Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: A Novel
IT IS a subject Salman Rushdie knows well—worlds in collision—and has often addressed in his novels like The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury and Shalimar the Clown. The Bombay-bred Kashmir boy, who was sent to the UK to study and live, witnessed the upheaval colliding worlds can cause first-hand. His debut novel, Midnight’s Children, brought him glory. And his fourth book, The Satanic Verses, the fatwa from Iran, which forced him to go into hiding with the British government’s help for more than a decade. The fatwa years produced The Moor’s Last Sigh and a delightful children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written for his son Zafar, who was just nine years old when the fatwa was declared in 1989. His latest is also a nod to One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, starting with the title, but written for adults.
The key character of Rushdie’s new novel, Geronimo Manezes, was born in Bombay, but now lives in New York. He is a gardener, and after witnessing a severe storm in the city, he notices that his feet no longer touch the ground. Calamitous thoughts fill his mind about the ‘larger betrayals’ of the body that awaited and how he would earn his livelihood if he didn’t have contact with earth. But Manezes’ woes are an omen of things to come, a time of ‘strangenesses’ when accepted laws of governance would collapse. The magical enters the world of realism; you need to just look around the world. Syria. Iraq. France…
The accepted world order collapses for Manezes and others, as four evil spirits, or jinn, break through the wormholes separating our world from the jinn world, or Peristan, to cause destruction in the 21st century. Who can stop this evil? The forces of good—which include global citizens like Manezes the gardener, Indian-American novelist Jimmy Kapoor, British composer Hugo Casterbridge, who publishes an article announcing the formation of a “new intellectual group whose purpose was to understand the radical shifts in the world conditions and to devise strategies for combating them”, and the beautiful, ‘fisher-for-rich-men’ Teresa Saca Cuartos—descended from Dunia, the good fairy and the jinnia princess.
As it turns out, Manezes is levitating because of an evil spell by Zabardast, the dark jinn, and once Dunia is able to help him get rid of the curse, she tells Manezes: “…if the jinni spirit in your body is capable of overcoming the sorcery of Zabardast, then the dark jinn have an enemy to reckon with… and the War of Worlds can perhaps be won…” She reminds Manezes that the “seals between the Two Worlds are broken and the dark jinn ride. Your world is in danger and because my children are everywhere I am protecting it. I’m bringing them together, and together we will fight back”. Hope floats even as ordinary people grapple with extraordinary things.
Another key protagonist in the book is the 12th-century philosopher Ibn Rushd, who had been persecuted by fanatics. The story goes that Rushdie’s father, a great admirer of Rushd, changed the family name to Rushdie before Salman was born. Now, Rushd becomes a character in one of his novels and has an affair with the good jinnia, Dunia. From beyond the grave, Rushd holds long faith-versus-reason debates with the theologian, Ghazali of Iran.
“The sleep of reason brings forth monsters”—the frontispiece is this etching and caption by Spanish painter Francisco Goya. The full caption reads: “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.” As Rushd, a man of reason, and Dunia, a fantastical being, unite, a beautiful, jinn-filled, tragic-comic and dark good vs evil story unfolds.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer