Excerpt of The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
(Page 9 of 11)
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"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.
Copyright © 1999 Salman Rushdie, Used by permission