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Islamic Culture ( 26 Sept 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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A Sufi, A Princess and Ghalib

By Farrukh Dhondy

Sep 24, 2011

 “In love and war

 Abjure all doubt —

Figure it out,

Figure it out!”

From Summa Bachchoolika


Talking to friends on their way to India I observe, among other insights and clichés, that the monuments of the Muslim era are all tombs or mosques. The Taj Mahal is the most famous of them, Humayun’s tomb comes close. The “palaces” of the Mughal era are no more than pavilions.

In the forts of Delhi and Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, they are large verandas open to the wind, whatever it is that the pursuing, importuning “guides” say about them being “palaces”. One can see them as they may have been with carpets and rich drapes acting as walls in the inhospitable climate of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Then one is shown into some dark hole of a windowless room and wonders why a princess or a queen was forced to live in a dungeon. No woman I know would put up with it, but times change.

The Rajput palaces are markedly different. Hindu monuments are, I tell my friends, in the main temples, erotic temples and palaces with living spaces one would recognise.

The Muslim monuments, apart from the beautiful gardens laid out in distinctive landscape architecture, are not dedicated to the beauty of nature or the joys of living, but rather to the glory of God and to a defiance of the passage of time: “I shall build such a tomb and lie in it for all eternity, like Ozymandias, so that people shall look upon it and be filled with respect and wonder.”

Christianity seems to conflate the impulses towards glorifying God and the wish to be remembered by placing the tombs or graves of the illustrious within the vast cathedrals dedicated to the Almighty. There are of course also the palaces, castles, chateau and stately homes of Christian monarchs and their aristocracy. The pavilions of Fatehpur may of course be compared to the Palace of Versailles but the comparison will yield variable results.

I did add in my fleeting advice to the travellers that, even if the tourist guides didn’t direct them thence in Delhi, they ought to visit the shrines of Sufi saints such as Nizamuddin Auliya. They would have to be prepared to wade through slush, to bear the unsavoury odours of the slum that surrounds the tomb and its adjacent mosque, ward off a thousand beggars and touts, watch their wallets and valuables and pass through alleys and gangways which wouldn’t anywhere else but in India lead to the tombs of a sainted Sufi missionary, of a princess who was his follower and of two of the most important and glorious poets of the country.

The Princess was called Jahanara, daughter of the fellow who built the Taj Mahal and the poets are Amir Khusrau and Ghalib, the second following the first 600 years later. Here you have Chaucer and Tennyson of Indian poetry and their graves and their surroundings are not given the respect they should, as the voices of the past, as the uncrowned legislators of the spirit, naturally have.

I am told by Indian friends who know such things that these monuments are administered by religious trusts which will not allow the development of the acreage around these tombs to become clean, well-kept sites of national heritage. That would entail taking them away from the Muslim trusts and clearing thousands of people who live and earn their livelihood in the slum that has grown around these tombs. Displacing people for whatever reason, in the instance of the Nizamuddin tomb thousands of refugees from Bangladesh, is never a clear and unequivocal necessity in India.

My friends will, on my advice, visit the tombs of Amir Khusrau and of Ghalib but, not speaking the Hindavi or Persian in which Khusrau wrote or the Urdu which came of an amalgam of these languages and whose most fluent versifier was Ghalib, they won’t know or get the spirit of their poetry.

Obviously poetry is best read in the original language and best understood in the context of its creation, religious or social. The next best, for English readers, is to have a decent translation. I have looked for such and found none to satisfy my soul — which is, I believe, the primary task of poetry.

A year and a bit ago on a flight to Australia a friend of mine gave me a translation of the greatest Sufi poet Rumi. I hadn’t read any Rumi before but had heard of the miracles of his tongue. Reading that slim volume, translated by an American “poet”, was like being asked to test drive a racing car and finding that the tyres were flat or even that the wheels had been removed by thieves. It got me nowhere. Only later did I find out that Rumi wrote in strict, disciplined metre, sometimes iambic pentameter (centuries before Shakespeare), and in varying alluring patterns of rhyme.

I subsequently tried other “translations” which seemed to me neither to grasp the “poetry” in Rumi’s work, which I then read in Urdu and had friends read and translate from the Persian, nor the Sufi use of metaphor and therefore the fundamentals of Sufi philosophy.

It was akin to approaching the tombs of Khusrau and Ghalib through gulleys full of cattle-droppings and besieged by touts.

Farrukh Dhondy is a British writer, playwright and activist of Indian Parsi descent.

Source: The Asian Age, New Delhi