The Return of the Simurg

(Introduction 3)

The Simurg Eclipsed - The Simurg Returns

The Simurg Eclipsed

Flapping Eagle’s eternal flight works in the theoretically conflated worlds of Grimus, yet the same notion has a hard time flying -- or even getting off the ground -- in the history-laden world of Midnight’s Children. While Grimus is structured along the epic and mystic paths of Dante and Attar, Midnight’s Children is structured along the parallel lines of a family history and a national history. It's also structured more obscurely and obliquely on a mythic cycle, starting with a fall from a symbolic (yet far from perfect) Eden, and ending with a possible return to this Eden. Whether the forces of peaceful unity or violent division will win is not clear. While Saleem is himself pessimistic, Rushdie subtly links the Arabian Nights’ magic number (1001) to the age of Saleem (30), the post-Raj subcontinent (30), and the 30 chapters or pickle jars Saleem fills with his rambling, spicy stories. Since Saleem’s predecessor, Scheherazade, obtains her freedom after telling 1001 tales, Saleem and his beloved subcontinent may also find some measure of freedom in his “thirty jars and a jar” (461) -- that is, in the ineffable après-tale which symbolizes more than the sum of its parts.

In Shame Rushdie narrows his focus from the subcontinent to Pakistan, schematizing the life of three families rather than expanding on the lives of one. Shorter than Midnight's Children, Shame chronicles the frightening emotional landscape of the doctor Omar Khayyam Shakil, as well as the political careers of Iskander Harappa and Raza Hyder, fictional versions of Ali Bhutto and Zia ul-Haq (Rushdie's main argument is that Iskander’s authoritarianism paves the way for Raza’s religious dictatorship). Whereas Saleem retains some of his early idealism to the bitter-sweet end of the novel, Omar’s visions are immediately overwhelmed by sinister forces: not only do his three witchy mothers remove from his life an exquisite screen depicting Qaf and its 30 birds; they also work in concert with the Beast, Kali, and Madame Guillotine to wreak vengeance on the patriarchal world around them -- a world that very much includes Omar the opportunistic pedophile. The novel slides further into a nightmare of darkness, as Omar’s child-wife Sufiya is possessed and raped by the Beast, and Omar is brought face to face with the horror he feared in his youth.

Rushdie's second, third and fourth novels constitute a loose subcontinental trilogy, ending with The Satanic Verses, in which characters travel back and forth from India to England, and in which the main characters are possessed, destroyed, or otherwise manipulated by the Devil. Yet in the Verses Rushdie pushes the role of the Devil even further: he allows a satanic narrator to swoop in and out of a text which is charged with demonic revisions of cosmology and the increasingly hellish visions of a schizophrenic who half-believes he is an archangel. The conclusion highlights the triumph of cosmic evil: in a masterfully designed triple parallel, Chamcha/Satan/Iago drives Gibreel/Adam/Othello to murder Alleluia/Eve/Desdemona. Yet the scenario is not all dark: the confluence of Shakespeare’s pathos and Attar’s symbolism (seen in Sufyan and in Allie’s yearning to climb Everest) hints at a deeper ideal of unity and love.

Abduction of Zal by the Simurgh, c.1370, source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Abduction of Zal by the Simurgh, c.1370, source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The Simurg Returns

Rushdie returns with a bang to the positive syncretism of Grimus in his fifth novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1991). While Haroun isn’t simplistic, it’s less complex than Grimus, the most idealistic and syncretic of his previous novels. Haroun uses the same syncretic mode to highlight the ideal of multidimensionality, yet it doesn't contain the same profusion of myths and loose ends, ambiguous characters like Deggle, Virgil and Grimus-Eagle, and it doesn't delve into dark and problematic visions of the universe. And while Grimus ends in paradoxes and conundrums, Haroun ends with a neat fusion of paradigms, a happy ending that’s clearly in the comic and fairy tale mode.  
One of the more interesting aspects of Haroun is the way Attar’s 12th Century Persian paradigm of mystical flight slides into Somadeva’s 11th Century Sanskrit paradigm of an infinite Ocean of stories. Initially Attar’s schema is dominant. Haroun's bird-guide, the Hoopoe, does double duty: he first takes the form of Butt the speed-possessed bus driver and then of Butt the mechanical bird who flies Haroun and Rashid to the moon. The name Butt appears to derive from the conference-given right to differ, to say but, and in this sense it complements Iff, which is both the name of the water genie on the moon and an indicator of the conditional tense, which, extended politically, signals the proposals and initiatives that enliven the conference or body politic. The Sufi paradigm of flight toward unity gives way to the Hindu paradigm of multidimensionality when Butt transports Haroun and Rashid to the Sea of Stories on the moon. 

