Writings of the general word's body

Monday, February 18, 2008

New Read

Salman Rushdie is in fine form in this enthralling short story published in the New Yorker, The Shelter of the World.

Akbar, whose name means great, but whose same name must accentuate the 'greatness' twice over, such that he is known as 'Akbar the Great'. Whose wives pleasure themselves in ways unspeakable in the tale, when he loves only an imaginary wife he dreamed into being - and who naturally loves him back. Akbar has been made by the accident of history a Mongol when he fact he feels Hindustani. On his way back from wars he stops to dispatch a handsome feudal ruler who speaks of Freedom, but who will learn the hard way that "it is futile to argue with Death." Akbar is a poet with a barbarian's history.

As with all great Rushdie characters, Akbar is teeming with plurality, and seeks to wrestle himself from the royal "we" - with all the plurality it encompasses - for some progress. Progress relates to the singular "I" he strives for, especially to enchant his beloved, the imaginary one who waits for him in Sikri, his "victory city." Best to just lose yourself in this one.


At dawn the haunting sandstone palaces of the new “victory city” of Akbar the Great looked as if they were made of red smoke. Most cities start giving the impression of being eternal almost as soon as they are born, but Sikri would always look like a mirage. As the sun rose to its zenith, the great bludgeon of the day’s heat pounded the flagstones, deafening human ears to all sounds, making the air quiver like a frightened blackbuck, and weakening the border between sanity and delirium, between what was fanciful and what was real.

Even the Emperor succumbed to fantasy. Queens floated within his palaces like ghosts, Rajput and Turkish sultanas playing catch-me-if-you-can. One of these royal personages did not really exist. She was 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, Jodha’s influence and power grew. The great musician Tansen wrote songs for her, and 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 were 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 Jewels, 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! Ah, ah! It was the love story of the age.

1 comment:

Frank Partisan said...

The description of the city, had parallels to the description of Jodhabai.

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