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Salman Rushdie: An excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence

In the early morning Mohini the sleepless whore of the Hatyapul brothel awoke her foreign guest. He came awake quickly and twisted her roughly into his arms, conjuring a knife from thin air and holding it against her neck. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “I could have killed you a hundred times last night, and don’t think I didn’t think about it while you were snoring loud enough to wake the emperor in his palace.” She had offered him two rates, one for a single act, the other, only slightly higher, for the whole night. “Which is better value?” he asked her. “People always say it’s the all-night rate,” she replied gravely, “but most of my visitors are so old or drunk or opium-stupid or incompetent that even doing it once is beyond a lot of them, so the rate for a single will almost certainly save you money.” “I’ll pay you double the all-night rate,” he said, “if you promise to stay beside me all night. It’s a long time since I spent the whole night with a woman, and a woman’s body lying beside me sweetens my dreams.” “You can waste your money if you want, I won’t stop you,” she said cold-heartedly, “but there hasn’t been any sweetness left in me for years.”

Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan

(Click to enlarge)

She was so thin that her name among the other whores was Skeleton, and those clients who could afford it often hired her together with her antithesis, the obese whore called Mattress, in order to enjoy the two extremes of what the female form had to offer, first the unyielding dominance of bone and then the flesh that engulfed. The Skeleton ate like a wolf, greedily and fast, and the more she ate the fatter Mattress became, until it was suspected that the two whores had made a pact with the Devil, and in Hell it would be Skeleton who was grotesquely overweight for all eternity while Mattress rattled bonily around with the nipples on her flat chest looking like little wooden plugs.

She was a doli-arthi prostitute of the Hatyapul, meaning that the terms of her employment stated that she was literally married to the job and would only leave on her arthi or funeral bier. She had had to go through a parody of a wedding ceremony, arriving, to the mirth of the street rabble, on a donkey-cart instead of the usual doli or palanquin. “Enjoy your wedding day, Skeleton, it’s the only one you’ll ever have,” shouted one lout, but the other prostitutes poured a chamber pot of warm urine over him from an upstairs balcony, and that shut him up just fine. The “groom” was the brothel itself, represented symbolically by the madam, Rangili Bibi, a whore so old, toothless, and squinty that she had become worthy of respect, and so fierce that everyone was scared of her, even the police officers whose job it theoretically was to close her business down, but who didn’t dare make a move against her in case she gave them a lifetime’s bad luck by fixing them with the evil eye. The other, more rational explanation for the brothel’s survival was that it was owned by an influential noble of the court — or else, as the city’s gossips were convinced, not a noble but a priest, maybe even one of the mystics praying nonstop at the Chishti tomb. But nobles go in and out of favor, and priests as well. Bad luck, on the other hand, is forever: so the fear of Rangili Bibi’s crossed eyes was at least as powerful as an unseen holy or aristocratic protector.

Mohini’s bitterness was not the result of being a whore, which was a job like any other job and gave her a home, and food and clothing, without which, she said, she would be no better than a pye-dog and would in all likelihood die like a dog in a ditch. It was aimed at one single woman, her former employer, the fourteen-year-old Lady Man Bai of Amer, currently residing at Sikri, a young hussy who was already receiving, in secret, the eager attentions of her cousin Crown Prince Salim. Lady Man Bai had one hundred slaves, and Mohini the Skeleton was one of her favorites. When the prince arrived perspiring from the hard work of galloping around killing animals in the heat of the day, Mohini was at the head of the retinue whose task it was to remove all his clothes and massage his pale skin with scented, cooling oils. Mohini was the one who chose the perfume, sandalwood or musk, patchouli or rose, and Mohini it was who performed the privileged function of massaging his manhood to prepare him for her mistress. Other slaves fanned him and rubbed his hands and feet, but only the Skeleton could touch the royal sex. This was because of her expertise in preparing the unguents necessary for the heightening of sexual desire and the prolongation of sexual congress. She made the pastes of tamarind and cinnabar, or dry ginger and pepper which, when mixed with the honey of a large bee, gave a woman intense pleasure without requiring much exertion from the man, and allowed the man also to experience sensations of warmth and a kind of squeezing palpitation that were extremely pleasurable. She applied the pastes sometimes to her mistress’s vagina, sometimes to the prince’s member, usually to both. The results were held by both parties to be excellent.

 

It was her mastery of the male drugs known as the “ones that made men into horses” that undid her. One day she ordered the castration of a male goat and boiled its testes in milk, after which she salted and peppered them, fried them in ghee, and finally chopped them up into a delicious-tasting mince. This preparation was to be eaten, not rubbed upon the body, and she fed it to the prince on a silver spoon, explaining that it was a medicine that would allow him to make love like a horse, five, ten, or even twenty times without losing his force. In the case of particularly virile young men it could facilitate one hundred consecutive ejaculations. “Delicious,” said the prince, and ate heartily. The next morning he emerged from his mistress’s boudoir, leaving her on the point of death. “Ha! Ha!” he shouted at Mohini on his way out. “That was fun.”

