Many great children’s stories also work as allegories for the adult reader. For instance, the Chronicles of Narnia series is, on one level, a tale of four children who have awesome adventures when summoned into an alternate magical universe. However, its deeper meaning is entwined with Christian themes. Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) falls into this category of literature as well. At its simplest, the tale is a quest: when young Haroun’s mother deserts their family and his father, Rashid, the storyteller runs out of stories to tell, and father and son become embroiled in a perilous adventure to reclaim the lost stories.
Rashid Khalifa, the legendary Ocean of Notions, the fabled Shah of Blah, stood up in front of a huge audience, opened his mouth, and found that he had run out of stories to tell.
Their adventure takes them out of their city into unknown lands. What happens next? Which mysterious characters do they encounter? These questions drive the plot. However, alternative allegorical meanings are busy at work under the surface mechanics of the story.
Firstly, the story is informed by certain events in Rushdie’s life. At the time he wrote Haroun, he was in hiding, with a religious fatwa or diktat issued against him for his alleged criticism of Islam in a previous book, The Satanic Verses. The forced exile made Rushdie feel robbed of his voice and censored for his ideas, which forms the basis of the allegory of Rashid, the master storyteller, “running out” of stories. If writers are not free to express their ideas, what kind of stories can they come up with?
The second allegorical aspect of the story deals with the relationship between a father and a son. Note that the father’s name, Rashid, is a close approximation of Rushdie. Additionally, the first letters in the lines of the novel’s epigraph read Z-A-F-A-R—the name of Rushdie’s own son. Thus, at the level of the story of a family, Haroun is a parable for a father reassuring a child of a happy ending. A quest is undertaken, a victory won, and a mother reunited with a family. It has all the coziness of a comforting children’s fable at this level.
In its third aspect, the allegory works as the story of stories and of the importance of free speech and imagination. It is this third allegorical aspect I would like to explore a little more.
Haroun’s world is a world of stories, and the central struggle in this world is how to tell stories if imagination is quelled. Rushdie uses allusions and words from Indian and Middle Eastern languages and traditions to enrich the allegory of Haroun’s universe as story. These lend additional meanings to the universe, which surface with each subsequent informed reading. If we look at Middle Eastern allusions, for example, Soraya, the name of Haroun’s mother, means "princess" or "star" in Persian. Significantly, the name could also be an allusion to Suraiya, a popular actress and singer in Hindi cinema in the 1930s. Note that Haroun’s mother, Soraya, is always singing melodiously in the novel before she “runs off” with dour, prosaic Mr. Sengupta.
Further, the scholar David Appelbaum notes the presence of many elements from Middle Eastern fairy tales in the novel, such as "talking birds, water genies, a kidnapped princess, and a maniacally evil adversary—all favorites of Scheherazade's storytelling.” Scheherazade is the heroine of the wildly popular One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of fables that Rushdie often references in his works.
The country Haroun and Rashid live in is called Alifbay, which is a portmanteau of the first two letters of the Urdu alphabet: alif and bay. The nomenclature implies letters and words are very important in this land, in both good and bad ways. While the spoken and written word are extremely important aspects of life, these very words are closely watched and can be censored or twisted to be used against their creator. At an allegorical level, this land resembles parts of the world where storytelling is an important part of culture yet, ironically, is policed by the state. The name "Haroun" itself is a reference to Haroun al-Raschid, caliph of Baghdad in One Thousand and One Nights.
At the beginning of their adventure, Haroun and his father have to travel to the Valley of K, which is a thinly veiled stand-in for the Kashmir Valley. The corruption of Kashmir to “Koshmar,” or nightmare, is indicative of the political and geographical conflict in the region. The wonderful city of Gup, where the father and son travel further, is a stand-in for free expression. It is interesting to note that "Gup" in Hindustani has a three-fold meaning—it can mean "talk," or "gossip," or "tall tale." The pejorative meaning of “gup” as “tall tale,” instead of being mocked, is celebrated here. Imagination and the telling of stories that are patently fantastical is one of the wondrous things about storytelling, Rushdie stresses. This is also emphasized in the description of the moon called "Kahani"—"story" in Hindustani.
A strange sort of Story Moon our Kahani would be, if storybook things weren’t everywhere to be found.
The aspects of fantasy and wild imagination are celebrated, in a sly nod to Rushdie’s own writing style, which is infused with magic realism
and a breathless melding of genres and traditions. In fiction
, everything should be possible, the narrative seems to be saying.
Further, Chup, the terrible land of darkness, means "silence" in Hindustani. This silence is the absence of stories and also of censorship. The name of the monster Khattam-Shud, who is behind the drying-up of Rashid’s stories and the fabled “Sea of Stories,” traditionally means “completely finished.” Khattam-Shud refers variously to the end of all stories; to Mr. Sengupta, who has cast a spell on Soraya; and to the voice of propaganda and censored speech. He represents the rational, dry, non-literary voice, which demands stories only as bland fact and manipulated history.
However, the gap between Gup and Chup, chatter and silence, is not as unbridgeable as Haroun first assumed. When Chup is enacted on one’s own terms, it can be beautiful. The narrative helps Haroun understand that stories are made of both words and pauses. This understanding dawns upon Haroun when he witnesses the dance of Mudra, the shadow monster, who speaks through action. In Sanskrit, "mudra" means both "gesture" and "pose," and it is a basic unit of dance.
“But it's not as simple as that," he told himself, because the dance of the Shadow Warrior showed him that silence had its own grace and beauty (just as speech could be graceless and ugly); and that Action could be as noble as Words; and that creatures of darkness could be as lovely as the children of the light. "If Guppees and Chupwalas didn't hate each other so," he thought, "they might actually find each other pretty interesting. Opposites attract, as they say.”
The end, which sees Khattam-Shud vanquished and a peace between the people of Gup and Chup, brings back Rashid’s stories as well as Soraya and her singing voice. Tales flourish once more, this time informed by a more nuanced aesthetic, which is the dance between speech and silence. Our understanding of literariness is enriched, and all is well in Alifbay.
Then he remembered: it was his birthday. He could hear his mother and father moving about in the apartment, waiting for him to emerge. He got up, dressed in his new clothes, and took a closer look at his new clock.
“Yes, he nodded to himself, “time is definitely on the move again around these parts."
Outside, in the living room, his mother had begun to sing.