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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Excerpts related to Jodha Akbar | From the Novel - Enchantress of Florence + Interview of the Author

Hi all..

Making this post about a fictional novel from Salman Rushdie - The Enchantress of Florence, of 2008, which reaches further back in history than he has ever done before. In an exclusive telephonic interview given to The Hindu, he talks about the years of research that were involved and the imaginative recreation of history across time, cultures and continents.

In his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie mixes history, fantasy, fable and magic to create a novel of great enchantment. The novel, which he describes as his “most researched”, moves with astonishing speed and energy from the court of Emperor Akbar to Renaissance Florence in Europe, journeying through various destinations on the way.

Rushdie pits East against West, explores assimilation and identity, and invites us to think about the power of storytelling and its role in defeating obscurantism and intolerance. The book is centred around a visit of a European to Akbar’s court, who claims he is a long-lost relative of the Emperor, born of a Mughal princess who was exiled from India to eventually fall in love with an Italian, who is connected to the Turks and the city of Florence. It provides the basis for a tale that moves back and forth between countries and continents as it engages with the cultural and philosophical ideas of that time. 

The book also talks about his wife - Jodha, whom the author describes as an ideal consort, with excellent qualities no other woman can possess. The author has tried his best to keep the readers engaged till the end about the "identity" of this lady. Sometimes she is kept in his dreams and sometimes she is a real figure who is loved by Akbar but hated by his other wives. In the middle he clears that the wife of Akbar was Mariam-Uz-Zamani, who was Hira Kunwari of Amer..

Here are the excerpts from an interview with the author… After the interview, i have mentioned some paragraphs from the novel about Akbar and his 'ideal consort'..

Like many of your other novels, The Enchantress of Florence has a clear historical context and works in fantasy, fable and magic. But this one has a long, six-page bibliography at the end of it. Has this got something to do with the nature of the novel — do you regard it as more ‘historical’ or ‘factual’ than the others? Or is it simply because more research went into it?

Both, I think. Without any question, this is the most researched book I have ever done. A surprising amount of the material arises out of historical fact. So I thought it was fair to acknowledge all the books from which I learnt and which I drew on. And then if people want to explore it further, the bibliography gives them an opportunity to do so. It’s not unusual for historical novels to have a bibliography. I’ve already noticed that people seem very surprised by it, but I don’t think I’ve done anything abnormal.

Absolutely not. Perhaps, it’s just because you’ve written so many novels that have a historical context. But this one also has a long bibliography.

The others deal with a more contemporary history. This time it goes much further back than I’ve ever gone. And it required years and years of reading, in a way that nothing else I have written has. So, the bibliography was just a way of acknowledging all the people from whom I have learnt.

You characterise Emperor Akbar as a man plagued with doubt, a man who is constantly debating issues in his head. Is this something that came through from the history texts you read? Or is this is a fictional characterisation?

Well, it’s a development of the character of the historical Akbar. He was very philosophically interested, very interested in inter-faith debate. He was somebody who believed in trying to create a synthesis of different belief systems.
As for the internal agony, this is something that is really very largely my invention. I wanted to show him as a person in whom ideas of the modern were being born. At one point, he is described as someone who is not content with being but is always trying to become. So there is a kind of internal moral dialogue, which may or may not have been there, although he was clearly a highly intelligent man. But entering into his internal world imaginatively was for me one of the great pleasures of the book.

It was a man’s world, but the book has powerful, self-willed women — the Enchantress herself and of course Jodha, even if she doesn’t exist.

It was a man’s world — very dominated by male power. And yet, there is evidence, for example, that the women of the Mughal court were really quite independent and powerful entities. The aunt of Akbar actually went on a two-year pilgrimage to Mecca and took a great deal of the court with her. {Read this old Blog Post by Radhika -> Link : Royal Women's Hajj | An Unusual Haraman Initiative }

Jodha.......The real Queen of Akbar was Mariam-uz-Zamani. She was actually a very powerful businesswoman. She had ships sailing to the Middle East. By no means she was a sequestered meek lady. She was the mother of Jehangir.  { Mary of Eternity was Mariam-uz-Zamani, Prince Salim's real mother, Rajkumari Hira Kunwari, a Kachhwaha Rajput princess of Amer. Mary of the Mansion, Mariam Makani, was the emperor's mother Hamida Bano. (The Caliph, the Jewel, and the Khedive were all the emperor himself.) We had intrepid women and so it seemed natural to me that even though it was a world dominated by military, political and male power, that a woman should be shown as considerable and independent figures in own right.

