Rushdie and the Sea of Metaphors

As easy as it is to take advantage of simplicity, some authors understand the depths of the complex world enough to transcend boundaries and speak to both the fruitful guiltlessness of youth and the world’s seeds, hardest to swallow. In 1990, renowned British-Indian novel writer and essayist, Salman Rushdie published Haroun and the Sea of Stories, following the controversy of his last novel The Satanic Verses, (which earned Rushdie a fatwa from the spiritual leader of Iran- Ayatollah Khomeini- ordering his execution) The Story involves a boy named Haroun- the son of a famous story teller-who, after his parents split up and his father loses his storytelling skills, escapes to another planet where stories come from. Aided by a water genie named Iff and a bird-machine named Butt the Hoopoe, Haroun finds himself at the center of a war waged by an evil figure called Khattam Shud who pollutes stories and language. Almost every aspect of the story can be read into more deeply than just its literal function within the book. The relationship between Haroun and his father mirrors the way that the fatwa affected Rushdie’s family. The character of Khattam Shud and his demand for silence serve as commentary on the role that power and religion have on freedom of speech. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is an artistic response to the universally relevant topics of free speech and oppression as they affect Rushdie personally and the world as a whole.

A huge theme in Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the influence and power of politicians and how they affect art and free speech. After Rashid loses his skills, he is hired by two politicians to campaign for them. He finds himself unable to speak to the crowds and uninspired by any feelings of positivity which is all the politicians want to hear. This metaphor almost speaks for itself, voicing the concept that many governments claim to allow free speech under the unspoken guideline that art can only be propaganda. Rushdie dared to challenge this and was silenced and oppressed for it. By showing how Rashid is not allowed to voice his sadness, Rushdie expresses his own lack of inspiration and frustration, being silenced by his government. These themes are further expanded upon later in the novel when Butt the Hoopoe questions the restrictions of speech that are placed on the Chupwallas who are at war with the Gups. Butt asks, “What is the point of giving persons freedom of speech if you then say they must not utilize them same? And is not the power of speech the greatest power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full” (Rushdie, 119). Rushdie’s voice comes through here, criticizing the fatwa and all limitations on freedom of speech in the real world. This shows how Rushdie tells a story about a broken family, a sad allegory for Rushdie’s emotional state and the way he had been personally affected by real world issues.

Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses lead to the infamous fatwa, placed by Ayatollah Khomeini, demanding Rushdie be killed. Rushdie writes about this through metaphor in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The character of Khattam Shud is an evil powerful figure who is against all use of expression and language. He has waged war on the Gups who tend the Sea of Stories and foster imagination and creativity. His menacing reputation is given a dark context in the novel. “Khattam Shud is the enemy of all stories, even of language itself. He is the prince of silence and the foe of speech” (Rushdie, 92). By portraying Khattam-Shud as such a profoundly evil character in the novel, Rushdie harshly criticizes oppressive leaders and ‘enemies of speech’. In the end of the novel the Chupwallas are defeated by the Gups because they cannot communicate with each other due to their anti-speech practices. Rushdie narrates, “Many of [the Chupwallas] had to fight their own shadows! And as for the rest, well, their vows of silence and their habits of secrecy had made them vicious and distrustful of one another…The upshot was that the Chupwalas did not stand shoulder to shoulder, but betrayed one another, stabbed on another in the back, mutinied, hid deserted” (Rushdie, 185). The things that made Khattam Shud strong, made the Chupwalas weak, in turn making Khattam Shud weak when it really counted. This scenario can be applied to real world leaders, specifically the Ayatollah. Critic Alison Lurie of The New York Times expands upon Rushdie’s real-life connections to the fictional Khattam-Shud in her review of the novel. “[Rushdie] has survived death threats from his own Khattam-Shud”(Lurie). Lurie directly compares the story to the real world, asserting that Rashid represents Rushdie and Khattam-Shud represents the Ayatollah. She further illustrates the connections, adding, “If there is one encouraging conclusion to be drawn from the recent fate of Salman Rushdie, it is that literature has power- so much power that it is dreaded by dictators” (Lurie). Lurie speaks of Rushdie’s fatwa as a recent event, giving a first hand reaction to history. In the novel, the Gups won the war because the Chupwallas feared speech. This parallel’s Lurie’s claim that literature has won because the Ayatollah fears speech.

