Published by Henry Holt
1999, 592 pages
On St.Valentine's Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim. Bare-torsoed men resembling the actor Christopher Plummer had been gripping her by the wrists and ankles. Her body was splayed out, naked and writhing, over a polished stone bearing the graven image of the snakebird Quetzalcoatl. The open mouth of the plumed serpent surrounded a dark hollow scooped out of the stone, and although her own mouth was stretched wide by her screams the only noise she could hear was the popping of flashbulbs; but before they could slit her throat, before her lifeblood could bubble into that terrible cup, she awoke at noon in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, in an unfamiliar bed with a half-dead stranger by her side, a naked mestizo male in his early twenties, identified in the interminable press coverage that followed the catastrophe as Raúl Páramo, the playboy heir of a well-known local construction baron, one of whose corporations owned the hotel.
She had been perspiring heavily and the sodden bedsheets stank of the meaningless misery of the nocturnal encounter. Raúl Páramo was unconscious, white-lipped, and his body was galvanized, every few moments, by spasms which Vina recognized as being identical to her own dream writhings. After a few moments he began to make frightful noises deep in his windpipe, as if someone were slitting his throat, as if his blood were flowing out through the scarlet smile of an invisible wound into a phantom goblet. Vina, panicking, leapt from the bed, snatched up her clothes, the leather pants and gold-sequinned bustier in which she had made her final exit, the night before, from the stage of the city's convention centre. Contemptuously, despairingly, she had surrendered herself to this nobody, this boy less than half her age, she had selected him more or less at random from the backstage throng, the lounge lizards, the slick, flower-bearing suitors, the industrial magnates, the aristotrash, the drug underlords, the tequila princes, all with limousines and champagne and cocaine and maybe even diamonds to bestow upon the evening's star.
The man had begun to introduce himself, to preen and fawn, but she didn't want to know his name or the size of his bank balance. She had picked him like a flower and now she wanted him between her teeth, she had ordered him like a take-home meal and now she alarmed him by the ferocity of her appetites, because she began to feast upon him the moment the door of the limo was closed, before the chauffeur had time to raise the partition that gave the passengers their privacy. Afterwards he, the chauffeur, spoke with reverence of her naked body, while the newspapermen plied him with tequila he whispered about her swarming and predatory nudity as if it were a miracle, who'd have thought she was way the wrong side of forty, I guess somebody upstairs wanted to keep her just the way she was. I would have done anything for such a woman, the chauffeur moaned, I would have driven at two hundred kilometres per hour for her if it were speed she wanted, I would have crashed into a concrete wall for her if it had been her desire to die.
Only when she lurched into the eleventh-floor corridor of the hotel, half dressed and confused, stumbling over the unclaimed newspapers, whose headlines about French nuclear tests in the Pacific and political unrest in the southern province of Chiapas smudged the bare soles of her feet with their shrieking ink, only then did she understand that the suite of rooms she had abandoned was her own, she had slammed the door and didn't have the key, and it was lucky for her in that moment of vulnerability that the person she bumped into was me, Mr. Umeed Merchant, photographer, a.k.a. "Rai," her so to speak chum ever since the old days in Bombay and the only shutterbug within one thousand and one miles who would not dream of photographing her in such delicious and scandalous disarray, her whole self momentarily out of focus and worst of all looking her age, the only image-stealer who would never have stolen from her that frayed and hunted look, that bleary and unarguably bag-eyed helplessness, her tangled fountain of wiry dyed red hair quivering above her head in a woodpeckerish topknot, her lovely mouth trembling an uncertain, with the tiny fjords of the pitiless years deepening at the edges of her lips, the very archetype of the wild rock goddess halfway down the road to desolation and ruin. She had decided to become a redhead for this tour because at the age of forty-four she was making a new start, a solo career without Him, for the first time in years she was on the road without Ormus, so it wasn't really surprising that she was disoriented and off balance most of the time. And lonely. It has to be admitted. Public life or private life, makes no difference, that's the truth: when she wasn't with him, it didn't matter who she was with, she was always alone.
Disorientation: loss of the East. And of Ormus Cama, her sun.
And it wasn't just dumb luck, her bumping into me. I was always there for her. Always looking out for her, always waiting for her call. If she'd wanted it, there could have been dozens of us, hundreds, thousands. But I believe there was only me. And the last time she called for help, I couldn't give it, and she died. She ended in the middle of the story of her life, she was an unfinished song abandoned at the bridge, deprived of the right to follow her life's verses to their final, fulfilling rhyme.
Two hours after I rescued her from the unfathomable chasm of her hotel corridor, a helicopter flew us to Tequila, where Don Ángel Cruz, the owner of one of the largest plantations of blue agave cactus and of the celebrated Ángel distillery, a gentleman fabled for the sweet amplitude of his countertenor voice, the great rotunda of his belly and the lavishness of his hospitality, was scheduled to hold a banquet in her honour. Meanwhile,Vina's playboy lover had been taken to hospital, in the grip of drug-induced seizures so extreme that they eventually proved fatal, and for days afterwards, because of what happened to Vina, the world was treated to detailed analyses of the contents of the dead man's bloodstream, his stomach, his intestines, his scrotum, his eye sockets, his appendix, his hair, in fact everything except his brain, which was not thought to contain anything of interest, and had been so thoroughly scrambled by narcotics that nobody could understand his last words, spoken during his final, comatose delirium. Some days later, however, when the information had found its way on to the Internet, a fantasy-fiction wonk hailing from the Castro district of San Francisco and nicknamed <firstname.lastname@example.org> explained that Raúl Páramo had been speaking Orcish, the infernal speech devised for the servants of the Dark Lord Sauron by the writer Tolkien: Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul. After that, rumours of Satanic, or perhaps Sauronic, practices spread unstoppably across the Web. The idea was put about that the mestizo lover had been a devil worshipper, a blood servant of the Underworld, and had given Vina Apsara a priceless but malignant ring, which had caused the subsequent catastrophe and dragged her down to Hell. But by then Vina was already passing into myth, becoming a vessel into which any moron could pour his stupidities, or let us say a mirror of the culture, and we can best understand the nature of this culture if we say that it found its truest mirror in a corpse.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. I sat next to Vina Apsara in the helicopter to Tequila, and I saw no ring on her finger, except for the talismanic moonstone she always wore, her link to Ormus Cama, her reminder of his love.
She had sent her entourage by road, selecting me as her only aerial companion, "of all of you bastards he's the only one I can trust," she'd snarled. They had set off an hour ahead of us, the whole damn zoo, her serpentine tour manager, her hyena of a personal assistant, the security gorillas, the peacock of a hairdresser, the publicity dragon, but now, as the chopper swooped over their motorcade, the darkness that had enveloped her since our departure seemed to lift, and she ordered the pilot to make a series of low passes over the cars below, lower and lower, I saw his eyes widen with fear, the pupils were black pinpricks, but he was under her spell like all of us, and did her bidding. I was the one yelling higher, get higher into the microphone attached to our ear-defender headsets, while her laughter clattered in my ears like a door banging in the wind, and when I looked across at her to tell her I was scared I saw that she was weeping. The police had been surprisingly gentle with her when they arrived at the scene of Raúl Páramo's overdose, contenting themselves with cautioning her that she might become the subject of an investigation herself. Her lawyers had terminated the encounter at that point, but afterwards she looked stretched, unstable, too bright, as if she were on the point of flying apart like an exploding lightbulb, like a supernova, like the universe.
Then we were past the vehicles and flying over the hills and valleys turned smoky blue by the agave plantations, and her mood swung again, she began to giggle into her microphone and to insist that we were taking her to a place that did not exist, a fantasy location, a wonderland, because how was it possible that there could be a place called Tequila, "it's like saying that whisky comes from whisky, or gin is made in Gin," she cried. "Is the Vodka a river in Russia? Do they make rum in Rúm?" And then a sudden darkening, her voice dropping low, becoming almost inaudible beneath the noise of the rotors, "And heroin comes from heroes, and crack from the Crack of Doom." It was possible that I was hearing the birth of a song. Afterwards, when the captain and copilot were interviewed about her helicopter ride, they loyally refused to divulge any details of that in-flight monologue in which she swung moment by moment between elation and despair. "She was in high spirits," they said, "and spoke in English, so we did not understand."
Not only in English. Because it was only me, she could prattle on in Bombay's garbage argot, Mumbai ki kachrapati baat-cheet, in which a sentence could begin in one language, swoop through a second and even a third and then swing back round to the first. Our acronymic name for it was Hug-me. Hindi Urdu Gujarati Marathi English. Bombayites like me were people who spoke five languages badly and no language well.
Separated from Ormus Cama on this tour,Vina had discovered the limitations, musical and verbal, of her own material. She had written new songs to show off that celestial voice of hers, that multiple-octave, Yma Sumac stairway to heaven of an instrument which, she now claimed, had never been sufficiently stretched by Ormus's compositions; but in Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Mexico City and Guadalajara she heard for herself the public's tepid responses to these songs, in spite of the presence of her three demented Brazilian Percussionists and her pair of duelling Argentine guitarists who threatened to end each performance with a knife fight. Even the guest appearance of the veteran Mexican superstar Chico Estefan had failed to enthuse her audiences; instead, his surgery-smoothed face with its mouthful of unreal teeth only drew attention to her own fading youth, which was mirrored in the average age of the crowds. The kids had not come, or not enough of them, not nearly enough.
