The magic of Rashid, Haroon and Rushdie

I was introduced to Salman Rushdie in 1981 via his second novel Midnight’s Children and recall mistaking it for a children’s book. After 7 years in 1988, I heard that Salman Rushdie had written another novel called Satanic Verses and the President of Iran had issued a fatwa, calling for Rushdie’s head. Apparently, the author had written some stuff that hurt the religious sentiments of some people, and as such Rushdie was condemned and judgment passed for that ‘crime’. Rushdie went into hiding for a few lines he had written, and his life was never the same again. I longed to read the book, but I think it was banned in India at that time.

Years later, when I chanced upon a slim volume of his book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I picked it up mistakenly thinking that it was a book of Short Stories. It turned out to be a book that Rushdie had apparently written for his 9-year-old son, Zafar whom he used to narrate bedtime stories to. I guess he realized that the made-up stories were quite amazing, and he decided to write the novel incorporating all the elements of a bedtime story and much more!

The novel starts off with an adorable dedication from Dad Rushdie to Son Rushdie:

Z embla, Zenda Xanadu

A ll our dream-worlds may come true.

F airy lands are fearsome too.

A s I wander far from view

R ead, and bring me home to you.

Fairy lands are fearsome too, warns Rushdie and goes on to prove just that with this book.

The story is quite simple. Young Haroun’s Dad Rashid Khalifa is a story teller who lives in a sad city(everyone who lives here apparently has sadness engulfing them and their lives). He brings cheerfulness to the city by making up extraordinary stories and narrating them to it’s inhabitants, diminishing their sadness for a short time. For this reason he is pretty famous in the city and is almost always center stage narrating his fantastic stories. He lives with his wife Soraya and son Haroun. Everything seems hunky dory in the Khalifa household and little Haroun is happy as a lark in the sad city. However, unbeknownst to him and his father, his mother gives in to the sadness of the city and decides that she’s had enough of the Khalifa men and runs away with their neighbor Mr.Sengupta leaving behind a letter where she explains that she prefers his unimaginative reality to her husband’s imaginary make-believe world. After that incident Rashid is unable to weave stories anymore. He goes from being the ‘Shah of Blah’ and ‘Ocean of Notions’ to being unable to proceed beyond – “Ark!Ark!Ark!”

A pretty sad tale till this point in time it looks like. I thought it would be a mop fest from this point onwards with the child blaming himself and the father falling into a depression. But then, you are suddenly plunged into a land of fantasy and imagination as Haroun chances upon a water genie who has come to cut the supply of stories to Rashid. I re-read the part again to make sure that it was a genie and not a technician from the cable company that Haroun chanced upon! You see, I am not a very big fan of Sci-Fi or Fantasy fiction. I like realism and stick mostly with memoirs and realistic fiction. But I really wanted to finish my first Rushdie novel and continued reading. Am I glad I did!

Haroun blames himself for his dad’s misfortune and decides to help his dad out of the predicament. The story proceeds as he comes to know from the water genie Iff, that Rashid has unsubscribed from their service and the genie had come to take care of the cancellation. From then onwards, we are treated to a fantastic spectacle as Haroun takes a trip to the Land of Gup and the Land of Chup to clear the error of being unsubscribed from the Sea of Stories. The choice to name the lands with Gup (conversation) and Chup(silence) seemed like pure genius to me. No wonder Rushdie is considered a genius, because he is!

Haroun is taken to the land of Gup where all stories originate. There are the seas around the island of Gup. But we have the land of Chup whose leader Khattam-Shud (The End, nothing but the End) is hell bent on destroying the sea of stories – the sea of stories from where storytellers get their goods from. Quite a neat concept, right? I was enthralled by this book. Though it is targeted towards children as young as 9, there are many, many layers to this book. There’s politics, there’s indirect references to the fatwa, there’s philosophy so deep that I had to take a couple of minutes for it to absorb in my psyche. Consider for example the following:

“Haroun was Lucky; but luck has a way of running out without the slightest warning. One minute you’ve got a lucky star watching over you and the next instant it’s done a bunk.”

This to me represents Rushdie’s life before and after the Fatwa. I can imagine the red carpet being pulled off your legs as you are getting ready to receive your award.

There are also references to the modern world which I find applicable even in 2017. I firmly believe that some writers can foretell future, Rushdie seems to me to be one of them when he writes in the book that came out in 1988 –

“In the sad city, people mostly had big families; but the poor children got sick and starved, while the rich kids overate and quarreled over their parents’ money.”

