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Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie famously had his life threatened after a fatwa was issued in response to his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," which drew violent protests from Muslims around the world. He's venturing into less controversial territory with his latest book, which is written for his son, and is a sequel to his earlier children's book "Haroun and the Sea of Stories."
In "Luka And the Fire of Life," excerpted below, the narrator Rashid Khalifa, aka "the shah of blah," falls into a deep and dangerous sleep. To save him, his young son travels to the sea of stories, where he meets a beautiful princess on a flying carpet. With the help of his dog and bear, he steals the fire of life, and brings it back in the form of roasted potatoes to revive his father. Salman Rushdie joins us to talk about writing children's literature and what it's like to have your son as an editor.
Book Excerpt: Luka and the Fire of Life
By Salman Rushdie
There was once, in the city of Kahani in the land of Alifbay, a boy named Luka who had two pets, a bear named Dog and a dog named Bear, which meant that whenever he called out “Dog!” the bear waddled up amiably on his hind legs, and when he shouted “Bear!” the dog bounded towards him wagging his tail. Dog the brown bear could be a little gruff and bearish at times, but he was an expert dancer, able to get up on to his hind legs and perform with subtlety and grace the waltz, the polka, the rhumba, the wah-watusi and the twist, as well as dances from nearer home, the pounding bhangra, the twirling ghoomar (for which he wore a wide mirrorworked skirt), the warrior dances known as the
spaw and the thang-ta, and the pea cock dance of the south. Bear the dog was a chocolate labrador, and a gentle, friendly dog, though sometimes a bit excitable and nervous; he absolutely coul d not dance, having, as the saying goes, four left feet, but to make up for his clumsiness he possessed the gift of perfect pitch, so he could sing up a storm, howling out the melodies of the most popular songs of the day, and never going out of tune. Bear the dog and Dog the bear quickly became much more than Luka’s pets. They turned into his closest allies and most loyal protectors, so fierce in his defence that nobody would ever have dreamed of bullying him when they were nearby, not even his appalling classmate Ratshit, whose behaviour was usually out of control.
This is how Luka came to have such unusual companions. One fine day when he was twelve years old, the circus came to town - and not just any circus, but the GROF or Great Rings of Fire itself, the most celebrated circus in all of Alifbay, “featuring the Famous Incredible Fire Illusion.” So Luka was at first bitterly disappointed when his father the storyteller Rashid Khalifa told him they would not be going to the show. “Unkind to animals,” Rashid explained. “Once it may have had its glory days but these days the GROF has fallen far from Grace.” The Lioness had tooth decay, Rashid told Luka, and the Tigress was blind and the Ele phants were hungry and the rest of the circus menagerie was just plain miserable. The Ringmaster of the Great Rings of Fire was the terrifying and enormous Captain Aag, a.k.a. Grandmaster Flame. T he animals were so scared of the crack of his whip that the Lioness with toothache and the blind Tigress and the skinny Elephants all continued to jump through hoopsand play dead and make Pachyderm Pyramids for fear of angering him, for Aag was a man who was quick to anger and slow to laugh. And even when he put his cigar-smoking head into the Lioness’s yawning mouth she was too scared to bite it off just in case it de cided to kill her from inside her belly.
Rashid was walking Luka home from school, wearing, as usual, one of his brightly coloured bush-shirts ( this one was vermilion) and his beloved, battered Panama hat, and listening to the story of Luka’s day. Luka had forgotten the name of the tip of South America and had labelled it “Hawai i” in a geography test. However, he had remembered the name of hi s country’s first president and spelled it correctly in a history test. He had been smacked on the side of the head by Ratshit’s hockey stick during games. On the other hand, he had scored two goals in the match and defeated his enemy’s team. He had also finally got the hang of snapping his fingers properly, so that they made a satisfying cracking noise. So there were pluses and minuses. Not a bad day overall; but it was about to become a very important day indeed, because this was the day they saw the circus parade going by on its way to raise its Big Top near the banks of the mighty Silsila. The Silsila was the wide, lazy, ugly river with water the colour of mud that flowed through the city not far from their home. T he sight of the droopy cockatoos in their cages and the sad dromedaries humphing along the street touched Luka’s generous young heart. But saddest of all, he thought, was the cage in which a mournful dog and a doleful bear stared wretchedly all about. Bringing up the rear of the cavalcade was Captain Aag with his pirate’s hard black eyes and his barbarian’s untamed beard. All of a sudden Luka became angry (and he was a boy who was slow to anger and quick to laugh). When Grandmaster Flame was right in front of him Luka shouted out at the top of his voice, “May your animals stop obeying your commands and your rings of fire eat up your stupid tent.”
Now it so happened that the moment when Luka shouted out in anger was one of those rare instants when by some inexplicable accident all the noises of the universe fall silent a t the same time, the cars stop honking, the scooters stop phut-phuttering, the birds stop squawking in the trees, and everyone stops talking at once, and in that magical hush Luka’s voice rang out as clearly as a gunshot, and his words expanded until they filled the sky, and perhaps even found their way to the invisible home of the Fates who, according to some people, rule the world. Captain Aag winced as if somebody had slapped him on the face and then he stared straight into Luka’s eyes, giving him a look of such blazing hatred t hat the young boy was almost knocked off his feet. Then the world started making its usual racket again, and the circus parade moved on, and Luka and Rashid went home for dinner. But Luka’s words were still out there in the air, doing their secre t business.
That night it was reported on the TV news tha t, in an astonishing development, the animals of the GROF circus had unanimously refused to perform. In a crowded tent, and to the amazement of costumed clowns and plain-clothes customers alike, they rebelled against their master in an unprecedented act of defiance. Grandmaster Flame stood in the centre ring of the three Great Rings of Fire bellowing orders and cracking his whip, but when he saw all the animals beginning to walk calmly and slowly towards him, in step, as if the y were an army, closing in on him from all directions until they formed an animal circle of rage, his nerve cracked and he felll to his knees weeping and whimpering and begging for his life. The audience began to boo and throw fruit and cushions, and then harder objects, stones, for example, and walnuts, and telephone directories. Aag turned and fled. The animals parted ranks and let him through and he ran away crying like a baby.
That was the first amazing thing. The second took place later that night. A noise started up around midnight, a noise like the rust ling and crackling of a billion autumn leaves, or maybe even a billion billion, a noise that spread all the way from the Big Top by the banks of the Silsila to Luka’s bedroom, and woke him up. When he looked out of his bedroom window he saw that the great tent was on fire, burning brightly in the field by the river’s edge. The Great Rings of Fire were ablaze; and it was not an illusion.
Luka’s curse had worked.
The third amazing thing happened the next morning. A dog with a tag on its collar reading Bear and a bear with a tag on its collar reading Dog showed up at Luka’s door - afterwards Luka would wonder exactly how they had found their way there - and Dog the bear began to twirl and jig enthusiastically while Bear the dog yowled out a foot-tapping melody. Luka and his father Rashid Khalifa and his mother Soraya and his older brother Haroun gathered at the door of their house to watch, while from her verandah their neighbour Miss Oneeta shouted, “Have a care! When animals begin to sing a nd dance then plainly some witchy business is afoot!” But Soraya Khalifa laughed. “The animals are celebrating their freedom,” she said. Then Rashid adopted a grave expression, and told his w ife about Luka’s curse. “It seems to me,” he opined, “that if any witchy business has been done it is our young Luka who has done it, and these good creatures have come to thank him.”
The other circus animals had escaped into the Wild and were never seen again, but the dog and the bear had plainly come to stay. They had even brought their own snacks. The bear was carrying a bucket of fish and the dog wore a little coat with a pocket full of bones. “Why not, after all?” cried Rashid Khalifa gaily. “My storytelling performances could do with a little help. Nothing like a dog-and-bear song-and-dance act to get an audience’s attention.” So it was settled, and later that day it was Luka’s brother Haroun who had the last word. “I knew it would happen soon,” he said. “You’ve reached the age at which people in this family cross the border into the magical world. It’s your turn for an adventure - yes, it’s finally here! - and it certainly looks like you’ve started something now. But be careful. Cursing is a dangerous power. I was never able to do anything so, well, dark.”
An adventure of my very own, Luka thought in wonderment, and his big brother smiled, because he knew perfectly well about Luka’s Secret Jealousy, which was actually Not So Secret At All. When Haroun had been Luka’s age he had travelled to the earth’s second moon, befriended fishes who spoke in rhyme and a gardene r made of lotus roots, and helped to overthrow the evil Cultmaster Khattam-Shud who was trying to destroy the Sea of Stories itself. By contrast, Luka’s biggest adventures to date had taken place during the Great Playground Wars at school, in which he had led his gang, the Intergalactic Penguins’ Team, to a famous victory over the Imperial Highness Army led by his hated rival Adi Ratshit, a.k.a. Red Bottom, winning the day with a dari ng aerial attack involving paper planes loaded with itching powder. It had been extremely satisfying to watch Ratshit jump into the playground pond to calm down t he itch that had spread all over his body; but Luka knew that compared to Haroun’s achievements he really hadn’t done very much at all. Haroun, for his part, knew about Luka’s desire for a real adventure, preferably one involving improbable creatures, travel to other planets (or at least satellites), and P2C2Es, or Processes T oo Complicated To Explain. But until now he had always tried to damp down Luka’s lusts. “Be careful what you wish for,” he told Luka, who replied, “To be honest with you, that is easily the most annoying thing you have ever said.”
In general, however, the two brothers Haroun and Luka rarely quarrelled and, in fact, got on unusually well. An eighteen-year age gap had turned out to be a good place to dump most of the problems that can sometimes crop up between brothers, all those little irritations that make the older brother accidentally knock the kid’s head against a stone wall or put a pillow over his sleeping face by mistake, or persuade the younger brother that it’s a good idea to fill the big fellow’s shoes with sweet, sticky mango pickle, or to call the big guy’s new girlfriend by a differe nt girlfriend’s name and then pretend it was just a really unfortunate slip of the tongue. So none of that happened. Instead Haroun taught his younger brother many useful things, kickboxing, for example, and the rules of cri cket, and what music wa s cool and what was not; and Luka uncomplicatedly adored his older brother, and thought he looked like a big bear – a bit like Dog the bear, in fact – or, perhaps, like a comfortable stubbly mountain with a wide grin near the top.
Luka had first amazed people just by getting born, because his brother Haroun was already eighteen years old when his mother Soraya at the age of forty-one gave birth to a second fine young boy. Her husband Ra shid was lost for words, and so, as usual, found far too many of them. In Soraya’s hospital ward he picked up his new-born son, cradled him gently in his arms, and peppered him with unreasonable questions. “Who’d have thought it? Where did you come from, buster? How did you get here? What do you have to say for yourself? What’s your name? What will you grow up to be? What is it you want?” He had a question for Soraya, too. “At our age,” he marvelled, shaking his balding head. “What’s the meaning of a wonder like this?” Rashid was fifty years old when Luka arrived, but at that moment he sounded like any young, greenhorn father flummoxed by the arrival of responsibility, and even a little scared.
Soraya took the baby back and calmed its father down. “His name is Luka,” she said, “and the meaning of the wonder is that we appear to have brought into the world a fellow who can turn back Time itself, make it flow the wrong way, and make us young again.”
Soraya knew what she was talking about. As Luka grew older, his parents seemed to get younger. When baby Luka sat up straight for the first time, for example, his parents became incapable of sitting st ill. When he began to crawl, they hopped up and down like excited rabbits. When he walked, they jumped for joy. And when he spoke for the first time, well!, you’d have thought the whole of the legendary Torrent of Words had started gushing out of Rashid’s mouth, and he was never going to stop spouting on about his son’s great achievement.
