Book review: Tussle between religion and reason in Rushdie's novel

  • Manjula Narayan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 19, 2015 10:04 IST
The Iranian Islamic Republic Army with posters of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1989, the Ayatollah issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his novel, The Satanic Verses. (Getty images)

Two Years Eight Months & Twenty Eight Nights brings to mind a pretty package wrapped in paper hand-printed with the sort of hypnotic geometric motifs that decorate the mausoleums of long-dead Delhi sultans. You can spend hours marveling at the intricacy of the patterns, gasp at the cleverness of the artist, and try not to damage it as you carefully unwrap the lacquered box inside.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: A Novel by Salman Rushdie Random House (Rs 1285; PP304)

*The suspense is killing-thrilling-chilling. If the wrapping is so good, dikra, imagine what is inside. All glittering jools from Alibaba's cave only, I'm sure ya.

In Pin Safety Pin

In Pin Out

What ees thees komdi ka piece

gaadi ka number chaar sau bees.

I tell you, bugger, I am so eager to open the pakit, I am muttering every playground ditty I ever heard, regressing to the Bombay lingo I grew up with, it's a bleddy curse, men, marks me out as a satak chandni anywhere else in this fantastic country of I. But enough of chit-chat, shit-shat, open the box, OPEN THE BOX, the voice in my head is saying. Yeah, I gotta djinn too and he's shouting in my ear like an ill-tempered spouse. So I open it and voila! chips of granite, the sort that come in handy when stray dogs chase you down the street. "Bleddy basket, bark at me and you'll be barking for your mummy only." Oh, between-between the stones are fragments of agate, carnelian, amber, turquoise, rubies even. Small-small itty-bitty shiny-shiny pieces that make you feel better about the ugly black-black stones but too few they are, yaaa, too few.

*You've grown up on


. Your father decreed that you should not read Shame because - you suspected when you did read it anyway - it featured characters amorously inclined towards goats. After Midnight's Children, the Great Author was placed on that pooja stand in your head right next to Farrokh Bulsara urf Freddy Mercury.

*Dis forever Bombay boy, he's like us only - cosmopolitan, cool, not like the vernies ya, dose roadside Romeos always doing dadagiri.

A file photo from 25.09.98: London British Author Salman Rushdie Raises his hand in Triumph at a Press Conference in London Iran said it will distance itself from the 2.5 dollars million reward for Killing Rushdie The Author of the Controversial Book the Satanic verses. (PTI)

*When the Satanic Verses row broke, your earnest Eng Lit class had earnest discussions about the freedom of speech while elsewhere cars were being set afire and people murdered. You wandered past the fragrant spice godowns of Fort Cochin and imagined you were someone out of The Moor's Last Sigh. In short, Rushdie has been a presence in your life for as long as you can remember; longer than Sachin Tendulkar even, and he doesn't really count because, shockingly, you hate cricket. So it is with the sense that you are spitting at a consecrated idol, that you pronounce Two Years Eight Months & Twenty Eight Nights a colossal bore.

A good novel makes the reader forget its boundaries; she's invested in the characters and what happens to them, and is confounded and transformed by the issues that preoccupy them. None of the characters in this book grabs your attention and keeps it. Each of the glittering stories that fly out of the Chinese box, the trope with which Rushdie repeatedly bashes readers, amounts to nothing. Geronimo Manezes, originally from Bandra, finds his feet no longer touch the ground; Jimmy Kapoor's bedroom becomes the stage for a creature of his imagination, a dancing superhero, and Dunia, a princess of the jinns falls in love with the banished philosopher Ibn Rushd. There are others too but we'll stop the roll call.

A file photo from 1989: A Pakistani protestor carries his comrade wounded by police gunfire to safely during violent demonstrations at the US Information Centre in Ilsamabad The protest was against Salman Rushdie 'Satanic Verses' which they consider sacrilegious. (Photo: Reuter, PTI)

As for the tussle between rationalism and blind belief, religion and reason that's the core of this novel, it could have been better articulated in an essay.

Still, Rushdie junkies will be seduced by his great talent for scattering pages with references to history, literature, popular culture and the news. Oh, here's the Falling Man not plummeting to his death off the burning Twin Towers but sliding to safety using the body of the jinn Zabardast's snake; here's Kim Novak and Vertigo. Hey, didn't she get a lot of work done, too many botox injections, too many fillers perhaps?

Also read: Bulbul Sharma's enchanting tale of birds and bees

And then there are the many stories within stories, some of which make you LOL, ROFL, LMAO, though no one observing you would notice. Like Hugo Casterbridge's articulation of his "post-atheist stance" to a television presenter, and one of Blue Yasmeen's tall tales: "It was the tallest house in the city, set upon the highest hill, and it was not made of brick, steel or stone, but, rather, of the purest pride. The floors were tiles of highly polished pride that never lost its sheen, the walls were of the noblest hauteur, and the chandeliers dripped with crystal arrogance… nobody ever said a word against the idea of building such a tall house in such a short city… But after the rich man and his family moved in they were plagued by bad luck… the jinx… led the rich man's wife to call in an expert on the spiritual aspects of homes… After the rich family moved out of the tall house the ants of the city began to swarm up its walls… that glorious edifice had become a wormhole, an insectarium, an anthillia…"

A file photo from 2013, 22 January: Writer Salman Rushdie interacting with Hindustan times Senior editor meeting at HT house in New Delhi. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

As always with Rushdie, there is much linguistic energy. This time though it's more in the style of the irritatingly clever copywriter, the uh Lebanonymous guy who crafts sparkling sentences to sell toothpaste, who, in deepening frustration, uses polysyllabic words in fashion catalogues, and sprinkles word games in instruction manuals hoping someone will be entertained while setting up his new cellphone, tablet, fablet, cutlet, whatever. "All the money in the world," cried the Jinni, "will not be too much. All the gold, men, in your sacks will not save you from my clutch".

If, despite this, you persevere, you will be rewarded with a few gleaming bits: "The world men dream of," replied Ghazali, "is the world they try to make".

And this: "Everyone had learned that it was worth giving up privacy for the merest possibility of fame, and the idea that only a private self was truly autonomous and free had been lost in the static of the airwaves."

Two Years Eight Months & Twenty Eight Nights (1001 nights, in case you didn't get it) reminds you of Grimus, Rushdie's early, least readable book and you wonder at its clumsy marriage of fantasy and idealism: "You will see, as time goes by," said Ibn Rushd, "that in the end it will be religion that will make men turn away from God. The godly are God's worst advocates. It may take a thousand and one years but in the end religion will shrivel away and only then will we begin to live in God's truth."

Like that beautifully-wrapped box, this book yields some tiny-shiny rewards. The effort of sifting through the granite chips, though, might not be worth it.

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