But roars of acclaim followed each of the old hits from the VTO back catalogue, and the inescapable truth was that during these numbers the percussionists' madness came closest to divinity, the duelling guitars spiralled upwards towards the sublime, and even the old roué Estefan seemed to come back from his green pastures over the hill. Vina Apsara sang Ormus Cama's words and music, and at once the minority of youngsters in the audiences perked up and started going crazy, the crowd's thousand thousand hands began moving in unison, forming in sign language the name of the great band, in time to their thundering cheers:
V! T! O!
V! T! O!
Go back to him, they were saying. We need you to be together. Don't throw your love away. Instead of breaking up, we wish that you were making up again.
Vertical Take-Off. Or, Vina To Ormus. Or, "We two" translated into Hug-me as V-to. Or, a reference to the V-2 rocket. Or, V for peace, for which they longed, and T for two, the two of them, and O for love, their love. Or, a homage to one of the great buildings of Ormus's home town: Victoria Terminus Orchestra. Or, a name invented long ago when Vina saw a neon sign for the old-time soft drink Vimto, with only three letters illuminated, Vimto without the im.
V... T... Ohh.
V... T... Ohh.
Two shrieks and a sigh. The orgasm of the past, whose ring she wore on her finger. To which perhaps she knew she must, in spite of me, return.
The afternoon heat was dry and fierce, which she loved. Before we landed, the pilot had been informed of mild earth tremors in the region, but they had passed, he reassured us, there was no reason to abort the landing. Then he cursed the French. "After each one of those tests you can count five days, one, two, three, four, five, and the ground shakes." He set the helicopter down in a dusty football field in the centre of the little town of Tequila. What must have been the town's entire police force was keeping the local population at bay. As Vina Apsara majestically descended (always a princess, she was growing into queenliness) a cry went up, just her name, Veeenaaa, the vowels elongated by pure longing, and I recognized, not for the first time, that in spite of all the hyperbolic revelry and public display of her life, in spite of all her star antics, her nakhras, she was never resented, something in her manner disarmed people, and what bubbled out of them instead of bile was a miraculous, unconditional affection, as if she were the whole earth's very own new-born child.
Call it love.
Small boys burst through the cordon, chased by perspiring cops, and then there was Don Ángel Cruz with his two silver Bentleys that exactly matched the colour of his hair, apologizing for not greeting us with an aria, but the dust, the unfortunate dust, it is always a difficulty but now with the tremor the air is full of it, please, señora, señor, and with a small cough against the back of his wrist he shepherded us into the lead Bentley, we will go at once, please, and commence the programme. He seated himself in the second vehicle, mopping himself with giant kerchiefs, the huge smile on his face held there by a great effort of will. You could almost see the heaving distraction beneath that surface of a perfect host. "That's a worried man," I said to Vina as our car drove towards the plantation. She shrugged. She had crossed the Oakland Bay Bridge going west in October 1984, test driving a luxury car for a promotional feature in Vanity Fair, and on the far side she drove into a gas station, climbed out of the car and saw it lift off the ground, all four wheels, and hang there in the air like something from the future, or Back to the Future, anyway. At that moment the Bay Bridge was collapsing like a children's toy. Therefore, "Don't you earthquake me," she said to me in her tough-broad, disaster-vet voice as we arrived at the plantation, where Don Ángel's employees waited with straw cowboy hats to shield us from the sun and machete maestros prepared to demonstrate how one hacked an agave plant down into a big blue "pineapple" ready for the pulping machine. "Don't try and Richter me, Rai, honey. I been scaled before."
The animals were misbehaving. Brindled mongrels ran in circles, yelping, and there was a whinnying of horses. Oracular birds wheeled noisily overhead. Subcutaneous seismic activity increased, too, beneath the increasingly distended affability of Don Ángel Cruz as he dragged us round the distillery, these are our traditional wooden vats, and here are our shining new technological marvels, our capital investment for the future, our enormous investment, our investment beyond price. Fear had begun to ooze from him in globules of rancid sweat. Absently he dabbed his sodden hankies at the odorous flow, and in the bottling plant his eyes widened further with misery as he gazed upon the fragility of his fortune, liquid cradled in glass, and the fear of an earthquake began to seep damply from the corners of his eyes.
"Sales of French wines and liquors have been down since the testing began, maybe as much as twenty percent," he muttered, shaking his head. "The wineries of Chile and our own people here in Tequila have both been beneficiaries. Export demand has shot up to such a degree you would not credit it." He wiped his eyes with the back of an unsteady hand. "Why should God give us such a gift only to take it away again? Why must He test our faith?" He peered at us, as if we might genuinely be able to offer him an answer. When he understood that no answer was available, he clutched suddenly at Vina Apsara's hands, he became a supplicant at her court, driven to this act of excessive familiarity by the force of his great need. She made no attempt to free herself from his grasp.
