Salman Rushdie awarded MIT's First Honorary Visiting Professorship at 1993 Writers Series Event
LIGHTMAN: Welcome. It's very nice to see so many people here, which I think is a tribute to our speaker tonight. I'm Alan Lightman. And I'm head of MIT's Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, which is part of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
For many years now, our program has been sponsoring a writers series in which we invite leading thinkers and writers to the MIT campus to talk and to read from their works. These events are all free and open to the public. Tonight we are honored to have Susan Sontag as the first speaker in this year's writer series. And I want to thank everyone who has been involved with planning tonight's events. I'm already dry.
Susan Sontag is a national treasure. Her intellectual and literary talents span every genre. Her essays on American culture, for example, are characterized by insight and beautiful writing and a deeply philosophical perspective. Ms. Sontag's books include the novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, and her recent, The Volcano Lover.
Her essays have been collected in such books as Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, On Photography, and Under the Sign of Saturn. And she has two book length essays, Illness as Metaphor, and AIDS and Its Metaphors. She has written and directed four feature length films. And her new play Alice in Bed has been produced in Germany and receive its American premiere next fall.
She has won numerous awards. And I'll just mention a few. Her book, On Photography, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. From 1987 to 1989, she was president of the American Center of PEN, which is the international writers organization. And in 1990, she was awarded a very prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
As many of you know, she went to Sarajevo in July to stage a production of Waiting for Godot. That production has been met with much acclaim. She wrote a beautiful article describing it in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. And she has been named an honorary citizen of Sarajevo. We are honored to have Susan Sontag with us tonight.
In a few minutes, we are going to be joined by another honored guest. And for security reasons, I ask that none of you leave the room once the program is underway. The event should last until about 7:30. I'm sorry-- well, you can see that I'm very calm about this whole thing.
The event should last until about 9:30. And if any of you think that you cannot remain in your seats until 9:30, then I'm going to give you the chance to leave the room right now. So I'll wait. I'll wait just a minute. I want to give you a chance to leave. I would recommend staying.
OK, and I'm very, very happy to introduce to you Susan Sontag.
SONTAG: I want to begin this evening by doing two things. First of all, I want to speak about a friend of mine, the great English writer-- or perhaps I should say British writer-- Salman Rushdie, who has been under sentence of death for almost five years. As many of you know, on February 14, 1989 a fatwa or death sentence was issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, which calls on Muslims everywhere to kill Salman Rushdie and also to kill his publishers, his translators, the booksellers, his agents, presumably, by extension, the people who buy and read his book.
There is a bounty offered of more than two million dollars for the assassins. And there are assassins everywhere seeking Salman Rushdie, hoping to collect this bounty. Why was Salman Rushdie sentenced to death? Why was a British citizen, an English citizen sentenced to death by a religious leader in a foreign country?
Because he wrote a novel. He wrote a novel. It wasn't even his first novel. It's a great novel. But he'd written some other great novels before it, notably Midnight's Children.
And between Midnight's Children and the novel for which he was sentenced to death, a novel called Shame, Salman Rushdie was already a well-known and very admired writer. He is one of the great writers of our time. Now he is famous and exemplary for reasons that could hardly be imagined a few years ago.
And we've all had a great education thinking about the predicament of Salman Rushdie. This has been going on, as I say, for almost five years. On February 14, 1994, it will be five years that Salman Rushdie has lived in hiding, under constant guard.
There are assassin teams everywhere looking for him. He has had many narrow escapes. He is obliged to move from house to house. This is the life he has been living for five years.
Assassins have sought, and in a number of cases, reached other people his Japanese translator was murdered in July, 1991. And his Italian translator, on practically the same day-- it was a coordinated assassination attempt-- was severely wounded and very only luckily and barely escaped with his life. And in October, just a few weeks ago, his Norwegian publisher, an assassination attempt, also nearly successful, was made on his Norwegian publisher.
It's worth mentioning that none of the people, of course, who are seeking Salman Rushdie's life to collect this bounty have read this book, have even seen a copy of this book. And it's certainly worth underscoring that they do not represent the great traditions of Islam. Just recently in Paris, and I'm sure it will be shortly translated into English, 100 prominent-- indeed some of them very great intellectuals and writers from the Islamic world-- declared their solidarity with Salman Rushdie. And these include, for instance, the great Egyptian novelist Mahfouz who won the Nobel Prize several years ago.
The Rushdie case raises the most urgent issues, issues that concern all of us. The book, The Satanic Verses, which has been read by none of the people who attack it and want to murder Salman Rushdie for writing it, the book and the reactions to it are very complex and richly emblematic. But the man, the writer, the human being, and his predicament, his constant danger is not emblematic at all. It's absolutely real. Salman Rushdie is particularly exemplary in the way he has assumed his destiny.
Because in these very, very painful and dangerous and terrifying five years, he's gone on being a writer. He's produced another novel. He is working on-- I'm sure I'm omitting something. He's been so active in the midst of all this horror. He is writing still another novel. He has published a number of extraordinary essays and given speeches defending the basic human right to liberty of expression.
He reviews books regularly. And some of you may have seen his reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere. He even gives blurbs to writers, far too many, I think. But he is-- I can understand that he wants to go on participating fully in the literary world.
What Salman Rushdie stands for is the right to secularism, pluralism, to freedom of expression, to tolerance, values that I hope we are all united in supporting, values, I might add, for which the new nation-state of Bosnia is also being murdered for standing up for values of pluralism and secularism and tolerance. Salman Rushdie is only the most visible individual victim of a worldwide struggle against tolerance, against anti-tribal enlightened spirit of freedom.
And he would be the first to say that. He would be the first to say my case stands for many other cases as well. I think that his cause honoring his rights and his exemplary conduct since the fatwa should be our cause as, indeed, while he lives minute by minute under constant threat of death, which has not abated, he never forgets that he is fighting not just to stay alive, but to hold back the immense force of terror, those who would silence honesty and strangle dialogue.
Salman Rushdie is still alive. But his predicament, the sentence of terror and intimidation, that has been carried out. And the worst kind of censorship is self-censorship. This case is the great test of where we stand on the issue of freedom and solidarity and the future of our own culture.
That's the first thing I wanted to do to open this evening. And the second thing, not surprisingly, is I wanted to introduce Salman Rushdie.
Good evening. My name is Mark Wrighton. I'm the provost of MIT. And first, I want to thank Susan Sontag for joining us this evening, for introducing our special guest, and for making this evening possible. Would you join me in thanking her?
Unfortunately, President Vest could not be with us this evening, owing to a prior commitment outside Cambridge. But I am pleased to present on his behalf and on behalf of the MIT community, a citation and an award to Mr. Rushdie. I will present the letter that President Vest has written to Mr. Rushdie. And in it he says, "In recognition of your outstanding contributions to world literature and in recognition of the independence of thought and expression that you have come to represent, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proudly appoints you honorary visiting professor of the humanities."
It's a real privilege for me to be on this stage this evening. So many people have worked hard to make it possible, especially Alan Lightman, the head of our Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, and Anita Desai, a person we've been very fortunate to attract to our faculty. This is a special evening, of course.
We're very privileged to host this distinguished speaker. We honor him. And we celebrate our freedom of expression.
RUSHDIE: Thank you. Well I have to-- I have a lot of people to thank, first of all. Good evening all of you. It's nice to be here. Although I was going to apologize for the kind of cloak and dagger aspect of this. But actually Susan Sontag and I have been looking forward to this surprise for so long, it's actually quite nice to pull it off . And first of all, I want to thank her for being what she described as my beard. It means I now have two.
I also, of course, would like to thank MIT for this incredible honor, which is, I have to say, the first academic honor I've ever received. So it's nice to start at the top. I was saying just before we all came on here that I was-- see, the plan for me is I was supposed to be a scientist.
When I was 16, there's no question that my best subjects were math and physics. And everybody from my parents downwards assumed that that's what I would do. But at some point, for reasons of stubbornness and perversity, I took a dramatic left turn and did history, French, and Latin instead. And I've always regretted the loss of that scientific dimension. It's nice to kind of get it back free.
And I really do hope that this isn't just a symbolic moment, but that it can be the beginning of a long term relationship with this great institution. I think many of us, writers of my generation, have felt that in many ways the cutting edge of the new is now to be found in the sciences, not in philosophy, not in the arts, and that actually we have a great deal to absorb and learn from. And so I look forward to being able to do that in the company of all of you and of the remarkable talents and minds present at MIT.
And I think for that reason, the fact that this is such a great institution dedicated to the search for the new and to the openness of thought that that search requires, I think it's very appropriate and very, a very great privilege for me to receive this honor from, of all places, this institution. And I thank them once again for that.
Susan Sontag spoke so eloquently about the issues surrounding the so-called Rushdie case that there is not very much I want to add except to endorse all the arguments she made. I just wanted to say one thing that it's been going on for five years and that's a very long time. It's also long enough to understand exactly what is going on.
For a long time, I think, when this began, the fact that the language of censorship, of political oppression and persecution was wrapped in a kind of cloak of religion meant that people did not see it plainly. And that's natural, in a way, because that's a language which people respect, that if that language is used to cloak evil, it takes some time for the evil inside the cloak to make its presence felt.
I think it's now perfectly clear the nature of, the nature of the evil that lies behind such threats as the one aimed against the Satanic Verses. And I think it's very important what Susan pointed out, that this is not just a threat against one individual. It's a threat against, if you put together all the people involved in the production of a book, literally thousands of people in many countries. And in fact, you could say that I am the best protected person of all those people.
The shooting of William Nygaard, my very courageous Norwegian publisher makes me feel determined or even more determined to try and make sure that this is the last such atrocity. And for that, I'm afraid, I need your help. Because the only weapon that I have is public opinion.
In the end, the governments of the democratic world will act in this matter only if they believe it's a matter of sufficient interest to their own citizens and voters. They won't do it for me. They might do it for you.
It's therefore extremely important that the citizens of democratic countries understand and make plain that the case of the murder of a writer or a publisher or a bookseller or a translator is an insult to their freedom. It's not just an act against the individual. The attempt to suppress the book is the attempt not just to suppress the right of a writer to writer or a publisher to publish or a translator to translate, it's also the attempt to suppress the right of a reader to read and of out of all of us to choose that which we choose to read. So I ask you to continue to put pressure on your own government in order to make sure that it as fully as possible joins the international campaign against this threat.
For one final reason, which is that I've sat down for five years, that any form of terrorism which seems to succeed will be repeated. Here is the invention, you might say, of a new form of terrorism, a successor to two airplane hijacks and the taking of hostages here. We have a kind of terrorism at a distance, a kind of remote control terrorism, which simply points a finger across the world and asks for the elimination of certain individuals and offers financial rewards-- and not just financial rewards, but the promise, from a dubious promise of paradise. If this form of terrorism seems to be working, it will be repeated. And the sad fact is that it is already being repeated.
Within the last few months, we've seen the assassination of the writer Tahar Djaout of Algeria, the assassination of the secularists thinker, Farag Foda in Egypt, the offer of six figure sums in dollars for the assassination of the writer Aziz Nesin in Turkey, and most recently, the offer of a large sum of money by Islamic fanatics in Bangladesh for the murder of the young feminist novelist, Taslima Nasrin whose crime, whose so-called blasphemy was that she wrote a novel deploring the revenge killings in Bangladesh of Hindus by Islamic fanatics after the destruction of the Muslim-- the mosque in Ayodhya in India. For this, she is to be sentenced to death.
Here is evidence, if ever it was needed, that this is a technique which is beginning to look popular. And the reason that's the reason it's becoming popular is that it seems to have worked. It's therefore important to demonstrate that it didn't work.
And I think in the end, the only way you can show a terrorist and what he is doing doesn't work, is to say, "I'm not scared of you." The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. The only defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized.
We have to, therefore, avoid our own fear. Because that can do the terrorists' work for them. And so it seemed to me that instead of banging on for one evening, just this evening, instead of talking about the government of Iran, a subject in which I have incredibly little interest, and instead of accepting their decision to turn me into some kind of demonized figure, I would say I'm not that kind of writer, I'm this kind of writer and read to you.
And I thought I would read not from The Satanic Verses, just for a change give The Satanic Verses a rest, thought I'd read from an earlier novel of mine, Midnight's Children, a novel which begins like this.
"I was born in the city of Bombay, once upon a time. No, that won't do. There's no getting away from the date.
I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15, 1947. And the time, the time matters too. Well, then at night. No, it's important to be more-- on the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact.
Clock-hands joined palms and respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out. At the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps.
And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe. But his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me. Because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blindly saluting clocks, I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history.
My destiny is indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me. Newspapers celebrated my arrival. Politicos ratified my authenticity.
I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha, and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in fate, at the best of times, a dangerous sort of involvement. And I couldn't even wipe my own nose at the time."
Well, that's how it begins. I'm just going to read you a couple of passages from later in the book. They both happen about 10 years after that birth. Saleem, by this stage, what we know about him is that he's not really his parents' child because he'd been changed, changed in the-- swapped in the hospital by accident. He's also, by this stage, acquired a kind of incipient gift of telepathy, which features somewhat in what follows.
