This story is by far not for children, at least not only and not too young. It is a fable about the whole world in general and the Indian Ocean world in particular and the systematic split of it or them in two hostile camps in a time (1990) when there was not the slightest idea that humanity could get over that division. The Soviet Union was dissolving and the Eastern European block was falling apart and yet the world was still seen as split in two, and 9/11 was going to perpetuate this dual vision with wars against the camp of darkness by and from the camp of light, wars that might have been slowed down only when the side of light came under the authority of a man of color. As Fidel Castro is supposed to have said, Cuba will be recognized by the USA only when the US President will be black and the Pope South American. He is supposed to have cast the dice of this prediction in the 1970s, in Prehistory in other words.
The reason of the discrepancy we could see in the dissolving of the Soviet Union and yet the survival of the dual vision of the world is that it is not based on that macro-political vision but on a direct local political vision, the Indian subcontinent, and also on the general ideology conveyed by two cultures in this sub-continent, Islam first of all and Hinduism secondly. What’s more it is an ideological vision that was reinforced by centuries of colonialism and even more centuries of Indian Ocean slavery trade. We have to note here that Admiral Zheng He from China when he travelled far and wide in the Indian Ocean represented a triple vision with the famous trilingual stone tablet brought to Galle at the beginning of the fifteen century: three languages Chinese, Tamil and Iranian; three religions Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
When the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the English and the French came they all brought the Christian vision that divided the world in two: the Christians versus the others in an undifferentiated whole mixing together “paganism” (what an ugly word), Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and some more even. We must keep in mind that the Christian Trinity is in fact one and only one with one voice, one spirit, one word, one God, one everything they may think of, on heaven and one hell, which makes two worlds, one heaven of divine light and one hell of permanent night and darkness. There is no duality in Christianity, on the divine side at least, and there is only an artificial trinity unified in one non-dividable God.
The whole story is thus based on dual oppositions starting with the storyteller Rashid Khalifa and his wife. Haroun Khalifa, their son, is very fast made the second half of the father by the mother Soraya Khalifa falling an easy prey of the next door neighbor the clerk Sengupta abandoning his own wife. That will cause the breakdown of the storyteller who will lose his story telling ability. And that will happen when he is engaged in some political campaigning to support one candidate against another. The first meeting goes bad, silent, khattam-shud. The second meeting could have been just as bad if Haroun had not taken over the business of his mute father.
They end up on planet Kahani where the sea of stories is residing and developing. But this planet is cut in two because it is immobile, like our Moon, with one half in constant daylight and the other in constant night, with the wardens of the sea of stories in the daylight half and the enemies of the sea of stories in the night-dark half. This night-dark half is dominated by a certain Khattam-Shud who is double, him and his shadow (that reminds me the famous Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Genesis 1:1-2), and who imposes the cult of the idol Bezaban, the god without a tongue dedicated to total silence and no speaking. The only possibility of communication they have is some sign language, Abhinaya, the language of gestures borrowed from the classical Indian dance tradition. And it seems it is clandestine, some kind of resistance.
This division is of course representative of the division between Islam (represented in the subcontinent by Pakistan, but also close at hand by Iran and Saudi Arabia) and its Shariah law that admits only one meaning to the Quran and that admits only one systematic behavior that rejects all kinds of pleasures, satisfactions and communication. At the time of this book even television was not exactly favored, except as a tool of propaganda. On the other side it is more an Indian, Hindu vision of the joyful satisfaction of all desires and needs, even the most corporal ones. The book remains discreet about these corporal needs, though Soraya Khalifa and the neighbor Oneeta are quite clear about their needs.
What is interesting is that this division has one stake, the sea of stories, the storytelling practice of the Indian Hindu tradition against the Islamic approach for which there is only one story, the Quran. Of course this is a negation of the old tradition of the Arabian Nights, that is never alluded to as Arabian, but as the one thousand and one tales, hence more in its Iranian heritage. That is the only moment when the dual world this story refers to is slightly warped since the Iranian and Arabian tradition of the one thousand and one nights, nights mind you, is on the side of the storytelling Hindus. Nothing is ever that simple in the world, especially when you consider the author is a Muslim and the famous Sinbad the Sailor story leads Sinbad across one ocean to many countries that are in fact islands in the Indian Ocean and India itself.
But does this story have a meaning?
Of course it does. It means that when you divide the world in two there is a good side and a bad side, a side made of light and a side made of night. But this night side of reality is a fake world because it is only made with congealed frozen darkness and it dissolves into water as soon as you bring some light into it. The side of the night can be easily defeated in the best of all ways: transformed into a world of light by providing it with the light of the sun. That’s definitely the result of the experience of 1989 and subsequent years: the dissolution of the Soviet Empire based on a tall tale about communism and absolute equality among everyone: only one face, only one head, only one haircut, only one style of shoes or ties, only one story be it the little red book of Chairman Mao or the Communist Manifesto of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and a few other Walter Ulbricht’s, since equality means identical for these limited minds. And that means that what Salman Rushdie was going through at the time, the death penalty edicted by some imams in Iran and Pakistan, could be defeated and these dark forces of intellectual darkness could be brought to light one day and to discovering the sun shines for everyone. That also means that the conflict between India and Pakistan can be thought as limited in time and one day the twilight zone of Kashmir will be opened to full light.
This optimistic ideology is a real pleasure of course, even if it is slightly simpleminded in its vain division of the world into two blocks, two zones, two worlds, one good and one bad. Nothing is ever like that and that simple. We must keep in mind that black holes are made of antimatter but all that we call matter and the cosmos comes from nothing but a big bang in an enormous black hole of anti-matter. Don’t ask me where this anti-matter comes from. No one knows, particularly not those like Stephen Hawking who advocate the Big Bang Theory.
I am sure young children would enjoy the story if it were told to them, teenagers up to 14 might enjoy reading it. But beyond you have to be a lot more mature and adult to appreciate the real stakes behind the décor of the tale.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU