaison" was not yet ripe, "imagewise". After the stint at 
the Ritz, the movie star was given three rooms in Sisodia's cavernous, 
designer--chic flat in an old mansion block near Grosvenor Square, all 
Art Deco marbled floors and scumbling on the walls. Gibreel's own 
passive acceptance of these changes was, for Allie, the most infuriating 
aspect of all, and she began to comprehend the size of the step he'd 
taken when he left behind what was clearly second nature to him, and 
came hunting for her. Now that he was sinking back into that universe 
of armed bodyguards and maids with breakfast trays and giggles, would 
he dump her as dramatically as he had entered her life? Had she helped 
to engineer a reverse migration that would leave her high and dry? 
Gibreel stared out of newspapers, magazines, television sets, with many 
different women on his arm, grinning foolishly. She hated it, but he 



367 



refused to notice. "What are you worrying?" he dismissed her, while 
sinking into a leather sofa the size of a small pick--up truck. "It's only 
photo opportunities: business, that's all." 

Worst of all: _he_ got jealous. As he came off the heavy drugs, and as 
his work (as well as hers) began to force separations upon them, he 
began to be possessed, once again, by that irrational, out-of--control 
suspiciousness which had precipitated the ridiculous quarrel over the 
Brunei cartoons. Whenever they met he would put her through the mill, 
interrogating her minutely: where had she been, who had she seen, what 
did he do, did she lead him on? She felt as if she were suffocating. His 
mental illness, the new influences in his life, and now this nightly 
thirddegree treatment: it was as though her real life, the one she 
wanted, the one she was hanging in there and fighting for, was being 
buried deeper and deeper under this avalanche of wrongnesses. _What 
about what I need_, she felt like screaming, _when do I get to set the 
terms?_ Driven to the very edge of her self--control, she asked, as a last 
resort, her mother's advice. In her father's old study in the Moscow 
Road house -- which Alicja had kept just the way Otto liked it, except 
that now the curtains were drawn back to let in what light England 
could come up with, and there were flower--vases at strategic points -- 
Alicja at first offered little more than world-weariness. "So a woman's 
life-plans are being smothered by a man's," she said, not unkindly. "So 
welcome to your gender. I see it's strange for you to be out of control." 
And Allie confessed: she wanted to leave him, but found she couldn't. 
Not just because of guilt about abandoning a seriously unwell person; 
also because of "grand passion", because of the word that still dried her 
tongue when she tried to say it. "You want his child," Alicja put her 
finger on it. At first Allie blazed: "I want my child," but then, subsiding 
abruptly, blowing her nose, she nodded dumbly, and was on the verge of 
tears. 



368 



"You want your head examining is what," Alicja comforted her. How 
long since they had been like this in one another's arms? Too long. And 
maybe it would be the last time... Alicja hugged her daughter, said: "So 
dry your eyes. Comes now the good news. Your affairs might be shot to 
ribbons, but your old mother is in better shape." 

There was an American college professor, a certain Boniek, big in 
genetic engineering. "Now don't start, dear, you don't know anything, 
it's not all Frankenstein and geeps, it has many beneficial 
applications," Alicja said with evident nervousness, and Allie, 
overcoming her surprise and her own red-rimmed unhappiness, burst 
into convulsive, liberating sobs of laughter; in which her mother joined. 
"At your age," Allie wept, "you ought to be ashamed." -- "Well, I'm 
not," the future Mrs. Boniek rejoined. "A professor, and in Stanford, 
California, so he brings the sunshine also. I intend to spend many 
hours working on my tan." 



When she discovered (a report found by chance in a desk drawer at the 
Sisodia palazzo) that Gibreel had started having her followed, Allie did, 
at last, make the break. She scribbled a note -- _This is killing me_ -- 
slipped it inside the report, which she placed on the desktop; and left 
without saying goodbye. Gibreel never rang her up. He was rehearsing, 
in those days, for his grand public reappearance at the latest in a 
successful series of stage song-and-dance shows featuring Indian movie 
stars and staged by one of Billy Battuta's companies at Earls Court. He 
was to be the unannounced, surprise top-of-the-bill show-stopper, and 
had been rehearsing dance routines with the show's chorus line for 
weeks: also rcacquainting himself with the art of mouthing to playback 
music. Rumours of the identity of the Mystery Man or Dark Star were 
being carefully circulated and monitored by Battuta's promo men, and 
the Valance advertising agency had been hired to devise a series of 
"teaser" radio commercials and a local 48--sheet poster campaign. 



369 



Gibreel's arrival on the Earls Court stage -- he was to be lowered from 
the flies surrounded by clouds of cardboard and smoke -- was the 
intended climax to the English segment of his re-entry into his 
superstardom; next stop, Bombay. Deserted, as he called it, by Alleluia 
Cone, he once more "refused to crawl"; and immersed himself in work. 

The next thing that went wrong was that Billy Battuta got himself 
arrested in New York for his Satanic sting. Allie, reading about it in the 
Sunday papers, swallowed her pride and called Gibreel at the rehearsal 
rooms to warn him against consorting with such patently criminal 
elements. "Battuta's a hood," she insisted. "His whole manner was a 
performance, a fake. He wanted to be sure he'd be a hit with the 
Manhattan dowagers, so he made us his tryout audience. That goatee! 
And a college blazer, for God's sake: how did we fall for it?" But Gibreel 
was cold and withdrawn; she had ditched him, in his book, and he 
wasn't about to take advice from deserters. Besides, Sisodia and the 
Battuta promo team had assured him -- and he had grilled them about 
it all right -- that Billy's problems had no relevance to the gala night 
(Filmmela, that was the name) because the financial arrangements 
remained solid, the monies for fees and guarantees had already been 
allocated, all the Bombay--based stars had confirmed, and would 
participate as planned. "Plans fifilling up fast," Sisodia promised. 
"Shoshow must go on." 

The next thing that went wrong was inside Gibreel. 



Sisodia's determination to keep people guessing about this Dark Star 
meant that Gibreel had to enter the Earls Court stage--door dressed in a 
burqa. So that even his sex remained a mystery. He was given the largest 
dressing-room -- a black five-pointed star had been stuck on the door -- 
and was unceremoniously locked in by the bespectacled genuform 
producer. In the dressing-room he found his angel-costume, including a 



370 



contraption that, when tied around his forehead, would cause 
lightbulbs to glow behind him, creating the illusion of a halo; and a 
closed — circuit television, on which he would be able to watch the show 
-- Mithun and Kimi cavorting for the "disco diwane" set; Jayapradha 
and Rekha (no relation: the megastar, not a figment on a rug) 
submitting regally to on-stage interviews, in which Jaya divulged her 
views on polygamy while Rekha fantasized about alternative lives -- "If 
I'd been born out of India, I'd have been a painter in Paris"; heman 
stunts from Vinod and Dharmendra; Sridevi getting her sari wet -- until 
it was time for him to take up his position on a winch-operated 
"chariot" high above the stage. There was a cordless telephone, on 
which Sisodia called to tell him that the house was full -- "All sorts are 
here," he triumphed, and proceeded to offer Gibreel his technique of 
crowd analysis: you could tell the Pakistanis because they dressed up to 
the gills, the Indians because they dressed down, and the Bangladeshis 
because they dressed badly, "all that pupurple and pink and gogo gold 
gota that they like" -- and which otherwise remained silent; and, finally, 
a large gift-wrapped box, a little present from his thoughtful producer, 
which turned out to contain Miss Pimple Billimoria wearing a winsome 
expression and a quantity of gold ribbon. The movies were in town. 



The strange feeling began -- that is, _returned_ -- when he was in the 
"chariot", waiting to descend. He thought of himself as moving along a 
route on which, any moment now, a choice would be offered him, a 
choice -- the thought formulated itself in his head without any help 
from him -- between two realities, this world and another that was also 
right there, visible but unseen. He felt slow, heavy, distanced from his 
own consciousness, and realized that he had not the faintest idea which 
path he would choose, which world he would enter. The doctors had 
been wrong, he now perceived, to treat him for schizophrenia; the 
splitting was not in him, but in the universe. As the chariot began its 



371 



descent towards the immense, tidal roar that had begun to swell below 
him, he rehearsed his opening line -- _My name is Gibreel Farishta, and 
I'm back_ -- and heard it, so to speak, in stereo, because it, too, 
belonged in both worlds, with a different meaning in each; -- and now 
the lights hit him, he raised his arms high, he was returning wreathed 
in clouds, -- and the crowd had recognized him, and his fellow- 
performers, too; people were rising from their seats, every man, woman 
and child in the auditorium, surging towards the stage, unstoppable, 
like a sea. -- The first man to reach him had time to scream out 
_Remember me, Gibreel? With the six toes? Maslama, sir: John 
Maslama. I kept secret your presence among us; but yes, I have been 
speaking out about the coming of the Lord, I have gone before you, a 
voice crying in the wilderness, the crooked shall be made straight and 
the rough places plain_ -- but then he had been dragged away, and the 
security guards were around Gibreel, _they're out of control, it's a 
fucking riot, you'll have to_ -- but he wouldn't go, because he'd seen 
that at least half the crowd were wearing bizarre headgear, rubber horns 
to make them look like demons, as if they were badges of belonging and 
defiance; -- and in that instant when he saw the adversary's sign he felt 
the universe fork and he stepped down the left-hand path. 

The official version of what followed, and the one accepted by all the 
news media, was that Gibreel Farishta had been lifted out of the danger 
area in the same winch-operated chariot in which he'd descended, and 
from which he hadn't had time to emerge; -- and that it would therefore 
have been easy for him to make his escape, from his isolated and 
unwatched place high above the melee. This version proved resilient 
enough to survive the "revelation" in the Voice that the assistant stage 
manager in charge of the winch had not, repeat not, set it in motion 
after it landed; -- that, in fact, the chariot remained grounded 
throughout the riot of the ecstatic film fans; -- and that substantial 
sums of money had been paid to the backstage staff to persuade them 
to collude in the fabrication of a story which, because totally fictional, 



372 



was realistic enough for the newspaper-buying public to believe. 
However, the rumour that Gibreel Farishta had actually levitated away 
from the Earls Court stage and vanished into the blue under his own 
steam spread rapidly through the city's Asian population, and was fed 
by many accounts of the halo that had been seen streaming out from a 
point just behind his head. Within days of the second disappearance of 
Gibreel Farishta, vendors of novelties in Brickhall, Wembley and 
Brixton were selling as many toy haloes (green fluorescent hoops were 
the most popular) as headbands to which had been affixed a pair of 
rubber horns. 



He was hovering high over London! -- Haha, they couldn't touch him 
now, the devils rushing upon him in that Pandemonium! -- He looked 
down upon the city and saw the English. The trouble with the English 
was that they were English: damn cold fish! -- Living underwater most 
of the year, in days the colour of night! -- Well: he was here now, the 
great Transformer, and this time there'd be some changes made -- the 
laws of nature are the laws of its transformation, and he was the very 
person to utilize the same! -- Yes, indeed: this time, clarity. 

He would show them -- yes! -- his _power_. -- These powerless English! - 
- Did they not think their history would return to haunt them? -- "The 
native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the 
persecutor" (Fanon). English women no longer bound him; the 
conspiracy stood exposed! -- Then away with all fogs. He would make 
this land anew. He was the Archangel, Gibreel. -- _And I'm back!_ 

The face of the adversary hung before him once again, sharpening, 
clarifying. Moony with a sardonic curl to the lips: but the name still 
eluded . . . _tcha_, like tea? _Shah_, a king? Or like a (royal? tea?) 
dance: _Shatchacha_. -- Nearly there. -- And the nature of the adversary: 
self--hating, constructing a false ego, auto--destructive. Fanon again: 



373 



"In this way the individual" -- the Fanonian _native_ -- "accepts the 
disintegration ordained by God, bows down before the settler and his 
lot, and by a kind of interior restabilization acquires a stony calm." -- 
_I ' 11 give him stony calm!_ -- Native and settler, that old dispute, 
continuing now upon these soggy streets, with reversed categories. -- It 
occurred to him now that he was forever joined to the adversary, their 
arms locked around one another's bodies, mouth to mouth, head to 
tail, as when they fell to earth: when they settled. -- As things begin so 
they continue. -- Yes, he was coming closer. -- Chichi? Sasa? -- _My 
other, my love_ . . . 

. . . No! -- He floated over parkland and cried out, frightening the birds. 
-- No more of these England-induced ambiguities, these Biblical-- 
Satanic confusions! -- Clarity, clarity, at all costs clarity! -- This Shaitan 
was no fallen angel. -- Forget those son-ofthe-morning fictions; this was 
no good boy gone bad, but pure evil. Truth was, he wasn't an angel at 
all! -- "He was of the djinn, so he transgressed." -- Quran 18 :50, there it 
was as plain as the day. -- How much more straightforward this version 
was! How much more practical, down--to--earth, comprehensible! -- 
Iblis/ Shaitan standing for the darkness, Gibreel for the light. -- Out, 
out with these sentimentalities: _joining, locking together, love_. Seek 
and destroy: that was all. 

. . . O most slippery, most devilish of cities! -- In which such stark, 
imperative oppositions were drowned beneath an endless drizzle of 
greys. -- How right he'd been, for instance, to banish those Satanico- 
Biblical doubts of his, -- those concerning God's unwillingness to 
permit dissent among his lieutenants, -- for as Iblis/Shaitan was no 
angel, so there had been no angelic dissidents for the Divinity to 
repress; -- and those concerning forbidden fruit, and God's supposed 
denial of moral choice to his creations; -- for nowhere in the entire 
Recitation was that Tree called (as the Bible had it) the root of the 
knowledge of good and evil. _It was simply a different Tree!_ Shaitan, 



374 



tempting the Edenic couple, called it only "the Tree of Immortality" -- 
and as he was a liar, so the truth (discovered by inversion) was that the 
banned fruit (apples were not specified) hung upon the Death-Tree, no 
less, the slayer of men's souls. -- What remained now of that 
moralityfearing God? Where was He to be found? -- Only down below, 
in English hearts. -- Which he, Gibreel, had come to transform. 

Abracadabra! 

Hocus Pocus! 

But where should he begin? -- Well, then, the trouble with the English 
was their: 



Their: 



_In a word_, Gibreel solemnly pronounced, _their weather_. 

Gibreel Farishta floating on his cloud formed the opinion that the 
moral fuzziness of the English was meteorologically induced. "When 
the day is not warmer than the night," he reasoned, "when the light is 
not brighter than the dark, when the land is not drier than the sea, then 
clearly a people will lose the power to make distinctions, and commence 
to see everything -- from political parties to sexual partners to religious 
beliefs -- as much--the--same, nothing-to-choose, give-or-take. What 
folly! For truth is extreme, it is _so_ and not _thus_, it is _him_ and 
not _her_; a partisan matter, not a spectator sport. It is, in brief, 
_heated_. City," he cried, and his voice rolled over the metropolis like 
thunder, "I am going to tropicalize you." 

Gibreel enumerated the benefits of the proposed metamorphosis of 
London into a tropical city: increased moral definition, institution of a 
national siesta, development of vivid and expansive patterns of 
behaviour among the populace, higherquality popular music, new birds 
in the trees (macaws, peacocks, cockatoos), new trees under the birds 



375 



(coco--palms, tamarind, banyans with hanging beards). Improved street- 
-life, outrageously coloured flowers (magenta, vermilion, neon-green), 
spidermonkeys in the oaks. A new mass market for domestic 
airconditioning units, ceiling fans, anti-mosquito coils and sprays. A 
coir and copra industry. Increased appeal of London as a centre for 
conferences, etc.; better cricketers; higher emphasis on ballcontrol 
among professional footballers, the traditional and soulless English 
commitment to "high workrate" having been rendered obsolete by the 
heat. Religious fervour, political ferment, renewal of interest in the 
intelligentsia. No more British reserve; hot-water bottles to be banished 
forever, replaced in the foetid nights by the making of slow and 
odorous love. Emergence of new social values: friends to commence 
dropping in on one another without making appointments, closure of 
old folks' homes, emphasis on the extended family. Spicier food; the 
use of water as well as paper in English toilets; the joy of running fully 
dressed through the first rains of the monsoon. 

Disadvantages: cholera, typhoid, legionnaires' disease, cockroaches, 
dust, noise, a culture of excess. 

Standing upon the horizon, spreading his arms to fill the sky, Gibreel 
cried: "Let it be." 

Three things happened, fast. 

The first was that, as the unimaginably colossal, elemental forces of the 
transformational process rushed out of his body (for was he not their 
_embodiment?_), he was temporarily overcome by a warm, spinning 
heaviness, a soporific churning (not at all unpleasant) that made him 
close, just for an instant, his eyes. 

The second was that the moment his eyes were shut the horned and 
goaty features of Mr. Saladin Chamcha appeared, on the screen of his 



376 



mind, as sharp and well-defined as could be; accompanied, as if it were 
sub--titled there, by the adversary's name. 

And the third thing was that Gibreel Farishta opened his eyes to find 
himself collapsed, once again, on Alleluia Cone's doorstep, begging her 
forgiveness, weeping _0 God, it happened, it really happened again_. 



She put him to bed; he found himself escaping into sleep, diving 
headlong into it, away from Proper London and towards Jahilia, because 
the real terror had crossed the broken boundary wall, and stalked his 
waking hours. 

"A homing instinct: one crazy heading for another," Alicja said when 
her daughter phoned with the news. "You must be putting out a signal, 
some sort of bleeping thing." As usual, she hid her concern beneath 
wisecracks. Finally she came out with it: "This time be sensible, 
Alleluia, okay? This time the asylum." 

"We'll see, mother. He's asleep right now." 

"So he isn't going to wake up?" Alicja expostulated, then controlled 
herself. "All right, I know, it's your life. Listen, isn't this weather 
something? They say it could last months: 'blocked pattern', I heard on 
television, rain over Moscow, while here it's a tropical heatwaye. I called 
Boniek at Stanford and told him: now we have weather in London, too." 



VI. Return to Jahilia 

When Baal the poet saw a single teardrop the colour of blood emerging 
from the corner of the left eye of the statue of Al-Lat in the House of 
the Black Stone, he understood that the Prophet Mahound was on his 



377 



way back to Jahilia after an exile of a quarter-century. He belched 
violently -- an affliction of age, this, its coarseness seeming to 
correspond to the general thickening induced by the years, a thickening 
of the tongue as well as the body, a slow congealment of the blood, that 
had turned Baal at fifty into a figure quite unlike his quick young self. 
Sometimes he felt that the air itself had thickened, resisting him, so 
that even a shortish walk could leave him panting, with an ache in his 
arm and an irregularity in his chest . . . and Mahound must have 
changed, too, returning as he was in splendour and omnipotence to the 
place whence he fled emptyhanded, without so much as a wife. 
Mahound at sixty-five. Our names meet, separate, and meet again, Baal 
thought, but the people going by the names do not remain the same. He 
left AlLat to emerge into bright sunlight, and heard from behind his 
back a little snickering laugh. He turned, weightily; nobody to be seen. 
The hem of a robe vanishing around a corner. These days, down-at--heel 
Baal often made strangers giggle in the street. "Bastard!" he shouted at 
the top of his voice, scandalizing the other worshippers in the House. 
Baal, the decrepit poet, behaving badly again. He shrugged and headed 
for home. 

The city of Jahilia was no longer built of sand. That is to say, the 
passage of the years, the sorcery of the desert winds, the petrifying 
moon, the forgetfulness of the people and the inevitability of progress 
had hardened the town, so that it had lost its old, shifting, provisional 
quality of a mirage in which men could live, and become a prosaic place, 
quotidian and (like its poets) poor. Mahound's arm had grown long; his 
power had encircled Jahilia, cutting off its life--blood, its pilgrims and 
caravans. The fairs of Jahilia, these days, were pitiful to behold. 

Even the Grandee himself had acquired a theadbare look, his white hair 
as full of gaps as his teeth. His concubines were dying of old age, and he 
lacked the energy -- or, so the rumours murmured in the desultory 
alleys of the city, the need -- to replace them. Some days he forgot to 



378 



shave, which added to his look of dilapidation and defeat. Only Hind 
was the same as ever. 

She had always had something of a reputation as a witch, who could 
wish illnesses upon you if you failed to bow down before her litter as it 
passed, an occultist with the power of transforming men into desert 
snakes when she had had her fill of them, and then catching them by 
the tail and having them cooked in their skins for her evening meal. 
Now that she had reached sixty the legend of her necromancy was being 
given new substantiation by her extraordinary and unnatural failure to 
age. While all around her hardened into stagnation, while the old gangs 
of Sharks grew middle--aged and squatted on Street corners playing 
cards and rolling dice, while the old knot--witches and contortionists 
starved to death in the gullies, while a generation grew up whose 
conservatism and unquestioning worship of the material world was 
born of their knowledge of the probability of unemployment and 
penury, while the great city lost its sense of itself and even the cult of 
the dead declined in popularity to the relief of the camels of Jahilia, 
whose dislike of being left with severed hamstrings on human graves 
was easy to comprehend .. . while Jahilia decayed, in short, Hind 
remained unwrinkled, her body as firm as any young woman's, her hair 
as black as crow feathers, her eyes sparkling like knives, her bearing still 
haughty, her voice still brooking no opposition. Hind, not Simbel, 
ruled the city now; or so she undeniably believed. 

As the Grandee grew into a soft and pursy old age, Hind took to writing 
a series of admonitory and hortatory epistles or bulls to the people of 
the city. These were pasted up on every street in town. So it was that 
Hind and not Abu Simbel came to be thought of by Jahilians as the 
embodiment of the city, its living avatar, because they found in her 
physical unchangingness and in the unflinching resolve of her 
proclamations a description of themselves far more palatable than the 
picture they saw in the mirror of Simbel's crumbling face. Hind's 



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posters were more influential than any poet's verses. She was still 
sexually voracious, and had slept with every writer in the city (though it 
was a long time since Baal had been allowed into her bed); now the 
writers were used up, discarded, and she was rampant. With sword as 
well as pen. She was Hind, who had joined the Jahilian army disguised 
as a man, using sorcery to deflect all spears and swords, seeking out her 
brothers' killer through the storm of war. Hind, who butchered the 
Prophet's uncle, and ate old Hamza's liver and his heart. 

Who could resist her? For her eternal youth which was also theirs; for 
her ferocity which gave them the illusion of being invincible; and for 
her bulls, which were refusals of time, of history, of age, which sang the 
city's undimmed magnificence and defied the garbage and decrepitude 
of the streets, which insisted on greatness, on leadership, on 
immortality, on the status of Jahilians as custodians of the divine . . . 
for these writings the people forgave her her promiscuity, they turned a 
blind eye to the stories of Hind being weighed in emeralds on her 
birthday, they ignored rumours of orgies, they laughed when told of the 
size of her wardrobe, of the five hundred and eighty-one nightgowns 
made of gold leaf and the four hundred and twenty pairs of ruby 
slippers. The citizens of Jahilia dragged themselves through their 
increasingly dangerous streets, in which murder for small change was 
becoming commonplace, in which old women were being raped and 
ritually slaughtered, in which the riots of the starving were brutally put 
down by Hind's personal police force, the Manticorps; and in spite of 
the evidence of their eyes, stomachs and wallets, they believed what 
Hind whispered in their ears: Rule, Jahilia, glory of the world. 

Not all of them, of course. Not, for example, Baal. Who looked away 
from public affairs and wrote poems of unrequited love. 

Munching a white radish, he arrived home, passing beneath a dingy 
archway in a cracking wall. Here there was a small urinous courtyard 
littered with feathers, vegetable peelings, blood. There was no sign of 



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human life: only flies, shadows, fear. These days it was necessary to be 
on one's guard. A sect of murderous hashashin roamed the city. 
Affluent persons were advised to approach their homes on the opposite 
side of the street, to make sure that the house was not being watched; 
when the coast was clear they would rush for the door and shut it 
behind them before any lurking criminal could push his way in. Baal 
did not bother with such precautions. Once he had been affluent, but 
that was a quarter of a century ago. Now there was no demand for 
satires -- the general fear of Mahound had destroyed the market for 
insults and wit. And with the decline of the cult of the dead had come a 
sharp drop in orders for epitaphs and triumphal odes of revenge. Times 
were hard all around. 

Dreaming of long-lost banquets, Baal climbed an unsteady wooden 
staircase to his small upstairs room. What did he have to steal? He 
wasn't worth the knife. Opening his door, he began to enter, when a 
push sent him tumbling to bloody his nose against the far wall. "Don't 
kill me," he squealed blindly. "O God, don't murder me, for pity's sake, 
O." 

The other hand closed the door. Baal knew that no matter how loudly 
he screamed they would remain alone, sealed off from the world in that 
uncaring room. Nobody would come; he himself, hearing his neighbour 
shriek, would have pushed his cot against the door. 

The intruder's hooded cloak concealed his face completely. Baal 
mopped his bleeding nose, kneeling, shaking uncontrollably. "I've got 
no money," he implored. "I've got nothing." Now the stranger spoke: 
"If a hungry dog looks for food, he does not look in the doghouse." 
And then, after a pause: "Baal. There's not much left of you. I had 
hoped for more." 

Now Baal felt oddly affronted as well as terrified. Was this some kind of 
demented fan, who would kill him because he no longer lived up to the 



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power of his old work? Still trembling, he attempted self--deprecation. 
"To meet a writer is, usually, to be disappointed," he offered. The other 
ignored this remark. "Mahound is coming," he said. 

This flat statement filled Baal with the most profound terror. "What's 
that got to do with me?" he cried. "What does he want? It was a long 
time ago -- a lifetime -- more than a lifetime. What does he want? Are 
you from, are you sent by him?" 

"His memory is as long as his face," the intruder said, pushing back his 
hood. "No, I am not his messenger. You and I have something in 
common. We are both afraid of him." 

"I know you," Baal said. 

"Yes." 

"The way you speak. You're a foreigner." 

"'A revolution of water--carriers, immigrants and slaves,'" the stranger 
quoted. "Your words." 

"You're the immigrant," Baal remembered. "The Persian. Sulaiman." 
The Persian smiled his crooked smile. "Salman," he corrected. "Not 
wise, but peaceful." 

"You were one of the closest to him," Baal said, perplexed. 

"The closer you are to a conjurer," Salman bitterly replied, "the easier 
to spot the trick." 

And Gibreel dreamed this: 

At the oasis of Yathrib the followers of the new faith of Submission 
found themselves landless, and therefore poor. For many years they 
financed themselves by acts of brigandage, attacking the rich camel- 



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trains on their way to and from Jahilia. Mahound had no time for 
scruples, Salman told Baal, no qualms about ends and means. The 
faithful lived by lawlessness, but in those years Mahound -- or should 
one say the Archangel Gibreel? -- should one say Al-Lah? -- became 
obsessed by law. Amid the palm-trees of the oasis Gibreel appeared to 
the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the 
faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation, Salman 
said, rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face 
to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning 
one's behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left 
unregulated, free. The revelation -- the _recitation_ -- told the faithful 
how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which sexual 
positions had received divine sanction, so that they learned that 
sodomy and the missionary position were approved of by the archangel, 
whereas the forbidden postures included all those in which the female 
was on top. Gibreel further listed the permitted and forbidden subjects 
of conversation, and earmarked the parts of the body which could not 
be scratched no matter how unbearably they might itch. He vetoed the 
consumption of prawns, those bizarre other-worldly creatures which no 
member of the faithful had ever seen, and required animals to be killed 
slowly, by bleeding, so that by experiencing their deaths to the full they 
might arrive at an understanding of the meaning of their lives, for it is 
only at the moment of death that living creatures understand that life 
has been real, and not a sort of dream. And Gibreel the archangel 
specified the manner in which a man should be buried, and how his 
property should be divided, so that Salman the Persian got to 
wondering what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a 
businessman. This was when he had the idea that destroyed his faith, 
because he recalled that of course Mahound himself had been a 
businessman, and a damned successful one at that, a person to whom 
organization and rules came naturally, so how excessively convenient it 
was that he should have come up with such a very businesslike 



383 



archangel, who handed down the management decisions of this highly 
corporate, if non-corporeal, God. 

After that Salman began to notice how useful and well timed the 
angel's revelations tended to be, so that when the faithful were 
disputing Mahound's views on any subject, from the possibility of 
space travel to the permanence of Hell, the angel would turn up with an 
answer, and he always supported Mahound, stating beyond any shadow 
of a doubt that it was impossible that a man should ever walk upon the 
moon, and being equally positive on the transient nature of damnation: 
even the most evil of doers would eventually be cleansed by hellfire and 
find their way into the perfumed gardens, Gulistan and Bostan. It 
would have been different, Salman complained to Baal, if Mahound 
took up his positions after receiving the revelation from Gibreel; but 
no, he just laid down the law and the angel would confirm it afterwards; 
so I began to get a bad smell in my nose, and I thought, this must be 
the odour of those fabled and legendary unclean creatures, what's their 
name, prawns. 

The fishy smell began to obsess Salman, who was the most highly 
educated of Mahound's intimates owing to the superior educational 
system then on offer in Persia. On account of his scholastic 
advancement Salman was made Mahound's official scribe, so that it fell 
to him to write down the endlessly proliferating rules. All those 
revelations of convenience, he told Baal, and the longer I did the job the 
worse it got. -- For a time, however, his suspicions had to be shelved, 
because the armies of Jahilia marched on Yathrib, determined to swat 
the flies who were pestering their camel--trains and interfering with 
business. What followed is well known, no need for me to repeat, 
Salman said, but then his immodesty burst out of him and forced him 
to tell Baal how he personally had saved Yathrib from certain 
destruction, how he had preserved Mahound's neck with his idea of a 
ditch. Salman had persuaded the Prophet to have a huge trench dug all 



384 



the way around the unwalled oasis settlement, making it too wide even 
for the fabled Arab horses of the famous Jahilian cavalry to leap across. 
A ditch: with sharpened stakes at the bottom. When the Jahilians saw 
this foul piece of unsportsmanlike hole-digging their sense of chivalry 
and honour obliged them to behave as if the ditch had not been dug, 
and to ride their horses at it, full--tilt. The flower of Jahilia's army, 
human as well as equine, ended up impaled on the pointed sticks of 
Salman's Persian deviousness, trust an immigrant not to play the game. 
-- And after the defeat of Jahilia? Salman lamented to Baal: You'd have 
thought I'd have been a hero, I'm not a vain man but where were the 
public honours, where was the gratitude of Mahound, why didn't the 
archangel mention _me_ in despatches? Nothing, not a syllable, it was 
as if the faithful thought of my ditch as a cheap trick, too, an 
outlandish thing, dishonouring, unfair; as if their manhood had been 
damaged by the thing, as though I'd hurt their pride by saving their 
skins. I kept my mouth shut and said nothing, but I lost a lot of friends 
after that, I can tell you, people hate you to do them a good turn. 

In spite of the ditch of Yathrib, the faithful lost a good many men in 
the war against Jahilia. On their raiding sorties they lost as many lives 
as they claimed. And after the end of the war, hey presto, there was the 
Archangel Gibreel instructing the surviving males to marry the widowed 
women, lest by remarrying outside the faith they be lost to Submission. 
Oh, such a practical angel, Salman sneered to Baal. By now he had 
produced a bottle of toddy from the folds of his cloak and the two men 
were drinking steadily in the failing light. Salman grew ever more 
garrulous as the yellow liquid in the bottle went down; Baal couldn't 
recall when he'd last heard anyone talk up such a storm. O, those 
matter--of--fact revelations, Salman cried, we were even told it didn't 
matter if we were already married, we could have up to four marriages if 
we could afford it, well, you can imagine, the lads really went for that. 



385 



What finally finished Salman with Mahound: the question of the 
women; and of the Satanic verses. Listen, I'm no gossip, Salman 
drunkenly confided, but after his wife's death Mahound was no angel, 
you understand my meaning. But in Yathrib he almost met his match. 
Those women up there: they turned his beard half-white in a year. The 
point about our Prophet, my dear Baal, is that he didn't like his women 
to answer back, he went for mothers and daughters, think of his first 
wife and then Ayesha: too old and too young, his two loves. He didn't 
like to pick on someone his own size. But in Yathrib the women are 
different, you don't know, here injahilia you're used to ordering your 
females about but up there they won't put up with it. When a man gets 
married he goes to live with his wife's people! Imagine! Shocking, isn't 
it? And throughout the marriage the wife keeps her own tent. If she 
wants to get rid of her husband she turns the tent round to face in the 
opposite direction, so that when he comes to her he finds fabric where 
the door should be, and that's that, he's out, divorced, not a thing he 
can do about it. Well, our girls were beginning to go for that type of 
thing, getting who knows what sort of ideas in their heads, so at once, 
bang, out comes the rule book, the angel starts pouring out rules about 
what women mustn't do, he starts forcing them back into the docile 
attitudes the Prophet prefers, docile or maternal, walking three steps 
behind or sitting at home being wise and waxing their chins. How the 
women of Yathrib laughed at the faithful, I swear, but that man is a 
magician, nobody could resist his charm; the faithful women did as he 
ordered them. They Submitted: he was offering them Paradise, after all. 

"Anyway," Salman said near the bottom of the bottle, "finally I decided 
to test him." 

One night the Persian scribe had a dream in which he was hovering 
above the figure of Mahound at the Prophet's cave on Mount Cone. At 
first Salman took this to be no more than a nostalgic reverie of the old 
days in Jahilia, but then it struck him that his point of view, in the 



386 



dream, had been that of the archangel, and at that moment the memory 
of the incident of the Satanic verses came back to him as vividly as if 
the thing had happened the previous day. "Maybe I hadn't dreamed of 
myself as Gibreel," Salman recounted. "Maybe I was Shaitan." The 
realization of this possibility gave him his diabolic idea. After that, 
when he sat at the Prophet's feet, writing down rules rules rules, he 
began, surreptitiously, to change things. 