His mother, or the woman who he thinks is his mother has been previously married, but separated from her previous husband, is remarried. He has recently, owing to his telepathic abilities, also his habit of eavesdropping on telephone calls, discovered that she has begun to have mysterious telephone conversations with a strange man. So he decides to follow her on one of these assignations by hiding in the trunk of her car.
"Once upon a time, there was a mother, who in order to become a mother, had agreed to change her name, who set herself the task of falling in love with her husband bit-by-bit, but who could never manage to love one part, the part, curiously enough, which made possible her motherhood, whose feet were hobbled by verrucas and whose shoulders were stooped beneath the accumulating guilts of the world, whose husband's unlovable organ failed to recover from the effects of a freeze, and who, like her husband, finally succumbed to the mysteries of telephones, spending long minutes listening to the words of wrong-number telephone callers.
Shortly after my 10th birthday, Amina Sinai resumed her recent practice of leaving suddenly and always immediately after a wrong number on urgent shopping trips. But now, hidden in the boot of the Rover, there traveled with her a stowaway who lay hidden and protected by stolen cushions, clutching a thin strip of pink plastic in his hand.
O, the suffering one undergoes in the name of righteousness! The bruising and the bumps! The breathing in of rubbery boot-air through jolted teeth! And constantly, the fear of discovery.
'Suppose she really does go shopping? Will the boot suddenly fly open? Will live chickens be flung in, feet tied together, wings clipped, fluttery pecky birds invading my hidey-hole? Will she see me? My god, I'll have to be quiet for a week.'
My knees drawn in beneath my chin, which was protected against bumps by an old faded cushion. I voyaged into the unknown in the vehicle of maternal perfidy. My mother was a cautious driver. She went slowly and turned corners with care.
But afterwards, I was bruised black and blue and my Mary Pereira berated me soundly for getting into fights. 'Arré God, what a thing. It's a wonder they didn't smash you to pieces completely. My God, what will you grow up into you, you bad black man, you haddi-phaelwan, you skin-and-bone wrestler!'
To take my mind off the jolting darkness, I entered, with extreme caution, that part of my mother's mind which was in charge of driving operations, and as a result was able to follow her route. And also to discern in my mother's habitually tidy mind, an alarming degree of disorder. I was already beginning in those days to classify people by their degree of internal tidiness and to discover that I preferred the messier type, whose thoughts spilling constantly into one another so that anticipatory images of food interfered with the serious business of earning a living and sexual fantasies were superimposed upon their political musings, bore a closer relationship to my own pell-mell tumble of a brain in which everything ran into everything else and the white dot of consciousness jumped about like a wild flea from one thing to the next. Amina Sinai, whose assiduous ordering instincts had provided her with a brain of almost abnormal neatness, was a curious recruit to the ranks of confusion.
We headed north, past Breach Candy Hospital Mahalaxmi Temple, north along Hornby Vellard, past Vallabhbhai Stadium and Haji Ali's island tomb, north of what had once been the island of Bombay. We were heading towards the anonymous mass of tenements and fishing villages and textile plants and film studios that the city became in these northern zones, an area which was, in those days, utterly unknown to me. I rapidly became disoriented and was then obliged to admit to myself that I was lost.
At last, down an unprepossessing side street full of drainpipe-sleepers and bicycle repair shops and tattered men and boys, we stopped. Clusters of children assailed my mother as she descended. And she, who could never shoo away a fly, handed out small coins, thus enlarging the crowd enormously.
Eventually, she struggled away from them and headed down the street. There was a boy, pleading, 'Gib the car poliss, Begum? Number one A-class poliss, Begum? I watch car till you come. Begum? I very fine watchman. Ask anyone.'
In some panic, I listened in for her reply. How could I get out of this boot under the eyes of a guardian urchin? There was the embarrassment of it. And besides, my emergence would have created a sensation in the street.
My mother said no. She was disappearing down the street. The would-be polisher and watchman gave up eventually. There was a moment when all eyes turned to watch the passing of a second car, just in case it too stopped to disgorge a lady who gave away coins as if they were nuts. And in that instant-- I had been looking through several pairs of eyes to help me choose my moment-- I performed my trick with the pink plastic and was out in the street beside the closed car boot in a flash.
Setting my lips grimly and ignoring all outstretched palms, I set off in the direction of my mother had taken, a pocket sized sleuth with the nose of a bloodhound--" he has a very big nose-- "and a loud drum pounding in the place where my heart should have been and arrived a few minutes later at the Pioneer Café. Dirty glass in the window, dirty glasses on the tables, the Pioneer Café was not much when compared to the Gaylords and Kwalitys of the city's more glamorous parts, a real rutputty joint with painted boards proclaiming 'Lovely Lassi' and 'Funtabulous Falooda' and 'Bhel-Puribombay Fashion,' with filmi playback music blaring out from a cheap radio by the cash-till a long, narrow greeny room lit by flickering neon, a forbidding world in which broken-toothed men sat at reccine-covered tables with crumpled cards and expressionless eyes.
But for all its grimy decrepitude, the Pioneer Café was a repository of many dreams. Early each morning, it would be full of the best-looking ne'er-do-wells in the city, all the goondas and taxi-drivers and petty smugglers and racecourse tipsters who had once ago, once long ago arrived in the city dreaming of film stardom, of grotesquely vulgar homes and black money payments. Because every morning at six, the major studios would send minor functionaries to the Pioneer Café to rope in extras for the day's shooting. For half an hour each morning when DW Rama Studios and Filmistan Talkies and RK Films were taking their pick, the Pioneer was the focus of all the city's ambitions and hopes.
Then the studio scouts left, accompanied by the day's lucky ones. And the Café emptied into its habitual, neon-lit torpor. Around lunchtime, a different set of dreams walked into the Café to spend the afternoon hunched over cards and Lovely Lassi and rough biris-- different men with different hopes. I didn't know it then, but the afternoon Pioneer was a notorious Communist Party hangout.
It was afternoon. I saw my mother enter the Pioneer Café. Not daring to follow her, I stayed in the street pressing my nose against a spider-webbed corner of the grubby window pane. Ignoring the curious glances I got-- because my whites, although boot-stained were nevertheless starched, my hair, although rumpled, was well oiled, my shoes, scuffed as they were, were still the plimsolls of a prosperous child-- I followed her with my eyes as she went hesitantly and verruca-hobbled past rickety tables and hard-eyed men. I saw my mother sit down at a shadowed table at the far end of the narrow cavern. And then I saw the man who rose to greet her.
