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.
Just when the batsman, now out, is trying to negotiate with the winning team into playing another ‘best of 13’ series, one of the lads’ mother calls out to him from the noisy metal gate of their grandmother’s ancestral house. ‘Enough! Come on! It’s dark now. I told you…no more playing after dark. Enough for today. Come and wash your hands and legs everyone!’
The lads use this wonderfully placed call as an excuse while mocking the opposition that the next day of the ‘championship’ will hopefully bring them better luck on the field. They scamper out of the ground, bruised and panting, only to be pounded with instructions on entering the gates by the elderly woman. They are told to go in and wash up, comb their hair, change their clothes and walk down to the end of the street to bring a few packets of masala mandakki (spicy puffed rice with roasted peanuts, tomatoes, coriander, green chillies and red onions). The boys, on hearing this delicious assignment, chase each other in a short lived race to get to the bathroom avoiding hitting the rest of the dozen odd members in the house on the way. Needless to say, by the time they reach the bathroom it is already occupied by some cranky elder who refuses to open the door despite their incessant pleas. They then start heading to the tap in the garden instead where they intend to hastily wash their faces and feet. Another short lived race ensues only to result in a potted plant being smashed out of its place and into a few large pieces with moist mud overflowing on the haphazardly shaped chips of clay. The masala mandakki feast now stands threatened.
Many such random episodes made their welcome appearance as I spoke to my maternal cousin Sudhi (my mother’s third elder sister’s first son) today. The single most tragic highlight of the talk was the fact that we were speaking to one another after a wide void of 8 long years. It was hard to say why, but somehow a vacuum of inexplicable silence had settled on us. Somewhere down the lane the daily battle to make it to the end of the day painlessly had taken priority over other trivialities like wanting to keep in touch consistently. A warm sense of blatant complacency only family members are capable of. A wave of undeniable nostalgia flooded me as I suddenly realized how time had managed to hoodwink us just by being its natural self. It was then that he mentioned the kind of fun we all used to have when we were kids during our annual visits to our native Shivamogga. We spoke of how our maternal uncle – Madhu mama – would tell us that we would get chocolates if we could stand up straight on a football. We would then spend an hour, like absolute fools, trying to get on that darned ball that refused to stand still. We recalled rainy afternoons when the older cousins in the house would give meaningless tasks to the younger ones just so we would end up pressing their legs as they vanished into deep siestas. Ah! The tricks that were pulled on us as kids! How much fun we used to have back then, I thought, without even having heard of a computer or a video game. All we had was the zest to be active and the unstoppable urge to have unlimited fun during our limited summer vacation. With our hands overflowing with deliciously wicked masala mandakki we would jog back to the house to supply everyone with a large packet each. We would then chomp them down greedily in unabridged glee while coaxing each other to share some of theirs with us! This would then lead to refusal, more insistence and a small chase again resulting in the masala mandakki being peppered across the clean floor. Oops! Another assignment would be handed out which involved getting down on all fours and cleaning up the mess. Oh what fun all this used to be – innocent, guileless and harmless fun.
I sat back with a sigh today lost in these thoughts as I disconnected the phone. That play ground where we had created so many cricket records in my native of Shivamogga is now no longer there. A large house sits prettily on top of it covering all the memories we, as kids, had once created tightly under it. That small shop that sold our delicious masala mandakki too is gone. Now there is a kiosk that sells cigarettes to anyone who has the money. The large Alsatian dog that was constantly tied to a large tree in the neighborhood Shetty uncle’s house is now long dead. Oh…the number of times we have jumped across the compound wall to retrieve the ball from under its watchful gaze! Of course, anyone who connected that shot was automatically qualified as out. So it took a master batsman to place a shot without letting it hop into Shetty uncle's yard. An art we perfected with each passing summer break.
And the darkness? That much envied enemy and much beloved friend who had bailed us out of and put us into such amazing loops back then? Well, that still exists. It comes and goes each day without fail but somehow, its context has completely changed. It no longer is something we think about. It is no longer something we are reminded of. No more calls to come into the house to wash our legs and no more trips to get more masala mandakki. All that is left is this darkness of growing up into someone else...someone we no longer recognize from our younger versions.