"I have not been a bad man," Don Ángel said to Vina, in imploring tones, as if he were praying to her. "I have been fair to my employees and amiable to my children and even faithful to my wife, excepting only, let me be honest, a couple of small incidents, and these were maybe twenty years ago, señora, you are a sophisticated lady, you can understand the weaknesses of middle age. Why then should such a day come to me?" He actually bowed his head before her, relinquishing her hands now to lock his own together and rest them fearfully against his teeth.
She was used to giving absolution. Placing her freed hands on his shoulders, she began to speak to him in That Voice, she began to murmur to him as if they were lovers, discussing the feared earthquake like a naughty child, sending it to stand in the corner, forbidding it to create any trouble for the excellent Don Ángel, and such was the miracle of her vocal powers, of the sound of her voice more than anything it might have been saying, that the distressed fellow actually stopped sweating and, with a hesitant, tentative rebirth of good cheer, raised his cherubic head and smiled. "Good," said Vina Apsara. "Now let's have lunch."
At the family firm's old hacienda, which was nowadays used only for great feasts such as this, we found a long table set in the cloisters overlooking a fountained courtyard, and as Vina entered, a mariachi band began to play. Then the motorcade arrived, and out tumbled the whole appalling menagerie of the rock world, squealing and flurrying, knocking back their host's vintage tequila as if it were beer from a party can, or wine-in-a-box, and boasting about their ride through the earth tremors, the personal assistant hissing hatred at the unstable earth as if he were planning to sue it, the tour manager laughing with the glee he usually displayed only when he signed up a new act on disgracefully exploitative terms, the peacock flouncing and exclamatory, the gorillas grunting monosyllabically, the Argentine guitarists at each other's throats as usual, and the drummers--ach, drummers!--shutting out the memory of their panic by launching into a tequila-lubricated series of high-volume criticisms of the mariachi band, whose leader, resplendent in a black-and-silver outfit, hurled his sombrero to the floor and was on the point of reaching for the silver six-gun strapped to his thigh, when Don Ángel intervened and, to promote a convivial spirit, offered benevolently, "Please. If you permit it, I will intent, for your diversion, to sing."
A genuine countertenor voice silences all arguments, its sidereal sweetness shaming our pettiness, like the music of the spheres. Don Ángel Cruz gave us Gluck, "Trionfi Amore," and the mariachi singers did a creditable job as Chorus to his Orfeo.
The unhappy conclusion of the Orpheus story, Eurydice lost forever because of Orpheus's backwards look, was always a problem for composers and their librettists.--Hey, Calzabigi, what's this ending you're giving me here? Such a downer, I should send folks home with their faces long like a wurst? Hello? Happy it up, ja!--Sure, Herr Gluck, don't get so agitato. No problem! Love, it is stronger than Hades. Love, it make the gods merciful. How's about they send her back anyway? "Get outa here, kid, the guy's crazy for you! What's one little peek?" Then the lovers throw a party, and what a party! Dancing, wine, the whole nine yards. So you got your big finish, everybody goes out humming.--Works for me. Nice going, Raniero.--Sure thing, Willibald. Forget about it.
And here it was, that showstopper finale. Love's triumph over death. The whole world obeys the rule of beauty. To everyone's astonishment, mine included, Vina Apsara the rock star rose to her feet and sang both soprano parts, Amor as well as Euridice, and though I'm no expert she sounded word and note perfect, her voice in an ecstasy of fulfilment, finally, it seemed to be saying, you've worked out what I'm for.
... E quel sospetto
The tormented heart doesn't just find happiness, okay: it becomes happiness. That's the story, anyway. That's the way the song goes.
The earth began to shake just as she finished, applauding her performance. The great still life of the banquet, the plates of meats and bowls of fruits and bottles of the best Cruz tequila, and even the banquet table itself, now commenced to jump and dance in Disney fashion, inanimate objects animated by the little sorcerer's apprentice, that overweening mouse; or as if moved by the sheer power of her song to join in the closing chaconne. As I try to remember the exact sequence of events, I find that my memory has become a silent movie. There must have been noise. Pandemonium, city of devils and their torments, could scarcely have been noisier than that Mexican town, as cracks scurried like lizards along the walls of its buildings, prying apart the walls of Don Ángel's hacienda with their long creepy fingers, until it simply fell away like an illusion, a movie facade, and through the surging dust cloud of its collapse we were returned to the pitching, bucking streets, running for our lives, not knowing which way to run but running, anyway, while tiles fell from roofs and trees were flung into the air and sewage burst upwards from the streets and houses exploded and suitcases long stored in attics began to rain down from the sky.