Rushdie manages to keep the story very interesting and the flow rapid by incorporating humor and introducing unique and likable characters with regularity. The characters include a mechanical bird called Butt, who Haroun picks to be flown to the land of Gup with Iff the water genie. So basically, Iff and Butt are Haroun’s companions. I am sure the children would find that quite enthralling.

There’s a horde of lovable and not so lovable characters in the book who keep on making appearances and disappearances. One of them is Bolo, the Prince of Gup land. He is a young man who is in love with Princess Batcheat, who had managed to get herself kidnapped by Khatam-Shud. He is quite comical and stupid and does not hesitate to lead his people to war for his own selfish purpose. He reminds me of our leaders today, especially one who do it for far less honorable things than love. I leave it to your imagination to figure out who Rushdie might have been referring to so many years ago as he writes –

“What’s that you say?” shouted Bolo, leaping to his feet and striking a dashing and slightly foolish pose. “Why have you waited so long to tell us? Zounds! Proceed; for pity’s sake, proceed” (When Bolo spoke like this, the other Dignitaries all looked vaguely embarrassed and averted their eyes).

Continuing in the vein of addressing today’s issues, Rushdie does touch briefly on the concept of women’s issues as he writes –

“You think it’s easy for a girl to get a job like this? Don’t you know girls have to fool people every day of their lives if they wanted to get anywhere?”

That’s the heroine of the novel Blabbermouth who disguises herself as a man to join the army of pages of Gup land. She delivers some brilliant lines during which Haroun develops a crush for her. Lines such as:

“You think a place has to be miserable and dull as ditch water before you believe it’s real?”

There is dissent in the army of pages when war is declared against Chupwalas to rescue Batcheat. The Gupees are quite relieved that Princess Batcheat is not around to bother them with her continuous talk and worse still, her signing. They grumble among themselves as to why Prince Bolo must rescue Batcheat and Mali the gardener who helps Haroun says –

“It (the reason) is Love. It is all for Love. Which is a very wonderful and dashing matter. But which can also be a very foolish thing.”

The book is not however, relegated to only fantasies and dashing characters. A good writer not only piques and exercises your emotion, but also makes you think and Rushdie manages to do that quite wonderfully even in a book meant for young kids.

It is interesting how Rushdie tackles Khattam-Shud, the villain in the story. His description shows what sort of contempt the author held for attempts to silence him. I wish political leaders, dictators, presidents, CEOs etc. do not pick fights with writers because the writers can do much more with their words than these powerful people can do with their power.

Rushdie describes Khatam-Shud as –

“He is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech.”

Khatam-Shud never makes an appearance until towards the end of the story, but his brooding presence is felt in every page. It is like he is hidden between each page you turn. One builds up this image of him being magnificently and monstrously menacing. But it is an anti-climax when the cult master as he is referred to makes an appearance. In his first meeting with Khatam-Shud Haroun’s thoughts are as follows –

“That’s him? That’s him?” Haroun thought, with a kind of disappointment. “This little mingling fellow? What an anti-climax.”

Haroun asks Khatam-Shud why he is trying to take the fun out of the world by trying to put an end to story-telling. The reply he gets is haunting.

“The world, however, is not for Fun. The world is for controlling. Your world, my world, all worlds. They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why.”

Rushdie intersperses these strong and profound statements with some flippant ones to keep the pretense of this being a children’s book going. For instance, there’s stuff like

P2C2E – Process to complicated to explain, which is used generously in the book.

Dull Lake – Reference to Dal Lake in Koch-Mar (play on the word Kashmir) which apparently means nightmare in local language!

A poster is support of candidate Buttoo that goes something like

“WHO’S THE ONE FOR YOU? – NOT JUST ONE, BUTTOO!’

I can imagine the children going into peals of laughter at things like these though they might have glazed over at some of the things earlier. And a child’s laughter is one of the better things about the world and Rushdie manages to bring that out a lot with this book.

I loved the book. I loved how Rushdie used some words from the Hindi Language to cleverly bring out the intrinsic peculiarities of his characters. I loved the pace of the book which sometimes left you breathless and overwhelmed with its huge repertoire of characters and its speed. But as Rushdie says:

‘Speed, most Necessary of Qualities! In any Emergency – fire, auto, marine – what is required above all things? Of course, Speed.’

