Before all the changes and lockdown rules that had taken place in light of the pandemic, I occasionally headed out to lunch at a roadside stall under the makeshift shelter, sitting by the side street, taking in the heat and humid air, watching passer-by who were not in office attire. There was one weekday afternoon around two , I felt like having a bowl of wonton noodles, the unhealthy kind that look like long strings of rubber bands huddled together dressed in soy sauce and topped with lean char siew pork and little dumplings. After circulating around the inner city to look for a space to park , I finally settled in some street where a roadside stall was around the corner further than a stone’s throw away. When I arrived at the stall, there were five or six people waiting to be served and amongst them, there were a couple of students in their school uniform. They reminded me of a lifetime ago when I used to cycle down town to meet with friends from school for those hawker fare.
Since I was there alone, I had to share a table with a stranger.
Despite feeling hungry, I did not mind the wait as I was eager to continue reading The Golden House by Salman Rushdie amidst all my other reads. The heat was making me uncomfortable but reading took my mind off the muggy heat.
In the 13th novel by Salman Rushdie, Nero Julius Golden, a seventy-something billionaire together with his three sons, Petronius, Lucius Apuleius and Dionysius have moved to America, the land of reinvention to escape from their murky past in Bombay.They arrive in New York in January 2009 shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama. They ‘emerged from the car in the old heart of the ‘ Greenwich Village and move into the former Murray mansion, the grand “Beaux-Arts building in the MacDougal – Sullivan Historic District that is to be known as The Golden House. The sons are nicknamed Petya, Apu and D and they each have their demons to combat with while their father, Nero has his secret past to contend with. The original Mrs Golden has died in a fire before the family moved to New York. Enter Vasilisa Arsenyeva, a tall and striking , 28-year-old Russian girl who becomes the trophy wife of Nero.
The narration is by René who lives next door to the Goldens and he is an aspiring filmmaker, thus he finds his next door neighbour the perfect subjects for his script. He describes the old man as short and squat who wears his mostly dark hair in spite of his advanced years, slicked back to accentuate his devil’s peak. His eyes are black and piercing and he dresses expensively. When the Goldens first moved into the neighbourhood, René was twenty- five years old. René becomes a friend of the Golden boys, the autistic Petya, the bohemian Apu and hermaphrodite D. Here are some snippets of how he describes the eldest son, Petya and Apu.
‘The sad, brilliant strangeness of the man we called Petya Golden was clear to everyone from the first day, when in the failing winter-afternoon light he planted himself alone on a bench in the Gardens, a big man, like an enlargement of his father, large and heavy-bodied with his father’s sharp, dark eyes that seemed to interrogate the horizon. He wore a cream suit under a heavy herringbone tweed greatcoat, gloves and orange muffler, and there was an outsize cocktail mixer and a jar of olives beside him on the bench and a martini glass in his right hand, and while he sat there in his monologic solitude and his breath hung ghostly in the January air he just started talking aloud, explained to nobody in particular the theory, which he ascribed to the surrealist film-maker Luis Buñuel, of why the perfect dry martini was like the Immaculate Conception of Christ. He was perhaps forty-two years old then and I, seventeen years his junior, approached him gingerly across the grass, ready to listen, instantly in love, as iron filings are drawn to the magnet, as the moth loves the fatal flame.‘‘ He was physically clumsy, and sometimes, when agitated, clumsy too in the mouth, stammering and stuttering and being infuriated by his own ineptitude. He also had the most retentive memory of anyone I ever met. You could say a poet’s name. ‘Byron’, for example, and he could do twenty minutes of Don Juan with his eyes closed.’
‘America changed them both. Petya and Apu –America that divided self- polarising them as America was polarised, the wars of America, external and internal, becoming their wars as well, but in the beginning if Petya arrived in New York as the heavy drinking polymath who was afraid of the world and found living in it a constant hardship, then Apu came as the sober romantic artist and promiscuous metropolitan, flirting with everything that was visionary yet with a clarity of vision that allowed him to see people plain, as his portraits showed; the panic in the eyes of the fading dowager, the vulnerable ignorance in the stance of the ungloved boxing champion, the courage of the ballerina with blood in her slippers like the Ugly Sister who cut off her toes to squeeze her foot into Cinderella glass shoe “
Apu was his brother’s antithesis, a flamboyant dresser and ‘his clothing embraced all the fashions of the planet’. D is hermaphrodite and androgynous, he is struggling with his sexuality even though he has a very understanding heterosexual girlfriend and he has professional help but he keeps arguing with the Professional.
‘ It was hard for the youngest of the Goldens to give up the habit of loneliness. He had felt lonely from his earliest days as the odd-one-out child of an illicit liaison, partly accepted, partly resented in the grand houses he was obliged to call his home, first in Bombay, then in New York. Even in large crowd, he had felt alone, and yet now, with only Riya for company, he was visited by feelings he at first found hard to name. Eventually he found the words . Togetherness, companionship.’
The story begins with the election of Obama and concludes with the election of Donald Trump labelled as The Joker and Hilary Clinton is nicknamed as Batwoman. René and his girlfriend, Suchitra get busy making political ads for the election in the US. ‘ The election became a contest between the Batwoman and the Joker-Batwoman, who owned her dark side, but used it to fight for good, justice, and the American way, a leader who could save the country from becoming a calamitous Joke. We denied the struggle, it became what we said it was.’
The Golden House has been hailed as its author’s return to realism and its writing style is of wry and verbalistic panache. The novel makes a compelling read about betrayal, opulence, reinvention and immigration that is imbued with the tragic and caustic undertone of how one’s past deeds would not be forgotten and retribution would follow as a consequence.