Orpheus and Kama or how to relate the migration of Rock`n` Roll on 600 pages

Music and myth in Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet

The Ground Beneath Her Feet is Salman Rushdie’s seventh novel and, simply put, it deals
with the lifelong love story of two fictional Indian musicians, Ormus Kama and Vina Apsara.

To speak briefly about form: the text flows from the perspective of a first person narrator,
Urmeed Merchant, called Rai, a childhood friend and longtime lover of Vina Apsara. But as
one often finds in the case of tightly structured creations such as Rushdie’s, there are one or
two additional levels of meaning behind every name and notion, especially in the case of
those adopted from Sanskrit. Here, the names of the three main characters, Ormus Kama,
Vina Apsara and Urmeed “Rai” Merchant already provide the first hint to the two myths
Rushdie chose as framework for his novel: the Greek saga of Orpheus and Eurydike on one
hand and the Indian story of Kama and Rati on the other. But first things first. If one just sticks to the names of the three protagonists, they reveal this:

  • Ormus is one of the names of an ancient Persian creator deity. There is also an onomatopoeic affinity between Orpheus and Ormus.
  • Kama means “desire“ and is the name of the Hindu god of love.
  • Vina is derived from the Indian stringed instrument veena.
  • Apsara signifies a nymph in Sanskrit, such as Eurydike
  • Urmeed means “hope“, it gives us a glimpse into his character, especially in view of his
    relationship with Vina.
  • Rai means “king“, it could be the first allusion in the text to a musician, namely Elvis Presley, the “king.”

Even if one just were to follow the bread crumbs laid out by Rushdie through the names of his
characters, one can readily identify Ormus as a creator and as a representative of superior
love. In fact, the text presents him as the creator of all modern music who already prior
to their publication, knows the sound of several pieces to be released. As an infant, his fingers already do guitar riffs and when he sings in his crib, the birds fall silent, spellbound by his song. In his relationship with Vina he is the one who sacrifices all to her, is faithful to her and even repeatedly lives a chaste life for years to prove his love to her.

Vina Apsara’s name, on the other hand, points much rather to the Greek cultural sphere, both
by mentioning the stringed instrument (Orpheus plays the lyra, the Greek equivalent to veena)
and by immediate reference to the nymph Eurydike. But in a further step one may also detect Rati behind “apsara” since nymphs are presented as physical and highly sexual beings. If
Kama and thereby also Ormus represents superior, selfless and heroic love in this novel, then
Rati, the goddess of pleasure, and also Vina are the bodily flip side of the same coin. Vina’s
elevated libido gives expression to the two legendary figures rooted in her character,

But why exactly these two tales? The universally known saga of Orpheus and Eurydike does,
of course, readily offer itself to an author of a novel on music based on ancient legends, but
why exactly did Rushdie decide on Kama and Rati as its counterpart?

The answer to this question is the vision of the ride to hell, a principal theme in both stories.
On one hand, Orpheus the singer strives to recover his wife from Hades and fails miserably,
while on the other hand, Kama is killed by Shiva and reawakened by his wife Rati.

Perusing the novel for rides to hell, we quickly discover three central “nether worlds” Ormus
visits to save Vina, but in true Orpheus mode, he always fails while his beloved has the ability
to save him. Ormus’ first trip to hell is his emigration from India to England to find Vina who
already left the country years earlier. While Ormus manages to work on his career and
contribute to the rock ‘n’ roll revolution on ship-based pirate radio stations, he still faces
loneliness and racism, lives apart from his family and experiences a great deal of isolation.
His next ride to hell begins for Ormus when he suffers a car accident putting him into a coma
for years, only to be reawakened by Vina. But by this accident, Ormus turns blind on one eye
to the world he lives in, well in accordance with magical realism, and in exchange he gains
insights into a parallel world that exists with a bit of time delay (and which turns out to be our
reality over the course of the novel). This access to a different world further isolates Ormus
although he lives with Vina in America throughout subsequent years, forms a legendary band
with her and earns a fortune. But, on the contrary, he succumbs to increasingly deeper
depression and distances himself more and more from Vina, not only privately but also
professionally (this becomes apparent in the description of the performances of their band
“VTO” where, as a result of hearing damage, he can only appear on stage in a glass case
secluded from the other members of the band). This second ride to hell turns into a third one
when Vina suddenly disappears in an earthquake. Thereafter, Ormus wastes away completely,
he develops a drug dependency and keeps searching for the original among the many doubles
of his long-deceased wife. Again he is saved from this hell by Vina, or at least from a woman
dressed like her, who shoots him.

If one leaves the realm of myths and concentrates on the meaning of music in the text, it
becomes apparent that two artists are merged into the character of Ormus: John Lennon and
Brian Wilson. The novel appropriates entire passages from the life of these two musicians.
Wilson, for example, is said to have exhibited enormous musical talent already at few months
of age, had a tyrant father and was deaf in one ear. Both have a habit of hearing voices, by
their own testimony (even if, by the novel’s logic, they are not imaginary in the case of
Ormus), entire stories from Wilson’s life were adapted into the novel and so forth. Just like
John Lennon, Ormus takes up baking bread in order to relax. He, too, is threatened with deportation from America because of overly critical lyrics, and just like the historic original,
he is shot in front of his New York domicile bordering Central Park.

Ormus Kama is not just the nominal creator of this music, his character is based on two of the
most important musicians of the twentieth century that are, on top of it, two of the most
formative influences on rock ‘n’ roll and pop. In that sense, Ormus may even be viewed as an allegory of the development of rock music, which, in Rushdie’s view, jibes with the migrant
history of his protagonist.

Migration, disorientation and racism are central topics that run like a common thread through
Rushdie’s writing, and this becomes especially apparent in his use of rock’ n’ roll music to
represent isolation and the “in-between” a migrant finds himself in. From a historic vantage
point, rock n’ roll was a transgression of borders, born from a sense of displacement, a
mixture of multiple different influences that first had to struggle for recognition. Thus one
may easily find a history of migration in rock music, as personified by the character of Ormus Kama in this novel. According to Homi Bhabha, the “in-between” where a migrant finds
himself is the place where culture may emerge because this very “non-fitting- in” at a “ non-
place” is what is needed to create something genuinely new. So, Ormus Kama only starts to
explore his potential as a result of migration and he manages to write music that changes the
world.

Thus, the text is much less about a style of music than about questions of culture and its
creation, and cultural affinity – topics one comes across quite frequently in Rushdie’s oeuvre.
To put it in his own words: “This book is not a novel about rock`n`roll, but an attempt to
respond to the evolution of world cultures in the last half century” (Rushdie in Le Monde).

In fact, one of the few songs written out in full that Rushdie integrated in his novel has been
set to music by U2. If one is interested in intermediality, it is worth listening to since the band
actually captured the spirit of the book rather well. Lyrics barely differ from the original text
but it is still worth comparing the two (aside from the fact that Salman Rushdie is featured in
the music video). So, here, for good measure, are Rushdie’s text and U2’s song:

„All my life, I worshipped her.

Her golden voice, her beauty`s beat.

How she made us feel, how she made me real, and the ground beneath her feet.

And now I can`t be sure of anything, black is white and cold is heat; for what I worshipped stole my love away, it was the ground beneath her feet.

She was my ground, my favorite sound, my country road, my city street, my sky above, my only love, and the ground beneath my feet.

Go lightly down your darkened way, go lightly underground, I`ll be down there in another day, I won`t rest until you`re found.

Let me love you true, let me rescue you, let me lead you where two roads meet. O come back above, where there`s only love and the ground`s beneath your feet.“ (S. 475)

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