It was in September 1990, a year after living under police protection, that Booker Prize-winner Salman Rushdie wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories, his first for children. Touching upon issues such as freedom of speech and censorship, it could also be read as a response to the ban The Satanic Verses (1988) faced after massive protests from the Muslim community.
Thirty years later, the Dastangoi Collective has adapted this work of magical realism, keeping Haroun, his father Rashid, their relationship with stories, and the war with Khatmshud, who wants to leave everyone Bezuban. Poonam Girdhani has penned Dastan-e-Haroun, which she will be staging alongside Rajesh Kumar on August 15 in an online performance. Directed by Mahmood Farooqui and produced by Anusha Rizvi, it is the collective’s second digital dastan after Ram Katha. Excerpts from an interview with Girdhani:
How did you think of adapting this novel into a dastan?
Back in 2012-13, we thought of weaving dastans for children and had stories like Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, along with some folk tales, in mind. I had picked up Haroun… Before I could start work, the adaptation of Alice… was complete and we got occupied with its performances, followed by Little Prince. I also didn’t have as much experience in writing a dastan back then. I was more interested in making my performances better. I finally took to writing in 2018 with Dastan-e-Irfan-e-Buddh. Last year, when Rushdie sahab gave us the go-ahead, I started working on it.
What were the challenges you faced while adapting it?
It’s a very difficult book to adapt because Rushdie saab plays a lot with the language. It is based on the idea of speech and language, and words and voices. So to transfer that fun and frolic that he creates with English in Hindustani was the biggest challenge. We had to coin our own phrases by borrowing words from different languages. For instance, we called Water Genie as Salil Parizad. Salil is water in Hindi and parizad means progeny of a fairy. But I enjoyed playing with languages and witness them transcend boundaries.
Freedom of speech and censorship are the running themes of the story. Did you also approach the story to highlight those issues?
While it definitely talks about freedom of speech and censorship, what I really liked about this book was the relationship between the father and the son, and how he wants to share life that he had lived with him. The dastango in me could relate to Rashid because my daughter also tells me how she gets confused when her friends ask her about her mother’s work, as she thinks storytelling isn’t really a profession. That’s exactly what Haroun asks Rashid, ‘what is the point of these stories?’. What Rashid goes through when people don’t understand his passion for stories is what many storytellers go through, and is one of the things that I wanted to highlight.
Taking cue from Haroun, do you think people’s interest in stories has waned?
People are interested in stories, but they don’t want to pay for it. I get multiple invitations to do online sessions but they are not willing to pay, and expect that this is something to be done free of cost. However, people cannot live without stories, hence they are here to stay.
Rushdie also brings to the fore the politics of stories and language and how they can be poisoned, and eventually points out how the strength remains in ancient tales. Why do you think stories are important?
Look at any turbulent time, what has survived are stories, and we have lived through so many of them. Because we have such a strong tradition of oral storytelling, so many qissas and kahanis have kept personal histories in public memory. It’s very difficult to let go of stories. At times, they are attempts to suppress them, but they still survive.
How difficult was it to pick and choose episodes from the story for the dastan?
It was very difficult. The entire novel is very episodic in nature, there are so many characters who have their own backstories, and we don’t have as much time to narrate them all. So we had to choose our own storyline. I think that’s where the role of dastango comes in. I have chosen my own storyline from Haroun and the Sea of Stories. What I focus on is the boy, his father, who is a dastango and believes in stories. The son really believed in both, but one day he questions them, and then starts his struggle to bring back those tales.
Isn’t the story of Dastan-e-Haroun similar to the story of Dastangoi and its modern revival?
Of course, it is. When I was reading about Rashid Khalifa, I could find myself in him. I could see Mahmood in him, and the struggle he goes through. We all work to keep people’s faith in the stories and the language alive. There are many things that we decide to give up to continue being storytellers. We have to also save ourselves from getting tired and giving up.
How is digital dastangoi different from stage?
What we miss the most is the live audience. One of the most important aspects of dastangoi is the audience. It is unlike theatre, which has the fourth wall. We encourage people to clap and participate. That live interaction is missing in the digital, as we only have a camera in front of us. Hence, Rajesh and I decided to perform for each other.
The performance will stream on skillboxes.com on August 15 from 12 noon to 12 pm. Ticket for Rs 250 on the website.
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