Lessons In Small Print: A Story For Kids That Shines In Troubled Times
Once a month, Meher Marfatia recounts stories from the preteen book club she runs with Rupal Patel. Part review, part reaction, she discusses plots and themes as much as the minds of their 11- to 14-year-old readers.
They live in troubled enough times. So, when we met discuss the book by arguably our best-known subversive author, no one batted an eyelid at the title of its New York Times’ review: “Another dangerous story from Salman Rushdie.”
The kids were thrilled to hear the history behind Haroun and the Sea of Stories: That it appeared in 1990, right after the The Satanic Verses resulted in an (in)famous fatwa against its writer, riots in India and Pakistan, book burnings in England and bomb threats against the publisher. While Rushdie’s story for kids inspired less fallout, beneath its energetic humour and sly puns, the kids learned the power of literature to reshape life. It is a book for all seasons – in fact, more sharply relevant today than ever in an India gagged by intolerance and bans.
Reading like an Arabian Nights tale peppered with inventive colloquialisms and punning pyrotechnics, Haroun and the Sea of Stories seems like a simple story for kids — on the surface. The eponymous hero is the son of a riveting storyteller, Rashid (the kids guessed — a close pseudonym for Rushdie?), who loses his famed gift and can only horribly croak “ark, ark, ark” after his beloved wife runs off with a neighbour. On his onerous journey to bring back to his father — now known as the Shah of Blah — what he has tragically lost, Haroun meets crazy companions like Iff, the water genie, and Mr Butt, the bus driver who turns into a mechanical bird with telepathic abilities. His adventures culminate in a confrontation with the antagonist, Khattam-Shud (‘Completely Finished’), tyrant of the dark Land of Chup.
“But why do you hate stories so much?” Haroun asks Khattam-Shud, whose machinations have cruelly silenced his father. “Stories are fun.”
“The world, however, is not for Fun …. The world is for Controlling,” replies Khattam-Shud, talking nonstop so that no one else can speak. “And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world that I cannot rule at all.”
Denouncing thought control, delighted by Rushdie’s coinage of enigmatic but fun abbreviations such as P2C2E (Processes Too Complicated To Explain), and cheering the classic good-versus-evil fight, the children said:
“Every fantasy novel should read like this one.”
They loved that this narrative — right from its first-page references to glumfish, broken hearts and the Ocean of Notions — is a spirited defence of fantasy, dream, sorcery and magic. “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” is a taunt flung at Haroun’s face at one point. “What’s the use of stories that are only true?” countered our bookclubbers.
“One minute you’ve got a lucky star watching over you, and the next instant, it’s done a bunk.”
This was a line from the book, but one the kids enjoyed quoting and were keen to discuss. They shared personal anecdotes of how life’s vagaries have overtaken some of their happiest moments. School grades, first crushes, untimely family deaths were all mentioned. A few kids explored more profound conundrums, like Karmic cause-and-effect, while others while appreciated the universe’s inevitable reaction to the signals people throw into it. They gave the example of Buttoo, a character whose harsh words to Haroun causes hot winds to blow across Dull Lake and its waters to become choppy and wild.
“It’s as if Rushdie wrote the book this year.”
Reeling from the barrage of cultural curbs, censorship and restrictions recently imposed by the Indian State, the children found the book – written long before they were born – still timely. Indignation writ large on their faces, they split into teams to write and enact short sketches lampooning government diktat. How can anyone tell us what to eat, how to dress, or whom to love? they asked.
“Awesome the way the hero changes adversity to opportunity.”
That the protagonist is confident of the compelling power of creativity, even in the face of taunts to the contrary, is evident in lines like: “He knew what he knew: that the world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.” For Rashid, as for Rushdie, storytelling is both life and livelihood. And neither seems to let any obstacle fetter them. The children were full of admiration for the triumph of imagination, intuition and magical realism over the mean and mundane.
“There could be nothing more enjoyable than filling the biggest library in the universe with our kind of books!”
The book describes the Ocean of the Streams of Story as “the biggest library in the universe.” This mention got the children choosing wish-lists of titles. Most want to cram their shelves with JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and many authors explored in our book club. Books on the music of composers like Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin topped the selection of one young musician. And comic series like Tintin, Asterix, Calvin and Hobbes, and Garfield were hot favourites to shine a little laughter and light, suggesting every kid has a little Haroun in his or her heart.