'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; C01

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.

"A writer is a prisoner of his own imagination. My mind works in certain ways; my thoughts work in certain directions, because I am me," Rushdie says. "So it is natural that you will find in my books many of the same concerns that you find in everything else I have written. The art lies in how to make it fresh; how not to be rehearsing old arguments, and how to renew these concerns and themes, but in a different language."

"If you can find a way to talk to the young, you can talk about anything," Rushdie continues. "Children can respond to difficult themes and they don't freak out. For me, the big question with 'Haroun' was how to tell the story. I wanted to find an interesting borderland between adult and children's fiction. It is a blurred frontier. Cinema knows how to do it -- it is uninteresting to ask if the Pixar films [like 'Ratatouille,' or] 'Avatar' . . . are for adults or for kids. Movies have found a voice in which they can speak across the age divide, and with these books I wanted to find the literary version of that voice."

The passion was palpable in "Haroun" because Rushdie was living the story. With "Luka," the narrative took longer to work out because he did not want to revisit scenes from the earlier tale. Rushdie says that Lewis Carroll's approach to the "Alice" books helped him. " 'Through the Looking-Glass' is not a return to the Wonderland. It is an imaginative route to enter that space, and that was the clue. I had to find another reason to go somewhere else," says Rushdie.

Rushdie drew inspiration from the video games Milan played on Wii and PlayStation 3. He noticed the complex way the games had evolved. While earlier games, like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros., were simple quest narratives with bigger monsters appearing at each hurdle, modern games were based on the same principle but placed more complicated challenges at higher levels, offering players more options. "Have you heard of Red Dead Redemption?" he asks, referring to a Wild West game.

"There is an overarching narrative," he explains, "of a character unfairly wronged and accused of a crime, and he has to find the guilty people. But you don't have to achieve it in a linear way. You can gallop around the topography doing nothing, or you can enter peripheral narratives. The player has to show a lot of ability and to invent his own game. There is a vaguely predetermined narrative, but there is an enormous space inside that, where you find your own pleasure. That, I thought, was the beginning of something that helped me tell Luka's story -- not in the form of a game, but in trying to create literature, with an overarching frame, with individual choices that can be adapted."

Although Rushdie has been separated by distance from his sons on occasion, he is devoted to them. While the fatwa kept him from Zafar for extended periods, his move to New York kept him away from London, where Milan lived with his mother. But Rushdie says separation is a problem only if you don't try to overcome it.

"Many people have parents who are obliged to travel. You have to be aware of that by being able to compensate for that. I clear the decks when I see my sons. I am not in their lives every day, but I am in their lives a lot, and when I am, I am there full time. I am very proud of my relationship with my sons."

Rushdie had a strained relationship with his own father, which he mended only toward the end of his father's life. That experience made him anxious not to repeat the mistake: "I didn't want to do it the same way; at least let me make different mistakes with my children."

He was 32 when Zafar was born; he turned 50 when Milan was born. Zafar and Milan live in London, while Rushdie divides his time between New York and London. Zafar lives in an apartment not far from the house where Milan lives with his mother.

"We are close," Zafar says. "I've taught him ways to stay out of trouble." Zafar often goes to rock concerts, and recently took Milan to a Girls Aloud gig. Rushdie laments the ease with which his sons beat him at ping-pong on Wii. "I am destroyed on Wii; I have no chance. But in real life, I can beat them both," Rushdie asserts. (Zafar says: "He is very, very good at real ping-pong, but he loses more often than he admits.")

Where Rushdie can't be beaten is at wordplay. "I have played virtual Scrabble with them -- you can download an iPhone app and connect with an iPad," Rushdie says, revealing his with-it geekiness.

When asked what he has learned from his children, Rushdie ponders the question for a moment. "One thing you learn, again and again and again, is the lesson of unconditional love. It is true that the way in which your children love you, if they do, is unbelievably enriching. In a way, it teaches you how to be that way. Your children know you better than anyone else. No one watches you as closely as your children do. There is no hiding; they see everything. So you have two very clear-sighted witnesses of my behavior, against whom I have absolutely no defense. They observe me more carefully than I observe myself. They can tell what kind of a mood I am in. There's something -- the intensity of the parent-child relationship, where you scrutinize each other with deep attention -- so you know each other intimately. . . . It is the closest scrutiny."

And, in gratitude, Rushdie has told them stories.

Tripathi is a London-based freelance writer.

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