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Whimsical work: Rushdie's latest is a feisty salute to fables

Sneha Vakharia | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 4:24 IST

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Days is a patented good-versus-bad, dark-versus-light, love-versus-conceit, War of the Worlds apocalyptic tale, where love - for no-one would have it otherwise - wins in the end.

It's peppered with hilarious references to modern polity, Hollywood, Bollywood, MH 117, and everything we will remember our times for.

But the real case the book tries to make - and one it makes loud and clear (what is also a caption to a Prado etching) is this: "Fantasy, abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of the marvels."

And here lies the genesis of the story, or more convincingly, a tale.

For a tale is different from a story.

A tale doesn't concern itself with mundanities like developing characters to their potential depth, or explaining logistics. A tale, unlike a story, can focus more on overarching themes, blurring the irrelevances and glossing over the need for relatable human sentiments.

Characters may enter fleetingly, never to be visited again. Other unlikely characters may gain prominence (depending on who is telling the tale).

A tale is sometimes magical, sometimes inane, sometimes bawdy, sometimes profound, but must, at all times, keep only that which is absolutely necessary for the entertainment of the audience.

And a tale requires absolute and unthinking faith on the part of the audience. Even when the plot points are arbitrary and haphazard, the audience must trust that she is being taken by the tale-teller to a place and time worth her while.

And so, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Days is less story, more tale.

Meet the protagonists

Dunia, a jinn who once fell in love and made many babies with rationalist philosopher Ibn Rushd, is Aasman Pari, queen of lightning, and leader of Team Good.

She is joined in her fight against the dark forces by her half-jinn and half-human descendants.

Geronimo, a roughened old landscape gardener of Indian descent, is one.

Another is Jimmy Kapoor, the unlikely hero and consequently, the audience favorite. He speaks Hinglish and is employed in an accountancy firm in Queens, New York, by his cousin Normal (Real name Nirmal, but a brown person in Queens must establish that he is indeed, Normal).

There's also the Wild Girl Gone Good, a murderess on the run, Teresa Saca, who can emit lightning from her fingertips when provoked.

And if the characters strike you as belonging to an X-Men ripoff, Rushdie acknowledges it unabashedly.

magneto

"Teresa Saca has her superhero name now. Not Madame Magneto or any of that tabloid nonsense, that was comic-book stuff.

I will be Mother, the fiery mama of death itself. That other, more saintly Mother Teresa, she had been in the death business too, but Teresa Saca was more interested in the sudden-death variety than in hospices, no easing of the living into soft oblivions for her, just a hammer blow of voltage to bring life to a hard full stop".

Zummurud, the evil jinn who is out to instill fear in the hearts of humans and also has an emerald cave under a mountain in country A (presumably Afghanistan), is the leader of Team Bad.

He is joined in his quest for world domination by Zabardast, another evil jinn who quietly curses unsuspecting citizenry with the unwanted gift of levitation.

There's also his bloodsucking henchman Ra'im, who Rushdie believes is the "single entity responsible for all the vampire stories in the world" including, of course, that Transylvanian fellow, Vlad Dracul.

And finally there's Shining Ruby, who can enter a mortal's body and force him into acts both dreadful and humiliating, much like the Imperius Curse.

Team Good and Bad war over the course of one thousand and one nights. A war that fittingly and climactically ends in a duel.

Of course the world is saved, not only by the unlikely cast of Team Good, but also by the least likely bystander in the duel arena. (And, if we may add, in much same way Ronald Weasley figured out how to enter the Chamber of Secrets).

The tale is formulaic

But it is this true-to-tableaux, derivative narrative that makes it so thrillingly compelling. It reads breathlessly, even for disbelievers and naysayers of magic realism.

Little easter eggs scattered across the book are rewards Rushdie leaves for trusting his deliberately whimsical narrative. There are allusions to Obama, the Priyanka Chopra-Ranbir Kapoor starrer Anjaana Anjaani, and a "baby-faced tyrant" who "ordered all his subjects to have the same ridiculous haircut as himself".

kim

The primary grouse of many readers will be that Two Years doesn't explore human elements of the book. That the narrative flits too fast to do any character justice. Once again, this is probably deliberate, because Rushdie himself confesses,

"Profound emotions do not interest jinn."

But over the course of the tale, what Rushdie does repeat till his pen is hoarse is that magic and fable are the soul of human existence.

Realism exists only because it is sometimes Magical

A spectacular spoken-word artist, Blue Yasmeen, who features briefly only to fall prey to Zabardast's curse later, narrates a story of the Unyaza tribe:

"...the story parasite entered human babies through the ear within hours of their birth, and caused growing children to demand much that was harmful to them: fairy tales, pipe dreams, chimeras, delusions, lies. The need for the presentation of things that were not, as if they were things that were, was dangerous to a people for whom survival was a constant battle, required the maintenance of an undimmed focus on the actual."

The Unyaza, to combat the insatiable human need for fantasy, decided to stop all the ears of babies with mud to prevent the story parasite from entering. The story disease began to die out, but the tribe grew sadder, and in time a deep pessimism began to spread.

The Unyaza tribe began to dwindle, eventually dying out. The very fable they wanted to destroy came back in the form of a fabled parasite, and in time, destroyed them.

This is the case Rushdie makes time and time again. He introduces characters simply to make this point, and quickly kills them off.

What he says; Blue Yasmeen says; Ibn Rushd says; our descendants a thousand years from now say, till it's hammered into our bones, is that our need for fantasy may be perverse, it might even be a boon to those who wish to spread fear, anarchy and violence, but it remains as crucial as the ears and tongues of babies.

First published: 10 September 2015, 8:58 IST
 
Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia

A Beyonce-loving feminist who writes about literature and lifestyle at Catch, Sneha is a fan of limericks, sonnets, pantoums and anything that rhymes. She loves economics and music, and has found a happy profession in neither. When not being consumed by the great novels of drama and tragedy, she pays the world back with poems of nostalgia, journals of heartbreak and critiques of the comfortable.

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