Friday, February 18, 2011

Reflections: Haroun and the Sea of Stories

This is my first Rushdie read. I know, how can I call myself a reader without having read Salman Rushdie for so long. Well, I was extremely intimidated by his books, confident that I would never grasp his dense themes. Further, it's in my nature to stay away from books/authors/situations that carry controversy. And finally, I have never completely understood the genre of “magical realism”.  I find it easier to just call it fantasy. Anyway, silly reasons that they are, I finally read a book of his. And I’m happy that I started with this book - a simple, not-so-celebrated book that I could enjoy, appreciate and interpret without much literary pressure.

Haroun is a young lad living in a city so sad and dismal, factories manufacture sadness. His father, Rashid, is a talented story-teller who can craft the most ingeniously imaginative and bizarre stories that burst with optimism and happy-endings. Haroun marvels at his father’s unending imagination to come up with new and creative tales. It seemed like a faucet of ideas were being turned on in his head to gush out all the stories. However, an unfortunate episode soon leaves his father tragically empty of stories. Haroun slowly realizes that there indeed is a vast sea of stories streaming with the world’s collection of all stories, which is facing a crisis. In his quest to return his father’s story-telling ability, Haroun enters a fantastical adventure to save the Ocean of Stories.

On the surface, the story might seem like a children’s fantasy fable. But being a Rushdie book, this is not so. It’s completely allegorical... with most characters and episodes being metaphorical. He provides Hindi/Urdu names to his characters, making it a tad easy (and fun) for Indians to interpret the story and its layered meanings. Despite a layered narrative, the entire book is very fluid, and is actually comical and heart-warming! In addition, Rushdie’s word play is quite clever and witty, and adds to the light-hearted feel of the story. It also gives a unique character to the book.

Although there could be several interpretations of the story, here is my reflection or interpretation. The underlying theme of the story is on the unending potential of the human mind, or rather, on the unending boundaries of human imagination. Our brains are brimming with a vast sea of neurons carrying so many different streams of thoughts (both ours, and that of others). These streams collide, intersect and combine in so many billions of different ways and patterns to give rise to new ideas and creations, that it seems like humans will never ever run out of creativity or new thoughts! The mystery behind such ceaseless creativity is an unknown process (or as Rushdie puts it, it is a P2C2E - A Process Too Complicated To Explain :)). So in essence, we all carry the potential to subscribe, and draw from our inner “Sea” of stories and ideas. But most often, we either struggle to find the “on” switch, or we let depressing circumstances throw a wrench into the waterworks (too many puns, I know :)). We also constantly let the inner streams get polluted by our stringent, non-imaginative side of the brain. As one hemisphere (of the brain) tries to be creative and imaginative and weaves stories and ideas, the other “rational” hemisphere of our brain tries to critique and conform our thoughts to plain, concrete facts. The rational hemisphere believes in austerity and parsimony - encouraging thoughts and words only when necessary, and only when absolutely in line with reality. But just as opposites complement one another, it’s more profitable for both hemispheres to work together, rather than work against, or work separately from each other. In this tale, story-telling ability and speech (freedom of speech) compose one “hemisphere”, while silence, muteness and the curbing of verbal expression is the other “hemisphere”. So, I interpreted freedom of speech to be freedom of expression and imagination.

Rushdie basically states that our fears, negativity, and stipulation to stick to facts fog our imagination, but they are no match to the profound human will, and the bountiful fountain of our imagination! He provides his view that imagination and the ability to look through colored glasses, is as much a necessity for a healthy mind as it is a luxury for dreaming. I was quite impressed that the seemingly simple story was embedded with such depth of meaning! I may have read too much in to the story, but well, my imagination was kindled and it soared and pattern-matched :).

Digested Thoughts: I loved the book - its fantastical story, its deep meanings, and creative narration! I can well understand and agree with why Rushdie is celebrated. His writing is simple, yet very intelligently crafted. This might seem like an endearing story for children, but it teases the adult's mind to break down the clever metaphors. The book spells the necessity for freedom of expression - even at the level of origination of thoughts, and the freedom  we give our thoughts to seek uncharted areas of our imagination. 

Addendum: My husband read this book on 2/11/2013 and these are his thoughts. 

For most adults, when a conflict arises in the mind between a creative and a rational thought, the rational thought invariably wins. Although the creative thought process can kindle new ideas, the reality of the outcome forces the adult to shun all possibilities of an unlikely thought. In other words, a purely creative thought is "just a story",  and  to quote Haroun, "what is the use of a story". This is a perfectly logical and rational question, and for most adults, once such a question creeps into our minds, we tend to latch on to the logical part of the thought process and go forward on a path that may or may not lead us to the "end". 

Salman has portrayed the entire book in the eyes of Haroun, who being a child has the gift to pursue both the creative and the logical thought processes that stem from his brain. The interpretations that an adult derives from the book are once again logical & rational. Your interpretation of the neurons in the brain serving to ignite several streams of stories is one example. Attempting to decipher which town the different alphabets referred to, which I attempted to do while reading the book, is another example. Being a child, Haroun is not as biased towards a logical inclination as some of us are, thus leaving him to explore a world of imaginations. The end result is that he is able to go beyond his status-quo, and actually "solve" a problem (ie., Rashid running out of stories) by purely using his imagination.

That the occurrences penned in the book were merely a dream is nothing but a mundane rational explanation. That positive experiences encountered by Haroun can actually result in an uplifted mood for an individual who is looking for new avenues in life may potentially present a more colorful interpretation of the book.  


SecondSight said...

Haroun is one of my favorite books, for all the imagery and subtlety- so glad you enjoyed it too :)

For obvious reasons, I always associate it with Arion and the dolphin, though the two are quite different..

SUMI said...

I loved your writeup, especially the paragraph containing your interpretation.

Imagination! In come ways it seems to be dead in everyday life, when you look around... sad.

And isn't that what magical realism is all about...?!

I haven't read this book of Rushdie's yet...

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - Oh yeah, I never thought of that, but it now evokes the common images :)

Sumi - Thank you! Yep, we are all living in the same sad city as Haroun's!

I guess I read a lot into fantasy tales such as Harry Potter, and find plenty of metaphors to reality/realism as well, which is why the line between magical-realism and fantasy isn't very clear at times. But yeah, it is definitely different from the full-fledged fairy-tale kind of fantasies :)

Karthik said...

Coincidentally, I was also planning to start Rushdie's books with this one! Interesting interpretation !:-) And I agree - I do think its best when both hemispheres work in tandem, and contribute in their own ways. There are books, that teach 'how to use both sides of the brain', mind mapping, and the likes. I think they are fun though I'm not sure if they are actually useful!

Neeraja said...

Karthik, I think humans have been successful (and "intelligent") as a species, primarily because of our ability to use both sides of our brains :). But it's always interesting how each of us train one of our hemispheres much more than the other. Should be fun to see if the books help us train both our hemispheres!

Suvasini.... said...

I had started with Rushdie's midnight's children long long ago and had for some reason stopped there. Your post made me go back and read Haroun. It is a wonderful book as you have so eloquently described. I like his use of allegories and names to convey so much meaning and character. It is definitely a great book for young adults and adults. I particularly loved his creativity in use of scientific facts.. like the attention span of people being close to 11 minutes, which is what is Haroun's attention span. And how he raises the point that we end up believing a lot of things even though we dont see them but as we grow up fantasy and stories are not one of them.

Somehow this book takes me back to world of stories ad fairy tales, which i had kind of moved on from, as i grew up. I especially like his dealing with the power of stories.

Thank you.. :)

Neeraja said...

Suvasini, I'm so glad you enjoyed the book as much as I did! Even I abandoned Midnight's Children several years back after just a couple of pages into the book, and had been quite wary of Rushdie, but thankfully my curiosity led me to a good book of his :)

I didn't notice the attention-span bit, thanks for pointing out! It's impressive that Rushdie has a stronghold in Science and incorporates it well into this magical stories :)