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Who’s Kazuo Ishiguro?  It’s not only the Japanese but many others around the world who might be asking this question. In the early 1990’s even I had no idea who he was; I just picked the book because of its beguiling title “The Remains of the Day.” It was an engaging story of a British butler told by a Japanese author. Apart from several praiseworthy aspects of the book , the best that I liked were the  well-researched details of the duties  of a butler who takes pride in his perfection of setting the table. Through such details Ishiguro builds the story to bring in smoothly a piece of history; an important dinner where the butler too plays ‘his role’ along with the international dignitaries including Herr von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister.  There is much more in the book that gives an insight of Britain’s social and political life in the second quarter of the twentieth century and the change that comes with the Americanization. Ishiguro shows all this through the little World of the Darlington Hall where change comes through the change of masters-from British to an American.

Ishiguro has written several books but my favorite will always be “The Remains of the Day” and, as he receives the Nobel Prize, I am planning to reread it. Those who do not have the patience of reading can see its film version, a beautiful Merchant Ivory Production starring appropriately the British actors Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins along with the all-American Christopher Reeve.

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Many writers have written on the moving theme of Partition but, “the most powerful were the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto in Urdu,” acknowledges Khushwant Singh, author of ‘Train to Pakistan.’ Manto’s short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is a masterpiece on the madness of Partition, but he can be even more precise. Below is his story I am choosing for today’s short blog, enjoy reading and here is an article where you can read more about him and his stories.

The Garland

The mob suddenly veered to the left, its wrath now directed at the statue of Sir Ganga Ram, the great philanthropist of Lahore. One man smeared the statue’s face with coal tar. Another strung together a garland of shoes and was about to place it around the great man’s neck when the police moved in, guns blazing. The man with the garland of shoes was shot, and taken to the nearby Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

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What can a fight between two little birds teach a mighty king and a warrior  who planned to conquer the world and who wished to live eternally.  An unforgettable character, Alexander the Great, whose story spans through a Persian epic is more known through the smaller stories rife in those eastern regions. One such story is of the two birds and Sikandar, as he is known in those regions. I first heard it from an old man in my village, many years later I read it in the English translation of Sikandarnama (The Book Of Sikandar) written in twelfth century by Shaikh Nizami, the great Persian poet.

This is how the old man began the story “When Sikandar Baadshah (king) was preparing for his great war to conquer the Persian empire,  he knew that victory is not going to be easy, as the battle  was against a mighty foe, Dara (known as Darius in the west), the baadshah of half the world”.

Nizami describes Dara’s response when he heard of Sikander’s intentions:

He laughed, and in that anger- laughter said:

“Ah, woe to the action of the lofty sky!

“Behold the sky, what tyranny it displays

“Since Sikandar entertains a design (of war) against Dara!”

There  was no way to forecast the result of the battle but Alexander foresaw his victory.  “One day when he was passing from a baazar,” continued the old man, “He saw a crowd watching the combat between two birds . Sikandar turned his steed closer to the crowd and watched the contest.”

Following are the excerpts of Nizami’s commentary of the bird battle and what Alexander learnt from it.

“From the fierceness with which the partridges grappled together,
They fled not at the sight of the king.” He was amazed at the resolve and could not help saying:—“How is this malice in the brain of birds!”

He named one bird Sikandar and another Dara

“The two bold birds in that contest
Made battle for awhile” and finally Sikandar defeated Dara.

Alexander considered this the proof of his victory in the forthcoming battle and he  watched the victorious bird fly. I will let Nizami continue and end the story.

(The triumphant bird) Flew towards the knoll of a mountain;
An eagle came and split his head.

When the mountain-partridge was overcome by that eagle,
The king grieved, but became not angry.

The fact of not being enraged is wisdom; for the end of all is to die

He knew that fortune would give assistance
Would give him success over Dárá.

But in that victorious time
His life would not be long lasting.

The famous battle of Arbela between Alexander and Darius 111  was fought in 331 BCE. Alexander died in 323 BCE soon after conquering the easternmost satrapy of Darius. Alexander’s story has reached posterity through various Greek chronicles and Persian accounts. Many books have been written on him and several movies made on his life. Here is a link to the first biopic produced in Bombay by Sohrab Modi, a Parsi film maker whose ancestors had migrated from Persia (Iran) to settle in India.

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Shahnama (The Book of Kings) by Firdausi (934-1020 CE) is indeed a great piece of Persian literature. Written under the patronage of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi (971-1030 CE) it contains 60,000 verses which cost Firdausi 30 years of labor. Eastern poets are known for flattery but Shahnama also displays fury, hence, where we read so many praises of the Sultan we also come across a few rebukes.

It is said Sultan Mahmud had promised to pay one gold coin for each verse that Firdausi composed. However, on the completion of Shahnama, he did not keep his promise and instead of 60,000 gold coins he paid silver coins. When the coins were delivered to the poet, he said, what a good alchemist Sultan is, he can change the gold into silver. Firdausi rejected the reward  and distributed it to his three attendants, he then stained the acclaim he wrote for the Sultan by adding a satire to it. Sultan responded by punishing him in a cruel way, by getting him crushed under the elephant’s feet. Firdausi had to run for his life leaving behind his satire in the Shahnama and his name in the list of great poets. Shahnama is translated in English by James Atkinson, below is an excerpt from the satire.