This shows how Haroun and the Sea of Stories conveys beliefs and emotions deeper than what is literally written by using metaphors to depict universal real world issues and how they affected Salman Rushdie personally. Rashid and Haroun’s relationship represents that of Rushdie and his son and Khattam Shud and his cult of anti-speech worshipers depict, not only the Ayatollah but all oppressive leaders with excess power and control. In fiction and in reality, freedom of speech and the ability to express are always necessary for a society to function properly and stealing them from a person is like polluting their creative sea.

Works Cited

Lurie, Alison. “Another Dangerous Story From Salman Rushdie.” NYTimes, The New York Times, 11

Nov. 1990, www.nytimes.com/books/99/04/18/specials/rushdie-haroun.html.

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun: and the Sea of Stories. London, Granta Books, 1991.

Haroun’s Multicolored Backdrop

Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories is in many ways a simple fairy tale about magical people in a magical land. Rushdie himself admits that he first came up with the basic idea for the novel while telling stories to his son in the bathtub, and indeed, the simple structure and plot of the novel make it an ideal children’s book (Nelson). While he wrote the book ostensibly for his son (as both a child and an adult), one wonders what Rushdie’s other motivations and thoughts were while writing. So many aspects of the book have direct parallels to Rushdie’s own circumstances and to the world he saw around him at the time that one must look at all the complexities and not simply discount the book as children’s literature. What complexities, divisions, and issues did Rushdie consider in his creation of the Haroun narrative? One cannot deny the importance of Rushdie’s own personal circumstances in the writing of Haroun and the Sea of Stories because Rushdie wrote it for such personal reasons. After Rushdie’s publication of The Satanic Verses, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s subsequent issuing of the fatwa calling for his death, Rushdie went into hiding in Great Britain and was unable to see his family for significant periods of time. Were it not for this inability to communicate directly with his son, very likely Rushdie would not have written this book. In very real and tangible ways, Rushdie saw and felt his work being censored at this time, and so censorship becomes a major theme in Haroun, his first post-fatwa publication. As a direct connection, the character of Khattam-Shud, the dark poisoner of the Sea of Stories, closely parallels Khomeini, who is Rushdie’s own enemy of stories. In the same way Khomeini tries to maintain the one truth of his country’s national and religious identity by silencing Rushdie’s story, Khattam-Shud maintains control over the Chupwalas by silencing them all completely. Khattam-Shud’s ultimate goal is to control all, and he says, “inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all,” so he must obliterate the source of stories, just as Khomeini would have liked to obliterate the source of The Satanic Verses (Rushdie, 161). Khattam-Shud, like Khomeini, wishes to create a world in which there is only one truth: one right and one wrong, and stories represent a divergence from that truth. Rushdie prefers to look at the world as being dynamic and narrative, as Hassumani says, “Rushdie’s…novels have always pointed to the dangers involved in buying into binary systems that simplify experience into either/or categories… Religious or political leaders who present it as a system of binaries are actively creating a myth and then selling it as ‘reality'” (Hassumani, 99). Rushdie criticizes this tendency of politicians to create their own “realities” when he compares Rashid’s storytelling to that of politicians, saying, “Nobody ever believed anything a politico said, even though they pretended as hard as they could that they were telling the truth…But everyone had complete faith in Rashid, because he always admitted that everything he told them was completely untrue” (Rushdie, 20). Rushdie again highlights this tendency of politicians to create their own versions of reality when Haroun and Rashid meet Snooty Buttoo. Buttoo pays for Rashid’s stories, but insists on “up-beat sagas only” and says, “If you want pay, then just be gay” (Rushdie, 49). By attempting to create a falsely happy world for his constituents, Buttoo is censoring Rashid, and while Rashid feels this is wrong, he compromises his ethics and goes along with things because he needs the money. After Haroun and Rashid’s adventure on Kahani, they must still return to earth and Rashid must face his obligation to tell stories for Mr. Buttoo. His words, “You’d better be good; or else” are an implied threat to the physical well being of Rashid if he does not comply with his demands (Rushdie, 205), much in the same way that writers living under restrictive governments in much of the middle east were threatened with violence if their writing in any way challenged the ruling ideology. As Rashid tells his story, the audience realizes the story’s connection to their own situation of being ruled by a corrupt politician, and begins to chant, “Mister