It would be forty-seven days and nights before Lady Man Bai could even think about having sex again, and during that time the prince, when he visited her, was fully understanding of the damage he had wrought, behaved in a manner both contrite and solicitous, and fucked the slaves instead, asking, most often, for the favors of the skinny creature who had endowed him with such superhuman sexual powers. Lady Man Bai could not refuse him but inwardly she raged with jealousy. When it became plain after the notorious night of one hundred and one copulations that Mohini the Skeleton’s tolerance for sex was infinite and that the prince was incapable of reaking her as he had almost broken his mistress, the slave girl’s fate was sealed. The jealousy of Lady Man Bai grew implacable and Mohini was expelled from the household, leaving with nothing but her knowledge of the preparations that drove men mad with desire. She fell a long way, from palace to brothel, but her powers of enchantment served her well and made her the most popular of the women of the bawdy house at the Hatyapul. She hoped, however, for revenge. “If fate ever brings that little bitch into my power I will smear her with a paste so powerful that even the jackals will come to fuck her. She will be fucked by crows and snakes and lepers and water buffaloes and in the end there will be nothing left of her but a few soggy strands of her hair, which I will burn, and that will be the end of it. But she is going to marry Prince Salim, so pay no attention to me. For a woman like myself revenge is an unattainable luxury, like partridges, or childhood.”

For some reason she was talking to the yellow-haired newcomer as she had never spoken to any of her tricks, perhaps because of his exotic appearance, his yellow hair, his cleansing alienness. “You must have put a spell on me,” she said, in a disturbed voice, “because I never let any of my visitors even see me by daylight, much less tell them the story of my life.” She had lost her virginity at the age of eleven to her father’s brother, and the baby that was born was a monster which her mother took away and drowned without showing it to her for fear that if she saw it she would begin to hate the future. “She needn’t have worried,” Mohini said, “because as it happens I was blessed with an equable disposition and a fondness for the sex act which not even that thimble-cock ox of a despoiler could change. But I was never a warm person and since the injustice I suffered at the hands of Lady Man Bai the chill in my vicinity has increased. In the summer men like the cooling effect of my proximity but in winter I don’t get so much work.”

 

“Prepare me,” said the yellow-haired man. “Because today I have to go to court on important business, and I must be at my best or perish.”

“If you can afford it,” she answered, “I’ll make you smell as desirable as any king.”

She began to turn his body into a symphony for the nose, for which she told him that the price would be one gold mohur coin. “I’m overcharging you, naturally,” she warned him, but he simply shook his left wrist, and she gasped when she saw the three gold coins held between his four fingers. “Do a good job,” he said, and gave her all three. “For three gold mohurs,” she said, “people will believe you’re an angel from Paradise if that’s what you want them to think, and when you’re finished up there doing whatever it is you have to do, you can have me and the Mattress together, satisfying your wildest dreams for a week for nothing extra.”

She sent for a metal washtub and filled it herself, mingling hot and cold water in the ration of one bucket to three. Next she soaped him all over with a soap made from aloe, sandal, and camphor, “to make your skin fresh and open before I put on your royal airs.” Then from beneath the bed she produced her magic box of fragrances wrapped up in a careful cloth. “Before you reach the emperor’s presence you will have to satisfy many other men,” she said. “So the perfume for the emperor will lie hidden at first beneath the fragrances that will please lesser personages, which will fade away when you reach the imperial presence.” After that she got to work, anointing him with civet and violet, magnolia and lily, narcissus and calembic, as well as drops of other occult fluids whose names he did not even like to ask, fluids extracted from the sap of Turkish, Cypriot, and Chinese trees, as well as a wax from the intestines of a whale. By the time she had finished he was convinced he smelled like a cheap whorehouse, which was where he was, after all, and he regretted his decision to ask for the Skeleton’s help. But out of courtesy he kept his regrets to himself. He took out of his little carpetbag clothes of a finery that made the Skeleton gasp. “Did you murder somebody to get those or are you really a somebody after all?” she wondered. He didn’t answer. To look like a person of consequence on the road was to attract the attentions of men of violence; to look like a hobo at court was an idiocy of a different kind. “I have to go,” he said. “Come back later,” she told him. “Remember what I said about the free offer.”

