Friday, January 16, 2009

Book Review Contest: Haroun & the Sea of Stories (Reviewed by Gan Joo Ee)

Imagine that behind our moon hides another moon called Kahani, invisible to our naked eyes, due to the technological subterfuge of its ingenious inhabitants, the Guppees. Imagine further, that Kahani is the inspirational origin of all the world’s fables, poems and epics; and every writer and story-teller is a subscriber (either knowingly or otherwise) to the ‘Story Water’ that the elves of Kahani deliver to planet earth through a Process Too Complicated To Explain (P2C2E).

Rashid Khalifa was such a subscriber. He was a famous story-teller whose service was well sought after at festivals, weddings and political rallies, because his tales could always draw a huge turn-out. One day, his wife ran away with another man, leaving behind their young son, Haroun. This plunged Rashid Khalifa into depression. Meanwhile Haroun, who recalled that his mother ran away at exactly 11.00 am, developed a psychological inability to focus beyond eleven minutes. No matter what activity he indulged in, he would always stop at precisely eleven minutes, to the bafflement of those around him.

Soon the family began to suffer, because story-telling was Rashid Khalifa’s livelihood. Fundamentally, to tell a good story one must be confident, and his wife’s desertion had destroyed this. As a result, he found himself unable to spin a new tale. The danger was that once a person fails to exercise his gift, the subscription to the Story Water may be terminated. Should this happens, Rashid Khalifa would lose his story-telling ability once and for all! To make things worse, he was forced by a despicable election candidate to appear at a campaign rally and use his stories to sway the voters.

Fortunately Haroun caught the Water Genie who was trying to disconnect the magical pipeline that delivers the Story Water to his father. By stealing the disconnecting tool, he forced the Water Genie to take him to Kahani, where he hoped to plead his father’s case. Thus Haroun’s amazing adventures began, where he found himself caught up in the war between the two camps that occupied a divided Kahani. On the dark side lived the Chupwalas, led by the evil cult master, Khattam-Shud; whereas the Guppees lived in Gup City, which was bathed with luminous light. These Guppees were the guardians of the Sea of Stories, where the Story Water came from.

For a long time now, the engineers at Gup City had stopped their moon from revolving, such that one side was perpetually dark and the other side perennially sunny. This was the cease-fire accord between the Chupwalas who hate speech, and the Guppees who cherish freedom of expression. Their mutual animosity was so great that they preferred the solution of permanent estrangement, marked by the light-and-darkness divide of the moon. Over time, the Chupwalas have become shadowy creatures that shrink from light, as they do from active imaginations and speech. But now Khattam-Shud had launched an offensive against the Guppees with the aim of engulfing the entire Kahani in darkness and silence speech forever. To do so, he planned to pollute the Sea of Stories, thus destroying written culture, and ultimately, civilization itself!

Reflected in the war between the Chupwalas and Guppees is the tension in our world, where freedom of expression is constantly under threat from intolerance, extremism and government reprisals. So often we have found dissenters silenced by fanatic shout-downs and irrational violence. Is there no room for peaceable dialogue? Must proponents of democracy and freedom of expression be annihilated altogether? This is precisely what we see in oppressive regimes worldwide. Like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Orwell’s Animal Farm, the deeper political issues were so subtly woven into the story that a young person can read it for the beautiful tale that it is, without the bitter aftertaste that political allegory often leaves.

At the critical juncture of the war, Haroun and the Guppees realized that the only way to defeat the Chupwala army was to expose them to sunlight. But to do so, the moon must revolve again – the primordial cycle of day and night must be restored to Kahani! In the chaos of war, not even an Einstein Guppee, using the most advanced P2C2E, could bring this about. Suddenly the Water Genie thought of an idea: he has with him ‘Wish Water’ which enables the drinker to make his dream come true, if he concentrates with complete mental and emotional fortitude. If Haroun would drink it and wish for Kahani to revolve again, then the sunlight would cause the Chupwala to retreat! Unfortunately this was a big ‘IF’ for Haroun, whose attention span lasts no longer than eleven minutes. And I suspect the problem is endemic amongst college students!

In this age of mass-manufactured distractions – ranging from computer games to telecommunication fads of SMSs, MMSs and chats – it is hard to find students with even passable focus. The ability to concentrate is learned, not innate. It is born of patience, self-discipline and hard work – qualities that one must cultivate in order to achieve beyond the ordinary. Have you put your concentration to test recently? Honestly, how do you fare?

So our young protagonist must harvest the powers of his mind and channel them to the sole wish of saving the Sea of Stories from Khattam-Shud. Did he succeed? Well, of course! Unlike Salman Rushdie’s other works, this one has a bright cheery ending. Haroun did summon all his mental strength to work the Wish Water, such that Kahani began to revolve again, thereby preserving the source that nourishes the imaginations of every writer in our world!

I wish I had read this book as a child, when it was possible to savour its wondrous narratives without the cynical insights of an adult. Even so, each time I reread it, Haroun and the Sea of Stories never fails to transpose me to a mystical world full of adventures and possibilities. I love this book, for all its hidden and multi-facet complexities, but also for its remarkably simple message, which no one should forget, namely: Focus, and you can change the world!

No comments: