(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, dated August 29, 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/swimming-in-haroun%E2%80%99s-sea-of-stories/308511.html)
“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”
That question sets off the fascinating journey of Rashid al Khalifa and his son Haroun, which turns from a mission to find Rashid’s imagination to a mission to rescue the stories that are yet to come into the world.
Salman Rushdie’s ‘children’s book’, as Haroun and the Sea of Stories is labelled, is a little bit like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – the way you read it depends on how old you are, where you’re from, what you believe in, and what you’re looking for.
Written in 1990, soon after Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses released to an enormous controversy that forced the author go into hiding, the book was a gift to his oldest son, Zafar. It’s a story of Good vs. Evil that will have you flipping the pages madly, garnished with a good deal of wordplay and snide references that will make older readers laugh.
The book begins with a storyteller who has run out of stories. His son is determined to find his father’s lost talent, and realises he has taken on a far bigger task than he thought he could handle. From the Land of Alifbay to the Valley of K and the magical world of Kahani, the voyage of Haroun and Rashid has all the elements of both a fairytale and an adventure story.
As they go along, they meet a cast of characters, each of whom is a caricature. There’s Princess Batcheat and her father King Chattergy, Prince Bolo and his Page Blabbermouth, the warring armies of Gup and Chup, the plain of Bat-Mat-Karo, the Dull Lake and the Ocean of the Sea of Stories, a villain called Khattam-Shud, fish named after two of Satyajit Ray’s most loveable characters – Goopy and Bagha – and two Butts and a Buttoo. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a torch that emits black light and a dancer made of shadows.
Yet, the story does not rely on its bizarre characters. You know it’s no ordinary children’s tale when the boy hero’s mother runs away with another man. And even as talking animals and speechless human beings guide the wayfarers to the culmination of their task, you realise that the issues they’re talking about have echoes in the world we live in.
But Rushdie’s storytelling keeps your focus on Haroun’s goal, and as you turn the pages, you’re worried that something will go wrong, and this will not have the happy ending children’s books are supposed to have – because though everything in the book seems to be imaginary, nothing is contrived. And when the end finally comes, it takes everyone – including the characters – by surprise.
If you’re curious about Rushdie’s writing, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a great place to start. And if you’ve read his other books, this fable reveals another aspect of the Booker Prize winning author’s craft.
Twenty years after his first ‘children’s book’ came out, Rushdie wrote a sequel – Luka and the Fire of Life – based on the adventures of Haroun’s little brother, and dedicated to Rushdie's youngest son.