The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

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I'm a peace-loving married Indian male on the right side of '50 with college-going children, and presently employed under government. Educationally I've a master's degree in History, and another in Computer Application. Besides, I've a post graduate diploma in Management. My published works are:- (1)"In Harness", ISBN 81-8157-183-5, a poetry collections and (2) "The Remix of Orchid", ISBN 978-81-7525-729-0, a short story collections with a foreword by Mr. Ruskin Bond, (3) "Virasat", ISBN 978-81-7525-982-9, again a short story collection but in Hindi, (4) "Ek Saal Baad," ISBN 978-81-906496-8-1, my second Story Collection in Hindi.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rushdie's "The Enchantress of Florence": Right up to the Denouement


The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie is a book that gels history, legends, fairy-tales and magic to build a wonderful fiction of mesmerizing effect. It’s a fiction that embarks on erudite research into the materials scattered all through the literature that records the explorers’ version of the world and the historians legacy, and at one point compels the readers to think that despite the physical insularities of human races across the medieval world, there did exist, actually, a similarity in their thinking. Magic, fantasy, story, ambition, wanderlust, romance, belief—everything that happened deep inside the medieval psyche was the same whether it was a Mughal emperor fantasizing about a perfect consort for him or a Florentine duke hobnobbing with his commander’s wife, whether the harlots of Fatehpur Sikri thriving under the protection of nobility and with their magic power or the courtesans of Florentine dancing “naked for the dignitaries until they forgot their dignity”.

The story is complex. It starts with Babar. He had to give his sister Khanzada to the Uzbeg warlord Lord Warmwood (Shaibani Khan) as a price of his (Babar’s) safe-conduct out of the besieged city of Samarkand. The exquisitely beautiful youngest princess and her mirror also accompanied Khanzada. Then they were rescued by the Persian King Ismail after defeating Lord Warmwood. In deference to his friendship with the Mughal king Babar, Ismail liberated the captured princess Khanzada but the youngest princess (Qara Koz) and her mirror chose to stay back. That enraged Babur, so much so that he ensured the exclusion of her name from all royal records. Then the Persian king Ismail was himself defeated by the Sultan of Ottoman in the battle of Chaldiran and its Jenissary Argalia took possession of the beautiful Mughal princess and her mirror. She was now known as Angelica, the enchantress beyond compare.

The above represents the background only. The actual story opens for the readers after a long gap, at a time when the lost prince (Qara Koz alias Angelica) would be ninety-five years old and when the Mughal Emperor Akbar, the grandson of Babar, is ruling India. A foreign traveler in a coat of coloured leather lozenges braves the hassles of a bullock-cart journey and the sweltering heat of the northern India into Akbar’s capital Fatehpur Sikri with an audacious request: he desires that the emperor would accept him as the offspring of the hidden Mughal princess Angelica, a scion of the house of royal Chaghatai. So, he has a story to tell and an ancestry to vindicate. He wants to restore the rightful dignity of her mother in the eyes of her clan. His story depicts his series of adventures that ride piggyback on magic: how the Janissary lover Argalia takes Angelica to the Ottoman capital where he receives and forfeits the favour of Salim the Grim, the Ottoman Sultan; how Angelica escapes her misfortune when it is time for her consort to face the execution and how she magically manipulates the executioner to facilitate her consort’s escape; how they reach Florence by magically disarming Andrea Doria, the captain of the fleet of Genoa; how the entire populace of Florence come under the sweet spell of Angelica and do everything that helps peace and tranquility in the city; how Argalia the Turk is anointed with the post of condottiere of Florence; how the misfortune catches them up overnight to turn Angelica the beneficial enchantress into a dreadful witch; how Argalia the condottiere lays down his life with his Swiss warriors and the battle-hardened janissaries, fighting the riotous Florentines; how Angelica escapes with her Mirror to the new world Mundus Novus to nostalgically yearn for a reunion with her sibling.

Emperor Akbar is deeply impressed with the story and has no objection to accept it. In fact, he commissions the royal painter Daswant to paint the lost princess and her exploits as the enchantress, and the inspired artist does a commendable job. But in the process he falls in the love with the subject he creates and one day vanishes into the painting itself. Here, the emperor goes into mental turmoil involving the question whether to accept the storyteller Mogor dell’Amore into the royal fold granting him the royal pedigree. The story does not dovetail into a fine chronology; the possibility of incestuous copulation among the trio that escaped to the New World, Mundus Novous cannot be easily discarded. An emperor cannot be guilty of accepting the creation of such an unholy union. This finally leads to the solution of the riddle but in a magical way. Angelica alias Qara Koz appears in Akbar’s dream and discloses that the story teller is the grandson of her mirror, born to her husband from the womb of her daughter. The fact that he believes himself to be the royal progeny does not, however, go to make him a masquerader, for he has narrated what he believed and he believed what he heard.

