"To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens,
"first you have to die. Hoji! Hoji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first
one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first
you won't cry? How to win the darling's love, mister, without a sigh?
Baba, if you want to get born again . . ." Just before dawn one winter's
morning, New Year's Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living
men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet,
towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings,
out of a clear sky.
beneath a moon of alabaster until a loud cry crossed the night, "To the
devil with your tunes," the words hanging crystalline in the iced white
night, "in the movies you only mimed to playback singers, so spare me
these infernal noises now."
Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he
sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-
stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the
almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures,
rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily
towards the sardonic voice. "Ohe, Salad baba, it's you, too good. What-
ho, old Chumch." At which the other, a fastidious shadow falling
headfirst in a grey suit with all the jacket buttons done up, arms by his
sides, taking for granted the improbability of the bowler hat on his
head, pulled a nickname-hater's face. "Hey, Spoono," Gibreel yelled,
eliciting a second inverted wince, "Proper London, bhai! Here we come!
Those bastards down there won't know what hit them. Meteor or
lightning or vengeance of God. Out of thin air, baby.
_Dharrraaammm!_ Wham, na? What an entrance, yaar. I swear: splat."
Out of thin air: a big bang, followed by falling stars. A universal
beginning, a miniature echo of the birth of time . . . the jumbo jet
_Bostan_, Flight AI-420, blew apart without any warning, high above
the great, rotting, beautiful, snow-white, illuminated city, Mahagonny,
Babylon, Alphaville. But Gibreel has already named it, I mustn't
interfere: Proper London, capital of Vilayet, winked blinked nodded in
the night. While at Himalayan height a brief and premature sun burst
into the powdery January air, a blip vanished from radar screens, and
the thin air was full of bodies, descending from the Everest of the
catastrophe to the milky paleness of the sea.
yielding its mystery. Two actors, prancing Gibreel and buttony, pursed
Mr. Saladin Chamcha, fell like titbits of tobacco from a broken old
cigar. Above, behind, below them in the void there hung reclining seats,
stereophonic headsets, drinks trolleys, motion discomfort receptacles,
disembarkation cards, duty-free video games, braided caps, paper cups,
blankets, oxygen masks. Also -- for there had been more than a few
migrants aboard, yes, quite a quantity of wives who had been grilled by
reasonable, doing-their-job officials about the length of and
distinguishing moles upon their husbands' genitalia, a sufficiency of
children upon whose legitimacy the British Government had cast its
ever reasonable doubts -- mingling with the remnants of the plane,
equally fragmented, equally absurd, there floated the debris of the soul,
broken memories, sloughed-off selves, severed mother tongues, violated
privacies, untranslatable jokes, extinguished futures, lost loves, the
forgotten meaning of hollow, booming words, _land_, _belonging_,
_home_. Knocked a little silly by the blast, Gibreel and Saladin
plummeted like bundles dropped by some carelessly open-beaked stork,
and because Chamcha was going down head first, in the recommended
position for babies entering the birth canal, he commenced to feel a low
irritation at the other's refusal to fall in plain fashion. Saladin
nosedived while Farishta embraced air, hugging it with his arms and
legs, a flailing, overwrought actor without techniques of restraint.
Below, cloud-covered, awaiting their entrance, the slow congealed
currents of the English Sleeve, the appointed zone of their watery
"O, my shoes are Japanese," Gibreel sang, translating the old song into
English in semi-conscious deference to the uprushing host-nation,
"These trousers English, if you please. On my head, red Russian hat; my
heart's Indian for all that." The clouds were bubbling up towards them,
and perhaps it was on account of that great mystification of cumulus
and cumulo-nimbus, the mighty rolling thunderheads standing like
hammers in the dawn, or perhaps it was the singing (the one busy
performing, the other booing the performance), or their blast--delirium
that spared them full foreknowledge of the imminent . . . but for
whatever reason, the two men, Gibreelsaladin Farishtachamcha,
condemned to this endless but also ending angelic devilish fall, did not
become aware of the moment at which the processes of their
Yessir, but not random. Up there in air-space, in that soft,
imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and
which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its
defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet-
shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones,
illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic, -- because when you throw
everything up in the air anything becomes possible - way up there, at
any rate, changes took place in delirious actors that would have
gladdened the heart of old Mr. Lamarck: under extreme environmental
pressure, characteristics were acquired.
a rush? So then, neither does revelation . . . take a look at the pair of
them. Notice anything unusual? Just two brown men, falling hard,
nothing so new about that, you may think; climbed too high, got above
themselves, flew too close to the sun, is that it?