He put on his inevitable overcoat in spite of the budding heat of the morning and set off to do what he had to do. Miraculously the perfumes of the Skeleton went ahead of him and smoothed his way. Instead of shooing him off and telling him to go to the gate on the city’s far side, to wait in line for permission to enter the Courtyard of Public Audience, the guards went out of their way to assist him, sniffing the air as if it bore good news and bursting into improbable welcoming smiles. The chief of the guardhouse dispatched a runner to fetch a royal adjutant, who arrived looking irritable about being summoned. As he approached the visitor there was a shift in the breeze and an entirely new scent filled the air, a scent whose subtlety was too delicate for the guards’ coarse noses, but which made the adjutant think all of a sudden of the first girl he had ever loved. He volunteered to go personally to the house of Birbal to arrange things, and returned to say that all necessary approvals had been given, and he now had the authority to invite the visitor to enter the palace quarters. The visitor was asked, inevitably, for his name, and he answered without hesitation.

“You may call me Mogor,” he said in immaculate Persian. “Mogor dell’Amore, at your service. A gentleman of Florence, presently on business for England’s queen.” He was wearing a velvet hat with a white feather in it, held in place by a mustard-colored jewel, and doffing this hat he bent down in a low bow that showed everyone watching (for he had attracted a substantial crowd, whose dreamy-eyed, grinning faces proved once again the omniscient power of the Skeleton’s work) that he possessed a courtier’s skill, politeness, and grace. “Mr. Ambassador,” said the adjutant, bowing in return. “This way, please.”

Yet a third fragrance had now been released as the earlier scents faded away, and this one filled the air with fantasies of desire. As he walked through the red world of the palaces the man who now went by the name of Mogor dell’Amore noticed the fluttering movements behind curtained windows and latticed screens. In the darkness of the windows he imagined that he could make out a host of shining almond eyes. Once he saw a jeweled hand making an ambiguous gesture that might have been an invitation. He had underestimated the Skeleton. In her way she was an artist to rival any that could be found in this fabled city of painters, poets, and song. “Let us see what she has in store for the emperor,” he thought. “If it’s as seductive as these early scents then I’m home and dry.” He held on tightly to the Tudor scroll and his stride lengthened as his confidence grew.

 

At the center of the main chamber of the House of Private Audience was a red sandstone tree from which there hung what seemed to the visitor’s untutored eye to be a great bunch of stylized stone bananas. Wide “branches” of red stone ran from the top of the tree trunk to the four corners of the room. Between these branches hung canopies of silk, embroidered in silver and gold; and under the canopies and bananas, with his back to the thick trunk of the stone tree, stood the most frightening man in the world (with one exception): a small, sugary man of enormous intellect and girth, beloved of the emperor, hated by envious rivals, a flatterer, a fawner, an eater of thirty pounds of food each day, a man capable of ordering his cooks to prepare one thousand different dishes for the evening meal, a man for whom omniscience was not a fantasy but a minimum requirement of life.

This was Abul Fazl, the man who knew everything (except foreign languages and the many uncouth tongues of India, all of which eluded him, so that he cut an unusual, monoglot figure in that multitongued Babel of a court). Historian, spymaster, brightest of the Nine Stars, and second-closest confidant of the most frightening man in the world (with no exceptions), Abul Fazl knew the true story of the creation of the world, which he had heard, he said, from the angels themselves, and he knew, too, how much fodder the horses in the imperial stables were allowed to eat each day, and the approved recipe for biryani, and why slaves had been renamed disciples, and the history of the Jews, and the order of the heavenly spheres, and the Seven Degrees of Sin, the Nine Schools, the Sixteen Predicaments, the Eighteen Sciences, and the Forty-two Unclean Things. He was also apprised, through his network of informants, of every single thing that went on in every language within the walls of Fatehpur Sikri, all the whispered secrets, all the treacheries, all the indulgences, all the promiscuities, so that every person within those walls was also at his mercy, or at the mercy of his pen, of which King Abdullah of Bokhara had said that it was more to be feared than even Akbar’s sword: saving only the most frightening man in the world (with no exceptions), who was afraid of nobody, and who was, of course, the emperor, his lord.

Abul Fazl stood in profile like a king and did not turn to look at the newcomer. He remained silent for so long that it became plain that an insult was intended. The ambassador of Queen Elizabeth understood that this was the first test he had to pass. He too remained silent and in that dreadful hush each man learned much about the other. “You think you are telling me nothing,” the traveler thought, “but I see from your magnificence and rudeness, from your corpulence and stern visage, that you are the exemplar of a world in which hedonism coexists with suspicion, violence — for this silence is a form of violent assault — walks hand in hand with the contemplation of beauty, and that the weakness of this universe of overindulgence and vindictiveness is vanity. Vanity is the enchantment in whose spell you are all held captive, and it is through my knowledge of that vanity that I will achieve my goal.”

