Sha's Reviews > Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
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Jan 27, 11

Read in February, 2009

‘But but but,’ I thought as I finally finished the last lines of Rushdie’s ‘Haroun and the sea of stories. ‘This is no children’s book as was proclaimed originally!’, I went on still reeling under the dizzying array of the thrill ride I had had during my record time of reading it in a flat 2 days. Of course, given that it is less than a 6’ x 9’ paperback of 211 pages makes it easier. And the reason I used the three ‘buts’ was to quote the effervescent Butt the hoopoe, a large mechanical robotic bird in the story that has a mind of its own. But more on that later. For now, let me tell you about this piece.

For starters, the title of the book gives us an impression that it is about a story teller and his seemingly infinite and possibly unending supply of stories. Yes, and no. Yes, because it indeed is about a motor mouth called Rashid Khalifa who stays in a city called Alifbay – a fictional place that, as Rushdie describes it, is “a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad it had forgotten its name” and that it sits next to “a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy”.

It is in sentences like these that one really sees why Alifbay might have been an interesting place to visit – for perhaps the sheer joy of enjoying its sadness that hung around like its dull air. Rashid lives with his wife, Soraya and a young son named Haroun. Now, Rashid is a story teller. Oh but no ordinary chap this! He in fact has such tales spilling out of his being that local politicos are always vying for his gab to get their speeches spiced up with Rashid’s tall tales. In fact, telling a story and telling it well is pretty much what Rashid really knows how to do. A fact that, despite the obviousness of the case, Soraya detests immensely. So much so that she decides to elope with her upstairs neighbor – Mr. Sengupta – and leaves behind a grief struck husband, a shell shocked son and an inconsolable Mrs. Oneeta Sengupta.

Young Haroun does everything possible to cheer up the stone silent Rashid but nothing seems to work for long. It is then that one of the biggest politicos of the area – Butto (also referred to as ‘Snooty Butto’ thanks to his mean demeanor) – invites the father and son to come on over to the city of K to deliver another impressionable version of his speech. Given his rusty skills that have been stunned into silence after Soraya’s unwelcome departure, Rashid’s only words are – ‘Ack! Ack!’ – which, needless to say, infuriates Butto no end. The father-son duo are then packed off across the Dull Lake to a place where they can regain their postures and deliver a more packed performance for the audience the following day. They are hosted on Butto’s luxurious houseboat – The Arabian Nights Plus One – a place that Butto is highly proud of.

An interesting occurrence takes place that night. Rashid would have always told young Haroun that the source of his tales came from the tap that supplies infinitely fresh stories from the ‘Sea of Stories’. He also adds, that a Water Genie comes along to fit it every time the water runs out. Haroun doesn’t believe a word of it. If anything he feels shortchanged for being mocked at by the father. This, probably would have been true, had Haroun not found a puny little fellow in bright blue whiskers and a large turban trying to dismantle the tap from Rashid’s bathroom the night they spend on the houseboat. The Water Genie, who identifies himself as Iff, tells Haroun that indeed Rashid was a subscriber to the tales from the planet of Kahani, a place far far away, and now his subscription was being revoked due to lack of use. Haroun immediately grabs the Disconnection Tool and demands an audience with The Walrus, who he is told is the one who makes decisions related to such subscriptions.

What follows next is a myriad of a classic Walt Disney style adventure that takes Haroun to the planet of Kahani on the back of Butt, the mechanical Hoopoe bird along with Iff. On this planet are two cities, we are told – Gup City and Chup City. Gup is where the sun shines bright, people chatter and birds fly free. Chup is the opposite. Dark, black and layered with gut wrenching shadows that are out to pollute the sea of stories and ensure that every tale ever told is contaminated with their sadness. More characters emerge in this part of the tale – Prince Bolo, Princess Batcheet, General Kitab, King Chattergy, Blabbermouth, Mudra, Khattam-Shud (the kingpin villain of the Chuppee clan in Chup city), Mali and of course, the Walrus. Does Haroun then get the audience with the Walrus as Iff had promised? If not, then how will he get his father to finally become the kind of story teller he had always been? And how does he suddenly get involved in the large crusade that begins where the Guppees, tired of the incessant polluting of the story strands in the sea of stories, wage a war against the vicious Chupees?

Rusdhie taps on some very relevant themes by making this look like a cult Disney feature where a child is taken to a magical world filled with mythical creatures, talking plants and friendly mechanical birds. He peppers it with several metaphorical references to the one word that makes it worth living a life – communication. Every name, every place, every character and every icon in the book overflows with references to communicating with one another. It focuses on just how important it is for the people of Gup (meaning the fellows who are always the ones pulling out fresh stories and looking for happy endings) vanquish the deep seeded darkness of the Chups – the silent ones who only wish to pollute and poison every fresh story with their own hideousness. Those self serving bastards who are out to kill a good story with a horrible ending by making it useless, old and absolutely worthless.

The one thing which I loved more than anything else about this particular piece by Rusdhie is its satirical look at the kind of world we live in. Through his own stamp of unique symbolisms, Rusdhie drives home a point that says it very clearly – people, talk. Tell a story with a happy ending and the world will start becoming a better place. Let the Gup start taking over the Chup and maybe, just maybe, the planet of Kahani will overflow with fresh stories once again that will fill many a tap for many a Rashids around the world. Despite the marketing of this book as a children's book, I somehow could not think of a way any adult should miss out on reading its relevance. According to me, this is a must read by Rushdie.
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