That's not it. Listen:
Mr. Saladin Chamcha, appalled by the noises emanating from Gibreel
Farishta's mouth, fought back with verses of his own. What Farishta
heard wafting across the improbable night sky was an old song, too,
lyrics by Mr. James Thomson, seventeen hundred to seventeen-forty-
eight. ". . . at Heaven's command," Chamcha carolled through lips
turned jingoistically red white blue by the cold, "arooooose from out
the aaaazure main." Farishta, horrified, sang louder and louder of
Japanese shoes, Russian hats, inviolately subcontinental hearts, but
could not still Saladin's wild recital: "And guardian aaaaangels sung
much less conversed and also competed thus in song. Accelerating
towards the planet, atmosphere roaring around them, how could they?
But let's face this, too: they did.
and threatening to freeze their hearts was on the point of waking them
from their delirious daydream, they were about to become aware of the
miracle of the singing, the rain of limbs and babies of which they were a
part, and the terror of the destiny rushing at them from below, when
they hit, were drenched and instantly iced by, the degree-zero boiling of
prim, rigid, and still upside-down, saw Gibreel Farishta in his purple
bush-shirt come swimming towards him across that cloud-walled
funnel, and would have shouted, "Keep away, get away from me," except
that something prevented him, the beginning of a little fluttery screamy
thing in his intestines, so instead of uttering words of rejection he
opened his arms and Farishta swam into them until they were
embracing head-to-tail, and the force of their collision sent them
tumbling end over end, performing their geminate cartwheels all the
way down and along the hole that went to Wonderland; while pushing
their way out of the white came a succession of cloudforms, ceaselessly
metamorphosing, gods into bulls, women into spiders, men into wolves.
Hybrid cloud-creatures pressed in upon them, gigantic flowers with
human breasts dangling from fleshy stalks, winged cats, centaurs, and
Chamcha in his semi-consciousness was seized by the notion that he,
too, had acquired the quality of cloudiness, becoming metamorphic,
hybrid, as if he were growing into the person whose head nestled now
between his legs and whose legs were wrapped around his long,
This person had, however, no time for such "high falutions"; was,
indeed, incapable of faluting at all; having just seen, emerging from the
swirl of cloud, the figure of a glamorous woman of a certain age,
wearing a brocade sari in green and gold, with a diamond in her nose
and lacquer defending her high-coiled hair against the pressure of the
wind at these altitudes, as she sat, equably, upon a flying carpet.
"Rekha Merchant," Gibreel greeted her. "You couldn't find your way to
heaven or what?" Insensitive words to speak to a dead woman! But his
concussed, plummeting condition may be offered in mitigation
. . . Chamcha, clutching his legs, made an uncomprehending query:
"What the hell?"
"You don't see her?" Gibreel shouted. "You don't see her goddamn
confirm. I am strictly for your eyes only, maybe you are going crazy,
what do you think, you namaqool, you piece of pig excrement, my love.
With death comes honesty, my beloved, so I can call you by your true
Cloudy Rekha murmured sour nothings, but Gibreel cried again to
Chamcha: "Spoono? You see her or you don't?"
faced her alone. "You shouldn't have done it," he admonished her. "No,
sir. A sin. A suchmuch thing."
O, you can lecture me now, she laughed. You are the one with the high
moral tone, that's a good one. It was you who left me, her voice
reminded his ear, seeming to nibble at the lobe. It was you, O moon of
my delight, who hid behind a cloud. And I in darkness, blinded, lost, for
He became afraid. "What do you want? No, don't tell, just go."
