Nearly two decades ago, Salman Rushdie wrote a novel while he was in hiding after Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on him, over his novel, The Satanic Verses. That delightful novel was Haroun and the Sea of Stories, an in-your-face response, showing that he could not be silenced and he would not disappear into oblivion.
There, a little boy called Haroun travels to the source of all stories to restore the gift of gab, which his father, Rashid Khalifa, had lost. It dazzled readers, even as it had a particular poignancy and relevance—it was a stirring defence of free speech—of arguments, talkativeness, and verbal anarchy, against khatam-shud, or silence, the dark place where only one voice could speak. Rushdie had written that novel for his son Zafar, who was, to borrow a word Rushdie coined in Midnight’s Children, “nearlynine” at the time of the fatwa.
Luka and the Fire of Life: Jonathan Cape, 216 pages, £12.99 (around Rs 915).
With Luka and the Fire of Life, Rushdie returns to the Khalifa family. Written for his second son, Milan, who is now 13, the story is about Haroun’s brother, Luka, who is determined to help his father. The Shah of Blah, as Rashid Khalifa is known, is back, but only just: He is ill; life is seeping out, and tubes sustain him by feeding him and people worry around him. Twelve-year-old Luka has to complete a hair-raising journey through the world of magic, and in a nod to the Promethean myth, he must bring the fire of life to the earth, to revive his father.
Like Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children, Luka wonders if this too is somehow his fault. He has set in motion events beyond anyone’s control, by shouting and screaming at a circus owner who treats animals cruelly. The animals rebel and the circus owner threatens revenge. One morning Rashid doesn’t wake up, even as a smile flickers on his face. Determined to get his father on his feet again, Luka embarks on the adventure with unlikely companions—a dog called bear and a bear called dog—and finds support from Insultana, the sultana of insults, with her magic carpet, dragons, coyote and elephants who remember everything.
Luka’s quest requires him to reach certain levels, as in a game console, and there are allusions to the virtual worlds of teenagers. But you won’t find too many allusions to contemporary culture here. Rather, we get introduced to half-forgotten gods from old cultures—Incan and Norse, Chinese and Egyptian, Sumerian and Aztec, Assyrian and Greek. There is a deeper point: These are different cultures, but the myths about eternal elements—earth, wind, fire, and water—are similar. Are they all drawn from different myths or has Rushdie created new myths? You can check that in an encyclopaedia of myths, or you can suspend disbelief, because that’s irrelevant: Does it even matter? The yarn he weaves is engrossing, and that’s all that matters.
Free thinker: Rushdie takes up the issue of free speech in the new novel. Hindustan Times
Reading Luka’s story only as an action-packed adventure would miss half the point—or some of Rushdie’s perennial concerns: the self-righteous, injured innocence of those easily offended, who want to silence anyone who criticizes anything they hold dear, and their rivals, the Otters (where the “OTT” stands for Over-the-Top) who revel in their freedom to outrage; the meanness and powerlessness of divinities; the supremacy of human imagination; and a moving meditation on time. Milan Kundera would call these “heavy” themes, but Rushdie adopts a light touch in making such complex ideas accessible to his young readers. For example, the trinity of past, present and future—Jo-hua, Jo-hai, and Jo-aiga—have a vice-like deterministic grip around human existence, but Luka tells them that the past has gone and will not return, and lives only because of our memories; the present vanishes into the past every time you blink your eyes; and the future is but a dream.
Writing for children, explaining good and evil without adopting a moralizing tone and instead to take on a humane tone, isn’t easy. Talking down to kids is silly; talking with them feeds their sense of wonder and imagination. One reason Satyajit Ray got such exceptional performances from children was because he would stoop to their height and bend on his knees, and whisper in their ears and bring to life Apu and Durga in Pather Panchali and in many more films. Rushdie, an admirer of Ray, does something similar with words. He talks with the children, respecting their intelligence and celebrating their freshness, sharing their sense of amazement.
The cynic might ask: But what’s the point of such stories if they are not true? That, exactly, is the other point of his fiction.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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