East West is a short story collection. The nine tales are grouped in three, by the flavour of their origins, the third being the mixed one of book’s title. That also happened to be the one I liked the most, with “The Courter” beating the rest by far.
This was a second read of “The Courter”, after Storywallah and undoubtedly more enjoyable. There’s humour, love and sadness mixed in the story, but none (not at least in a high dose) of the Rushdiesque satire. Its also easily the most personal of the stories, with Rushdie drawing seemingly from his own experience as an immigrant, growing up in London.
Humour opens the story, with Certainly-Mary and her queer English and is sprinkled throughout. The narrator’s regard for Certainly-Mary, the family ayah who accompanies them to England, is poignant, as is the chess playing, Flintstone watching, tea drinking romance between Certainly-Mary and Mixed-Up Mecir, the tenement porter mangled befittingly to “courter” by the ayah’s eccentric accent.
The narrator reminisces growing up in the sixties with his sisters, in popular songs, school and teenage infatuation with the opposite sex. His veneration for Certainly-Mary is not merely because “she did as much as their mother to raise the kids”, but also since Mary’s presence brought sanity to a dysfunctional family. When Mary is unwell after Mecir is stabbed in a heroic attempt to rescue the ladies from local goons, the family comes together to cheer her up, or at least “play acts” to raise her spirits.
Mecir is a chess grandmaster, before a stroke paralysed his career. He teaches Mary the game, and it draws them closer.
“Chess had become their private language”
The game of chess is also used metaphorically, when the narrator recalls an account of a classic game between Mecir and an opponent in a 1950 championship. Mecir the master strategist of the past is driven to helplessness in the real life threats he has to face in fending off vindictive troublemakers.
The narrator’s family also faces racial abuse, with the goons threatening mother and ayah, assuming them to be linked to another Indian they were looking for:
“Fucking wogs…You fucking come over here, you don’t fucking know how to fucking behave…”
There’s a chord of nostalgia binding the piece, ending in a similar note, with the dispersal of Mary and Mecir from the narrator’s life.
The book is worth buying just for this story alone. The others aren’t lacklustre either, and I was hoping to span some of those in this post. But it is night and tomorrow is Monday. So I can see a part II coming, if I’m up to it later.