Extensively anthologized, Salman Rushdie’s “The Prophet’s Hair” was initially published in the London Review of Books and the Atlantic. The story was later included in a limited, privately printed edition in 1989, along with a companion piece, “The Free Radio,” in the wake of the controversy generated by Satanic Verses and the proclamation of the fatwa against Rushdie. A revised version of the story appears in Rushdie’s short story collection of 1994, East West.
As its title indicates, the story is about a strand of the prophet Mohammed’s hair. Rushdie tackles the issue of religious belief in a modern secular context. The story has its origin in an actual theft of the relic from its location at the Hazratbal mosque in Kashmir in the early 1960s. The relic was subsequently recovered and restored to the shrine after authentication by the Muslim priests. The story presents Rushdie at the peak of his storytelling power. It not only grips the reader’s attention through its simple narration— what Goonetilleke calls “whatnextism”—but also demonstrates the wit and flippancy for which the author is so famous.
The story spans a week in the family life of Hashim, a rich and comfortable Kashmiri moneylender. It narrates a series of disasters that befall ill-fated Hashim’s placid household once he fortuitously comes into the possession of the prophet’s hair. The reader gets a taste of things to come in the first paragraph. It contains two long sentences, neatly divided into well-executed clauses—one setting the time and the landscape and the other disclosing the fatal injuries of Atta, the son and heir, incurred while in search of a professional thief to steal the ominous relic from the accidental possession of his ungovernable father.
From the beginning Rushdie maintains a fast pace, inserting flashback scenes and self-reflexive remarks. There is an engaging account of the sudden appearance of the relic in Hashim’s life and his transformation into a devout and bullying father and husband, swearing by the Holy Book all the time. There is a repeat journey made by his daughter, Huma, in the footsteps of her unsuccessful brother, to contact the redoubtable Sheikh Sein to draw up a secret plan to dispossess her obdurate father of his fatal obsession. The events converge in the cross-purposes of the fateful night when the master burglar arrives in the moneylender’s place to carry out the prearranged plan. It all goes awry, leaving a trail of devastation that all but wipes out the moneylender’s clan, consigning the lone surviving member, the wife, to the lunatic asylum.
Although the story is full of blood and carnage, its shifting tone and emphasis on the role of chance in the unfolding of events, often produce a comic effect. Neither the passionate belief in a transcendent order of things nor the secular reason of the rationalist deciphering the causality of events is allowed to have the last word in the story. The reader’s sense of bracing confusion is heightened in the last two paragraphs, in which the narrator announces an unequal reversal of fortunes in the dead burglar’s wife and sons. The meaning of the relic as a symbol or icon remains unresolved.
Goonetilleke, D. C. R. A. Salman Rushdie. London: Macmillan, 1998.
Richards, Fiona. “The Desecrated Shrine: Movable Icons and Literary Irreverence in Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Prophet’s Hair,’ ” SOAS Literary Review 2 (2000).
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
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