Haroun’s Kaleidoscopic Setting

September 6, 2022 by Essay Writer

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.”

Read more