In our last two classes we have discussed the Pacific concept of “taboo.” Devin kindly defined taboo in its Tongan origins as something that is “sacred” and “not allowed for general use.” After reading Rushdie’s chapter, “The Prophet’s hair,” the word seemed ever more pertinent. Rushdie demonstrates that there is evidence of taboo in modern culture as well. Although the idea of a mere hair bringing a curse upon a family appears utter ridiculous in western terms, there are historical legends and alleged miraculous occurrences within the history of any culture. The hysteria behind the Muslim Prophet’s, Mohammed’s, hair is not unlike the hysteria that has and still results over presumed Christian relics. I found myself sympathizing with every character, including the deranged father (Hashim), and blaming the prophet’s hair for the tragedy. Each short story, so far, appears to have an overall theme of deception and loss.
The story of “The Prophet’s hair” reads like an urban legend would. The story is told from the future, by any omniscient narrator. It begins like any fairytale, presenting the setting of the story, “Early in the year 19--,” similar to the cliché Once upon a time. The narration becomes two-fold, as we hear the daughter Huma’s story (35). Rather than concluding the story at the death of Huma’s hired thief, the story continues, stating, “But before our story can be properly concluded…” and describes the outcome of each character (58). By writing the story as a legend, the story becomes as taboo as the hair itself. It is unclear whether or not the events are even truthful, but the story seems to present a moral nonetheless. Beware of greed.
Within the story, greed for his collecting drove Hashim to keep the vile of the prophet’s hair, not his Muslim faith. In fact, Hashim says, “Naturally, I don’t want it for its religious value…I’m a man of the world, of this world. I see it purely as a secular object of great rarity and blinding beauty” (44). Hashim is abhorred with the idea of keeping it as a relic, something the “Prophet would have disapproved mightily of” (44). The thief Huma seeks in the story is likewise driven by the greed of her family jewelry, rather than the supposed relic. Hashim’s career as a moneylender, or loan shark, makes him no different from the thieves Huma seeks in the gullies. His outrageous charge of 75 per cent interest becomes mirrored by the four sons of the world’s best thief, Sheikh, who “reduced their earnings by 75 per cent” (58). The short story is horrifically tragic and one cannot help, but sympathize for all its characters.
By writing the story as a legend, Rushdie causes readers to inherently place the tragic blame on the hair, rather than any character. The domestic brutality insinuated by Huma’s father caused me to cringe and sympathize with her character; however, I found that I did not blame Hashim. The change that came over Hashim is described in a way that appears out of his control. Upon being left with the relic for a few days, a servant “found Hashim as Atta had left him. The same, and not the same—for now the moneylender looked swollen, distended…He seemed to be on the point of bursting! As though, under the influence of the misappropriated relic…” (45). By implying that he is acting “under the influence” of the hair, Hashim becomes a helpless victim like the rest of his family. Even the hired thief, Sheikh, is described as “a sick man,” who simply wants to “acquire the luxury of a respectable death” (52). The tragic events that ensue within the short story become inextricably blamed on the hair. Although the idea of a cursed hair seems absurd, Rushdie uses sympathy to make Huma’s story more localized and conceivable.