Sunday, May 24, 2009

The enchantment of globalisation

It took me a little over a month to finally finish reading Salman Rusdhie’s ‘The Enchantress of Florence’. Given the rather unsettling schedule I sometimes end up with, it becomes hard for me to do the one thing I love more than writing – reading. Despite that, I have now made it a thumb role to read at least 3 full length novels every year. A resolution that actually worked quite well as I wrapped up ‘The 3 mistakes of my life’, a disappointingly ‘Bollywood-ish’ tale by Chetan Bhagat and ‘The Kite Runner’, an amazingly well portrayed poignant tale of two Afghan friends by debutant writer Khaled Hosseini. My ambitious attempt at getting hold of Kiran Desai’s much acclaimed ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ didn’t find the day of light as last year went by like a blur. I am still awaiting a chance to read that book.

Nevertheless, I wanted to finish reading one complete piece of work early this year but thanks to other commitments that didn’t happen until now. And so, I finished consuming ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ by Rushdie in about 5 weeks. And so here are my impressions about the book.

The main plot opens with a yellow-haired European, possibly in his early 20s, arriving in Fatehpur Sikri to get an audience, a private one at that, with the then Mughal Emperor Akbar. The reason: he is here to tell a story. Oh, of course it isn’t all that simple either. This story is no simple lullaby laced folk tale mothers sing to their drowsy little ones late at night. Oh no. This one is a tale that basically claims to connect the East to the West. An interesting look at how globalization would have probably worked in the 16th century. This young European – who calls himself ‘Mogor dell’ Amore’ (Mughal of Love) soon starts catching the otherwise skeptical and hedonistic emperor Akbar's fancy. After the initial attempt at underlining the ridiculousness of the tale and the obvious seeming inaccuracy about the possible timeline, Akbar’s closest advisors – Raja Birbal and Abul Fazl – deduce that there could be more to the young man than what meets the eye. His claim of being Akbar’s grand uncle (son of Babar’s sister – a woman named Qara Koz who had left Hindustan to Persia and then onto Italy befriending many men along the way) seems insanely out of context. But then, this challenges Akbar’s belief in what is real and what isn’t. With each passing day that Akbar spends with the story teller, he is drawn to wonder about the various concepts of reality that he has surrounded himself – religion, faith, humanity, the notion of God, love and above all, his role as an emperor and the present guardian of the grand Mughal Empire.

The emperor thus decides to give the fellow a chance and begins to listen to his tale to see if there is any real sense of connection at all. And if there is, then he even contemplates including the foreigner as part of his royal heritage – even before his wayward and sex-crazy son Salim and the other incompetent sons he has lost hope in for good. With the story of this mystical enchantress – Qara Koz (Lady Black Eyes)– the foreigner begins to weave a world of words that is both magical and full of surprises. The book is injected with a high dosage of generous sexuality given the way one could easily imagine how sex wasn’t really a taboo back in those days. In fact, one quick reference to the Kama Sutra can tell us that India (Hindustan), as a region, underwent a sad circumcision of its own wealth of culture once the slavery to the colonial landlords began. That said, it is easy to understand how sex would have easily played a major role in Akbar’s regime what with the harems and publicly acknowledged brothels swarming with unrealistically gorgeous women. Women one can only think of as fiction in today’s context. A tragic figment of current India’s imagination that is draped in designer clothes and painted with 2 inch thick cosmetics to look remotely appealing.

The story then shifts rapidly from one place to the other traveling West along with the mysterious woman named Qara Koz – Babar’s long lost sister and clearly Akbar’s grandmother whose son this European claims to be. Right from the three friends in Italy – Ago Vespucci, Il Machio and Nino Argalia – whose days of boyhood turn into fables of varying degrees of adventure – right to the Medici dynasty in Florence under whose rule Qara Koz goes from being a saint incarnate to a cursed witch in a very short span of time. The journey of a strong willed and enchanting woman in a completely male dominated world sits bare. How much of this past from this European’s tale does Akbar really consider? What does he deduce once the tale has been told and what happens to the foreigner based on the level of authenticity it creates for the emperor and his reign? Why does it end up being that Akbar has to completely abandon and relocate from Sikri and head to Agra instead? These are some of the issues addressed as the story chugs along.

There is no denying that Rushdie has put in exhaustive research for this piece. His ‘Bibliography’ itself is about three pages of the book so no surprises there. He also says it took him ‘years and years of reading’ to be able to write this book which he also says took him close to a decade. Either way, ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ definitely comes off as the product of a well investigated writer.

While all that is alright, it definitely makes for complicated reading. There are some references to people and places in Italy that is just not comprehensible to the common reader. Notwithstanding the italicizing of non-English words that Rushdie seems to adore, the running sentences (sure, it is a story within a story but should there not be a benchmark!) become too much to follow sometimes. There are several places where I had to re-read the paragraph to understand, hopefully, what I was supposed to. There are also some liberties taken with Akbar’s details too such as making ‘Jodha’ a figment of his regal imagination who he looked at for psychological and carnal satisfaction. In keeping Princess Hira Kunwari as a separate entity, Rushdie rules out the possibility that the two could have been the same person. Something that is quite the opposite of what I have grown up reading with the famous 'Jodha Akbar' concoction that is so prominent in India. Also, the constant reference to Prince Salim as a brothel happy pervert who would have special herbs rubbed on his member for maximum satisfaction of Manbhawati Bai, who he later marries, is interesting too. It was refreshing to read Emperor Jahangir’s youth through Rushdie’s research work. Again, quite the opposite of his Romeo like image built by the Indian media and his alleged liason with a nauche girl named 'Anarkali', I thought. According to this book - non-existent.

‘The Enchantress of Florence’ definitely gives a new perspective to the Mughal regime as we have known it. Sure, it is a fictional piece but with some very relevant references to the kind of world we now live in. The constant changes and its evident metamorphosed effects of globalization and nomadic migration that is taking place each day around us is well documented in the tale. While I don’t know how apt it is to suggest this book to someone who isn’t familiar with Rushdie’s work, I would still recommend that you read it for what its worth. Just don’t worry too much about remembering names and places since there are too many for the layman mind! Just enjoy the piece as a tribute to a greatest Mughal emperor that ever lived.


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