What about the idea that his murder of the Rana of Cooch Naheen was responsible for his shift towards a synthesised religion – or at least for his creation of The Tent of New Worship? Was that to suggest such a radical shift could have emerged only from a traumatic event?

It was just a way of dramatising his moment of choice. As for The Tent of New Worship, it is based on the historical structure known as the Ibadat Khana that Akbar built in order to allow this kind of theological/ philosophical debate to take place.
The thing that’s a mystery at the site of Fatehpur Sikri is that although we know this was built during the reign of Akbar, one of the most important buildings at the capital, its location has been completely lost. This allowed me to hypothesise that maybe the reason that it disappeared was that it was never a permanent structure — that it was a tent rather than a building. It seemed to me appropriate that a place devoted to thought should not be permanent because thought itself constantly develops and changes. To put it in an impermanent structure seems appropriate — so that’s my little theory on why the building has been lost. 

Medieval Europe, with its wars and religious orthodoxies, does not come off very well in comparison to the kingdom of Akbar, with its tolerance and religious pluralism, reflected in the Tent of New Worship. In making this contrast, were you showing up Western stereotypes about Islamic culture and rule?

I try not to write didactically. It is interesting to me that this was a turbulent and brutal period for Europe. But frankly, so was the whole world. If you look at the journey in the novel — west from India, through the Safavid empire in Persia, the Ottomans, and into Europe — the brutality is everywhere. One of things that I came to feel very strongly when writing this novel is that human nature is a constant. If we look at the past, we see exactly the same kind of behaviour patterns that we see in the present. We think of ourselves as living through a brutal moment while we have always lived through brutal moments. On the contrary, we were always capable of great beauty and culture. So the good and the bad of human nature are constant. 

This doesn’t seem the work of an atheist so much as the work of someone who is opposed to religion insofar as it destroys such things as doubt, argument, magic and storytelling. In the novel, Mogor dell’Amore says he is ‘attracted to the great polytheist pantheons because the stories are better; more numerous, more dramatic, more humorous, more marvellous...’ and so on. The book seems to suggest that it is the stories that really lead you to think or even live.

I think that’s true. And like the character in the novel, I have always been very interested in the polytheistic religions entirely for narrative reasons. Whether you are looking at Hinduism, the Norse myths, or Greek and Roman stories, these are extremely rich. I am very attracted to these incredible storehouses of narrative. But my interest in them is narrative rather than theological. 

The novel grapples with the issue of identity and assimilation. There is a line that asks and in an open-ended manner: ‘Was foreignness something to be embraced as a revitalizing force, bestowing bounty and success upon its adherents, or did it adulterate something essential in the individual and society as a whole?’

I am glad you identified that line. In the book there is a constant questioning of the different values that arise out of rigidness and travel, if you like. There are two kinds of people in the book. There are people who draw their sense of themselves and their sense of being in the world from movement between places. And there are other people who find that to be absurd — who think that all the meaning they have of the world arises from the place they belong. I wanted both those attitudes to be there and in tension with each other. I am not necessarily taking one side or the other. These are just profound differences about how people live in the world and I wanted them to be in dialogue with each other. 

This is a swifter work than any of your others, one that collapses a lot more into a shorter space.

Yes, that is quite deliberate. Given the amount of research and given the richness of the world being described, it could easily have been a 900-page novel. But it was always my firm intention in the book that the virtues of swiftness and lightness should be uppermost in the way the reader experiences it. I didn’t want to bore people with such things as the principal exploits of Florence in the 16th century or political intricacies of the Ottoman empire except in so far as they served the story. My plan all the way through was to use only what served the story and leave the rest impressionistically in the background.

Excerpts from the Novel:  

Even the emperor succumbed to fantasy. Queens floated within his palaces like ghosts, playing catch-me-if-you-can. One of these royal personages did not really exist. An imaginary wife, dreamed up by Akbar in the way that lonely children dream up imaginary friends, and in spite of the presence of many living, if floating, consorts, the emperor was of the opinion that it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the nonexistent beloved who was real. 

