Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sunday: Salman Rushdie’s “In the South”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Maybe it’s just the books I read, but there seems to be a dearth of fiction dealing with the end of life; stories of childhood and coming of age appear to be, on the whole, more marketable and desirable to readers. It’s always a surprise and a pleasure to come across a story or novel that considers the end of life as closely as many books consider the beginnings. In his story “In the South”, Salman Rushdie writes of his near-death characters with a surprising compassion, and provides even their thirty-minute walk to cash their pension checks (a walk that would take a younger man five minutes) a certain dignity.

Junior and Senior are men who are “like characters in an ancient tale, trapped in fateful coincidences, unable to escape the consequences of chance.” They find themselves living side by side, each morning emerging to their balconies at the same moment, conducting their lives with such a close (if spiteful) proximity that Senior’s relatives at one point suggest knocking down the walls between their apartments. These are men aware of how close they are to the end of life, and Rushdie offers their histories in concise paragraphs. The men are, near story’s end, described as shadows of one another, but any affection they feel for one another takes time to emerge, as they are opposite in almost every detail of their beliefs and pasts.

Senior, for instance, feels trapped by the number of relatives he has (204, though many are no longer living – he isn’t sure of the numbers) and the ways they interfere with his life.

When he said that he was ready to die, which was often, their faces took on hurt expressions and their bodies sagged or stiffened, depending on their nature, and they spoke to him reassuringly, encouragingly, and, of course, in injured tones, of the value of a life so full of love. But love had begun to annoy him, like everything else. His was a family of mosquitoes, he thought, a buzzing swarm, and love was their itchy bite. “If only there were a coil one could light to keep one’s relations away,” he told Junior. “If only there were a net around one’s cot that kept them out.”

Junior, unlike Senior, hasn’t built what most would consider a desirable social circle. Even he recognizes that in most respects he has been a mediocre man, a man who has watched life move past him.

In all significant particulars, he had failed to be a participant in the parade of life. He had not married. The great events of eight decades had managed to occur without any effort on his part to help them along. He had stood by and watched as an empire fell and a nation rose, and avoided expressing an opinion on the matter. He had been a man at a desk.

“In the South” at first seems a humorous look at life coming closer to death, with Junior and Senior acting the part of a bickering married couple. Rushdie builds off this, though, so that their light remarks about death gain a new heft at story’s end. Rushdie gives us a story that is about life and death and the passing from one to the next, but more than that it’s the story of a great friendship and its inevitable conclusion.

Read “In the South” Online


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