Plot Summary and Analysis: Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies by Salman Rushdie
‘Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies’ features in Rushdie’s anthology of short stories East, West. It tells the story of a woman who seemingly wishes to join her fiancée in England. The action takes place at the British Consulate in India. The main themes of the story are postcolonialism, migration, gender, tradition, and power.
List of Characters
Miss Rehana – applies for a visa at the British Consulate to go to Great Britain.
Muhammad Ali – a crook who swindles vulnerable women applying for a visa.
Mustafa Dar – Miss Rehana’s fiancée who never physically appears in the story.
Miss Rehana arrives at the British Consulate on a colourful bus. The driver bows theatrically as Miss Rehana gets off the bus.
Muhammad Ali watches Miss Rehana as she approaches the lala at the doors of the Consulate to ask what time they open. The lala, who is usually rude, answers Miss Rehana in an almost polite manner.
There are other women waiting in front of the Consulate. But Miss Rehana is the only one who is not accompanied by male relatives.
Muhammad Ali seems to be attracted to Miss Rehana and approaches her. She is eating chilli-pakoras. Muhammad Ali asks Miss Rehana if she wants his advice for a small fee. Miss Rehana says that she’s a poor orphan and that she is unable to pay. Muhammad Ali offers his advice for free.
Muhammad Ali leads Miss Rehana to his low wooden desk in his corner of the shanty town. He asks for Miss Rehana’s personal details. She is engaged to Mustafa Dar, currently residing in England. Muhammad Ali proceeds to examine Miss Rehana’s application form. He tells her that getting a permit is extremely difficult.
Muhammad Ali says that the sahibs (officials working at the Consulate) think that all the women claiming to be dependants of people in England are frauds. Muhammad Ali explains that the sahibs will ask very intimate questions that Miss Rehana might be too bashful to answer and that one mistake will disqualify her. Miss Rehana for the first time appears to be nervous.
Muhammad Ali normally offers fake papers to women who live far away. In this way, he makes sure his victims are hundreds of miles away when they realise that they’ve been swindled.
But with Miss Rehana it’s different. Muhammad Ali offers Miss Rehana a genuine British passport. He even considers giving her the passport for free:
Anything was possible now, on this day of his insanity. Probably he would give her the thing free-gratis, and then kick himself for a year afterwards.
However, Miss Rehana reproaches him for the offer:
”Let me understand you,” she was saying. “You are proposing I should commit a crime [...] and go to Bradford, London, illegally, and therefore justify the low opinion the Consulate sahibs have of us all.”
Although Muhammad Ali insists that without the passport she won’t be able to go to England, Miss Rehana turns away and walks towards the gates of the Consulate.
Muhammad Ali spends the whole day waiting for her. When she finally emerges out of the Consulate, she seems calm. Muhammad Ali thinks that she got a permit. Miss Rehana takes Muhammad Ali’s hand and his and offers to buy him a pakora to apologise for her rudeness.
Miss Rehana tells the story of her engagement. It was arranged when she was nine and Mustafa Dar thirty. Several years ago, Mustafa went to England, promising to send for her fiancée. Mustafa is a stranger to Miss Rehana.
Miss Rehana answered all the questions wrong at the Consulate.
“I got all their questions wrong,” she replied. “Distinguishing marks I put on the wrong cheeks, bathroom decor I completely redecorated, all absolutely topsy-turvy, you see.”
Muhammad Ali starts to lament what he thinks is a tragedy but Miss Rehana says that he shouldn’t be sad about it.
Miss Rahana answers the questions wrong on purpose; she uses the overly bureaucratic immigration system to free herself from an arranged engagement. Miss Rehana prefers to stay in India, as her job as a domestic servant and long-distance relationship grant her independence from Indian patriarchy.
Her autonomy is highlighted by the title ‘Miss’. In India, Miss Rehana is going to have all the privileges of an engaged woman and none of the restrictions. In England, she would be under the authority of a man she barely knows.
The central protagonist represents the margins of society – a poor woman. This empowering of the traditionally powerless is a typical feature of postmodernism.
Muhammad Ali is a crook who swindles money out of vulnerable women who apply for a permit to go to England. This time, however, he is drawn to the independent Miss Rehana:
Muhammad Ali, who specialised in advising the most vulnerable-looking of these weekly supplicants, found his feat leading him towards the strange, big-eyed, independent girl.
Muhammad Ali genuinely wants to help Miss Rehana, because he has a crush on her:
Miss Rehana’s eyes were large and black and bright enough not to need the help of antimony, and when the advice expert Muhammad Ali saw them he felt himself becoming young again.