Then the most frightening man in the world (with one exception) spoke at last, as if in reply to the other’s thoughts. “Excellency,” he said, sardonically, “I perceive that you have perfumed yourself with the fragrance devised for the seduction of kings, and I deduce that you are not entirely innocent of our ways — in fact, not an innocent at all. I did not trust you when I first heard about you some moments ago, and now that I have smelled you I trust you even less.” The yellow-haired Mogor dell’Amore intuited that Abul Fazl was the original author of the spell-book of unguents whose formulas Mohini the Skeleton had become adept at using, so that these olfactory enchantments had no power over him, and as a result they lost their influence over everyone else as well. The guards with goofy grins at the four entrances to the House of Private Audience suddenly came to their senses, the veiled slave girls waiting to serve the august company lost their air of dreamy eroticism, and the newcomer understood that he was like a man stripped naked beneath the all-seeing gaze of the king’s favorite, and that only the truth, or something as convincing as the truth, would save him now.

 

“When the ambassador of King Philip of Spain came to visit us,” Abul Fazl reflected, “he brought a full retinue, and elephants laden with gifts, and twenty-one gift horses of finest Arab stock, and jewels. By no means did he show up on a bullock-cart and spend the night in a whorehouse with a woman so thin that one can wonder whether she is a woman at all.”

“My master, Lord Hauksbank of That Ilk, unfortunately joined God and his angels as we made landfall at Surat,” the newcomer replied. “On his deathbed he bade me fulfill the duty with which Her Majesty had charged him. Alas, the ship’s company was swarming with rogues, and before his body was cold they commenced to plunder and ransack his quarters in search of whatever of value my good master may have possessed. I confess that it was only by good fortune that I escaped with my life and the queen’s letter as well, for, knowing me to be my master’s honest servant, they would have cut my throat had I stayed to defend Lord Hauksbank’s property. I fear, now, that his remains may not receive a Christian burial, but am proud to have arrived at your great city to discharge his responsibility, which has become mine.”

“The Queen of England,” Abul Fazl mused, “has been, I believe, no friend to our friend the illustrious King of Spain.”

“Spain is a philistine bully,” the other improvised swiftly, “whereas England is the home of art and beauty and of Gloriana herself. Do not be blinded by the blandishments of Philip the Dull. Like must speak to like, and it is Elizabeth of England who is the true reflection of the emperor’s greatness and style.” Warming to his theme, he explained that the faraway redhead queen was nothing less than the Western mirror of the emperor himself, she was Akbar in female form, and he, the Shahanshah, the king of kings, could be said to be an Eastern Elizabeth, mustachioed, nonvirginal, but in the essence of their greatness they were the same.

Abul Fazl stiffened. “You dare to set my master no higher than a woman,” he said softly. “You are fortunate indeed to be holding that scroll which bears, as I see, the authentic seal of the crown of England, and therefore obliges us to give you safe conduct. Otherwise it would be my inclination to reward such insolence by throwing you to the rogue elephant we keep tethered on a nearby lawn, to rid us of unacceptable swine.”

“The emperor is famous throughout the world for his generous appreciation of women,” said Mogor dell’Amore. “I am sure he will not be insulted, as the jewel of the East, to be likened to another great jewel, whatever her sex.”

“The Nazarene sages sent to this court by the Portuguese of Goa speak poorly of your jewel.” Abul Fazl shrugged. “They say she is against God, and a puny ruler who will surely soon be crushed. They say that hers is a nation of thieves and that you are in all probability a spy.”

“The Portuguese are pirates,” said Mogor dell’Amore. “They are buccaneers and scoundrels. No wise man should trust what they say.”

“Father Acquaviva of the Society of Jesus is an Italian like yourself,” Abul Fazl rejoined, “and Father Monserrate his companion comes from Spain.”

“If they come here under the flag of the scurrilous Portugee,” the other insisted, “then Portugee pirate dogs is what they have become.”

Loud laughter broke out from a place above their heads, as if a god were mocking him.

“Have mercy, great munshi,” a huge voice boomed. “Let the young man live, at least until we have read the message he brings.” The silken canopies fell away to the corners of the chamber and there, above them, seated on the cushioned top of the sandstone tree in the Position of Royal Ease, and dissolving into mirthful guffaws, was Abul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, the Grand Mughal himself, revealed to view, and looking like a giant parrot on an outsize perch.

 

Copyright © 2008 by Salman Rushdie. From The Enchantress of Florence, out this week from Random House.

Salman Rushdie will appear at Vroman’s on June 14, and at the Writers Guild Theater (presented by Writer’s Bloc and Book Soup) on June 16.

More from Weekly Literary Supplement 2008:

Not Dead Yet: The Novel as Lifeline By JOE DONNELLY

The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon By John Banville

Renewing the Faith: McSweeney's Goes Back to Basics, Makes Publishing Fun By MARC WEINGARTEN

The Brief, Wondrous Tournament of Books By NATHAN IHARA

On and Off the Shelf: A Bookseller on Selling (and Reading) the Novel By DOUG DUTTON

In a Jam: How Suspense Keeps the Novel on Edge By THOMAS PERRY

 

 


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