“This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn…who loved a mortal man long ago, in the twelfth century…and of her many descendants.”
This is Salman Rushdie as Scheherazade, narrating events that take place over 1,001 nights. Jinns are creatures of smoke and fire that can change shape, grant wishes and move very fast. That is where the word genie comes from. By making these creatures the centre of this book, Rushdie has let his imagination run riot. There is magic and malevolence, war and heroism. And a long argument between two scholars that carries on even in death and unleashes forces that threaten to destroy the world.
But this is not just about magic and magical creatures—the book is also about the messy affairs of humans. The bulk of it is set in the present, in a world where populists preach hatred and society is polarized.
Here are the bare bones of the plot: Dunia, a jinnia princess with an unusual fondness for the human race (jinns are fairly contemptuous of humans), falls in love with an ageing philosopher, Al Rushd, and bears him many children—collectively known as the Dunyazat—whose defining characteristic is a lack of earlobes (and the odd superpower).
Al Rushd leaves Dunia, and broken-hearted, she returns to Peristan, where the jinns live. The veil that divides the human world and Peristan closes up and stays closed for 800 years. Meanwhile her descendants thrive on Earth, unaware of their non-human ancestry.
A great storm 800 years later (which takes us to our present) creates slits in the veil between the two worlds, letting in not only Dunia, but also more malicious jinns. The “strangenesses” begin and will continue for the next two years, eight months and 28 nights (or 1,001 nights). The world will never be the same again. A woman kills her lover with lightning that pours out of her hand, the laws of gravity don’t work as people levitate or are crushed, and a child left on the doorstep of the Mayor of New York is able to detect the slightest whiff of corruption.
What starts out as mischief is taken much further because of the rivalry between two dead philosophers: Al Rushd, who believes in rationality, and Ghazali, who believes in faith and religion. One of the most fearsome jinns, the Grand Ifrit Zumurrud Shah, owes Ghazali a wish as repayment for release from a tiny bottle where he had been trapped. The long-dead philosopher orders Zumurrud to put fear into the hearts of people, so that they will return to God, thus proving Al-Rushd wrong. Zumurrud has no love for humans and throws himself into the task with gusto, enlisting other jinns to help him. The mayhem soon goes beyond what Ghazali had asked for. As has happened countless times before and will, I suppose, continue to happen, Ghazali unleashes forces that he is then unable to control.
When Dunia finds out, she mobilizes her descendants in the fight against Zumurrud and his cronies, and a war between good and evil plays out on Earth.
Rushdie’s books, however fantastical, tend to be about the state of the world. The chaos in the book will sounds familiar: the rise of fanaticism, identity politics and the events in Afghanistan over the last few decades. This book may be a fantasy, but like the best fantasies, it has more than a kernel of truth. Rushdie once said that politicians create fictions that they masquerade as reality, so it is up to those who create fiction for a living—the writers—to tell the truth. And this is his way of telling us that the world is coming apart at the seams, and we cannot afford to ignore the impending catastrophe.
The book is narrated by someone from the future. We know that our species survived and lives in harmony. We also learn that there have been no more breaches between Peristan and Earth. But the price we pay for not having any jinns or their magic in our lives is the loss of the ability to dream.