Good Advice is Rarer Than Rubies by Salman Rushdie, 1994

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by Salman Rushdie, 1994

In his collection of essays Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie writes that "Indian writers in these islands … are capable of writing from a kind of double-perspective because we are at one and the same time outsiders in this society. This stereoscopic vision is perhaps what we can offer in place of 'whole sight."' True to the tenets of postmodernism and his fascination with the mythic realism of Hollywood films, Rushdie's narrators are rarely omniscient, and they do not necessarily lead to objective truth. The third-person narrator of "Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies" is a case in point, reflecting Rushdie's interests in narrational partiality and filmic image making.

"Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies" conjures up a scene in which one event takes place in the course of an afternoon. With very little description of either characters or surroundings, we are effectively introduced to an entire nation standing behind the two main protagonists as well as to the historical, practical, and linguistic legacy of the English Raj. Although the story is divided into three sections—the arrival of Rehana's bus, Ali's advice to her, and their ambiguous closing discussion—there are, in fact, gaps between each scene. As each episode is introduced, the camera pans, so to speak, from the bus to Rehana's eyes, to the cynical Ali at his desk, and to the British consulate and back again. It is like looking at a series of film stills or photographic images arranged in a collage. The fact that very little actually happens dramatically serves to conceal the subtlety of Rushdie's art.

Miss Rehana arrives like a heavenly vision, literally emerging from "a cloud of dust, veiling her beauty from the eyes of strangers." The hybrid, multicultural world into which she descends is emphasized by the linguistic plurality of the two opening paragraphs. The English bus signs, "MOVE OVER DARLING" and "O.K. GOOD LIFE," the theatrical good manners and politeness, and the delay while the consulate officials finish their breakfast—all bespeak of imperial and colonial influence. Yet the other bus sign is "TATA-BATA," Miss Rehana's eyes need no "antimony," and a "bearded lala" in "cockaded turban" guards the "sahibs" inside the compound. Throughout the story the narrative is threaded with these alternative linguistic registers: "hey-presto," "Tip-top," and "topsy-turvy," on the one hand, and "old babuji," "bibi," "chilli-pakoras," and "salaam," on the other. The way in which Indian words have passed into English usage and vice versa is continually stressed, with no better example than the description of the passport as "pukka goods."

The central section of the tale, which makes up two-thirds of the narrative, reports the discussion between Miss Rehana, the apparent emigrant, and Muhammad Ali, the fraudulent adviser. They talk in a style parodying the polite civility and didactic wit of the tales of The Arabian Nights' Entertainment. The title of the story is only one example of a veritable plethora of gems of wisdom that the two characters exchange: "Good advice should find good money"; "When fate sends a gift, one receives good fortune"; "Life is hard, and an old man must live by his wits"; "The oldest fools are bewitched by the youngest girls"; "So be a fool … what goes of my fathers if you are?" (meaning, what was it to him?); and so on. Even the jokes seem epigrammatic, for example, "England is a great nation full of the coldest fish in the world."

All of this serves as the backcloth against which Muhammad Ali, captivated by Miss Rehana's beauty, offers free and accurate advice, seemingly for the first time in his life, concerning her forthcoming interrogation. She listens patiently but dismisses his suggestion that she lie or deceive, and she turns down the offer of a priceless passport. He is later shocked by her delighted demeanor and assumes that she has been successful after all. In fact, she has failed abysmally, taking great care to answer every question with complete inaccuracy. Miss Rehana has no intention of going to live in an unhappy arranged marriage in Bradford, and she has gone through the motions of a sham application only to appease her family. Muhammad Ali's "good advice" has, ironically, served her well, allowing her to prepare for abject failure. She disappears in the same cloud of dust she arrived in, leaving him completely bewildered and standing alone with a vague impression of her beauty, "the happiest thing he had ever seen in his long, hot, hard, unloving life."

The subtlety of the story lies not only in the gradual unfolding of Miss Rehana's plan to the misdirected reader but also in the careful delineation of Anglo-Indian accents, styles, idioms, and dialects. This fusion of voices and registers is perhaps Rushdie's greatest gift to the modern English short story, one he deploys in a variety of guises. Listening to Miss Rehana's voice—"Good advice is rarer than rubies … but alas, I cannot pay. I am an orphan, not one of your wealthy ladies"—one can hear a frequently used tone and rhythm from Rushdie's other stories, as in "The Prophet's Hair": "The young man's name was Atta … upon whose cold pink skin there lay the unmistakable sheen of wealth … in a winter so fierce it could crack men's bones." It is this mixture of Standard English, a variety of Indian dialects, postmodern slang, and oral folktales that makes a story like "Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies" the perfect illustration of Rushdie's claim that "the English language ceased to be the sole possession of the English some time ago."

—Simon Baker