I would recommend everyone to read this book. It is wonderfully descriptive and manages to draw a picture of the fantasy land with its Plentimaw (Plenty Mouth) fishes, pure blue sea of stories polluted by dark viscous liquid manufactured in Chupland, Mudra the Shadow Warrior and of course the lovable amongst them all, the heroic son Haroun. I would highly recommend the book for the simple but evocative language throughout the novel. But I would mostly recommend it for you to understand the genius of Salman Rushdie without the aid of a Midnight’s Children or The Satanic verses. It is also wonderful that Rushdie borrows heavily from Hindi to name almost everything in the book and I loved the play of the words. Each time a new character or place was introduced, it would bring a smile to my lips.

The real reason however I would exhort you to read the book is to understand that there are many ways of telling a story. Rushdie does not resort to maudlin tales to bring across the bond between a father and his son. Even though the foundation is built on a shaky start, he demonstrates that a fantasy tale can build emotions and sentimentality without the help of drama and tears. I particularly got misty eyed, every time that Rashid discovers that Haroun is going above and beyond the duties of a son and says to him whenever he finds him helping out bravely in a precarious situation:

“Young Haroun. You surely are the most unexpected of boys!”

What a wonderful tribute from Rushdie to his son. Truly, remarkable.
Originally published here: Jaggery Lit

On Death

When you make a connection with someone, that connection always remains in the recesses of our mind. Though we might not pay attention to that connection, we are secure in the knowledge that we can go back to it, if we wanted to. But once you realize, that there is no going back, that the connection exists but the person at the other end of the connection is no more, it makes you feel really helpless and I believe helplessness is one feeling that can one can quite never make peace with. It is that helplessness that I believe that makes you want to cry. When a person is helpless and can do nothing much about a situation, the only relief they seek is in tears.

And yes, its a lifetime thing. No getting away from it. Death unfortunately is that final!

On Maturity

I think age is just a number where maturity is concerned. There is no direct or inverse proportion between the two.

I also think that Maturity is not a one time process like attaining Enlightenment for example. It is rather, an ongoing process. You can’t sit meditating under the Bodhi Tree and one day open your eyes and say – I am mature now! And also Maturity is not a one size fits all. You could be mature in certain things and still be immature in others.

When I was in college I used to marvel at one of my friends who used to single handed cook for her entire family while pursuing her Engineering. I, on the other hand did not know how to boil an egg. At that age, I used to consider her the maturest among our group of friends.Fast forward a few years. We are still great friends and we took a trip with our group of friends. There were certain times during the trip wherein I thought that she did not display the same level of maturity that I expected of her. I realized that somewhere along the way I had overtaken her in the maturity department related to certain stuff. In many aspects I realized that she was way more mature than I was. I am sure from her viewpoint, she thinks the same about me. That I am still the very immature friend I was all those years ago in some aspects and that I have matured in some others.

Yet, there are certain times where I feel appalled at some people’s (im)maturity levels. I am like how could they be so advanced in years and so behind in maturity. The answer I have found to that question is that maturity is dictated by circumstances and the kind of people you are surrounded with. I have seen that when you are surrounded by immature people, then you attain maturity earlier. Maybe because you can feel how their immaturity is effecting your life and go about not being like them from an early age. So yes a 10 year old who faces tough life situations I believe matures earlier than a 40 year old who has had a relatively easy life.

As I said at the beginning of the answer Age is just a number for Maturity. It just doesn’t matter.

Till we meet again, my love, till we meet again!

Sometimes I like to pretend,
Pretend that the water under the bridge could backtrack to a time.
Time when you were around.
Time when time stood still,
Among all those mugs of coffee and puffs of smoke,
Where information and laughter was exchanged in the spoken word,
And so much love and wisdom in the unspoken,
So much left unsaid, remains so,
Now there is not even a chance,
As the river beneath my feet has disappeared into the sea,
Just like you, my love, have taken flight,
To an unknown place,
I know not where to look for you,
I know not how to reach out,
So, I like to pretend,
That you visit me every day, that you tune in to my thoughts,
The mugs of coffee await your words of wisdom,
Your impish smile and your maturity beyond your years
The whiffs of smoke rise to the sky and vanish,
I look towards it to catch a glimpse of you,
Where I see you watching over me,
That is what I like to pretend, that is how I exist.

Queen of Dreams – Disappointment in real life!