"Little things at first. If Mahound recited a verse in which God was 
described as _all-hearing, all-knowing_, I would write, _all-knowing, 
all-wise_. Here's the point: Mahound did not notice the alterations. So 
there I was, actually writing the Book, or rewriting, anyway, polluting 
the word of God with my own profane language. But, good heavens, if 
my poor words could not be distinguished from the Revelation by 
God's own Messenger, then what did that mean? What did that say 
about the quality of the divine poetry? Look, I swear, I was shaken to 
my soul. It's one thing to be a smart bastard and have half--suspicions 
about funny business, but it's quite another thing to find out that 
you're right. Listen: I changed my life for that man. I left my country, 
crossed the world, settled among people who thought me a slimy 
foreign coward for saving their, who never appreciated what I, but never 
mind that. The truth is that what! expected when I made that first tiny 
change, _all-wise_ instead of _all-hearing_ -- what I _wanted_ --was to 
read it back to the Prophet, and he'd say, What's the matter with you, 
Salman, arc you going deaf? And I'd say, Oops, O God, bit of a slip, how 
could I, and correct myself. But it didn't happen; and now I was writing 
the Revelation and nobody was noticing, and I didn't have the courage 
to own up. I was scared silly, I can tell you. Also: I was sadder than I 
have ever been. So I had to go on doing it. Maybe he'd just missed out 
once, I thought, anybody can make a mistake. So the next time I 
changed a bigger thing. He said _Christian_, I wrote down _Jew_. He'd 
notice that, surely; how could he not? But when I read him the chapter 
he nodded and thanked me politely, and I went out of his tent with 



387 



tears in my eyes. After that I knew my days in Yathrib were numbered; 
but I had to go on doing it. I had to. There is no bitterness like that of a 
man who finds out he has been believing in a ghost. I would fall, I 
knew, but he would fall with me. So I went on with my devilment, 
changing verses, until one day I read my lines to him and saw him 
frown and shake his head as if to clear his mind, and then nod his 
approval slowly, but with a little doubt. I knew I'd reached the edge, 
and that the next time I rewrote the Book he'd know everything. That 
night I lay awake, holding his fate in my hands as well as my own. If I 
allowed myself to be destroyed I could destroy him, too. I had to 
choose, on that awful night, whether I preferred death with revenge to 
life without anything. As you see, I chose: life. Before dawn I left 
Yathrib on my camel, and made my way, suffering numerous 
misadventures I shall not trouble to relate, back tojahilia. And now 
Mahound is coming in triumph; so I shall lose my life after all. And his 
power has grown too great for me to unmake him now." 

Baal asked: "Why are you sure he will kill you?" 

Salman the Persian answered: "It's his Word against mine." 



When Salman had slipped into unconsciousness on the floor, Baal lay 
on his scratchy straw--filled mattress, feeling the steel ring of pain 
around his forehead, the flutter of warning in his heart. Often his 
tiredness with his life had made him wish not to grow old, but, as 
Salman had said, to dream of a thing is very different from being faced 
with the fact of it. For some time now he had been conscious that the 
world was closing in around him. He could no longer pretend that his 
eyes were what they ought to be, and their dimness made his life even 
more shadowy, harder to grasp. All this blurring and loss of detail: no 
wonder his poetry had gone down the drain. His ears were getting to be 
unreliable, too. At this rate he'd soon end up sealed off from everything 



388 



by the loss of his senses. . . but maybe he'd never get the chance. 
Mahound was coming. Maybe he would never kiss another woman. 
Mahound, Mahound. Why has this chatterbox drunk come to me, he 
thought angrily. What do I have to do with his treachery? Everyone 
knows why I wrote those satires years ago; he must know. How the 
Grandee threatened and bullied. I can't be held responsible. And 
anyway: who is he, that prancing sneering boy-wonder, Baal of the 
cutting tongue? I don't recognize him. Look at me: heavy, dull, 
nearsighted, soon to be deaf. Who do I threaten? Not a soul. He began 
to shake Salman: wake up, I don't want to be associated with you, 
you'll get me into trouble. 

The Persian snored on, sitting splay-legged on the floor with his back to 
the wall, his head hanging sideways like a doll"s; Baa!, racked by 
headache, fell back on to his cot. His verses, he thought, what had they 
been? _What kind of idea_ damn it, he couldn't even remember them 
properly _does Submission seem today_ yes, something like that, after 
all this time it was scarcely surprising _an idea that runs away_ that was 
the end anyhow. Mahound, any new idea is asked two questions. When 
it's weak: will it compromise? We know the answer to that one. And 
now, Mahound, on your return to Jahilia, time for the second question: 
How do you behave when you win? When your enemies are at your 
mercy and your power has become absolute: what then? We have all 
changed: all of us except Hind. Who seems, from what this drunkard 
says, more like a woman of Yathrib than Jahilia. No wonder the two of 
you didn't hit it off: she wouldn't be your mother or your child. 

As he drifted towards sleep, Baa! surveyed his own uselessness, his 
failed art. Now that he had abdicated all public platforms, his verses 
were full of loss: of youth, beauty, love, health, innocence, purpose, 
energy, certainty, hope. Loss of knowledge. Loss of money. The loss of 
Hind. Figures walked away from him in his odes, and the more 
passionately he called out to them the faster they moved. The landscape 



389 



of his poetry was still the desert, the shifting dunes with the plumes of 
white sand blowing from their peaks. Soft mountains, uncompleted 
journeys, the impermanence of tents. How did one map a country that 
blew into a new form every day? Such questions made his language too 
abstract, his imagery too fluid, his metre too inconstant. It led him to 
create chimeras of form, lionheaded goatbodied serpenttailed 
impossibilities whose shapes felt obliged to change the moment they 
were set, so that the demotic forced its way into lines of classical purity 
and images of love were constantly degraded by the intrusion of 
elements of farce. Nobody goes for that stuff, he thought for the 
thousand and first time, and as unconsciousness arrived he concluded, 
comfortingly: Nobody remembers me. Oblivion is safety. Then his heart 
missed a beat and he came wide awake, frightened, cold. Mahound, 
maybe I'll cheat you of your revenge. He spent the night awake, 
listening to Salman's rolling, oceanic snores. 

Gibreel dreamed campfires: 

A famous and unexpected figure walks, one night, between the 
campfires of Mahound's army. Perhaps on account of the dark, -- or it 
might be because of the improbability of his presence here, -- it seems 
that the Grandee of Jahilia has regained, in this final moment of his 
power, some of the strength of his earlier days. He has come alone; and 
is led by Khalid the erstwhile water—carrier and the former slave Bilal to 
the quarters of Mahound. 

Next, Gibreel dreamed the Grandee's return home: 

The town is full of rumours and there's a crowd in front of the house. 
After a time the sound of Hind's voice lifted in rage can be clearly 
heard. Then at an upper balcony Hind shows herself and demands that 
the crowd tear her husband into small pieces. The Grandee appears 
beside her; and receives loud, humiliating smacks on both cheeks from 
his loving wife. Hind has discovered that in spite of all her efforts she 



390 



has not been able to prevent the Grandee from surrendering the city to 
Mahound. 

Moreover: Abu Simbel has embraced the faith. 

Simbel in his defeat has lost much of his recent wispiness. He permits 
Hind to strike him, and then speaks calmly to the crowd. He says: 
Mahound has promised that anyone within the Grandee's walls will be 
spared. "So come in, all of you, and bring your families, too." 

Hind speaks for the angry crowd. "You old fool. How many citizens can 
fit inside a single house, even this one? You've done a deal to save your 
own neck. Let them rip you up and feed you to the ants." 

Still the Grandee is mild. "Mahound also promises that all who are 
found at home, behind closed doors, will be safe. If you will not come 
into my home then go to your own; and wait." 

A third time his wife attempts to turn the crowd against him; this is a 
balcony scene of hatred instead of love. There can be no compromise 
with Mahound, she shouts, he is not to be trusted, the people must 
repudiate Abu Simbel and prepare to fight to the last man, the last 
woman. She herself is prepared to fight beside them and die for the 
freedom of Jahilia. "Will you merely lie down before this false prophet, 
this Dajjal? Can honour be expected of a man who is preparing to storm 
the city of his birth? Can compromise be hoped for from the 
uncompromising, pity from the pitiless? We are the mighty of Jahilia, 
and our goddesses, glorious in battle, will prevail." She commands 
them to fight in the name of Al-Lat. But the people begin to leave. 

Husband and wife stand on their balcony, and the people see them 
plain. For so long the city has used these two as its mirrors; and 
because, of late, Jahilians have preferred Hind's images to the greying 
Grandee, they are suffering, now, from profound shock. A people that 



391 



has remained convinced of its greatness and invulnerability, that has 
chosen to believe such a myth in the face of all the evidence, is a people 
in the grip of a kind of sleep, or madness. Now the Grandee has 
awakened them from that sleep; they stand disoriented, rubbing their 
eyes, unable to believe at first -- if we are so mighty, how then have we 
fallen so fast, so utterly? -- and then belief comes, and shows them how 
their confidence has been built on clouds, on the passion of Hind's 
proclamations and on very little else. They abandon her, and with her, 
hope. Plunging into despair, the people of Jahilia go home to lock their 
doors. 

She screams at them, pleads, loosens her hair. "Come to the House of 
the Black Stone! Come and make sacrifice to Lat!" But they have gone. 
And Hind and the Grandee are alone on their balcony, while 
throughout Jahilia a great silence falls, a great stillness begins, and 
Hind leans against the wall of her palace and closes her eyes. 

It is the end. The Grandee murmurs softly: "Not many of us have as 
much reason to be scared of Mahound as you. If you eat a man's 
favourite uncle's innards, raw, without so much as salt or garlic, don't 
be surprised if he treats you, in turn, like meat." Then he leaves her, 
and goes down into the streets from which even the dogs have vanished, 
to unlock the city gates. 

Gibreel dreamed a temple: 

By the open gates of Jahilia stood the temple of Uzza. And Mahound 
spake unto Khalid who had been a carrier of water before, and now bore 
greater weights: "Go thou and cleanse that place." So Khalid with a 
force of men descended upon the temple, for Mahound was loth to 
enter the city while such abominations stood at its gates. 

When the guardian of the temple, who was of the tribe of Shark, saw 
the approach of Khalid with a great host of warriors, he took up his 



392 



sword and went to the idol of the goddess. After making his final 
prayers he hung his sword about her neck, saying, "If thou be truly a 
goddess, Uzza, defend thyself and thy servant against the coming of 
Mahound." Then Khalid entered the temple, and when the goddess did 
not move the guardian said, "Now verily do I know that the God of 
Mahound is the true God, and this stone but a stone." Then Khalid 
broke the temple and the idol and returned to Mahound in his tent. 
And the Prophet asked: "What didst thou see?" Khalid spread his arms. 
"Nothing," said he. "Then thou hast not destroyed her," the Prophet 
cried. "Go again, and complete thy work." So Khalid returned to the 
fallen temple, and there an enormous woman, all black but for her long 
scarlet tongue, came running at him, naked from head to foot, her 
black hair flowing to her ankles from her head. Nearing him, she 
halted, and recited in her terrible voice of sulphur and hellfire: "Have 
you heard of Lat, and Manat, and Uzza, the Third, the Other? They are 
the Exalted Birds . . ." But Khalid interrupted her, saying, "Uzza, those 
are the Devil's verses, and you the Devil's daughter, a creature not to be 
worshipped, but denied." So he drew his sword and cut her down. 

And he returned to Mahound in his tent and said what he had seen. And 
the Prophet said, "Now may we come into Jahilia," and they arose, and 
came into the city, and possessed it in the Name of the Most High, the 
Destroyer of Men. 



How many idols in the House of the Black Stone? Don't forget: three 
hundred and sixty. Sun-god, eagle, rainbow. The colossus of Hubal. 
Three hundred and sixty wait for Mahound, knowing they are not to be 
spared. And are not: but let's not waste time there. Statues fall; stone 
breaks; what's to be done is done. 

Mahound, after the cleansing of the House, sets up his tent or the old 
fairground. The people crowd around the tent, embracing the victorious 



393 



faith. The Submission of Jahilia: this, too, is inevitable, and need not be 
lingered over. 

While Jahilians bow before him, mumbling their life-saving sentences, 
_there is no God but Al-Lah_, Mahound whispers to Khalid. Somebody 
has not come to kneel before him; somebody long awaited. "Salman," 
the Prophet wishes to know. "Has he been found?" 

"Not yet. He's hiding; but it won't be long." 

There is a distraction. A veiled woman kneels before him, kissing his 
feet. "You must stop," he enjoins. "It is only God who must be 
worshipped." But what foot-kissery this is! Toe by toe, joint by joint, 
the woman licks, kisses, sucks. And Mahound, unnerved, repeats: "Stop. 
This is incorrect." Now, however, the woman is attending to the soles of 
his feet, cupping her hands beneath his heel ... he kicks out, in his 
confusion, and catches her in the throat. She falls, coughs, then 
prostrates herself before him, and says firmly: "There is no God but Al- 
Lah, and Mahound is his Prophet." Mahound calms himself, apologizes, 
extends a hand. "No harm will come to you," he assures her. "All who 
Submit are spared." But there is a strange confusion in him, and now he 
understands why, understands the anger, the bitter irony in her 
overwhelming, excessive, sensual adoration of his feet. The woman 
throws off her veil: Hind. 

"The wife of Abu Simbel," she announces clearly, and a hush falls. 
"Hind," Mahound says. "I had not forgotten." 

But, after a long instant, he nods. "You have Submitted. And are 
welcome in my tents." 

The next day, amid the continuing conversions, Salman the Persian is 
dragged into the Prophet's presence. Khalid, holding him by the ear, 
holding a knife at his throat, brings the immigrant snivelling and 



394 



whimpering to the takht. "I found him, where else, with a whore, who 
was screeching at him because he didn't have the money to pay her. He 
stinks of alcohol." 

"Salman Farsi," the Prophet begins to pronounce the sentence of death, 
but the prisoner begins to shriek the qalmah: "La ilaha ilallah! La 
ilaha!" 

Mahound shakes his head. "Your blasphemy, Salman, can't be forgiven. 
Did you think I wouldn't work it out? To set your words against the 
Words of God." 

Scribe, ditch-digger, condemned man: unable to muster the smallest 
scrap of dignity, he blubbers whimpers pleads beats his breast abases 
himself repents. Khalid says: "This noise is unbearable, Messenger. Can 
I not cut off his head?" At which the noise increases sharply. Salman 
swears renewed loyalty, begs some more, and then, with a gleam of 
desperate hope, makes an offer. "I can show you where your true 
enemies are." This earns him a few seconds. The Prophet inclines his 
head. Khalid pulls the kneeling Salman's head back by the hair: "What 
enemies?" And Salman says a name. Mahound sinks deep into his 
cushions as memory returns. 

"Baal," he says, and repeats, twice: "Baal, Baal." 

Much to Khalid's disappointment, Salman the Persian is not sentenced 
to death. Bilal intercedes for him, and the Prophet, his mind elsewhere, 
concedes: yes, yes, let the wretched fellow live. O generosity of 
Submission! Hind has been spared; and Salman; and in all of Jahilia not 
a door has been smashed down, not an old foe dragged out to have his 
gizzard slit like a chicken's in the dust. This is Mahound's answer to 
the second question: _What happens when you win?_ But one name 
haunts Mahound, leaps around him, young, sharp, pointing a long 
painted finger, singing verses whose cruel brilliance ensures their 



395 



painfulness. That night, when the supplicants have gone, Khalid asks 
Mahound: "You're still thinking about him?" The Messenger nods, but 
will not speak. Khalid says: "I made Salman take me to his room, a 
hovel, but he isn't there, he's hiding out." Again, the nod, but no 
speech. Khalid presses on: "You want me to dig him out? Wouldn't take 
much doing. What d"you want done with him? This? This?" Khalid's 
finger moves first across his neck and then, with a sharp jab, into his 
navel. Mahound loses his temper. "You're a fool," he shouts at the 
former water-carrier who is now his military chief of staff. "Can't you 
ever work things out without my help?" 

Khalid bows and goes. Mahound falls asleep: his old gift, his way of 
dealing with bad moods. 



But Khalid, Mahound's general, could not find Baal. In spite of door-- 
to--door searches, proclamations, turnings of stones, the poet proved 
impossible to nab. And Mahound's lips remained closed, would not 
part to allow his wishes to emerge. Finally, and not without irritation, 
Khalid gave up the search. "Just let that bastard show his face, just 
once, any time," he vowed in the Prophet's tent of softnesses and 
shadows. "I'll slice him so thin you'll be able to see right through each 
piece." 

It seemed to Khalid that Mahound looked disappointed; but in the low 
light of the tent it was impossible to be sure. 



Jahilia settled down to its new life: the call to prayers five times a day, 
no alcohol, the locking up of wives. Hind herself retired to her quarters 
. . . but where was Baal? 

Gibreel dreamed a curtain: 



396 



The Curtain, _Hijab_, was the name of the most popular brothel in 
Jahilia, an enormous palazzo of date--palms in water--tinkling 
courtyards, surrounded by chambers that interlocked in bewildering 
mosaic patterns, permeated by labyrinthine corridors which had been 
deliberately decorated to look alike, each of them bearing the same 
calligraphic invocations to Love, each carpeted with identical rugs, each 
with a large stone urn positioned against a wall. None of The Curtain's 
clients could ever find their way, without help, either into the rooms of 
their favoured courtesan or back again to the street. In this way the 
girls were protected from unwanted guests and the business ensured 
payment before departure. Large Circassian eunuchs, dressed after the 
ludicrous fashion of lamp--genies, escorted the visitors to their goals 
and back again, sometimes with the help of balls of string. It was a soft 
windowless universe of draperies, ruled over by the ancient and 
nameless Madam of the Curtain whose guttural utterances from the 
secrecy of a chair shrouded in black veils had acquired, over the years, 
something of the oracular. Neither her staff nor her clients were able to 
disobey that sibylline voice that was, in a way, the profane antithesis of 
Mahound's sacred utterances in a larger, more easily penetrable tent 
not so very far away. So that when the raddled poet Baal prostrated 
himself before her and begged for help, her decision to hide him and 
save his life as an act of nostalgia for the beautiful, lively and wicked 
youth he had once been was accepted without question; and when 
Khalid's guards arrived to search the premises the eunuchs led them on 
a dizzy journey around that overground catacomb of contradictions and 
irreconcilable routes, until the soldiers' heads were spinning, and after 
looking inside thirty-nine stone urns and finding nothing but unguents 
and pickles they left, cursing heavily, never suspecting that there was a 
fortieth corridor down which they had never been taken, a fortieth urn 
inside which there hid, like a thief, the quivering, pajama-wetting poet 
whom they sought. 



397 



After that the Madam had the eunuchs dye the poet's skin until it was 
blue-black, and his hair as well, and dressing him in the pantaloons and 
turban of a djinn she ordered him to begin a body-building course, 
since his lack of condition would certainly arouse suspicions if he 
didn't tone up fast. 



Baal's sojourn "behind The Curtain" by no means deprived him of 
information about events outside; quite the reverse, in fact, because in 
the course of his eunuchly duties he stood guard outside the pleasure- 
chambers and heard the customers' gossip. The absolute indiscretion of 
their tongues, induced by the gay abandon of the whores' caresses and 
by the clients' knowledge that their secrets would be kept, gave the 
eavesdropping poet, myopic and hard of hearing as he was, a better 
insight into contemporary affairs than he could possibly have gained if 
he'd still been free to wander the newly puritanical streets of the town. 
The deafness was a problem sometimes; it meant that there were gaps in 
his knowledge, because the customers frequently lowered their voices 
and whispered; but it also minimized the prurient element in his 
listenings--in, since he was unable to hear the murmurings that 
accompanied fornication, except, of course, at such moments in which 
ecstatic clients or feigning workers raised their voices in cries of real or 
synthetic joy. 

What Baal learned at The Curtain: 

From the disgruntled butcher Ibrahim came the news that in spite of 
the new ban on pork the skin-deep converts of Jahilia were flocking to 
his back door to buy the forbidden meat in secret, "sales are up," he 
murmured while mounting his chosen lady, "black pork prices are high; 
but damn it, these new rules have made my work eough. A pig is not an 
easy animal to slaughter in secret, without noise," and thereupon he 
began some squealing of his own, for reasons, it is to be presumed, of 



398 



pleasure rather than pain. -- And the grocer, Musa, confessed to another 
of The Curtain's horizontal staff that the old habits were hard to break, 
and when he was sure nobody was listening he still said a prayer or two 
to "my lifelong favourite, Manat, and sometimes, what to do, Al-Lat as 
well; you can't beat a female goddess, they've got attributes the boys 
can't match," after which he, too, fell upon the earthly imitations of 
these attributes with a will. So it was that faded, fading Baal learned in 
his bitterness that no imperium is absolute, no victory complete. And, 
slowly, the criticisms of Mahound began. 

Baal had begun to change. The news of the destruction of the great 
temple of Al-Lat at Taif, which came to his ears punctuated by the 
grunts of the covert pig-sticker Ibrahim, had plunged him into a deep 
sadness, because even in the high days of his young cynicism his love of 
the goddess had been genuine, perhaps his only genuine emotion, and 
her fall revealed to him the hollowness of a life in which the only true 
love had been felt for a lump of stone that couldn't fight back. When 
the first, sharp edge of grief had been dulled, Baal became convinced 
that Al-Lat's fall meant that his own end was not far away. He lost that 
strange sense of safety that life at The Curtain had briefly inspired in 
him; but the returning knowledge of his impermanence, of certain 
discovery followed by equally certain death, did not, interestingly 
enough, make him afraid. After a lifetime of dedicated cowardice he 
found to his great surprise that the effect of the approach of death 
really did enable him to taste the sweetness of life, and he wondered at 
the paradox of having his eyes opened to such a truth in that house of 
costly lies. And what was the truth? It was that Al-Lat was dead -- had 
never lived -- but that didn't make Mahound a prophet. In sum, Baal 
had arrived at godlessness. He began, stumblingly, to move beyond the 
idea of gods and leaders and rules, and to perceive that his story was so 
mixed up with Mahound's that some great resolution was necessary. 
That this resolution would in all probability mean his death neither 
shocked nor bothered him overmuch; and when Musa the grocer 



399 



grumbled one day about the twelve wives" of the Prophet, _one rule for 
him, another for us_, Baal understood the form his final confrontation 
with Submission would have to take. 

The girls of The Curtain -- it was only by convention that they were 
referred to as "girls", as the eldest was a woman well into her fifties, 
while the youngest, at fifteen, was more experienced than many fifty- 
year-olds -- had grown fond of this shambling Baal, and in point of fact 
they enjoyed having a eunuch-whowasn't, so that out of working hours 
they would tease him deliciously, flaunting their bodies before him, 
placing their breasts against his lips, twining their legs around his 
waist, kissing one another passionately just an inch away from his face, 
until the ashy writer was hopelessly aroused; whereupon they would 
laugh at his stiffness and mock him into blushing, quivering 
detumescence; or, very occasionally, and when he had given up all 
expectation of such a thing, they would depute one of their number to 
satisfy, free of charge, the lust they had awakened. In this way, like a 
myopic, blinking, tame bull, the poet passed his days, laying his head in 
women's laps, brooding on death and revenge, unable to say whether he 
was the most contented or the wretchedest man alive. 

It was during one of these playful sessions at the end of a working day, 
when the girls were alone with their eunuchs and their wine, that Baal 
heard the youngest talking about her client, the grocer, Musa. "That 
one!" she said. "He's got a bee in his bonnet about the Prophet's wives. 
He's so annoyed about them that he gets excited just by mentioning 
their names. He tells me that I personally am the spitting image of 
Ayesha herself, and she's His Nibs's favourite, as all are aware. So 
there." 

The fifty-year-old courtesan butted in. "Listen, those women in that 
harem, the men don't talk about anything else these days. No wonder 
Mahound secluded them, but it's only made things worse. People 
fantasize more about what they can't see." 



400 



Especially in this town, Baal thought; above all in our Jahilia of the 
licentious ways, where until Mahound arrived with his rule book the 
women dressed brightly, and all the talk was of fucking and money, 
money and sex, and not just the talk, either. 

He said to the youngest whore: "Why don't you pretend for him?" 

"Who?" 

"Musa. If Ayesha gives him such a thrill, why not become his private 
and personal Ayesha?" 

"God," the girl said. "If they heard you say that they'd boil your balls 
in butter." 

How many wives? Twelve, and one old lady, long dead. How many 
whores behind The Curtain? Twelve again; and, secret on her black-- 
tented throne, the ancient Madam, still defying death. Where there is 
no belief, there is no blasphemy. Baal told the Madam of his idea; she 
settled matters in her voice of a laryngitic frog. "It is very dangerous," 
she pronounced, "but it could be damn good for business. We will go 
carefully; but we will go." 

The fifteen-year-old whispered something in the grocer's ear. At once a 
light began to shine in his eyes. "Tell me everything," he begged. "Your 
childhood, your favourite toys, Solomon"s-horses and the rest, tell me 
how you played the tambourine and the Prophet came to watch." She 
told him, and then he asked about her deflowering at the age of twelve, 
and she told him that, and afterwards he paid double the normal fee, 
because "it's been the best time of my life". "We'll have to be careful of 
heart conditions," the Madam said to Baa!. 



401 



When the news got around Jahilia that the whores of The Curtain had 
each assumed the identity of one of Mahound's wives, the clandestine 
excitement of the city's males was intense; yet, so afraid were they of 
discovery, both because they would surely lose their lives if Mahound or 
his lieutenants ever found out that they had been involved in such 
irreverences, and because of their desire that the new service at The 
Curtain be maintained, that the secret was kept from the authorities. In 
those days Mahound had returned with his wives to Yathrib, preferring 
the cool oasis climate of the north to Jahilia's heat. The city had been 
left in the care of General Khalid, from whom things were easily 
concealed. For a time Mahound had considered telling Khalid to have 
all the brothels of Jahilia closed down, but Abu Simbel had advised him 
against so precipitate an act. "Jahilians are new converts," he pointed 
out. "Take things slowly." Mahound, most pragmatic of Prophets, had 
agreed to a period of transition. So, in the Prophet's absence, the men 
of Jahilia flocked to The Curtain, which experienced a three hundred 
per cent increase in business. For obvious reasons it was not politic to 
form a queue in the street, and so on many days a line of men curled 
around the innermost courtyard of the brothel, rotating about its 
centrally positioned Fountain of Love much as pilgrims rotated for 
other reasons around the ancient Black Stone. All customers of The 
Curtain were issued with masks, and Baal, watching the circling masked 
figures from a high balcony, was satisfied. There were more ways than 
one of refusing to Submit. 

In the months that followed, the staff of The Curtain warmed to the 
new task. The fifteen-year-old whore "Ayesha" was the most popular 
with the paying public, just as her namesake was with Mahound, and 
like the Ayesha who was living chastely in her apartment in the harem 
quarters of the great mosque at Yathrib, this Jahilian Ayesha began to 
be jealous of her preeminent status of Best Beloved. She resented it 
when any of her "sisters" seemed to be experiencing an increase in 
visitors, or receiving exceptionally generous tips. The oldest, fattest 



402 



whore, who had taken the name of "Sawdah", would tell her visitors 
and she had plenty, many of the men of Jahilia seeking her out for her 
maternal and also grateful charms -- the story of how Mahound had 
married her and Ayesha, on the same day, when Ayesha was just a child. 
"In the two of us," she would say, exciting men terribly, "he found the 
two halves of his dead first wife: the child, and the mother, too." The 
whore "Hafsah" grew as hot-tempered as her namesake, and as the 
twelve entered into the spirit of their roles the alliances in the brothel 
came to mirror the political cliques at the Yathrib mosque; "Ayesha" 
and "Hafsah", for example, engaged in constant, petty rivalries against 
the two haughtiest whores, who had always been thought a bit stuck-up 
by the others and who had chosen for themselves the most aristocratic 
identities, becoming "Umm Salamah the Makhzumite" and, snootiest 
of all, "Ramlah", whose namesake, the eleventh wife of Mahound, was 
the daughter of Abu Simbel and Hind. And there was a "Zainab bint 
Jahsh", and a "Juwairiyah", named after the bride captured on a 
military expedition, and a "Rehana the Jew", a "Safia" and a 
"Maimunah", and, most erotic of all the whores, who knew tricks she 
refused to teach to competitive "Ayesha": the glamorous Egyptian, 
"Mary the Copt". Strangest of all was the whore who had taken the 
name of "Zainab bint Khuzaimah", knowing that this wife of Mahound 
had recently died. The necrophilia of her lovers, who forbade her to 
make any movements, was one of the more unsavoury aspects of the 
new regime at The Curtain. But business was business, and this, too, 
was a need that the courtesans fulfilled. 

By the end of the first year the twelve had grown so skilful in their roles 
that their previous selves began to fade away. Baal, more myopic and 
deafer by the month, saw the shapes of the girls moving past him, their 
edges blurred, their images somehow doubled, like shadows 
superimposed on shadows. The girls began to entertain new notions 
about Baal, too. In that age it was customary for a whore, on entering 
her profession, to take the kind of husband who wouldn't give her any 



403 



trouble -- a mountain, maybe, or a fountain, or a bush -- so that she 
could adopt, for form's sake, the title of a married woman. At The 
Curtain, the rule was that all the girls married the Love Spout in the 
central courtyard, but now a kind of rebellion was brewing, and the day 
came when the prostitutes went together to the Madam to announce 
that now that they had begun to think of themselves as the wives of the 
Prophet they required a better grade of husband than some spurting 
stone, which was almost idolatrous, after all; and to say that they had 
decided that they would all become the brides of the bumbler, Baal. At 
first the Madam tried to talk them out of it, but when she saw that the 
girls meant business she conceded the point, and told them to send the 
writer in to see her. With many giggles and nudges the twelve 
courtesans escorted the shambling poet into the throne room. When 
Baal heard the plan his heart began to thump so erratically that he lost 
his balance and fell, and "Ayesha" screamed in her fright: "O God, 
we're going to be his widows before we even get to be his wives." 

But he recovered: his heart regained its composure. And, having no 
option, he agreed to the twelvefold proposal. The Madam then married 
them all off herself, and in that den of degeneracy, that anti-mosque, 
that labyrinth of profanity, Baal became the husband of the wives of the 
former businessman, Mahound. 

His wives now made plain to him that they expected him to fulfil his 
husbandly duties in every particular, and worked out a rota system 
under which he could spend a day with each of the girls in turn (at The 
Curtain, day and night were inverted, the night being for business and 
the day for rest). No sooner had he embarked upon this arduous 
programme than they called a meeting at which he was told that he 
ought to start behaving a little more like the "real" husband, that is, 
Mahound. "Why can't you change your name like the rest of us?" bad- 
tempered "Hafsah" demanded, but at this Baal drew the line. "It may 
not be much to be proud of," he insisted, "but it's my name. What's 



404 



more, I don't work with the clients here. There's no business reason for 
such a change." "Well, anyhow," the voluptuous "Mary the Copt" 
shrugged, "name or no name, we want you to start acting like him." 

"I don't know much about," Baal began to protest, but "Ayesha", who 
really was the most attractive of them all, or so he had commenced to 
feel of late, made a delightful moue. "Honestly, husband," she cajoled 
him. "It's not so tough. We just want you to, you know. Be the boss." 

It turned out that the whores of The Curtain were the most old- 
fashioned and conventional women in Jahilia. Their work, which could 
so easily have made them cynical and disillusioned (and they were, of 
course, capable of entertaining ferocious notions about their visitors), 
had turned them into dreamers instead. Sequestered from the outside 
world, they had conceived a fantasy of "ordinary life" in which they 
wanted nothing more than to be the obedient, and -- yes -- submissive 
helpmeets of a man who was wise, loving and strong. That is to say: the 
years of enacting the fantasies of men had finally corrupted their 
dreams, so that even in their hearts of hearts they wished to turn 
themselves into the oldest male fantasy of all. The added spice of acting 
out the home life of the Prophet had got them all into a state of high 
excitement, and the bemused Baal discovered what it was to have twelve 
women competing for his favours, for the beneficence of his smile, as 
they washed his feet and dried them with their hair, as they oiled his 
body and danced for him, and in a thousand ways enacted the dream-- 
marriage they had never really thought they would have. 

It was irresistible. He began to find the confidence to order them about, 
to adjudicate between them, to punish them when he was angry. Once 
when their quarrelling irritated him he forswore them all for a month. 
When he went to see "Ayesha" after twenty-nine nights she teased him 
for not having been able to stay away. "That month was only twenty- 
nine days long," he replied. Once he was caught with "Mary the Copt" 
by "Hafsah", in "Hafsah's" quarters and on "Ayesha's" day. He begged 



405 



"Hafsah" not to tell "Ayesha", with whom he had fallen in love; but she 
told her anyway and Baal had to stay away from "Mary" of the fair skin 
and curly hair for quite a time after that. In short, he had fallen prey to 
the seductions of becoming the secret, profane mirror of Mahound; and 
he had begun, once again, to write. 

The poetry that came was the sweetest he had ever written. Sometimes 
when he was with Ayesha he felt a slowness come over him, a heaviness, 
and he had to lie down. "It's strange," he told her. "It is as if I see 
myself standing beside myself. And I can make him, the standing one, 
speak; then I get up and write down his verses." These artistic 
slownesses of Baal were much admired by his wives. Once, tired, he 
dozed off in an armchair in the chambers of "Umm Salamah the 
Makhzumite". When he woke, hours later, his body ached, his neck and 
shoulders were full of knots, and he berated Umm Salamah: "Why 
didn't you wake me?" She answered: "I was afraid to, in case the verses 
were coming to you." He shook his head. "Don't worry about that. The 
only woman in whose company the verses come is 'Ayesha', not you." 



Two years and a day after Baal began his life at The Curtain, one of 
Ayesha's clients recognized him in spite of the dyed skin, pantaloons 
and body-building exercises. Baal was stationed outside Ayesha's room 
when the client emerged, pointed right at him and shouted: "So this is 
where you got to!" Ayesha came running, her eyes blazing with fear. But 
Baal said, "It's all right. He won't make any trouble." He invited 
Salman the Persian to his own quarters and uncorked a bottle of the 
sweet wine made with uncrushed grapes which the Jahilians had begun 
to make when they found out that it wasn't forbidden by what they had 
started disrespectfully calling the Rule Book. 

"I came because I'm finally leaving this infernal city," Salman said, 
"and I wanted one moment of pleasure out of it after all the years of 



406 



shit." After Bilal had interceded for him in the name of their old 
friendship the immigrant had found work as a letterwriter and all- 
purpose scribe, sitting cross--legged by the roadside in the main street 
of the financial district. His cynicism and despair had been burnished 
by the sun. "People write to tell lies," he said, drinking quickly. "So a 
professional liar makes an excellent living. My love letters and business 
correspondence became famous as the best in town because of my gift 
for inventing beautiful falsehoods that involved only the tiniest 
departure from the facts. As a result I have managed to save enough for 
my trip home in just two years. Home! The old country! I'm off 
tomorrow, and not a minute too soon." 

