Fabulation as Narrative in
Haroun and the Sea of Stories


Mini Chandran

Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, India

Copyright © 2002 by Mini Chandran, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. "Censorship is the mother of metaphor," remarked the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, referring to the literary strategies which writers resort to when faced with the possibility of their texts being stifled by totalitarian power. However, Nadine Gordimer, drawing upon personal experience, has stated that "Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever." These two statements gain special relevance in the case of the peculiar predicament faced by Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

  2. The banning of the novel and consequent fatwa saw Rushdie withdraw into a bell jar-like existence, occasionally attempting to communicate with the external world. Rushdie himself has written about the terrifying vacuum which his life had become -- how even shopping for oneself in a supermarket appeared to be an expression of the freedom of choice. The fatwa persuaded him to retreat into hiding. The edict, while it hung over his head like the proverbial sword of Damocles, had the potential to be the brand that Gordimer was referring to; it could have burnt into his imagination and left him permanently scarred. However, in the limbo of exile, Rushdie chose the Borgesian alternative. His novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories was published a year after the fatwa. Haroun was ostensibly for his son and other young readers, but it was also a metaphorical statement of the ultimate triumph of the writer over forces that sought to silence him. The text had spaces inviting the reader to an interpretation that was quite at variance with the general playful tone the writer had adopted.

  3. In this context, Rushdie seemed to be falling back upon the resources of Aesop, that archetypal fabulist. It cannot also be discounted that, being an Indian, he had the ancient Sanskrit text of Panchatantra in mind when he wrote the novel. Panchatantra, each tale of which deals with lions and rabbits and monkeys with surprisingly human characteristics, thereby exemplifying social and political realities. Like Aesop's fables later, the significant aspect about these tales is that they could communicate at different levels to different readers, from children to statesmen. The fables, despite having the didactic aim of conveying a moral axiom or social truth, never appear to be overtly instructional. This is what sets the Panchatantra or Aesop's fables apart and this could be the reason for their enduring popularity. These texts have lots of spaces between the lines, enabling the reader to arrive at a truth which might be at variance with the overall tenor of the story. Annabel Patterson terms this narrative strategy "Aesopian writing" in her essay, "Censorship" (905). This strategy makes the fable more complex and interesting than the allegory which maintains a one-to-one relation with the meaning that is sought to be conveyed.

  4. Many have already pointed out the numerous allusions which Haroun and the Sea of Stories makes to ancient Indian and Persian texts, mainly the Thousand and One Nights and the Kathasaritsagara. Various writers and critics have also been quick to point out the obvious allegorical nature of the novel. The concept of the sea of stories is reminiscent of Somadeva Bhatta's Kashmiri text Kathasaritsagara, which literally means the 'Ocean of Streams of Stories.' Rashid and Haroun, as Rushdie himself points out in his glossary, are allusions to the name of the famous Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al Rashid of the Arabian Nights. The very concept of the storyteller is also a part of the Arabian Nights, where we have descriptions of storytellers who pitched camps in market places and kept listeners engrossed in the stories they deftly narrated. Scheherazade told a tale every night to ward off the death that her husband, King Shahryar, was threatening her with; Rashid/Rushdie tells tales to survive in a world that was threatening to annihilate him. And just as the courageous lady narrator of the Thousand and One Nights manages to outwit and captivate her husband, so does the protagonist/author of Haroun and the Sea of Stories outlive his oppressor. The word, spoken or written, survives.

  5. But it seems unfair to the creative genius of Rushdie to treat the novel as a simple allegory of the writer's victory over threatening sources of power. It is a fable that seeks to entertain and drive home a point without seeming to do so; it is also an assertion of the writer's defiant creative spirit that refused to allow the iron of the oppressor's sword to enter his soul and render him impotent. Rushdie himself has explained that the names of the characters are not entirely innocuous, and to a native Indian reader they convey a whole wealth of meaning that would be entirely lost to the would-be censors. The language, like that of the fables, seems to communicate a text that is at variance with the apparent playfulness of the story. This subtext, which Leo Strauss has termed the "esoteric text," is aimed at the discerning reader, and seeks to communicate over the heads of the censors (quoted in Harlow 52). Rushdie of course was adopting the technique which has been practised by countless writers before him, like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Defoe or Swift. Sue Curry Jansen has pointed out how writers like these seem to have crafted a whole domain of letters which function at a subterranean level -- a whole new range of literature out of what she terms "outlaw language" (69). Rushdie has given this outlaw or Aesopian language full play in Haroun, and its rich and varied texture gives off different shades under different lights, like heavy Indian tapestry woven out of different strands.

