Friday, January 11, 2013

Mughal Dreams

                                                            Anita Desai’s In Custody

Ever since I visited Delhi in 1987, I have been fascinated by the Mughals and their influence in India, an influence—though faded—that still can be felt today. “The Mughal House of Timur ruled most of South Asia for more than two hundred years and became arguably the greatest dynasty in Indian history,” writes William Dalrymple in his engaging history The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857. “For many, the Mughals symbolize Islamic civilization at its most refined and aesthetically pleasing—think of the great white dome of the Taj Mahal that Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, raised in Agra in memory of his favorite Queen…” At the heart of that civilization--an eclectic, richly cosmopolitan culture which reveled in the arts: in painting architecture, horticulture, and music--was a devotion to poetry the like of which is all but inconceivable today.  In Delhi and Agra, poets were cultivated by the wealthy and powerful; Mughal statesman and warriors themselves devoted time to savoring the works of Mir, Ghalib, and Iqbal, as well as to writing and reciting their own qasidas, rubayis, and ghazals

The gathering of poets was a popular occasion in the Mughal world.  As described by Asad ur Rahman, “A gathering of poets is called a mushaira and it is a small, intimate social function.  Traditionally, the poets and members of the audience sit on a carpet-covered floor in horse-shoe formation.  The leader is usually the most distinguished poet or the most respected scholar.  The reading of the poems starts with the youngest or the least known poet.  An oil lamp or lighted candle is placed before the poet to indicate that it is his or her turn to read and to provide better lighting for his reading.  In ascending order, the poets read their poems until the candle [comes] to the leader.  If the leader is a poet, he will read his poem.  If not, he will comment on the poems read that day.  Then, he will announce the misra-e-tarha or the half line of poetry on the metrical pattern by which the poets will have to write their poems for the next meeting…”      

It is no doubt this sort of scene that is imagined by the hapless protagonist of Desai’s novel  In Custody (1984) when he is given the chance--the chance of a lifetime--to interview his hero, the Urdu poet, Nur Shahjahanabadi, one of the last living masters of a long and noble lineThe novel tells the story of Deven, a poor widow’s son and frustrated Urdu poet and intellectual who earns his living by teaching Hindi literature to bored college students in a dusty town outside of Delhi where he lives with his wife, Sarla. One day he is surprised at work by his wealthy and feckless friend, Murad, who charges him, for the next edition of his magazine, to secure an interview with the illustrious poet.  Devon is thrilled by the prospect of meeting the man, of basking in his greatness, and journeys to Delhi, to the largely Muslim neighborhood of Chandi Chowk where the poet lives, his heart full to bursting with nervous expectation.  Not surprisingly, things do not go as planned.  Surrounded, if not guarded, by jealous wives, greedy relatives, and lazy devotees, the dissloute, senile, and grossly overweight, Nur proves a surprise and challenge for the tender young protagonist bent on preserving the poet’s name and works for posterity.  What follows is a wryly-told, often heartbreaking tale of one’s man longing for a charmed and bygone world.


Note:  While the novel In Custody will provide readers with a compelling introduction to both Desai’s fiction and to the glories of Mughal poetry and culture, I highly recommend the following books as well:

Twilight in Delhi, Ahmed Ali (fiction)
A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth (fiction)
Taj: A Story of Mughal India, Timeri Murari (fiction)
The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India's Great Emperors, Abraham Eraly (non-fiction)
Shimmering Jewels: Anthology of Poetry Under the Reigns of the Mughal Emperors of India (1526-1857)(poetry)

Anita Desai was born in Mussorie, India to a German mother, Toni Nime, and a Bengali businessman, D. N. Mazumdar.  She grew up speaking German at home and Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, and English outside the house. Although German is her first language she did not visit Germany until later in life as an adult. She first learned to read and write in English at school and as a result English became her "literary language".

                                                           Calligraphy by Ahmed Shahnawaz Alam

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