He offers her advice for free:
I am going crazy, Muhammad Ali thought, because he heard his voice telling her of its own volition, “Miss, I have been drawn to you by Fate. What to do? Our meeting was written. I also am a poor man only, but for you my advice comes free.”
The personification of Muhammad Ali’s voice here points to the fact that he’s lost control over his behaviour; he becomes a passive witness of his own words.
The Meaning of the Title
When Muhammad Ali offers to advise Miss Rehana, she says:
”Good advice is rarer than rubies,” she said. “But alas, I cannot pay. I am an orphan, not one of your wealthy ladies.”
The word ‘rubies’ situates the story in the East, which in the collective Western imagination is full of exotic riches. The title indicates the central irony in the story; Muhammad Ali, who normally scams gullible women, this time offers what he thinks is genuinely good advice. But because his assumptions about Miss Rehana wanting to join her fiancée in England are false, the ‘good’ advice isn’t that good after all. Miss Rehana makes it clear:
“Let me understand you,” she was saying. “You are proposing I should commit a crime...”
“Not a crime,” he interposed. “Facilitation.”
“...and go to Bradford, London, illegally, and therefore justify the low opinion the Consulate sahibs have of us all. Old babuji, this is not good advice.”
The title indicates that it is difficult to give good advice, because the assumptions we make about other people might be wrong.
This short story questions the supposed superiority of the West over the East. Living in England doesn’t necessarily mean the liberation from constricting traditions. Joining her fiancée in England would relegate Miss Rehana to an inferior position. Rushdie subverts our preconceptions of the West as free and liberal and the East as conservative and constricting.
Rushdie achieves this effect by narrating the story from Muhammad Ali’s point of view. The old crook assumes that everyone dreams of going to England. When Miss Rehana leaves the Consulate, Muhammad Ali thinks:
My God, ya Allah, she has pulled it off. The British sahibs also have been drowning in her eyes and she has got her passage to England.
However, Miss Rehana is happy precisely because she did not get her passage to England. Muhammad Ali completely misreads her:
“Miss Rehana Begum,” he said, “felicitations, daughter, on what is obviously your hour of triumph.”
The reader is also fooled into believing that Miss Rehana wants to go to England until the very end of the story. Here, Miss Rehana talks about her arranged engagement:
“Mustafa Dar was already thirty at the that time, but my father wanted someone who could look after me as he had done himself and Mustafa was known to Daddyji as a solid type.”
Rushdie shows that neither the West nor the East are inherently better – it all depends on the person’s circumstances. This relativism flies in the face of both colonialism and Indian nationalism.
Gender and Power
In this story, the traditional gender dynamic is challenged. Normally, Muhammad Ali has power over the women he scams. But in this case, it is Miss Rehana who dictates the tone of the conversation. She chooses not to follow Muhammad Ali’s advice, which proves that she has agency. Muhammad Ali says:
“Bibi, I am a poor fellow, and I have offered this prize because you are so beautiful. Do not spit on my generosity. Take the thing. Or else don’t take, go home, forget England, only do not go into that building and lose your dignity”
But she was on her feet, turning away from him, towards the gates, where the women had begun to cluster and the lala was swearing at them to be patient or none of them would be admitted at all.
Muhammad Ali uses simple commands to exert influence over his client. He assumes that he has a right to decide what is becoming behaviour for a woman; Muhammad Ali thinks that facing intimate questions supposes loss of dignity for women. However, Miss Rehana challenges this male prerogative to regulate women’s conduct by choosing not to follow Muhammad Ali’s advice.
Furthermore, her long distance engagement protects Miss Rehana from unwanted sexual advances in India. Traditionally, women are considered objects to be conquered. When Muhammad Ali sits with Miss Rehana to discuss business, he is
conscious that two or three dozen pairs of male eyes were watching him enviously, that all the other shanty-town men were ogling the latest young lovely to be charmed by the old grey-haired fraud.
The relationship between Miss Rehana and the men has sexual undertones. The passage highlights the age difference between the crook and his client. But thanks to her engagement, Miss Rehana is out of the men’s reach. Traditionally, women are under male protection. Miss Rehana uses her absent fiancée to protect her without actually being subject to anyone’s authority.
The story features a number of Hindi words. This is because Rushdie draws on both Eastern and Western culture. Here is the list of some of the Hindi words:
Lala – title or form of address used in India.
Pakora – type of South Asian food.
Sahib – polite term of address, associated mostly with colonial rule in India.
Pukka – genuine, excellent.
Salaam – common greeting in Islamic countries meaning peace.
Wallah – person employed at or concerned with a particular thing.
Ayah – domestic servant.