  6. The novel can primarily be read as a children's novel, hugely entertaining with its world of genies and mechanical flying birds and clever child hero who saves his father and those he loves by virtue of his courage and intelligence. It is a clear statement against violence and bloodshed, as the hero's friends are depicted as peace-loving people who do not cheat or tell lies. But apparent playfulness is belied by the subtext, which is potentially subversive. The tone is set by the dedication of the novel itself, which reads:
    Zembla, Zenda, Xanadu:

    All our dream-worlds may come true.

    Fairy lands are fearsome too.

    As I wander far from view

    Read, and bring me home to you.

    This is an acrostic message for his son Zafar. But when read against the desperate and bleak situation in which it was composed, it becomes a message of hope and courageous conviction. It is also an assertion of the writer's ultimate hope that his writing will always bring him directly into the hearts of his readers, fatwa notwithstanding. The last two sentences seem to be directed at the general reader rather than his son Zafar. This esoteric subtext is for the discerning reader who can read between lines and grasp a truth, which the censor might not be aware of. On close analysis, the text of Haroun reveals a subtext, which is thus potentially subversive and defiant.

  7. The story is very much in the guise of a fable, and begins like a typical fairy tale or children's story: "There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name" (Haroun 15). We are introduced to Rashid Khalifa the storyteller, his wife Soraya and son Haroun. Rashid, who is engrossed in his storytelling, unfortunately fails to sense his wife's mounting frustration. Calamity strikes when Soraya runs away with their neighbour, Mr. Sengupta, and Rashid is struck into silence by his son's question: "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" (Haroun 20). The novel goes on to recount a repentant Haroun's attempt to help his father by going directly to the source of all stories, which is guarded by the natives of the good city of Gup. His fantastical journey starts from the Dull Lake, where he had gone with his father who was on a storytelling trip to the Valley of K.

  8. During the sleepless night he spends on the massive bed in a houseboat, Haroun meets a bizarre creature who seems to have stepped straight out of one of his father's stories. It turns out to be Iff the Water Genie, who has come to disconnect his father's connection to the Ocean of Stories. The wily Haroun manages to snatch away the disconnecting wrench from Iff, thus almost blackmailing him to explain the sudden and mysterious loss of his father's powers. Iff recounts to a sceptical Haroun that there is a second moon of the earth called Kahani, which is shared by the good Guppees and evil Chupwalas. His father got his powers of storytelling from the waters of the ocean of stories which was guarded by the Guppees. Rashid had cancelled his subscription and the Walrus, who was the Grand Comptroller of the ocean of stories, had sent Iff to disconnect his Story Tap. Haroun persuades Iff to carry him along to Kahani where he could meet the Walrus and persuade him to renew his father's subscription. Thus begins Haroun's journey on Butt the mechanical hoopoe's back to the land of Kahani. There, the good city of Gup always has sunlight while there is eternal darkness in the evil land of Chup. Chup is a "place of shadows, of books that wear padlocks and tongues torn out; of secret conspiracies and poison rings" (Haroun 102). This land is ruled over by the Cultmaster of Bezaban also known as Khattam Shud.

  9. One of the subtexts of the fable carries nuances of Rushdie's opposition to religious fundamentalists, especially the Ayatollah of Iran. This becomes apparent when the text describes the evil Khattam Shud, who actually tries to poison the sea of stories and thus render Rashid Khalifa speechless and storyless. It is interesting to note the description of Khattam Shud by Iff the Water Genie: "He is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech" (Haroun 79). Thus, even as the text speaks of the schism between the good Gup City and the evil Land of Chup, the subtext dwells on the dialectics of speech/writing and authoritarian control.

