Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights happens to be my first Salman Rushdie book, though I have had an unread hardcover Joseph Anton on my shelf for more than two years, and an unread pirated soft-copy of The Satanic Verses (as it is still banned in India). I did start reading his non-fiction writing Imaginary Homelands but haven’t completed it yet. Midnight’s Children (the movie) by Deepa Mehta, with its plethora of accomplished actors, was surreal in parts and rooted in the abysmal reality of the Partition of India and Pakistan. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s movies (and his book Where the Bird Sings Best) is described as psycho-magical, but a similar flowery term can be used for Rushdie’s works: imaginatively magical – imagical? Maybe.
Rushdie draws upon mythical narratives from India, Arabia, Spain, and Persia to create a mesh of a thousand-year plot, separated by great, great, great, great, great- (and many more greats) -forefathers and their present-age off-springs. The jinns, who live in Peristan or Fairyland, come to Earth once in a while, and become one with the humans in order to live amongst them. And though they may be jinns for us, they are not free from the divisions which mar mankind: “In the matter of faith, for example, there are adherents among the jinn of every belief system on whom he notion of gods and angels is strange in the same way as the jinn themselves are strange to human beings. And though many jinn are amoral, at least some of these powerful beings do know the difference between good and evil, between the right-hand and the left-hand path”.
It begins with the great philosopher, Ibn Rushd (based on Averroes from Al-Andalus), who has been pushed out of his own town due to his blasphemous philosophies. It is in his new run-down home that he is visited by a jinnia named Dunia – meaning ‘the world’ in Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, and many other languages. Ibn Rushd had lost many a battles to another philosopher, of an era of hundred years ago, Ghazali of Tus. Ibn Rusdh is summoned back to court by a victorious Abu Yusuf Yaqub. And this is when Rushdie draws out his sword of mastery over prose, unveiling probably the longest passage of the book, “The mark of shame was wiped off the old philosopher’s brow, his exile ended; he was rehabilitated, un-disgraced, and returned with honor to his old position of court physician in Córdoba, two years, eight months and twenty-eight days and nights after his exile began, which was to say, one thousand days and nights and one more day and night; and Dunia was pregnant again, of course, he never gave her children his name, of course, and he did not bring her with him to the Almohad court, of course, so she slipped out of history, he took it with him when he left, along with his robes, his bubbling retorts, and his manuscripts, some bound, others in scrolls, manuscripts of other men’s books, for his own had been burned, though many copies survived, he told her, in other cities, in the libraries of friends, and in places where he had concealed them against the day of his disfavour, for a wise man always prepares for adversity, but, if he is properly modest, good fortune takes him by surprise”.
It is after Ibn Rushd’s death that we meet Mr. Geronimo, whose feet stay a few inches above the ground as he is afflicted by this condition after getting stuck by lightning. An outsider may not be able to appreciate the niceties, or the lack of it, in the Catholic parts of Bombay. Bandra – home to the elite Bollywood superstars – is a western suburb lined by narrow paved lanes and its boundaries mixing, on its western-end, with the Arabian sea. Across the railway tracks, which divide Bombay like conjoined twins, lies Bandra-East, a filth-infested, shanty-town, home to millions of slum-dwellers and reeking of sewage waters perennially. It is these sort of slums on which Pulitzer-winner Katherine Boo focuses in her Behind the Beautiful Forevers. As we progress, we meet a dozen characters and at times it becomes difficult to remember who-was-who and who-was-where, not to mention who-was-alive and who-was-a-jinn. Rushdie even mentions ‘extremist Hindutva ideology’ and the 1992 Bombay-riots. But it was a similar ‘extremist Islamic ideology’ which led him to be banned in India and banished in many countries in the time of Ayotollah Khomeini.
References to Schopenhauer, Nietzche, Camus, Voltaire, Deepak Chopra exist in the novel, apart from the ones to historical events and characters. Throughout the book one will come across words which have Persian or Arabic origins and regularly used in Urdu and Hindustani – like Afsaneh (stories), Duniya (world), Duniyazat (zat is tribe, so duniyazat is a tribe of the world), Zabardast (author mentions the English equivalent as ‘Awesome’, but I feel that an English equivalent is not entirely possible for this one because Zabardast is used as an adjective in many situations, often contrasting, like a ‘Zabardast Goonda’, in English which would translate to Awesome Ruffian but would be incorrect and a better one would be Courageous Ruffian) to name a few.
The novel is dense with flowing descriptions of absurd situations, weird characters, and, sometimes, interesting historical connections. This is not just another fictional work that you can pick up and expect to finish in a week’s time, because without researching the historical characters and events, your understanding of the context would not take root. I will not recommend this to someone who does not like fairy-tales, or hasn’t read One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), or doesn’t have the disposition to pair fiction with history. I, personally, did not like Rushdie’s unnecessary descriptions of crude acts (like when Geronimo discovers that his levitation from the ground is going to be a problem when he needs to empty his bowels in the morning) which add nothing to the story and only make it sound crass. I would give the book 2-stars because I did not like the juxtaposition of Ibn Rushd’s time with the present smartphone-generation. I expected an account of the times of jinns and philosophers. Rushdie’s prose, however, draws you into the worlds of the unknown-present and the known-past, and how when these two worlds come together, they create something that’s beyond realism.
Nikhil Sharma is a technology professional who has discovered a new found interest in literature, predominantly non-fiction history, over the last few years. He lives in Mumbai.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Random House. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.