On Intolerance, Salman Rushdie and ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’

Salman Rushdie’s fifth novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh – published shortly after the infamous fatwa issued by the Iranian government condemning certain ‘blasphemous’ utterances in The Satanic Verses – carries forward Rushdie’s unabashed engagement with the political. Although the book was published in 1995, almost two decades ago, in my mind it has re-acquired significance because of its scathing critique of intolerance. The Moor’s Last Sigh is worth revisiting in the current political climate.

The novel is populated with a heterogenous spread of characters: an old Portuguese family descended from the explorer Vasco Da Gama; the Jewish clan of the Zogoiby’s who trace a clandestine history with the last Moorish king of Grenada, Boabdil; a jealous Christian priest Olivier D’Aeth (controversially pronounced All Over Death); the Muslim gangster ‘Scar’ controlling the Bombay underworld; a Hindu fundamentalist Raman Fielding, also known as mainduck after the signature-frog accompanying his cartoons. Interestingly, Fielding as a character cuts across both the fictive and real worlds, with many pointing out that the character is a thinly disguised caricature of the Hindu nationalist leader Bal Thakeray who, like Fielding, started out as a cartoonist with the English daily The Free Press Journal before going on to establish himself as a Hindutva stalwart in Mumbai.

Though the canvas of characters in the novel etches the much-invoked Indian motto of ‘unity in diversity’, the narrative turns away from this utopian vision as the novel’s titular character, The Moor, courts “the tragedy of multiplicity destroyed by singularity, the defeat of Many by One”.

In today’s climate where voices deviating from the norm are inevitably shut down – whether it is the cancellation of comedian Kunal Kamra’s show for being ‘anti-national’, or Bhim army leader Chandrashekhar Azad languishing in prison for almost a year now for nothing more than self-assertion – this defeat of Many by One, of the rhizomatic by the arboreal, is all too familiar. So it comes as no surprise that The Moor’s Last Sigh was banned by the Indian government shortly after its release, imports of the book being cut off after just 4,000 copies had made their way into the country.

At the centre of the narrative stands Moraes ‘Moor’ Zogoiby, only son of Aurora De Gama and Abraham Zogoiby – Aurora, a deliciously wild painter belonging to an elite Christian family descended from the Portuguese coloniser Vasco De Gama, while Abraham, a first-shy-then-shrewd businessman descended from a line of fallen Jews fleeing persecution in Europe to come to the coastal port of Cochin. So right from the beginning, their son Moraes is a ‘spice-and-pepper’ mixture, “a jewholic-anonymous, a cathjew nut, a stewpot, a mogrel cur”. A real bastard, as he calls himself. “Baas, a smelly, a stinky-poo. Turd, no translation required. Ergo, Bastard, a smelly shit; like, for example, me”.

Salman Rushdie
The Moor’s Last Sigh
Vintage, 1997

The plot circles around the Moor’s four Edenic universes (Cabral Island in Cochin, Malabar Hill salon in Bombay, Abraham’s exotic sky garden and a ‘Little Alhambra’ in Benengeli, Spain) all of which derive their paradisiacal quality from the untamed and surprisingly-out-of-place hodgepodge characterizing their interiors: “Christians, Portuguese and Jews; Chinese tiles promoting godless views; pushy ladies, skirts-not-saris, Spanish shenanigans, Moorish crowns…can this really be India? Bharat-mata, Hindustan-hamara, is this the place?”

But slowly, change grips the nation and Bombay, that city of mixed chaos, becomes Mumbadevi, the goddess spearheading the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. And soon, the wrought iron gates of Eden are no longer high enough to keep the fundamentalism at bay; it seeps through the cracks, bringing with it the tragic downfall of the spicy assortment within, including the Moor himself.

In a tale of history repeating itself, the narrative pivots on a cross-border, cross-temporal parallel, comparing Moraes Zogoiby’s downfall in communalism-infested Bombay with that of the last Moorish King of Granada, Boabdil “who surrendered the keys to the fortress-palace of the Alhambra to the all-conquering Catholic Kings Fernando and Isabella”. This intercontinental alignment of fates adds to the multicultural reverberations of the book but ultimately, both Moors are fated to surrender their crown to the fortified armies of Hinduism and Christianity, leaving their homes with a Last Sigh.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid – triggering Moraes’s by-now inevitable exodus – is a particularly evocative moment, where “alphabet-soupists, ‘fanatics’, or, alternatively, ‘devout liberators of the sacred site’ swarmed over the 17th-century Babri Masjid and tore it apart with their bare hands, with their teeth, with the elemental power of what Sir V. Naipaul has approvingly called their “awakening to history”. Aside from being in tune with today’s intolerant climate where hateful slaughter is routine, the reference can’t help but call to mind the court verdict on the Babri Masjid case – due anytime now – predicted to be a major rallying point in the upcoming 2019 general elections.

The Moor’s post-Babri Masjid exile further offers a glimpse into Rushdie’s own life: as a British Indian of Muslim ancestry, Rushdie already had one foot inside and the other outside the country. But after Khomeini’s fatwa, he was condemned to a life in limbo, fated – like Moraes and Boabdil – to leave his country for good and wander the netherlands. This has made Rushdie’s work prone to a restless search for belonging – a home, in some sense.

Some of this nomadic soul searching surfaces in the writer’s description of Benengeli, where a battered Moraes goes to seek one last solace: his mother’s stolen painting ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’. But instead of finding the homecoming he has been anticipating, he arrives “at a place to which people came to forget themselves – or, more accurately, to lose themselves in themselves, to live in a kind of dream of what they might have been, or preferred to be – or, having mislaid what once they were, to absent themselves quietly from what they had become”. So the search for meaning yields nothing more than a dreamy void, and it’s this Keatsian negative-capability like space that we are left stranded in at the end. An identity-less antithesis to the identity-borne spurts of violence all too familiar to Rushdie and us.