The skin on his face hung in folds which revealed that he had once been overweight. His teeth were stained with paan. He wore a clean white kurta with Lucknow-work around the buttonholes. He had long hair, poetically long, hanging lankly over his ears.
But the top of his head was bald and shiny. Forbidden syllables echoed in my ears. Na. Dir. Nadir." That's the name of the first husband. "I realized that I wished desperately that I'd never resolved to come.
Once upon a time, there was an underground husband who fled, leaving loving messages of divorce, a poet whose verses didn't even rhyme. After a lost decade, he emerged from goodness knows where, his skin hanging loose in memory of his erstwhile plumpness. And like his once upon a time wife, he had acquired a new name.
Nadir Khan was now Qasim Khan, official candidate of the official Communist Party of India. Lal Qasim, Qasim the Red. Nothing is without meaning. Not without reason are blushes red.
My uncle said, 'Watch out for the Communists!' And my mother turned scarlet. Politics and emotions were united in her cheeks.
Through the dirty, square, glossy cinema-screen of the Pioneer Café's window, I watched Amina Sinai and the no-longer-Nadir play out their love scene. They performed with the ineptitude of genuine amateurs. On the table, a packet of cigarettes, State Express 555.
Numbers too have significance. 420, the name given to frauds, 1,001, the number of night, of magic, of alternative realities, a number beloved of poets and detested by politicians for whom all alternative versions of the world are threats, and 555, which for years I believed to be the most sinister of numbers, the cipher of the Devil, the Great Beast, Shaitan himself! But the true demonic number is not 555, but 666. Yet in my mind, a dark aura hangs around the three fives to this day. But I am getting carried away.
Suffice to say that Nadir Qasim's preferred brand was the aforesaid State Express, that the figure five was repeated three times on the packet, and then the manufacturers were WD and HO Wells. Unable to look into my mother's face, I concentrated on the cigarette packet, cutting from too short of lovers to this extreme close-up of nicotine. But now, hands into the frame.
First, the hands of Nadir Qasim, their poetic softness somewhat calloused these days, hands flickering like candle flames, creeping forward across reccine, then jerking back. Next, a woman's hands, black as jet, inching forward like elegant spiders, hands lifting up off the table top, hands hovering above three fives, beginning the strangest of dances-- rising, falling, circling one another, weaving in and out between each other, hands longing for touch, hands outstretching, tensing, quivering, demanding to be, but always at last jerking back. Fingertips avoiding fingertips because what I'm watching here on my dirty glass cinema screen is, after all, an Indian movie, in which physical contact is forbidden lest it corrupt the watching flower of Indian youth.
And there are feet beneath the table and faces above it, feet advancing towards feet, faces tumbling softly towards faces, but jerking away all of a sudden in a cruel censor's cut. Two strangers, each bearing a screen name which is not the name of their birth, act out their half unwanted roles. I left the movie before the end to slip back into the boot of the unpolished, unwatched Rover, wishing I hadn't gone to see it, unable to resist wanting to watch it all over again. What I saw at the very end, my mother's hands raising a half empty glass of Lovely Lassi, my mother's lips pressing gently, nostalgically against the mottled glass, my mother's hands handing the glass to her Nadir Qasim, who also applied to the opposite side of the glass his own poetic mouth.
So it was that life imitated bad art and my film director sister-- my uncle, the film director's, sister brought the eroticism of the indirect kiss into the green neon dinginess of the Pioneer Café.
To sum up, in the high summer of 1957 at the peak of an election campaign, Amina Sinai blushed inexplicably at a chance mention of the Communist Party of India. Her son followed her into the north of the city and spied on a pain-filled scene of impotent love.
Questions-- did I ever, after that time employ the services of pink plastic? Did I return to the cafe of extras and Marxists? Did I confront my mother with the heinous nature of her offense?
Because what mother has any business to-- never mind about what once-upon-a-time in full view of her only son, how could she? How could she? How could she?
Answers-- I did not, I did not, I did not."
Well that's-- a little later something else not very pleasant happens to him. He's having a bad 10th year-- 11th year, I beg his pardon, he's already been 10.
"The first mutilation of Saleem Sinai, which was rapidly followed by the second, took place one Wednesday early in 1958, the Wednesday of the much-anticipated social under the auspices of the Anglo-Scottish Education Society. That is to say, it happened at school.
Saleem's assailant-- handsome, frenetic, with a barbarian's shaggy mustache. I present the leaping, hair-tearing figure of Mr. Emil Zagallo who taught us geography and gymnastics and who, that morning, unintentionally precipitated the crisis of my life.
Zagallo claimed to be Peruvian and was fond of calling us jungle-Indians, bead lovers. He hung a print of a stern, sweaty soldier in a pointy tin hat and metal pantaloons above his blackboard and had a way of stabbing a finger at it in times of stress and shouting, 'You see him, you savages? This man is civilization! You show him respect. He's got a sword!' And he would swish his cane through the stonewalled air.
We called him Pagal-Zagal, crazy Zagallo. Because for all his talk of llamas and conquistadors and the Pacific Ocean, we knew with the absolute certainty of rumor that he'd been born in a Mazagaon tenement and his Goanese mother had been abandoned by a decamped shipping agent. So he was not only an Anglo, but probably a bastard as well.
Knowing this, we understood why Zagallo affected his Latin accent and also why he was always in a fury, why he beat his fists against the stone wall, walls of the classroom. But the knowledge didn't stop us being afraid. And this Wednesday morning, we knew we were in for trouble because Optional Cathedral had been canceled.
The Wednesday morning double period was Zagallo's geography class. But only idiots and boys with bigoted parents attended it because it was also the time when we could choose to troop off to St. Thomas's Cathedral in crocodile formation, a long line of boys of every conceivable religious denomination escaping from school into the bosom of the Christians' considerately optional god.
It drove Zagallo wild. But he was helpless. Today, however, there was a dark glint in his eye because Mr. Crusoe, the headmaster had announced at morning assembly that Cathedral was canceled. In a bare, scraped voice he sentenced us, sentenced us to double geography and Pagal-Zagal, taking us all by surprise because we hadn't realized that God was permitted to exercise an option too.
Glumly, we trooped into Zagallo's lair. One of the poor idiots whose parents never allowed them to go to Cathedral whispered viciously into my ear, 'You just wait. He'll really get you guys today.' He really did.
Seated gloomily in class-- Glandy Keith Colaco, Fat Perce Fishwala, Jimmy Kapadia the scholarship boy whose father was a taxi driver, Hairoil Sabarmati, Sonny Ibrahim, Cyrus-the-Great, and I. Others, too, but there's no time now. Because, with his eyes narrowing in daylight, crazy Zagallo is calling us to order.
'Human geography,' Zagallo announces, 'this is what, Kapadia?' 'Please sir, don't know, sir.' Hands fly into the air. Five belong to church banned idiots, the sixth inevitably to Cyrus-the-Great. But Zagallo is out for blood today. The godly are going to suffer.
'Filth from the jungle--' he buffets Jimmy Kapadia, then begins to twist an ear casually-- 'stay in class sometimes, find out.' 'Ow ow ow yes, sir, sorry, sir.' Six hands are waving, but Jimmy's ear is in danger of cutting off.
Heroism gets the better of me. 'Sir, please stop, sir. He has a heart condition, sir,' which is true, but the truth is dangerous.
Because now Zagallo is rounding on me. 'So, a little arguer, is it?' And I am being led by my hair to the front of the class. Under the relieved eyes of my fellow pupils-- thank god it's him, not us-- I writhe in agony beneath imprisoned tufts.
'So answer the question. You know what is human geography?' Pain fills my head, obliterating all notions of telepathic cheatery. 'Aiee, sir, no sir, ouch.' And now it is possible to observe a joke descending on Zagallo, a joke pulling his face into the simulacrum of a smile. It is possible to watch his hand darting forward, thumb and forefinger extended, to note how thumb and forefinger close around the tip of my nose and pull downwards. Where the nose leads the head must follow. And finally, the nose is hanging down and my eyes are obliged to stare damply at Zagallo's sandalled feet with their dirty toenails while Zagallo unleashes his wit.
'See, boys, you see what we have here? Regard please the hideous face of this primitive creature. It reminds you of--' and the eager responses. 'Sir, the devil, sir.' 'Please sir, one cousin of mine.' 'No sir, a vegetable, sir, I don't know which.'
Until Zagallo shouting above the tumult, 'Silence! Sons of baboons! This object here--' a tug on my nose-- 'this is human geography.' 'How sir?' 'Where sir?' What sir?'
Zagallo is laughing now. 'You don't see,' he guffaws, 'in the face of this ugly ape you don't see the whole map of India?' 'Yes sir.' 'No sir.' 'You show us sir.'
'See here, the Deccan peninsula hanging down.' Again, ouch, my nose. 'Sir, sir, if that's the map of India, what are the stains, sir?' It is Glandy Keith Colaco feeling bold.
Sniggers, titters from my fellows, and Zagallo taking the question in his stride, 'These stains,' he cries, 'are Pakistan! This birthmark on his right here is the East Wing, this horrible stain left cheek, the West! Remember, stupid boys, Pakistan is a stain on the face of India.'
'Ho ho' the class loves, 'absolute master joke, sir.' But now my nose has had enough. Staging its own unprompted revolt against the grasping thumb and forefinger, it unleashes a weapon of its own, a large blob of shining goo emerges from the left nostril to plop into Mr. Zagallo's palm.
Fat Perce Fishwala yells, 'Look at that, sir! The drip from his nose, sir! Is that supposed to be Ceylon?'
His palm smeared with goo, Zagallo loses his joking mood. 'Animal,' he curses me, 'you see what you do?' Zagallo's hand releases my nose, returns to hair. Nasal refuse is wiped into my neatly-parted locks. And now, once again, my hair is seized.
Once again the hand is pulling, but upwards now. And my head is jerked upright. My feet are moving on to tiptoe. And Zagallo, 'What are you? Tell me what you are.' 'Sir, an animal, sir.' The hand pulls harder, higher.
'Again.' Standing on my toenails now, I yelp, 'Aiee sir, an animal, an animal, please sir, aiee!' And still harder, still higher. 'Once more!'
But suddenly it ends. My feet are flat on the ground again. And the class has fallen into a deathly hush.
'Sir, Sonny Ibrahim is saying, 'you pulled his hair out sir.' And now the cacophony. 'Look sir, blood.' 'He's bleeding, sir.' 'Please sir shall I take him to the nurse?'
Mr. Zagallo stood like a statue with a lump of my hair in his fist while I, too shocked to feel any pain, felt the patch on my head where Mr. Zagallo had created a monkish tonsure, a circle where hair would never grow again. Two days later, Croaker Crusoe announced that, unfortunately, Mr. Emil Zagallo was leaving the staff for personal reasons.
But I knew what the reasons were. My uprooted hairs had stuck to his hands like bloodstains that wouldn't wash out. And nobody wants a teacher with hair on his palms. 'The first sign of madness,' as Glandy Keith was fond of saying, 'and the second sign is looking for them.'
Zagallo's legacy-- a monk's tonsure, and worse than that, a whole set of new taunts which my classmates flung at me while we waited for school buses to take us home to get dressed for social. 'Snotnose is a baldy' and 'Sniffer has a map face.' When Cyrus arrived in the bus queue, I tried to turn the crowd against him by trying to set up a chant of 'Cyrus-the-Great, born on a plate, in 1948,' but nobody took up the offer.
So we come to the events of the Cathedral School Social at which bullies became instruments of destiny and fingers were transmuted into fountains and Masha Miovic, the legendary breast-stroker, fell into a dead faint. I arrived at the social with the nurse's bandage still on my head. I was late because it hadn't been easy to persuade my mother to let me come. So by the time I stepped into the assembly hall, beneath streamers and balloons and the professionally suspicious gazes of bony female chaperons, all the best girls were already box-stepping and Mexican-Hatting with absurdly smug partners.
Naturally, the prefects had the pick of the ladies. I watched them with passionate envy, Guzder and Joshi and Stevenson and Rushdie--" personal appearance-- "Talyarkhan and Tayabali and Jussawalla and Wagle. I tried butting in on them during excuse-me's but when they saw my bandage and my cucumber of a nose and the stains on my face, they just laughed and turned their backs. Hatred burgeoning in my bosom, I ate potato chips and drank Bubble-Up and Vimto and told myself, 'Those jerks, if they knew who I was, they'd get out of my way pretty damn quick.' But still, the fear of revealing my true telepathic nature was stronger than my somewhat abstract desire for the whirling European girls.
'Hey, Saleem, isn't it? Hey, man, what happened to you?' I was dragged out of my bitter solitary reverie by a voice behind my left shoulder, a low, throaty voice, full of promises, but also menace, a girl's voice. I turned with a sort of jump and found myself staring at a vision with golden hair and a prominent and famous chest. My god, she was 14 years old. Why was she talking to me? 'My
Name is Masha Miovic,' the vision said, 'I've met your sister.' Of course, of course, 'I know,' I stuttered, 'I know your name.' 'And I know yours.' She straightened my tie. 'So that's fair.' Over her shoulders, I saw Glandy Keith and Fat Perce watching us in drooling paroxysms of envy.