As the bottle emptied Salman began once again to talk, as Baa! had 
known he would, about the source of all his ills, the Messenger and his 
message. He told Baal about a quarrel between Mahound and Ayesha, 
recounting the rumour as if it were incontrovertible fact. "That girl 
couldn't stomach it that her husband wanted so many other women," 
he said. "He talked about necessity, political alliances and so on, but 
she wasn't fooled. Who can blame her? Finally he went into -- what else? 
-- one of his trances, and out he came with a message from the 
archangel. Gibreel had recited verses giving him full divine support. 
God's own permission to luck as many women as he liked. So there: 
what could poor Ayesha say against the verses of God? You know what 
she did say? This: 'Your God certainly jumps to it when you need him to 
fix things up for you.' Well! If it hadn't been Ayesha, who knows what 
he'd have done, but none of the others would have dared in the first 
place." Baal let him run on without interruption. The sexual aspects of 
Submission exercised the Persian a good deal: "Unhealthy," he 
pronounced. "All this segregation. No good will come of it." 

At length Baal did start arguing, and Salman was astonished to hear the 
poet taking Mahound's side: "You can see his point of view," Baal 
reasoned. "If families offer him brides and he refuses he creates 



407 



enemies, -- and besides, he's a special man and one can see the 
argument for special dispensations, -- and as for locking them up, well, 
what a dishonour it would be if anything bad happened to one of them! 
Listen, if you lived in here, you wouldn't think a little less sexual 
freedom was such a bad thing, -- for the common people, I mean." 

"Your brain's gone," Salman said flatly. "You've been out of the sun 
too long. Or maybe that costume makes you talk like a clown." 

Baal was pretty tipsy by this time, and began some hot retort, but 
Salman raised an unsteady hand. "Don't want to fight," he said. 
"Lemme tell you instead. Hottest story in town. Whoowhoo! And it's 
relevant to whatch, whatchyou say." 

Salman's story: Ayesha and the Prophet had gone on an expedition to a 
far-flung village, and on the way back to Yathrib their party had 
camped in the dunes for the night. Camp was struck in the dark before 
the dawn. At the last moment Ayesha was obliged by a call of nature to 
rush out of sight into a hollow. While she was away her litter--bearers 
picked up her palanquin and marched off. She was a light woman, and, 
failing to notice much difference in the weight of that heavy palanquin, 
they assumed she was inside. Ayesha returned after relieving herself to 
find herself alone, and who knows what might have befallen her if a 
young man, a certain Safwan, had not chanced to pass by on his camel . 
. . Safwan brought Ayesha back to Yathrib safe and sound; at which 
point tongues began to wag, not least in the harem, where 
opportunities to weaken Ayesha's power were eagerly seized by her 
opponents. The two young people had been alone in the desert for many 
hours, and it was hinted, more and more loudly, that Safwan was a 
dashingly handsome fellow, and the Prophet was much older than the 
young woman, after all, and might she not therefore have been attracted 
to someone closer to her own age? "Quite a scandal," Salman 
commented, happily. 



408 



"What will Mahound do?" Baal wanted to know. 

"O, he's done it," Salman replied. "Same as ever. He saw his pet, the 
archangel, and then informed one and all that Gibreel had exonerated 
Ayesha." Salman spread his arms in worldly resignation. "And this time, 
mister, the lady didn't complain about the convenience of the verses." 



Salman the Persian left the next morning with a northbound camel- 
train. When he left Baal at The Curtain, he embraced the poet, kissed 
him on both cheeks and said: "Maybe you're right. Maybe it's better to 
keep out of the daylight. I hope it lasts." Baa! replied: "And I hope you 
find home, and that there is something there to love." Salman's face 
went blank. He opened his mouth, shut it again, and left. 

"Ayesha" came to Baal's room for reassurance. "He won't spill out the 
secret when he's drunk?" she asked, caressing Baal's hair. "He gets 
through a lot of wine." 

Baal said: "Nothing is ever going to be the same again." Salman's visit 
had wakened him from the dream into which he had slowly subsided 
during his years at The Curtain, and he couldn't go back to sleep. 

"Of course it will," Ayesha urged. "It will. You'll see." 

Baal shook his head and made the only prophetic remark of his life. 
"Something big is going to happen," he foretold. "A man can't hide 
behind skirts forever." 

The next day Mahound returned to Jahilia and soldiers came to inform 
the Madam of The Curtain that the period of transition was at an end. 
The brothels were to be closed, with immediate effect. Enough was 
enough. From behind her drapes, the Madam requested that the 
soldiers withdraw for an hour in the name of propriety to enable the 



409 



guests to leave, and such was the inexperience of the officer in charge of 
the vice-squad that he agreed. The Madam sent her eunuchs to inform 
the girls and escort the clients out by a back door. "Please apologize to 
them for the interruption," she ordered the eunuchs, "and say that in 
the circumstances, no charge will be made." 

They were her last words. When the alarmed girls, all talking at once, 
crowded into the throne room to see if the worst were really true, she 
made no answer to their terrified questions, are we out of work, how do 
we eat, will we go to jail, what's to become of us, -- until "Ayesha" 
screwed up her courage and did what none of them had ever dared 
attempt. When she threw back the black hangings they saw a dead 
woman who might have been fifty or a hundred and twenty-five years 
old, no more than three feet tall, looking like a big doll, curled up in a 
cushionladen wickerwork chair, clutching the empty poison-bottle in 
her fist. 

"Now that you've started," Baal said, coming into the room, "you may 
as well take all the curtains down. No point trying to keep the sun out 
any more." 



The young vice-squad officer, Umar, allowed himself to display a rather 
petulant bad temper when he found out about the suicide of the 
brothel-keeper. "Well, if we can't hang the boss, we'll just have to make 
do with the workers," he shouted, and ordered his men to place the 
"tarts" under close arrest, a task the men performed with zeal. The 
women made a noise and kicked out at their captors, but the eunuchs 
stood and watched without twitching a muscle, because Umar had said 
to them: "They want the cunts to be put on trial, but I've no 
instructions about you. So if you don't want to lose your heads as well 
as your balls, keep out of this." Eunuchs failed to defend the women of 
The Curtain while soldiers wrestled them to the ground; and among the 



410 



eunuchs was Baa!, of the dyed skin and poetry. Just before the youngest 
"cunt" or "slit" was gagged, she yelled: "Husband, for God's sake, help 
us, if you are a man." The vice-squad captain was amused. "Which of 
you is her husband?" he asked, staring carefully into each turban- 
topped face. "Come on, own up. What's it like to watch the world with 
your wife?" 

Baal fixed his gaze on infinity to avoid "Ayesha's" glares as well as 
Umar's narrowed eyes. The officer stopped in front of him. "Is it you?" 

"Sir, you understand, it's just a term," Baal lied. "They like to joke, the 
girls. They call us their husbands because we, we. . 

Without warning, Umar grabbed him by the genitals and squeezed. 
"Because you can't be," he said. "Husbands, eh. Not bad." 

When the pain subsided, Baal saw that the women had gone. Umar gave 
the eunuchs a word of advice on his way out. "Get lost," he suggested. 
"Tomorrow I may have orders about you. Not many people get lucky 
two days running." 

When the girls of The Curtain had been taken away, the eunuchs sat 
down and wept uncontrollably by the Fountain of Love. But Baal, full 
of shame, did not cry. 



Gibreel dreamed the death of Baal: 

The twelve whores realized, soon after their arrest, that they had grown 
so accustomed to their new names that they couldn't remember the old 
ones. They "were too frightened to give their jailers their assumed 
titles,, and as a result were unable to give any names at all. After a good 
deal of shouting and a good many threats the jailers gave in and 
registered them by numbers, as Curtain No. 1, Curtain No. 2 and so on. 



411 



Their former clients, terrified of the consequences of letting slip the 
secret of what the whores had been up to, also remained silent, so that 
it is possible that nobody would have found out if the poet Baal had 
not started pasting his verses to the walls of the city jail. 

Two days after the arrests, the jail was bursting with prostitutes and 
pimps, whose numbers had increased considerably during the two years 
in which Submission had introduced sexual segregation to Jahilia. It 
transpired that many Jahilian men were prepared to countenance the 
jeers of the town riff-raff, to say nothing of possible prosecution under 
the new immorality laws, in order to stand below the windows of the 
jail and serenade those painted ladies whom they had grown to love. 
The women inside were entirely unimpressed by these devotions, and 
gave no encouragement whatsoever to the suitors at their barred gates. 
On the third day, however, there appeared among these lovelorn fools a 
peculiarly woebegone fellow in turban and pantaloons, with dark skin 
that was beginning to look decidedly blotchy. Many passers-by 
sniggered at the look of him, but when he began to sing his verses the 
sniggering stopped at once. Jahilians had always been connoisseurs of 
the art of poetry, and the beauty of the odes being sung by the peculiar 
gent stopped them in their tracks. Baal sang his love poems, and the 
ache in them silenced the other versifiers, who allowed Baal to speak for 
them all. At the windows of the jail, it was possible to see for the first 
time the faces of the sequestered whores, who had been drawn there by 
the magic of the lines. When he finished his recital he went forward to 
nail his poetry to the wall. The guards at the gates, their eyes running 
with tears, made no move to stop him. 

Every evening after that, the strange fellow would reappear and recite a 
new poem, and each set of verses sounded lovelier than the last. It was 
perhaps this surfeit of loveliness which prevented anybody from 
noticing, until the twelfth evening, when he completed his twelfth and 
final set of verses, each of which were dedicated to a different woman, 



412 



that the names of his twelve "wives" were the same as those of another 
group of twelve. 

But on the twelfth day it was noticed, and at once the large crowd that 
had taken to gathering to hear Baal read changed its mood. Feelings of 
outrage replaced those of exaltation, and Baal was surrounded by angry 
men demanding to know the reasons for this oblique, this most 
byzantine of insults. At this point Baal took off his absurd turban. "I 
am Baal," he announced. "I recognize no jurisdiction except that of my 
Muse; or, to be exact, my dozen Muses." 

Guards seized him. 

The General, Khalid, had wanted to have Baa! executed at once, but 
Mahound asked that the poet be brought to trial immediately following 
the whores. So when Baal's twelve wives, who had divorced stone to 
marry him, had been sentenced to death by stoning to punish them for 
the immorality of their lives, Baal stood face to face with the Prophet, 
mirror facing image, dark facing light. Khalid, sitting at Mahound's 
right hand, offered Baa! a last chance to explain his vile deeds. The poet 
told the story of his stay at The Curtain, using the simplest language, 
concealing nothing, not even his final cowardice, for which everything 
he had done since had been an attempt at reparation. But now an 
unusual thing happened. The crowd packed into that tent of judgment, 
knowing that this was after all the famous satirist Baa!, in his day the 
owner of the sharpest tongue and keenest wit in Jahilia, began (no 
matter how hard it tried not to) to laugh. The more honestly and simply 
Baal described his marriages to the twelve "wives of the Prophet", the 
more uncontrollable became the horrified mirth of the audience. By the 
end of his speech the good folk of Jahilia were literally weeping with 
laughter, unable to restrain themselves even when soldiers with 
bullwhips and scimitars threatened them with instant death. 



413 



"I'm not kidding!" Baal screeched at the crowd, which hooted yelled 
slapped its thighs in response. "It's no joke!" Ha ha ha. Until, at last, 
silence returned; the Prophet had risen to his feet. 

"In the old days you mocked the Recitation," Mahound said in the 
hush. "Then, too, these people enjoyed your mockery. Now you return 
to dishonour my house, and it seems that once again you succeed in 
bringing the worst out of the people." 

Baal said, "I've finished. Do what you want." 

So he was sentenced to be beheaded, within the hour, and as soldiers 
manhandled him out of the tent towards the killing ground, he shouted 
over his shoulder: "Whores and writers, Mahound. We are the people 
you can't forgive." 

Mahound replied, "Writers and whores. I see no difference here." 



Once upon a time there was a woman who did not change. 

After the treachery of Abu Simbel handed Jahilia to Mahound on a plate 
and replaced the idea of the city's greatness with the reality of 
Mahound's, Hind sucked toes, recited the La-ilaha, and then retreated 
to a high tower of her palace, where news reached her of the destruction 
of the Al-Lat temple at Taif, and of all the statues of the goddess that 
were known to exist. She locked herself into her tower room with a 
collection of ancient books written in scripts which no other human 
being injahilia could decipher; and for two years and two months she 
remained there, studying her occult texts in secret, asking that a plate 
of simple food be left outside her door once a day and that her 
chamberpot be emptied at the same time. For two years and two months 
she saw no other living being. Then she entered her husband's bedroom 
at dawn, dressed in all her finery, with jewels glittering at her wrists, 



414 



ankles, toes, ears and throat. "Wake up," she commanded, flinging back 
his curtains. "It's a day for celebrations." He saw that she hadn't aged 
by so much as a day since he last saw her; if anything, she looked 
younger than ever, which gave credence to the rumours which suggested 
that her witchcraft had persuaded time to run backwards for her within 
the confines of her tower room. "What have we got to celebrate?" the 
former Grandee of Jahilia asked, coughing up his usual morning blood. 
Hind replied: "I may not be able to reverse the flow of history, but 
revenge, at least, is sweet." 

Within an hour the news arrived that the Prophet, Mahound, had fallen 
into a fatal sickness, that he lay in Ayesha's bed with his head 
thumping as if it had been filled up with demons. Hind continued to 
make calm preparations for a banquet, sending servants to every corner 
of the city to invite guests. But of course nobody would come to a party 
on that day. In the evening Hind sat alone in the great hall of her home, 
amid the golden plates and crystal glasses of her revenge, eating a 
simple plate of couscous while surrounded by glistening, steaming, 
aromatic dishes of every imaginable type. Abu Simbel had refused to 
join her, calling her eating an obscenity. "You ate his uncle's heart," 
Simbel cried, "and now you would eat his." She laughed in his face. 
When the servants began to weep she dismissed them, too, and sat in 
solitary rejoicing while candles sent strange shadows across her 
absolute, uncompromising face. 

Gibreel dreamed the death of Mahound: 

For when the head of the Messenger began to ache as never before, he 
knew the time had come when he would be offered the Choice: 

Since no Prophet may die before he has been shown Paradise, and 
afterward asked to choose between this world and the next: 



415 



So that as he lay with his head in his beloved Ayesha's lap, he closed his 
eyes, and life seemed to depart from him; but after a time he returned: 

And he said unto Ayesha, "I have been offered and made my Choice, and 
I have chosen the kingdom of God." 

Then she wept, knowing that he was speaking of his death; whereupon 
his eyes moved past her, and seemed to fix upon another figure in the 
room, even though when she, Ayesha, turned to look she saw only a 
lamp there, burning upon its stand: 

"Who's there?" he called out. "Is it Thou, Azraeel?" 

But Ayesha heard a terrible, sweet voice, that was a woman's, make 
reply: "No, Messenger of Al--Lah, it is not Azraeel." 

And the lamp blew out; and in the darkness Mahound asked: "Is this 
sickness then thy doing, O Al— Lat?" 

And she said: "It is my revenge upon you, and I am satisfied. Let them 
cut a camel's hamstrings and set it on your grave." 

Then she went, and the lamp that had been snuffed out burst once more 
into a great and gentle light, and the Messenger murmured, "Still, I 
thank Thee, Al--Lat, for this gift." 

Not long afterwards he died. Ayesha went out into the next room, where 
the other wives and disciples were waiting with heavy hearts, and they 
began mightily to lament: 

But Ayesha wiped her eyes, and said: "If there be any here who 
worshipped the Messenger, let them grieve, for Mahound is dead; but if 
there be any here who worship God, then let them rejoice, for He is 
surely alive." 

It was the end of the dream. 



416 



VII. The Angel Azraeel 



1 



It all boiled down to love, reflected Saladin Chamcha in his den: love, 
the refractory bird of Meilhac and Halevy's libretto for _Carmen_ -- one 
of the prize specimens, this, in the Allegorical Aviary he'd assembled in 
lighter days, and which included among its winged metaphors the Sweet 
(of youth), the Yellow (more lucky than me), Khayyam--FitzGerald's 
adjectiveless Bird of Time (which has but a little way to fly, and lo! is 
on the Wing), and the Obscene; this last from a letter written by Henry 
James, Sr, to his sons. . . "Every man who has reached even his 
intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce; that it is not 
genteel comedy even; that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out 
of the profoundest tragic depths of the essential dearth in which its 
subject's roots are plunged. The natural inheritance of everyone who is 
capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls 
and the obscene bird of night chatters." Take _that_, kids. -- And in a 
separate but proximate glass display--case of the younger, happier 
Chamcha's fancy there fluttered a captive from a piece of hit-parade 
bubblegum music, the Bright Elusive Butterfly, which shared 
_l"amour_ with the _oiseau rebelle_. 

Love, a zone in which nobody desirous of compiling a human (as 
opposed to robotic, Skinnerian-android) body of experience could 
afford to shut down operations, did you down, no question about it, 
and very probably did you in as well. It even warned you in advance. 
"Love is an infant of Bohemia," sings Carmen, herself the very Idea of 
the Beloved, its perfect pattern, eternal and divine, "and if you love me, 
look out for you." You couldn't ask for fairer. For his own part, Saladin 



417 



in his time had loved widely, and was now (he had come to believe) 
suffering Love's revenges upon the foolish lover. Of the things of the 
mind, he had most loved the protean, inexhaustible culture of the 
Englishspeaking peoples; had said, when courting Pamela, that 
_Othello_, "just that one play", was worth the total output of any other 
dramatist in any other language, and though he was conscious of 
hyperbole, he didn't think the exaggeration very great. (Pamela, of 
course, made incessant efforts to betray her class and race, and so, 
predictably, professed herself horrified, bracketing Othello with 
Shylock and beating the racist Shakespeare over the head with the brace 
of them.) He had been striving, like the Bengali writer, Nirad 
Chaudhuri, before him -- though without any of that impish, colonial 
intelligence's urge to be seen as an enfant terrible -- to be worthy of the 
challenge represented by the phrase _Civis Britannicus sum_. Empire 
was no more, but still he knew "all that was good and living within 
him" to have been "made, shaped and quickened" by his encounter with 
this islet of sensibility, surrounded by the cool sense of the sea. -- Of 
material things, he had given his love to this city, London, preferring it 
to the city of his birth or to any other; had been creeping up on it, 
stealthily, with mounting excitement, freezing into a statue when it 
looked in his direction, dreaming of being the one to possess it and so, 
in a sense, become it, as when in the game of grandmother's footsteps 
the child who touches the one who's _it_ ("on it", today's young 
Londoners would say) takes over that cherished identity; as, also, in the 
myth of the Golden Bough. London, its conglomerate nature mirroring 
his own, its reticence also his; its gargoyles, the ghostly footfalls in its 
streets of Roman feet, the honks of its departing migrant geese. Its 
hospitality -- yes! -- in spite of immigration laws, and his own recent 
experience, he still insisted on the truth of that: an imperfect welcome, 
true, one capable of bigotry, but a real thing, nonetheless, as was 
attested by the existence in a South London borough of a pub in which 
no language but Ukrainian could be heard, and by the annual reunion, 
in Wembley, a stone's throw from the great stadium surrounded by 



418 



imperial echoes -- Empire Way, the Empire Pool -- of more than a 
hundred delegates, all tracing their ancestry back to a single, small 
Goan village. -- "We Londoners can be proud of our hospitality," he'd 
told Pamela, and she, giggling helplessly, took him to see the Buster 
Keaton movie of that name, in which the comedian, arriving at the end 
of an absurd railway line, gets a murderous reception. In those days 
they had enjoyed such oppositions, and after hot disputes had ended up 
in bed.. . He returned his wandering thoughts to the subject of the 
metropolis. Its -- he repeated stubbornly to himself-- long history as a 
refuge, a role it maintained in spite of the recalcitrant ingratitude of 
the refugees' children; and without any of the selfcongratulatory 
huddled-masses rhetoric of the "nation of immigrants" across the 
ocean, itself far from perfectly open--armed. Would the United States, 
with its are-you-now-have-you-ever-beens, have permitted Ho Chi Minh 
to cook in its hotel kitchens? What would its McCarran--Walter Act 
have to say about a latter-- day Karl Marx, standing bushy--bearded at 
its gates, waiting to cross its yellow lines? O Proper London! Dull 
would he truly be of soul who did not prefer its faded splendours, its 
new hesitancies, to the hot certainties of that transatlantic New Rome 
with its Nazified architectural gigantism, which employed the 
oppressions of size to make its human occupants feel like worms . . . 
London, in spite of an increase in excrescences such as the NatWest 
Tower -- a corporate logo extruded into the third dimension -- 
preserved the human scale. _Viva! Zindabad!_ 

Pamela had always taken a caustic view of such rhapsodies. "These are 
museum-values," she used to tell him. "Sanctified, hanging in golden 
frames on honorific walls." She had never had any time for what 
endured. Change everything! Rip it up! He said: "If you succeed you 
will make it impossible for anybody like you, in one or two generations' 
time, to come along." She celebrated this vision of her own 
obsolescence. If she ended up like the dodo -- a stuffed relic, _Class 
Traitor, 1980s_ -- that would, she said, certainly suggest an 



419 



improvement in the world. He begged to differ, but by this time they 
had begun to embrace: which surely was an improvement, so he 
conceded the other point. 

(One year, the government had introduced admission charges at 
museums, and groups of angry art-lovers picketed the temples of 
culture. When he saw this, Chamcha had wanted to get up a placard of 
his own and stage a one-man counter-protest. Didn't these people know 
what the stuff inside was _worth?_ There they were, cheerfully rotting 
their lungs with cigarettes worth more per packet than the charges they 
were protesting against; what they were demonstrating to the world was 
the low value they placed upon their cultural heritage. . . Pamela put 
her foot down. "Don't you dare," she said. She held the then--correct 
view: that the museums were _too valuable_ to charge for. So: "Don't 
you dare," and to his surprise he found he did not. He had not meant 
what he would have seemed to mean. He had meant that he would have 
given, maybe, in the right circumstances, his _life_ for what was in 
those museums. So he could not take seriously these objections to a 
charge of a few pence. He quite saw, however, that this was an obscure 
and ill-defended position.) 

--_And of human beings, Pamela, I loved you_. -- 

Culture, city, wife; and a fourth and final love, of which he had spoken 
to nobody: the love of a dream. In the old days the dream had recurred 
about once a month; a simple dream, set in a city park, along an avenue 
of mature elms, whose overarching branches turned the avenue into a 
green tunnel into which the sky and the sunlight were dripping, here 
and there, through the perfect imperfections in the canopy of leaves. In 
this sylvan secrecy, Saladin saw himself, accompanied by a small boy of 
about five, whom he was teaching to ride a bicycle. The boy, wobbling 
alarmingly at first, made heroic efforts to gain and maintain his 
balance, with the ferocity of one who wishes his father to be proud of 
him. The dream-Chamcha ran along behind his imagined son, holding 



420 



the bike upright by gripping the parcelrack over the rear wheel. Then he 
released it, and the boy (not knowing himself to be unsupported) kept 
going: balance came like a gift of flight, and the two of them were 
gliding down the avenue, Chamcha running, the boy pedalling harder 
and harder. "You did it!" Saladin rejoiced, and the equally elated child 
shouted back: "Look at me! See how quickly I learned! Aren't you 
pleased with me? Aren't you pleased?" It was a dream to weep at; for 
when he awoke, there was no bicycle and no child. 

"What will you do now?" Mishal had asked him amid the wreckage of 
the Hot Wax nightclub, and he'd answered, too lightly: "Me? I think I'll 
come back to life." Easier said than done; it was life, after all, that had 
rewarded his love of a dream--child with childlessness; his love of a 
woman, with her estrangement from him and her insemination by his 
old college friend; his love of a city, by hurling him down towards it 
from Himalayan heights; and his love of a civilization, by having him 
bedevilled, humiliated, broken upon its wheel. Not quite broken, he 
reminded himself; he was whole again, and there was, too, the example 
of Niccolo Machiavelli to consider (a wronged man, his name, like that 
of Muhammad-Mahon-Mahound, a synonym for evil; whereas in fact his 
staunch republicanism had earned him the rack, upon which he 
survived, was it three turns of the wheel? -- enough, at any rate, to make 
most men confess to raping their grandmothers, or anything else, just 
to make the pain go away; -- yet he had confessed to nothing, having 
committed no crimes while serving the Florentine republic, that all-- 
too-brief interruption in the power of the Medici family); if Niccolo 
could survive such tribulation and live to write that perhaps 
embittered, perhaps sardonic parody of the sycophantic mirror--of-- 
princes literature then so much in vogue, _Il Principe_, following it 
with the magisterial _Discorsi_, then he, Chamcha, need certainly not 
permit himself the luxury of defeat. Resurrection it was, then; roll back 
that boulder from the cave's dark mouth, and to hell with the lega! 
problems. 



421 



Mishal, Hanif Johnson and Pinkwalla -- in whose eyes Chamcha's 
metamorphoses had made the actor a hero, through whom the magic of 
special-effects fantasy-movies (_Labyrinth_, _Legend_, _Howard the 
Duck_) entered the Real -- drove Saladin over to Pamela's place in the 
DJ's van; this time, though, he squashed himself into the cab along 
with the other three. It was early afternoon; Jumpy would still be at the 
sports centre. "Good luck," said Mishal, kissing him, and Pinkwalla 
asked if they should wait. "No, thanks," Saladin replied. "When you've 
fallen from the sky, been abandoned by your friend, suffered police 
brutality, metamorphosed into a goat, lost your work as well as your 
wife, learned the power of hatred and regained human shape, what is 
there left to do but, as you would no doubt phrase it, demand your 
rights?" He waved goodbye. "Good for you," Mishal said, and they had 
gone. On the street corner the usual neighbourhood kids, with whom 
his relations had never been good, were bouncing a football off a lamp- 
post. One of them, an evil-looking piggy-eyed lout of nine or ten, 
pointed an imaginary video remote control at Chamcha and yelled: 
"Fast forward!" His was a generation that believed in skipping life's 
boring, troublesome, unlikable bits, going fast-forward from one 
action-packed climax to the next. _Welcome home_, Saladin thought, 
and rang the doorbell. 

Pamela, when she saw him, actually caught at her throat. "I didn't 
think people did that any more," he said. "Not since _Dr. 
Strangelove_." Her pregnancy wasn't visible yet; he inquired after it, 
and she blushed, but confirmed that it was going well. "So far so good." 
She was naturally off balance; the offer of coffee in the kitchen came 
several beats too late (she "stuck with" her whisky, drinking rapidly in 
spite of the baby); but in point of fact Chamcha felt one down (there 
had been a period in which he'd been an avid devotee of Stephen 
Potter's amusing little books) throughout this encounter. Pamela 
clearly felt that she ought to be the one in the bad position. She was the 
one who had wanted to break the marriage, who had denied him at least 



422 



thrice; but he was as fumbling and abashed as she, so that they seemed 
to compete for the right to occupy the doghouse. The reason for 
Chamcha's discomfiture -- and he had not, let's recall, arrived in this 
awkward spirit, but in feisty, pugnacious mood -- was that he had 
realized, on seeing Pamela, with her too--bright brightness, her face like 
a saintly mask behind which who knows what worms feasted on rotting 
meat (he was alarmed by the hostile violence of the images arising from 
his unconscious), her shaven head under its absurd turban, her whisky 
breath, and the hard thing that had entered the little lines around her 
mouth, that he had quite simply fallen out of love, and would not want 
her back even should she want (which was improbable but not 
inconceivable) to return. The instant he became aware of this he 
commenced for some reason to feel guilty, and, as a result, at a 
conversational disadvantage. The white-haired dog was growling at him, 
too. He recalled that he'd never really cared for pets. 

"I suppose," she addressed her glass, sitting at the old pine table in the 
spacious kitchen, "that what I did was unforgivable, huh?" 

That little Americanizing _huh_ was new: another of her infinite series 
of blows against her breeding? Or had she caught it from Jumpy, or 
some hip little acquaintance of his, like a disease? (The snarling 
violence again: down with it. Now that he no longer wanted her, it was 
entirely inappropriate to the situation.) "I don't think I can say what 
I'm capable of forgiving," he replied. "That particular response seems 
to be out of my control; it either operates or it doesn't and I find out in 
due course. So let's say, for the moment, that the jury's out." She 
didn't like that, she wanted him to defuse the situation so that they 
could enjoy their blasted coffee. Pamela had always made vile coffee: 
still, that wasn't his problem now. "I'm moving back in," he said. "It's 
a big house and there's plenty of room. I'll take the den, and the rooms 
on the floor below, including the spare bathroom, so I'll be quite 
independent. I propose to use the kitchen very sparingly. I'm assuming 



423 



chat, as my body was never found, I'm still officially missingpresumed- 
dead, that you haven't gone to court to have me wiped off the slate. In 
which case it shouldn't take too long to resuscitate me, once I alert 
Bentine, Milligan and Sellers." (Respectively, their lawyer, their 
accountant and Chamcha's agent.) Pamela listened dumbly, her posture 
informing him that she wouldn't be offering any counter-arguments, 
that whatever he wanted was okay: making amends with body language. 
"After that," he concluded, "we sell up and you get your divorce." He 
swept out, making an exit before he got the shakes, and made it to his 
den just before they hit him. Pamela, downstairs, would be weeping; he 
had never found crying easy, but he was a champion shaker. And now 
there was his heart, too: boom badoom doodoodoom. 

_To be born again, first you have to die_. 



Alone, he all at once remembered that he and Pamela had once 
disagreed, as they disagreed on everything, on a short--story they'd both 
read, whose theme was precisely the nature of the unforgivable. Title 
and author eluded him, but the story came back vividly. A man and a 
woman had been intimate friends (never lovers) for all their adult lives. 
On his twenty--first birthday (they were both poor at the time) she had 
given him, as a joke, the most horrible, cheap glass vase she could find, 
its colours a garish parody of Venetian gaiety. Twenty years later, when 
they were both successful and greying, she visited his home and 
quarrelled with him over his treatment of a mutual friend. In the course 
of the quarrel her eye fell upon the old vase, which he still kept in pride 
of place on his sitting-room mantelpiece, and, without pausing in her 
tirade, she swept it to the floor, smashing it beyond hope of repair. He 
never spoke to her again; when she died, half a century later, he refused 
to visit her deathbed or attend her funeral, even though messengers 
were sent to tell him that these were her dearest wishes. "Tell her," he 
said to the emissaries, "that she never knew how much I valued what 



424 



she broke." The emissaries argued, pleaded, raged. If she had not known 
how much meaning he had invested in the trifle, how could she in all 
fairness be blamed? And had she not made countless attempts, over the 
years, to apologize and atone? And she was dying, for heaven's sake; 
could not this ancient, childish rift be healed at the last? They had lost 
a lifetime's friendship; could they not even say goodbye? "No," said the 
unforgiving man. -- "Really because of the vase? Or are you concealing 
some other, darker matter?" -- "It was the vase," he answered, "the vase, 
and nothing but." Pamela thought the man petty and cruel, but 
Chamcha had even then appreciated the curious privacy, the 
inexplicable inwardness of the issue. "Nobody can judge an internal 
injury," he had said, "by the size of the superficial wound, of the hole." 

_Sunt lacrimae rerum_, as the ex-teacher Sufyan would have said, and 
Saladin had ample opportunity in the next many days to contemplate 
the tears in things. He remained at first virtually immobile in his den, 
allowing it to grow back around him at its own pace, waiting for it to 
regain something of the solid comforting quality of its old self, as it 
had been before the altering of the universe. He watched a good deal of 
television with half an eye, channel-hopping compulsively, for he was a 
member of the remote-control culture of the present as much as the 
piggy boy on the street corner; he, too, could comprehend, or at least 
enter the illusion of comprehending, the composite video monster his 
button-pushing brought into being ... what a leveller this remote- 
control gizmo was, a Procrustean bed for the twentieth century; it 
chopped down the heavyweight and stretched out the slight until all the 
set's emissions, commercials, murders, game-- shows, the thousand and 
one varying joys and terrors of the real and the imagined, acquired an 
equal weight; -- and whereas the original Procrustes, citizen of what 
could now be termed a "hands-on" culture, had to exercise both brain 
and brawn, he, Chamcha, could lounge back in his Parker--Knoll 
recliner chair and let his fingers do the chopping. It seemed to him, as 
he idled across the channels, that the box was full of freaks: there were 



425 



mutants -- "Mutts" -- on _Dr. Who_, bizarre creatures who appeared to 
have been crossbred with different types of industrial machinery: forage 
harvesters, grabbers, donkeys, jackhammers, saws, and whose cruel 
priest-chieftains were called _Mutilasians_; children's television 
appeared to be exclusively populated by humanoid robots and creatures 
with metamorphic bodies, while the adult programmes offered a 
continual parade of the misshapen human by-products of the newest 
notions in modern medicine, and its accomplices, modern disease and 
war. A hospital in Guyana had apparently preserved the body of a fully 
formed merman, complete with gills and scales. Lycanthropy was on the 
increase in the Scottish Highlands. The genetic possibility of centaurs 
was being seriously discussed. A sex--change operation was shown. -- He 
was reminded of an execrable piece of poetry which Jumpy Joshi had 
hesitantly shown him at the Shaandaar B and B. Its name, "I Sing the 
Body Eclectic", was fully representative of the whole. -- But the fellow 
has a whole body, after all, Saladin thought bitterly. He made Pamela's 
baby with no trouble at all: no broken sticks on his damn 
chromosomes. . . he caught sight of himself in a rerun of an old _Aliens 
Show_ "classic". (In the fast--forward culture, classic status could be 
achieved in as little as six months; sometimes even overnight.) The 
effect of all this box-watching was to put a severe dent in what 
remained of his idea of the normal, average quality of the real; but there 
were also countervailing forces at work. 

On _Gardeners' World_ he was shown how to achieve something called 
a "chimeran graft" (the very same, as chance would have it, that had 
been the pride of Otto Cone's garden); and although his inattention 
caused him to miss the names of the two trees that had been bred into 
one -- Mulberry? Laburnum? Broom? -- the tree itself made him sit up 
and take notice. There it palpably was, a chimera with roots, firmly 
planted in and growing vigorously out of a piece of English earth: a 
tree, he thought, capable of taking the metaphoric place of the one his 
father had chopped down in a distant garden in another, incompatible 



426 



world. If such a tree were possible, then so was he; he, too, could 
cohere, send down roots, survive. Amid all the televisual images of 
hybrid tragedies -- the uselessness of mermen, the failures of plastic 
surgery, the Esperanto-like vacuity of much modern art, the Coca- 
Colonization of the planet -- he was given this one gift. It was enough. 
He switched off the set. 

