The Trials and Tribulations of Literature

Time and again, Salman Rushdie has proven that he is a true master of the written lore. His works, depicting different facets of society, are timeless, relevant and transcendent. There is perhaps no corner of the literary world that he his works hasn’t explored. From his exploration of India’s growth through Midnight’s Children to America’s current political climate in The Golden House, he never let the prejudices of society stymie his voice and works. He also didn’t let it stop him from exploring worlds that others though him incapable of working on.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is Rushdie’s first venture into children’s fiction. Behind every successful children’s’ story is a dark tale. The book that preceded it, The Satanic Verses, stirred a massive outcry from the Muslim community, resulting to Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issuing a fatwa on Rushdie. To avoid it, Rushdie went into hiding. By being away, Rushdie inevitably created a rift between him and his first born, Zafar. When the controversy toned down, Rushdie tried to reconcile with his son by dedicating his fifth novel to him.

“Nothing comes from nothing, Thieflet; no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old – it is the new combinations that make them new.” ~ Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

The novel’s dedication read:

            Z embla, Zenda, Xanadu:
A ll our dream-worlds may come true.
F airy lands are fearsome too.
A s I wander far from view
R ead, and bring me home to you.

The centrifugal character in the story is the young Haroun. His father, Rashid Khalifa (The Shah oh Blah), is a Scheherazade, renowned for his ability to command attention for his magical and imaginative stories. As fate had it, Haroun’s mother left them for their whiny neighbor, Mr. Sengupta. Mr. Sengupta’s hatred for stories is the antithesis to Rashid’s innate abilities to spin them. The betrayal caused Rashid to lose his gift.

To retrieve what has been lost, Haroun embarked on a journey to turn on again the proverbial water tap of stories. On his journey, he came across the Sea of Stories which is being endangered by the main antagonist, Khattam Shud. At the same time, he collects himself a motley crew – Iff the Water Genie, Butt the hoopoe, and Mali the stories’ gardered. They play a significant part in Haroun’s journey.

“Happy endings must come at the end of something. If they happen in the middle of a story, or an adventure, or the like, all they do is cheer things up for awhile.” ~ Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Silence and Freedom of Speech

Haroun and the Sea of Stories, however, is more than just your typical children’s story. Drawing inspiration from his experiences, Rushdie wove the tale with passages underlining the underlying theme to the story – the right to speak and the affliction that goes with this freedom. Silence is the major evil force in the story. Under heavy criticism for The Satanic Verses, Rushdie plead for freedom – freedom in speech and in expression of thoughts. He placed emphasis on the necessity of imagination in literature. The novel, though in the guise of a children’s story, is a satire.

It is in this exploration of the freedom of expression that the novel is universal although it was drawn from the author’s personal experience. In the rise of populist leaders, it is this freedom that becomes the most vulnerable. “Is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full?” Whilst it is a necessity, Rushdie underlined that limitations must be drawn – one should speak with discernment and restraint. Throughout his journey, Haroun realizes that “Silence has its own grace and beauty (just as speech can be graceless and ugly).” Speech has its ugly sides, too.

Truly, art imitates life. Woven into the tapestry of Haroun and the Sea of Stories are allegories and lighthearted commentaries. The story contains several reflections on the importance fantasy, myth and storytelling. The story itself is an allegory for several issues hounding today’s society, particularly in Rushdie’s native country. The story has parallels to Rushdie’s experiences during The Satanic Verses debacle, with the novel echoing several elements dealing on the implications of censorship, both in literature and the greater society.

“Your world, my world, all worlds. They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all.” ~ Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Redefining One’s Limits

Writing children’s fiction, however, is not Rushdie’s cup of tea. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie found himself in a territory he has never explored before, at least where his writing is concerned. What he had, however, is a wealth of experience and a treasure trove of words. Tapping both, and fusing his experiences, he managed to paint a magical and powerful tale. Rushdie has always been unafraid of going beyond his limits.

The magic in the story is rooted in language, something that Rushdie knows a thing or two about. Metaphors come to life. Figures of speech become distinct characters in a magical tapestry that is brimming with festive colorful and intricate details. The intricate embroideries of words and languages are magical. Rushdie also used his knack for word play, naming most characters and places in the story from clever wordplays taken from Hindi and Urdu languages. A glossary of terms at the end of the story enhances the reading experience.

To enhance the reading experience, Rushdie created an exotic landscape sprinkled with several literary references. The biggest reference, of course, is to the famed tomes of One Thousand and One Nights. When Haroun first encountered Mudra, he emitted a gurgling sound “Gogogol” and a coughing sound “Kafkafka”, a palpable allusion to Nikolai Gogol and Franz Kafka. There were also references to JM Barrie, Aladdin, Douglas Adams, and even the Beatles.

“Khattam-Shud is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech. And because everything ends, because dreams end, stories end, life ends, at the finish of everything we use his name. “It’s finished,” we tell one another, “it’s over. Khattam-Shud: The End.” ~ Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true”?

Parts children’s fiction, parts magical realism, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, is a testament to one’s will of not being hampered by the prejudices of society. In this satire, Rushdie underlined the necessity of freedom of expression; silence is the world’s common enemy. But whilst this freedom is necessary, Rushdie didn’t fail to reiterate that discernment must still be exercised. Speech is, after all, a very powerful tool. The imaginative and heartwarming tale showcased Rushdie at his most versatile and most vulnerable.

During his fatwa years, Rushdie couldn’t help but raise the above question. Instead of being pushed back, however, he drew inspiration and strength from this dark and confusing phase in his life. Like a phoenix, he rose from the ashes. From his imagination and his newfound flexibility of expression sprang a magical tale that further consolidated his place in the Pantheons of literary greatness.



From five Rushdie books I have read, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is perhaps the most … different. It has flavors that are different from say, Shalimar the Clown or Midnight’s Children. At the start, I didn’t understand why maybe because I was bereft of the knowledge that it was dedicated to his son. When I did hear of it, or at least read of it, I began to understand and appreciate the novel’s different complexion. It is, at the same time, a Rushdie work and not a Rushdie work. On my book, that is a compliment as it shows how his work lacks boundaries.

And yes, Haroun and the Sea of Stories isn’t just work for children. It is good for adults, too.

P.S. It was while writing this review that I’ve heard about The Satanic Verses debacle. I am now looking forward to the experience. It is definitely going to be part of my 2020 Top 20 Reading List.

Book Specs

Author: Salman Rushdie
Granta Books
Publishing Date: 1991
Number of Pages: 211 pages
Genre: Magical Realism


Set in an exotic Eastern landscape peopled by magicians and fantastic talking animals, Salman Rushdie’s classic children’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories inhabits the same imaginative space as The Lord of the RingsThe Alchemist, and The Wizard of Oz. In this captivating work of fantasy from the author of Midnight’s Children and The Enchantress of Florence, Haroun sets out on an adventure to restore the poisoned source of the sea of stories. On the way, he encounters many foes, all intent on draining the sea of all its storytelling powers. (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

To know more about Salman Rushdie, click here.