Authors: Salman Rushdie
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Epub ISBN 9781407092461
Published by Jonathan Cape 2010
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Copyright © Salman Rushdie 2010
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ALSO BY SALMAN RUSHDIE
The Satanic Verses
Haroun and the Sea of Stories
The Moor’s Last Sigh
The Ground Beneath Her Feet
Shalimar the Clown
The Enchantress of Florence
The Jaguar Smile
Step Across This Line
Haroun and the Sea of Stories
(with Tim Supple and David Tushingham)
(with Tim Supple and Simon Reade)
The Vintage Book of Indian Writing
M agic lands lie all around,
I nside, outside, underground.
L ooking-glass worlds still abound.
A ll their tales this truth reveal:
N aught but love makes magic real.
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
(for which he wore a wide mirror-worked skirt), the warrior dances known as the
, and the peacock 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 could 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 Elephants 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, aka Grandmaster Flame. The animals were so scared of the crack of his whip that the Lioness with toothache and the blind Tigress continued to jump through hoops and play dead and the skinny Elephants still made 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 decided 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 ‘Hawaii’ in a geography test. However, he had remembered the name of his 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 mud-coloured water, which flowed through the city not far from their home. The 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 at
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 that 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 secret business.
That night it was reported on the TV news that, 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 they were an army, closing in on him from all directions until they formed an animal circle of rage, his nerve cracked and he fell 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 rustling 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 veranda their neighbour, Miss Oneeta, shouted, ‘Have a care! When animals begin to sing and 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 wife 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 –