Gradually, his animosity towards Gibreel lessened. Nor did horns, goat- 
hoofs, etc. show any signs of manifesting themselves anew. It seemed a 
cure was in progress. In point of fact, with the passage of the days not 
only Gibreel, but everything which had befallen Saladin of late that was 
irreconcilable with the prosiness of everyday life came to seem somehow 
irrelevant, as even the most stubborn of nightmares will once you've 
splashed your face, brushed your teeth and had a strong, hot drink. He 
began to make journeys into the outside world -- to those professional 
advisers, lawyer accountant agent, whom Pamela used to call "the 
Goons", and when sitting in the panelled, book- and ledgerlined 
stability of those offices in which miracles could plainly never happen 
he took to speaking of his "breakdown", -- "the shock of the accident", 
-- and so on, explaining his disappearance as though he had never 
tumbled from the sky, singing "Rule, Britannia" while Gibreel yowled 
an air from the movie _Shree 420_. He made a conscious effort to 
resume his old life of delicate sensibilities, taking himself off to 
concerts and art galleries and plays, and if his responses were rather 
dull; -- if these pursuits singularly failed to send him home in the state 
of exaltation which was the return he expected from all high art; -- then 
he insisted to himself that the thrill would soon return; he had had "a 
bad experience", and needed a little time. 

In his den, seated in the Parker-Knoll armchair, surrounded by his 
familiar objects -- the china pierrots, the mirror in the shape of a 
cartoonist's heart, Eros holding up the globe of an antique lamp -- he 
congratulated himself on being the sort of person who had found 



427 



hatred impossible to sustain for long. Maybe, after all, love was more 
durable than hate; even if love changed, some shadow of it, some lasting 
shape, persisted. Towards Pamela, for example, he was now sure he felt 
nothing but the most altruistic affections. Hatred was perhaps like a 
finger-print upon the smooth glass of the sensitive soul; a mere grease- 
mark, which disappeared if left alone. Gibreel? Pooh! He was forgotten; 
he no longer existed. There; to surrender animosity was to become free. 

Saladin's optimism grew, but the red tape surrounding his return to life 
proved more obstructive than he expected. The banks were taking their 
time about unblocking his accounts; he was obliged to borrow from 
Pamela. Nor was work easy to come by. His agent, Charlie Sellers, 
explained over the phone: "Clients get funny. They start talking about 
zombies, they feel sort of unclean: as "if they were robbing a grave." 
Charlie, who still sounded in her early fifties like a disorganized and 
somewhat daffy young thing of the best county stock, gave the 
impression that she rather sympathized with the clients' point of view. 
"Wait it out," she advised. "They'll come round. After all, it isn't as if 
you were Dracula, for heaven's sake." Thank you, Charlie. 

Yes: his obsessive loathing of Gibreel, his dream of exacting some cruel 
and appropriate revenge, -- these were things of the past, aspects of a 
reality incompatible with his passionate desire to re--establish ordinary 
life. Not even the seditious, deconstructive imagery of television could 
deflect him. What he was rejecting was a portrait of himself and Gibreel 
as _monstrous_. Monstrous, indeed: the most absurd of ideas. There 
were real monsters in the world -- mass--murdering dictators, child 
rapists. The Granny Ripper. (Here he was forced to admit that in spite 
of his old, high estimate of the Metropolitan Police, the arrest of Uhuru 
Simba was just too darned neat.) You only had to open the tabloids any 
day of the week to find crazed homosexual Irishmen stuffing babies' 
mouths with earth. Pamela, naturally, had been of the view that 
"monster" was too -- what? -- _judgmental_ a term for such persons; 



428 



compassion, she said, required that we see them as casualties of the age. 
Compassion, he replied, demanded that we see their victims as the 
casualties. "There's nothing to be done with you," she had said in her 
most patrician voice. "You actually do think in cheap debating points." 

And other monsters, too, no less real than the tabloid fiends: money, 
power, sex, death, love. Angels and devils -- who needed them? "Why 
demons, when man himself is a demon?" the Nobel Laureate Singer's 
"last demon" asked from his attic in Tishevitz. To which Chamcha's 
sense of balance, his much-to-be-said-forand-against reflex, wished to 
add: "And why angels, when man is angelic too?" (If this wasn't true, 
how to explain, for instance, the Leonardo Cartoon? Was Mozart really 
Beelzebub in a powdered wig?) -- But, it had to be conceded, and this 
was his original point, that the circumstances of the age required no 
diabolic explanations. 



I'm saying nothing. Don't ask me to clear things up one way or the 
other; the time of revelations is long gone. The rules of Creation are 
pretty clear: you set things up, you make them thus and so, and then 
you let them roll. Where's the pleasure if you're always intervening to 
give hints, change the rules, fix the fights? Well, I've been pretty self- 
controlled up to this point and I don't plan to spoil things now. Don't 
think I haven't wanted to butt in; I have, plenty of times. And once, it's 
true, I did. I sat on Alleluia Cone's bed and spoke to the superstar, 
Gibreel. _Ooparvala or Neechayvala_, he wanted to know, and I didn't 
enlighten him; I certainly don't intend to blab to this confused 
Chamcha instead. 

I'm leaving now. The man's going to sleep. 



429 



His reborn, fledgling, still--fallible optimism was hardest to maintain at 
night; because at night that otherworld of horns and hoofs was not so 
easily denied. There was the matter, too, of the two women who had 
started haunting his dreams. The first -- it was hard to admit this, even 
to himself-- was none other than the child-woman of the Shaandaar, his 
loyal ally in that nightmare time which he was now trying so mightily 
to conceal behind banalities and mists, the aficionada of the martial 
arts, Hanif Johnson's lover, Mishal Sufyan. 

The second -- whom he'd left in Bombay with the knife of his departure 
sticking in her heart, and who must still think him dead -- was Zeeny 
Vakil. 



The jumpiness of Jumpy Joshi when he learned that Saladin Chamcha 
had returned, in human form, to reoccupy the upper storeys of the 
house in Notting Hill, was frightful to behold, and incensed Pamela 
more than she could say. On the first night -- she had decided not to 
tell him until they were safely in bed -- he leaped, on hearing the news, 
a good three feet clear of the bed and stood on the pale blue carpet, 
stark naked and quaking with his thumb stuck in his mouth. 

"Come back here and stop being foolish," she commanded, but he 
shook his head wildly, and removed his thumb long enough to gibber: 
"But if he's _here!_ In this _house!_ Then how can _I_ . . . ?" -- With 
which he snatched up his clothes in an untidy bundle, and fled from her 
presence; she heard thumps and crashes which suggested that his shoes, 
possibly accompanied by himself, had fallen down the stairs. "Good," 
she screamed after him. "Chicken, break your neck." 

Some moments later, however, Saladin was visited by the purple-faced 
figure of his estranged and naked-headed wife, who spoke thickly 
through clamped teeth. "J.J. is standing outside in the street. The damn 



430 



fool says he can't come in unless you say it's okay with you." She had, 
as usual, been drinking. Chamcha, greatly astonished, more or less 
blurted out: "What about you, you want him to come in?" Which 
Pamela interpreted as his way of rubbing salt in the wound. Turning an 
even deeper shade of purple she nodded with humiliated ferocity. _Yes_. 

So it was that on his first night home, Saladin Chamcha went outside -- 
"Hey, hombre! You're really _well!_" Jumpy greeted him in terror, 
making as if to slap palms, to conceal his fear -- and persuaded his 
wife's lover to share her bed. Then he retreated upstairs, because 
Jumpy's mortification now prevented him from entering the house 
until Chamcha was safely out of the way. 

"What a man! " Jumpy wept at Pamela. "He's a _prince_, a _saint!_" 

"If you don't pack it in," Pamela Chamcha warned apoplectically, "I'll 
set the fucking dog on you." 



Jumpy continued to find Chamcha's presence distracting, envisaging 
him (or so it appeared from his behaviour) as a minatory shade that 
needed to be constantly placated. When he cooked Pamela a meal (he 
had turned out, to her surprise and relief, to be quite a Mughlai chef) 
he insisted on asking Chamcha down to join them, and, when Saladin 
demurred, took him up a tray, explaining to Pamela that to do 
otherwise would be rude, and also provocative. "Look what he permits 
under his own roof! He's a _giant_; least we can do is have good 
manners." Pamela, with mounting rage, was obliged to put up with a 
series of such acts and their accompanying homilies. "I'd never have 
believed you were so conventional," she fumed, and Jumpy replied: "It's 
just a question of respect." 



431 



In the name of respect, Jumpy carried Chamcha cups of tea, newspapers 
and mail; he never failed, on arriving at the big house, to go upstairs for 
a visit of at least twenty minutes, the minimum time commensurate 
with his sense of politeness, while Pamela cooled her heels and knocked 
back bourbon three floors below. He brought Saladin little presents: 
propitiatory offerings of books, old theatre handbills, masks. When 
Pamela attempted to put her foot down, he argued against her with an 
innocent, but also mulish passion: "We can't behave as if the man's 
invisible. He's here, isn't he? Then we must involve him in our lives." 
Pamela replied sourly: "Why don't you just ask him to come down and 
join us in bed?" To which Jumpy, seriously, replied: "I didn't think 
you'd approve." 

In spite of his inability to relax and take for granted Chamcha's 
residence upstairs, something in Jumpy Joshi was eased by receiving, in 
this unusual way, his predecessor's blessings. Able to reconcile the 
imperatives of love and friendship, he cheered up a good deal, and 
found the idea of fatherhood growing on him. One night he dreamed a 
dream that made him weep, the next morning, in delighted 
anticipation: a simple dream, in which he was running down an avenue 
of overarching trees, helping a small boy to ride a bicycle. "Aren't you 
pleased with me?" the boy cried in his elation. "Look: aren't you 
pleased?" 



Pamela and Jumpy had both become involved in the campaign mounted 
to protest against the arrest of Dr. Uhuru Simba for the so-called 
Granny Ripper Murders. This, too, Jumpy went upstairs to discuss with 
Saladin. "The whole thing's completely trumped-up, based on 
circumstantial evidence and insinuations. Hanif reckons he can drive a 
truck through the holes in the prosecution case. It's just a 
straightforward malicious fit--up; the only question is how far they'll 
go. They'll verbal him for sure. Maybe there will even be witnesses 



432 



saying they saw him do the slicing. Depends how badly they want to get 
him. Pretty badly, I'd say; he's been a loud voice around town for some 
while." Charncha recommended caution. Recalling Mishal Sufyan's 
loathing for Simba, he said: "The fellow has -- has he not? -- a record of 
violence towards women . . ." Jumpy turned his palms outward. "In his 
personal life," he owned, "the guy's frankly a piece of shit. But that 
doesn't mean he disembowels senior citizens; you don't have to be an 
angel to be innocent. Unless, of course, you're black." Chamcha let this 
pass. "The point is, this isn't personal, it's political," Jumpy 
emphasized, adding, as he got up to leave, "Urn, there's a public 
meeting about it tomorrow. Pamela and I have to go; please, I mean if 
you'd like, if you'd be interested, that is, come along if you want." 

"You asked him to go with us?" Pamela was incredulous. She had 
started to feel nauseous most of the time, and it did nothing for her 
mood. "You actually did that without consulting me?" Jumpy looked 
crestfallen. "Doesn't matter, anyhow," she let him off the hook. "Catch 
_him_ going to anything like _that_." 

In the morning, however, Saladin presented himself in the hall, wearing 
a smart brown suit, a camel coat with a silk collar, and a rather natty 
brown homburg hat. "Where are you off to?" Pamela, in turban, army- 
surplus leather jacket and tracksuit bottoms that revealed the incipient 
thickening of her middle, wanted to know. "Bloody Ascot?" "I believe I 
was invited to a meeting," Saladin answered in his least combative 
manner, and Pamela freaked. "You want to be careful," she warned him. 
"The way you look, you'll probably get fucking mugged." 



What drew him back into the otherworld, into that undercity whose 
existence he had so long denied? -- What, or rather who, forced him by 
the simple fact of its (her) existence, to emerge from that cocoon-den in 
which he was being -- or so he believed -- restored to his former self, 



433 



and plunge once more into the perilous (because uncharted) waters of 
the world and of himself? "I'll be able to fit in the meeting," Jumpy 
Joshi had told Saladin, "before my karate class." -- Where his star pupil 
waited: long, rainbow-haired and, Jumpy added, just past her eighteenth 
birthday. -- Not knowing that Jumpy, too, was suffering some of the 
same illicit longings, Saladin crossed town to be nearer to Mishal 
Sufyan. 



He had expected the meeting to be small, envisaging a back room 
somewhere full of suspicious types looking and talking like clones of 
Malcolm X (Chamcha could remember finding funny a TV comic's joke 
-- "Then there's the one about the black man who changed his name to 
Mr. X and sued the _News of the World_ for libel" -- and provoking one 
of the worst quarrels of his marriage), with maybe a few angry-looking 
women as well; he had pictured much fist-clenching and righteousness. 
What he found was a large hall, the Brickhall Friends Meeting House, 
packed wall-to-wall with every conceivable sort of person -- old, wide 
women and uniformed schoolchildren, Rastas and restaurant workers, 
the staff of the small Chinese supermarket in Plassey Street, soberly 
dressed gents as well as wild boys, whites as well as blacks; the mood of 
the crowd was far from the kind of evangelical hysteria he'd imagined; 
it was quiet, worried, wanting to know what could be done. There was a 
young black woman standing near him who gave his attire an amused 
once-over; he stared back at her, and she laughed: "Okay, sorry, no 
offence." She was wearing a lenticular badge, the sort that changed its 
message as you moved. At some angles it read, _Uhuru for the Simba_; 
at others, _Freedom for the Lion_. "It's on account of the meaning of 
his chosen name," she explained redundantly. "In African." Which 
language? Saladin wanted to know. She shrugged, and turned away to 
listen to the speakers. It was African: born, by the sound of her, in 
Lewisham or Deptford or New Cross, that was all she needed to know . . 



434 



. Pamela hissed into his ear. "I see you finally found somebody to feel 
superior to." She could still read him like a book. 

A minute woman in her middle seventies was led up on to the stage at 
the far end of the hail by a wiry man who, Chamcha was almost 
reassured to observe, really did look like an American Black Power 
leader, the young Stokely Carmichael, in fact -- the same intense 
spectacles -- and who was acting as a sort of compere. He turned out to 
be Dr. Simba's kid brother Walcott Roberts, and the tiny lady was their 
mother, Antoinette. "God knows how anything as big as Simba ever 
came out of her," Jumpy whispered, and Pamela frowned angrily, out of 
a new feeling of solidarity with all pregnant women, past as well as 
present. When Antoinette Roberts spoke, however, her voice was big 
enough to fill the room on lung-power alone. She wanted to talk about 
her son's day in court, at the committal proceedings, and she was quite 
a performer. Hers was what Chamcha thought of as an educated voice; 
she spoke in the BBC accents of one who learned her English diction 
from the World Service, but there was gospel in there, too, and hellfire 
sermonizing. "My son filled that dock," she told the silent room. "Lord, 
he filled it up. Sylvester -- you will pardon me if I use the name I gave 
him, not meaning to belittle the warrior's name he took for himself, 
but only out of ingrained habit -- Sylvester, he burst upwards from that 
dock like Leviathan from the waves. I want you to know how he spoke: 
he spoke loud, and he spoke clear. He spoke looking his adversary in 
the eye, and could that prosecutor stare him down? Never in a month of 
Sundays. And I want you to know what he said: 'I stand here,' my son 
declared, 'because I have chosen to occupy the old and honourable role 
of the uppity nigger. I am here because I have not been willing to seem 
reasonable. I am here for my ingratitude.' He was a colossus among the 
dwarfs. 'Make no mistake,' he said in that court, 'we are here to change 
things. I concede at once that we shall ourselves be changed; African, 
Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Cypriot, Chinese, we are 
other than what we would have been if we had not crossed the oceans, if 



435 



our mothers and fathers had not crossed the skies in search of work and 
dignity and a better life for their children. We have been made again: 
but I say that we shall also be the ones to remake this society, to shape 
it from the bottom to the top. We shall be the hewers of the dead wood 
and the gardeners of the new. It is our turn now.' I wish you to think on 
what my son, Sylvester Roberts, Dr. Uhuru Simba, said in the place of 
justice. Think on it while we decide what we must do." 

Her son Walcott helped her leave the stage amid cheers and chants; she 
nodded judiciously in the direction of the noise. Less charismatic 
speeches followed. Hanif Johnson, Simba's lawyer, made a series of 
suggestions -- the visitors' gallery must be packed, the dispensers 
ofjustice must know that they were being watched; the court must be 
picketed, and a rota should be organized; there was the need for a 
financial appeal. Chamcha murmured to Jumpy: "Nobody mentions his 
history of sexual aggression." Jumpy shrugged. "Some of the women 
he's attacked are in this room. Mishal, for example, is over there, look, 
in the corner by the stage. But this isn't the time or place for that. 
Simba's bull craziness is, you could say, a trouble in the family. What 
we have here is trouble with the Man." In other circumstances, Saladin 
would have had a good deal to say in response to such a statement. -- 
He would have objected, for one thing, that a man's record of violence 
could not be set aside so easily when he was accused of murder. -- Also 
that he didn't like the use of such American terms as "the Man" in the 
very different British situation, where there was no history of slavery; it 
sounded like an attempt to borrow the glamour of other, more 
dangerous struggles, a thing he also felt about the organizers' decision 
to punctuate the speeches with such meaning—loaded songs as _We 
Shall Overcome_, and even, for Pete's sake, _Nkosi Sikelel" iAfrika_. As 
if all causes were the same, all histories interchangeable. -- But he said 
none of these things, because his head had begun to spin and his senses 
to reel, owing to his having been given, for the first time in his life, a 
stupefying premonition of his death. 



436 



-- Hanif Johnson was finishing his speech. _As Dr. Simba has written, 
newness will enter this society by collective, not individual, actions_. 
He was quoting what Chamcha recognized as one of Camus's most 
popular slogans. _The passage from speech to moral action, Hanif was 
saying, has a name: to become human_. -- And now a pretty young 
British Asian woman with a slightly-toobulbous nose and a dirty, bluesy 
voice was launching into Bob Dylan's song, _I Pity the Poor 
Immigrant_. Another false and imported note, this: the song actually 
seemed rather hostile towards immigrants, though there were lines that 
struck chords, about the immigrant's visions shattering like glass, 
about how he was obliged to "build his town with blood". Jumpy, with 
his versifying attempts to redefine the old racist image of the rivers of 
blood, would appreciate that. -- All these things Saladin experienced 
and thought as if from a considerable distance. -- What had happened? 
This: when Jumpy Joshi pointed out Mishal Sufyan's presence at the 
Friends Meeting House, Saladin Chamcha, looking in her direction, saw 
a blazing fire burning in the centre of her forehead; and felt, in the 
same moment, the beating, and the icy shadow, of a pair of gigantic 
wings. -- He experienced the kind of blurring associated with double 
vision, seeming to look into two worlds at once; one was the brightly 
lit, no-smoking-allowed meeting hall, but the other was a world of 
phantoms, in which Azraeel, the exterminating angel, was swooping 
towards him, and a girl's forehead could burn with ominous flames. -- 
_She's death to me, that's what it means_, Chamcha thought in one of 
the two worlds, while in the other he told himself not to be foolish; the 
room was full of people wearing those inane tribal badges that had 
latterly grown so popular, green neon haloes, devil-horns painted with 
fluorescent paint; Mishal probably had on some piece of space-age junk 
jewellery. -- But his other self took over again, _she's off limits to you_, 
it said, _not all possibilities are open to us. The world is finite; our 
hopes spill over its rim_. -- Whereupon his heart got in on the act, 
bababoom, boomba, dabadoom. 



437 



Now he was outside, with Jumpy fussing over him and even Pamela 
showing concern. "I'm the one with the bun in the oven," she said with 
a gruff remnant of affection. "What business have you got to pass out?" 
Jumpy insisted: "You'd best come with me to my class; just sit quietly, 
and afterwards I'll take you home." -- But Pamela wanted to know if a 
doctor was required. _No, no, I'll go with Jumpy, I'll be fine. It was just 
hot in there. Airless. My clothes too warm. A stupid thing. A nothing_. 

There was an art cinema next to the Friends House, and he was leaning 
against a movie poster. The film was _Mephisto_, the story of an actor 
seduced into a collaboration with Nazism. In the poster, the actor -- 
played by the German star Klaus Maria Brandauer -- was dressed up as 
Mephistophilis, face white, body cloaked in black, arms upraised. Lines 
from _Faust_ stood above his head: 

--_Who art thou, then?_ 

— _Part of that Power, not understood_, 

_Which always wills the Bad, and always works the Good_. 



At the sports centre: he could scarcely bring himself to glance in 
Mishal's direction. (She too had left the Simba meeting in time to make 
the class.) -- Although she was all over him, _you came back, I bet it was 
to see me, isn't that nice_, he could hardly speak a civil word, much less 
ask _were you wearing a luminous something in the middle of your_, 
because she wasn't now, kicking her legs and flexing her long body, 
resplendent in its black leotard. -- Until, sensing the coldness in him, 
she backed off, all confusion and injured pride. 

"Our other star hasn't turned up today," Jumpy mentioned to Saladin 
during a break in the exercises. "Miss Alleluia Cone, the one who 
climbed Everest. I was meaning to introduce you two. She knows, I 



438 



mean, she's apparently with, Gibreel. Gibreel Farishta, the actor, your 
fellow--survivor of the crash." 

_Things are closing in on me_. Gibreel was drifting towards him, like 
India when, having come unstuck from the Gondwanaland proto-- 
continent, it floated towards Laurasia. (His processes of mind, he 
recognized absently, were coming up with some pretty strange 
associations.) When they collided, the force would hurl up Himalayas. -- 
What is a mountain? An obstacle; a transcendence; above all, an 
_effect_. 

"Where are you going?" Jumpy was calling. "I thought I was giving you 
a lift. Are you okay?" 

_I'm fine. I need to walk, that's all_. 

"Okay, but only if you're sure." 

_Sure_. Walk away fast, without catching Mishal's aggrieved eye. 

. . . In the street. Walk quickly, out of this wrong place, this 
underworld. -- God: no escape. Here's a shop-front, a store selling 
musical instruments, trumpets saxophones oboes, what's the name? -- 
_Fair Winds_, and here in the window is a cheaply printed handbill. 
Announcing the imminent return of, that's right, the Archangel 
Gibreel. His return and the salvation of the earth. _Walk. Walk away 
fast_. 

. . . Hail this taxi. (His clothes inspire deference in the driver.) Climb in 
squire do you mind the radio. Some scientist who got caught in that 
hijacking and lost the halfof his tongue. American. They rebuilt it, he 
says, with flesh taken from his posterior, excuse my French. Wouldn't 
fancy a mouthful of my own buttock meat myself but the poor bugger 
had no option did he. Funny bastard. Got some funny ideas. 



439 



Eugene Dumsday on the radio discussed the gaps in the fossil record 
with his new, buttocky tongue. _The Devil tried to silence me but the 
good Lord and American surgical techniques knew better_. These gaps 
were the creationist's main selling--point: if natural selection was the 
truth, where were all the random mutations that got deselected? Where 
were the monster--children, the deformed babies of evolution? The 
fossils were silent. No three-legged horses there. _No point arguing 
with these geezers_, the cabbie said. _I don't hold with God myself_. No 
point, one small part of Chamcha's consciousness agreed. No point 
suggesting that "the fossil record" wasn't some sort of perfect filing 
cabinet. And evolution theory had come a long way since Darwin. It was 
now being argued that major changes in species happened not in the 
stumbling, hit-andmiss manner first envisaged, but in great, radical 
leaps. The history of life was not the bumbling progress -- the very 
English middleclass progress -- Victorian thought had wanted it to be, 
but violent, a thing of dramatic, cumulative transformations: in the old 
formulation, more revolution than evolution. -- I've heard enough, the 
cabbie said. Eugene Dumsday vanished from the ether, to be replaced by 
disco music. _Ave atque vale_. 

What Saladin Chamcha understood that day was that he had been living 
in a state of phoney peace, that the change in him was irreversible. A 
new, dark world had opened up for him (or: within him) when he fell 
from the sky; no matter how assiduously he attempted to re--create his 
old existence, this was, he now saw, a fact that could not be unmade. He 
seemed to see a road before him, forking to left and right. Closing his 
eyes, settling back against taxicab upholstery, he chose the left—hand 
path. 



440 



The temperature continued to rise; and when the heatwave reached its 
highest point, and stayed up there so long that the whole city, its 
edifices, its waterways, its inhabitants, came perilously close to the boil, 
-- then Mr. Billy Battuta and his companion Mimi Mamoulian, recently 
returned to the metropolis after a period as guests of the penal 
authority of New York, announced their "grand coming-out" party. 
Billy's business connections downtown had arranged for his case to be 
heard by a well-disposed judge; his personal charm had persuaded every 
one of the wealthy female "marks" from whom he'd extracted such 
generous amounts for the purpose of the re-purchase of his soul from 
the Devil (including Mrs. Struwelpeter) to sign a clemency petition, in 
which the matrons stated their conviction that Mr. Battuta had 
honestly repented him of his error, and asked, in the light of his vow to 
concentrate henceforth on his startlingly brilliant entrepreneurial 
career (whose social usefulness in terms of wealth creation and the 
provision of employment to many persons, they suggested, should also 
be considered by the court in mitigation of his offences), and his 
further vow to undergo a full course of psychiatric treatment to help 
him overcome his weakness for criminal capers, -- that the worthy judge 
settle upon some lighter punishment than a prison sentence, "the 
deterrent purpose underlying such incarceration being better served 
here," in the ladies' opinion, "by a judgment of a more Christian sort". 
Mimi, adjudged to be no more than Billy's love-duped underling, was 
given a suspended sentence; for Billy it was deportation, and a stiff fine, 
but even this was rendered considerably less severe by the judge's 
consent to Billy's attorney's plea that his client be allowed to leave the 
country voluntarily, without having the stigma of a deportation order 
stamped into his passport, a thing that would do great damage to his 
many business interests. Twenty-four hours after the judgment Billy 
and Mimi were back in London, whooping it up at Crockford's, and 
sending out fancy invitation cards to what promised to be _the_ party 
of that strangely sweltering season. One of these cards found its way, 
with the assistance of Mr. S. S. Sisodia, to the residence of Alleluia 



441 



Cone and Gibreel Farishta; another arrived, a little belatedly, at Saladin 
Chamcha's den, slipped under the door by the solicitous Jumpy. (Mimi 
had called Pamela to invite her, adding, with her usual directness: "Any 
notion where that husband of yours has gotten to?" -- Which Pamela 
answered, with English awkwardness, _yes er but_. Mimi got the whole 
story out of her in less than half an hour, which wasn't bad, and 
concluded triumphantly: "Sounds like your life is looking up, Pam. 
Bring "em both; bring anyone. It's going to be quite a circus.") 

The location for the party was another of Sisodia's inexplicable 
triumphs: the giant sound stage at the Shepperton film studios had 
been procured, apparently at no cost, and the guests would be able, 
therefore, to take their pleasures in the huge re-creation of Dickensian 
London that stood within. A musical adaptation of the great writer's 
last completed novel, renamed _Friend!_, with book and lyrics by the 
celebrated genius of the musical stage, Mr. Jeremy Bentham, had proved 
a mammoth hit in the West End and on Broadway, in spite of the 
macabre nature of some of its scenes; now, accordingly, _The Chums_, 
as it was known in the business, was receiving the accolade of a big-- 
budget movie production. "The pipi PR people," Sisodia told Gibreel on 
the phone, "think that such a fufufuck, _function_, which is to be most 
ista ista istar ista ista istudded, will be good for their bibuild up 
cacampaign." 

The appointed night arrived: a night of dreadful heat. 



Shepperton! -- Pamela and Jumpy are already here, borne on the wings 
of Pamela's MG, when Chamcha, having disdained their company, 
arrives in one of the fleet of coaches the evening's hosts have made 
available to those guests wishing for whatever reason to be driven 
rather than to drive. -- And someone else, too, -- the one with whom our 
Saladin fell to earth, -- has come; is wandering within. -- Chamcha 



442 



enters the arena; and is amazed. -- Here London has been altered -- no, 
_condensed_, -- according to the imperatives of film. -- Why, here's the 
Stucconia of the Veneerings, those bran-new, spick and span new 
people, lying shockingly adjacent to Portman Square, and the shady 
angle containing various Podsnaps. -- And worse: behold the dustman's 
mounds of Boffin's Bower, supposedly in the near vicinity of Holloway, 
looming in this abridged metropolis over Fascination Fledgeby's rooms 
in the Albany, the West End's very heart! -- But the guests are not 
disposed to grumble; the reborn city, even rearranged, still takes the 
breath away; most particularly in that part of the immense studio 
through which the river winds, the river with its fogs and Gaffer 
Hexam's boat, the ebbing Thames flowing beneath two bridges, one of 
iron, one of stone. -- Upon its cobbled banks the guests' gay footsteps 
fall; and there sound mournful, misty, footfalls of ominous note. A dry 
ice pea-souper lifts across the set. 

Society grandees, fashion models, film stars, corporation bigwigs, a 
brace of minor royal Personages, useful politicians and suchlike riff-raff 
perspire and mingle in these counterfeit streets with numbers of men 
and women as sweat-glistened as the "real" guests and as counterfeit as 
the city: hired extras in period costume, as well as a selection of the 
movie's leading players. Chamcha, who realizes in the moment of 
sighting him that this encounter has been the whole purpose of his 
journey, -- which fact he has succeeded in keeping from himself until 
this instant, -- spots Gibreel in the increasingly riotous crowd. 

Yes: there, on London Bridge Which Is Of Stone, without a doubt, 
Gibreel! -- And that must be his Alleluia, his Icequeen Cone! -- What a 
distant expression he seems to be wearing, how he lists a few degrees to 
the left; and how she seems to dote on him -- how everyone adores him: 
for he is among the very greatest at the party, Battuta to his left, 
Sisodia at Allie's right, and all about a host of faces that would be 
recognized from Peru to Timbuctoo! -- Chamcha struggles through the 



443 



crowd, which grows ever more dense as he nears the bridge; -- but he is 
resolved -- Gibreel, he will reach Gibreel! -- when with a clash of 
cymbals loud music strikes up, one of Mr. Bentham's immortal, 
showstopping tunes, and the crowd parts like the Red Sea before the 
children of Israel. -- Chamcha, off--balance, staggers back, is crushed by 
the parting crowd against a fake half-timbered edifice -- what else? -- a 
Curiosity Shop; and, to save himself, retreats within, while a great 
singing throng of bosomy ladies in mobcaps and frilly blouses, 
accompanied by an over-sufficiency of stovepipe-hatted gents, comes 
rollicking down the riverside street, singing for all they're worth. 

_What kind of fellow is Our Mutual Friend?_ 

_What does he intend?_ 

_Is he the kind of fellow on whom we may depend?_ 

_etc. etc. etc._ 

"It's a funny thing," a woman's voice says behind him, "but when we 
were doing the show at the C-- Theatre, there was an outbreak of lust 
among the cast; quite unparalleled, in my experience. People started 
missing their cues because of the shenanigans in the wings." 

The speaker, he observes, is young, small, buxom, far from unattractive, 
damp from the heat, flushed with wine, and evidently in the grip of the 
libidinous fever of which she speaks. -- The "room" has little light, but 
he can make out the glint in her eye. "We've got time," she continues 
matter--of--factly. "After this lot finish there's Mr. Podsnap's solo." 
Whereupon, arranging herself in an expert parody of the Marine 
Insurance agent's selfimportant posture, she launches into her own 
version of the scheduled musical Podsnappery: 

_Ours is a Copious Language_, 



444 



_A Language Trying to Strangers_; 

_Ours is the Favoured Nation_, 

_Blest, and Safe from Dangers_ . . . 

Now, in Rex-Harrisonian speech-song, she addresses an invisible 
Foreigner. "And How Do You Like London? -- 'Aynormaymong rich?' -- 
Enormously Rich, we say. Our English adverbs do Not terminate in 
Mong. -- And Do You Find, Sir, Many Evidences of our British 
Constitution in the Streets of the World's Metropolis, London, 
Londres, London? -- I would say," she adds, still Podsnapping, "that 
there is in the Englishman a combination of qualities, a modesty, an 
independence, a responsibility, a repose, which one would seek in vain 
among the Nations of the Earth." 

The creature has been approaching Chamcha while delivering herself of 
these lines; -- unfastening, the while, her blouse; -- and he, mongoose to 
her cobra, stands there transfixed; while she, exposing a shapely right 
breast, and offering it to him, points out that she has drawn upon it, -- 
as an act of civic pride, -- the map of London, no less, in red magic- 
marker, with the river all in blue. The metropolis summons him; -- but 
he, giving an entirely Dickensian cry, pushes his way out of the 
Curiosity Shop into the madness of the street. 

Gibreel is looking directly at him from London Bridge; their eyes -- or 
so it seems to Chamcha -- meet. Yes: Gibreel lifts, and waves, an 
unexcited arm. 



What follows is tragedy. -- Or, at the least the echo of tragedy, the full- 
blooded original being unavailable to modern men and women, so it's 
said. -- A burlesque for our degraded, imitative times, in which clowns 
re-enact what was first done by heroes and by kings. -- Well, then, so be 



445 



it. -- The question that's asked here remains as large as ever it was: 
which is, the nature of evil, how it's born, why it grows, how it takes 
unilateral possession of a many-sided human soul. Or, let's say: the 
enigma of Iago. 

It's not unknown for literary--theatrical exegetes, defeated by the 
character, to ascribe his actions to "motiveless malignity". Evil is evil 
and will do evil, and that's that; the serpent's poison is his very 
definition. -- Well, such shruggings-off will not pass muster here. My 
Chamcha may be no Ancient of Venice, my Allie no smothered 
Desdemona, Farishta no match for the Moor, but they will, at least, be 
costumed in such explanations as my understanding will allow. -- And 
so, now, Gibreel waves in greeting; Chamcha approaches; the curtain 
rises on a darkening stage. 



