Chapter 1 - The Shah of Blah
The novel opens in the “saddest of cities” in the country of Alifbay. The city stands “by a mournful sea full of glumfish” and all the people are full of sadness and melancholy. Haroun Khalifa lives in the middle of this city with his father and mother. His father, Rashid, is a famous storyteller. “To his admirers he was Rashid the Ocean of Notions, as stuffed with cheery stories as the sea was full of glumfish; but to his jealous rivals he was the Shah of Blah.” Haroun and his family live a happy life in the city, until one day, when something goes wrong.
Rashid travels a lot because his cheery stories are in demand. His stories are fantastical, full of strange characters and dramatic situations. Haroun often wonders where his father gets all these stories since “stories can’t simply come out of thin air.” His father will only say that all his stories come from the great Story Sea. Haroun continues to ask these questions of his father all the time until one day, Haroun asks “one question too many, and then all hell broke loose.”
Haroun is an only child, a strange circumstance in a city where there are mostly big families. Even stranger are the Senguptas, the Khalifa’s upstairs neighbors, who have no children at all. Mrs. Sengupta often treats Haroun as if he were her own son. Sometimes Haroun likes this and sometimes he does not. Mr. Sengupta dislikes Haroun’s father and sometimes he launches into criticisms of Rashid, telling Haroun’s mother that Rashid has “his head stuck in the air and his feet off the ground. What are all these stories? Life is not a storybook or a joke shop...What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”
One day, Haroun returns from school in a downpour and sees Mrs. Sengupta standing upstairs crying. Inside his house, he finds his father crying as well and he learns that his mother has run off with Mr. Sengupta. In a fit of anger, Rashid breaks every clock in the house, stopping them at 11 o’clock sharp. The letter that Haroun’s mother leaves accuses Rashid of having no room for facts in his mind. Haroun becomes angry with his father and yells at him, “What’s the point of it? What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” Haroun realizes immediately that he should not have said that, and he blames himself when, soon afterwards, Rashid stands up in front of an audience to tell a story and no words come out.
Haroun finds it hard to concentrate on anything for longer than eleven seconds and Mrs. Sengupta thinks that the eleven seconds is significant since that is the time Haroun’s mother left. She diagnosis his problem as located in his “pussy-collar-jee.” They realize she means, psychology, and so Rashid decides to take his son with him on a story-telling job for some politicos. Rashid is often hired by politicians to tell flattering stories about them so that they will win their elections. They go to the Town of G, which “is not so special,” to tell the stories. When Rashid goes out to perform, he again finds no words to tell his story. He can only say, “Ark, ark, ark.” The politicos are angry and tell him that he must go to the Valley of K and tell stories there or else they will cut out his tongue. Haroun knows he must do something because this is all his fault.
Chapter 2 - The Mail Coach
At the bus station, Haroun and Rashid jostle in a crowd for a chance to buy a ticket to the Valley of K. There are signs all over the station that say things like “If you try to rush or zoom / you are sure to meet your doom,” or “All the dangerous overtakers / end up safe at undertaker’s.” The bus depot is a crowded place because there are too many passengers and not enough buses.
Haroun runs into a man who he thinks looks something like a parrot. The man tells him his name is Butt, “driver of the Number One Super Express Mail Coach to the Valley of K.” Haroun as an idea and asks Butt if he will take him and his father to see the beauty of the road from the Town of G to the Valley of K, a road that climbs “like a serpent through the Pass of H towards the Tunnel of I.” Mr. Butt protests that it is late, but decides that he will fulfill the young man’s request.
The mail coach drives at great speed down the road to the Valley of K. They pass bins of mail that they should pick up. Butt tells them, “Need’s a slippery snake, that’s what it is...it’s been said of me that Butt Needs Speed, but but but it may be that my heart truly needs a Different Sort of Thrill. O, Need’s a funny fish: it makes people untruthful.” Many of the passengers beg Butt to slow down, but Butt only speeds up. Haroun worries that he has doomed all the passengers with his request to see the Valley of K.
As they climb up into the mountains, Haroun has the feeling that he is going to be “wiped out, like a word on a blackboard, one swoosh of the duster and I’ll be gone for good.” The bus goes through a bank of clouds, Butt hits the brakes very hard, and Haroun thinks that this is it...and suddenly they are in the tunnel and out with a view of the Valley of K in front of them.
It is a beautiful valley. Their journey reminds Rashid of khattam-shud, “the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech.” Haroun thinks that the view is helping his father since his crazy stories are returning. The bus slowly makes its way down the mountain and Haroun sees a sign “daubed with crude, irregular letters” that reads “Welcome to Kosh-Mar.” Rashid admits that “Kosh-Mar” is the word for “nightmare” in the old tongue.
K is a remote place and so news of Rashid’s storytelling problems have not yet reached the politicos there. Mr. Buttoo, one of the political bosses of the valley, meets Rashid and Haroun. He is a very slick man. Haroun does not trust him. They are all protected by exactly one hundred and one heavily armed soldiers. Haroun thinks about telling his father that they should leave, but he does not get the chance. A luxurious swan boat picks them up on the shores of Dull Lake to take them across. Mr. Buttoo can tell Rashid looks sad and he tells him, “She may have you but there are plenty more fish in the sea.” Rashid only answers, “Ah, but you must go a long, long way to find an Angel Fish.” A hot wind begins to blow and a thick mist comes in so that they can barely see anything.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a novel that functions on two levels. On the base level, it is an adventure novel written for young adults. In interviews, Rushdie explained that he wrote the novel with his own children in mind. He developed many of the stories by telling them extemporaneously to his children during bath time. The novel’s audience, therefore, is children. On a second level, the book is a commentary on literature and literary culture written for adults. It has meanings and inside jokes that most children will not understand. It contains certain themes that function on the level of adult consciousness.
Haroun Khalifa is the novel’s eponymous hero. The opening chapter introduces Haroun and presents the novel’s overarching conflict. Haroun’s family breaks apart because Haroun and his mother both question Rashid Khalifa’s storytelling and perspective on reality. This causes Rashid to lose his ability to tell stories. This gift is his livelihood and his reason for existing. Haroun realizes that he has crushed his father and broken his spirit. The novel’s action revolves around Haroun’s quest to reclaim his father’s storytelling gift.
Throughout the novel, Rushdie uses a great amount of alliteration, rhyme, and made-up words to create a playfulness of language. This playfulness helps to create the fantastical world to which Haroun travels. It also helps the reader note that the setting for this story is not the same real world that the reader inhabits. It is, instead, a world that closely resembles the reader’s world. In literature, this classifies the novel as a work of “magical realism.” This aesthetic style blends fantastical and magical elements of a story into a realistic setting. This blending of the fantastical and the real allows the author to explore the deeper meaning of reality.
The opening setting is in the “sad city.” The city is unnamed except for its emotion because the people have forgotten the name of the city. The act of naming is a theme throughout the novel. In a later chapter, Iff the Water Genie tells Haroun that to name a thing is to bring it into being. The opposite is also true -- to lose a thing or place name means that an essential identity of it is lost. This is the case for the “sad city.” The city is Rushdie’s commentary on the collision between the ancient and the modern. Modernity is represented by the city’s industrial advance. One of the results of modernity is that it strips the essential identity from culture.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories can be classified as following the narrative of the heroic tale. In such tales, first developed in Classical Greek literature, the hero of the story goes on a quest to find his home and to restore order to the world. While on the journey, the hero faces numerous challenges that threaten to doom him and his journey. The story climaxes in an epic battle between good and evil. This overarching narrative frames the novel.