But then something else hit me too which I found quite ironic in my present circumstance. Now that spring is here in Denmark, even darkness is becoming a tad scarce to enjoy what with sunlight seeping into sleepy rooftops as early as 4am these days. Sigh, I thought, so much for memories that can never be recreated, isn’t it?
The reason I chose to portray the situation the much esteemed “King Khan” finds himself in today was because I cannot help but be part of that crowd. Sure, I may choose not to strike his head with a mass of verbose intellect but then there I am. Still standing with the rest and looking down upon a man who, for some reason, actually had my respect for his cocky self-confidence for quite a while. Be it from the eager-to-please-the-masses days of “Deewana” or the eager-to-scratch-his-creative-conscience ensemble of “Swades”. Yes, I was there for most of them. Whenever he would make a witty remark in a press conference or giggle, albeit shallowly, at a movie’s premiere, I always felt he had his head on his shoulders. After all being “someone” in the B-City isn’t easy without a Godfather or two, now is it? That said I have always admired people who have cut through the BS and made it big on their own. And yes, that aspect of it might make me slightly inclined to label him “King” since we have a lot of genuine kingmakers in India and not as many genuine kings anymore. So here was, a king in both the figurative and literal sense. Fair enough.
And then came the Indian Premiere League’s second offering. I had not followed the first one since I wasn’t really sure I wanted to see traditionally famous rivals pat each other’s backs on getting another fellow countryman out. Say, for instance, Shoaib Akhtar getting Sachin out and getting appreciative hugs from Ganguly. Sorry, despite the basic nuances of team spirit and camaraderie on the field this essence of sweetness between two teams whose matches shut down an entire nation just didn’t go down my old school honed system. And so I didn’t want to be witness of such, for the lack of another expression, absurd friendliness. But that somehow changed this year. Maybe it was because our famous rivals were not part of it, I don’t know for sure. But I decided to follow IPL 2. Sure, I didn’t have any “favorites” but given that my personal connections now span across three cities – Bangalore (where I am from), Mumbai (where my fiancé is from) and Chennai (where my future in-laws’ are from) – it became quite pertinent that I keep a tab on these three teams.
Now let us stitch this into context. Given the eye blinding glitz and jaw dropping oomph that IPL provides, it was only a matter of time before cricket started sliding into the backseat. Sure, we do see some insanely wonderful shots all over the park, but more often that not it lacks technique. Wham! And the ball sails into the stands. Wham! And the ball goes between the stumps. Hence the meaningless factor of aforementioned “Wham!” Nevertheless, I still watch it. But what has happened now is I also watch matches that have the Kolkatta Knight Riders (or is it just Knight Riders now?). Reason? Well, just because I think with every defeat they are pounded with (and boy are they being pounded good!) something convinces me that justice is still part of today’s world. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have cared less for KKR hadn’t SRK given his infamous “go get your own team if you want” snip at Sunil Gavaskar. Sure, Sunny is no saint. I have seen him walk out of matches because he didn’t think he was out even if the umpire did. But notwithstanding that outrageous past he has, the last person to tell him what to do when it comes to cricket would be SRK.
I never understood this – how can someone who has never played even one international cricket (and this applies to everyone standing above the ditch awaiting their turn to fling one in) have any idea what it is like to win/lose an international game? How does that even work? Even when I read Herculean blogs about people recommending strategies and writing convincingly about what the captain ought to have done…I can’t help but nod my head in disbelief. How can any of us know what managing an international team (with players stuffed with egos larger than their mansions) can be like? Hence, even if it means one has come up in the B-city on his own and has more money than all of middle class India, he still needs to zip it. It is like a man opining about a woman’s menstruation cycle or childbirth. Sorry dude…just doesn’t count.
So here I am. No stone in hand yet glad that SRK’s much needed reality check is finally happening. I know it is probably inhumane to side someone’s downfall, but sometimes even “Kings” need to get down to our humble levels and feel the same heat as we do day in day out. Only then, maybe then, they can actually remind themselves about how honest and straightforward they used to be some years ago. For that, I can be part of any crowd over any ditch any day.