Salman Rushdie

East, West

  • This summary of East, West includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

East, West Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of East, West by Salman Rushdie.

East, West is a 1994 anthology of short stories by British-Indian novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie. A mosaic of stories about eastern and western civilizations, their aspirations and challenges, and the failures of globalization, the book conveys Rushdie’s ambivalence and skepticism about modern life. The stories are grouped into three sections: “East,” “West,” and “East, West,” loosely based on Rushdie’s own experiences in India and, as an immigrant, in Britain. Prominent themes include displacement, poverty, and intolerance—problems that Rushdie views as intractable due to the stark differences in the traditions and moral vocabularies of different countries and religions. The anthology has received acclaim for its diverse and emotional accounts of displaced individuals’ attempts to find or stake out homes for themselves.

In the first section, “East,” Rushdie draws some of the material from his memories of India before he was forced to hide in the West. His written criticism of radical religious groups in India led to the imposition of several Fatwas, or religious injunctions, that threatened his life. The anthology’s first story is “Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies.” Here, a young woman travels to the British consulate in India, ostensibly to ask for clearance to join her new husband in Britain. In a surprise twist, the woman thwarts her reunion by deliberately answering the interview questions poorly. It is revealed that she would prefer to remain in India and feel free than tolerate an arranged marriage. “The Free Radio” involves propaganda issued by the Indian government intending to garner support for sterilization as a form of mass birth control. “The Prophet’s Hair” follows a man who goes insane after coming into possession of a stolen lock of hair that is allegedly from the Prophet Mohammad. To bring the man back to sanity, his family hires a thief to steal the hair.

The next section, “West,” takes place mostly in Britain, from the 1400s to the modern-day. Its first story, “Yorick,” is a fictionalized portrayal of Hamlet and Yorick, a prince and a court jester whose lives would become Shakespeare’s subject matter for his play Hamlet. “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” involves a sad pastiche of a high-profile auction: instead of rich bidders, the poor masses assemble to get a chance at winning the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. They all desperately hope that the slippers will magically bring them wealth and happiness. The last story in the section is “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship (Santa Fé, AD 1492).” The story depicts Christopher Columbus desperate for Queen Isabella to fund his Atlantic voyage, at a time when the Americas were commonly believed to be fantasy.

The final section, “East, West,” combines several of the themes and problems from the first two sections. In “The Harmony of the Spheres,” the trans-cultural stigmatization of mental illness is made apparent as one man contemplates his friend’s suicide after having the isolating experience of schizophrenia. “Chekov and Sulu” is more political, following two spies, under the pseudonyms Hikaru Sulu and Pavel Chekov, who endeavor to dig up information on radical Sikh organizations in Britain shortly after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. “The Courter” is told by a boy in his teens who recalls the Indian woman who once took care of him and his siblings. This story especially interrogates the cultural border between east and west, showing how it is imagined and constructed through lived experience rather than visible and established.

East, West illuminates many of the problems that are unique to our traditional conceptions of a distinct Eastern and Western world, while also showing that these worlds reflect each other in their values, norms, and failures.