Let's observe, first, how isolated this Saladin is; his only willing 
companion an inebriated and cartographically bosomed stranger, he 
struggles alone through that partying throng in which all persons 
appear to be (and are not) one another's friends; -- while there on 
London Bridge stands Farishta, beset by admirers, at the very centre of 
the crowd; 

and, next, let us appreciate the effect on Chamcha, who loved England 
in the form of his lost English wife, -- of the golden, pale and glacial 
presence by Farishta's side of Alleluia Cone; he snatches a glass from a 
passing waiter's tray, drinks the wine fast, takes another; and seems to 
see, in distant Allie, the entirety of his loss; 

and in other ways, as well, Gibreel is fast becoming the sum of Saladin's 
defeats; -- there with him now, at this very moment, is another traitor; 
mutton dressed as lamb, fifty plus and batting her eyelashes like an 
eighteen-year--old, is Chamcha's agent, the redoubtable Charlie Sellers; 



446 



-- you wouldn't liken him to a Transylvanian bloodsucker, would you, 
Charlie, the irate watcher inwardly cries; -- and grabs another glass; -- 
and sees, at its bottom, his own anonymity, the other's equal celebrity, 
and the great injustice of the division; 

most especially -- he bitterly reflects -- because Gibreel, London's 
conqueror, can see no value in the world now falling at his feet! -- why, 
the bastard always sneered at the place, Proper London, Vilayet, the 
English, Spoono, what cold fish they are, I swear; -- Chamcha, moving 
inexorably towards him through the crowd, seems to see, _right now_, 
that same sneer upon Farishta's face, that scorn of an inverted 
Podsnap, for whom all things English are worthy of derision instead of 
praise; -- O God, the cruelty of it, that he, Saladin, whose goal and 
crusade it was to make this town his own, should have to see it kneeling 
before his contemptuous rival! -- so there is also this: that Chamcha 
longs to stand in Farishta's shoes, while his own footwear is of no 
interest whatsoever to Gibreel. 

What is unforgivable? 

Chamcha, looking upon Farishta's face for the first time since their 
rough parting in Rosa Diamond's hail, seeing the strange blankness in 
the other's eyes, recalls with overwhelming force the earlier blankness, 
Gibreel standing on the stairs and doing nothing while he, Chamcha, 
horned and captive, was dragged into the night; and feels the return of 
hatred, feels it filling him bottom--to--top with fresh green bile, _never 
mind about excuses_, it cries, _to hell with mitigations and what-could- 
he-have-dones; what's beyond forgiveness is beyond. You can't judge an 
internal injury by the size of the hole_. 

So: Gibreel Farishta, put on trial by Chamcha, gets a rougher ride than 
Mimi and Billy in New York, and is declared guilty, for all perpetuity, of 
the Inexcusable Thing. From which what follows, follows. -- But we may 
permit ourselves to speculate a while about the true nature of this 



447 



Ultimate, this Inexpiable Offence. -- Is it really, can it be, simply his 
silence on Rosa's stairs? -- Or are there deeper resentments here, gripes 
for which this so-called Primary Cause is, in truth, no more than a 
substitute, a front? -- For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, 
each man the other's shadow? -- One seeking to be transformed into the 
foreignness he admires, the other preferring, contemptuously, to 
transform; one, a hapless fellow who seems to be continually punished 
for uncommitted crimes, the other, called angelic by one and all, the 
type of man who gets away with everything. -- We may describe 
Chamcha as being somewhat less than life--size; but loud, vulgar 
Gibreel is, without question, a good deal larger than life, a disparity 
which might easily inspire neo-Procrustean lusts in Chamcha: to stretch 
himself by cutting Farishta down to size. 

What is unforgivable? 

What if not the shivering nakedness of being _wholly known_ to a 
person one does not trust? -- And has not Gibreel seen Saladin 
Chamcha in circumstances -- hijack, fall, arrest -- in which the secrets of 
the self were utterly exposed? 

Well, then. -- Are we coming closer to it? Should we even say that these 
arc two fundamentally" different _types_ of self? Might we not agree 
that Gibreel, for all his stage-name and performances; and in spite of 
born-again slogans, new beginnings, metamorphoses; -- has wished to 
remain, to a large degree, _continuous_ -- that is, joined to and arising 
from his past; -- that he chose neither near--fatal illness nor 
transmuting fall; that, in point of fact, he fears above all things the 
altered states in which his dreams leak into, and overwhelm, his waking 
self, making him that angelic Gibreel he has no desire to be; -- so that 
his is still a self which, for our present purposes, we may describe as 
"true" . . . whereas Saladin Chamcha is a creature of _selected_ dis- 
continuities, a _willing_ re--invention; his _preferred_ revolt against 
history being what makes him, in our chosen idiom, "false"? And might 



448 



we then not go on to say that it is this falsity of self that makes possible 
in Chamcha a worse and deeper falsity -- call this "evil" -- and that this 
is the truth, the door, that was opened in him by his fall? -- While 
Gibreel, to follow the logic of our established terminology, is to be 
considered "good" by virtue of _wishing to remain_, for all his 
vicissitudes, at bottom an untranslated man. 

-- But, and again but: this sounds, does it not, dangerously like an 
intentionalist fallacy? -- Such distinctions, resting as they must on an 
idea of the self as being (ideally) homogeneous, non-hybrid, "pure", -- 
an utterly fantastic notion! -- cannot, must not, suffice. No! Let's 
rather say an even harder thing: that evil may not be as far beneath our 
surfaces as we like to say it is. -- That, in fact, we fall towards it 
_naturally_, that is, _not against our natures_. -- And that Saladin 
Chamcha set out to destroy Gibreel Farishta because, finally, it proved 
so easy to do; the true appeal of evil being the seductive ease with which 
one may embark upon that road. (And, let us add in conclusion, the 
later impossibility of return.) 

Saladin Chamcha, however, insists on a simpler line. "It was his treason 
at Rosa Diamond's house; his silence, nothing more." 

He sets foot upon the counterfeit London Bridge. From a nearby red- 
and-white-striped puppeteer's booth, Mr. Punch -- whacking Judy -- 
calls out to him: _That's the way to do it!_ After which Gibreel, too, 
speaks a greeting, the enthusiasm of the words undone by the 
incongruous listlessness of the voice: "Spoono, is it you. You bloody 
devil. There you are, big as life. Come here, you Salad baba, old 
Chumch." 



This happened: 



449 



The moment Saladin Chamcha got close enough to Allie Cone to be 
transfixed, and somewhat chilled, by her eyes, he felt his reborn 
animosity towards Gibreel extending itself to her, with her degree-zero 
go-to-hell look, her air of being privy to some great, secret mystery of 
the universe; also, her quality of what he would afterwards think of as 
_wilderness_, a hard, sparse thing, antisocial, self-contained, an 
essence. Why did it annoy him so much? Why, before she'd even opened 
her mouth, had he characterized her as part of the enemy? 

Perhaps because he desired her; and desired, even more, what he took to 
be that inner certainty of hers; lacking which, he envied it, and sought 
to damage what he envied. If love is a yearning to be like (even to 
become) the beloved, then hatred, it must be said, can be engendered by 
the same ambition, when it cannot be fulfilled. 

This happened: Chamcha invented an Allie, and became his fiction's 
antagonist. . . he showed none of this. He smiled, shook hands, was 
pleased to meet her; and embraced Gibreel. _I follow him to serve my 
turn upon him_. Allie, suspecting nothing, excused herself. The two of 
them must have so much to catch up on, she said; and, promising to 
return soon, departed: off, as she put it, to explore. He noticed that she 
hobbled slightly for a step or two; then paused, and strode off strongly. 
Among the things he did not know about her was her pain. 

Not knowing that the Gibreel standing before him, remote of eye and 
perfunctory in his greeting, was under the most attentive medical 
supervision; -- or that he was obliged to take, on a daily basis, certain 
drugs that dulled his senses, because of the very real possibility of a 
recurrence of his no--longer--nameless illness, that is to say, paranoid 
schizophrenia; -- or that he had long been kept away, at Allie's absolute 
insistence, from the movie people whom she had come strongly to 
distrust, ever since his last rampage; -- or that their presence at the 
Battuta--Mamoulian party was a thing to which she had been whole- 
heartedly opposed, acquiescing only after a terrible scene in which 



450 



Gibreel had roared that he would be kept a prisoner no longer, and that 
he was determined to make a further effort to re--enter his "real life"; -- 
or that the effort of looking after a disturbed lover who was capable of 
seeing small bat-like imps hanging upside down in the refrigerator had 
worn Allie thin as a worn-out shirt, forcing upon her the roles of nurse, 
scapegoat and crutch -- requiring her, in sum, to act against her own 
complex and troubled nature; -- not knowing any of this, failing to 
comprehend that the Gibreel at whom he was looking, and believed he 
saw, Gibreel the embodiment of all the good fortune that the Fury- 
haunted Chamcha so signally lacked, was as much the creature of his 
fancy, as much a fiction, as his invented--resented Allie, that classic 
drop--dead blonde or femme fatale conjured up by his envious, 
tormented, Oresteian imagination, -- Saladin in his ignorance 
nevertheless penetrated, by the merest chance, the chink in Gibreel's 
(admittedly somewhat quixotic) armour, and understood how his hated 
Other might most swiftly be unmade. 

Gibreel's banal question made the opening. Limited by sedatives to 
small-talk, he asked vaguely: "And how, tell me, is your goodwife?" At 
which Chamcha, his tongue loosened by alcohol, blurted out: "How? 
Knocked up. Enceinte. Great with fucking child." Soporific Gibreel 
missed the violence in this speech, beamed absently, placed an arm 
around Saladin's shoulders. "Shabash, mubarak," he offered 
congratulations. "Spoono! Damn speedy work." 

"Congratulate her lover," Saladin thickly raged. "My old friend, Jumpy 
Joshi. Now there, I admit it, is a man. Women go wild, it seems. God 
knows why. They want his goddamn babies and they don't even wait to 
ask his leave." 

"For instance who?" Gibreel yelled, making heads turn and Chamcha 
recoil in surprise. "Who who who?" he hooted, causing tipsy giggles. 
Saladin Chamcha laughed, too: but without pleasure. "I'll tell you who 



451 



for instance. My wife for instance, that's who. That is no lady, mister 
Farishta, Gibreel. Pamela, my nolady wife." 

At this very moment, as luck would have it, -- while Saladin in his cups 
was quite ignorant of the effect his words were having on Gibreel, -- for 
whom two images had explosively combined, the first being his sudden 
memory of Rekha Merchant on a flying carpet warning him of Allie's 
secret wish to have a baby without informing the father, _who asks the 
seed for permission to plant_, and the second being an envisioning of 
the body of the martial arts instructor conjoined in high--kicking 
carnality with the same Miss Alleluia Cone, -- the figure of Jumpy Joshi 
was seen crossing "Southwark Bridge" in a state of some agitation, -- 
hunting, in fact, for Pamela, from whom he had become separated 
during the same rush of singing Dickensians which had pushed Saladin 
towards the metropolitan breasts of the young woman in the Curiosity 
Shop. "Talk of the devil," Saladin pointed. "There the bastard goes." He 
turned towards Gibreel: but Gibreel had gone. 

Allie Cone reappeared, angry, frantic. "Where is he? Jesus! Can't I even 
leave him for a fucking _second?_ Couldn't you have kept your sodding 
_eyes_ on him?" 

"Why, what's the matter --?" But now Allie had plunged into the crowd, 
so that when Chamcha saw Gibreel crossing "Southwark Bridge" she 
was out of earshot. -- And here was Pamela, demanding: "Have you seen 
Jumpy?" -- And he pointed, "That way," whereupon she, too, vanished 
without a word of courtesy; and now Jumpy was seen, crossing 
"Southwark Bridge" in the opposite direction, curly hair wilder than 
ever, coathanger shoulders hunched inside the greatcoat he had refused 
to remove, eyes searching, thumb homing in on mouth; -- and, a little 
later, Gibreel headed across the simulacrum of that bridge Which Is Of 
Iron, going the same way as Jumpy went. 



452 



In short, events had begun to border on the farcical; but when, some 
minutes later, the actor playing the role of "Gaffer Hexam", who kept 
watch over that stretch of the Dickensian Thames for floating corpses, 
to relieve them of their valuables before handing them over to the 
police, -- came rowing rapidly down the studio river with his stipulated 
ragged, grizzled hair standing straight up on end, the farce was 
instantly terminated; for there in his disreputable boat lay the insensate 
body of Jumpy Joshi in his waterlogged greatcoat. "Knocked cold," the 
boatman cried, pointing to the huge lump rising up at the back of 
Jumpy's skull, "and being unconscious in the water it's a miracle he 
never drowned." 



One week after that, in response to an impassioned telephone call from 
Allie Cone, who had tracked him down via Sisodia, Battuta and finally 
Mimi, and who appeared to have defrosted quite a bit, Saladin Chamcha 
found himself in the passenger seat of a three--year-old silver Citroen 
station wagon which the future Alicja Boniek had presented to her 
daughter before leaving for an extended Californian stay. Allie had met 
him at Carlisle station, repeating her earlier telephonic apologies -- "I'd 
no right to speak to you like that; you knew nothing, I mean about his, 
well, thank heavens nobody saw the attack, and it seems to have been 
hushed up, but that poor man, an oar on the head from behind, it's too 
bad; the point is, we've taken a place up north, friends of mine are 
away, it just seemed best to get out of range of human beings, and, well, 
he's been asking for you; you could really help him, I think, and to be 
frank I could do with the help myself," which left Saladin little the 
wiser but consumed by curiosity -- and now Scotland was rushing past 
the Citroen windows at alarming speed: an edge of Hadrian's Wall, the 
old elopers' haven Gretna Green, and then inland towards the Southern 
Uplands; Ecclefechan, Lockerbie, Beattock, Elvanfoot. Chamcha tended 
to think of all non-metropolitan locales as the deeps of interstellar 



453 



space, and journeys into them as fraught with peril: for to break down 
in such emptiness would surely be to die alone and undiscovered. He 
had noted warily that one of the Citroen's headlamps was broken, that 
the fuel gauge was in the red (it turned out to be broken, too), the 
daylight was failing, and Allie was driving as if the A74 were the track at 
Silverstone on a sunny day. "He can't get far without transport, but you 
neverknow," she explained grimly. "Three days ago he stole the car keys 
and they found him heading the wrong way up an exit road on the Mo, 
shouting about damnation. _Prepare for the vengeance of the Lord_, he 
told the motorway cops, _for I shall soon summon my lieutenant, 
Azraeel_. They wrote it all down in their little books." Chamcha, his 
heart still filled with his own vengeful lusts, affected sympathy and 
shock. "And Jumpy?" he inquired. Allie took both hands off the wheel 
and spread them in an I-giveup gesture, while the car wobbled 
terrifyingly across the bendy road. "The doctors say the possessive 
jealousy could be part of the same thing; at least, it can set the madness 
off, like a fuse." 

She was glad of the chance to talk; and Chamcha lent her a willing ear. 
If she trusted him, it was because Gibreel did, too; he had no intention 
of damaging that trust. _Once he betrayed my trust; now let him, for a 
time, have confidence in me_. He was a tyro puppeteer; it was necessary 
to study the strings, to find out what was connected to what ... "I 
can't help it," Allie was saying. "I feel in some obscure way to blame for 
him. Our life isn't working out and it's my fault. My mother gets angry 
when I talk like this." Alicja, on the verge of catching the plane west, 
berated her daughter at Terminal Three. "I don't understand where you 
get these notions from," she cried amid backpackers, briefcases and 
weeping Asian mums. "You could say your father's life didn't go 
according to plan, either. So he should be blamed for the camps? Study 
history, Alleluia. In this century history stopped paying attention to the 
old psychological orientation of reality. I mean, these days, character 
isn't destiny any more. Economics is destiny. Ideology is destiny. 



454 



Bombs are destiny. What does a famine, a gas chamber, a grenade care 
how you lived your life? Crisis comes, death comes, and your pathetic 
individual self doesn't have a thing to do with it, only to suffer the 
effects. This Gibreel of yours: maybe he's how history happens to you." 
She had returned, without warning, to the grand style of wardrobe 
preferred by Otto Cone, and, it seemed, to an oratorical manner that 
suited the big black hats and frilly suits. "Enjoy California, Mother," 
Allie said sharply. "One of us is happy," Alicja said. "Why shouldn't it 
be me?" And before her daughter could answer, she swept off past the 
passengers--only barrier, flourishing passport, boarding-pass, ticket, 
heading for the duty-free bottles of Opium and Gordon's Gin, which 
were on sale beneath an illuminated sign reading SAY HELLO TO THE 
GOOD BUYS. 

In the last light, the road rounded a spur of treeless, heather-covered 
hills. Long ago, in another country, another twilight, Chamcha had 
rounded another such spur and come into sight of the remains of 
Persepolis. Now, however, he was heading for a human ruin; not to 
admire, and maybe even (for the decision to do evil is never finally 
taken until the very instant of the deed; there is always a last chance to 
withdraw) to vandalize. To scrawl his name in Gibreel's flesh: _Saladin 
woz ear_. "Why stay with him?" he asked Allie, and to his surprise she 
blushed. "Why not spare yourself the pain?" 

"I don't really know you, not at all, really," she began, then paused and 
made a choice. "I'm not proud of the answer, but it's the truth," she 
said. "It's the sex. We're unbelievable together, perfect, like nothing 
I've known. Dream lovers. He just seems to, to _know_. To know _me_." 
She fell silent; the night hid her face. Chamcha's bitterness surged up 
again. Dream lovers were all around him; he, dreamless, could only 
watch. He gritted angry teeth; and bit, by mistake, his tongue. 

Gibreel and Allie had holed up in Durisdeer, a village so small it didn't 
have a pub, and were living in a deconsecrated Freekirk converted -- the 



455 



quasi-religious term sounded strange to Chamcha -- by an architect 
friend of Allie's who had made a fortune out of such metamorphoses of 
the sacred into the profane. It struck Saladin as a gloomy sort of place, 
for all its white walls, recessed spotlights and wall-to-wall shag— pile 
carpeting. There were gravestones in the garden. As a retreat for a man 
suffering from paranoid delusions of being the chief archangel of God, 
Chamcha reflected, it wouldn't have been his own first choice. The 
Freekirk was set a little apart from the dozen or so other stone— and— 
tile houses that made up the community: isolated even within this 
isolation. Gibreel was standing at the door, a shadow against the 
illuminated hallway, when the car pulled up. "You got here," he 
shouted. "Yaar, too good. Welcome to bloody jail." 

The drugs made Gibreel clumsy. As the three of them sat around the 
pitch-pine kitchen table beneath the gentrified pulldown dimmer- 
switched lighting, he twice knocked over his coffee — cup (he was 
ostentatiously off booze; Allie, pouring two generous shots of Scotch, 
kept Chamcha company), and, cursing, stumbled about the kitchen for 
paper-towels to mop up the mess. "When I get sick of being this way 
Ijust cut down without telling her," he confessed. "And then the shit 
starts happening. I swear to you, Spoono, I can't bear the bloody idea 
that it will never stop, that the only choice is drugs or bugs in the 
brain. I can't bloody bear it. I swear, yaar, if I thought that was it, then, 
bas, I don't know, I"d, I don't know what." 

"Shut your face," Allie softly said. But he shouted out: "Spoono, I even 
hit her, do you know that? Bloody hell. One day I thought she was some 
rakshasa type of demon and Ijust went for her. Do you know how 
strong it is, the strength of madness?" 

"Fortunately for me I'd been going to -- oops, eek -- those selfdefence 
classes," Allie grinned. "He's exaggerating to save face. Actually he was 
the one who ended up banging his head on the floor." -- "Right here," 
Gibreel sheepishly assented. The kitchen floor was made of large 



456 



flagstones. "Painful," Chamcha hazarded. "Damn right," Gibreel 
roared, strangely cheerful now. "Knocked me bilkul cold." 

The Freekirk's interior had been divided into a large twostorey (in 
estate agent's jargon, "double volume") reception-room -- the former 
hall of congregation -- and a more conventional half, with kitchen and 
utilities downstairs and bedrooms and bathroom above. Unable for 
some reason to sleep, Chamcha wandered at midnight into the great 
(and cold: the heatwave might be continuing in the south of England, 
but there wasn't a ripple of it up here, where the climate was autumnal 
and chill) living-room, and wandered among the ghost-voices of 
banished preachers while Gibreel and Allie made high-volume love. 
_Like Pamela_. He tried to think of Mishal, of Zeeny Vakil, but it didn't 
work. Stuffing his fingers in his ears, he fought against the sound 
effects of the copulation of Farishta and Alleluia Cone. 

Theirs had been a high-risk conjoining from the start, he reflected: 
first, Gibreel's dramatic abandonment of career and rush across the 
earth, and now, Allie's uncompromising determination to _see it 
through_, to defeat in him this mad, angelic divinity and restore the 
humanity she loved. No compromises for them; they were going for 
broke. Whereas he, Saladin, had declared himself content to live under 
the same roof as his wife and her lover boy. Which was the better way? 
Captain Ahab drowned, he reminded himself; it was the trimmer, 
Ishmael, who survived. 



In the morning Gibreel ordered an ascent of the local "Top". But Allie 
declined, although it was plain to Chamcha that her return to the 
countryside had caused her to glow with joy. "Bloody flatfoot mame," 
Gibreel cursed her lovingly. "Come on, Salad. Us damn city slickers can 
show the Everest conqueror how to climb. What a bloody upside-down 
life, yaar. We go mountain-climbing while she sits here and makes 



457 



business calls." Saladin's thoughts were racing: he understood, now, 
that strange hobble at Shepperton; understood, too, that this secluded 
haven would have to be temporary -- that Allie, by coming here, was 
sacrificing her own life, and wouldn't be able to go on doing so 
indefinitely. What should he do? Anything? Nothing? -- If revenge was 
to be taken, when and how? "Get these boots on," Gibreel commanded. 
"You think the rain will hold off all fucking day?" 

It didn't. By the time they reached the stone cairn at the summit of 
Gibreel's chosen climb, they were enveloped in a fine drizzle. "Damn 
good show," Gibreel panted. "Look: there she is, down there, sitting 
back like the Grand Panjandrum." He pointed down at the Freekirk. 
Chamcha, his heart pounding, was feeling foolish. He must start 
behaving like a man with a ticker problem. Where was the glory in dying 
of heart failure on this nothing of a Top, for nothing, in the rain? Then 
Gibreel got out his fieldglasses and started scanning the valley. There 
were hardly any moving figures to be seen -- two or three men and dogs, 
some sheep, no more. Gibreel tracked the men with his binoculars. 
"Now that we're alone," he suddenly said, "I can tell you why we really 
came away to this damn empty hole. It's because of her. Yes, yes; don't 
be fooled by my act! It's all her bloody beauty. Men, Spoono: they chase 
her like goddamn flies. I swear! I see them, slobbering and grabbing. It 
isn't right. She is a very private person, the most private person in the 
world. We have to protect her from lust." 

This speech took Saladin by surprise. You poor bastard, he thought, 
you really are going off your wretched head at a rate of knots. And, hard 
on the heels of this thought, a second sentence appeared, as if by magic, 
in his head: _Don't imagine that means I'll let you off_. 



On the drive back to the Carlisle railway station, Chamcha mentioned 
the depopulation of the countryside. "There's no work," Allie said. "So 



458 



it's empty. Gibreel says he can't get used to the idea that all this space 
indicates poverty: says it looks like luxury to him, after India's crowds." 
-- "And your work?" Chamcha asked. "What about that?" She smiled at 
him, the ice-- maiden facade long gone. "You're a nice man to ask. I 
keep thinking, one day it'll be my life in the middle, taking first place. 
Or, well, although I find it hard to use the first person plural: our life. 
That sounds better, right?" 

"Don't let him cut you off," Saladin advised. "From Jumpy, from your 
own worlds, whatever." This was the moment at which his campaign 
could truly be said to have begun; when he set a foot upon that 
effortless, seductive road on which there was only one way to go. 
"You're right," Allie was saying. "God, if he only knew. His precious 
Sisodia, for example: it's not just sevenfoot starlets he goes for, though 
he sure as hell likes those." -- "He made a pass," Chamcha guessed; and, 
simultaneously, filed the information away for possible later use. "He's 
totally shameless," Allie laughed. "It was right under Gibreel's nose. He 
doesn't mind rejection, though: he just bows, and murmurs _no 
offoffoffence_, and that's that. Can you imagine if I told Gibreel?" 

Chamcha at the railway station wished Allie luck. "We'll have to be in 
London for a couple of weeks," she said through the car window. "I've 
got meetings. Maybe you and Gibreel can get together then; this has 
really done him good." 

"Call any time," he waved goodbye, and watched the Citroen until it 
was out of sight. 



That Allie Cone, the third point of a triangle of fictions -- for had not 
Gibreel and Allie come together very largely by imagining, out of their 
own needs, an "Allie" and a "Gibreel" with whom each could fall in 
love; and was not Chamcha now imposing on them the requirements of 



459 



his own troubled and disappointed heart? -- was to be the unwitting, 
innocent agent of Chamcha's revenge, became even plainer to the 
plotter, Saladin, when he found that Gibreel, with whom he had 
arranged to spend an equatorial London afternoon, wanted nothing so 
much as to describe in embarrassing detail the carnal ecstasy of sharing 
Allie's bed. What manner of people were these, Saladin wondered with 
distaste, who enjoyed inflicting their intimacies on non-participating 
others? As Gibreel (with something like relish) described positions, 
love--bites, the secret vocabularies of desire, they strolled in Brickhall 
Fields among schoolgirls and roller-- skating infants and fathers 
throwing boomerangs and frisbees incompetently at scornful sons, and 
picked their way through broiling horizontal secretarial flesh; and 
Gibreel interrupted his erotic rhapsody to mention, madly, that "I 
sometimes look at these pink people and instead of skin, Spoono, what 
I see is rotting meat; I smell their putrefaction here," he tapped his 
nostrils fervently, as if revealing a mystery, "in my _nose_." Then once 
again to Allie's inner thighs, her cloudy eyes, the perfect valley of her 
lower back, the little cries she liked to make. This was a man in 
imminent danger of coming apart at the seams. The wild energy, the 
manic particularity of his descriptions suggested to Chamcha that he'd 
been cutting down on his dosages again, that he was rolling upwards 
towards the crest of a deranged high, that condition of febrile 
excitement that was like blind drunkenness in one respect (according to 
Allie), namely that Gibreel could remember nothing of what he said or 
did when, as was inevitable, he came down to earth. -- On and on went 
the descriptions, the unusual length of her nipples, her dislike of 
having her navel interfered with, the sensitivity of her toes. Chamcha 
told himself that, madness or no madness, what all this sex-talk 
revealed (because there had been Allie in the Citroen too) was the 
_weakness_ of their so--called "grand passion" -- a term which Allie had 
only half-jokingly employed -- because, in a phrase, there was nothing 
else about it that was any good; there was simply no other aspect of 
their togetherness to rhapsodize about. -- At the same time, however, he 



460 



felt himself becoming aroused. He began to see himself standing 
outside her window, while she stood there naked like an actress on a 
screen, and a man's hands caressed her in a thousand ways, bringing 
her closer and closer to ecstasy; he came to see himself as that pair of 
hands, he could almost feel her coolness, her responses, almost hear her 
cries. -- He controlled himself. His desire disgusted him. She was 
unattainable; this was pure voyeurism, and he would not succumb to it. 
-- But the desire Gibreel's revelations had aroused would not go away. 

Gibreel's sexual obsession, Chamcha reminded himself, actually made 
things easier. "She's certainly a very attractive woman," he murmured 
by way of an experiment, and was gratified to receive a furious, strung- 
out glare in return. After which Gibreel, making a show of controlling 
himself, put his arm around Saladin and boomed: "Apologies, Spoono, 
I'm a bad-tempered bugger where she's concerned. But you and me! 
We're bhaibhai! Been through the worst and come out smiling; come on 
now, enough of this little nowhere park. Let's hit town." 

There is the moment before evil; then the moment of; then the time 
after, when the step has been taken, and each subsequent stride 
becomes progressively easier. "Fine with me," Chamcha replied. "It's 
good to see you looking so well." 

A boy of six or seven cycled past them on a BMX bike. Chamcha, 
turning his head to follow the boy's progress, saw that he was moving 
smoothly away down an avenue of overarching trees, through which the 
hot sunlight managed here and there to drip. The shock of discovering 
the location of his dream disoriented Chamcha briefly, and left him 
with a bad taste in his mouth: the sour flavour of might-have-beens. 
Gibreel hailed a taxi; and requested Trafalgar Square. 

O, he was in a high good humour that day, rubbishing London and the 
English with much of his old brio. Where Chamcha saw attractively 
faded grandeur, Gibreel saw a wreck, a Crusoe-city, marooned on the 



461 



island of its past, and trying, with the help of a Man-Friday underclass, 
to keep up appearances. Under the gaze of stone lions he chased 
pigeons, shouting: "I swear, Spoono, back home these fatties wouldn't 
last one day; let's take one home for dinner." Chamcha's Englished soul 
cringed for shame. Later, in Covent Garden, he described for Gibreel's 
benefit the day the old fruit and vegetable market moved to Nine Elms. 
The authorities, worried about rats, had sealed the sewers and killed 
tens of thousands; but hundreds more survived. "That day, starving rats 
swarmed out on to the pavements," he recalled. "All the way down the 
Strand and over Waterloo Bridge, in and out of the shops, desperate for 
food." Gibreel snorted. "Now I know this is a sinking ship," he cried, 
and Chamcha felt furious at having given him the opening. "Even the 
bloody rats are off." And, after a pause: "What they needed was a pied 
piper, no? Leading them to destruction with a tune." 

When he wasn't insulting the English or describing Allie's body from 
the roots of her hair to the soft triangle of "the loveplace, the goddamn 
yoni," he seemed to wish to make lists: what were Spoono's ten 
favourite books, he wanted to know; also movies, female film stars, 
food. Chamcha offered conventional cosmopolitan answers. His movie-- 
list included _Potemkin_, _Kane_, _Otto e Mezzo_, _The Seven 
Samurai_, _Alphaville_, _El Angel Exterm inador_. "You've been 
brainwashed," Gibreel scoffed. "All this Western art-house crap." His 
top ten of everything came from "back home", and was aggressively 
lowbrow. _Mother India_, _Mr. India_, _Shree Charsawbees_: no Ray, 
no Mrinal Sen, no Aravindan or Ghatak. "Your head's so full of junk," 
he advised Saladin, "you forgot everything worth knowing." 

His mounting excitement, his babbling determination to turn the world 
into a cluster of hit parades, his fierce walking pace -- they must have 
walked twenty miles by the end of their travels -- suggested to Chamcha 
that it wouldn't take much, now, to push him over the edge. _It seems I 
turned out to be a confidence man, too, Mimi. The art of the assassin is 



462 



co draw the victim close; makes him easier to knjfe_. "I'm getting 
hungry," Gibreel imperiously announced. "Take me to one of your top- 
ten eateries." 

In the taxicab, Gibreel needled Chamcha, who had not informed him of 
the destination. "Some Frenchy joint, na? Or Japanese, with raw fishes 
and octopuses. God, why I trust your taste." 

They arrived at the Shaandaar Cafe. 



Jumpy wasn't there. 

Nor, apparently, had Mishal Sufyan patched things up with her mother; 
Mishal and Hanif were absent, and neither Anahita nor her mother gave 
Chamcha a greeting that could be described as warm. Only Haji Sufyan 
was welcoming: "Come, come, sit; you're looking good." The cafe was 
oddly empty, and even Gibreel's presence failed to create much of a stir. 
It took Chamcha a few seconds to understand what was up; then he saw 
the quartet of white youths sitting at a corner table, spoiling for a 
fight. 

The young Bengali waiter (whom Hind had been obliged to employ after 
her elder daughter's departure) came over and took their order -- 
aubergmes, sikh kababs, rice -- while staring angrily in the direction of 
the troublesome quartet, who were, as Saladin now perceived, very 
drunk indeed. The waiter, Amin, was as annoyed with Sufyan as the 
drunks. "Should never have let them sit," he mumbled to Chamcha and 
Gibreel. "Now I'm obliged to serve. It's okay for the seth; he's not the 
front line, see." 

The drunks got their food at the same time as Chamcha and Gibreel. 
When they started complaining about the cooking, the atmosphere in 
the room grew even more highly charged. Finally they stood up. "We're 



463 



not eating this shit, you cunts," yelled the leader, a tiny, runty fellow 
with sandy hair, a pale thin face, and spots. "It's shit. You can go fuck 
yourselves, fucking cunts." His three companions, giggling and 
swearing, left the cafe. The leader lingered for a moment. "Enjoying 
your food?" he screamed at Chamcha and Gibreel. "It's fucking shit. Is 
that what you eat at home, is it? Cunts." Gibreel was wearing an 
expression that said, loud and clear: so this is what the British, that 
great nation of conquerors, have become in the end. He did not 
respond. The little rat--faced speaker came over. "I asked you a fucking 
question," he said. "I said. Are you fucking enjoying your fucking _shit 
dinner?_" And Saladin Chamcha, perhaps out of his annoyance that 
Gibreel had not been confronted by the man he'd all but killed -- 
catching him off guard from behind, the coward's way -- found himself 
answering: "We would be, if it wasn't for you." Ratboy, swaying on his 
feet, digested this information; and then did a very surprising thing. 
Taking a deep breath, he drew himself up to his full five foot five; then 
leaned forward, and spat violently and copiously all over the food. 

"Baba, if that's in your top ten," Gibreel said in the taxi home, "don't 
take me to the places you don't like so much." 

" 'Minnamin, Gut mag alkan, Pern dirstan,'" Chamcha replied. "It 
means, 'My darling, God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty.' Nabokov." 

"Him again," Gibreel complained. "What bloody language?" 

"He made it up. It's what Kinbote's Zemblan nurse tells him as a child. 
In _Pale Fire_." 

"_Perndirstan_," Farishta repeated. "Sounds like a country: Hell, 
maybe. I give up, anyway. How are you supposed to read a man who 
writes in a made-up lingo of his own?" 



