Salman Rushdie. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan, courtesy: Penguin Random House
“History is unkind to those it abandons, and can be equally unkind to those who make it,” writes Salman Rushdie in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (they add up to One Thousand and One Nights; Rushdie’s latest is a boisterous ode to the Arabian Nights). The history Rushdie appropriates in Two Years... is the history of Persian theologian Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD) and 12th-century Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 AD) — voices of faith and reason, respectively. The conflict between them is the fodder for Two Years..., an avant-garde parable steeped in modern-day reality.
In his twelfth novel, Rushdie demonstrates the fascinating sweep of Oriental storytelling traditions and how much they influence him. Two Years…, which brings Peristan (Fairyland) and our world together, is a manifestation of the leaps and liberties Rushdie takes as a storyteller, letting his imagination run wild, lacing the narrative with his mordant wit all the while, changing tracks, switching between accents — now cracking wise, now deviating and drifting, now philosophising, now sermonising and now indulging excessively in asides.
Therefore, Two Years… — a novel about fairies and philosophies, sorcery and strangeness, levitation and lightning; a novel that pitches superstition against reason and good against evil — is at once rollicking and rambling, bursting with ideas and allusions, bristling with the nuggets of history, philosophy and mythology. And though it’s a novel with a sweeping arc (careening through continents and centuries), its arc both holds you in awe and makes you weary and burdened, depleting your interest at intervals. Perhaps it’s the weight of the worlds Rushdie conjures!
At many levels, Two Years…, like Rushdie’s other novels, is about colliding worlds — four evil jinn (Zabardast, Zumurrud, Ra’im Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby) have descended from the Fairyland and are hell bent on wreaking havoc on earth in the 21st century. It appears that a nice female jinnia called Dunia is the only one who could stop them. But it entails her awakening her human descendants — a gardener named Geronimo Manezes, British composer Hugo Casterbridge, Indian-American graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor and libertine and socialite Teresa Saca — to the power of their jinni nature. Together, they fight back, all in their own unique way. But more of this later.
Rushdie’s novels pitch one world against another, with one narrative jostling for space with many others. Worlds collide. Narratives unfold. And Rushdie, in the process, has told his tale.
All of Rushdie’s stories are, in a wider sense, about the act of telling stories itself. “We are all trapped in stories…each of us the prisoner of our own solipsistic narrative, each family the captive of the family story, each family locked within its own tale of itself, each people the victims of their own versions of history,” declares Blue Yasmeen, a graffiti and installation artist in Two Years... We’re prisoners of stories. But, ironically, it’s the stories that set us free. And Rushdie would know this better.
In an interview to The Paris Review, the author of Midnight’s Children (winner of the Booker of Bookers Prize), had said, “One of the things that has become, to me, more evidently my subject is the way in which the stories of anywhere are also the stories of everywhere else... The accidents of my life have given me the ability to make stories in which different parts of the world are brought together, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes both — usually both.”
Rushdie, of course, doesn’t set out to write about conflicts in different parts of the world. He is merely writing about people. Conflicts are inevitable. They emanate from people’s lives and trickle into the narrative.
In the times we’re living in, there are parts of the world where the narratives “collided and went to war, where there were too or more incompatible stories fighting for space on, to speak, the same page.”
Stories, even if untrue, matter. Because what are we but the sum of our stories, real or imagined. Speaking through the words of her dead father, the professor from Lebanon, Blue Yasmeen in Two Years... argues that “the first thing to know about made-up stories is that they are all untrue in the same way… this is our tragedy… our fictions are killing us, but if we didn’t have those fictions, maybe that would kill us too.”
In the “all-too-real” world, words can lose their meanings in the face of the “profound dreadfulness of reality” but the act of storytelling must overcome such odds. And, in Rushdie’s novels, it does, quite often.
A Rushdie novel, by any yardstick, is a force to reckon with. In Two Years…, which the author has described as “his funniest novel” till date, we see an evolved Rushdie. From being an expatriate for most of his life with roots going deep into the Indian soil, he is now a world citizen. He deconstructs the context of the modern world as we know it with a firmly held post-colonial magnifier. He draws inspiration from various cultures. His story-telling technique takes cues from Persian and Arabic literature. He delves deep into the mysteries of Middle Eastern philosophy while continually commenting on the current state of affairs.
The Rushdie influence
Rushdie may call it a funny novel, but we know Rushdie better. When he says funny, there are layers of sarcasm, convoluted realities and intricate characterisation underneath it.
Rushdie has helped an entire generation of writers from South Asia find the ground beneath their feet. They have appreciated and benefited from Rushdie’s voice of dissent, his peculiar style of writing, his commentary of contemporary affairs and his inimitable character-creation. Rushdie’s writing technique — Magic Realism — is sometimes also called fabulism, in reference to the conventions of fables, myths, and allegory.
A vital feature of Magic Realism is authorial reticence. The author is reticent to give any kind of explanation to the fantastical happenings in the novel. The fantasy or magical element is treated as a natural occurrence, with the author not intervening either through explanation or through defence to make the reader understand the ideas. The reader is invited to revel in the absurd and not question it.
As I pondered over how to make the concept of authorial reticence clear, this is the allegory that came to my mind. When we read in the newspapers about the plight of millions of Syrians fleeing their homeland and see stories about dead bodies of little ones being washed ashore going viral on the Internet, we do not regard any of this as absurd, we do not wonder how such brutal events could be true. Ergo when Rushdie writes about the children born with supernatural powers, with no earlobes and the ability to float inches above the ground; and prefers not to give explanations, we have to take it for what it is.
Another important aspect of Rushdie’s writing is his voice as a diasporic writer. Diaspora in the 21st century literary world means not just physical dislocation from the original country, but also cultural relocation and re-identification. According to post-colonial literary scholar Elleke Boehmer, diaspora refers to descendants of the migrants. In this sense, Rushdie does not belong to diaspora. However, his strong body of work and his stronger voice has placed him firmly on the upper rung of Indian diaspora. He is one of the most influential English writers of Indian origin belonging to the post-Independence era.
In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rushdie’s sixth novel published in 1999, he wrote: “India, my terra infirma…India, my too-muchness, my everything at once, my mother, my father and my first great truth…India, fount of my imagination, source of my savagery, breaker of my heart. Goodbye.”
But Rushdie has never really said goodbye to India. He keeps revisiting, in real life and in fiction. In Two Years…, Geronimo, who was born in Bombay, wishes he had “never become detached from the place he was born”. He “wished his feet had remained planted on that beloved ground, wished he could have been happy all his life in those childhood streets, and grown into an old man there and known every paving stone, every betel-nut vendor’s story, every boy selling pirated novels at traffic lights.”
While Satanic Verses, his fourth novel published in 1988, catapulted him into literary notoriety, it was Midnight’s Children that gave him a diasporic identity. Being an expatriate, he has dealt with issues of displacement and alienation in his writing, albeit in his signature roundabout way. For an author of Indian origin (who was coincidently born on the eve of India’s independence, ergo a midnight’s child himself, “handcuffed to history”), writing fiction that spans across countries, cultures and ideologies without a reference to colonialism, is like wearing glasses and pretending to be blind. Rushdie chose not to be blind and he chose not to pretend in his writings. His works unabashedly speak about the effects of colonialism — be it through the narrative, the technique, the characters or the inspirations.
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