The Torrent of Words, by the way, thunders down from the Sea of Stories into the Lake of Wisdom, whose waters are illumined by the Dawn of Days, and out of which flows the River of Time. The Lake of Wisdom, as is well known, stands in the shadow of the Mountain of Knowledge at whose summit burns the Fire of Life. This important information regarding the layout - and, in fact, the very existence - of the Magical World was kept hidden for thousands of years, guarded by mysterious, cloaked spoilsports who called themselves the Aalim, or Learned Ones. However, the secret was out now. It had been made available to the general public by Rashid Khalifa in many celebrated tales. So everyone in Kahani was fully aware that there was a World of Magic existing in parallel with our own, and from that Reality came white magic, black magic, dreams, nightmares, stories, lies, dragons, fairies, blue-bearded genies, mechanical mind-reading birds, buried treasure, music, fiction, hope, fear, the gift of eternal life, the angel of death, the angel of love, interruptions, jokes, good ideas, rotten ideas, happy endings, in fact almost everything of any interest at all. The Aalim, whose idea of Knowledge was that it belonged to them and was too precious to be shared with anyone else, probably hated Rashid Khalifa for letting the cat out of the bag.
But it is not yet time to speak - as we will eventually have to speak - of Cats. It is necessary, first of all, to talk about the terrible thing that happened on the beautiful starry night.
Luka grew up left-handed, and it often seemed to him that it was the rest of the world that worke d the wrong way around, not him. Doorknobs turned the wrong way, screws insisted on being screwed in clockwise, guitars were strung upside-down, and the scripts in which most languages were written ran awkwardly from left to right, except for one, which he bizarrely failed to master. Pottery wheels wheeled perversely, dervishes would have whirled better if they whirled in the opposite direction, and how much finer and more sensible the whole world would be, Luka thought, if the sun rose in the west and set in the east. When he dreamed of life in that Widdershins Dimension, the alternative left-ha nded Planet Wrongway on which he would be normal instead of unusual, Luka sometimes felt sad. His brother Haroun was right- handed like everyone else, and consequently everything seemed easier for him, which did not seem fair. Soraya told Luka not to be depressed. “You are a child of many gifts,” she said, “and maybe you are correct to believe that the left way around is t he right way, and that the rest of us are not right, but wrong. Let your hands take you where they will. Just keep them busy, that’s all. Go left by all means, but don’t dawdle; do not be left behind.”
After Luka’s curse on the Great Rings of Fire circus worked so spectacularly, Haroun often warned him in a scary voice that his left-handedness might be a sign of dark powers bubbling inside him. “Just be careful,” Haroun said, “not to go down the Left-Hand Path.” The Left-Hand Path was apparently the road to Black Magic, but as Luka didn’t have the faintest idea how to take that Path even if he wanted to, he dismissed his brother’s warning as the kind of thing Haroun sometimes sai d to tease him, without understanding that Luka did not like to be tease d.
Maybe because he dreamed about emigrating to a Left-Handed Dimension, or maybe because his father was a professional storyteller, or maybe because of his brother Haroun’s big adventure, or maybe for no reason at all except that that was the way he was, Luka grew up with a strong interest in, and aptitude for, other realities. At school he became so convincing an actor that when he impersonated a hunchback, an emperor, a woman, or a god everyone who watched his performance came away convinced that the young fellow had somehow temporarily grown a hump, ascended a throne, changed sex or become divine. And when he drew and painted, his father’s stories of - for example - the elephant-headed Memory Birds who remembered everything that had ever happene d, or the Sickfish swimming in the River of Time, or the Land of Lost Childhood, or the Place Where Nobody Lived came to wonderful, phantasmagoric, richly coloured life. At mathematics and chemistry, unfortunately, he was not so hot. This displeased his mother, who, even though she sang like an angel, had al ways been the sensible, practical type; but it secretly delighted hi s father, because for Rashid Khalifa mathematics was as mysterious as Chinese and twice as uninteresting; and, as a boy, Rashid had failed his own chemistry examinations by spilling concentrat ed sulphuric acid over his practical paper and handing it in full of holes.
