If the imagination of the storytellers we admire is a permanent astonishment, Salman Rushdie is out there in the front row, his fervour matching one of his favourite women, Scheherazade. So it is apt that his new novel is called Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which is to say The Thousand Nights and One Night. For a writer born ‘handcuffed to history’; the original ‘Bombay chokra’ shaped by the shame and sorceries of the Subcontinent; the one who dared to enter the Jahilia forbidden by faith; a wayfarer whose destinations ranged from Moorish Andalusia to the tequila country of Mexico, from ancestral Kashmir to Akbar’s court to Machiavelli’s Florence; every future, as the novelist Julio Cortázar would have said, is fabulous. Or: The story is the only way of life in a world where the nights are longer than Scheherazade’s.
Here, Rushdie makes a dazzling comeback as an oriental fabulist, looking back at a world in a whirl, where the forces of light and darkness, of reason and religious righteousness, are at war, from the vantage point of a distant future. You may be tempted to say that this kinetic epic populated by supernatural beings and magically transmuted humans is created by a combination of JRR Tolkien and Philip Pullman tutored by an array of philosophers and historians. It is not. Rushdie has been here before, on a lesser scale. In his book for his son, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the face-off between Rashid Khalifa and Khattam Shud, between the leaders of Gup and Chup, is a call for freedom from the enemies of imagination, and its appearance after the ordeal of The Satanic Verses only makes it all the more relevant an allegory worthy of a father who was once trapped in his own metaphor.
This novel is bigger, busier and bursting with ideas, spanning millennia, and set in history and fantasy, its terrain shifting from the twelfth century Arab Spain to a New York we can’t miss to the fairy Mount of Qaf to Bombay, and it is powered by the jinn, ‘the creatures made of smokeless fire’ who live in the upper world, Peristan or Fairyland. There are good jinn and bad jinn, and at the centre of action here is a benign princess jinnia, the Lightning Queen Aasmaan Peri or the Skyfairy. Her sacrificial time-travelling to save humanity in the War of the Worlds provides Rushdie with perfect scenarios— some of them marvellous set pieces—for mixing allegory with allusions, pastiche with philosophy, cleverness with scholarship, history with mythology, and all the while exuding the exuberance of a writer who is forever powered by the possibilities of this big, bad, boisterous world, which he holds in his palms, and plays with.
It begins in 1195, when Ibn Rushd, exiled from the court of the Caliph for his liberal views, meets a young girl called Dunia in the Arab Spanish town of Lucena. (Take note: The novelist owes his surname, as narrated in his memoir Joseph Anton, to Ibn Rushd the great Aristotelian; and Dunia means ‘world’.) The liberal philosopher was disgraced by the teachings of Ghazali, the Persian author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers, God’s advocate, who had been dead for more than eight decades. Ibn Rushd’s rejoinder to Ghazali, appropriately titled The Incoherence of the Incoherence, could not diminish the Persian’s influence— for a while. His book was burned for his espousal of reason and logic as against Ghazali’s divine certainties. The live-in partnership of the highly sexed Dunia the jinnia and Ibn Rushd produced countless children, and they were denied the celebrated surname because ‘to be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.’ (Don’t we know?) Instead, they would be known as Duniazat, ‘the people of the world’. Heartbroken and still in love with the brainy human who abandoned her, the jinnia princess dissolves and returns to Peristan. Her children, marked by their absence of earlobes, would end up mostly in North America and the Indian subcontinent, though Ghazali’s descendants would inherit the kingdom. God versus reason—the argument would continue beyond the graves of the old adversaries.
When the age of strangeness begins eight centuries after the jinnia’s earthly experiment in love, her earmarked children become part of a freedom struggle. The most prominent among them, and the one who gets more narrative attention from Rushdie, is a gardener in New York called Geronimo Manezes, the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest from Bombay. (The city has changed, and Rushdie, who once called it ‘Wombay’, can’t resist telling us why: ‘Being a little bit of everything was the Bombay way. But it is out of fashion. The narrow mind replaces the wide skirt. Majority rules and minority, look out. So we become outsiders in our own place, and when trouble comes, and trouble is coming for sure, outsiders have a habit of getting it in the neck before anyone else.’) Geronimo, like any other descendant of Ibn Rushd and Dunia, is an outsider whose rootlessness will soon separate him from the ground beneath his feet. After the great storm, he defies gravity. He begins to walk in the air, and, steadily, the distance between his feet and the earth grows.
Others of his tribe go through similar magical experiences in New York. Jimmy Kapoor, the graphic novelist, the creator of Natraj hero, sees his hero entering his bedroom through a dark tunnel: ‘Having practiced courage in fiction, he was discovering it in his real life. And his own comic book creation was the first monster he had to confront.’ Of course, we are familiar with monstrous creations leaping from the pages and haunting their creators. (One such creature decrees from the pages of The Satanic Verses that history is the “blood-wine that must no longer be drunk.”)