I straightened my back and pushed out my shoulders. Masha Miovic asked again about my bandage. 'It's nothing,' I said in what I hoped was a deep voice, 'a sporting accident.' And then, working feverishly to hold my voice steady, 'Would you like to, to dance?' 'OK,' said Masha Miovic, 'but don't try any smooching.'
Saleem takes the floor with Masha Miovic swearing not to smooch. Saleem and Masha are doing the Mexican Hat. Masha and Saleem box-stepping with the best of them. I allow my face to adopt a superior expression. You see, you don't have to be a prefect to get a girl. The dance ended.
And still, on top of by wave of elation, I said, 'Would you care for a stroll, you know, in the quad?' Masha Miovic smiling privately. 'Well, yeah, just for a sec, but hands off, OK?' Hands off, Saleem swears.
Saleem and Masha, taking the air. Man, this is fine. This is the life. Glandy Keith Colaco and Fat Perce Fishwaller step out of the shadows of the quadrangle. They are giggling. He he.
Masha Miovic looks puzzled as they block our path. 'Hoo hoo,' Fat Perce says, 'Masha, hoo hoo, some date you got there.' And I, 'Shut up you.' Whereupon Glandy Keith, 'You want to know how he got his war wound, Masha?' And Fat Perce, 'Hee hee hee.'
Masha says, 'Don't be crude. He got it in a sporting accident.' Fat Perce and Glandy Keith are almost falling over with mirth. And then Fishwala reveals all. 'Zagallo pulled his hair out in class. Hee hoo ha.' And Keith, 'Snot-nose is a baldy.' And both together, 'the Sniffer's got a map face.'
There is puzzlement on Masha Miovic's face-- and something more, some budding spirit of sexual mischief. 'Saleem, they are being so rude about you.' 'Yes,' I say, 'ignore them.' I try to edge her away.
But she goes on. 'You aren't going to let them get away with it?' There are beads of excitement on her upper lip. Her tongue is in the corner of her mouth. The eyes of Masha Miovic say, what are you, a man or a mouse? And under the spell of the champion breast-stroker, something else floats into my head.
And now I am rushing at Colaco and Fishwala. While they are distracted by giggles, my knee drives into Glandy's groin. Before he's dropped, a similar genuflection has laid Fat Perce low. I turn to my mistress. She applauds softly.
'Hey man, pretty good.' But now my moment has passed and Fat Perce is picking himself up. And Glandy Keith is moving towards me. Abandoning all pretense of manhood I turn and run.
And the two bullies are after me. And behind them comes Masha Miovic calling, 'where are you running, little hero?' But there's no time for her now. Mustn't let them-- mustn't let them get me. Into the nearest classroom, try and shut the door. But Fat Perce's foot is in the way. And now the two of them are inside too.
And I dash at the door. I grab it with my right hand, trying to force it open. Get out if you can. They are pushing the door shut. But I'm pulling with the strength of my fear. I have it open a few inches.
My hand curls around it. And now Fat Perce slams all his weight against the door and it shuts too fast for me to get my hand out of the way and it's shut. A thud. And outside, Masha Miovic arrives and looks down at the floor and sees the top third of my middle finger lying like a lump of well-chewed bubble gum. This was the point at which she fainted.
No pain. Everything very far away. Fat Perce and Glandy Keith fleeing to get help or to hide. I look at my hand out of curiosity.
My finger has become a fountain. Red liquid spurts out to the rhythm of my heartbeat. Never knew a finger held so much blood. Pretty.
Now here's nurse. 'Don't worry nurse, only a scratch.' 'Your parents are being phoned. Mr. Crusoe is getting his car keys.' Nurse is putting a great wad of cotton wool over the stump. It's filling up like red candyfloss. And now Crusoe. 'Get in the car, Saleem. Your mother is going straight to the hospital.'
'Yes, sir.' 'And the bit? Has anybody got the bit?' 'Yes, Headmaster, here it is.'
'Thank you, nurse. Probably no use. But you never know. Hold this while I drive, Saleem.' And holding up my severed fingertip in my unmutilated left hand, I am driven to the hospital through the echoing streets of night.
At the hospital, white wall stretches. Everyone talking at once. Words pour around me like fountains. 'O God preserve us, my little piece of the moon, what have they done to you?' To which old Crusoe, 'Heh heh, Mrs. Sinai, accidents will happen. Boys will be boys.'
But my mother, enraged. 'What kind of school, Mr. Carusoe?' I am here with my son's finger in pieces and you tell me. Not good enough. No, sir.' And now, while Crusoe-- 'Actually the name is like Robinson, you know.' The doctor is approaching and the question is being asked, whose answer will change the world.
'Mrs. Sinai, your blood group please? The boy has lost blood, transfusion may be necessary.' And Amina, I am A, my husband, O. And now she is crying, breaking down. Still the doctor, 'In that case, are you aware of your son's?' But she, the doctor's daughter, must admit that she cannot answer the question, Alpha or Omega?
'Well, in that case, a very quick test, but on the subject of rhesus?' My mother, through her tears, both my husband and I are rhesus positive. And the doctor, 'Well, good, that at least.' But when I am on the operating table, 'Just sit there, son. I'll give you a local anesthetic.'
'No madam, he's in shock. Total anesthesia would be impossible.' 'All right, son, just hold your finger up. Keep it still. Help him, nurse. It will be over in a jiffy.' While the surgeon is sewing up the stump and performing the miracle of transplanting the roots of the nail, all of a sudden there's a fluster in the background a million miles away.
And 'Have you got a second, Mrs. Sinai?' And I can't hear properly. Words float across the infinite distance. 'Mrs. Sinai, are you sure? O and A? A and O? Rhesus positive, both of you? Heterozygous or homozygous?'
'No, there must be some mistake. How could--' 'I'm sorry, it's absolutely clear.' 'Neither A nor--' 'Excuse me, Madam, but he is your-- not adopted or--'
The hospital nurse interposes herself between me and the miles-away chatter. But it's no good because now my mother is shrieking. 'But of course, you must believe me, Doctor. My god, of course, he's our son.'
'Neither A nor O. And the rhesus factor impossibly negative. And zygosity offers no clues. And present in the blood, rare Kell antibodies.' And my mother crying, crying, crying, crying. 'I don't understand. A doctor's daughter and I don't understand.'
