Luka & the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie
Previously published in the Express Tribune Magazine.
Salman Rushdie has been writing for a very long time. His second and best received book Midnight’s Children is still widely acknowledged as an incredible feat of literature, irrespective of some of his more recent disappointments. In 1990 Rushdie wrote the brilliant Haroun and the Sea of Stories – easily his most captivating writing other than Midnight’s Children. Some 20 books (and that one fatwa) later, with Luka and the Fire of Life, it is apparent that Rushdie has once again done what he does best – allegory, fable and magic realism with a very distinct sub continental flavour. But let’s be clear: Luka is and will always be Haroun’s slightly precocious and annoying little brother.
Like Haroun before him, Luka too has an adventure in the alternate reality of the World of Magic, where he must get the Fire of Life to stop his father, the Shah of Blah, from dying as a result of a curse Luka put on a cruel circus master, Captain Aag. He is accompanied by a rescued dog called Bear, a bear called Dog and a phantom version of his father called Nobodaddy who gets stronger as Rashid Khalifa gets weaker back in the city of Kahani, in the land of AlifBay. The Fire of Life is in the Heart of Hearts and is protected by various gods and monsters organized by the Aalim – they are the Fates, the learned ones who are omniscient: Jo Hua, Jo Hai and Jo Aiga. It all sounds wonderfully charming and it would have been, just as Haroun was, until Rushdie chose to play this adventure out as a role playing game.
Imagine high fantasy action adventure role playing games; think Super Mario Brothers, think The Legend of Zelda – not Halo. Luka must collect ‘lives’ whenever he can, and he is able to bop a golden orb in order to ‘save’ how far he has travelled. He has to complete 9 ‘levels’ in order to steal the Fire of Life and make it back home – well, Rushdie gets lazy and has a friendly ally fly Luka over a few of these levels in a magic carpet. Admittedly, this is probably preferable to trudging through each level with Luka, collecting lives and bopping orbs. While one can appreciate that the standard role playing game is essentially just an electronic version of the classic hero’s quest, Rushdie’s choice to play Luka’s magical adventure out as a version of a RPG removes from Luka the sense of urgency that existed in Haroun.
Regardless, there are many parts of Luka that ring with Rushdie’s penchant for clever puns and satirical absurdities. He even manages to balance a great many mythologies in his World of Magic effectively, when he introduces a slew of gods who are afraid that faith in magic in the ‘real’ world is causing grievous harm to the magical dimensions. As one character says, ‘We aren’t needed anymore, or that’s what you all think with your High Definitions and low expectations’. In one wonderful bit of casting, Rushdie introduces the ‘Old Boy’ – one of the first to try to steal the Fire of Life. He is, of course, Prometheus himself, and once unbound, he uses words of power to help Luka steal the fire. Hilariously, Prometheus’ words of Power are ‘Khulo’ and the simple yet effective ‘Dafa ho!’
But the question remains: has Rushdie lost his ability to create charming fables? Does it matter, if he can still write cleverly? Luka does not hold the same sense of immediacy that Haroun did, but why would it? Rushdie is older, calmer, presumably wiser and more indulgent with less to rile against. Haroun was written at a time when Rushdie was forced into hiding, and so it reads clearly as a fable about a storyteller’s right to create. Luka is in turn a story about storytelling itself – about the ownership of stories, about the need to continue believing in the power of ones that have lived with us for generations. As young Luka tells a legion of angry gods and goddesses, ‘[W]hen your story is well told, people believe in you; not in the way they used to believe, not in a worshipping way, but in the way people believe in stories – happily, excitedly, wishing they wouldn’t end.’ Perhaps that’s all Rushdie wants from his readers now.