Elsewhere in the city, a baby girl wrapped in the national flag of India is found in the mayor’s office. The media calls her Storm Baby, a tribute to the circumstances in which she was born. “The miracle baby can identify corruption, and the corrupt, once she has fingered them, literally begin to show the signs of their moral decay on their bodies,” the mayor tells her aides. Why has she come wrapped in the Indian flag? “It might be necessary to look at the South Asian immigrant community to see if answers could be found. Maybe the disease—the strangeness was a social disease now, it seemed—had been brought to America by some of these persons, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis…” Teresa Saca, wife of an unfaithful hedge fund nabob, kills with lightning bolts streaming from her fingertips. Hugo Casterbridge, the great composer, announces on late night television that the Supreme Being is a fiction: “The triumph of the destructive irrational manifests itself in the form of an irrationally destructive god.” Dunia, the lightning princess, still indebted to the pleasures of human love, enlists her disparate, earmarked, descendants in the War of the Worlds by awakening the lightness within them. The subterranean remains of the old foes, Ibn Rushd and Ghazali, have not yet finished the argument.
Dunia, who shuttles between the upper and the lower worlds, is pitted against the darker jinn, who have killed her father, the king of Mount Qaf in Fairyland. (It must also be noted that the spirit princess has the habit of sleeping with select males of her bloodline, the most favoured being Geronimo, who, physically, is a robust version of Ibn Rushd, and who is the only human who gets an invitation to Peristan.) Her enemies, now wreaking havoc in the lower world—the earth—are Zumurrud the Great and his three companions. Zumurrud owes his freedom from an opaque bottle to Ghazali whose wish will be fulfilled posthumously by the jinn. Ghazali’s wish is straight out of the Book, and it resonates even now: “Instill fear. Only fear will move sinful Man towards God. Fear is a part of God, in the sense that it is that feeble creature Man’s appropriate response to the infinite power and punitive nature of the Almighty. One may say that fear is the echo of God, and wherever that echo is heard men fall to their knees and cry mercy. In some parts of the earth, God is already feared. Don’t bother about those regions. Go where Man’s pride is swollen, where Man believes himself to be godlike, lay waste his arsenals and fleshpots, his temples of technology, knowledge and wealth. Go also to those sentimental locations where it is said that God is love. Go and show them the truth.” This giant jinni, as ‘mordant as Goya’s Saturn’, is Ghazali’s trump card against Ibn Rushd. Still he and his comrades— Zabardast the sorcerer, Shining Ruby the Possessor of Souls, and Ra’im the Blood-Drinker—lose the war to Dunia the Lightning Princess, with select members of Duniazat providing ground and air support in the final showdown, a war scene worthy of a Hollywood period spectacle. It is a war for the mind of humanity—and an argument over man and God.
From his grave, Ibn Rushd tells the raging princess that this war is winnable because “the enemy is stupid. That is ground for hope. There is no originality in tyrants, and they learn nothing from the demise of their precursors. They will be brutal and stifling and engender hatred and destroy what men love and that will defeat them. All important battles are, in the end, conflicts between hatred and love, and we must hold to the idea that love is stronger than hate.” Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, the duration of the war of the jinn, is an echo chamber, and we on almost every page, inhabited by the fabulous as well as the grotesque, listen to the anxieties and anger, the wit and wisdom, of its multiple narrators and their fantastic creations, which includes, among others, the Lady Philosopher of pessimism who lords over the farm La Incoerenza, which also happens to be the place where Geronimo loses as well as regains love, and it will also become the last battlefield in the War of the Worlds. And an apartment building named Bagdad (without an ‘h’) will hardly survive the jinn mayhem. The metamorphosis of Dunia’s chosen descendants provides magical moments of goodness (Jimmy Kapoor, with his inner jinni awakened, could turn his targets into sounds. ‘He could turn a bird into a birdsong.’) Zumurrud wants to create a global jinn sultanate, and anoint himself as its first sultan. There are so many jewel caves to choose from whenever he wants to retreat. The narrators have not missed any of the headlines from the days of the war on jinn terror. What Rushdie has written is a fairy tale for a world where the veil that separates sanity and reason from fantasy and bloodlust has been perforated.
The narrators from the future, their gaze travelling a thousand years back in time, resist triumphalism in the end. The war, they say, may have signalled the beginning of the “death of gods”. They write: ‘It seems to us self- evident, however, that the use of religion as a justification for repression, horror, tyranny, and even barbarism, a phenomenon which undoubtedly predated the War of the Worlds but was certainly a significant aspect of that conflict, led in the end to the terminal disillusion of the human race with the idea faith.’ Still, the oracular narrators end the story with a note of loss. The age of heroism and reason has closed the slits that let jinn into our midst so tightly that it denied us magic—and the wonders of dreams. Welcome to the unipolar blandness of peace. ‘This is the price we pay for peace, prosperity, tolerance, understanding, wisdom, goodness, and truth: that the wildness in us, which sleep unleashed, has been tamed, and the darkness in us, which drove the theatre of the night, is soothe.’
Only a writer with Rushdie as his surname could have written this passage, and it is just one among the many that bear the stamp of a fabulist whose dreams enrich fiction. In one of our conversations, Rushdie told me about the making of The Enchantress of Florence: “I haven’t felt the kind of liberation, the kind of joy in the making of it, since I wrote Midnight’s Children.” That is Salman Rushdie, for whom every word in his oeuvre is an act of joy, and a writer enchanted by his own imagination is a remarkable sight in an age of laboured perfection in creative-writing-school fiction. And a Rushdie lamenting the absence of action and reveries in the post-War idyll is a novelist of rare daring.
(Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie is published in India by Hamish Hamilton)