464 



They were almost back at Allie's flat overlooking Brickhall Fields. "The 
playwright Strindberg," Chamcha said, absently, as if following some 
profound train of thought, "after two unhappy marriages, wedded a 
famous and lovely twenty-year--old actress called Harriet Bosse. In the 
_Dream_ she was a great Puck. He wrote for her, too: the part of 
Eleanora in _Easter_. An 'angel of peace'. The young men went crazy 
for her, and Strindberg, well, he got so jealous he almost lost his mind. 
He tried to keep her locked up at home, far from the eyes of men. She 
wanted to travel; he brought her travel books. It was like the old Cliff 
Richard song: _Gonna lock her up in a trunk/so no big hunk/can steal 
her away from me_." 

Farishta's heavy head nodded in recognition. He had fallen into a kind 
of reverie. "What happened?" he inquired as they reached their 
destination. "She left him," Chamcha innocently declared. "She said 
she could not reconcile him with the human race." 



Alleluia Cone read, as she walked home from the Tube, her mother's 
deliriously happy letter from Stanford, Calif. "If people tell you 
happiness is unattainable," Alicja wrote in large, looping, back-leaning, 
left-handed letters, "kindly point them in my direction. I'll put them 
straight. I found it twice, the first time with your father, as you know, 
the second with this kind, broad man whose face is the exact colour of 
the oranges that grow all over these parts. Contentment, Allie. It beats 
excitement. Try it, you'll like it." When she looked up, Allie saw 
Maurice Wilson's ghost sitting atop a large copper beech-tree in his 
usual woollen attire -- tam--o"--shanter, diamond — pattern Pringle 
jersey, plus-- fours -- looking uncomfortably overdressed in the heat. 
"I've no time for you now," she told him, and he shrugged. _I can wait_. 
Her feet were bad again. She set her jaw and marched on. 



465 



Saladin Chamcha, concealed behind the very copper beech from which 
Maurice Wilson's ghost was surveying Allie's painful progress, observed 
Gibreel Farishta bursting out of the front door of the block of flats in 
which he'd been waiting impatiently for her return; observed him red- 
eyed and raving. The demons of jealousy were sitting on his shoulders, 
and he was screaming out the same old song, wherethehell whothe 
whatthe dont thinkyoucanpullthewool howdareyou bitchbitchbitch. It 
appeared that Strindberg had succeeded where Jumpy (because absent) 
had failed. 

The watcher in the upper branches dematerialized; the other, with a 
satisfied nod, strolled away down an avenue of shady, spreading trees. 



The telephone calls which now began to be received, first at their 
London residence and subsequently at a remote address in Dumfries 
and Galloway, by both Allie and Gibreel, were not too frequent; then 
again, they could not be termed infrequent. Nor were there too many 
voices to be plausible; then again, there were quite enough. These were 
not brief calls, such as those made by heavy breathers and other abusers 
of the telephone network, but, conversely, they never lasted long 
enough for the police, eavesdropping, to track them to their source. 
Nor did the whole unsavoury episode last very long -- a mere matter of 
three and a half weeks, after which the callers desisted forever; but it 
might also be mentioned that it went on exactly as long as it needed to, 
that is, until it had driven Gibreel Farishta to do to Allie Cone what he 
had previously done to Saladin -- namely, the Unforgivable Thing. 

It should be said that nobody, not Allie, not Gibreel, not even the 
professional phone-tappers they brought in, ever suspected the calls of 
being a single man's work; but for Saladin Chamcha, once renowned (if 
only in somewhat specialist circles) as the Man of a Thousand Voices, 
such a deception was a simple matter, entirely lacking in effort or risk. 



466 



In all, he was obliged to select (from his thousand voices and a voice) a 
total of no more than thirty--nine. 

When Allie answered, she heard unknown men murmuring intimate 
secrets in her ear, strangers who seemed to know her body's most 
remote recesses, faceless beings who gave evidence of having learned, by 
experience, her choicest preferences among the myriad forms of love; 
and once the attempts at tracing the calls had begun her humiliation 
grew, because now she was unable simply to replace the receiver, but 
had to stand and listen, hot in the face and cold along the spine, 
making attempts (which didn't work) actually to prolong the calls. 

Gibreel also got his share of voices: superb Byronic aristocrats boasting 
of having "conquered Everest", sneering guttersnipes, unctuous best- 
friend voices mingling warning and mockcommiseration, _a word to the 
wise, how stupid can you, don't you know yet what she's, anything in 
trousers, you poor moron, take it from a pal_. But one voice stood out 
from the rest, the high soulful voice of a poet, one of the first voices 
Gibreel heard and the one that got deepest under his skin; a voice that 
spoke exclusively in rhyme, reciting doggerel verses of an understated 
naivety, even innocence, which contrasted so greatly with the 
masturbatory coarseness of most of the other callers that Gibreel soon 
came to think of it as the most insidiously menacing of all. 

_I like coffee, I like tea_, 

_I like things you do with me_. 

_Tell her that_, the voice swooned, and rang off. Another day it 
returned with another jingle: 

_I like butter, I like toast_, 

You're the one I love the most . 



467 



_Give her that message, too; if you'd be so kind_. There was something 
demonic, Gibreel decided, something profoundly immoral about 
cloaking corruption in this greetings--card tum--ti-tum. 

_Rosy apple, lemon tart_, 

_Here's the name of my sweetheart_. 

A ... 1 ... 1 ... Gibreel, in disgust and fear, banged down the receiver; and 
trembled. After that the versifier stopped calling for a while; but his 
was the voice Gibreel started waiting for, dreading its reappearance, 
having perhaps accepted, at some level deeper than consciousness, that 
this infernal, childlike evil was what would finish him off for good. 



But O how easy it all turned out to be! How comfortably evil lodged in 
those supple, infinitely flexible vocal cords, those puppetmaster's 
strings! How surely it stepped out along the high wires of the telephone 
system, poised as a barefoot acrobat; how confidently it entered the 
victims' presence, as certain of its effect as a handsome man in a 
perfectly tailored suit! And how carefully it bided its time, sending 
forth every voice but the voice that would deliver the coup de grace -- 
for Saladin, too, had understood the doggerel's special potency -- deep 
voices and squeaky voices, slow ones, quick ones, sad and cheerful, 
aggression--laden and shy. One by one, they dripped into Gibreel's ears, 
weakening his hold on the real world, drawing him little by little into 
their deceitful web, so that little by little their obscene, invented 
women began to coat the real woman like a viscous, green film, and in 
spite of his protestations to the contrary he started slipping away from 
her; and then it was time for the return of the little, satanic verses that 
made him mad. 



468 



_Roses are red, violets are blue_, 

_Sugar never tasted sweet as you_. 

_Pass it on_. He returned as innocent as ever, giving birth to a turmoil 
of butterflies in Gibreel's knotting stomach. After that the rhymes came 
thick and fast. They could have the smuttiness of the school 
playground: 

_When she's down at Waterloo_ 

_She don't wear no yes she do_ 

_When she's up at Leicester Square_ 

_She don't wear no underwear_; 

or, once or twice, the rhythm of a cheerleader's chant. 

_Knickerknacker, firecracker_, 

_Sis! Boom! Bah!_ 

_Alleluia! Alleluia!_ 

_Rah! Rah! Rah!_ 

And lastly, when they had returned to London, and Allie was absent at 
the ceremonial opening of a freezer food mart in Hounslow, the last 
rhyme. 

_Violets are blue, roses are red_, 

_I've got her right here in my bed_. 

_Goodbye, sucker_. 



469 



Dialling tone. 



Alleluia Cone returned to find Gibreel gone, and in the vandalized 
silence of her apartment she determined that this time she would not 
have him back, no matter in what sorry condition or how wheedlingly 
he came crawling to her, pleading for forgiveness and for love; because 
before he left he had wrought a terrible vengeance upon her, destroying 
every one of the surrogate Himalayas she had collected over the years, 
thawing the iceEverest she kept in her freezer, pulling down and ripping 
to shreds the parachute-silk peaks that rose above her bed, and hacking 
to pieces (he'd used the small axe she kept with the fire extinguisher in 
the broom cupboard) the priceless whittled memento of her conquest of 
Chomolungma, given her by Pemba the sherpa, as a warning as well as a 
commemoration. _To Ali Bibi. We u"ere luck. Not to try again_. 

She flung open sash windows and screamed abuse at the innocent Fields 
beneath. "Die slowly! Burn in hell!" 

Then, weeping, she rang Saladin Chamcha to tell him the bad news. 



Mr. John Maslama, owner of the Hot Wax nightclub, the record chain of 
the same name, and of "Fair Winds", the legendary store where you 
could get yourself the finest horns -- clarinets, saxophones, trombones - 
- that a person could find to blow in the whole of London town, was a 
busy man, so he would always ascribe to the intervention of Divine 
Providence the happy chance that caused him to be present in the 
trumpet store when the Archangel of God walked in with thunder and 
lightning sitting like laurels upon his noble brow. Being a practical 
businessman, Mr. Maslama had up to this point concealed from his 
employees his extracurricular work as the chief herald of the returned 



470 



Celestial and Semi-Godlike Being, sticking posters in his shopwindows 
only when he was sure he was unobserved, neglecting to sign the display 
advertisements he bought in newspapers and magazines at considerable 
personal expense, proclaiming the imminent Glory of the Coming of the 
Lord. He issued press releases through a public relations subsidiary of 
the Valance agency, asking that his own anonymity be guarded 
carefully. "Our client is in a position to state," these releases -- which 
enjoyed, for a time, an amused vogue among Fleet Street diarists -- 
cryptically announced, "that his eyes have seen the Glory referred to 
above. Gibreel is among us at this moment, somewhere in the inner city 
of London -- probably in Camden, Brickhall, Tower Hamlets or Hackney 
-- and he will reveal himself soon, perhaps within days or weeks." -- All 
of this was obscure to the three tall, languid, male attendants in the 
Fair Winds store (Maslama refused to employ women sales assistants 
here; "my motto," he was fond of saying, "is that nobody trusts a 
female to help him with his horn"); which was why none of them could 
believe their eyes when their hard-nosed employer suddenly underwent 
a complete change of personality, and rushed over to this wild, 
unshaven stranger as if he were God Almighty -- with his two-tone 
patent leather shoes, Armani suit and slicked down Robert de Niro hair 
above proliferating eyebrows, Maslama didn't look the crawling type, 
but that's what he was _doing_, all right, on his goddamn _belly_, 

pushing his staff aside, I'll attend to the gentleman myself_, bowing 

and scraping, walking backwards, would you believe? -- Anyway, the 
stranger had this _fat money-belt_ under his shirt and started hauling 
out numbers of high-denomination notes; he pointed at a trumpet on a 
high shelf, _that's the one_, just like that, hardly looked at it, and Mr. 
Maslama was up the ladder _pronto_, I"ll— get--it— I — said— I"ll--get— it, 
and now the truly amazing part, he tried to refuse payment, Maslama!, 
it was no no _sir_ no charge _sir_, but the stranger paid anyway, 
stuffing the notes into Maslama's upper jacket-pocket as if he were 
some sort of _bellhop_, you had to be there, and last of all the customer 
turns to the whole store and yells at the top of his voice, _I am the right 



471 



hand of God_. -- Straight up, you wouldn't credit it, the bloody day of 
judgment was at hand. -- Maslama was right out of it after that, well 
shaken he was, he actually fell to his actual knees. -- Then the stranger 
held the trumpet up over his head and shouted _I name this trumpet 
Azraeel, the Last Trump, the Exterminator of Men!_ -- and we just 
stood there, I tell you, turned to stone, because all around the fucking 
insane, _certifiable_ bastard's head there was this bright glow, you 
know?, streaming out, like, from a point behind his head. 

A halo. 

_Say what you like_, the three shop-attendants afterwards repeated to 
anyone who would listen, _say what you like, but we saw what we saw_. 



The death of Dr. Uhuru Simba, formerly Sylvester Roberts, while in 
custody awaiting trial, was described by the Brickhall constabulary's 
community liaison officer, a certain Inspector Stephen Kinch, as "a 
million--to--one shot". It appeared that Dr. Simba had been 
experiencing a nightmare so terrifying that it had caused him to scream 
piercingly in his sleep, attracting the immediate attention of the two 
duty officers. These gentlemen, rushing to his cell, arrived in time to 
see the still-- sleeping form of the gigantic man literally lift off its bunk 
under the malign influence of the dream and plunge to the floor. A 
loud, snap was heard by both officers; it was the sound of Dr. Uhuru 
Simba's neck breaking. Death had been instantaneous. 

The dead man's minuscule mother, Antoinette Roberts, standing in a 
cheap black hat and dress on the back of her younger son's pick-up 
truck, the veil of mourning pushed defiantly back off her face, was not 
slow to seize upon Inspector Kinch's words and hurl them back into his 



472 



florid, loose-chinned, impotent face, whose hangdog expression bore 
witness to the humiliation of being referred to by his brother officers as 
_niggerjimmy_ and, worse, _mushroom_, meaning that he was kept 
permanently in the dark, and from time to time -- for example in the 
present regrettable circumstances -- people threw shit all over him. "I 
want you to understand," Mrs. Roberts declaimed to the sizeable crowd 
that had gathered angrily outside the High Street police station, "that 
these people are gambling with our lives. They are laying odds on our 
chances of survival. I want you all to consider what that means in terms 
of their respect for us as human beings." And Hanif Johnson, as Uhuru 
Simba's solicitor, added his own clarification from Walcott Roberts's 
pick-up truck, pointing out that his client's alleged fatal plunge had 
been from the lower of the two bunks in his cell; that in an age of 
extreme overcrowding in the country's lock--ups it was unusual, to say 
the least, that the other bunk should have been unoccupied, ensuring 
that there were no witnesses to the death except for prison officers; and 
that a nightmare was by no means the only possible explanation for the 
screams of a black man in the hands of the custodial authorities. In his 
concluding remarks, afterwards termed "inflammatory and 
unprofessional" by Inspector Kinch, Hanif linked the community 
liaison officer's words to those of the notorious racist John Kingsley 
Read, who had once responded to news of a black man's death with the 
slogan, "One down; one million to go." The crowd murmured and 
bubbled; it was a hot and malicious day. "Stay hot," Simba's brother 
Walcott cried out to the assembly. "Don't anybody cool off. Maintain 
your rage." 

As Simba had in effect already been tried and convicted in what he had 
once called the "rainbow press -- red as rags, yellow as streaks, blue as 
movies, green as slime", his end struck many white people as rough 
justice, a murderous monster's retributive fall. But in another court, 
silent and black, he had received an entirely more favourable judgment, 
and these differing estimations of the deceased moved, in the aftermath 



473 



of his death, on to the city streets, and fermented in the unending 
tropical heat. The "rainbow press" was full of Simba's support for 
Qazhafi, Khomeini, Louis Farrakhan; while in the streets of Brickhall, 
young men and women maintained, and fanned, the slow flame of their 
anger, a shadow-flame, but one capable of blotting out the light. 

Two nights later, behind the Charringtons Brewery in Tower Hamlets, 
the "Granny Ripper" struck again. And the night after that, an old 
woman was murdered near the adventure playground in Victoria Park, 
Hackney; once again, the Ripper's hideous "signature" -- the ritual 
arrangement of the internal organs around the victim's body, whose 
precise configuration had never been made public -- had been added to 
the crime. When Inspector Kinch, looking somewhat ragged at the 
edges, appeared on television to propound the extraordinary theory that 
a "copycat killer" had somehow discovered the trademark which had 
been so carefully concealed for so long, and had therefore taken up the 
mantle which the late Uhuru Simba had let drop, -- then the 
Commissioner of Police also deemed it wise, as a precautionary 
measure, to quadruple the police presence on the streets of Brickhall, 
and to hold such large numbers of police in reserve that it proved 
necessary to cancel the capital's football programme for the weekend. 
And, in truth, tempers were fraying all over Uhuru Simba's old patch; 
Hanif Johnson issued a statement to the effect that the increased police 
presence was "provocative and incendiary", and at the Shaandaar and 
the Pagal Khana there began to assemble groups of young blacks and 
Asians determined to confront the cruising panda cars. At the Hot Wax, 
the effigy chosen for _meltdown_ was none other than the perspiring 
and already deliquescent figure of the community liaison officer. And 
the temperature continued, inexorably, to rise. 

Violent incidents began to occur more frequently: attacks on black 
families on council estates, harassment of black schoolchildren on their 
way home, brawls in pubs. At the Pagal Khana a rat-faced youth and 



474 



three of his cronies spat over many people's food; as a result of the 
ensuing affray three Bengali waiters were charged with assault and the 
causing of actual bodily harm; the expectorating quartet was not, 
however, detained. Stories of police brutality, of black youths hauled 
swiftly into unmarked cars and vans belonging to the special patrol 
groups and flung out, equally discreetly, covered in cuts and bruises, 
spread throughout the communities. Self-defence patrols of young 
Sikh, Bengali and Afro-Caribbean males -- described by their political 
opponents as _vigilante groups_ -- began to roam the borough, on foot 
and in old Ford Zodiacs and Cortinas, determined not to "take it lying 
down". Hanif Johnson told his live-in lover, Mishal Sufyan, that in his 
opinion one more Ripper killing would light the fuse. "That killer's not 
just crowing about being free," he said. "He's laughing about Simba's 
death as well, and that's what the people can't stomach." 

Down these simmering streets, one unseasonally humid night, came 
Gibreel Farishta, blowing his golden horn. 



At eight o"clock that evening, a Saturday, Pamela Chamcha stood with 
Jumpy Joshi -- who had refused to let her go unaccompanied -- next to 
the Photo-Me machine in a corner of the main concourse of Euston 
station, feeling ridiculously conspiratorial. At eight-fifteen she was 
approached by a wiry young man who seemed taller than she 
remembered him; following him without a word, she and Jumpy got 
into his battered blue pick-up truck and were driven to a tiny flat above 
an off-licence in Railton Road, Brixton, where Walcott Roberts 
introduced them to his mother, Antoinette. The three men whom 
Pamela afterwards thought of as Haitians for what she recognized to be 
stereotypical reasons were not introduced. "Have a glass of ginger 
wine," Antoinette Roberts commanded. "Good for the baby, too." 



475 



When Walcott had done the honours Mrs. Roberts, looking lost in a 
voluminous and threadbare armchair (her surprisingly pale legs, 
matchstick--thin, emerging from beneath her black dress to end in 
mutinous, pink ankle--socks and sensible lace--ups, failed by some 
distance to reach the floor), got to business. "These gentlemen were 
colleagues of my boy," she said. "It turns out that the probable reason 
for his murder was the work he was doing on a subject which I am told 
is also of interest to you. We believe the time has come to work more 
formally, through the channels you represent." Here one of the three 
silent "Haitians" handed Pamela a red plastic briefcase. "It contains," 
Mrs. Roberts mildly explained, "extensive evidence of the existence of 
witches' covens throughout the Metropolitan Police." 

Walcott stood up. "We should go now," he said firmly. "Please." Pamela 
and Jumpy rose. Mrs. Roberts nodded vaguely, absently, cracking the 
joints of her loose-skinned hands. "Goodbye," Pamela said, and offered 
conventional regrets. "Girl, don't waste breath," Mrs. Roberts broke in. 
"Just nail me those warlocks. Nail them through the _heart_." 



Walcott Roberts dropped them in Notting Hill at ten. Jumpy was 
coughing badly and complaining of the pains in the head that had 
recurred a number of times since his injuries at Shepperton, but when 
Pamela admitted to being nervous at possessing the only copy of the 
explosive documents in the plastic briefcase, Jumpy once again insisted 
on accompanying her to the Brickhall community relations council's 
offices, where she planned to make photocopies to distribute to a 
number of trusted friends and colleagues. So it was that at ten--fifteen 
they were in Pamela's beloved MG, heading east across the city, into the 
gathering storm. An old, blue Mercedes panel van followed them, as it 
had followed Walcott's pick-up truck; that is, without being noticed. 



476 



Fifteen minutes earlier, a patrol group of seven large young Sikhs 
jammed into a Vauxhall Cavalier had been driving over the Malaya 
Crescent canal bridge in southern Brickhall. Hearing a cry from the 
towpath under the bridge, and hurrying to the scene, they found a 
bland, pale man of medium height and build, fair hair flopping forward 
over hazel eyes, leaping to his feet, scalpel in hand, and rushing away 
from the body of an old woman whose blue wig had fallen off and lay 
floating like a jellyfish in the canal. The young Sikhs easily caught up 
with and overpowered the running man. 

By eleven pm the news of the mass murderer's capture had penetrated 
every cranny of the borough, accompanied by a slew of rumours: the 
police had been reluctant to charge the maniac, the patrol members had 
been detained for questioning, a coverup was being planned. Crowds 
began to gather on street corners, and as the pubs emptied a series of 
fights broke out. There was some damage to property: three cars had 
their windows smashed, a video store was looted, a few bricks were 
thrown. It was at this point, at half--past eleven on a Saturday night, 
with the clubs and dance-halls beginning to yield up their excited, 
highly charged populations, that the divisional superintendent of 
police, in consultation with higher authority, declared that riot 
conditions now existed in central Brickhall, and unleashed the full 
might of the Metropolitan Police against the "rioters". 

Also at this point, Saladin Chamcha, who had been dining with Allie 
Cone at her apartment overlooking Brickhall Fields, keeping up 
appearances, sympathizing, murmuring encouraging insincerities, 
emerged into the night; found a _testudo_ of helmeted men with plastic 
shields at the ready moving towards him across the Fields at a steady, 
inexorable trot; witnessed the arrival overhead of giant, locust- 
swarming helicopters from which light was falling like heavy rain; saw 
the advance of the water cannons; and, obeying an irresistible primal 



477 



reflex, turned tail and ran, not knowing that he was going the wron^ 
way, running full speed in the direction of the Shaandaar. 



Television cameras arrive just in time for the raid on Club Hot Wax. 

This is what a television camera sees: less gifted than the human eye, its 
night vision is limited to what klieg lights will show. A helicopter 
hovers over the nightclub, urinating light in long golden streams; the 
camera understands this image. The machine of state bearing down 
upon its enemies. -- And now there's a camera in the sky; a news editor 
somewhere has sanctioned the cost of aerial photography, and from 
another helicopter a news team is _shooting down_. No attempt is 
made to chase this helicopter away. The noise of rotor blades drowns 
the noise of the crowd. In this respect, again, video recording 
equipment is less sensitive than, in this case, the human ear. 

-- Cut. -- A man lit by a sun-gun speaks rapidly into a microphone. 
Behind him there is a disorderment of shadows. But between the 
reporter and the disordered shadow--lands there stands a wall: men in 
riot helmets, carrying shields. The reporter speaks gravely; petrolbombs 
plasticbullets policeinjuries water-- cannon looting, confining himself, 
of course, to facts. But the camera sees what he does not say. A camera 
is a thing easily broken or purloined; its fragility makes it fastidious. A 
camera requires law, order, the thin blue line. Seeking to preserve itself, 
it remains behind the shielding wall, observing the shadow-lands from 
afar, and of course from above: that is, it chooses sides. 

-- Cut. -- Sun-guns illuminate a new face, saggy-jowled, flushed. This 
face is named: sub--titled words appear across his tunic. _Inspector 
Stephen Kinch_. The camera sees him for what he is: a good man in an 
impossible job. A father, a man who likes his pint. He speaks: cannot-- 
tolerate--no-- go -areas better-protection--required-for--policemen see-- 



478 



the--plastic--riot--shields--catching--fire. He refers to organized crime, 
political agitators, bomb-- factories, drugs. "We understand some of 
these kids may feel they have grievances but we will not and cannot be 
the whipping boys of society." Emboldened by the lights and the 
patient, silent lenses, he goes further. These kids don't know how lucky 
they are, he suggests. They should consult their kith and kin. Africa, 
Asia, the Caribbean: now those are places with real problems. Those are 
places where people might have grievances worth respecting. Things 
aren't so bad here, not by a long chalk; no slaughters here, no torture, 
no military coups. People should value what they've got before they lose 
it. Ours always was a peaceful land, he says. Our industrious island 
race. -- Behind him, the camera sees stretchers, ambulances, pain. -- It 
sees strange humanoid shapes being hauled up from the bowels of the 
Club Hot Wax, and recognizes the effigies of the mighty. Inspector 
Kinch explains. They cook them in an oven down there, they call it fun, 
I wouldn't call it that myself. -- The camera observes the wax models 
with distaste. -- Is there not something _witchy_ about them, 
something cannibalistic, an unwholesome smell? Have _black arts_ 
been practised here? -- The camera sees broken windows. It sees 
something burning in the middle distance: a car, a shop. It cannot 
understand, or demonstrate, what any of this achieves. These people are 
burning their own streets. 

-- Cut. -- Here is a brightly lit video store. Several sets have been left on 
in the windows; the camera, most delirious of narcissists, watches TV, 
creating, for an instant, an infinite recession of television sets, 
diminishing to a point. -- Cut. -- Here is a serious head bathed in light: 
a studio discussion. The head is talking about _outlaws_. Billy the Kid, 
Ned Kelly: these were men who stoodfor as well as _against_. Modern 
mass-murderers, lacking this heroic dimension, are no more than sick, 
damaged beings, utterly blank as personalities, their crimes 
distinguished by an attention to procedure, to methodology -- let's say 
_ritual_ -- driven, perhaps, by the nonentity's longing to be noticed, to 



479 



rise out of the. ruck and become, for a moment, a star. -- Or by a kind 
of transposed deathwish: to kill the beloved and so destroy the self. -- 
_Which is the Granny Ripper?_ a questioner asks. _And what about 
Jack?_ -- The true outlaw, the head insists, is a dark mirror-image of the 
hero. -- _These rioters, perhaps?_ comes the challenge. _Aren't you in 
danger of glamorizing, of "legitimizing"?_ -- The head shakes, laments 
the materialism of modern youth. Looting video stores is not what the 
head has been talking about. -- _But what about the old-timers, then? 
Butch Cassidy, the James brothers, Captain Moonlight, the Kelly gang. 
They all robbed -- did they not? -- banks_. -- Cut. -- Later that night, the 
camera will return to this shop-window. The television sets will be 
missing. 

-- From the air, the camera watches the entrance to Club Hot Wax. Now 
the police have finished with wax effigies and are bringing out real 
human beings. The camera homes in on the arrested persons: a tall 
albino man; a man in an Armani suit, looking like a dark mirror-image 
of de Niro; a young girl of -- what? -- fourteen, fifteen? -- a sullen young 
man of twenty or thereabouts. No names are titled; the camera does not 
know these faces. Gradually, however, the _facts_ emerge. The club DJ, 
Sewsunker Ram, known as "Pinkwalla", and its proprietor, Mr. John 
Maslama, are to be charged with running a large-scale narcotics 
operation -- crack, brown sugar, hashish, cocaine. The man arrested 
with them, an employee at Maslama's nearby "Fair Winds" music store, 
is the registered owner of a van in which an unspecified quantity of 
"hard drugs" has been discovered; also numbers of "hot" video 
recorders. The young girl's name is Anahita Sufyan; she is under-age, is 
said to have been drinking heavily, and, it is hinted, having sex with at 
least one of the three arrested men. She is further reported to have a 
history of truancy and association with known criminal types: a 
delinquent, clearly. -- An illuminated journalist will offer the nation 
these titbits many hours after the event, but the news is already running 



480 



wild in the streets: Pinkwalla! -- And the _Wax_: they smashed the place 
up -- _totalled_ it! -- Now it's _war_. 

This happens, however -- as does a great deal else -- in places which the 
camera cannot see. 



Gibreel: 

moves as if through a dream, because after days of wandering the city 
without eating or sleeping, with the trumpet named Azraeel tucked 
safely in a pocket of his greatcoat, he no longer recognizes the 
distinction between the waking and dreaming states; -- he understands 
now something of what omnipresence must be like, because he is 
moving through several stories at once, there is a Gibreel who mourns 
his betrayal by Alleluia Cone, and a Gibreel hovering over the death-bed 
of a Prophet, and a Gibreel watching in secret over the progress of a 
pilgrimage to the sea, waiting for the moment at which he will reveal 
himself, and a Gibreel who feels, more powerfully every day, the will of 
the adversary, drawing him ever closer, leading him towards their final 
embrace: the subtle, deceiving adversary, who has taken the face of his 
friend, of Saladin his truest friend, in order to lull him into lowering 
his guard. And there is a Gibreel who walks down the streets of London, 
trying to understand the will of God. 

Is he to be the agent of God's wrath? 

Or of his love? 

Is he vengeance or forgiveness? Should the fatal trumpet remain in his 
pocket, or should he take it out and blow? 



481 



(I'm giving him no instructions. I, too, am interested in his choices -- in 
the result of his wrestling match. Character vs destiny: a free-style bout. 
Two falls, two submissions or a knockout will decide.) 

Wrestling, through his many stories, he proceeds. 

There are times when he aches for her, Alleluia, her very name an 
exaltation; but then he remembers the diabolic verses, and turns his 
thoughts away. The horn in his pocket demands to be blown; but he 
restrains himself. Now is not the time. Searching for clues -- _what is to 
be done?_ -- he stalks the city streets. 

Somewhere he sees a television set through an evening window. There is 
a woman's head on the screen, a famous "presenter", being interviewed 
by an equally famous, twinkling Irish "host". -- What would be the 
worst thing you could imagine? -- Oh, I think, I'm sure, it would be, oh, 
_yes_: to be alone on Christmas Eve. You'd really have to face yourself, 
wouldn't you, you'd look into a harsh mirror and ask yourself, _is this 
all there is?_ -- Gibreel, alone, not knowing the date, walks on. In the 
mirror, the adversary approaches at the same pace as his own, 
beckoning, stretching out his arms. 

The city sends him messages. Here, it says, is where the Dutch king 
decided to live when he came over three centuries ago. In those days 
this was out of town, a village, set in green English fields. But when the 
King arrived to set up house, London squares sprang up amid the fields, 
red-brick buildings with Dutch crenellations rising against the sky, so 
that his courtiers might have places in which to reside. Not all migrants 
are powerless, the still-standing edifices whisper. They impose their 
needs on their new earth, bringing their own coherence to the new- 
found land, imagining it afresh. But look out, the city warns. 
Incoherence, too, must have its day. Riding in the parkland in which 
he'd chosen to live -- which he'd civilized -- William III was thrown 



482 



by his horse, fell hard against the recalcitrant ground, and broke his 
royal neck. 

Some days he finds himself among walking corpses, great crowds of the 
dead, all of them refusing to admit they're done for, corpses 
mutinously continuing to behave like living people, shopping, catching 
buses, flirting, going home to make love, smoking cigarettes. _But 
you're dead_, he shouts at them. _Zombies, get into your graves_. They 
ignore him, or laugh, or look embarrassed, or menace him with their 
fists. He falls silent, and hurries on. 

The city becomes vague, amorphous. It is becoming impossible to 
describe the world. Pilgrimage, prophet, adversary merge, fade into 
mists, emerge. As does she: Allie, Al--Lat. _She is the exalted bird. 
Greatly to be desired_. He remembers now: she told him, long ago, 
about Jumpy's poetry. _He's trying to make a collection. A book_. The 
thumb--sucking artist with his infernal views. A book is a product of a 
pact with the Devil that inverts the Faustian contract, he'd told Allie. 
Dr. Faustus sacrificed eternity in return for two dozen years of power; 
the writer agrees to the ruination of his life, and gains (but only if he's 
lucky) maybe not eternity, but posterity, at least. Either way (this was 
Jumpy's point) it's the Devil who wins. 

What does a poet write? Verses. What jingle-jangles in Gibreel's brain? 
Verses. What broke his heart? Verses and again verses. 

The trumpet, Azraeel, calls out from a greatcoat pocket: _Pick me up! 
Yesyesyes: the Trump. To hell with it all, the whole sorry mess: just puff 
up your cheeks and root y-toot-toot. Come on, it's party time_. 

How hot it is: steamy, close, intolerable. This is no Proper London: not 
this improper city. Airstrip One, Mahagonny, Alphaville. He wanders 
through a confusion of languages. Babel: a contraction of the Assyrian 
"babilu". "The gate of God." Babylondon. 



483 



Where's this? 

-- Yes. -- He meanders, one night, behind the cathedrals of the 
Industrial Revolution, the railway termini of north London. 
Anonymous King's Cross, the bat-like menace of the St Pancras tower, 
the red-and-black gas-holders inflating and deflating like giant iron 
lungs. Where once in battle Queen Boudicca fell, Gibreel Farishta 
wrestles with himself. 

The Goodsway: -- but O what succulent goods lounge in doorways and 
under tungsten lamps, what delicacies are on offer in that way! -- 
Swinging handbags, calling out, silver-skirted, wearing fish-net tights: 
these are not only young goods (average age thirteen to fifteen) but also 
cheap. They have short, identical histories: all have babies stashed away 
somewhere, all have been thrown out of their homes by irate, 
puritanical parents, none of them are white. Pimps with knives take 
ninety per cent of their earnings. Goods are only goods, after all, 
especially when they're trash. 

-- Gibreel Farishta in the Goodsway is hailed from shadows and lamps; 
and quickens, at first, his pace. _What's this to do with me? Bloody 
pussies-galore_. But then he slows and stops, hearing something else 
calling to him from lamps and shadows, some need, some wordless plea, 
hidden just under the tinny voices of tenpound tarts. His footsteps slow 
down, then halt. He is held by their desires. _For what?_ They are 
moving towards him now, drawn to him like fishes on unseen hooks. As 
they near him their walks change, their hips lose their swagger, their 
faces start looking their age, in spite of all the make--up. When they 
reach him, they kneel. _Who do you say that I am?_ he asks, and wants 
to add: _I know your names. I met you once before, elsewhere, behind a 
curtain: Twelve of you then as now. Ayesha, Hafsah, Ram lah, Sawdah, 
Zainab, Zainab, Maimunah, Safia, Juwairiyah, Umm Salamah the 
Makhzumite, Rehana the Jew, and the beautiful Mary the Copt_. 
Silently, they remain on their knees. Their wishes are made known to 



484 



him without words. _What is an archangel but a puppet? Kathputli, 
marionette. The faithful bend us to their will. We are forces of nature 
and they, our masters. Mistresses, too_. The heaviness in his limbs, the 
heat, and in his ears a buzzing like bees on summer afternoons. It 
would be easy to faint. 

He does not faint. 

He stands among the kneeling children, waiting for the pimps. 

And when they come, he at last takes out, and presses to his lips, his 
unquiet horn: the exterminator, Azraeel. 



