'Luka and the Fire of Life' author Salman Rushdie embraces two critics, his sons

By Salil Tripathi
Special to The Washington Post in London
Friday, November 12, 2010

Milan Rushdie looks mightily pleased with the gift his father gave him for his 13th birthday -- a book called "Luka and the Fire of Life." There he is, on national television, with a sweeping view of the Thames and the London Eye behind him, explaining to broadcaster Andrew Marr that the book his father gave him has "an old-fashioned quest concept, but it has this new thing which kids will like." He means the innovative way the tale progresses, with the tricks, techniques and trajectory of a video game.

Released on Nov. 16 in the United States, the book tells the story of a boy named Luka who travels through a magical land and vanquishes enemies -- malevolent entities, creatures who take offense for no reason -- on his way to find the fire of life to revive his dying father. For Milan, the novel is no ordinary book; his middle name happens to be Luka, and his father, Salman Rushdie, wrote it for him. It is the second time Rushdie has been inspired to write a novel for a young son. More than two decades ago, when the Mumbai-born British novelist had already won the Booker Prize for his second novel, "Midnight's Children," his then-9-year-old son Zafar said he should write stories that children could read. At the time, Rushdie and Zafar's mother were separated, and Zafar split his time between both homes. On their nights together, Rushdie would tell Zafar bedtime stories about a boy named Haroun (Zafar's middle name).

"Each night he made it up further, advancing the story a little bit. On my 11th birthday, he presented me with the manuscript of the novel. It felt very nice," says Zafar, now a 31-year-old public relations executive in London. That novel -- "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" -- charmed readers around the world. London's Royal National Theatre adapted it for the stage in 1998, and in 2004, the New York City Opera staged it at the Lincoln Center. When Milan was old enough to read the book, he reasonably asked his father, "What about me?"

"That was a very fair question," Rushdie says during an October interview at his publisher's office in London. When Milan asked for his own story, Rushdie had just completed his 10th novel, "The Enchantress of Florence," and says he felt he needed to write the new book while his son was still young enough to enjoy it. "So it was now or never. There is something very exhilarating about trying to please an individual reader," he says. "Usually you only have a nebulous idea about your reader. Someone as special as your own child offers a different challenge." He mentions other great books written with a specific child in mind. "Think of the two 'Alice' books, written for Alice Liddell; "Peter Pan" was written for a boy; 'Winnie-the-Pooh' was written for Christopher Robin Milne," he says.

Milan was the first reader of "Luka" in every sense -- he even read parts of the novel before Rushdie's agent, Andrew Wylie, did. "There were times when the manuscript had to wait because Milan had math homework and couldn't read the parts till the weekend," Rushdie says.

In both novels, the hero is a young boy facing a major crisis: The father is incapacitated. The boy goes on an epic quest, scaling insurmountable heights to grasp an inaccessible treasure -- for Haroun, the gift of imagination and storytelling; for Luka, the gift of life and continuity -- so that peace and harmony will prevail again. Rushdie cites similar narratives, from "Beowulf" and "The Pilgrim's Progress" all the way to Mario Bros. and the other hypnotizing video games his son plays. This is a narrative as ancient as time.

But it would not be a Rushdie novel if it were simply that; reality always intrudes into the author's narratives. "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" chronicled the triumph of speech over silence, its publication following "The Satanic Verses," which had come out right before it.

"The Satanic Verses" was an imaginative feat: a literary novel critiquing the post-colonial universe, told through the life of a delusional Bollywood star who sees himself as the founder of a great religion. It also presaged the battle between fundamentalist Islam and secular modernity. Or, more pithily, between the burqa and the bikini; between a strictly literal view of the faith, where the word of God must be obeyed, and a liberal universe in which nothing is sacred.

The book was published in late 1988, and in February 1989, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa sentencing Rushdie to death for blasphemy, which forced Rushdie into hiding for nearly a decade. There were riots protesting the novel in South Asia; Rushdie's Japanese translator was slain, his Italian translator stabbed, his Turkish translator attacked and his Norwegian publisher subject to an assassination attempt. Khomeini died in 1989, but the fatwa remained in effect until 1998, when the Iranian government said it would no longer encourage anyone to carry it out. Finally Rushdie could return to a life of relative normalcy.

In "Haroun and the Sea of Stories," Rashid Khalifa, a storyteller known as the Shah of the Blah and the Ocean of Notions, loses his gift of the gab after his wife leaves him and his son. Haroun embarks on a hazardous journey to the source of all stories to restore his father's magic. The parallel with Rushdie's own life -- being silenced by the fatwa -- was clear, and the novel became a hit not only with children, who marveled at its magic, but also with adults, who admired its spirit and allegory. Zafar read it with great seriousness, Rushdie remembers.

"Given the circumstances of that time, it was a very important bond between us," Rushdie says. They would meet secretly because Rushdie wanted to protect his son from danger.

"Luka and the Fire of Life," which Rushdie calls a companion to the earlier book, takes the story forward two decades. Rashid Khalifa is still a cheerful raconteur, but he is older, and one day he does not wake up, though he still has a smile on his face. Luka wants his father to tell stories again, and decides to rejuvenate him. The novel sets its adult theme -- a man growing old, his powers diminishing, facing death -- in an engrossing thriller for younger readers. The ability to engage different generations is the hallmark of both novels. What also resonates in each is the central theme -- freedom.

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