  10. Rashid's/the writer's, foes are two-fold -- Khattam Shud who detests stories and works for their destruction, and Mr.Sengupta who questions the efficacy of stories per se. In fact, Haroun's question (What's the use of stories that aren't even true?), which reduces Rashid to incoherence, is borrowed from Mr. Sengupta. Discourse thus has two deadly enemies to contend with: venomous hostility, and indifference that has the power to undermine creativity. It is also significant that both Khattam Shud and Mr. Sengupta are two aspects of the same personality. We find that Haroun is struck by Khattam Shud's resemblance to Sengupta. Sengupta is a petty clerk who applies his clerical mindset to the world at large. Bureaucracy or red-tapism can be as effective as a fatwa in destroying literature, as the banning of Rushdie's novel in both Iran and India testifies. Rushdie's writing thus becomes an act of resistance against the attempt to stifle him, either through death verdicts, or through petty laws that attempt to view everything from the utilitarian angle.

  11. The young Haroun's determination to persuade Iff the Water Genie to take him to Kahani and get the Walrus to renew his father's story subscription appears to be a hopelessly romantic gesture in a world that is dominated by the shadowy and sinister presence of Khattam Shud. Haroun's quest is similar to that of the writer who attempts to ward off the forces that try to annihilate him with the armoury of words. Ifs and buts retard us in the world of reality; it is a paradox that the help of Iff and Butt expedites Haroun's journey.

  12. Haroun's journey on Butt's back is reminiscent of the journey of the Quester hero in search of the Grail. A bewildered Haroun discovers that his father's stories were indeed true, that there was an Ocean of Stories into which multi-coloured streams of narrative flowed, and that there existed a second satellite of the earth, which was called Kahani. He, and by extension, the reader, is made to face the fact that fiction can point to a reality relevant to the human condition. Or, to put it more mundanely, that stories can be of use. This, in fact, is the crux of the novel or the 'moral' which Rushdie's fable seeks to illustrate. And, in typical fable-like manner, Rushdie never states this overtly; it insinuates itself into the text.

  13. Reading between the lines, the reader gains considerable insight into the defiant writer's mind as he states the case for writing and creativity in a world that is sought to be subdued into uniformity of thought by a power-crazed ruler. In this respect, Khattam Shud can be seen as the prototype of any autocrat who governs in the name of political ideology or theology. In fact, Khattam Shud does not seem to have any ideology worth the name; and he can be speaking for any tyrant when he states: "The world is for Controlling" (Haroun 161). He hates stories because they threaten the pattern of control that he is trying so carefully to perpetuate:
    And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all. (Haroun 161)
    The capitalization of the initial letters of the words 'rule' and 'control' does not seem to be merely a typographical idiosyncracy. It is a manifestation of the autocrat's desire for total control over the minds and thoughts of people as well.

  14. Khattam Shud's country seems to be better organized and efficient when compared to the lackadaisical state of affairs in Gup City. The most significant difference, however, is the absolute silence that reigns in the Land of Chup. In Gup City, everyone seems to speak at the same time, adding to the general confusion. This becomes very apparent as they prepare their army to face the Chupwalas in war. As opposed to the shadowy secrecy that shrouds every aspect of the tyrannical dark land of Chup, everything in Gup is open to public view and discussion. Not even the battle plans are left alone. They are "itemized, scrutinized, rationalized, analysed, mulled over, chewed over, made much of, made little of, and even, after interminable wranglings, agreed" (Haroun 120). Rushdie's language here takes on a distinctive overtone of reportorial commentary as he employs terms from journalistic jargon. The advantages of this apparent loose talk are brought home to us when the Guppees and Chupwalas finally meet in battle:
    The Pages of Gup, now that they had talked through everything so fully, fought hard, remained united, supported each other when required to do so, and in general looked like a force with a common purpose. All those arguments and debates, all that openness, had created powerful bonds of fellowship between them. The Chupwalas, on the other hand, turned out to be a disunited rabble. Just as Mudra the Shadow Warrior had predicted, many of them actually had to fight their own, treacherous shadows! And as for the rest, well, their vows of silence and their habits of secrecy had made them suspicious and distrustful of one another. They had no faith in their generals, either. The upshot was that the Chupwalas did not stand shoulder to shoulder, but betrayed one another, stabbed one another in the back, mutinied, hid, deserted . . . and, after the shortest clash imaginable, simply threw down all their weapons and ran away. (Haroun 185).