Fortunately for Luka, he lived in a n age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocketships, and been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, burning, twisting, bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster’s castle, and metamorphosed into a high-speed hedgehog and a street fighter and a rock star, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red and black face leapt around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head. Like everyone he knew he had joined imaginary communities in cyberspace, electro-clubs in which he adopted the identity of, for example, an Intergalactic Penguin named after a member of the Beatles, or, later, a completely invented flying being whose height, hair colour and even sex were his to choose and alter as he pleased. Like everyone he knew Luka possessed a wide assortment of pocket-sized alternate-reality boxes, and spent much of his spare time leaving his own world to enter the rich, colourful, musical, challenging universe s inside these boxes, universes in which death was temporary (until you made too many mistakes and it became permanent) and a life was a thing you could win, or save up for, or just be miraculously granted because you happened to bump your head into the right brick, or eat the right mushroom, or pass through the right magic waterfall, and you could store up as many lives as your skill and good fortune could get you. In Luka’s room near a small television set stood his most precious possession, the most magical box of all, the one offering the richest, most complex journeys into other-space and different-time, into the zone of multi-life and temporary death: his new Muu. And just as Luka in the school playground had been transformed into the mighty General Luka, vanquisher of the Imperial Highness Army, commander of the dreaded LAF or Luka Air Force of paper planes bearing itching-powder bombs, so Luka, when he stepped away from the world of mathematics and chemistry and into the Zone of Muu, felt at home, at home in a completely different way than the way in which he felt at home in his home, but at home nevertheless; and he became, at least in his own mind, Super-Luka, Grand Master of the Games.
Once again it was hi s father Rashid Khalifa who encouraged Luka, and who tried, with comically little skill, to join him on his adventures. Soraya was sniffily unimpressed, and, being a common-sensical woman who distrusted technology, worried that the various magic boxes were emitting invisible beams and rays that would rot her beloved son’s mind. Rashid made light of these worries, which made Soraya worry even more. “No rays! No beams!” Rashid cried. “But see how well he is developing his hand-eye co-ordination, and he is solving problems too, answering riddles, surmounting obstacles, rising through levels of difficulty to acquire extraordinary skills.”
“They are useless skills,” Soraya retorted. “In the real world there are no levels, only difficulties. If he makes a careless mistake in the game he gets another chance. If he makes a careless mistake in a chemistry test he gets a minus mark. Life is tougher than video games. This is what he needs to know, and so, by the way, do you.”
Rashid did not give in. “Look how his hands move on the controls,” he told her. “In those worlds left-handedness does not impede him. Amazingly, he is almost ambidextrous.” Soraya snorted with annoyance. “Have you seen his handwriting?” she said. “Will his hedgehogs and plumbers help with that? Will his pisps and wees get him through school? Such names! They sound like going to the bathroom or what.” Rashid began to smile placatingly. “The term is consoles,” he began but Soraya turned on her heel and walked away, waving one hand high above her head. “Do not speak to me of such things,” she said over her shoulder, speaking in her grandest voice. “I am in-console-able.”
It was not surprising t hat Rashid Khalifa was useless on the Muu. For most of his life he had been well known for his flue nt tongue, but his hands had, to be frank, always been liabilities. They were awkward, clumsy, butter-fingered things. They were, as people said, all thumbs. In the course of their sixty-two years they had dropped numberless things, broken countless more things, fumbled all the things they didn’t manage to drop or break, and smudged whatever he wrote. In general, they were a nything but handy. If Rashid tried to hammer a nail into a wall, one of his fingers invariably got in the way, and he was al ways a bit of a baby about the pain. So whenever Rashid offered to lend Soraya a hand she asked him - a little unkindly - to kindly keep his hands to himself.
But - on the other hand - Luka could remember the time when his father’s hands actually came to life.
