Man “was the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was”. Rushdie argues for the right to that story.
In a 1989 essay discussing the use of magic realism in Salman Rushdie’s works, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani had noted that the use of bizarre, hallucinatory tropes helped the novelist convey to the reader “how fantastic recent history has become”. Written barely a couple of weeks into the proclamation of the fatwa against Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini, the fantastic was yet taking shape; The Satanic Verses was being withdrawn from bookstores across the world, thousands were marching, rioting, a few dying for a book that not many had read, while its author had just gone into hiding that would last nearly a decade. The fantastic was about to become the everyday for Rushdie.
A quarter century later, a similar fate befalls the characters in his new novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. For residents of New York City going about their lives, an apocalyptic storm ruptures their usual idyll, followed by the “irruption of the fantastic into the quotidian”. An elderly gardener Geronimo begins to levitate, a baby that can instinctively spot the corrupt mysteriously arrives at the mayoral office, a rakish Casanova becomes a snivelling, lovesick fool.
Blind votaries of reason, no one is prepared for the appearance of this “supranormal”; Geronimo scours scientific and medical literature to seek a cure for becoming “detached from the old, familiar, grounded continuum”, even as reality stops being “rational, or at least dialectic” to become “wilful, inconsistent and absurd”. The “strangenesses”, as they are called, last for two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights, or a thousand and one nights. It is followed by the War when the human race becomes “the battleground for the struggle between the light and the dark”.
The narrators of the story are separated from the incidents of strangeness and its aftermath by a millennium, and hence have the advantage of hindsight. Readers, on the other hand, have an omniscient narration and are aware that the blurring of the real and the surreal was caused by wormholes appearing between the human world and the one inhabited by jinns, called Peristan or Fairyland. The anomalies of daily existence are the handiwork of dark jinns bent on wreaking havoc, but they are to meet their match in Dunia, the Lightning Princess of Fairyland in love with humanity. She had cohabited with the 12th century philosopher Ibn Rushd or Averroes and birthed a brood called the Duniazatand, and has also used the space-time disjuncture to slip back to earth and organize the resistance. In the end, the War of the Jinns is but an elaborate conceit for the competing claims of reason and faith (represented here by Rushd and his ideological rival Ghazali) that would determine the future course of humanity.
Rushdie is not a writer known to shy away from taking a political stand. When the war had come to him post-Satanic Verses, he had not backed off or made concessions. In his memoir Joseph Anton, he mentions how his father Anis had invented the surname Rushdie as a way of doffing his hat to Rushd, the Spanish-Arab philosopher of Cordoba who had put forward a “rationalist argument against Islamic literalism in his time”, and who had provided him the inspiration to not buckle under pressure, even under the threat of execution or the agony of seeing one’s thought and identity being distorted.
(Misinterpretation is not the only distortion; in a 2003 interview with Ashutosh Varshney, reproduced in Midnight’s Diaspora: Encounters with Salman Rushdie, the writer talks about a Pakistani movie called International Guerrillas, which depicted him as a villain with a bottle of whisky in one hand, a whip in the other, torturing his victims by having Satanic Verses read to them through the night). “Nobody ever wanted to go to war, but if a war came your way, it might as well be the right war, about the most important things in the world, and you might as well, if you were going to fight it, be called ‘Rushdie’,” Rushdie writes in Joseph Anton. In Two Years Eight Months… though, he exacts his creative revenge: when the composer Hugo Casterbridge is asked by a visiting police officer to move to a safe location because of an advancing, aggrieved mob, the composer invokes rolling thunder and bolts of lightning to disperse the crowd.
The utopia that the narrator of the novel inhabits is the world that came to pass as a consequence of that War of the Worlds. It is a tribute to reason, the Enlightenment ideals made real, where differences “interest and engage” but no longer “divide”. But there’s a catch in this triumph of logic too: the ability to dream, to revel in “nocturnal fantasies” is gone with Fairyland closing tight, and the narrator finds himself in a “time when dreams are things we would dream of if we could only dream”. This is not a mere “price” to pay. The death of the imagination is the ultimate defeat of the storyteller, an Enlightenment nightmare irredeemable by any burst of romanticism. It is the defeat of Scheherazade, whose stories were narrated to a murderous husband “against death, to civilise a barbarian”. It is the defeat of Dunia, who had rebelled against her jinnia nature and lived with an aged human philosopher not just for physical gratification (which she could have found in her own world) but because she wanted to hear the stories of his life and work. It is the defeat of Geronimo, who sees his carefully tended garden destroyed by the storm, overcome by “thick black mud and the indestructible shit of the past”.
It is at this precise point that we begin to understand Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. This is not just a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights. It is not mere wizardry with wordplay of which Rushdie is an undisputed master; it is not another rehash of a magic realist taking on problems that defy conventional logic and imagery but a brilliant, sustained plea for the freedom to exercise the human imagination and to enable it to reach its full potential, without fear, with fervour. It is the right of every child to hear a story, and then remake it however she wants it. Man “was the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was” (Joseph Anton) and Rushdie’s effort is to distil all the insight his years of persecution may have provided him with and argue for the right to that story. The frontispiece to the novel reproduces Goya’s The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters. As the full caption of that etching tells us, “fantasy, abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters” but “united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels”.