  15. It is not very difficult to decipher the democracy vs. autocracy debate behind this rather simplistic description of battle. The disordered Pages of the Gup Army, each of whom speaks a different opinion, could very well be the newspapers of any democratic country. Rushdie is definitely making a statement for the public's right to know and discuss even military secrets, which even democratic regimes seek to keep under cover. Healthy debate wins over enforced silence, which only breeds suspicion and distrust. The seeming efficiency of the Land of Chup is shown to be hollow and unstable, a lie which melts, like the Land itself, under the harsh sunlight of truth. It is possible that Rushdie had the Indian Emergency in mind when he was writing this. For this was the period when trains ran on time and government offices functioned efficiently and precisely; but beneath the order and precision was the cesspool of blatant human rights violations. And it was precisely the seemingly disunited assortment of the common people, who spoke various languages, that toppled this rule of force like a house of cards.

  16. It should also be remembered in this context that the theme of totalitarian control over the individual marking the period of the Indian Emergency recurs in almost all of Rushdie's novels from Midnight's Children onwards. The background shifts to Pakistan with Shame, but the concern with authoritarianism is always present. This subtext is perhaps discernible only to the Indian reader who would be able to draw parallels with that period when everything seemed so ordered and controlled, but succeeded in maintaining a lie by hiding dark secrets in the basement.

  17. The text, while following Haroun on his quest for the source of the poison that is threatening to destroy the Ocean of Stories, also attempts to answer that venomous question which debilitates Rashid Khalifa: What's the use of stories that aren't even true? Rashid, who regains his powers of storytelling after his visit to the Gup City, returns to the Valley of K., where he was to speak in aid of the election campaign of Snooty Buttoo the politician. Rushdie writes, tongue-in-cheek: "As you will have guessed, Rashid told the people in that park the same story I've just told you" (Haroun 206). The story is well received, for the people identify with the Chupwalas who had to repress their hatred out of fear for the evil Khattam Shud. Khattam Shud's overthrow finally prompts them to rise up against Snooty Buttoo, who, along with his henchmen, is forced to flee the valley. The writer seems to be saying: This is the use of stories that aren't even true!

  18. It is also relevant to note in this context that even the most autocratic of regimes needs writers, as the politicians' wooing of Rashid Khalifa demonstrates. They need him as long as his stories facilitate their selfish ends, a fact that is borne out by instances of totalitarian regimes supporting writers. Hitler needed a Gerhart Hauptmann or Richard Strauss, and the Soviet Union needed Mikhail Sholokhov, as long as they were willing to speak for the government. Indeed, one has only to remember that Solzhenitsyn was able to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich only because Nikita Khrushchev wanted it; it was a different matter altogether with the Gulag Archipelago. It is not that regimes would do like to do away with words altogether; it is just that they prefer words arranged in a certain way.

  19. Here Rushdie's attempt is to celebrate the seemingly futile and flimsy word. And it is not the word which breathes fire and brimstone, but the word which takes the reader/listener on a gentle flight through fantasy land which is able to wreak havoc in the world where absolute power rules. The noted Italian author Italo Calvino has pointed out that it is indeed texts like these, in which the author is "keeping his voice low, without emphasis of any kind, using modest and doubtful tones," that demonstrate the power of literature ("Right and Wrong Political Uses of Literature" 95).

  20. Rushdie is not only speaking up for writers in general; the discourse has a strong undercurrent of personal desire, a longing to reach out to his son/the reader from somewhere in limbo, the paternal yearning to pass on his life's work to his son for safekeeping. The dedicatory acrostic is revelatory of such a desire. Haroun's decision to embark on a spying mission to the source of the Ocean of Stories is founded on a resolve that his father's world of stories should not be destroyed. By revealing his deep attachment and affection to stories, Haroun is showing himself as the true son of his father:
    I don't like the idea that all the good stories in the world and ever, or just die. As I say, I only just started believing in the Ocean, but maybe it isn't too late for me to do my bit. (Haroun 137)
    The sentiment is reminiscent of the young son who takes over his father's enterprise, the sense of the torch being handed over so that tradition may continue unbroken. Haroun is also, by extension, the reader, who in a way inherits and perpetuates the text written by the author. Rushdie seems to be expressing a writer's wish that his text would be conserved unmutilated and uncensored in readers' minds.