It was true. When Luka was only a few years old his father’s hands acquired lives and even minds of their own. They had names, too: there was Nobody (the right hand) and Nonsense (the left), and they were mostly obedient and did what Rashid wanted them to, such as waving about in the air when he wanted to make a point (because he liked to talk a lot), or putting food in his mouth at regular intervals (because he liked to eat a lot). They were even willing to wash the part of Rashid he called his bee tee em, which was really extremely obliging of them. But, as Luka quickly discovered, they also had a ticklish will of their own, especially when he was anywhere within reach. Sometimes when the right hand started ti ckling Luka and he be gged, “Stop, please stop,” his father replied, “It’s not me. In fact, Nobody’s tickling you,” and when the left hand joined in and Luka, crying with laughter, protested,“You are, you are tickling me,” his father replied, “You know what? That’s just Nonsense.”
Lately, however, Rashid’s hands had slowed down, and seemed to have gone back to being just hands. In fact t he rest of Rashid was slowing down as well. He walked more slowly than before (though he had never walked quickly), ate more slowly (though not very much more), and, most worryingly of all, talked more slowly (and he had always talked very, very fast). He was slower to smile than he had been, and sometimes, Luka imagined, it seemed that the thoughts were actually slowing down in his father’s head. Even the stories he told seemed to move more slowly than they once had, and that was bad for business. “If he goes on slowing down at this rate,” Luka told himself with alarm, “then pretty soon he’ll completely grind to a halt.” The image of a completely halted fat her, stuck in mid-sentence, mid-gesture, mid-stride, just frozen to the spot for ever, was a frightening one; but that, it seemed, was the direction in which things were heading, unless something could be done to get Rashid Khalifa back up to speed. So Luka began to think of how a father might be accelerated; where was the pedal to push that would restore his fading zoom? But before he could solve the problem, the terrible thing happened on the beautiful starry night.
One month and one day after the arrival of Dog the bear and Bear the dog at the Khalifa home, the sky arching over the city of Kahani, the River Silsila and the sea beyond was miraculously full of stars, so brilliant with stars, in fact, that even the glumfish in the depths of the water came up for a surprised look and began, against their wishes, to smile (and if you have ever seen a smiling glumfish looking surprised you will know that it is not a pretty sight). As if by magic the thick stripe of the galaxy itself blazed out of a clear night sky, reminding everyone of how things had been in the old days before human beings dirtied the air and hid the heavens from view. Because of the smog it had become so unusual to see the Milky Way in the city that people called from house to house to tell their neighbours to come out into the street and look. Everyone poured out of their homes a nd stood with their chins in the air as if the whole neighbourhood was asking to be tickled, and Luka briefly considered being the tickler-in-chief, but then thought better of the idea.
The stars seemed to be dancing up there, to be swirling around in grand and complicated patterns like women at a wedding decked out in their finery, women shining white and green and red with diamonds, emeralds and rubies, brilliant women dancing in the sky, dripping with fiery jewels. And the dance of the stars was mirrored in the city streets; people came out with tambourines and drums and celebrated, as if it was somebody’s birthday. Bear and Dog celebrated too, howling and bouncing, and Haroun and Luka and Soraya and their neighbour Miss Oneeta all danced too. Only Rashid faile d to join the party. He sat on the porch and watched and nobody, not even Luka, could drag him to his feet. “I feel heavy,” he said. “My legs feel like coal-sacks and my arms feel like logs. It must be that gravity has somehow increased in my vicinity, because I am being pulled down towards the ground.” Soraya said he was just being a lazy potato and after a while Luka, too, let his father just sit there eating a banana from a bunch he had bought from a passing vendor while he, Luka, ran about under the carnival of the stars. The big sky show went on until late at night and while it lasted it looked like an omen of something good, of the beginning of an unexpectedly good time. But Luka realized soon enough that it had been nothing of the sort. Maybe it had actually been a kind of farewell, a last hurrah, because that was the night that Rashid Khalifa, the legendary storyteller of Kahani, fell asleep with a smile on his face, a banana in his hand and a twinkle on his brow, and did not wake up the next morning. Instead he slept on, snoring softly, with a sweet smile on his lips. He slept all morning, and then al l afternoon, and then all night again, and so it went on, morning after morning, afternoon after afternoon, night after night.
Nobody could wake him.
At first Soraya, thinking he was just over-tired, went around shushing everybody and telling everyone not to disturb him. But she soon began to worry, and tried to wake him up herself. She spoke to him gently at first, murmuring words of love. Then she stroked his brow, ki ssed his cheek, and sang a little song. Finally, growing impatient, she tickled him on the soles of his feet, shook him violently by the shoulders, and as a last resort shouted at the top of her voice into his ear. He let out an approving mmm and his smile broadened a little, but he did not awake.
Soraya sat down on the floor beside his bed and buried her head in her hands. “What will I do?” she wailed. “He always was a dreamer and now he’s gone and decided he prefers his dreams to me.”
Soon enough the newspapers got wind of Rashid’s condition and journalists came snaking and oiling around the neighbourhood, trying to get the story. Soraya shooed the photographers away, but the story got wri tten just the same. No More Blather from the Shah of Blah, the headlines shouted, a little cruelly. Now He’s The Sleeping Beauty, Only Not So Beautiful.
When Luka saw his mother crying and his father in the grip of the Big Sleep, he felt as if the worl d, or a big part of his world, anyway, was coming to an end. All his life he had tried to creep in to his parents’ bedroom early in the morning and surprise them before they awoke, and every time they had woken up before he reached their bedside. But now Rashid was not waking up and Soraya was really inconsolable, a word which, as Luka knew, in reality had nothing to do with games, even though right at this moment he wished he was inside some other, fictitious version of reality and could press the exit button to get back to his own life. But there was no exit button. He was at home, even though home suddenly felt like a very strange and frightening place, with no laughter, and, most horrible of all, no Rashid. It felt as if a thing that had been impossible had become possible, a thing that had been unthinkable had become thinkable, and Luka did not want to give that terrifying thing a name.
Doctors came and Soraya took them into the room where Rashid was sleeping and shut the door. Haroun was allowed insi de but Luka had to stay with Miss Oneeta, which he hat ed, because she gave him too many sweets to eat and pulled his face towards her so that he was lost between her bosoms like a traveller in an unknown valley t hat smelled of cheap perfume. After a while Haroun came to see him. “They say they don’t know what is wrong with him,” he told Luka. “He’s just sleeping and they can’t say why. They have put a drip into his arm because he isn’t eating or drinking and needs nourishment. But if he doesn’t wake up...”
“He’s going to wake up,” Luka shouted. “He ’ll be awake any minute now!”
“If he doesn’t wake up,” Haroun said, and Luka noticed that Haroun’s hands had tightened into fist s, and there was a sort of fisty tightness also in his voice, “then his muscles will deteriorate and his whole body too and then...”
“Then nothing,” Luka interrupted fiercely. “He’s just resting, that’s all. He was slowing down and felt heavy and he needed to rest. He’s looked after us all his life, to be honest wi th you, and now he’s entitled to take some time off, isn’t that right, Oneeta Aunty?”
“Yes, Luka,” said M iss Oneeta, “That is right, my darling, I am almost completely sure.” And a tear rolled down her cheek.
Then matters got worse.
Luka lay awake in his bed that night, too shocked and unhappy to sleep. Bear the dog was on the bed too, whiffling and mumbling and lost in a doggy dream, and Dog the bear lay motionless on a straw mat on the floor. But Luka was wide awake. The night sky outside his window was no longer clear, but cloudy and low, as if it was frowning, and thunder grumbled in the distance like the voice of an angry giant. Then Luka heard the sound of beating wings close by and he jumped out of bed and ran to the window, stuck his head out of it and twisted his neck round to look up towards the sky. There were seven vultures flying down towards him, wearing ruffs around their neck, like European noblemen in old paintings, or like circus clowns. They were ugly, smelly and mean. The biggest, ugliest, smelliest and meanest vulture settled down on Luka’s windowsill, right next to him, as if they were old friends, while the other six hovered just out of reach. Bear t he dog woke up and came to the window fast, growling and baring his teeth; Dog the bear leapt up a moment later and towered over Luka, looking as if he wanted to rip the vulture to pieces there and then. “Wait,” Luka told them, because he had seen something that needed to be investigated. Hanging from the ruff around the Boss Vulture’s neck was a little pouch. Luka reached for it; the vulture made no move. Inside the pouch was a scroll of paper, and on the scroll of paper was a message from Captain Aag.
