Book review: Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months And Twenty Eight Nights5 min read . Updated: 16 Sep 2015, 07:53 AM IST
A breathless, world-roving novel, a mirror to the present day, and a peek into an idyll we can't return to
In the kingdom of Qaf, in Fairyland or Peristan where the jinns live, the Lightning Princess opens a Chinese box of stories that has poisoned her father, the king. As the incomplete stories—of “strangenesses" taking place in the city of B. or the village of I.—pour out, one interrupting the other before it can come to a satisfactory end, Princess Dunia and the half-human Geronimo Manezes, her great (to the power of an unknown number) grandson and current lover, find “their own way into" these stories, latching on to resemblances with stories that make up their own lives.
It’s the same with us, the readers, as a multitude of stories tumble out of this slim volume of Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights, and we start to relate them to the reality of our own world. This fictional human world of Rushdie’s creation, which collides briefly and violently with an alternate reality, Peristan, the world of dreams and fantasies, is an allegory of our times, highlighting the utter absurdity and irrationality of human thought and behaviour, and the horrific truth of what we consider to be normal.
At its core, the novel chronicles the War of the Worlds that started with the Great Storm unleashing unnatural forces, and lasted two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights. It was brought on by an ancient battle of wit—between science and reason and faith and God—being fought by two philosophers, Ibn Rushd and Ghazali of Tus, from their graves. The generals and foot soldiers of the physical battle for supremacy of thought are Dunia and a brood of ear lobe-less, half-human descendants of the illegitimate children she once had with Ibn Rushd, and, on the other side, the dark jinns—the Grand Ifrits Zummurud Shah, Zabardast, Shining Ruby and Ra’im Blood-Drinker, who wreak havoc and unleash monsters upon the human world in a bid to instil fear into their heart. For fear, Ghazali believes, will drive them towards God. The mischief-making jinns are mighty pleased to again find a doorway to earth, for they need a distraction from the pleasures of unending sexual activity in their own home.
From this point onwards, characters and their stories are introduced and discarded at a frantic pace, almost blurring the lines between one story and the next, just as they might if we were inhabiting a dreamscape. It is a cleverly knitted novel, with the muchness of everything and the intertwining of fact and fiction eventually coming together to give a precise picture of the “incoherence" of our times (“A world that did not cohere, in which truth did not exist and was replaced by warring versions trying to dominate or even eradicate their rivals…"). Ultimately, the situation will be a test of whether the Swots, who have perfected the art of forbidding things, will continue to thrive, or if the “use of religion as justification for repression, horror, tyranny, and barbarism" will lead “to the terminal disillusion of the human race with the idea of faith" and to the death of gods.
Rushdie, of course, doesn’t unyoke his own dramatic life from this, his 12th novel; rather, the book seems inspired by it. He is self-indulgent when he describes the character of Ibn Rushd (“the philosopher who could not speak his philosophy", the “anti-Scherezade" whose “words would get them killed"). He is the man from whom Rushdie’s father took their name, so one must see the author in him. With the difference that unlike Rushdie, who is a self-confessed atheist, Rushd tried always to marry science and faith.
Rushdie is also nostalgic for an idyllic past to which we can never return (“All our stories are told more quickly now, we are addicted to acceleration, we have forgotten the pleasures of the old slowness, of the dawdles, the browses, the three-volume novels, the four-hour motion pictures, the thirteen-episode drama series, the pleasures of duration, of lingering"). In this nostalgia, he lingers for a while on a reflection of his own story in Geronimo’s life: the rootlessness of his migrant status, and the tearing down, with the emergence and supremacy of the Hindu right, of the home he once loved—cosmopolitan Bombay—which has been replaced by a “new, uglier Mumbai".
The narrators of the story of those eventful two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights that changed human life may well be equally nostalgic. For this is history—or maybe, so hazy is the actual truth of what happened in that ancient past (which is, in so many ways, our present), or who were the real heroes of the story, that it could also be folklore—told by a generation that tries to preserve the memory so they may not forget where they came from and why they live as they do. In pursuance of peace and harmony, they live a life so rational that it is robotic, a new normal devoid of magic, where imagination is dead, or rather suppressed—waiting to come alive again, perhaps. For, it is as the future people speculate and ask: “…if indeed our time is right, as we say it is, if it be not simply a different kind of wrong." Does a perfect world even exist? Consider, for a moment, that “there were no books in Fairyland."
This is a novel that needs to be read slowly, and not at the breathless pace at which events unfold within it, for Rushdie speaks of many things all at once. And so plentiful are the pop-cultural references, from Arthur Schopenhauer to Mickey Mouse, Max Bialystock to The Terminator and Star Wars, that it has you pausing every so often for a quick Google search in case you have missed out on an important clue—an annoyance that matters less and less as one forges ahead in the novel. As the story reaches its climactic scene, it picks up the style, air, suspense and fireworks of a superhero comic book.
The magic realism of the tale, and the humour that almost takes us by surprise in the most unexpected of places and makes us suspect a big private joke, lends a lightness of touch to this portrait of our horrifying times.