But I remember only silence, the silence of great horror. The silence, to be more exact, of photography, because that was my profession, so naturally it was what I turned to the moment the earthquake began. All my thoughts were of the little squares of film passing through my old cameras,Voigtländer Leica Pentax, of the forms and colours being registered therein by the accidents of movement and event, and of course by the skill or lack of it with which I managed to point the lens in the right or wrong direction at the wrong or right time. Here was the eternal silence of faces and bodies and animals and even nature itself, caught--yes--by my camera, but caught also in the grip of the fear of the unforeseeable and the anguish of loss, in the clutches of this hated metamorphosis, the appalling silence of a way of life at the moment of its annihilation, its transformation into a golden past that could never wholly be rebuilt, because once you have been in an earthquake you know, even if you survive without a scratch, that like a stroke in the heart, it remains in the earth's breast, horribly potential, always promising to return, to hit you again, with an even more devastating force.
A photograph is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second, or one sixteenth, or one one-hundred-and-twenty-eighth. Snap your fingers; a snapshot's faster. Halfway between voyeur and witness, high artist and low scum, that's where I've made my life, making my eye-blink choices. That's okay, that's cool. I'm still alive, and I've been spat at and called names only a couple of hundred times. I can live with the name-calling. It's the men with the heavy weaponry who worry me. (And they are men, almost always, all those arnolds carrying terminators, all those zealous suicidists with their toilet-brush beards and no hair on their baby-naked upper lips; but when women do such work, they're often worse.)
I've been an event junkie, me. Action has been my stimulant of choice. I always liked to stick my face right up against the hot sweaty broken surface of what was being done, with my eyes open, drinking, and the rest of my senses switched off. I never cared if it stank, or if its slimy touch made you want to throw up, or what it might do to your taste buds if you licked it, or even how loud it screamed. Just the way it looked. That's where for a long time I went for feeling, and truth.
What Actually Happens: nothing to beat it, when you're pressed up against it, as long as you don't get your face torn off. No rush like it on earth.
Long ago I developed a knack for invisibility. It allowed me to go right up to the actors in the world's drama, the sick, the dying, the crazed, the mourning, the rich, the greedy, the ecstatic, the bereft, the angry, the murderous, the secretive, the bad, the children, the good, the newsworthy; to shimmy into their charmed space, into the midst of their rage or grief or transcendent arousal, to penetrate the defining instant of their being-in-the-world and get my fucking picture. On many occasions this gift of dematerialisation has saved my life. When people said to me, do not drive down that sniper-infested road, do not enter that warlord's stronghold, you'd do well to circumnavigate that militia's fiefdom, I was drawn towards it almost irresistibly. Nobody has ever gone in there with a camera and come out alive, somebody would warn, and at once I'd head off past the checkpoint of no return. When I got back people looked at me oddly, as if seeing a ghost, and asked how I managed it. I shook my head. Truthfully, I often didn't know. Perhaps if I knew I wouldn't be able to do it any more and then I'd get killed in some half-baked combat zone. One day that may happen.
The closest I can get to it is that I know how to make myself small. Not physically small, for I am a tallish guy, heavy-set, but psychically.
I just smile my self-deprecating smile and shrink into insignificance. By my manner I persuade the sniper I do not merit his bullet, my way of carrying myself convinces the warlord to keep his great axe clean. I make them understand that I'm not worthy of their violence. Maybe it works because I'm being sincere, because I truly mean to deprecate myself. There are experiences I carry around with me, memories I can draw on when I want to remind myself of my low value. Thus a form of acquired modesty, the product of my early life and misdeeds, has succeeded in keeping me alive.
"Bullshit," was Vina Apsara's view. " It's just another version of your technique for pulling chicks."
Modesty works with women, that's true. But with women I'm faking it. My nice, shy smile, my recessive body language. The more I back off in my suede jacket and combat boots, smiling shyly beneath my bald head (how often I've been told what a beautiful head I have!), the more insistently they advance. In love one advances by retreating. But then what I mean by love and what Ormus Cama, for example, meant by the same word were two different things. For me, it was always a skill, the ars amatoria: the first approach, the deflection of anxieties, the arousal of interest, the feint of departure, the slow inexorable return. The leisurely inward spiral of desire. Kama. The art of love.
Whereas for Ormus Cama it was just a simple matter of life and death. Love was for life, and endured beyond death. Love was Vina, and beyond Vina there was nothing but the void.
I've never been invisible to the earth's little creatures, however. Those six-legged dwarf terrorists have got my number, no question about it. Show me (or, preferably, don't show me) an ant, lead me (don't lead me) to a wasp, a bee, a mosquito, a flea. It'll have me for breakfast; also for other, more substantial repasts. What's small and bites, bites me. So at a certain moment in the heart of the earthquake, as I photographed a lost child crying for her parents, I was stung, once, hard, as if by conscience, on the cheek, and as I jerked my face away from my camera I was just in time (thank you, I guess, to whatever horrible aguijon wielding thing it was; not conscience, probably, but a snapper's sixth sense to see the beginning of the tequila flood. The town's many giant storage vats had burst.