Have Alpha and Omega unmasked me? Is rhesus pointing its unanswerable finger? And will Mary Pereira be obliged to confess? I wake up in a cool, white, Venetian-blinded room with All-India Radio for company. Tony Brent is singing 'Red Sails in The Sunset.'
My father, Ahmed Sinai, his face ravaged by whiskey and now by something worse stands beside the Venetian blind. Amina speaking in whispers. Again, I hear snatches across the million miles of distance. 'Please, I beg you. No, what are you saying? Of course it was.
Of course you are the-- how could you think I would-- who could it have been? Oh God, don't just stand and look. I swear, I swear on my mother's head. Now she is--'
A new song from Tony Brent, whose repertoire today is uncanny. 'How Much is That Doggie in the Window?' hangs in the air, floating on radio waves. My father advances on me, towers over me. I've never seen him look like this before.
'Abba.' And he, 'I should have known. Just look. Where am I? In that face, that nose, I should have known.' He turns on his heel and leaves the room.
My mother follows him, too distraught to whisper now. 'No, I won't let you believe such things about me. I'll kill myself. I'll--' And the door swings shut behind them.
There is a noise outside like a clap or a slap. Most of what matters in your life takes place in your absence. Tony Brent begins crooning his latest hit into my good ear and assures me, melodiously, that 'The Clouds Will Soon Roll By'." That will do for him. Thanks.
If you can stand another one, I'll read another one. I read those faster than I usually do, so. This is a short story. So I thought at least I could read one small complete piece of work.
This is a more recent short story, not about India. This is a short story with a very long title. It's called "Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship, Santa Fe, January 1492."
"Columbus, a foreigner, follows Queen Isabella for an eternity without entirely giving up hope. In what characteristic postures, proud yet supplicant, the head held high, but the knee bent, fawning, yet fearless, possessed of a certain saucy vulgarity, he gets away with it by virtue of his confidence man's charm. However, as time passes, the ingratiating aspects of his stance are emphasized. The sea dog raffishness wears a little thin, as do his shoes.
His hope, it is of what? Obvious answers first. He hopes for preferment. He wants to tie the queen's favor to his helmet, like a knight in a romance. He owns no helmet. He has hopes of cash and of three tall ships, Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria, of, in 1492, sailing across the ocean blue.
But on his first arrival at court, when the Queen herself asked him what he desired, he bowed over her olive hand, and with his lips a millimeter away from the great ring of her power, he murmured a single dangerous word, consummation. 'These unspeakable foreigners, the nerve, consummation indeed, and then following in her footsteps month after month as if he stood a chance. His coarse epistles, his tuneless serenades beneath her casement windows, obliging her to have them closed, shutting out the cooling breeze. She had better things to do, a world to conquer and so forth. Who did he think he was?'
Foreigners can be dogged-- and also on a count of language difficulties, fail to take a hint. Then, again, let us not forget, it is considered de rigueur to keep a few foreigners around. They lend the place a certain cosmopolitan tone. They are often poor and consequently willing to perform diverse necessary, but dirty jobs.
They are, moreover, a warning against complacency. Their existence in our midst reminding us that there are quarters in which, hard as it is to accept, we ourselves would be considered foreigners to. 'But to speak so to the Queen.'
Foreigners forget their place, having left it behind. Given time, they begin to think of themselves as our equals. It is an unavoidable hazard. They introduce into our austerities their Italianate blandishments. Nothing for it, turn a deaf ear, look the other way. They rarely mean real harm and go too far only infrequently. The Queen, be assured, can look after itself.
Columbus, at Isabella's court, is quickly burdened with the reputation of a crazy man. His clothes are excessively colorful. And he drinks also to excess. When Isabella wins a military victory, she celebrates it with 11 days of Psalms and the sonorous severities of priests. Columbus crashes about outside the cathedral waving a wine skin. He is a one man debauch. 'See, him, that drunkard, with his huge shaggy head filled with nonsenses, a fool with a glittering eye dreaming of a golden paradise beyond the Western edge of things.'
Consummation. The queen plays with Columbus. She promises him everything he wants at luncheon and cuts him dead later the same afternoon, looking through him as if he were a veil. On his Saint's day, she summons him into her inmost boudoir, dismisses her girls, permits him to braid her hair, and for a moment, to fondle her breasts. Then she summons her guards.
For 40 days she banishes him to the stables and piggeries. He sits forlorn on horse-munched hay while his thoughts run on distant fabled gold. He dreams of the Queen's perfumes but awakes gagging in a pigsty.
Toying with Columbus pleases the Queen. At pleasing the Queen, he reminds himself, may help him to achieve his purposes. Pigs rootle by his feet. He grits his teeth. Pleasing the Queen is good.
Does she torment him merely for sport or because he is foreign and she is unused to his ways and meanings or because her ring finger-- still hot with the memory of his lips, his breath-- has been, how you say, touched. Tentacles of warmth spread backwards from her finger towards her heart. A turbulence has been aroused. Or because she is torn between the possibility of embracing his scheme with a lover's abandon and the more conventional and differently, maliciously, pleasurable option of destroying him by laughing finally after much foreplay in his foolish, supplicant face.
Columbus consoles himself with possibilities. Not all possibilities are consoling, however. She is an absolute monarch. Her husband is an absolute zero, a blank. A blank couldn't be colder. We will not speak further of him.
She is a woman whose ring is often kissed. It means nothing to her. She is no stranger to blandishments. She resists them effortlessly. She is a tyrant who numbers among her possessions a private menagerie of 419 fools, some grotesquely malformed others, as beauteous as the dawn.
He, Columbus, is merely her 420th idiot. He is her clown, her performing flea. This too is a plausible scenario.
Either she understands him, his dream of a world beyond the world's end so profoundly that she's spooked by it, she turns first towards it, then away, or she doesn't understand him at all nor cares to understand. Take your pick.
What's certain is that he doesn't understand her. Only the facts are plain. She is Isabella, all-conquering queen. He is her invisible, though raucous, multicolored, winebibbing man.
Consummation. The sexual appetites of the male decline. Those of the female continue with the advancing years to grow. Isabella is Columbus' last hope.
He is running out of possible patrons, sales talk, flirtatiousness, hair, steam. Time drags by. Isabella gallops around, winning battles, expelling Moors from their strongholds, her appetites expanding by the week. The more of the land she swallows, the hungrier she gets. The more warriors she engulfs, the hungrier she gets.
Columbus, aware of the slow, shriveling inside him, scolds himself. He should see things as they are. He should come to his senses. What chance does he have here?
