Even a cursory glance through the reviews of Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life will speak of the general dissatisfaction that readers are experiencing with the sequel of the much beloved Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Rushdie reuses many of the techniques from Haroun that sit wingless on the pages of Luka. It is not just the uncharacteristic stillness of Rushdie’s characteristic word play that makes Luka such an unsatisfactory sequel; perhaps the problem is that he planned Luka to be too exact a follow-up of an older brother’s adventures so that Luka’s adventure, although a neat theoretical companion to Haroun’s, never really comes to its own though that is precisely young Luka’s ostensible goal. The problem may also be that Haroun and Luka are children of two different generations and Rushdie’s attempt to be accurate to the pre-occupation of pre-teens in 2010 ends up perhaps as an unintended critique of a certain kind of privileged childhood that is carrying over from the Gen X to something else that has not yet come of age.
Haroun’s adventure took him to the moon Kahani, home to the ocean of the streams of stories which is the source of all stories – old, new and renewed that are told on earth. Haroun had uttered the unthinkable in a fit of unhappiness: what is the use of stories that aren’t even true? In the tale he learns the use of stories and that truth and reality are slippery fish. The real heart of the story though is the lasting enmity between the cities of Gup and Chup, silence and speech, between a grudging submission to unreasonable authority and a cacophony of voices, protests, ear shattering song and a general freedom for all kinds of speech rhyming or otherwise. Written during Rushdie’s years of exile after the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeinie, Haroun is a parable made poignant by Rushdie’s own world of stories where as a writer he was forced into silence, the Shah of Blah with his subscription to the stream of stories summarily disconnected. The cast of characters that Haroun Khalifa befriends – Iff the water genie and Butt the hoopoe, Goopy and Bagha the plentymaw fish, Mali the floating gardener and Blammermouth the page to Prince Bolo – are a stroke of imaginative genius that combine linguistic word play, inter-lingual puns, and cross cultural references to storytelling in cinema and literature from the subcontinent. In other words, world play and the world of play in Haroun is powerfully, politically grounded.
Twenty years after Haroun, Luka comes around with a conscious belatedness. After the first few pages, the narrator tells us that “Luka had first amazed people just by getting born” (10). Rashid Khalifa now fifty years old is once again the “greenhorn father flummoxed by the arrival of responsibility” (10). It is Soraya, whose return to the family had finally set Haroun’s world right again, who names the newborn and gives meaning and purpose to his life: “…we appear to have brought into the world a fellow who can turn back Time itself, make it flow the wrong way and make us young again. (10). Unknown to himself, Luka gets ready to battle, negotiate and know Time, for Time and Timing are of essence in storytelling (they are also important in life and living). Sounds like a recipe for a profound tale so far.
Like Haroun, Luka acquires a pair of friends who will share his adventure: a bear named Dog and a dog named Bear (who have neither the novelty nor the ingenuity of Iff and Butt). He also finds his own sentence that he should not have spoken: A Curse. Haroun and Luka, the narrator tells us, get along very well because of the age difference. Though Luka learns many useful things from his big brother and uncomplicatedly adores him, he is secretly jealous of Haroun’s adventures and cannot wait to have one of his own. While Haroun’s quest was motivated by Rashid’s sudden inability to tell stories, Luka’s adventure comes in the form of something more serious: Rashid Khalifa falls asleep with a smile on his lips with not a hint of awakening. It turns out that the comatose Rashid’s life is slowly seeping out of him and into the life of his story double Nobodady who is also the death that inhabits the magic world of story, across the invisible boundary that Luka crosses unknowingly. Luka’s quest is to seek the Fire of Life, the most guarded commodity in of the World of Magic for it is the only thing to sever Nobodady from his daddy and bring him back to life again.
Unlike the moon Kahani which is the source of Rashid’s stories, the World of Magic is the virtual world of Rashid’s fictions, populated by well known protagonists from the world of stories and mythology but also by characters and geography imagined explicitly by Rashid Khalifa. It is also a world that presents itself as a video game, complete with increasing levels of complication, difficulty and extra lives, for life is easily threatened, nebulized and reconstituted in the video game world. From Haroun to Luka the biggest transition is from reading and hearing stories to negotiating them in a game world of “pisps and wees”. For those (old fashioned) readers, like me, who very reluctantly allow (some) comic book reading in the world of reading and think it (still) blasphemous to talk about books and video games in the same breath, the nature of Luka’s adventure inside a video game is a narrative gimmick that fails to warm the heart, “untricked by the golden save button”. In any case, in a world not his own, Luka must learn about the nature of Time.
Time is the river Silsila (full of fish called eddy) that flows through the middle of the Magic World and Haroun must go upstream, the wrong way because he has to reverse his father’s slow passing into the hands of death. Rushdie employs the technique of making literal the idiomatic even clichéd descriptions of Time. So Time is literally a river where the Mists of Time obfuscate the past and the future while the present shimmers brilliantly in front. To reach back to the mouth of this river it would be logical to take the help of memory and creatures best known to remember the most. But since memory only takes you so far and no further, Luka must find other mythical, mechanical and magical help to keep reaching further back as everything logically pushes forward. Time also attracts travelers (trapped in time, their time machines gone awry), worms (that eat through the fabric of time), whirlpools (that distort the now of here and now), loops of time (that mess up years while the El Tiempo stirs up a proper temporal tempest) making Time both unpredictable and impossible to race with or against. Luckily for Luka he finds himself a ship called Argo, memory-bird elephants and the most insulting Insultana of Ott who has King Solomon’s flying carpet and a lifetime of experiences to get Luka to the final level of the game (the last bit of the novel) which he must play alone (in the final ascent, the quest for knowledge ceases to be collaborative it seems). In fact, before long readers may realize that Luka’s quest often takes the backseat while he is taken for a ride around the Magic World.
What eventually saves the day, when Luka finally confronts the three Jos of Time: Jo-Hai, Jo-Hua and Jo-Aiga (Hindi for what is, what was, and what is to come), is Luka’s new found power to curse and the ability to snap his fingers. Readers will recall that Haroun had saved the day in his adventure by getting over his problem of being unable to focus on anything for more than eleven minutes at a time. Haroun learns to concentrate and learning to focus on a task helps him accomplish the impossible. Most quests worth their salt are as much about the quester’s struggle with the self; a successful quest depends precisely on the ability to overcome a hurdle that is as much about an internal struggle as it is about externalized obstacles. All Luka needs to be able to do to give credit to his adventure is curse and snap his fingers. It is then that the good reader realizes why all the magic in the world doesn’t make Luka and the Fire of Life magical: the protagonist is a privileged spoilt brat who is getting his way. Again.