The streets were like whips, snaking and cracking. The Ángel distillery was one of the first to succumb to this lashing. Old wood burst open, new metal buckled and split. The urinous river of tequila made its frothing way into the lanes of the town, the leading wave of the torrent overtook the fleeing populace and turned it head over heels, and such was the potency of the brew that those who swallowed mouthfuls of that angelic surf came up not only wet and gasping but drunk. The last time I saw Don Ángel Cruz, he was scurrying in the tequila-drowning squares with a saucepan in his hand and two kettles on strings slung around his neck, trying pathetically to save what he could.
This is how people behave when their dailiness is destroyed, when for a few moments they see, plain and unadorned, one of the great shaping forces of life. Calamity fixes them with her mesmeric eye, and they begin to scoop and paw at the rubble of their days, trying to pluck the memory of the quotidian--a toy, a book, a garment, even a photograph--from the garbage heaps of the irretrievable, of their overwhelming loss. Don Ángel Cruz turned panhandler was the childlike, fabulous image I needed, a figure eerily reminiscent of the surreal Saucepan Man from some of Vina Apsara's favourite books, the Faraway Tree series of Enid Blyton that travelled with her wherever she went. Cloaking myself in invisibility, I began to shoot.
I don't know how long all this took. The shaking table, the collapse of the hacienda, the roller-coaster streets, the people gasping and tumbling in the tequila river, the descent of hysteria, the deathly laughter of the unhoused, the bankrupted, the unemployed, the orphaned, the dead... ask me to put an estimate on it and I'd come up empty. Twenty seconds? Half an hour? Search me. The invisibility cloak, and my other trick of switching off all my senses and channelling all my powers of perception through my mechanical eyes--these things have, as they say, a downside. When I'm facing the enormities of the actual, when that great monster is roaring into my lens, I lose control of other things. What time is it? Where is Vina? Who's dead? Who's alive? Is that an abyss opening beneath my combat boots? What did you say? There's a medical team trying to reach this dying woman? What are you talking about? Why are you getting in my way, who the fuck do you think you're trying to push around? Can't you see I'm working?
Who was alive? Who was dead? Where was Vina? Where was Vina? Where was Vina?
I snapped out of it. Insects stung my neck. The torrent of tequila ceased, the precious river poured away into the cracking earth. The town looked like a picture postcard torn up by an angry child and then painstakingly reassembled by its mother. It had acquired the quality of brokenness, had become kin to the great family of the broken: broken plates, broken dolls, broken English, broken promises, broken hearts. Vina Apsara lurched towards me through the dust. "Rai, thank God." For all her fooling with Buddhist wisemen (Rinpoche Hollywood and the Ginsberg Lama) and Krishna Consciousness cymbalists and Tantric gurus (those kundalini flashers) and Transcendental rishis and masters of this or that crazy wisdom, Zen and the Art of the Deal, the Tao of Promiscuous Sex, Self-Love and Enlightenment, for all her spiritual faddishness, I always in my own godless way found it hard to believe that she actually believed in an actually existing god. But she probably did; I was probably wrong about that too; and anyway, what other word is there? When there's that gratitude in you for life's dumb luck, when there's nobody to thank and you need to thank somebody, what do you say? God, Vina said. The word sounded to me like a way of disposing of emotion. It was a place to put something that had no place else to go.
From the sky, a larger insect bore down upon us, burdening us with the insistent downdraft of its raucous wings. The helicopter had taken off just in time to escape destruction. Now the pilot brought it down almost to ground zero, and beckoned, hovering." Let's get out of here," Vina shouted. I shook my head. "You go," I yelled back at her. Work before play. I had to get my pictures on to the wires. "I'll see you later," I bellowed. "What?" "Later." "What?"
The plan had been for the helicopter to fly us, for a weekend's relaxation, to a remote villa on the Pacific coast, the Villa Huracin, coowned by the president of the Colchis record company and located to the north of Puerto Vallarta, in privileged isolation, sandwiched like a magic kingdom between the jungle and the sea. Now there was no way of knowing if the villa still stood. The world had changed. Yet, like the townspeople clinging to their framed photographs, like Don Ángel with his saucepans,Vina Apsara clung to the idea of continuity, of the prearranged itinerary. She was staying with the programme. Until my kidnapped images were off to the world's news desks to be ransomed, however, there could be no tropical Shangri-la for me.
"I'm going, then," she screamed.
"I can't go."
