I never thought there would come a day in my life when I would thank the spouse for forcing me, with painful regularity, to suffer Hollywood films of the Incredibly Loud and Extremely Expensive persuasion: blockbusters with superhero protagonists and crazy sci-fi weapons.

That day has come. I am thankful for version 1.0 of the dummy’s guide to comic verse. (Just please don’t make me watch Captain America: Civil War.)

The Rushdie connection

Long story short, had I never seen the Avengers films or Fantastic Four or X-men or the rest of the superhero sagas, then while reading Salman Rushdie’s latest novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2Y8MA28N?) – with its post-apocalyptic New York City gripped by a mysterious bout of “strangenesses” leading up to, finally, the epic “War of the Worlds” playing out on a global scale between jinns and humans, good jinns and bad jinns, with Swots (a Taliban by any other name would etc. etc.) and devs (in the Persian cosmology the “dev”s are the demons, not the celestials as in Indian schema) – I’d have been scrabbling blindly through the literary world for clues.

There are literary clues studding the book, of course there are, there’s a cellist called Hugo Casterbridge who sells his wife for £ 1 million. But what I mean is had I not been exposed to the star gates that allowed space travel or been dimly familiar with portals to distant galaxies through which alien armies invade the US of A – which in Hollywood depiction is on the brink of disaster, every other month – I’d be a blithering idiot in a library, checking out books on Rushdie and post-colonialism, tomes which use phrases like “fractured narratives” a lot.

And in my feverish academic note-taking, I would miss out on the most obvious and magnificent cultural referents of this fictive universe: science fiction (in a typical Rushdiean twist, apparently the grand villain is a fan of cult science fiction classics) and Marvel and DC comics, which, these days, have reinvented themselves on celluloid. Here’s more self-reflexivity for you. One of the reluctant heroes is a young graphic novelist named Jimmy Kapoor whose superhero creation is the Shiva-inspired Natraj Hero (Kapoor’s artwork is self-confessedly sub-Stan Lee but that is before he awakens his inner jinn).

Not an ivory tower form

The author, of course, might be laughing away at the expense of his usual nerdy critics. Perhaps because the charge of unreadability has been levelled at Rushdie in the past, the usual Rushdie readers are often imagined as types. Self-consciously intellectual men and women who practically live out their days in literary salons, use the word “banal” a lot and never ever stoop to watch the Hollywood superhero films they critique for their mindlessness.

But Rushdie himself is not a literary elitist. (He might be a Twitter snob but that is a different matter.) In an interview to John Freeman ten years ago, Rushdie had said, “One of my good fortunes as a writer is to have access to a lot of traditions – and not just inside Western culture, high culture or low culture. Remember, I am a child of the sixties generation – I was 21 in 1968 – I am also somebody passionately in love with the language of cinema, so all this stuff, music, movies, it’s just readily available, not something I have to bone up on… If a novelist is smart, he or she will realise the novel is not an ivory-tower form.”

Jinns, not aliens

The protagonist of Two Years is a jinnia – that is, a female jinn – the Lightning Princess, Asmaan Peri, who falls in love with a philosopher.

In the Muslim world, the jinn are often considered to be “intermediary” beings, belonging above the terrestrial realm, but well below the celestial; unlike angels and like human beings, they can be deeply complex creatures who act out of their own free will – and can shift towards darkness or light – depending on things. Not only are the jinn mentioned in the Quran, but it is assumed that the Quran is addressed to both humans and the jinn.

But where do the jinn live?

Rushdie tells us early on that “most eminent commentators long asserted what we now know to be true: that the jinn live in their own world, separated from ours by a veil, and that this upper world, sometimes called Peristan or Fairyland, is very extensive, though its nature is concealed from us.”

The Lightning Princess, however, moved by a deep interest in human beings, enters our dimension through a slit between the two worlds, and comes to love a man, the philosopher Ibn Rushd.

It is the year 1195. Rushd, formerly the judge of Seville and the personal physician to the Caliph, has been exiled for his “radical” views, considered far-too-liberal even within the rationalist Mutazila tradition that is extant within Muslim discourse. The jinnia who calls herself Dunia (“Why have you named yourself after the world?” he asked her, and she replied, “Because a world will flow from me and those who flow from me will spread across the world.”) lives with him for two years, eight months and twenty-eight days  – one thousand nights and one night more – and bears him many many children, though she is pregnant only thrice, and all the children, like her, lack earlobes.

Hundreds of years later, in the time of war, these children, scattered across the globe will rally together.

The philosopher

Salman Rushdie thinks of himself in the tradition of Ibn Rushd, and not only because of the liberalism or the exile (the fatwa in the case of the author), but a deeper karmic connect that he’s written about in his autobiography Joseph Anton.

The first gift he received from his father, a gift like a message in a time capsule, which he didn’t understand until he was an adult, was the family name. “Rushdie” was Anis’s invention; his father’s name had been quite a mouthful, Khwaja Muhammad Din Khaliqi Dehlavi, a fine old Delhi name that sat well on that old-school gentleman… Anis renamed himself “Rushdie” because of his admiration for Ibn Rushd, “Averroës” to the West, the twelfth-century Spanish-Arab philosopher of Cordoba who rose to become the qadi, or judge, of Seville, the translator of and acclaimed commentator upon the works of Aristotle. His son bore the name for two decades before he understood that his father, a true scholar of Islam who was also entirely lacking in religious belief, had chosen it because he respected Ibn Rushd for being at the forefront of the rationalist argument against Islamic literalism in his time; and twenty more years elapsed before the battle over The Satanic Verses provided a twentieth-century echo of that eight-hundred-year-old argument.

In Two Years, Ibn Rushd tells Dunia that it is better for their children to bear her name.

Dunia was deeply offended. “You mean,” she said, “that because we are not married our children cannot bear their father’s name.” He smiled his sad crooked smile. “It is better that they be the Duniazát,” he said, “a name which contains the world and has not been judged by it. To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.”

The great-great-great-great-great-great – throw in several more greats – grandchildren of Dunia and Ibn Rushd band together in the War of the Worlds, led by Mr Geronimo Manezes, a landscape architect though he goes by Geronimo Gardener these days, originally a Bombay boy, bastard child of a Catholic priest, who bears a strong physical resemblance to Ibn Rushd himself, Jimmy Kapoor, accountant by day, graphic novelist by night, Teresa Saca, ex-gold-digger, now outlaw, and Baby Storm, a foundling in whose presence the skin of the corrupt erupts in boils or literally begins to rot.

The adversaries

On the other side of the line are the Grand Ifrits, Zumurrud the Great, Zabardast the Sorcerer, Shining Ruby the Possessor of Souls and Raim Blood-Drinker, dark jinns from Peristan, Dunia’s childhood friends and sweethearts, who have come together at the behest of Ghazali (Ibn Rushd’s rival) in order to perpetrate grave crimes upon our world. At the core of the conflict is Rushdie’s trademark political consciousness:

If the dead could giggle with delight then the dead philosopher would have chortled with glee. The jinni perceived this. (Jinn can be perceptive at times.) “Why so mirthful?” he enquired. “Unleashing chaos upon the unsuspecting world is not. Or is it, a joke.”

Ghazali was thinking of Ibn Rushd. “My adversary in thought,” he told Zumurrud Shah, “is a poor fool who is convinced that with the passage of time human beings will turn from faith to reason, in spite of all the inadequacies of the rational mind. I, obviously, am of a different mind. I have triumphed over him many times, yet our argument continues.”

The tale

The complex arabesque of the narrative is replete with bonus stories that flower here and there (a gigantic palace called Anthillia built by a rich man, an election where the “National Relatives” are booted out, a bazaar with laughing fish, the Unyaza people who suffer from a curious story disease) and the sheer joy is in witnessing their rapid proliferation, out of thin air, of tendrils and vines and blooms and buds multiplying into friezes, familiar and unfamiliar, with the force of the green fuse. That is vintage Rushdie at work. (Or should I say play?)

From the fourth canto onwards, the novel really soars above the two old philosophers debating from their coffins, travels far out into the sky, now epic, now playful. Suddenly volatile, suddenly temperate and ribticklingly funny. The mighty battle is somewhat reminiscent of the Battle of Hogwarts in Harry Potter, but here the earnest violence is undercut by irony so often that the effect is perfect pastiche.

Several relevant questions remain unanswered of course: is the American military-industrial complex completely useless in their defence against jinn technology? What is the Russian strategy for this war? And most of all, I was extremely surprised that the dark jinns, the four Grand Ifrits, made a beeline for Afghanistan (A.) to set up their base. Langley might have seemed a more natural option, no? Or even better, Vauxhall, in London, where the MI6 headquarters, according to Joseph Anton, looks right upon Random House across the Thames as though awaiting a book deal? (True, their toys are a little less shiny than the CIA’s, but then it seems they have a sense of humour.) Ganging up with the Swots of A. was, in my view, a disappointing cop out.

Is this the great global (by which we mean American) novel of our time?

In Joseph Anton, Rushdie had remarked how his third wife Elizabeth West was always a little bit afraid that he’d abandon her for New York one day, so intriguing was Rushdie’s obsession with the city. This book, too, is a little bit of a love letter to New York City, dystopian and damaged as it is. The ending is moving, although the narrator in my head speaks exactly like Optimus Prime of the Transformers series at this point: “We worry, sometimes, about the idea of heroism, especially after the passage of such a long time.”

In the now famous 2010 essay The Dull New Global Novel Tim Parks had written in the New York Review of Books:

If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.

I say, with Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Days, Rushdie has gone far beyond the global novel, skipped forward to the next stage, and written the new global blockbuster that’ll probably come soon to a movie theatre near you. The Swots might be played by Bollywood actors and – who knows – it might even be produced by the rich man, once of Anthillia.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie, Hamish Hamilton.

Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, The Vague Woman’s Handbook and The Weight Loss Club. Her most recent book, co-authored with spouse Saurav Jha is The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, the story of an eccentric journey across India on a very very tight budget.