Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights: A Novel
Penguin India/ Hamish Hamilton
Rs 599, 286 pages
It was after the Emergency that Delhi’s citizens returned to the practice of writing to the jinns of the city, trusting in the existence and benevolence of magical beings who straddled the divide between the world of mortals and immortals.
Ask in Kotla or Jamali-Kamali, and some will tell you that the jinns still walk among humans: ageless, gifters of boons, curious, easily outwitted for all their special powers, relying on us to combat the boredom of the near-deathless.
It is easy to believe that some jinns (recogniseable, Rushdie suggests, by the lack of lobes to their ears) might read novels; after you read 2-8-28, you might wonder about jinns lurking among authors. Salman Rushdie’s 12th novel is an Arabian Nights updated for the 21st century, a thousand-and-one-nights epic noir written by a storyteller who knows, like Scheherazade, what it feels like to dodge the executioner’s axe and still keep the words flowing.
Rushdie’s jinns live roughly in our times, participants in the War of the Worlds that is both a battle between the jinns and humans, and a civil war among the jinns themselves. It is as pointless to outline his densely crafted stories-within-stories plot as it would be to list all of the nested Chinese box tales of the Thousand-and-One Nights themselves, and moreover, it would spoil the fun, the exhilaration of being swept into the crowded seas of his imagination.
For readers, 2-8-28 is a treasure, referencing much-loved books and answering old questions. For instance, what happened to Scheherezade’s sister, Dunyazade, whose listening to the tales is as life-saving as Scheherezade’s telling of them? She resurfaces as a jinnia, named for the world, mother of hordes of jinn-human children she assidously creates (the jinns really, really like sex, and this is important to the plot) along with Ibn-Rushd, the “philosopher who could not speak his philosophy”.
Ibn-Rushd is invoked along with Francisco Goya, who supplies Los Caprichos No 43 as a frontispiece and a motto – “The sleep of reasons brings forth monsters” for the novel. By deploying them, two men who were censored in different ways by religion, as patron saints, Rushdie links the tradition of Western fantasy to the tales and deep myths of the Arab, Persian and Indian worlds. It is our monsters, gods and demons who seep into America and Europe when the seals between the human and jinn world break. Dunia’s babies – midnight’s grown-up children, scattered across the earth with their special blitzkreig powers – will be active combatants, though they bear her name, not Ibn-Rushd’s. “It is better that they be the Duniazat… To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.”
The war between those who love stories and those who cannot stand “fairy tales, pipe dreams, chimeras, delusions, lies” is as strongly contested as the jinn-human struggle. Mr Airagira, from the city of B. (a shrunken, bitter version of its once-joyous self), quietly notes the takeover of the managers of the construction programme in a changing India: “The orderers and pointers and herders, all seemed to be viciously angry all the time, and intolerant too, particularly of people like himself.”
And it’s the Managers and Swots who ask, with increasing anger, the question Rushdie raised first in Haroun and The Sea of Stories: what’s the use of stories that aren’t even true? A dangerous, silencing, stifling idea spreads: “The idea that language was an infection from which the human race needed to recover, that speech was the source of all dissension, wrongdoing and decay.”
Of all the children of the jinn, the best-imagined is Mr Geronimo (formerly Hieronymous), who places his faith in gardens, not wishing to go to war until it is pointed out that the war will come to him. He hovers first an inch and then three-and-a-half inches off the ground. Also off the bed, and above plumbing facilities; Mr Rushdie is determined to underline the realism in magical realism. And yet, he is compelling in a way that Dunia, for all her dazzling capabilities, the wars she fights, the intensity of her loves, is not: Rushdie’s old weakness, the fact that his women characters are often admirable but seldom convincing, rears its head.
Some minor characters work brilliantly – Hugo Casterbridge, the atheist who has the misfortune to believe in divine retribution, Blue Yasmeen, as beguiling and intense as the film she is named after. Some are so thinly sketched they have about the same reality as the paper they’re printed on – Teresa, reinventing herself as a talented mass murderer called Mother Teresa, Daniel Aroni, better known as ‘Mac’ Aroni.
But I don’t expect a Rushdie novel to be neat, and tidy, and compact, and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights gladdens my fantasy-loving soul by being none of these things. From minor conceits (could financial crises and climate change excesses be caused by dark jinns) to big ideas (the enemy is stupid; there is no originality in tyrants) to really big ideas (will we set aside god, like children done with their playthings), Two Years overdelivers.
And you would have to be a Swot, or a Manager, not to be drawn in by the great roaring energy of this intelligent parable of modern times, populated by creatures from ancient fantasy. This is one of the best of Rushdie’s novels, its flaws chiefly the flaws of excess, its gifts coming from its roots in old stories, old magic reinterpreted for modern times.
It even has a fairy tale ending, though that comes with the classic fairy tale warning: be careful what you ask for.
(Published in the Business Standard, September 8, 2015)