The first time I encountered Chitra Divakurni Banerjee’s delicious fiction writing was when I chanced on a Collection of Short Stories written by her titled “Arranged Marriage”. I read through them, completely enthralled. One story after another emerged as Chitra portrayed a very realistic world of an average Indian woman. I could identify with so many of the emotions she was writing about. The last story especially where she outdid herself was so raw with emotion, so replete with pathos, that it tugged my heart quite a bit. It felt like I was watching something unfold in front of my eyes. The events were believable and the commentary that went with the flow of the story was mind blowing. I especially liked the way how she meandered on about the protagonist’s thoughts, spot on! I have read some reviews saying this was a collection of sob stories, while I do agree they were, let me also tell you that each of these sob stories was not far off the mark. Things like this routinely occur in women’s lives wherein if they are satisfied and happy with one aspect of their life, then there is another aspect wherein they are very anxious and discontented about. Chitra lays that down beautifully. I especially was blown over in the last story wherein the heroine realizes that what had happened has nothing to do with her but mostly to do with a human being’s unquenchable thirst for happiness which leads him/her to different places to satiate the thirst. However, since the nature of the thirst lies is in the fact that it cannot be completely quenched, the human being is left in the same state they were before coming and trying out the new water hole!

That is basically the essence of all the stories – that human beings are very finicky creatures who don’t seem to find peace in anything and that they leave parts of themselves scattered. Since they have already moved forward, these pieces remain broken and can never be gathered again to make the human whole. We might try to retrace our steps back to find that important piece that fell off from us, but one can never quite recover what one has lost of themselves. She carries the essence of the stories into the second book I read by her – this one a novel titled “The Queen of Dreams.”

I have heard of an earlier book written by the same author, the very famous “Mistress of Spices” which was even developed into a movie. I haven’t read Mistress of Spices completely, just a few brief excerpts here and there and from what I’ve read, it seems like wonderful read. Divakurni seemed like an outstanding author and I was really excited about reading her Queen of Dreams.

The prose as usual was very good and true to her nature, she dives into the story with a splash. There is no build up or meandering about as we are thrown headlong into the dream world. It took me a while to understand what Queen of Dreams meant though. Once I got it, I found myself very interested with the goings-ons and as is usual with me when I have a good book to read, I was feeling elated.

Well, well, well, don’t judge a book by it’s cover they say – they should also include another disclaimer – don’t judge a book by the first few chapters. This turned out to be such a bad book, I had trouble finishing it. At the end of it, I had read first person, second person, third person and no person accounts. Pretty damn confusing. Not to mention the constant back and forth from the past and not just past from one person’s point of view but past from the first person, second person, third person and no person’s point of view that I am already very confused about.

Granted, sometimes it is fun to wade through these confusions. But only if your efforts are worth it. If the story had the punch, if the treatment had the twinkle, then yes, I am all for making it harder on the reader to catch on to the author’s way of thinking. After all, delayed gratification is worth something. But what if the gratification you have been looking for simply does not exist? That’s what happens here. The story is so predictable like a Bollywood Masala Movie, worse still like an Indian TV Soap Opera, that I found myself wincing at some of the tracks. The one where the lead protagonist (who is not the Queen of Dreams, mind you!) interacts with her best friend Belle. Reminded me of all those cringeworthy moments in Hindi Movies where the heroine is put on a pedestal and her every sigh, her every move is glorified by her lesser mortal friends. I find the whole concept of having a queen bee buzzing among her friends infuriating. For God’s sake, if you have put them on the same level and call them friends, don’t make it seem like the friend is a lesser human being to make your heroine more of a heroine. That vein of thought runs throughout the novel and I found that highly exasperating. When you must take the help of your side character to add more meat to your main character, you are basically cheating. You need to make your character whole by themselves. If you must make them appear better than those around them, then you have to raise them higher, not push the people around then lower to achieve the effect. That is how the heroes in our movies are given Demi-God status – by making us feel like they are the best amongst a bevy of moronic men and women. I was highly, highly disappointed with the caricaturing of Rakhi’s best friend Belle, who appeared to be much more of an interesting character but is relegated to playing the doting sidekick more than a friend.

Another thing I take offense with is how the relationship between Rakhi and her ex-husband Sonny is handled. Once again Divakurni takes a very liberal and soft approach to a divorce and once again to prove that her heroine is quite a catch, we have Sonny (who is a filthy rich successful DJ) following her like a puppy dog, lapping up her insults like they were pieces of bone! Everybody loves him except Rakhi and we are never quite sure why she separates from him. Even she isn’t! You would think you would get to know the reason at least by the end of the book. Think again.

The most well-presented character in the book is Rakhi’s mother – the Queen herself. I really liked reading about her and the mystery surrounding her persona. I felt mesmerized by her like most of her clients do. She seemed to be the one character that Divakurni worked well on while relegating everyone else to mere shadows. Except the Mom’s, no other character is developed well nor do they have consistency. It is like one chapter they are this person and down the lane transform into a completely different personality.

Also, the story is haphazard. It seems like the author tried to take on more and more as she travelled down the road and kept shoving it into the vehicle without quite knowing whether she was going to use it later or not. The result is that we are left with all these loose ends that are never tied. At the end, she pulls each shoved in part out, mulls over what to do with it and decides that she can’t really do anything and just tosses them out. The part about the white guy in the park is a classic pointer in the case. I still do not understand why this character was introduced and why he took up so much space and, in the end, had nothing to contribute to the narrative. Also, I found it extremely childish the way Divakurni jumbles his name to Emmet Maerd to Emit Maerd which happens to be Dream Time in reverse. Ugh! And she offers no explanation about this. I would have loved to see her extricate herself from the hole she had dug herself into. It would’ve been awesome had she at least tried. Instead, she acts as if there was never a hole at all and we are supposed to understand what the secrets are. Yes, I do like it sometimes when the author leaves the reader the task of figuring out some aspects of the story and leaves it to their imagination. Here however, the clues are too vague and seem to be sprinkled at will which makes it very difficult for the reader to sort them out.

I understand that Divakurni might have wanted to keep the mystery of mistresses and queens going but this attempt is very, very weak though it tries to use every trick of the trade to make the tale exotic. There’s sand caves, there’s snakes with banana leave skin, there’s singadas, there’s Bollywood music, there’s drums, there’s the streets of Bengal, there’s Cha, there’s cacophony – almost everything that foreigners associate with India – but alas, the soul is missing. The only couple of times I got interested in the narrative is when Rakhi tries to cope with the loss of her mother. I wanted her to break free of her obsession with why her mom is the way she is and work on her own character. Instead she gets even more deeply embroiled into it. The sudden appearance of the dad as a main character who could do almost everything was a bit too much. As I pointed out earlier, inconsistent and not quite believable. But I have to say, I loved the descriptions of all those yummy Bengali sweets and pakoras being made. The opening of the restaurant and everything that went it, I enjoyed reading. But even that was abruptly halted as the restaurant and its employees come under a racially motivated attack in lieu of 9/11. As if the story needed any more drama to it, we have a few pages devoted to this tragedy and everything that happened after that. Just on the surface though. Does not do anything to leave an impact.
As if this mess was not enough we have a vile female manager from a competing business who I am not sure is good, bad or ugly. She seems to be starting ominously and putting her life on line to make sure that her competition bites the dust. Her character sketch is so bad, that I found myself getting uncomfortable whenever she came on. She was the classic vamp and villain mixed into one. Once again I felt that her character was there to make our Rakhi look better. Very cliched – the well dressed, fit and fanatical other woman, only here she’s after the business and not the man. Even that loose end is not tied as she disappears without a trace leaving behind in her wake a portly harmless old man!

All in all, this book was a damp squib. I wish I had not read it and my respect and awe for Divakurni would have had not waned. Well, I have heard that this is the only bad book she wrote. I want to test that out because I have yet another book of hers with me, The Vine of Desire. I am hoping this turns out better and Chitra can re-capture the magic I associate with her writing. This magic I saw sprinkled all over Arranged Marriage. Every story I read in there, every paragraph, every character and every line could have been underlined for retrospection later. As you could imagine Queen of Dreams has none of the going for it. However, I managed to find her spark here and there which I will reproduce here.

The best of the lot for me are these:
“Words are tricky. Sometimes you need them to bring out the hurt festering inside. If you don’t, it turns gangrenous and kills you. . . But sometimes words can break a feeling into pieces.” – Very thought provoking.
“Everyone breathes in air, but it’s a wise person who knows when to use that air to speak and when to exhale in silence.” – Absolutely Delicious!
“I liked his voice, rich and unself-conscious even when he forgot words and hummed to fill in the gap. What I didn’t understand, I imagined, and thus it became a love song.” – Sweet!
Not much, I am aware.