After the stream of fire has emerged from the mouth of his golden 
trumpet and consumed the approaching men, wrapping them in a 
cocoon of flame, unmaking them so completely that not even their 
shoes remain sizzling on the sidewalk, Gibreel understands. 

He is walking again, leaving behind him the gratitude of the whores, 
heading in the direction of the borough of Brickhall, Azraeel once more 
in his capacious pocket. Things are becoming clear. 

He is the Archangel Gibreel, the angel of the Recitation, with the power 
of revelation in his hands. He can reach into the breasts of men and 
women, pick out the desires of their inmost hearts, and make them real. 
He is the quencher of desires, the slaker of lusts, the fulfiller of dreams. 
He is the genie of the lamp, and his master is the Roc. 

What desires, what imperatives are in the midnight air? He breathes 
them in. -- And nods, so be it, yes. -- Let it be fire. This is a city that has 
cleansed itself in flame, purged itself by burning down to the ground. 



485 



Fire, falling fire. "This is the judgment of God in his wrath," Gib-- reel 
Farishta proclaims to the riotous night, "that men be granted their 
heart's desires, and that they be by them consumed." 

Low-cost high-rise housing enfolds him. _Nigger eat white man's shit_, 
suggest the unoriginal walls. The buildings have names: "Isandhlwana", 
"Rorke's Drift". But a revisionist enterprise is underway, for two of the 
four towers have been renamed, and bear, now, the names "Mandela" 
and "Toussaintl"Ouverture". --The towers stand up on stilts, and in the 
concrete formlessness beneath and between them there is the howling 
of a perpetual wind, and the eddying of debris: derelict kitchen units, 
deflated bicycle tyres, shards of broken doors, dolls' legs, vegetable 
refuse extracted from plastic disposal bags by hungry cats and dogs, 
fastfood packets, rolling cans, shattered job prospects, abandoned 
hopes, lost illusions, expended angers, accumulated bitterness, vomited 
fear, and a rusting bath. He stands motionless while small groups of 
residents rush past in different directions. Some (not all) are carrying 
weapons. Clubs, bottles, knives. All of the groups contain white 
youngsters as well as black. He raises his trumpet to his lips and begins 
to play. 

Little buds of flame spring up on the concrete, fuelled by the discarded 
heaps of possessions and dreams. There is a little, rotting pile of envy: 
it burns greenly in the night. The fires are every colour of the rainbow, 
and not all of them need fuel. He blows the little fire-flowers out of his 
horn and they dance upon the concrete, needing neither combustible 
materials nor roots. Here, a pink one! There, what would be nice?, I 
know: a silver rose. -- And now the buds are blossoming into bushes, 
they are climbing like creepers up the sides of the towers, they reach out 
towards their neighbours, forming hedges of multicoloured flame. It is 
like watching a luminous garden, its growth accelerated many 
thousands of times, a garden blossoming, flourishing, becoming 
overgrown, tangled, becoming impenetrable, a garden of dense 



486 



intertwined chimeras, rivalling in its own incandescent fashion the 
thornwood that sprang up around the palace of the sleeping beauty in 
another fairy-tale, long ago. 

But here, there is no beauty, sleeping within. There is Gibreel Farishta, 
walking in a world of fire. In the High Street he sees houses built of 
flame, with walls of fire, and flames like gathered curtains hanging at 
the windows. -- And there are men and women with fiery skins strolling, 
running, milling around him, dressed in coats of fire. The Street has 
become red hot, molten, a river the colour of blood. -- All, all is ablaze 
as he toots his merry horn, _giving the people what they want_, the hair 
and teeth of the citizenry are smoking and red, glass burns, and birds 
fly overhead on blazing wings. 

The adversary is very close. The adversary is a magnet, is a whirlpool's 
eye, is the irresistible centre of a black hole, his gravitational force 
creating an event horizon from which neither Gibreel, nor light, can 
escape. _This way_, the adversary calls. _I'm over here_. 

Not a palace, but only a cafe. And in the rooms above, a bed and 
breakfast joint. No sleeping princess, but a disappointed woman, 
overpowered by smoke, lies unconscious here; and beside her, on the 
floor beside their bed, and likewise unconscious, her husband, the 
Mecca-returned ex-schoolteacher, Sufyan. -- While, elsewhere in the 
burning Shaandaar, faceless persons stand at windows waving piteously 
for help, being unable (no mouths) to scream. 

The adversary: there he blows! 

Silhouetted against the backdrop of the ignited Shaandaar Cafe, see, 
that's the very fellow! 

Azraeel leaps unbidden into Farishta's hand. 



487 



Even an archangel may experience a revelation, and when Gibreel 
catches, for the most fleeting of instants, Saladin Chamcha's eye, -- 
then in that fractional and infinite moment the veils are ripped away 
from his sight, -- he sees himself walking with Chamcha in Brickhall 
Fields, lost in a rhapsody, revealing the most intimate secrets of his 
lovemaking with Alleluia Cone, -- those same secrets which afterwards 
were whispered into telephones by a host of evil voices, -- beneath all of 
which Gibreel now discerns the unifying talent of the adversary, who 
could be guttural and high, who insulted and ingratiated, who was both 
insistent and shy, who was prosaic, -- yes! -- and versifying, too. -- And 
now, at last, Gibreel Farishta recognizes for the first time that the 
adversary has not simply adopted Chamcha's features as a disguise; -- 
nor is this any case of paranormal possession, of body-snatching by an 
invader up from Hell; that, in short, the evil is not external to Saladin, 
but springs from some recess of his own true nature, that it has been 
spreading through his selfhood like a cancer, erasing what was good in 
him, wiping out his spirit, -- and doing so with many deceptive feints 
and dodges, seeming at times to recede; while, in fact, during the 
illusion of remission, under cover of it, so to speak, it continued 
perniciously to spread; -- and now, no doubt, it has filled him up; now 
there is nothing left of Saladin but this, the dark fire of evil in his soul, 
consuming him as wholly as the other fire, multicoloured and 
engulfing, is devouring the screaming city. Truly these are "most 
horrid, malicious, bloody flames, not like the fine flame of an ordinary 
fire". 

The fire is an arch across the sky. Saladin Chamcha, the adversary, who 
is also _Spoono, my old Chumch_, has disappeared into the doorway of 
the Shaandaar Cafe. This is the maw of the black hole; the horizon 
closes around it, all other possibilities fade, the universe shrinks to this 
solitary and irresistible point. Blowing a great blast on his trumpet, 
Gibreel plunges through the open door. 



488 



The building occupied by the Brickhall community relations council 
was a single--storey monster in purple brick with bulletproof windows, 
a bunker-like creation of the 1960s, when such lines were considered 
sleek. It was not an easy building to enter; the door had been fitted with 
an entryphone and opened on to a narrow alley down one side of the 
building which ended at a second, also security-locked, door. There was 
also a burglar alarm. 

This alarm, it afterwards transpired, had been switched off, probably by 
the two persons, one male, one female, who had effected an entry with 
the assistance of a key. It was officially suggested that these persons 
had been bent on an act of sabotage, an "inside job", since one of them, 
the dead woman, had in fact been an employee of the organization 
whose offices these were. The reasons for the crime remained obscure, 
and as the miscreants had perished in the blaze, it was unlikely that 
they would ever come to light. An "own goal" remained, however, the 
most probable explanation. 

A tragic affair; the dead woman had been heavily pregnant. 

Inspector Stephen Kinch, issuing the statement in which these facts 
were stated, made a "linkage" between the fire at the Brickhall CRC and 
that at the Shaandaar Cafe, where the second dead person, the male, 
had been a semi-permanent resident. It was possible that the man had 
been the real firebug and the woman, who was his mistress although 
married to and still cohabiting with another man, had been no more 
than his dupe. Political motives -- both parties were well known for 
their radical views -- could not be discounted, though such was the 
muddiness of the water in the far-left groupuscules they frequented 
that it would be hard ever to get a clear picture of what such motives 
might have been. It was also possible that the two crimes, even if 
committed by the same man, could have had different motivations. 



489 



Possibly the man was simply the hired criminal, burning down the 
Shaandaar for the insurance money at the behest of the now-deceased 
owners, and torching the CRC at the behest of his lover, perhaps on 
account of some intra--office vendetta? 

That the burning of the CRC was an act of arson was beyond doubt. 
Quantities of petrol had been poured over desks, papers, curtains. 
"Many people do not understand how quickly a petrol fire spreads," 
Inspector Kinch stated to scribbling journalists. The corpses, which had 
been so badly burned that dental records had been required for 
identification purposes, had been found in the photocopying room. 
"That's all we have." The end. 

I have more. 

I have certain questions, anyhow. -- About, for instance, an unmarked 
blue Mercedes panel van, which followed Walcott Roberts's pick-up 
truck, and then Pamela Chamcha's MG. -- About the men who emerged 
from this van, their faces behind Hallowe"en masks, and forced their 
way into the CRC offices just as Pamela unlocked the outer door. -- 
About what really happened inside those offices, because purple brick 
and bulletproof glass cannot easily be penetrated by the human eye. -- 
And about, finally, the whereabouts of a red plastic briefcase, and the 
documents it contains. 

Inspector Kinch? Are you there? 

No. He's gone. He has no answers for me. 



Here is Mr. Saladin Chamcha, in the camel coat with the silk collar, 
running down the High Street like some cheap crook. -- The same, 
terrible Mr. Chamcha who has just spent his evening in the company of 
a distraught Alleluia Cone, without feeling a flicker of remorse. -- "I 



490 



look down towards his feet," Othello said of Iago, "but that's a fable." 
Nor is Chamcha fabulous any more; his humanity is sufficient form and 
explanation for his deed. He has destroyed what he is not and cannot 
be; has taken revenge, returning treason for treason; and has done so by 
exploiting his enemy's weakness, bruising his unprotected heel. -- There 
is satisfaction in this. -- Still, here is Mr. Chamcha, running. The world 
is full of anger and event. Things hang in the balance. A building burns. 

_Boomba_, pounds his heart. _Doomba, boomba, dadoom_. 

Now he sees the Shaandaar, on fire; and comes to a skidding halt. He 
has a constricted chest; -- _badoomba!_ -- and there's a pain in his left 
arm. He doesn't notice; is staring at the burning building. 

And sees Gibreel Farishta. 

And turns; and runs inside. 

"Mishal! Sufyan! Hind!" cries evil Mr. Chamcha. The ground floor is 
not as yet ablaze. He flings open the door to the stairs, and a scalding, 
pestilential wind drives him back. _Dragon's breath_, he thinks. The 
landing is on fire; the flames reach in sheets from floor to ceiling. No 
possibility of advance. 

"Anybody?" screams Saladin Chamcha. "Is anybody there?" But the 
dragon roars louder than he can shout. 

Something invisible kicks him in the chest, sends him toppling 
backwards, on to the cafe floor, amid the empty tables. _Doom_, sings 
his heart. _Take this. And this_. 

There is a noise above his head like the scurrying of a billion rats, 
spectral rodents following a ghostly piper. He looks up: the ceiling is on 
fire. He finds he cannot stand. As he watches, a section of the ceiling 



491 



detaches itself, and he sees the segment of beam falling towards him. 
He crosses his arms in feeble self-- defence. 

The beam pins him to the floor, breaking both his arms. His chest is 
full of pain. The world recedes. Breathing is hard. He can't speak. He is 
the Man of a Thousand Voices, and there isn't one left. 

Gibreel Farishta, holding Azraeel, enters the Shaandaar Cafe. 



_What happens when you win?_ 

_When your enemies are at your mercy: how will you act then? 
Compromise is the temptation of the weak; this is the test for the 
strong_. -- "Spoono," Gibreel nods at the fallen man. "You really fooled 
me, mister; seriously, you're quite a guy." -- And Chamcha, seeing 
what's in Gibreel's eyes, cannot deny the knowledge he sees there. 
"Wha," he begins, and gives up. _What are you going to do?_ Fire is 
falling all around them now: a sizzle of golden rain. "Why'd you do it?" 
Gibreel asks, then dismisses the question with a wave of the hand. 
"Damnfool thing to be asking. Might as well inquire, what possessed 
you to rush in here? Damnfool thing to do. People, eh, Spoono? Crazy 
bastards, that's all." 

Now there are pools of fire all around them. Soon they will be encircled, 
marooned in a temporary island amid this lethal sea. Chamcha is kicked 
a second time in the chest, and jerks violently. Facing three deaths -- by 
fire, by "natural causes", and by Gibreel -- he strains desperately, trying 
to speak, but only croaks emerge. "Fa. Gur. Mmm." _Forgive me_. "Ha. 
Pa." _Have pity_. The cafe tables are burning. More beams fall from 
above. Gibreel seems to have fallen into a trance. He repeats, vaguely: 
"Bloody damnfool things." 



492 



Is it possible that evil is never total, that its victory, no matter how 
overwhelming, is never absolute? 

Consider this fallen man. He sought without remorse to shatter the 
mind of a fellow human being; and exploited, to do so, an entirely 
blameless woman, at least partly owing to his own impossible and 
voyeuristic desire for her. Yet this same man has risked death, with 
scarcely any hesitation, in a foolhardy rescue attempt. 

What does this mean? 

The fire has closed around the two men, and smoke is everywhere. It can 
only be a matter of seconds before they are overcome. There are more 
urgent questions to answer than the _damnfool_ ones above. 

What choice will Farishta make? 

Does he have a choice? 

Gibreel lets fall his trumpet; stoops; frees Saladin from the prison of 
the fallen beam; and lifts him in his arms. Chamcha, with broken ribs as 
well as arms, groans feebly, sounding like the creationist Dumsday 
before he got a new tongue of choicest rump. "Ta. La." _It's too late_. A 
little lick of fire catches at the hem of his coat. Acrid black smoke fills 
all available space, creeping behind his eyes, deafening his ears, 
clogging his nose and lungs. -- Now, however, Gibreel Farishta begins 
softly to exhale, a long, continuous exhalation of extraordinary 
duration, and as his breath blows towards the door it slices through the 
smoke and fire like a knife; -- and Saladin Chamcha, gasping and 
fainting, with a mule inside his chest, seems to see -- but will ever 
afterwards be unsure if it was truly so -- the fire parting before them 
like the red sea it has become, and the smoke dividing also, like a 
curtain or a veil; until there lies before them a clear pathway to the 
door; -- whereupon Gibreel Farishta steps quickly forward, bearing 



493 



Saladin along the path of forgiveness into the hot night air; so that on 
a night when the city is at war, a night heavy with enmity and rage, 
there is this small redeeming victory for love. 



Conclusions. 

Mishal Sufyan is outside the Shaandaar when they emerge, weeping for 
her parents, being comforted by Hanif. -- It is Gibreel's turn to collapse; 
still carrying Saladin, he passes out at Mishal's feet. 

Now Mishal and Hanif are in an ambulance with the two unconscious 
men, and while Chamcha has an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth 
Gibreel, suffering nothing worse than exhaustion, is talking in his 
sleep: a delirious babble about a magic trumpet and the fire that he 
blew, like music, from its mouth. -- And Mishal, who remembers 
Chamcha as a devil, and has come to accept the possibility of many 
things, wonders: "Do you think -- ?" -- But Hanif is definite, firm. "Not 
a chance. This is Gibreel Farishta, the actor, don't you recognize? Poor 
guy's just playing out some movie scene." Mishal won't let it go. "But, 
Hanif," -- and he becomes emphatic. Speaking gently, because she has 
just been orphaned, after all, he absolutely insists. "What has happened 
here in Brickhall tonight is a socio-political phenomenon. Let's not 
fall into the trap of some damn mysticism. We're talking about history: 
an event in the history of Britain. About the process of change." 

At once Gibreel's voice changes, and his subject—matter also. He 
mentions _pilgrims_, and a _dead baby_, and _like in "The Ten 
Commandments",, and a _decaying mansion_, and a _tree_; because in 
the aftermath of the purifying fire he is dreaming, for the very last time, 
one of his serial dreams; -- and Hanif says: "Listen, Mishu, darling. Just 
make-believe, that's all." He puts his arm around her, kisses her cheek, 



494 



holding her fast. _Stay with me. The world is real. We have to live in it; 
we have to live here, to live on_. 

Just then Gibreel Farishta, still asleep, shouts at the top of his voice. 

"Mishal! Come back! Nothing's happening! Mishal, for pity's sake; 
turn around, come back, come back." 



VIII. The Parting of the Arabian Sea 

It had been the habit of Srinivas the toy merchant to threaten his wife 
and children, from time to time, that one day, when the material world 
had lost its savour, he would drop everything, including his name, and 
turn sanyasi, wandering from village to village with a begging bowl and 
a stick. Mrs. Srinivas treated these threats tolerantly, knowing that her 
gelatinous and good-humoured husband liked to be thought of as a 
devout man, but also a bit of an adventurer (had he not insisted on that 
absurd and scarifying flight into the Grand Canyon in Amrika years 
ago?); the idea of becoming a mendicant holy man satisfied both needs. 
Yet, when she saw his ample posterior so comfortably ensconced in an 
armchair on their front porch, looking out at the world through stout 
wire netting, -- or when she watched him playing with their youngest 
daughter, fiveyear-old Minoo, -- or when she observed that his appetite, 
far from diminishing to begging-bowl proportions, was increasing 
contentedly with the passing years -- then Mrs. Srinivas puckered up 
her lips, adopted the insouciant expression of a film beauty (though she 
was as plump and wobbling as her spouse) and went whistling indoors. 
As a result, when she found his chair empty, with his glass of lime-juice 
unfinished on one of its arms, it took her completely by surprise. 

To tell the truth, Srinivas himself could never properly explain what 
made him leave the comfort of his morning porch and stroll across to 



495 



watch the arrival of the villagers of Titlipur. The urchin boys who knew 
everything an hour before it happened had been shouting in the street 
about an improbable procession of people coming with bags and 
baggage down the potato track towards the grand trunk road, led by a 
girl with silver hair, with great exclamations of butterflies over their 
heads, and, bringing up the rear, Mirza Saeed Akhtar in his olive--green 
Mercedes--Benz station wagon, looking like a mango-stone had got 
stuck in his throat. 

For all its potato silos and famous toy factories, Chatnapatna was not 
such a big place that the arrival of one hundred and fifty persons could 
pass unnoticed. Just before the procession arrived Srinivas had received 
a deputation from his factory workers, asking for permission to close 
down operations for a couple of hours so that they could witness the 
great event. Knowing they would probably take the time off anyway, he 
agreed. But he himself remained, for a time, stubbornly planted on his 
porch, trying to pretend, that the butterflies of excitement had not 
begun to stir in his capacious stomach. Later, he would confide to 
Mishal Akhtar: "It was a presentiment. What to say? I knew you-all were 
not here for refreshments only. She had come for me." 

Titlipur arrived in Chatnapatna in a consternation of howling babies, 
shouting children, creaking oldsters, and sour jokes from the Osman of 
the boom-boom bullock for whom Srinivas did not care one jot. Then 
the urchins informed the toy king that among the travellers were the 
wife and mother--in--law of the zamindar Mirza Saeed, and they were on 
foot like the peasants, wearing simple kurta--pajamas and no jewels at 
all. This was the point at which Srinivas lumbered over to the roadside 
canteen around which the Titlipur pilgrims were crowding while potato 
bhurta and parathas were handed round. He arrived at the same time as 
the Chatnapatna police jeep. The Inspector was standing on the 
passenger seat, shouting through a megaphone that he intended to take 



496 



strong action against this "communal" march if it was not disbanded at 
once. Hindu--Muslim business, Srinivas thought; bad, bad. 

The police were treating the pilgrimage as some kind of sectarian 
demonstration, but when Mirza Saeed Akhtar stepped forward and told 
the Inspector the truth the officer became confused. Sri Srinivas, a 
Brahmin, was obviously not a man who had ever considered making a 
pilgrimage to Mecca, but he was impressed nevertheless. He pushed up 
through the crowd to hear what the zamindar was saying: "And it is the 
purpose of these good people to walk to the Arabian Sea, believing as 
they do that the waters will part for them." Mirza Saeed's voice 
sounded weak, and the Inspector, Chatnapatna's Station Head Officer, 
was unconvinced. "Are you serious, ji?" Mirza Saeed said: "Not me. 
They, but, are serious as hell. I'm planning to change their minds 
before anything crazy happens." The SHO, all straps, moustachioes and 
self-importance, shook his head. "But, see here, sir, how can I permit so 
many individuals to congregate on the street? Tempers can be inflamed; 
incident is possible." Just then the crowd of pilgrims parted and 
Srinivas saw for the first time the fantastic figure of the girl dressed 
entirely in butterflies, with snowy hair flowing down as far as her 
ankles. "Arre deo," he shouted, "Ayesha, is it you?" And added, 
foolishly: "Then where are my Family Planning dolls?" 

His outburst was ignored; everybody was watching Ayesha as she 
approached the puff-chested SHO. She said nothing, but smiled and 
nodded, and the fellow seemed to grow twenty years younger, until in 
the manner of a boy often or eleven he said, "Okay okay, mausi. Sorry, 
ma. No offence. I beg your pardon, please." That was the end of the 
police trouble. Later that day, in the afternoon heat, a group of town 
youths known to have RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad connections 
began throwing stones from nearby rooftops; whereupon the Station 
Head Officer had them arrested and in jail in two minutes flat. 



497 



"Ayesha, daughter," Srinivas said aloud to the empty air, "what the hell 
happened to you?" 

During the heat of the day the pilgrims rested in whatever shade they 
could find. Srinivas wandered among them in a kind of daze, filled up 
with emotion, realizing that a great turning-- point in his life had 
unaccountably arrived. His eyes kept searching out the transformed 
figure of Ayesha the seer, who was resting in the shade of a pipal-tree in 
the company of Mishal Akhtar, her mother Mrs. Qureishi, and the 
lovesick Osman with his bullock. Eventually Srinivas bumped into the 
zamindar Mirza Saeed, who was stretched out on the back seat of his 
Mercedes-- Benz, unsleeping, a man in torment. Srinivas spoke to him 
with a humbleness born of his wonderment. "Sethji, you don't believe 
in the girl?" 

"Srinivas," Mirza Saeed sat up to reply, "we are modern men. We know, 
for instance, that old people die on long journeys, that God does not 
cure cancer, and that oceans do not part. We have to stop this idiocy. 
Come with me. Plenty of room in the car. Maybe you can help to talk 
them out of it; that Ayesha, she's grateful to you, perhaps she'll listen." 

"To come in the car?" Srinivas felt helpless, as though mighty hands 
were gripping his limbs. "There is my business, but." 

"This is a suicide mission for many of our people," Mirza Saeed urged 
him. "I need help. Naturally I could pay." 

"Money is no object," Srinivas retreated, affronted. "Excuse, please, 
Sethji. I must consider." 

"Don't you see?" Mirza Saeed shouted after him. "We are not 
communal people, you and I. Hindu--Muslim bhai-bhai! We can open 
up a secular front against this mumbo-jumbo." 



498 



Srinivas turned back. "But I am not an unbeliever," he protested. "The 
picture of goddess Lakshmi is always on my wall." 

"Wealth is an excellent goddess for a businessman," Mirza Saeed said. 

"And in my heart," Srinivas added. Mirza Saeed lost his temper. "But 
goddesses, I swear. Even your own philosophers admit that these are 
abstract concepts only. Embodiments of shakti which is itself an 
abstract notion: the dynamic power of the gods." 

The toy merchant was looking down at Ayesha as she slept under her 
quilt of butterflies. "I am no philosopher, Sethji," he said. And did not 
say that his heart had leapt into his mouth because he had realized that 
the sleeping girl and the goddess in the calendar on his factory wall had 
the identical, same-to-same, face. 



When the pilgrimage left town, Srinivas accompanied it, turning a deaf 
ear to the entreaties of his wild-haired wife who picked up Minoo and 
shook her in her husband's face. He explained to Ayesha that while he 
did not wish to visit Mecca he had been seized by a longing to walk with 
her a while, perhaps even as far as the sea. 

As he took his place among the Titlipur villagers and fell into step with 
the man next to him, he observed with a mixture of incomprehension 
and awe that infinite butterfly swarm over their heads, like a gigantic 
umbrella shading the pilgrims from the sun. It was as if the butterflies 
of Titlipur had taken over the functions of the great tree. Next he gave 
a little cry of fear, astonishment and pleasure, because a few dozen of 
those chameleon-winged creatures had settled on his shoulders and 
turned, upon the instant, the exact shade of scarlet of his shirt. Now he 
recognized the man at his side as the Sarpanch, Muhammad Din, who 
had chosen not to walk at the front. He and his wife Khadija strode 



499 



contentedly forward in spite of their advanced years, and when he saw 
the lepidopteral blessing that had descended on the toy merchant, 
Muhammad Din reached out and grasped him by the hand. 



It was becoming clear that the rains would fail. Lines of bony cattle 
migrated across the landscape, searching for a drink. _Love is Water_, 
someone had written in whitewash on the brick wall of a scooter 
factory. On the road they met other families heading south with their 
lives bundled up on the backs of dying donkeys, and these, too, were 
heading hopefully towards water. "But not bloody salt water," Mirza 
Saeed shouted at the Titlipur pilgrims. "And not to see it divide itself 
in two! They want to stay alive, but you crazies want to die." Vultures 
herded together by the roadside and watched the pilgrims pass. 

Mirza Saeed spent the first weeks of the pilgrimage to the Arabian Sea 
in a state of permanent, hysterical agitation. Most of the walking was 
done in the mornings and late afternoons, and at these times Saeed 
would often leap out of his station wagon to plead with his dying wife. 
"Come to your senses, Mishu. You're a sick woman. Come and lie down 
at least, let me press your feet a while." But she refused, and her mother 
shooed him away. "See, Saeed, you're in such a negative mood, it gets 
depressing. Go and drink your Coke-shoke in your AC vehicle and leave 
us yatris in peace." After the first week the Air Conditioned vehicle lost 
its driver. Mirza Saeed's chauffeur resigned and joined the foot- 
pilgrims; the zamindar was obliged to get behind the wheel himself. 
After that, when his anxiety overcame him, it was necessary to stop the 
car, park, and then rush madly back and forth among the pilgrims, 
threatening, entreating, offering bribes. At least once a day he cursed 
Ayesha to her face for ruining his life, but he could never keep up the 
abuse because every time he looked at her he desired her so much that 
he felt ashamed. The cancer had begun to turn Mishal's skin grey, and 
Mrs. Qureishi, too, was beginning to fray at the edges; her society 



500 



chappals had disintegrated and she was suffering from frightful foot- 
blisters that looked like little water--balloons. When Saeed offered her 
the comfort of the car, however, she continued to refuse point-blank. 
The spell that Ayesha had placed upon the pilgrims was still holding 
firm. -- And at the end of these sorties into the heart of the pilgrimage 
Mirza Saeed, sweating and giddy from the heat and his growing despair, 
would realize that the marchers had left his car some way behind, and 
he would have to totter back to it by himself, sunk in gloom. One day 
he got back to the station wagon to find that an empty coconut-shell 
thrown from the window of a passing bus had smashed his laminated 
windscreen, which looked, now, like a spider's web full of diamond 
flies. He had to knock all the pieces out, and the glass diamonds seemed 
to be mocking him as they fell on to the road and into the car, they 
seemed to speak of the transience and worthlessness of earthly 
possessions, but a secular man lives in the world of things and Mirza 
Saeed did not intend to be broken as easily as a windscreen. At night he 
would go to lie beside his wife on a bedroll under the stars by the side 
of the grand trunk road. When he told her about the accident she 
offered him cold comfort. "It's a sign," she said. "Abandon the station 
wagon and join the rest of us at last." 

"Abandon a Mercedes-Benz?" Saeed yelped in genuine horror. 

"So what?" Mishal replied in her grey, exhausted voice. "You keep 
talking about ruination. Then what difference is a Mercedes going to 
make?" 

"You don't understand," Saeed wept. "Nobody understands me." 

Gibreel dreamed a drought: 

The land browned under the rainless skies. The corpses of buses and 
ancient monuments rotting in the fields beside the crops. Mirza Saeed 
saw, through his shattered windscreen, the onset of calamity: the wild 



501 



donkeys fucking wearily and dropping dead, while still conjoined, in 
the middle of the road, the trees standing on roots exposed by soil 
erosion and looking like huge wooden claws scrabbling for water in the 
earth, the destitute farmers being obliged to work for the state as 
manual labourers, digging a reservoir by the trunk road, an empty 
container for the rain that wouldn't fall. Wretched roadside lives: a 
woman with a bundle heading for a tent of stick and rag, a girl 
condemned to scour, each day, this pot, this pan, in her patch of filthy 
dust. "Are such lives really worth as much as ours?" Mirza Saeed Akhtar 
asked himself. "As much as mine? As Mishal"s? How little they have 
experienced, how little they have on which to feed the soul." A man in a 
dhoti and loose yellow pugri stood like a bird on top of a milestone, 
perched there with one foot on the opposite knee, one hand under the 
opposite elbow, smoking a bin. As Mirza Saeed Akhtar passed him he 
spat, and caught the zamindar full in the face. 

The pilgrimage advanced slowly, three hours' walking in the mornings, 
three more after the heat, walking at the pace of the slowest pilgrim, 
subject to infinite delays, the sickness of children, the harassment of 
the authorities, a wheel coming off one of the bullock carts; two miles a 
day at best, one hundred and fifty miles to the sea, a journey of 
approximately eleven weeks. The first death happened on the eighteenth 
day. Khadija, the tactless old lady who had been for half a century the 
contented and contenting spouse of Sarpanch Muhammad Din, saw an 
archangel in a dream. "Gibreel," she whispered, "is it you?" 

"No," the apparition replied. "It's I, Azraeel, the one with the lousy job. 
Excuse the disappointment." 

The next morning she continued with the pilgrimage, saying nothing to 
her husband about her vision. After two hours they neared the ruin of 
one of the Mughal milepost inns that had, in times long gone, been 
built at five--mile intervals along the highway. When Khadija saw the 
ruin she knew nothing of its past, of the wayfarers robbed in their sleep 



502 



and so on, but she understood its present well enough. "I have to go in 
there and lie down," she said to the Sarpanch, who protested: "But, the 
march!" "Never mind that," she said gently. "You can catch them up 
later." 

She lay down in the rubble of the old ruin with her head on a smooth 
stone which the Sarpanch found for her. The old man wept, but that 
didn't do any good, and she was dead within a minute. He ran back to 
the march and confronted Ayesha angrily. "I should never have listened 
to you," he told her. "And now you have killed my wife." 

The march stopped. Mirza Saeed Akhtar, spotting an opportunity, 
insisted loudly that Khadija be taken to a proper Muslim burial ground. 
But Ayesha objected. "We are ordered by the archangel to go directly to 
the sea, without returns or detours." Mirza Saeed appealed to the 
pilgrims. "She is your Sarpanch's beloved wife," he shouted. "Will you 
dump her in a hole by the side of the road?" 

When the Titlipur villagers agreed that Khadija should be buried at 
once, Saeed could not believe his ears. He realized that their 
determination was even greater than he had suspected: even the 
bereaved Sarpanch acquiesced. Khadija was buried in the corner of a 
barren field behind the ruined way-station of the past. 

The next day, however, Mirza Saeed noticed that the Sarpanch had come 
unstuck from the pilgrimage, and was mooching along disconsolately, a 
little distance apart from the rest, sniffing the bougainvillaea bushes. 
Saeed jumped out of the Mercedes and rushed off to Ayesha, to make 
another scene. "You monster!" he shouted. "Monster without a heart! 
Why did you bring the old woman here to die?" She ignored him, but 
on his way back to the station wagon the Sarpanch came over and said: 
"We were poor people. We knew we could never hope to go to Mecca 
Sharif, until she persuaded. She persuaded, and now see the outcome of 
her deeds." 



503 



Ayesha the kahin asked to speak to the Sarpanch, but gave him not a 
single word of consolation. "Harden your faith," she scolded him. "She 
who dies on the great pilgrimage is assured of a home in Paradise. Your 
wife is sitting now among the angels and the flowers; what is there for 
you to regret?" 

That evening the Sarpanch Muhammad Din approached Mirza Saeed as 
he sat by a small campfire. "Excuse, Sethji," he said, "but is it possible 
that I ride, as you once offered, in your motor--car?" 

Unwilling wholly to abandon the project for which his wife had died, 
unable to maintain any longer the absolute belief which the enterprise 
required, Muhammad Din entered the station wagon of scepticism. "My 
first convert," Mirza Saeed rejoiced. 



By the fourth week the defection of Sarpanch Muhammad Din had 
begun to have its effect. He sat on the back seat of the Mercedes as if he 
were the zamindar and Mirza Saeed the chauffeur, and little by little the 
leather upholstery and the airconditioning unit and the whisky-soda 
cabinet and the electrically operated mirror-glass windows began to 
teach him hauteur; his nose tilted into the air and he acquired the 
supercilious expression of a man who can see without being seen. Mirza 
Saeed in the driver's seat felt his eyes and nose filling up with the dust 
that came in through the hole where the windscreen used to be, but in 
spite of such discomforts he was feeling better than before. Now, at the 
end of each day, a cluster of pilgrims would congregate around the 
Mercedes-Benz with its gleaming star, and Mirza Saeed would try and 
talk sense into them while they watched Sarpanch Muhammad Din raise 
and lower the mirrorglass rear windows, so that they saw, alternately, 
his features and their own. The Sarpanch's presence in the Mercedes 
lent new authority to Mirza Saeed's words. 



504 



Ayesha didn't try to call the villagers away, and so far her confidence 
had been justified; there had been no further defections to the camp of 
the faithless. But Saeed saw her casting numerous glances in his 
direction and whether she was a visionary or not Mirza Saeed would 
have bet good money that those were the bad-tempered glances of a 
young girl who was no longer sure of getting her own way. 

Then she disappeared. 

She went off during an afternoon siesta and did not reappear for a day 
and a half, by which time there was pandemonium among the pilgrims - 
- she always knew how to whip up an audience's feelings, Saeed 
conceded; then she sauntered back up to them across the dust--clouded 
landscape, and this time her silver hair was streaked with gold, and her 
eyebrows, too, were golden. She summoned the villagers to her and told 
them that the archangel was displeased that the people of Titlipur had 
been filled up with doubts just because of the ascent of a martyr to 
Paradise. She warned that he was seriously thinking of withdrawing his 
offer to part the waters, "so that all you'll get at the Arabian Sea is a 
salt--water bath, and then it's back to your deserted potato fields on 
which no rain will ever fall again." The villagers were appalled. "No, it 
can't be," they pleaded. "Bibiji, forgive us." It was the first time they 
had used the name of the longago saint to describe the girl who was 
leading them with an absolutism that had begun to frighten them as 
much as it impressed. After her speech the Sarpanch and Mirza Saeed 
were left alone in the station wagon. "Second round to the archangel," 
Mirza Saeed thought. 