Buttoo- go for good; Mr. Buttoo-khattam-shud” (Rushdie, 206). This use of the words “khattam-shud” connect the corrupt politician to the evil character in Rashid’s story, but also in this context mean literally “completely finished,” and state clearly that the people of the Valley of K will no longer tolerate a leader who inhibits their free speech. They indeed drive him out of their town, leaving them “free to choose leaders they actually liked” (Rushdie, 207). Rushdie again highlights the importance of free speech when he so strikingly contrasts the Guppies with the Chupwalas. The Guppies, perpetually full of talk, do not even understand the concept of censoring themselves based on who is around them, much less the concept of censorship of others. When discussing their course of action, Haroun says, “that sounds like mutinous talk to me,” but fail to comprehend his meaning and ask, “what’s a Mutinus…is it a plant?” (Rushdie, 118). In fact, Rushdie asks quite overtly through his character of Butt the Hoopoe, “what is the point of giving persons Freedom of Speech…if you then say the must not utilize same? And is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all?” (Rushdie, 119). Here, Rushdie is perhaps referring to and denouncing the more covert censorship of the Western world, rather than the open censorship of Khomeini’s Iran. In the western world, in a way that is more like what Haroun is used to, dissenters are not silenced, but instead, people simply do not utilize their freedom of speech because they are afraid or simply apathetic. When the battle between the Guppees and Chupwalas occurs, Rushdie portrays free speech and open communication as the clear reason for the Guppee’s victory. He tells us, “all those arguments and debates, all that openness, had created powerful bonds of fellowship between [the Guppees]. The Chupwalas, on the other hand, turned out to be a disunited rabble,” showing that the lack of communication and trust between Chupwalas led to their quick downfall (Rushdie, 185). Indeed, he goes as far as having the Chupwalas call the Guppees “liberators.” This seems a gross over simplification from which we cannot draw direct parallels to the political reality of the day. Would Iranians have felt liberated had they been freed from the rule of Khomeini? On the contrary, many Iranians hailed Khomeini for bringing back their Islamic roots and creating a cohesive national identity for Iran. Indeed, many agreed Khomeini’s attempt at censoring because they, like Khomeini, saw Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, as an attack on and an open rejection of Islam. Rushdie does subtly admit that not all of the Chupwalas wish to be freed from their oppression in his introduction of the suicide bomber. While in character with the children’s story feel of the rest of the novel, the juggler of the bomb is in fact a reference to real life fanatics, the most publicized of which are Muslim fanatics, who willingly sacrifice their own lives in order to destroy any contradictions to their one truth. One point which Rushdie tries to impress upon his readers is the superficiality of this idea of a single truth because it leads to artificial divisions between people who do not agree on what constitutes that one truth. As Hassumani says, “Haroun attempts to deconstruct such binary oppositions by revealing them to be cultural constructs and attempts to envision the Ocean as an alternative site of heterogeneity” (95). Rushdie explores this idea of cultural constructs in his creation of the “Invisible Wall” between Chup and Gup, and the blatantly artificial means they have for maintaining such stark division. As Butt the Hoopoe explains to Haroun, “Thanks to the genius of the Eggheads at P2C2E House, the rotation of Kahani has been brought under control. As a result the Land of Gup is bathed in Endless Sunshine, while over in Chup it’s always the middle of the night” (Rushdie, 80). Because of the artificial barrier of the Invisible Wall, Guppees assume that Chupwalas are evil dark creatures without ever having met any of them. Haroun, however, admits that he thinks that, “if Guppees and Chupwalas didn’t hate each other so, they might actually find each other pretty interesting” (Rushdie, 125). This situation has direct parallels in the way Rushdie viewed the real world. Being Indian and Pakistani, but having spent much of his life in Great Britain, Rushdie identifies with both the Muslim and the “Western” worlds, and sees the sometimes stark division between the two as artificial. Just in the way that the Guppees put up an invisible wall, there exists between the occidental and oriental worlds a barrier that causes one to judge the other ever without having enough information to do so. Amidst Rushdie’s vivacious fantasy world, he manages to communicate his criticism of our world’s many sets of binary divisions. He wants the reader to recognize that to know what conflict is, one must understand the complexities behind it and appreciate that nothing can be definitively divided between black and white. In this way, Rushdie’s fanciful narrative makes more sense of conflicts between Western and Eastern worlds than the news media, which tend to portray the world in terms of “us and them.”