Rushdie presents copious amount of sex here, almost every form of it. Their depiction is subtle and sensible even though the effort is well evident, for the scope of a historical fiction would not automatically allow it. The most spectacular is ménage à trios, in which the hidden prince Angelica moves with her mirror as she changes her lovers from Transoxiana to Safavid capital city of Tabriz to the Ottoman capital and then to Florence and finally to the New World. The courtesans and harlots crowd the scenes and their activities have both magical and comical touch in them. Beauty and sex are adored, coveted and revered but not transgressed unless, of course, with the express need of the plot.

For making his work gripping and incisive, Rushdie seems to leave the domain of historical accuracy and explores the characters with profound vigour. Emperor Akbar is one such example. He is depicted to possess an unfulfilled libido taking him to the realm of fantasy. He creates a Jodha, the paragon of beauty, an empathizer of first order and that plunges him into reverie and somniloquy. Despite talented people surrounding him, he suffers from forlornness and melancholia. He has sons but they are either highly misguided or worthless wastrels. He wants that there should be someone near him giving differing viewpoints, but what he finds all around him are sycophants. The ones who are capable of doing that are willy-nilly his enemies and meet the same fate on the battlefields as all enemies do. He is superstitious who likes to interpret the entry of a disoriented crow inside the palace. He interprets the appearance of green fungus in the lake Anup Talao as the foreboding of the existence of treason in the court. He acts funnily too, sending love letters to his contemporary Queen Elizabeth (Zelabat Giloriana) just to be ignored. His intention to see the others’ points of view leads to an intellectual wrestling match and from there he goes into religious ambivalence.

It is interesting to see how Rushdie makes up a quick denouement for this novel. He has two issues to resolve: one, what is the ultimate truth concerning the identity of the storyteller; second, how this fact is to be disclosed. The second one is rather important and Qara Koz comes in the dream of the Emperor Akbar to tell the truth. It is something like a mythological story disclosing an unknown fact by an aerial announcement or a dream. Quite a commonplace solution at that! And the truth is that the storyteller is not a Mughal, rather born out of an incestuous union between his mother and her father. This, however, does not show that the fellow has had the evil intention to defraud and impersonate. Unaware of the whole truth, he has only a story to tell, the version that was told to him since his childhood, the one that connects him to a royal line of descendants. Thus a great story is told but with an utterly banal yet inescapable denouement!
A. N. Nanda


Monday, August 10, 2009

The Secod Best

It is not easy to get all the answers one needs to clear one's doubts, more so if one wants them instantly. There are certain doubts that are best answered in time. In other words, one should not mind if no answer follows the question; answers do need incubation. Some doubts take years to get answered and some even get answered posthumously.

I'm not talking of those scientific inquiries that need rigorous research and laboratory experiments. My doubt is simple, just connected with the matter I'm presently engrossed with. In general terms let me articulate this: Whether doing the second best is better than waiting for aeons to mature for adopting the best course?

I've published my third book on my own. It's as if my works lack literary worth that big-time publishers look for as they scout for contents. But then what kind of quality do they really look for? Let me talk about my book of short stories, "The Remix of Orchid." A book that made Ruskin Bond to foreword so generously cannot be said to be lacking in quality, content-wise. The entire book is set in the pristine islands of the Andamans, and nobody has ever taken up that remote yet beautiful place as the setting of all his stories in an entire book. To quote Mr Bond, 'And I can say this to those who love books: your choice of reading a book on the Andamans should start right here. With "The Remix of Orchid" you will not be disappointed.' But even such a warm-hearted support from no less a person than Ruskin Bond failed to create publisher's interest in my book.

Now the second example. It is about my book "Virasat" that I got released during last May. While releasing the book, the noted Hindi poet Mr Arun Kamal said, 'The stories present profound human relationships. It's rare that an Oriya-speaking person proves himself to be a prominent author of short stories in Hindi.' The book is probably the first of its kind if one considers the subject it deals with. A whole book of collection of thirty short stories has been devoted to postal life, postal environment and the interaction of this glorious organization with society in the context of the change in popular perception about the very usefulness of the organisation. The book has scored in terms of the appreciation of the readers from the day one of its release. People like its raw and unadorned approach, the power of its theme, the unstoppable flow...and the list is not yet complete. If it is so content-wise, then why did the publishers dither to give it a try?

Some say that it is not the content alone that clicks. One needs to do a lot of running around. Only yesterday I met a gentleman whose books, ten of them so far according to his information, have been published by various publishers. Some of the publishers are not the name one should feel great about, but at least one is a big name that churns out blockbusters. So I was curious to know about the way he went about achieving the feat. And I came to know what he did. Yes, it was from horse's mouth. He bought some two hundred copies of his own book from the publisher at sixty-six percent of the printed price. Maybe, by selling that many copies, the publisher got his investment recovered. The rest he will sell for his own profit without giving anything to the writer. If the book sells, the publisher will reprint and corner that amount too.

If that is what like getting published by a big-time publisher, then self-publication means a lot of peace…except, of course, the nagging feeling that one is rejected.
A. N. Nanda