By the fifth week the health of most of the older pilgrims had 
deteriorated sharply, food supplies were running low, water was hard to 
find, and the children's tear ducts were dry. The vulture herds were 
never far away. 



505 



As the pilgrims left behind the rural areas and came towards more 
densely populated zones, the level of harassment increased. The long- 
distance buses and trucks often refused to deviate and the pedestrians 
had to leap, screaming and tumbling over each other, out of their way. 
Cyclists, families of six on Rajdoot motor--scooters, petty shop — keepers 
hurled abuse. "Crazies! Hicks! Muslims!" Often they were obliged to 
keep marching for an entire night because the authorities in this or 
that small town didn't want such riff-raff sleeping on their pavements. 
More deaths became inevitable. 

Then the bullock of the convert, Osman, fell to its knees amid the 
bicycles and camel-dung of a nameless little town. "Get up, idiot," he 
yelled at it impotently. "What do you think you're doing, dying on me 
in front of the fruit--stalls of strangers?" The bullock nodded, twice for 
yes, and expired. 

Butterflies covered the corpse, adopting the colour of its grey hide, its 
horn-cones and bells. The inconsolable Osman ran to Ayesha (who had 
put on a dirty sari as a concession to urban prudery, even though 
butterfly clouds still trailed off her like glory). "Do bullocks go to 
Heaven?" he asked in a piteous voice; she shrugged. "Bullocks have no 
souls," she said coolly, "and it is souls we march to save." Osman 
looked at her and realized he no longer loved her. "You've become a 
demon," he told her in disgust. 

"I am nothing," Ayesha said. "I am a messenger." 

"Then tell me why your God is so anxious to destroy the innocent," 
Osman raged. "What's he afraid of? Is he so unconfident that he needs 
us to die to prove our love?" 

As though in response to such blasphemy, Ayesha imposed even stricter 
disciplinary measures, insisting that all pilgrims say all five prayers, 
and decreeing that Fridays would be days of fasting. By the end of the 



506 



sixth week she had forced the marchers to leave four more bodies where 
they fell: two old men, one old woman, and one six-year-old girl. The 
pilgrims marched on, turning their backs on the dead; behind them, 
however, Mirza Saeed Akhtar gathered up the bodies and made sure 
they received a decent burial. In this he was assisted by the Sarpanch, 
Muhammad Din, and the former untouchable, Osman. On such days 
they would fall quite a way behind the march, but a Mercedes-Benz 
station wagon doesn't take long to catch up with over a hundred and 
forty men, women and children walking wearily towards the sea. 



The dead grew in number, and the groups of unsettled pilgrims around 
the Mercedes got larger night by night. Mirza Saeed began to tell them 
stories. He told them about lemmings, and how the enchantress Circe 
turned men into pigs; he told, too, the story of a pipe-player who lured 
a town's children into a mountain-crack. When he had told this tale in 
their own language he recited verses in English, so that they could 
listen to the music of the poetry even though they didn't understand 
the words. "Hamelin town's in Brunswick," he began. "Near famous 
Hanover City. The River Weser, deep and wide, washes its walls on the 
southern side . . ." 

Now he had the satisfaction of seeing the girl Ayesha advance, looking 
furious, while the butterflies glowed like the campfire behind her, 
making it appear as though flames were streaming from her body. 

"Those who listen to the Devil's verses, spoken in the Devil's tongue," 
she cried, "will go to the Devil in the end." 

"It's a choice, then," Mirza Saeed answered her, "between the devil and 
the deep blue sea." 



507 



Eight weeks had passed, and relations between Mirza Saeed and his wife 
Mishal had so deteriorated that they were no longer on speaking terms. 
By now, and in spite of the cancer that had turned her as grey as funeral 
ash, Mishal had become Ayesha's chief lieutenant and most devoted 
disciple. The doubts of other marchers had only strengthened her own 
faith, and for these doubts she unequivocally blamed her husband. 

"Also," she had rebuked him in their last conversation, "there is no 
warmth in you any more. I feel afraid to approach." 

"No warmth?" he yelled. "How can you say it? No warmth? For whom 
did I come running on this damnfool pilgrimage? To look after whom? 
Because I love whom? Because I am so worried about, so sad about, so 
filled with misery about whom? No warmth? Are you a stranger? How 
can you say such a thing?" 

"Listen to yourself," she said in a voice which had begun to fade into a 
kind of smokiness, an opacity. "Always anger. Cold anger, icy, like a 
fort." 

"This isn't anger," he bellowed. "This is anxiety, unhappiness, 
wretchedness, injury, pain. Where can you hear anger?" 

"I hear it," she said. "Everyone can hear, for miles around." 

"Come with me," he begged her. "I'll take you to the top clinics in 
Europe, Canada, the USA. Trust in Western technology. They can do 
marvels. You always liked gadgets, too." 

"I am going on a pilgrimage to Mecca," she said, and turned away. 

"You damn .stupid bitch," he roared at her back. "Just because you're 
going to die doesn't mean you have to take all these people with you." 
But she walked away across the roadside camp--site, never looking back; 
and now that he'd proved her point by losing control and speaking the 



508 



unspeakable he fell to his knees and wept. After that quarrel Mishal 
refused to sleep beside him any more. She and her mother rolled out 
their bedding next to the butterfly-shrouded prophetess of their 
Meccan quest. 

By day, Mishal worked ceaselessly among the pilgrims, reassuring them, 
bolstering their faith, gathering them together beneath the wing of her 
gentleness. Ayesha had started retreating deeper and deeper into 
silence, and Mishal Akhtar became, to all intents and purposes, the 
leader of the pilgrims. But there was one pilgrim over whom she lost her 
grip: Mrs. Qureishi, her mother, the wife of the director of the state 
bank. 

The arrival of Mr. Qureishi, Mishal's father, was quite an event. The 
pilgrims had stopped in the shade of a line of plane-trees and were busy 
gathering brushwood and scouring cookpots when the motorcade was 
sighted. At once Mrs. Qureishi, who was twenty-five pounds lighter 
than she had been at the beginning of the walk, leaped squeakily to her 
feet and tried frantically to brush the dirt off her clothes and to put her 
hair in order. Mishal saw her mother fumbling feebly with a molten 
lipstick and asked, "What's bugging you, ma? Relax, na." 

Her mother pointed feebly at the approaching cars. Moments later the 
tall, severe figure of the great banker was standing over them. "If I had 
not seen it I would not have believed," he said. "They told me, but I 
pooh-poohed. Therefore it took me this long to find out. To vanish 
from Peristan without a word: now what in tarnation?" 

Mrs. Qureishi shook helplessly under her husband's eyes, beginfling to 
cry, feeling the calluses on her feet and the fatigue that had sunk into 
every pore of her body. "O God, I don't know, I am sorry," she said. 
"God knows what came over." 



509 



"Don't you know I occupy a delicate post?" Mr. Qureishi cried. "Public 
confidence is of essence. How does it look then that my wife gallivants 
with bhangis?" 

Mishal, embracing her mother, told her father to stop bullying. Mr. 
Akhtar saw for the first time that his daughter had the mark of death 
on her forehead and deflated instantly like an inner tube. Mishal told 
him about the cancer, and the promise of the seer Ayesha that a miracle 
would occur in Mecca, and she would be completely cured. 

"Then let me fly you to Mecca, pronto," her father pleaded. "Why walk 
if you can go by Airbus?" 

But Mishal was adamant. "You should go away," she told her father. 
"Only the faithful can make this thing come about. Mummy will look 
after me." 

Mr. Qureishi in his limousine helplessly joined Mirza Saeed at the rear 
of the procession, constantly sending one of the two servants who had 
accompanied him on motor-scooters to ask Mishal if she would like 
food, medicine, Thums Up, anything at all. Mishal turned down all his 
offers, and after three days -- because banking is banking -- Mr. 
Qureishi departed for the city, leaving behind one of the motor-scooter 
chaprassis to serve the women. "He is yours to command," he told 
them. "Don't be stupid now. Make this as easy as you can." 

The day after Mr. Qureishi's departure, the chaprassi Gul Muhammad 
ditched his scooter and joined the foot-pilgrims, knotting a 
handkerchief around his head to indicate his devotion. Ayesha said 
nothing, but when she saw the scooter-wallah join the pilgrimage she 
grinned an impish grin that reminded Mirza Saeed that she was, after 
all, not on"y a figure out of a dream, but also a flesh-and-blood young 
girl. 



510 



Mrs. Qureishi began to complain. The brief contact with her old life 
had broken her resolve, and now that it was too late she had started 
thinking constantly about parties and soft cushions and glasses of iced 
fresh lime soda. It suddenly seemed wholly unreasonable to her that a 
person of her breeding should be asked to go barefoot like a common 
sweeper. She presented herself to Mirza Saeed with a sheepish 
expression on her face. 

"Saeed, son, do you hate me completely?" she wheedled, her plump 
features arranging themselves in a parody of coquettishness. 

Saeed was appalled by her grimace. "Of course not," he managed to say. 

"But you do, you loathe me, and my cause is hopeless," she flirted. 

"Ammaji," Saeed gulped, "what are you saying?" 

"Because I have from time to time spoken roughly to you." 

"Please forget it," Saeed said, bemused by her performance, but she 
would not. "You must know it was all for love, isn't it? Love," said Mrs. 
Qureishi, "it is a many--splendoured thing." 

"Makes the world go round," Mirza Saeed agreed, trying to enter into 
the spirit of the conversation. 

"Love conquers all," Mrs. Qureishi confirmed. "It has conquered my 
anger. This I must demonstrate to you by riding with you in your 
motor." 

Mirza Saeed bowed. "It is yours, Ammaji." 

"Then you will ask those two village men to sit in front with you. Ladies 
must be protected, isn't it?" 

"It is," he replied. 



511 



The story of the village that was walking to the sea had spread all over 
the country, and in the ninth week the pilgrims were being pestered by 
journalists, local politicos in search of votes, businessmen who offered 
to sponsor the march if the yatris would only consent to wear sandwich 
boards advertising various goods and services, foreign tourists looking 
for the mysteries of the East, nostalgic Gandhians, and the kind of 
human vultures who go to motor-car races to watch the crashes. When 
they saw the host of chameleon butterflies and the way they both 
clothed the girl Ayesha and provided her with her only solid food, these 
visitors were amazed, and retreated with confounded expectations, that 
is to say with a hole in their pictures of the world that they could not 
paper over. Photographs of Ayesha were appearing in all the papers, and 
the pilgrims even passed advertising hoardings on which the 
lepidopteral beauty had been painted three times as large as life, beside 
slogans reading _Our cloths also are as delicate as a butterfly's wing_, 
or suchlike. Then more alarming news reached them. Certain religious 
extremist groupings had issued statements denouncing the "Ayesha 
Haj" as an attempt to "hijack" public attention and to "incite 
communal sentiment". Leaflets were being distributed -- Mishal picked 
them up off the road -- in which it was claimed that "Padyatra, or foot-- 
pilgrimage, is an ancient, pre--Islamic tradition of national culture, not 
imported property of Mughal immigrants." Also: "Purloining of this 
tradition by so — called Ayesha Bibiji is flagrant and deliberate 
inflammation of already sensitive situation." 

"There will be no trouble," the kahin broke her silence to announce. 



Gibreel dreamed a suburb: 



512 



As the Ayesha Haj neared Sarang, the outermost suburb of the great 
metropolis on the Arabian Sea towards which the visionary girl was 
leading them, journalists, politicos and police officers redoubled their 
visits. At first the policemen threatened to disband the march forcibly; 
the politicians, however, advised that this would look very like a 
sectarian act and could lead to outbreaks of communal violence from 
top to bottom of the country. Eventually the police chiefs agreed to 
permit the march, but groused menacingly about being "unable to 
guarantee safe passages" for the pilgrims. Mishal Akhtar said: "We are 
going on." 

The suburb of Sarang owed its relative affluence to the presence of 
substantial coal deposits nearby. It turned out that the coalminers of 
Sarang, men whose lives were spent boring pathways through the earth - 
- "parting" it, one might say -- could not stomach the notion that a girl 
could do the same, with a wave of her hand, for the sea. Cadres of 
certain communalist groupings had been at work, inciting the miners to 
violence, and as a result of the activities of these agents provocateurs a 
mob was forming, carrying banners demanding: NO ISLAMIC 
PADYATRA! BUTTERFLY WITCH, GO HOME. 

On the night before they were due to enter Sarang, Mirza Saeed made 
another futile appeal to the pilgrims. "Give up," he implored uselessly. 
"Tomorrow we will all be killed." Ayesha whispered in Mishal's ear, and 
she spoke up: "Better a martyr than a coward. Are there any cowards 
here?" 

There was one. Sri Srinivas, explorer of the Grand Canyon, proprietor of 
a Toy Univas, whose motto was creativity and sinceriety, sided with 
Mirza Saeed. As a devout follower of the goddess Lakshmi, whose face 
was so perplexingly also Ayesha's, he felt unable to participate in the 
coming hostilities on either side. "I am a weak fellow," he confessed to 
Saeed. "I have loved Miss Ayesha, and a man should fight for what he 
loves; but, what to do, I require neutral status." Srinivas was the fifth 



513 



member of the renegade society in the Mercedes-Benz, and now Mrs. 
Qureishi had no option but to share the back seat with a common man. 
Srinivas greeted her unhappily, and, seeing her bounce grumpily along 
the seat away from him, attempted to placate. "Please to accept a token 
of my esteem." -- And produced, from an inside pocket, a Family 
Planning doll. 

That night the deserters remained in the station wagon while the 
faithful prayed in the open air. They had been allowed to camp in a 
disused goods train marshalling yard, guarded by military police. Mirza 
Saeed couldn't sleep. He was thinking about something Srinivas had 
said to him, about being a Gandhian in his head, "but I'm too weak to 
put such notions into practice. Excuse me, but it's true. I was not cut 
out for suffering, Sethji. I should have stayed with wife and kiddies and 
cut out this adventure disease that has made me land up in such a 
place." 

In my family, too, Mirza Saeed in his insomnia answered the sleeping 
toy merchant, we have suffered from a kind of disease: one of 
detachment, of being unable to connect ourselves to things, events, 
feelings. Most people define themselves by their work, or where they 
come from, or suchlike; we have lived too far inside our heads. It makes 
actuality damn hard to handle. 

Which was to say that he found it hard to believe that all this was really 
happening; but it was. 



When the Ayesha Pilgrims were ready to set off the next morning, the 
huge clouds of butterflies that had travelled with them all the way from 
Titlipur suddenly broke up and vanished from view, revealing that the 
sky was filling up with other, more prosaic clouds. Even the creatures 
that had been clothing Ayesha -- the elite corps, so to speak -- 



514 



decamped, and she had to lead the procession dressed in the mundanity 
of an old cotton sari with a block-printed hem of leaves. The 
disappearance of the miracle that had seemed to validate their 
pilgrimage depressed all the marchers; so that in spite of all Mishal 
Akhtar's exhortations they were unable to sing as they moved forwards, 
deprived of the benediction of the butterflies, to meet their fate. 



The No Islamic Padyatra street mob had prepared a welcome for Ayesha 
in a street lined on both sides with the shacks of bicycle repairers. They 
had blocked the pilgrims' routes with dead bicycles, and waited behind 
this barricade of broken wheels, bent handlebars and silenced bells as 
the Ayesha Haj entered the northern sector of the street. Ayesha walked 
towards the mob as if it did not exist, and when she reached the last 
crossroads, beyond which the clubs and knives of the enemy awaited 
her, there was a thunderclap like the trumpet of doom and an ocean fell 
down out of the sky. The drought had broken too late to save the crops; 
afterwards many of the pilgrims believed that God had been saving up 
the water for just this purpose, letting it build up in the sky until it was 
as endless as the sea, sacrificing the year's harvest in order to save his 
prophetess and her people. 

The stunning force of the downpour unnerved both pilgrims and 
assailants. In the confusion of the flood a second doomtrumpet was 
heard. This was, in point of fact, the horn of Mirza Saeed's Mercedes- 
Benz station wagon, which he had driven at high speed through the 
suffocating side gullies of the suburb, bringing down racks of shirts 
hanging on rails, and pumpkin barrows, and trays of cheap plastic 
notions, until he reached the street of basket--workers that intersected 
the street of bicycle repairers just to the north of the barricade. Here he 
accelerated as hard as he could and charged towards the crossroads, 
scattering pedestrians and wickerwork stools in all directions. He 
reached the crossroads immediately after the sea fell out of the sky, and 



515 



braked violently. Sri Srinivas and Osman leaped out, seized Mishal 
Akhtar and the prophetess Ayesha, and hauled them into the Mercedes 
in a flurry of legs, sputum and abuse. Saeed accelerated away from the 
scene before anybody had managed to get the blinding water out of 
their eyes. 

Inside the car: bodies heaped in an angry jumble. Mishal Akhtar 
shouted abuse at her husband from the bottom of the pile: "Saboteur! 
Traitor! Scum from somewhere! Mule!" -- To which Saeed sarcastically 
replied, "Martyrdom is too easy, Mishal. Don't you want to watch the 
ocean open, like a flower?" 

And Mrs. Qureishi, sticking her head out through Osman's inverted 
legs, added in a pink-faced gasp: "Okay, come on, Mishu, quit. We 
meant well." 



Gibreel dreamed a flood: 

When the rains came, the miners of Sarang had been waiting for the 
pilgrims with their pickaxes in their hands, but when the bicycle 
barricade was swept away they could not avoid the idea that God had 
taken Ayesha's side. The town's drainage system surrendered instantly 
to the overwhelming assault of the water, and the miners were soon 
standing in a muddy flood that reached as high as their waists. Some of 
them tried to move towards the pilgrims, who also continued to make 
efforts to advance. But now the rainstorm redoubled its force, and then 
doubled it again, falling from the sky in thick slabs through which it 
was getting difficult to breathe, as though the earth were being 
engulfed, and the firmament above were reuniting with the firmament 
below. 

Gibreel, dreaming, found his vision obscured by water. 



516 



The rain stopped, and a watery sun shone down on a Venetian scene of 
devastation. The roads of Sarang were now canals, along which there 
journeyed all manner of flotsam. Where only recently scooter-- 
rickshaws, camel--carts and repaired bicycles had gone, there now 
floated newspapers, flowers, bangles, watermelons, umbrellas, chappals, 
sunglasses, baskets, excrement, medicine bottles, playing cards, 
dupattas, pancakes, lamps. The water had an odd, reddish tint that 
made the sodden populace imagine that the street was flowing with 
blood. There was no trace of bully-boy miners or of Ayesha Pilgrims. A 
dog swam across the intersection by the collapsed bicycle barricade, and 
all around there lay the damp silence of the flood, whose waters lapped 
at marooned buses, while children stared from the roofs of deliquescent 
gullies, too shocked to come out and play. 

Then the butterflies returned. 

From nowhere, as if they had been hiding behind the sun; and to 
celebrate the end of the rain they had all taken the colour of sunlight. 
The arrival of this immense carpet of light in the sky utterly bewildered 
the people of Sarang, who were already reeling in the aftermath of the 
storm; fearing the apocalypse, they hid indoors and closed their 
shutters. On a nearby hillside, however, Mirza Saeed Akhtar and his 
party observed the miracle's return and were filled, all of them, even the 
zamindar, with a kind of awe. 

Mirza Saeed had driven hell-for--leather, in spite of being half-- blinded 
by the rain which poured through the smashed windscreen, until on a 
road that led up and around the bend of a hill he came to a halt at the 
gates of the No. i Sarang Coalfield. The pitheads were dimly visible 
through the rain. "Brainbox," Mishal Akhtar cursed him weakly. "Those 
bums are waiting for us back there, and you drive us up here to see their 
pals. Tip-top notion, Saeed. Extra fine." 



517 



But they had no more trouble from miners. That was the day of the 
mining disaster that left fifteen thousand pitmen buried alive beneath 
the Sarangi hill. Saeed, Mishal, the Sarpanch, Osman, Mrs. Qureishi, 
Srinivas and Ayesha stood exhausted and soaked to the skin by the 
roadside as ambulances, fire--engines, salvage operators and pit bosses 
arrived in large quantities and left, much later, shaking their heads. The 
Sarpanch caught his earlobes between thumbs and forefingers. "Life is 
pain," he said. "Life is pain and loss; it is a coin of no value, worth even 
less than a kauri or a dam." 

Osman of the dead bullock, who, like the Sarpanch, had lost a dearly 
loved companion during the pilgrimage, also wept. Mrs. Qureishi 
attempted to look on the bright side: "Main thing is that we're okay," 
but this got no response. Then Ayesha closed her eyes and recited in the 
sing--song voice of prophecy, "It is a judgment upon them for the bad 
attempt they made." 

Mirza Saeed was angry. "They weren't at the bloody barricade," he 
shouted. "They were working under the goddamned ground." 

"They dug their own graves," Ayesha replied. 



This was when they sighted the returning butterflies. Saeed watched the 
golden cloud in disbelief, as it first gathered and then sent out streams 
of winged light in every direction. Ayesha wanted to return to the 
crossroads. Saeed objected: "It's flooded down there. Our only chance is 
to drive down the opposite side of this hill and come out the other side 
of town." But Ayesha and Mishal had already started back; the 
prophetess was supporting the other, ashen woman, holding her around 
the waist. 



518 



"Mishal, for God's sake," Mirza Saeed called after his wife. "For the 
love of God. What will I do with the motor-car?" 

But she went on down the hill, towards the flood, leaning heavily on 
Ayesha the seer, without looking round. 

This was how Mirza Saeed Akhtar came to abandon his beloved 
Mercedes-Benz station wagon near the entrance to the drowned mines 
of Sarang, and join in the foot-pilgrimage to the Arabian Sea. 

The seven bedraggled travellers stood thigh--deep in water at the 
intersection of the street of bicycle repairers and the alley of the basket- 
weavers. Slowly, slowly, the water had begun to go down. "Face it," 
Mirza Saeed argued. "The pilgrimage is finished. The villagers are who 
knows where, maybe drowned, possibly murdered, certainly lost. 
There's nobody left to follow you but us." He stuck his face into 
Ayesha's. "So forget it, sister; you're sunk." 

"Look," Mishal said. 

From all sides, out of the little tinkers' gullies, the villagers of Titlipur 
were returning to the place of their dispersal. They were all coated from 
neck to ankles in golden butterflies, and long lines of the little 
creatures went before them, like ropes drawing them to safety out of a 
well. The people of Sarang watched in terror from their windows, and as 
the waters of retribution receded, the Ayesha Haj re-formed in the 
middle of the road. 

"I don't believe it," said Mirza Saeed. 

But it was true. Every single member of the pilgrimage had been tracked 
down by the butterflies and brought back to thF main road. And 
stranger claims were later made: that when the creatures had settled on 
a broken ankle the injury had healed, or that an open wound had closed 
as if by magic. Many marchers said they had awoken from 



519 



unconsciousness to find the butterflies fluttering about their lips. 
Some even believed that they had been dead, drowned, and that the 
butterflies had brought them back to life. 

"Don't be stupid," Mirza Saeed cried. "The storm saved you; it washed 
away your enemies, so it's not surprising few of you are hurt. Let's be 
scientific, please." 

"Use your eyes, Saeed," Mishal told him, indicating the presence before 
them of over a hundred men, women and children enveloped in glowing 
butterflies. "What does your science say about this?" 



In the last days of the pilgrimage, the city was all around them. Officers 
from the Municipal Corporation met with Mishal and Ayesha and 
planned a route through the metropolis. On this route were mosques in 
which the pilgrims could sleep without clogging up the streets. 
Excitement in the city was intense: each day, when the pilgrims set off 
towards their next resting--place, they were watched by enormous 
crowds, some sneering and hostile, but many bringing presents of 
sweetmeats, medicines and food. 

Mirza Saeed, worn-out and filthy, was in a state of deep frustration on 
account of his failure to convince more than a handful of the pilgrims 
that it was better to put one's trust in reason than in miracles. Miracles 
had been doing pretty well for them, the Titlipur villagers pointed out, 
reasonably enough. "Those blasted butterflies," Saeed muttered to the 
Sarpanch. "Without them, we'd have a chance." 

"But they have been with us from the start," the Sarpanch replied with 
a shrug. 

Mishal Akhtar was clearly close to death; she had begun to smell of it, 
and had turned a chalky white colour that frightened Saeed badly. But 



520 



Mishal wouldn't let him come near her. She had ostracized her mother, 
too, and when her father took time off from banking to visit her on the 
pilgrimage's first night in a city mosque, she told him to buzz off. 
"Things have come to the point," she announced, "where only the pure 
can be with the pure." When Mirza Saeed heard the diction of Ayesha 
the prophetess emerging from his wife's mouth he lost all but the 
tiniest speck of hope. 

Friday came, and Ayesha agreed that the pilgrimage could halt for a day 
to participate in the Friday prayers. Mirza Saeed, who had forgotten 
almost all the Arabic verses that had once been stuffed into him by rote, 
and could scarcely remember when to stand with his hands held in 
front of him like a book, when to genuflect, when to press his forehead 
to the ground, stumbled through the ceremony with growing self- 
disgust. At the end of the prayers, however, something happened that 
stopped the Ayesha Haj in its tracks. 

As the pilgrims watched the congregation leaving the courtyard of the 
mosque, a commotion began outside the main gate. Mirza Saeed went 
to investigate. "What's the hoo--hah?" he asked as he struggled through 
the crowd on the mosque steps; then he saw the basket sitting on the 
bottom step. -- And heard, rising from the basket, the baby's cry. 

The foundling was perhaps two weeks old, clearly illegitimate, and it 
was equally plain that its options in life were limited. The crowd was in 
a doubtful, confused mood. Then the mosque's Imam appeared at the 
head of the flight of steps, and beside him was Ayesha the seer, whose 
fame had spread throughout the city. 

The crowd parted like the sea, and Ayesha and the Imam came down to 
the basket. The Imam examined the baby briefly; rose; and turned to 
address the crowd. 



521 



"This child was born in devilment," he said. "It is the Devil's child." He 
was a young man. 

The mood of the crowd shifted towards anger. Mirza Saeed Akhtar 
shouted out: "You, Ayesha, kahin. What do you say?" 

"Everything will be asked of us," she replied. 

The crowd, needing no clearer invitation, stoned the baby to death. 



After that the Ayesha Pilgrims refused to move on. The death of the 
foundling had created an atmosphere of mutiny among the weary 
villagers, none of whom had lifted or thrown a stone. Mishal, snow- 
white now, was too enfeebled by her illness to rally the marchers; 
Ayesha, as ever, refused to dispute. "If you turn your backs on God," 
she warned the villagers, "don't be surprised when he does the same to 
you." 

The pilgrims were squatting in a group in a corner of the large mosque, 
which was painted lime-green on the outside and bright blue within, 
and lit, when necessary, by multicoloured neon "tube lights". After 
Ayesha's warning they turned their backs on her and huddled closer 
together, although the weather was warm and humid enough. Mirza 
Saeed, spotting his opportunity, decided to challenge Ayesha directly 
once again. "Tell me," he asked sweetly, "how exactly does the angel 
give you all this information? You never tell us his precise words, only 
your interpretations of them. Why such indirection? Why not simply 
quote?" 

"He speaks to me," Ayesha answered, "in clear and memorable forms." 

Mirza Saeed, full of the bitter energy of his desire for her, and the pain 
of his estrangement from his dying wife, and the memory of the 



522 



tribulations of the march, smelled in her reticence the weakness he had 
been probing for. "Kindly be more specific," he insisted. "Or why 
should anyone believe? What are these forms?" 

"The archangel sings to me," she admitted, "to the tunes of popular hit 
songs." 

Mirza Saeed Akhtar clapped his hands delightedly and began to laugh 
the loud, echoing laughter of revenge, and Osman the bullock-boy 
joined in, beating on his dholki and prancing around the squatting 
villagers, singing the latest filmi ganas and making nautch--girl eyes. 
"Hoji!" he carolled. "This is how Gibreel recites, ho ji! Ho ji!" 

And one after the other, pilgrim after pilgrim rose and joined in the 
dance of the circling drummer, dancing their disillusion and disgust in 
the courtyard of the mosque, until the Imam came running to shriek at 
the ungodliness of their deeds. 



Night fell. The villagers of Titlipur were grouped around their 
Sarpanch, Muhammad Din, and serious talks about returning to 
Titlipur were under way. Perhaps a little of the harvest could be saved. 
Mishal Akhtar lay dying with her head in her mother's lap, racked by 
pain, with a single tear emerging from her left eye. And in a far corner 
of the courtyard of the greenblue mosque with its technicolour tube- 
lighting, the visionary and the zamindar sat alone and talked. A moon -- 
new, horned, cold -- shone down. 

"You're a clever man," Ayesha said. "You knew how to take your 
chance." 

This was when Mirza Saeed made his offer of a compromise. "My wife is 
dying," he said. "And she wants very much to go to Mecca Sharif. So we 
have interests in common, you and I." 



523 



Ayesha listened. Saeed pressed on: "Ayesha, I'm not a bad man. Let me 
tell you, I've been damn impressed by many things on this walk; damn 
impressed. You have given these people a profound spiritual experience, 
no question. Don't think we modern types lack a spiritual dimension." 

"The people have left me," Ayesha said. 

"The people are confused," Saeed replied. "Point is, if you actually take 
them to the sea and then nothing happens, my God, they really could 
turn against you. So here's the deal. I gave a tinkle to Mishal's papa 
and he agreed to underwrite half the cost. We propose to fly you and 
Mishal, and let's say ten -- twelve! -- of the villagers, to Mecca, within 
forty-eight hours, personally. Reservations are available. We leave it to 
you to select the individuals best suited to the trip. Then, truly, you will 
have performed a miracle for some instead of for none. And in my view 
the pilgrimage itself has been a miracle, in a way. So you will have done 
very much." 

He held his breath. 

"I must think," Ayesha said. 

"Think, think," Saeed encouraged her happily. "Ask your archangel. If 
he agrees, it must be right." 



Mirza Saeed Akhtar knew that when Ayesha announced that the 
Archangel Gibreel had accepted his offer her power would be destroyed 
forever, because the villagers would perceive her fraudulence and her 
desperation, too. -- But how could she turn him down? -- What choice 
did she really have? "Revenge is sweet," he told himself. Once the 
woman was discredited, he would certainly take Mishal to Mecca, if that 
were still her wish. 



524 



The butterflies of Titlipur had not entered the mosque. They lined its 
exterior walls and onion dome, glowing greenly in the dark. 

Ayesha in the night: stalking the shadows, lying down, rising to go on 
the prowl again. There was an uncertainty about her; then the slowness 
came, and she seemed to dissolve into the shadows of the mosque. She 
returned at dawn. 

After the morning prayer she asked the pilgrims if she might address 
them; and they, doubtfully, agreed. 

"Last night the angel did not sing," she said. "He told me, instead, 
about doubt, and how the Devil makes use of it. I said, but they doubt 
me, what can I do? He answered: only proof can silence doubt." 

She had their full attention. Next she told them what Mirza Saeed had 
suggested in the night. "He told me to go and ask my angel, but I know 
better," she cried. "How could I choose between you? It is all of us, or 
none." 

"Why should we follow you," the Sarpanch asked, "after all the dying, 
the baby, and all?" 

"Because when the waters part, you will be saved. You will enter into 
the Glory of the Most High." 

"What waters?" Mirza Saeed yelled. "How will they divide?" 

"Follow me," Ayesha concluded, "and judge me by their parting." 

His offer had contained an old question: _What kind of idea are you?_ 
And she, in turn, had offered him an old answer. _I was tempted, but 
am renewed; am uncompromising; absolute; pure_. 



525 



The tide was in when the Ayesha Pilgrimage marched down an alley 
beside the Holiday Inn, whose windows were full of the mistresses of 
film stars using their new Polaroid cameras, -- when the pilgrims felt 
the city's asphalt turn gritty and soften into sand, -- when they found 
themselves walking through a thick mulch of rotting coconuts 
abandoned cigarette packets pony turds non-degradable bottles fruit 
peelings jellyfish and paper, -- on to the mid-brown sand overhung by 
high leaning cocopalms and the balconies of luxury sea-view apartment 
blocks, -- past the teams of young men whose muscles were so well- 
honed that they looked like deformities, and who were performing 
gymnastic contortions of all sorts, in unison, like a murderous army of 
ballet dancers, -- and through the beachcombers, clubmen and families 
who had come to take the air or make business contacts or scavenge a 
living from the sand, -- and gazed, for the first time in their lives, upon 
the Arabian Sea. 

Mirza Saeed saw Mishal, who was being supported by two of the village 
men, because she was no longer strong enough to stand up by herself. 
Ayesha was beside her, and Saeed had the idea that the prophetess had 
somehow stepped out of the dying woman, that all the brightness of 
Mishal had hopped out of her body and taken this mythological shape, 
leaving a husk behind to die. Then he was angry with himself for 
allowing Ayesha's supernaturalism to infect him, too. 

The villagers of Titlipur had agreed to follow Ayesha after a long 
discussion in which they had asked her not to take part. Their common 
sense told them that it would be foolish to turn back when they had 
come so far and were in sight of their first goal; but the new doubts in 
their minds sapped their strength. It was as if they were emerging from 
some Shangri-La of Ayesha's making, because now that they were 
simply walking behind her rather than following her in the true sense, 
they seemed to age and sicken with every step they took. By the time 
they saw the sea they were a lame, tottering, rheumy, feverish, red-eyed 



526 



bunch, and Mirza Saeed wondered how many of them would manage the 
final few yards to the water's edge. 

The butterflies were with them, high over their heads. 

"What now, Ayesha?" Saeed called out to her, filled with the horrible 
notion that his beloved wife might die here under the hoofs of ponies 
for rent and beneath the eyes of sugarcane-juice vendors. "You have 
brought us all to the edges of extinction, but here is an unquestionable 
fact: the sea. Where is your angel now?" 

She climbed up, with the villagers' help, on to an unused thela lying 
next to a soft--drink stall, and didn't answer Saeed until she could look 
down at him from her new perch. "Gibreel says the sea is like our souls. 
When we open them, we can m