Some days, she makes him clean the latrines. On other days, he is on body washing duty. And after a battle, the bodies are not clean. Soldiers go into war wearing man-sized nappies under their armor because the fear of death will open the bowels, will do it every time. Columbus was not cut out for this sort of work. It is getting him nowhere. He tells himself to leave Isabella once and for all.
But there are problems-- his advancing years, the patron shortage. Once he decamps, will have to forget the Western voyage. The body of philosophical opinion which avers that life is absurd has never appealed to him. He is a man of action, revealing himself by deeds.
But without the possibility of the voyage, he will be obliged to accept the meaninglessness of life. This too would be a defeat. Invisible in hot tropical colors, unrequited, he remains dogging her footsteps, hoping for the ecstasy of her glance. The search for money and patronage, Columbus says, is not so different from the quest for love.
'She is omnipotent. Castles fall at her feet. The Jews are being expelled. The Moors prepare their last surrender. The Queen is at Granada, riding at her Army's head.'
She overwhelms. Nothing she has wanted has ever been refused. All her dreams are prophecies. Acting upon information received while sleeping, she draws up her invincible battle plans, foils the conspiracies of assassins, learns of the infidelities and corruptions for which she blackmails both her loyalists to ensure their support and her opponents to ensure theirs. The dreams help her forecast the weather, negotiate treaties, and invest shrewdly in trade.
'She eats like a horse and never gains an ounce. The earth adores her footfall. Its shadows flee before the brilliance of her eyes. Her face is a lush peninsula set in a sea of hair. Her treasure chests are inexhaustible. Her ears a soft question marks, suggesting some uncertainty. Her legs--' her legs are not so great.
She is full of discontents. No conquest satisfies her. No peak of ecstasy is high enough. See, there at the gates of the Alhambra is Boabdil the Unlucky, the last sultan of the last redoubt of all the centuries of Arab Spain.
Behold, now, at this very instant, he surrenders the keys to the citadel into her grasp. There. And as the weight of the keys falls from his hand into hers, she, she yawns.
Columbus gives up hope. While Isabella is entering the Alhambra in listless triumph, he is saddling his mule. While she dawdles in the Courtyard of the Lions, he departs in a frenzy of whips, elbows, hooves, all rapidly obscured by a dust cloud. Invisibility claims him. He surrenders to its will.
Knowing he is abandoning his destiny, he abandons it. He rides away from Queen Isabella in hopeless fury, rides day and night. And when his mule dies under him, he shoulders his ridiculous gypsy patchwork bags, their rowdy colors muted now by dirt and walks.
Around him stretches the lush plain her armies have subdued. Columbus sees none of it-- not the land's fertility nor the sudden barrenness of the vanquished castles looking down from their pinnacles. The ghosts of defeated civilizations flow unnoticed down the rivers, Guadal-this and Guadal-that, their names retaining an echo of the annihilated past. Overhead, the arabesque wheelings of the patient buzzards.
Jews pass Columbus in long columns. But the tragedy of their expulsion makes no mark on him. Somebody tries to sell him a Toledo sword. He waves the man away. Having lost his own dream of ships, Columbus leaves the Jews to the ships of their exile waiting in the harbor of Cádiz.
Exhaustion strips him of his senses. This Old World is too old. And the New World is an unfound land. The loss of money and patronage, Columbus says, is as bitter as unrequited love.
He walks beyond fatigue, beyond the limits of endurance and the frontiers of self. And somewhere along this path, he loses his balance, falls off the edge of his sanity. And out here, beyond his mind's rim, he sees, for the first and only time in his life, a vision. It is the dream of a dream.
He dreams of Isabella languidly exploring the Alhambra, the great jewel she has seized from Boabdil last of the Nasrids. She is staring into a large stone bowl held aloft by stony lions. The bowl is filled with blood.
And in it she sees, Columbus dreams her seeing, a vision of her own. The bowl shows her that everything, all the known world is now hers. Everyone in it is in her hands to do with as she pleases. And when she understands this, Columbus dreams, the blood at once congeals, becoming a thick and verminous sludge.
Whereupon the Isabella of Columbus' weary but also vengeful imaginings is shaken to her marrow by the realization that she will never, never, never be satisfied by the possession of the known, only the unknown, perhaps even the unknowable can satisfy her. And at once she remembers Columbus. He envisions her remembering him.
The invisible man who dreams of entering the invisible world, the unknown, perhaps even unknowable world beyond the edge of things, beyond the stone bowl of the everyday, beyond thick blood of the sea. Columbus, in this bitter dream, makes Isabella see the truth that lust makes accept that her need for him is as great as his need for her. Yes, she knows it now.
She must, must, must give him the money, the ships, anything. And he must, must, must carry her flag and her favor beyond the end of the Earth into exaltation and immortality, linking them forever with bonds far harder to dissolve than those of any mortal love, the harsh and deifying ties of history.
Consummation. Isabella, in Columbus's savage dream, tears her hair, runs from the courtyard of the Lions, screams for her heralds. 'Find him!' She commands. But Columbus, in his dream, refuses to be found.
He wraps around himself the dusty patchwork cloak of his invisibility. And the heralds gallop hither and yon in vain. Isabella screeches, beseeches, implores.
'Bitch, bitch, how do you like it now?' Columbus sneers. By absenting himself from her court by this final and suicidal invisibility, he has denied her her heart's desire. 'Serves her right, bitch.'
She murdered his hopes, didn't she? Well then, in doing so, she has laid herself low as well. Poetic justice. Fair is fair.
At the dream's end. He permits the messengers to find him. Their hoof beats. They're waving frantic arms. They plead, cajole, offer bribes.
But it's too late. Only the sweet self lacerating joy of murdering possibility remains. He answers the herald, a shake of the head, 'No.'
He comes to his senses. He is on his knees in the fertility of the plains waiting for death. He hears the hoof beats approaching and raises his eyes, half expecting to see the exterminating angel riding towards him like a conqueror, its black wings, the boredom on its face. Isabella's heralds surround him.
They offer him food, drink, a horse. ''Good news,' they shout, 'the Queen has summoned you. Your voyage, wonderful news, she saw a vision and it scared her.'
All her dreams are prophecies. 'She ran from the Courtyard of the Lions shouting for you, the heralds report. She will send you beyond the stone bowl of the known world, beyond the thick blood of the sea.
She is waiting for you in Santa Fe. You must come at once.' He stands up like a requited lover, like a groom on his wedding day.
He opens his mouth. And what almost spills out is the bitter refusal, no. 'Yes,' he tells the heralds. 'Yes, I'll come.' Thank you.