He gave her a name, Jodha, and no man dared gainsay him. Within the privacy of the women's quarters, within the silken corridors of her palace, her influence and power grew. Tansen wrote songs for her and in the studio-scriptorium her beauty was celebrated in portraiture and verse. Master Abdus Samad the Persian portrayed her himself, painted her from the memory of a dream without ever looking upon her face, and when the emperor saw his work he clapped his hands at the beauty shining up from the page. "You have captured her, to the life," he cried, and Abdus Samad relaxed and stopped feeling as if his head was too loosely attached to his neck; and after this visionary work by the master of the emperor's atelier had been exhibited, the whole court knew Jodha to be real, and the greatest courtiers, the Navratna or Nine Stars, all acknowledged not only her existence but also her beauty, her wisdom, the grace of her movements, and the softness of her voice. Akbar and Jodhabai!! It was the love story of the age.

The fellow wives, resented her. How could the mighty emperor prefer the company of this woman? When he was gone, at least, she ought to absent herself as well; she had no business to hang around with the actually existing. She should disappear like the apparition she was, should slide into a mirror or a shadow and be lost. That she did not, the living queens concluded, was the sort of solecism one had to expect from an imaginary being. How could she have been brought up to know her manners when she had not been brought up at all? She was an untutored figment, and deserved to be ignored. 

The emperor had put her together, they fumed, by stealing bits of them all. He said she was the daughter of the prince of Jodhpur. She was not! That was another queen, and she was not the Maharaja's daughter, but the sister. The emperor also believed his fictitious beloved was the mother of his firstborn son, his long-awaited firstborn son, conceived because of the blessing of a saint, that very saint beside whose hilltop hovel this victory city had been built. 

But she was not Prince Salim's mother, as Prince Salim's real mother was Rajkumari Hira Kunwari, known as Mariam-uz-Zamani, daughter of Raja Bhar Mal of Amer, of the Clan Kachhwaha.. {The author tries to justify the folly, correcting the wife to be Hira Kunwari.}

No real woman was ever like that, so perfectly attentive, so undemanding. She was an impossibility, a fantasy of perfection. They feared her, knowing that, being impossible, she was irresistible. The king loved her best. They hated her for her theft of their histories. If they could have murdered her they would have done so, but until the emperor died himself, she was immortal. 

The idea of the emperor's death was not beyond contemplation, but so far the queens were not contemplating it. So far they bore their grievances in silence. "The emperor is mad," they grumbled inwardly, but sensibly forbore to utter the words. And when he was galloping around killing people they left the imaginary consort to her own devices. They never spoke her name. Jodha, Jodhabai. The words never crossed their lips. She wandered the palace quarter alone. She was a lonely shadow glimpsed through latticed stone screens. She was a cloth blown by the breeze. At night she stood under the little cupola on the top story of the Panch Mahal and scanned the horizon for the return of the king who made her real. The king, who was coming home from the wars.

She was a woman without a past, separate from history, or, rather, possessing only such history as he had been pleased to bestow upon her, and which the other queens bitterly contested. The question of her independent existence, of whether she had one, insisted on being asked, over and over, whether she willed it or not. If God turned his face away from his creation, Man, would Man simply cease to be? That was the largescale version of the question, but it was the selfish, small-scale versions that bothered her. Was her will free of the man who had willed her into being? Did she exist only because of his suspension of disbelief in the possibility of her existence? If he died, could she go on living?

She was not subservient. Akbar did not like subservient women. She would scold him first. How could he stay away so long? In his absence she had had to combat many plots. All was untrustworthy here. The very walls were filled with whispers. She fought them all and kept the palace safe against the day of his return, defeating the small, self-serving treacheries of the domestic staff, confounding the spying lizards hanging on the walls, stilling the scurry of conspiratorial mice. All this, while she felt herself fading, while the mere struggle for survival required the exercise of almost the full force of her will. The other queens... no, she would not mention the other queens. The other queens did not exist. Only she existed.

The king wished, today as he did every day, that he could trust his sons. He trusted Birbal and Jodha and Abul Fazl and Todar Mal but he kept the boys under close surveillance. He longed to trust them so that they could be the strong supports of his old age. He dreamed of relying on their six beautiful eyes when his own grew dim, and on their six strong arms when his own lost their power, acting in unison at his behest, so that he would truly become as a god, many-headed, multilimbed. He wanted to trust them because he thought of trust as a virtue and wished to cultivate it, but he knew the history of his blood, he knew that trustworthiness was not his people's habit.

These were some of the lines from the novel about Akbar and his 'ideal consort'. Till the end, the author keeps us engaged and we do not know when she is present in dreams and when she comes out as a reality. I found the interview of the author more interesting to read as that was something history.

This article has been posted under the Jodha Akbar and FolkLore/History section of history_geek's BLOG.

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