Then she was in the helicopter, and it was rising, and I had not gone with her, and I never saw her again, none of us did, and the last words she screamed down at me break my heart every time I think of them, and I think of them a few hundred times a day, every day, and then there are the endless, sleepless nights.
I began to use the workname "Rai" when I was taken on by the famous Nebuchadnezzar Agency. Pseudonyms, stage names, worknames: for writers, for actors, for spies, these are useful masks, hiding or altering one's true identity. But when I began to call myself Rai, prince, it felt like removing a disguise, because I was letting the world in on my most cherished secret, which,was that ever since childhood this had been Vina's private pet name for me, the badge of my puppy love. "Because you carry yourself like a little rajah," she'd told me, fondly, when I was only nine and had braces on my teeth, "so it's only your friends who know you're just some no-account jerk."
That was Rai: a boy princeling. But childhood ends, and in adult life it was Ormus Cama who became Vina's Prince Charming, not I. Still, the nickname clung to me. And Ormus was good enough to use it too, or let's say he caught it off Vina like an infection, or let's say he never dreamed I could give him any competition, that I could be a threat, and that's why he could think of me as a friend.... But never mind that just now. Rai. It also meant desire: a man's personal inclination, the direction he chose to go in; and will, the force of a man's character. All that I liked. I liked that it was a name that travelled easily; everyone could say it, it sounded good on every tongue. And if on occasion I turned into "Hey, Ray" in that mighty democracy of mispronunciation, the United States, then I was not disposed to argue, I just took the plum assignments and left town. And in another part of the world, Rai was music. In the home of this music, alas, religious fanatics have lately started killing the musicians. They think the music is an insult to god, who gave us voices but does not wish us to sing, who gave us free will, rai, but prefers us not to be free.
Anyway, now everybody says it: Rai. just the one name, it's easy, it's a style. Most people don't even know my real name. Umeed Merchant, did I mention that? Umeed Merchant, raised in a different universe, a different dimension of time, in a bungalow on Cuffe Parade, Bombay, which burned down long ago. The name Merchant, I should perhaps explain, means "merchant." Bombay families often bear names derived from some deceased ancestor's line of work. Engineers, Contractors, Doctors. And let's not forget the Readymoneys, the Cashondeliveris, the Fishwalas. And a Mistry is a mason and a Wadia is a shipbuilder and a lawyer is a Vakil and a banker is a Shroff. And from the thirsty city's long love affair with aerated drinks comes not only Batliwala but also Sodawaterbatliwala, and not only Sodawaterbatliwala but Sodawaterbatliopenerwala too.
Cross my heart and hope to die.
"Goodbye, Hope," cried Vina, and the helicopter went into a steep banking climb and was gone.
Umeed, you see. Noun, feminine. Meaning hope.
Why do we care about singers? Wherein lies the power of songs? Maybe it derives from the sheer strangeness of there being singing in the world. The note, the scale, the chord; melodies, harmonies, arrangements; symphonies, ragas, Chinese operas, jazz, the blues: that such things should exist, that we should have discovered the magical intervals and distances that yield the poor cluster of notes, all within the span of a human hand, from which we can build our cathedrals of sound, is as alchemical a mystery as mathematics, or wine, or love. Maybe the birds taught us. Maybe not. Maybe we are just creatures in search of exaltation. We don't have much of it. Our lives are not what we deserve; they are, let us agree, in many painful ways deficient. Song turns them into something else. Song shows us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us our selves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world.
Five mysteries hold the keys to the unseen: the act of love, and the birth of a baby, and the contemplation of great art, and being in the presence of death or disaster, and hearing the human voice lifted in song. These are the occasions when the bolts of the universe fly open and we are given a glimpse of what is hidden; an eff of the ineffable. Glory bursts upon us in such hours: the dark glory of earthquakes, the slippery wonder of new life, the radiance of Vina's singing.
Vina, to whom even strangers would come, following her star, hoping to receive redemption from her voice, her large, damp eyes, her touch. How was it that so explosive, even amoral, a woman came to be seen as an emblem, an ideal, by more than half the population of the world? Because she was no angel, let me tell you that, but try saying so to Don Ángel. Maybe it's just as well she was not born a Christian, or they'd have tried to make her a saint. Our Lady of the Stadiums, our arena madonna, baring her scars to the masses like Alexander the Great rousing his soldiers for war; our plastered Unvirgin, bleeding red tears from her eyes and hot music from her throat. As we retreat from religion, our ancient opiate, there are bound to be withdrawal symptoms, there will be many side effects of this Apsaran variety. The habit of worship is not easily broken. In the museums, the rooms with the icons are crowded. We always did prefer our iconic figures injured, stuck full of arrows or crucified upside down; we need them flayed and naked, we want to watch their beauty crumble slowly and to observe their narcissistic grief. Not in spite of their faults but for their faults we adore them, worshipping their weaknesses, their pettinesses, their bad marriages, their substance abuse, their spite. Seeing ourselves in Vina's mirror, and forgiving her, we also forgave ourselves. She redeemed us by her sins.
