By Brinda Bose
Book: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publishers: Random House
Pages: 304 pages
Price: Rs 1,285
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights equals the number of Arabian nights through which the beauteous noble maiden Scheherazade spouted cliff-hanging tales to stave off her own beheading by a king disillusioned by female treachery. In some senses — both good and bad — this titling of Rushdie’s new novel, as a slightly precious reformulation of the “thousand and one nights”, is its key. His first fiction for adults after seven years, the novel offers speculative-fantasy acrobatics worthy of the man who has seen and done so much for literature since he reinvented Indian English writing about 35 years ago, and yet invokes a spark of slightly impatient déjà vu.
The Rushdian oeuvre to date (this is his twelfth novel) and the more ubiquitous writerly fetishising of the “Arabian” inheritance — enacting the wily art of story-telling through the centuries since its first European translation by Antoine Galland became available in the 18th — has made the task of re-packaging the heritage enormously challenging. That Salman Rushdie is one of the best to take it on, once more with feeling and aplomb, is not in doubt here as the pages turn themselves, driven by the sheer, spinning, joyous, laughing energy of names and meanings and bilingual puns and “endless sex”. But your brain is also sure to red-flag an inevitable self-consciousness surfacing repeatedly in this slim, airy literary pirouette of under 300 pages.
Rushdie, after all, is no stranger to Scheherazade; we may say indeed that 2.2.28 (as this novel is being called) brings to full circle what he had first articulated in Midnight’s Children through Saleem Sinai’s anxiety of narration: “But I have no hope of saving my life, nor can I count on having even a thousand nights and a night. I must work fast, faster than Scheherazade, if I am to end up meaning — yes, meaning — something. I admit it: above all things, I fear absurdity.”
It is a fear that has multiplied — not merely of absurdity in the attempt to mean something — but the very real fear of being done out of time to live, and to live to tell all that one has lived. In some very real way, Saleem’s final utterance at the end of Midnight anticipated the rush of words and stories and the exulting, despairing lives that Rushdie met in the chequered years that followed, including a fatwa on his head for The Satanic Verses. “Yes, they will trample me underfoot… just as, all in good time, they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who will not be his… until the thousand and first generation, until a thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one children have died…”, Saleem had intoned dramatically at the close of that Booker of Bookers.
It seems that now, more than three decades later, Rushdie is still searching for ways out of that trampling in this breathless, futuristic tale set in New York City after it is struck by a storm, peopled by the descendants of the 12th century philosopher Ibn Rushd and a princess of the supernatural tribe of the jinns, a jinnia who was “spectacularly fertile” and bore a savage love for her scholarly man of reason. Her name, Dunia, signified that “a world will flow from me and those who flow from me will spread across the world”, which it did. In this cross-fertilization of Rushd with Dunia, innumerable children were born whom he decided were better called the Duniazat, because “to be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow”. He refers to his historic defeat “in the great battle of life” with Persian scholar Ghazali of Tus, whose book, ‘The Incoherence of Philosophers’, he had attempted to refute. “Reason”, however, had lost out to “faith” and “God” and “Qur’an”, and his own book in reply to Ghazali’s had been set on fire. He continued to tell Dunia stories as she demanded, and she saw him as anti-Scheherazade, for his were the tales that endangered their lives rather than prolonged it. The re-mythicizing of the Rushdie Affair is exuberantly done: old man Ibn Rushd is restored to honour and as his life fades, Dunia turns sideways and through a slit in the world returns to Peristan, the other reality from where jinns only emerged periodically to “trouble and bless mankind”.
The tale picks up in contemporary New York more than eight hundred years later where Geronimo Manezes, the gardener and unbeliever, discovers after a great storm that he no longer walks on the ground beneath his feet but floats lightly above it, and where the Princess Dunia, being a jinn not of the human world finds herself floating in a new passion with this member of the Duniazat, the tribe she had spawned centuries ago with Ibn Rushd. A new era of strangeness begins of a thousand nights and one. Lightning Princess Dunia avenges her primordial lover Rushd in an all-out battle with Ghazali’s followers and comrades, in a kaleidoscope of word pictures that at its best outdoes Kodachrome’s glorious technicolour. But all ends not well, because it ends in the birth of a reasonable people. The jinnia made of fireless smoke retreats; “dream factories are closed. This is the price we pay for peace, prosperity, understanding, wisdom, goodness and truth… But the nights pass dumbly… Our lives are good. But sometimes we wish for the dreams to return. Sometimes, for we have not wholly rid ourselves of perversity, we long for nightmares.”
Call it magic realism or speculative science fantasy, the old Rushdie of Midnight and of Haroun and the Sea of Stories is glimpsed on many a page in 2.8.28, often in fine fettle as he seems to tell the tales of his own life battles thinly disguised as parleys of humans aided and unaided by jinn-creatures, the products of a still-fertile, yet-fervent imagination. At its best moments, it is a resurgent Rushdie we are witness to, crafting word pictures with wicked delight. At others, we are conscious of having been there, read that.
Brinda Bose teaches at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and is co-founder of MargHumanities