“Dreadful black-tongued child,” the message read, “Disgusting witch-boy, did you imagine I would do nothing in return for what you did to me? Did you think, vile warlock infant, that I could not damage you more grievously than you damaged me? Were you so vain, so foolish, feeble pint-sized maledictor, that you thought you were the only witch in town? Throw out a curse when you can’t control it, O incompetent pygmy hexer, and it will come back to smack you in the face. Or, on this occasion, in perhaps an even more satisfying act of revenge, it poleaxes someone you love.”
Luka began to shiver, even though the night was warm. Was this the truth? Had his burning curse against the circus boss been answered by a sleeping curse on his father? In which case, Luka thought with horror, the Big Sleep was his fault. Not even the arrival in his life of Dog the bear and Bear the dog could make up for the loss of his dad. But on the other hand he had noticed his father’s slowness long before the night of the dancing stars, so maybe this note was just a hideous lie. At any rate he was determined not to let the Boss Vulture see that he was shaken, so in a loud, firm voice, like the one he used in school plays, he sai d, “I hate vultures, to be honest with you, and I’m not surprised that you are the only creatures who stayed loyal to that terrible Captain Aag. What an idea, anyway, to have a vulture act in a circus! Just shows you the type of guy he is. This, also,” Luka added, and tore the note to bits under the vulture’s cynical beak. “is the letter of a nasty man, trying to make out that he could make my father ill. He can’t make anyone unwell, obviously, but he does make everyone sick.” Then, summoning up all his courage, he shooed the big bird off his window sill and closed the window.
The vultures flew away in disarray, and Luka collapsed on to his bed, trembling. His dog and his bear nuzzled at him, but he could not be comforted. Rashid was Sleeping, and he, Luka, could not get rid of the notion that he - himself and he alone - was the one who had brought this curse down on his family.
Ater a sleepless night, Luka got up before dawn and crept into his parents’ bedroom, as he had done so often in ha ppier time s. There lay his father, Asleep, with tubes running into his arm to feed him, and a monitor showing his heartbeat as a jagged green line. To tell the truth, Rashid didn’t look cursed or even sad. He looked ...happy, as if he was dreaming of the stars, dancing with them while he slept, living with them in the sky, and smiling. But looks weren’t everything, Luka knew that much; the world was not always what it seemed to be. Soraya was sleeping on the floor, sitting up with her back against the wall. Nei ther parent woke up, as they always used to do when Luka was sneaking towards them. That was depressing. Dragging his feet, Luka made his way back to his own room. Through the window he could see the sky beginning to lighten. Dawn was supposed to cheer people up, but Luka couldn’t think of anything to be cheerful about. He went to the window to draw the curtain so that he could at least lie in the dark and rest for a while, and that was when he saw the extraordinary thing.
There was a man standing in the lane outside the Khalifa residence, wearing a familiar vermilion-coloured bush-shirt and a recognizably battered Panama hat, and plainly watching the house. Luka was just about to call out, and maybe even send Bear and Dog to chase the stranger away, when the man threw back his head and looked him right in the eye.
It was Rashid Khalifa! It was his father, standing out there, saying nothing, but looking wide awake!
But if Rashid was outside in the lane, then who was sleeping in his bed? And if Rashid was sleeping in his bed, then how could he be outside? Luka’s head was whirling and his brain had no idea what to think; his feet, however, had started to run. Pursued by his bear and his dog, Luka ran as fast as he could to where his father was waiting for him. He charged downstairs barefoot, stumbled slightly, took a step to the right, felt oddly giddy for a moment, regained his balance and hurtled on through the front door. This was wonderful, Luka thought. Rashid Khalifa had woken up and somehow slipped outside for a walk. Everything was going to be all right.
Copyright © 2010 Salman Rushdie.
This segment aired on November 29, 2010.
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