Luka and the Fire of Life
Random house Rs499 PP 240
Salman Rushdie is apologetic. His publishers hadn't factored in that America had gone into 'daylight saving time' and so he called me 40 minutes earlier than originally planned. But when the '+401' number from New York flashed on my mobile, I wasn't unprepared, having helped myself with a glass of what I had read somewhere to be the 63-year-old writer's favourite drink: Jameson on the rocks.
After the disrupting force of The Satanic Verses (1988), Rushdie had written his first children's book, the 1990 Haroun and the Sea of Stories. That novel had been written for his then 11-year-old son Zafar after he had wanted to read something by his father that 'children could read'. Twenty years later, Rushdie's out with Luka and the Fire of Life, this time for his younger son Milan. "He told me that it was time he had a book written for him too," says Rushdie, who presented the manuscript to Milan on his 12th birthday.
"Before my agent or my publisher, I had Milan read it. I was nervous. During Haroun I had the story but had to work hard on the style. With Luka it was the other way round." Rushdie also points out that along the way, he learnt a few things. "Children like dark stories and characters, you know, the books by Lemony Snicket [the pen name of David Handler, author of books like A Series of Unfortunate Events]. No kid dresses up as Luke Skywalker, they all want to wear the black suit of Darth Vader and breathe heavily. There's a 'Death' character in Luka, Nobodaddy, that I was concerned about. Milan wanted more of him."
I ask Rushdie about how unlike in India, where there's a tradition of writers for 'grown-ups' also writing for children, literary authors in the West usually stay clear of writing children's books. Was this something he was aware of while writing Haroun and Luka? "Well, yes, someone like Satyajit Ray, for instance. I was aware of Sandesh, the Bengali children's magazine that he edited and wrote for. I once met him on the sets of Ghare Bairey (Home and the World) and told him how I loved his film The Golden Fortress (Shonar Kella), a children's film. He was delighted as if someone had finally seriously noticed a neglected child."
Becoming a father also made a difference. "In my early books, I wrote about children the way they seem to adults. After I became a father, I was able to write the world as it appears to children. Being a father changed the way I wrote all my novels," says Rushdie. "There is a simplicity of language, not simplicity of thought, that runs through the writings of [Italo] Calvino and [Jorge Luis] Borges that I cherish. This is something child-like, but it can be used for explorations of complex issues."
Animals, such as Bear the Dog, Dog the Bear, and other talking critters appear in Luka. This he points to the tradition of fabulist writings such as the Panchatantra as well as the world of Franz Kafka inhabited by talking dogs and men who turn into insects.
Rushdie is toying with the idea of coming to India for a book tour. "I've been to India several times for events and festivals. But not since Midnight's Children have I gone to India on a book tour. It's something I'm considering."
In between our conversation, the line gets disconnected. He calls back and talks about the post-9/11, post-Iraq world, a world that he has had a taste of on a personal level during his 'fatwa' years. "We live in the modern world. The tussle is between the modern and the ancient." We have a fair idea of which side he's rooting for. And Salman Rushdie doesn't sound a bit apologetic.