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June 13, 2008

Transience of Enchantment

Text by Anita Nair. Illustration by Abhijeet Kini

Anita Nair delves into Salman Rushdie’s latest offering, The Enchantress of Florence, and discovers its whimsical genius. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is also a hot contender for The Best Booker award

Time and again, literature teaches us to keep an open mind. But, prejudice is not so easily shrugged off. I have seldom avoided anything as I have two writers. John Le Carré and Salman Rushdie. Neither the world of espionage nor ‘fabulism’ was lure enough for me to set aside my preconceived notions and read them. Worse, each time I began books by either author, I abandoned them with a swarm of self doubts buzzing in my head: ‘Are they really as boring as I imagine them to be? Or, is it merely me, who is unable to see merit in what the whole world salivates about…?’

In recent times, I made a discovery. John Le Carré. Suddenly, I was reading new dimensions into his writing. So much so I now tell anyone who will listen: ‘The man is a poet and his writing the finest one can read in the body of writing that has emerged in these times.’

With Rushdie, I didn’t expect much to change in how I perceived him. It had nothing to do with the allegations made of Rushdie being ‘merely a sub-continental importer of narrative methods; of produc-ing over an entire career, commodified anti literature that the western market is eager for’. Mostly, it had to do with my inability to find a word, phrase or scene that made me feel I was participating rather than watching. Unlike Le Carré my objections to Rushdie stemmed from what I thought was his strenuous lyricism. Until I began The Enchantress of Florence.

Somewhere between page one and two of the novel, I knew a ‘liquification’ within. The ice had begun to melt. After a long time, I knew again what it is to fall in love with a writer. To read with a sense of wonderment. To pause at a thought. To deliberate on a vision. To see beyond the obvious. To be enchanted. It would be unwise to even toy with and capture the scope of the magical world Rushdie has created in his latest  book, The Enchantress of Florence. The book blurb does it best: ‘A tall, yellow-haired young European traveller calling himself Mogor dell’Amore, the Mughal of Love, arrives at the court of the real Grand Mughal, the Emperor Akbar, with a tale to tell that begins to obsess the whole imperial capital. The stranger claims to be the child of a lost Mughal princess — the youngest sister of Akbar’s grandfather Babar — Qara Koz, ‘Lady Black Eyes’, believed to possess powers of enchantment and sorcery. She is taken captive first by an Uzbeg warlord, then by the Shah of Persia and finally becomes the lover of a certain Argalia, a Florentine soldier of fortune, commander of the armies of the Ottoman Sultan…. The Enchantress of Florence is the story of a woman attempting to command her own destiny in a man’s world. It brings together two cities that barely know each other – the hedonistic Mughal capital, in which the brilliant emperor wrestles daily with questions of belief, desire and the treachery of sons and the equally sensual Florentine world of powerful courtesans, humanist philosophy and inhuman torture….’

How is one to seek the moments of truth of this book? In its whimsical genius? For instance, in the apparition of Jodha, the invisible consort of Akbar. Or, in the scene where the queen mother and the crown prince’s mother meet with her to discuss the new threat – another apparition – and wish to share with her every means by which a woman may retain power over a man. Or, is it in the humour that so laces the narrative that even the wildly outrageous achieves a modicum of reality: ‘The emperor turned to the foreigner with a sigh of resigned curiosity. His unexpected affection for the stranger was soured by the distaste of emperors for outsiders who know too much. ‘The Hindustani storyteller always knows when he loses his audience,’ he said. ‘Because the audience simply gets up and leaves, or else it throws vegetables, or, if the audience is the king, it occasionally throws the storyteller headfirst off the city ramparts. And in this case, my dear Mogor-Uncle, the audience is indeed the king.’

Or, is it to be in the soul searching of characters and from those quiet ref–lections through which a rare honesty emerge, that to me makes this book of fantastic tales a singular work? It is here that Rushdie excels himself. In being able to shed cloaks and veils of self-deceit and in the acknowledgement of truth. At times perhaps his own? As I read this, I wonder if it is Rushdie speaking for himself:

‘Akbar forced his thoughts back on to their proper path. He was not a perfect man, that was a flatterer’s phrase and Abul Fazl’s flatteries led his into what Mogor dell’Amore had called the webs of paradox. To elevate a man to near-divine status, and to allow him absolute power, while arguing that human beings and not gods were the masters of human destinies, contained a contradiction that would not survive much examination.’

In the opening pages of Midnight’s Children, there is a statement of intent which could very well be the Rushdie hallmark. ‘And there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumours, so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane! I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow the lot as well’.

At the end of the book, I, the new con–vert, the enchanted reader, am willing to allow, as Qara Koz does at the end of the narrative, that, ‘I have come home after all…. You have allowed me to return, and so here I am, at my journey’s end. And now, Shelter of the World, I am yours’.

And Rushdie, he who has like Icarus soared and fallen, knowing how fickle are the loyalties of even the most enamoured readers makes it clear in the words of the great Mughal: ‘Until you are not!’

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