  21. The text also attempts to take a look at the very process of creativity, that dangerous process in the face of authoritarian persecution. From where does Rashid Khalifa get all his wonderful stories? This is a question that Haroun frequently asks, only to be answered by Rashid with irritatingly riddle-like replies. It is a P2C2E, or a Process Too Complicated To Explain. Haroun thinks it is a bit like juggling; "Haroun often thought of his father as a Juggler, because his stories were really lots of different tales juggled together, and Rashid kept them going in a sort of dizzy whirl, and never made a mistake" (Haroun 16). This concept of story telling as a process akin to juggling is expressed later on again by Haroun to Blabbermouth:
    I always thought storytelling was like juggling, he finally found the voice to say. You keep a lot of different tales in the air, and juggle them up and down, and if you're good you don't drop any. So maybe juggling is a kind of storytelling, too. (Haroun 109)
    But we also get to know that Rashid gets his gift of storytelling from the ocean of stories, especially the Old Zone. The ocean of stories contains all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented (Haroun 72). The Old Zone is the source of all stories, and its pollution implies the poisoning of all stories to come. Rushdie seems to be pointing to the dictum, very much like Roland Barthes, that writers only mix stories in new and variant forms and do not necessarily 'invent' them. The craft of storytelling appears to be a 'P2C2E', a craft that requires the deft interweaving of multitudinous strands.

  22. Haroun, thus analysed, reveals the multi-layered structure of a fable that communicates to readers at various levels, from children to adults. It is about the necessity of stories in a world that is increasingly being dehumanised by fanatics who pursue power single-mindedly and ruthlessly. The emphasis all along is on the need to be in touch with your tradition, with the source of all stories. The implication is that once you lose touch, you are 'Khattam Shud', or an empty shell devoid of all meaning. Iff the Water Genie laments:
    It's our own fault, he wept. We are the Guardians of the Ocean, and we didn't guard it. Look at the Ocean, look at it! The oldest stories ever made, and look at them now. We let them rot, we abandoned them, long before this poisoning. We lost touch with our beginnings, with our roots, our Wellspring, our Source. Boring, we said, not in demand, surplus to requirements. And now, look, just look! No colour, no life, no nothing. Spoilt! (Haroun 146)
    Stories may appear innocuous and superfluous in a world dominated by material pursuits, but Iff the Water Genie's lament brings home to us the realisation that it may set us spiritually adrift, a prospect that is apocalyptic in nature. Italo Calvino stresses this aspect when he says:
    Literature is one of a society's instruments of social awareness -- certainly not the only one, but nonetheless an essential instrument, because its origins are connected with the origins of various types of knowledge, various forms of critical thought. (97)

  23. Rushdie was attempting to highlight the efficacy of words through the text of Haroun. His craft of storytelling deliberately left open spaces for the reader, inveigling him into interpretations, which could not be done openly. As Peter Scotto points out in "Censorship, Reading and Interpretation: A Case Study from the Soviet Union," his essay on Leonid Grossman (a victim of Soviet Censorship who was forced to adopt the tongue-in-cheek strategy):
    Under a regime that commands silence on some issues and demands public professions of orthodoxy on others, careful attention to real meaning in words hedged and shrouded by silence becomes a vital aspect of communication and, ultimately, of communion. (68)
    Haroun is thus a game in the Aesopian language, which Rushdie plays with the discerning reader; but beneath the playful banter is the steely thread of resistance to autocracy that tried to subdue him. Like the true fable, it neither pontificates nor teaches; it seeks to direct your attention to an aspect of life you may not have noticed hereto -- that stories can be of use, even with despots who would will otherwise.

Works Cited

Calvino, Italo. "Right and Wrong Political Uses of Literature." The Literature Machine: Essays. 1987. Trans. Patrick Creagh. London: Picador, 1989: 89-100.

Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen, l987.

Jansen, Sue Curry. Censorship: The Knot that Binds Power and Knowledge. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Patterson, Annabel. "Censorship." Encyclopaedia of Literature and Criticism. London:

Routledge, 1991.

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Delhi: Penguin, 1990. Second paperback edition 1996.

Scotto, Peter. "Censorship, Reading and Interpretation: A Case Study from the Soviet Union." PMLA 109.1 (1994): 61-71.


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