When you were sick I could not see you, in case of scandal, you knew I
could not, that I stayed away for your sake, but afterwards you
punished, you used it as your excuse to leave, your cloud to hide
behind. That, and also her, the icewoman. Bastard. Now that I am dead
I have forgotten how to forgive. I curse you, my Gibreel, may your life
be hell. Hell, because that's where you sent me, damn you, where you
came from, devil, where you're going, sucker, enjoy the bloody dip.
Rekha's curse; and after that, verses in a language he did not
understand, all harshnesses and sibilance, in which he thought he made
out, but maybe not, the repeated name _Al-Lat_.
He clutched at Chamcha; they burst through the bottom of the clouds.
Speed, the sensation of speed, returned, whistling its fearful note. The
roof of cloud fled upwards, the water-floor zoomed closer, their eyes
opened. A scream, that same scream that had fluttered in his guts when
Gibreel swam across the sky, burst from Chamcha's lips; a shaft of
sunlight pierced his open mouth and set it free. But they had fallen
through the transformations of the clouds, Chamcha and Farishta, and
there was a fluidity, an indistinctness, at the edges of them, and as the
sunlight hit Chamcha it released more than noise:
without knowing its source, the second command: "And sing."
what deals, what betrayals of its secret nature must it make to stave off
the wrecking crew, the exterminating angel, the guillotine?
Is birth always a fall?
Do angels have wings? Can men fly?
When Mr. Saladin Chamcha fell out of the clouds over the English
Channel he felt his heart being gripped by a force so implacable that he
understood it was impossible for him to die. Afterwards, when his feet
were once more firmly planted on the ground, he would begin to doubt
this, to ascribe the implausibilities of his transit to the scrambling of
his perceptions by the blast, and to attribute his survival, his and
Gibreel's, to blind, dumb luck. But at the time he had no doubt; what
had taken him over was the will to live, unadulterated, irresistible, pure,
and the first thing it did was to inform him that it wanted nothing to
do with his pathetic personality, that half-reconstructed affair of
mimicry and voices, it intended to bypass all that, and he found himself
surrendering to it, yes, go on, as if he were a bystander in his own mind,
in his own body, because it began in the very centre of his body and
spread outwards, turning his blood to iron, changing his flesh to steel,
except that it also felt like a fist that enveloped him from outside,
holding him in a way that was both unbearably tight and intolerably
gentle; until finally it had conquered him totally and could work his
mouth, his fingers, whatever it chose, and once it was sure of its
dominion it spread outward from his body and grabbed Gibreel
Farishta by the balls.
"Fly," it commanded Gibreel. "Sing."
Chamcha held on to Gibreel while the other began, slowly at first and
then with increasing rapidity and force, to flap his arms. Harder and
harder he flapped, and as he flapped a song burst out of him, and like
the song of the spectre of Rekha Merchant it was sung in a language he
did not know to a tune he had never heard. Gibreel never repudiated the
miracle; unlike Chamcha, who tried to reason it out of existence, he
never stopped saying that the gazal had been celestial, that without the
song the flapping would have been for nothing, and without the
flapping it was a sure thing that they would have hit the waves like
rocks or what and simply burst into pieces on making contact with the
taut drum of the sea. Whereas instead they began to slow down. The
more emphatically Gibreel flapped and sang, sang and flapped, the
more pronounced the deceleration, until finally the two of them were
floating down to the Channel like scraps of paper in a breeze.
_Bostan_ and lived. They were found washed up on a beach. The more
voluble of the two, the one in the purple shirt, swore in his wild
ramblings that they had walked upon the water, that the waves had
borne them gently in to shore; but the other, to whose head a soggy
bowler hat clung as if by magic, denied this. "God, we were lucky," he
said. "How lucky can you get?"
I know the truth, obviously. I watched the whole thing. As to
omnipresence and -potence, I'm making no claims at present, but I can
manage this much, I hope. Chamcha willed it and Farishta did what was
Which was the miracle worker?
snowbound English beach with the improbability of a starfish by his
ear: "Born again, Spoono, you and me. Happy birthday, mister; happy
birthday to you."