Rushdie knits Somadeva’s conceit of a great sea containing many currents of narrative into his own story on many levels, all of which suggest that problems and contradictions can be resolved by opening them up into new ways of configuration, into new ways of telling. Once conflicts are mixed into the great sea in this way, positive transformation occurs in society, where division turns into unity (Chups unite with Gups), in the political sphere, where coercion turns to conference and the Cultmaster and Snooty Buttoo are defeated, and on the emotional level, where alienation turns into sympathy (there are multiple reconciliations, culminating with the reunion of Rashid and his wife). Attar’s unity is thus injected into the chaotic profusion, the many currents of the Somadeva's Ocean. It’s impossible to say exactly where the Hindu conceit takes over from the Muslim, or which remains the stronger in the end, and this impossibility strengthens the pro-unity moral Rushdie is aiming at.

The division between Chupwalas and Gupwalas can represent any religious, cultural or political division, and as such it brings to mind the division between us and them, pure and impure made by the Axonans in Grimus, Bariamma in Shame, and the Imam in the Verses. In light of Haroun’s subcontinental settings (probably Bombay and certainly Srinagar), the division suggests the great Muslim and Hindu divide. The same division is represented in Midnight’s Children in terms of flight and the diversity of Bombay. Yet in Midnight’s Children Saleem’s unifying flight is grounded, whereas Haroun and Rashid succeed in unifying the dark and light sides of the moon, and, consequently, in restoring harmony to the earthly city by the sea. Father and son also come together, in that Haroun rediscovers his faith in his father’s stories and in the imaginative Ocean of Notions which supply them. Thus Haroun and Rashid regain the unity from which their names derive, that is, from the historical and legendary Haroun al-Rashid (764-809), the Caliph celebrated in The Arabian Nights’ tale of “Khalifah the Fisherman.”

Haroun and Rashid defeat the Cultmaster and hence succeed in making the lunar poles spin, an action which suggests a union of opposites, a commingling of the infinite number of things symbolized by light and dark, force and counterforce, us and them. And as new stories churn in the lunar ocean, the monsoon breaks on Earth, and the waters flow again deep in Rashid’s Ocean of Notions. This liberating chain of events effects both otherworldly and worldly settings: on the moon the Cultmaster’s idol of sewn lips topples from its place in the Citadel of Chup and on Earth the politician who urges Rashid to turn his creativity into propaganda slinks out of town. Buttoo’s departure from Kashmir leaves “the people of the Valley free to choose leaders they actually liked” (H 207).  In this sense the otherworldly dynamic parallels that in Grimus, where Eagle’s defeat of Grimus - a Cultmaster of sorts - liberates the citizens below.

Haroun may be light fare, yet it helps to clarify the ideals which from Grimus to the Verses are increasingly difficult to discern amid a tangled web of mythic figures, narrative ambiguity, demonic possession, oneiric shifts, diabolic innuendo, and outright satanic invasion. While Haroun’s intricacies require a certain amount of concentration on the reader’s part, they are nowhere near as perplexing as those in Grimus, Midnight’s Children or the Verses. Once one identifies Rushdie's Muslim and Hindu sources as well as the novel’s subcontinental setting, the moral becomes rather easy to see. While there’s some complication involved in the dream shared by Haroun and Rashid, one should remember that the two names come from the name Haroun al-Rashid and that therefore a certain amount of commingling is appropriate. Moreover, as Aklujkar notes, the sharing of dreams is “in keeping with the treatment of names and dreams” in the Sanskrit collection of tales from which Rushdie draws.[i] Whereas in the Verses dreams lead Gibreel into dark, entangling webs (and lead readers into confusion), in Haroun they suggest what Aklujkar calls Rushdie’s “general concepts of freedom of speech, growth of language, dialogue between the binary oppositions” and “the life-line of good literature” (“Haroun and the Sea of Stories: Metamorphosis of an old Metaphor” 11)


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