September Book of the Month: “Luka and the Fire of Life” by Salman Rushdie

Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie. 240 pages. Random House. September 20, 2011. ISBN: 9780679783473. List price: $15.

Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie. 240 pages. Random House. September 20, 2011. ISBN: 9780679783473. List price: $15.

With people fighting to earn Foursquare badges by checking in to their apartment buildings and other mundane locations every day, it’s hard to remember that we do not live in a video game where our sole purpose is to make it to the next level. In a whimsical and truly playful turn, Salman Rushdie stabs at our desire to collect magic mushrooms through the eyes of a 12-year-old protagonist in “Luka and the Fire of Life.”

When the story opens, we meet Luka, the son of Rashid Khalifa, a storyteller better known as the Shah of Blah. He lives in Alifbay, in the city of Kahani which sits along the river Silsila. For the Urdu-speaking reader, these words evoke a kind of quiet smile that one would expect from a child who notices his native language slipping into an English book. For the others, allow me to translate. “Alifbay” is a compound of the first two letters of the Urdu alphabet, equivalent to English’s A and B. “Kahani” is the word for story, and “Silsila” is used to signify a chain.

In this adorable setting lurks a not-so-secret secret: Strange things happen sometime, like little boys’ curses coming true or young men shuttling off to parallel worlds for amazing adventures. When Luka curses the evil Captain Aag (literally, “captain of fire”), the circus ringmaster sends the Shah of Blah into a deep, impenetrable Sleep. Soon, Luka comes face to face with the being who is slowly absorbing his father’s life and stumbles into the World of Magic, from which he vows to steal the Fire of Life to save his father.

In the World of Magic, everything is the same as the real world, but better. In place of the murky river Silsila flows the River of Life. Luka’s school nemesis Ratshit takes the form of an actual rat. His pet dog and bear gain the ability to speak. But despite all these improvements, Luka must battle his way through treacherous obstacles as he approaches the Fire of Life, which, by the way, has never been stolen before.

Luckily for Luka, he can earn and spend extra lives and save his progress through different levels just as in his beloved video games. The question remains: Will he be able to steal the Fire and awake his father from Sleep?

Layered into the fanciful adventure is some hilarious social commentary. The rat colony, for example, is so choked by the fear of offending each other that they barely say anything at all. Talk about being PC to the extreme.

For the Harry Potter generation, “Luka and the Fire of Life” is a welcome visit to another World of Magic. Delightful characters and an irresistible heart of gold protagonist make this a pleasure to read for anyone in the family.

Amina Elahi is Divanee.com’s Managing Editor. Visit her Tumblr to see her posts about South Asia, books, design and more.