Luka and the Fire of Life - By Salman Rushdie


The Terrible Thing That Happened on

the Beautiful Starry Night

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 mirror-worked skirt), the warrior dances known as the spaw and the thang-ta, 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.