I was no different. I always needed her to make things all right: some botched job, some bruise on my pride, some departing woman whose last cruel words succeeded in getting under my skin. But it was only near the very end of her life that I found the courage to ask for her love, to make my bid for her, and for a heady moment I truly believed I might tear her from Ormus's clutches. Then she died, leaving me with a pain that only her magic touch could have assuaged. But she wasn't there to kiss my brow and say, It's okay, Rai, you little jerk, let it pass, let me put my witchy ointment on those bad, naughty stings, come here to mama and watch the good times roll.
This is what I feel now when I think of Don Ángel Cruz weeping before her in his fragile distillery: envy. And jealousy too. I wish I'd done that, opened my heart and begged for her before it was too late, and also I wish she hadn't touched you, you snivelling squeaky-voiced bankrupt capitalist worm.
We all looked to her for peace, yet she herself was not at peace. And so I've chosen to write here, publicly, what I can no longer whisper into her private ear: that is, everything. I have chosen to tell our story, hers and mine and Ormus Cama's, all of it, every last detail, and then maybe she can find a sort of peace here, on the page, in this underworld of ink and lies, that respite which was denied her by life. So I stand at the gate of the inferno of language, there's a barking dog and a ferryman waiting and a coin under my tongue for the fare.
"I have not been a bad man," Don Ángel Cruz whimpered. Okay, I'll do some whimpering of my own. Listen,Vina: I am not a bad man, either. Though, as I will fully confess, I have been a traitor in love, and being an only child have as yet no child, and in the name of art have stolen the images of the stricken and the dead, and philandered, and shrugged (dislodging from their perch on my shoulders the angels that watched over me), and worse things too, yet I hold myself to be a man among men, a man as men are, no better nor no worse. Though I be condemned to the stinging of insects, yet have I not led a wicked villain's life. Depend upon it: I have not.
Do you know the Fourth Georgic of the bard of Mantua, P Vergilius Maro? Ormus Cama's father, the redoubtable Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, classicist and honey-lover, knew his Virgil, and through him I learned some too. Sir Darius was an Aristaeus admirer, of course; Aristaeus, the first beekeeper in world literature, whose unwelcome advances to the dryad Eurydice led her to step on a snake, where upon the wood nymph perished and mountains wept. Virgil's treatment of the Orpheus story is extraordinary: he tells it in seventy-six blazing lines, writing with all the stops pulled out, and then, in a perfunctory thirty lines more, he allows Aristaeus to perform his expiatory ritual sacrifice, and that's that, end of poem, no more need to worry about those foolish doomed lovers. The real hero of the poem is the keeper of bees, the "Arcadian master," the maker of a miracle far greater than that wretched Thracian singer's art, which could not even raise his lover from the dead. This is what Aristaeus could do: he could spontaneously generate new bees from the rotting carcase of a cow. His was "the heavenly gift of honey from the air."
Well, then. And Don Ángel could produce tequila from blue agave. And I, Umeed Merchant, photographer, can spontaneously generate new meaning from the putrefying carcase of what is the case. Mine is the hellish gift of conjuring response, feeling, perhaps even comprehension, from uncaring eyes, by placing before them the silent faces of the real. I, too, am compromised, no man knows better than I how irredeemably. Nor are there any sacrifices I can perform, or gods I can propitiate. Yet my names mean "hope" and "will," and that counts for something, right? Vina, am I right?
Sure, baby. Sure, Rai, honey. It counts.
Music, love, death. Certainly a triangle of sorts; maybe even an eternal one. But Aristaeus, who brought death, also brought life, a little like Lord Shiva back home. Not just a dancer, but Creator and Destroyer, both. Not only stung by bees but a bringer into being of bee stings. So, music, love and life-death: these three. As once we also were three. Ormus,Vina and I. We did not spare each other. In this telling, therefore, nothing will be spared. Vina, I must betray you, so that I can let you go.
Begin. | April 1999
Copyright © 1999 Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie is the author of seven novels, including Midnight's Children, The Satanic Verses, The Moor's Last Sigh; a collection of short stories; a book of reportage; two volumes of essays; and a work of film criticism. In 1981 he was awarded Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for Midnight's Children, which later received the "Booker of Bookers" Prize as the best of the award's recipients in its 25-year history (1993). In 1983 he was selected as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, along with Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro and Julian Barnes, among others. He has been awarded Germany's author of the Year Award, the French Prix Meilleur Livre Etranger, the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel, the Writer's Guild Award, the European Aristeion Prize for Literature, and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. He is an Honorary Professor of the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.