Fear thee? I fear not man, but God alone,

I only bow to His Almighty throne.

Inspired by Him my ready numbers flow;

Guarded by Him I dread no earthly foe.

Thus in the pride of song I pass my days,

Offering to Heaven my gratitude and praise.

From every trace of sense and feeling free,

When thou art dead, what will become of thee ?

If thou shouldst tear me limb from limb, and cast

My dust and ashes to the angry blast,

Firdausi still would live, since on thy name,

Mahmud, I did not rest my hopes of fame

In the bright page of my heroic song,

But on the God of Heaven, to whom belong

Boundless thanksgivings, and on Him whose love

Supports the Faithful in the realms above,

The mighty Prophet! none who e’er reposed

On Him existence without hope has closed.

And thou would’st hurl me underneath the tread

Of the wild elephant, till I were dead !

Dead! by that insult roused, I should become

An elephant in power, and seal thy doom –

Mahmud ! if fear of man hath never awed

Thy heart, at least fear thy Creator, God.

Full many a warrior of illustrious worth,

Full many of humble, of imperial birth,

Tur, Salim, Jamshid, Minuchihr the brave,

Have died; for nothing had the power to save

These mighty monarchs from the common doom;

They died, but blest in memory still they bloom.

Thus kings too perish – none on earth remain,

Since all things human seek the dust again.

O, had thy father graced a kingly throne,

Thy mother been for royal virtues known,

A different fate the poet then had shared,

Honours and wealth had been his just reward

But how remote from thee a glorious line!

No high, ennobling ancestry is thine;

From a vile stock thy bold career began,

A Blacksmith was thy sire of Isfahan.

Alas! from vice can goodness ever spring ?

Is mercy hoped for in a tyrant king ?

Can water wash the Ethiopian white?

Can we remove the darkness from the night?

The tree to which a bitter fruit is given,

Would still be bitter in the bowers of Heaven;

And a bad heart keeps on its vicious course;

Or if it changes, changes for the worse;

Whilst streams of milk, where Eden’s flowrets blow,

Acquire more honeyed sweetness as they flow.

The reckless king who grinds the poor like thee,

Must ever be consigned to infamy!

 

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Jalal-ud-Din Mohammad Akbar was the grandson of Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire, whose dynasty lasted for over three centuries in the Indian subcontinent. Out of all the descendants of Babar,  Akbar is considered to be the most successful emperor. There are many stories and legends about Akbar’s sense of justice which kept the multicultural Mughal Empire united during his reign which lasted for fifty long years (1556-1605). With the passage of time these stories must have changed and branched in several versions, this blog is just about one version of a story.

One day a group of Hindus came to the palace of Akbar with a complaint against a few Muslims.   They demanded justice as the Muslims had beaten up one of their masons. Akbar summoned the Muslim group and soon the Muslims and the Hindus stood in front of him in two separate groups.

Akbar ordered to begin the hearing. First to speak was a man from the Muslim group, he accused the Hindus of taking the bricks from his masjid to build their mandir. To this, a Hindu responded “My King, those were the leftover bricks of their newly built masjid, they were thrown aside so we took them with the permission of the mullah”.  Another man from the Muslim group interrupted, “My King, we cannot allow the bricks of our masjid to go in the building of a mandir”.  A third man from the Muslim group, who looked composed, stepped forward and asked him, “My brother, what difference does it make, they too were using the bricks for building the house of their God.” The first Muslim who had opened the dialogue could not bear all this and addressed the King, “My King, there is difference, we offer Namaz, they worship idols”. On this the Hindu responded, “My King, the masjid and the mandir both house God, we call him Rama, they call him Raheem”.

Akbar had been listening patiently to both the groups and finely gave his verdict. Looking at the Hindu man he began, “Young man, I will not betray your trust in my justice. I am proud you did not take law in your hands and those who do so deserve to be punished”.  He then turned towards the Muslim group and continued, “On the pretext of bricks I will not allow violence. In the name of religion I will not allow the fire of hatred to spread in my kingdom. The culprits will be duly punished”. Akbar concluded by repeating Babar’s advice to his descendants, “Love the masjids and respect the mandirs.”

In his later years Akbar allowed the Jesuit priests to build their churches in his empire. Today some of the mullahs refer to him as a non-believer and a heretic while history records him as Akbar the Great.

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Taj Mahal is the symbol of the great love story of Prince Shah Jehan (1592-1666) and Arjumand Bano. He was the grandson of Akbar the Great Moghul King; she the fourteen year old daughter of Asaf Khan, a highly influential official in the Moghul court. Arjumand was also the niece of Queen Noor Jehan, the most renowned wife of emperor Jehangir, the father of Shah Jehan.

Shah Jehan fell in love with Arjumand on the first sight. He saw her at a Meena Bazaar ( a marketplace run by ladies) when she was only fourteen years old. In five years time they got married and Arjumand Bano came to be known as Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jehan had other wives also but she became his favorite. She was beautiful, intelligent and a good chess player who dared to accompany her husband even on his military campaigns and eventually died in one of those in Burhanpur in Central India.

Mumtaz Mahal died in 1631 while giving birth to Shah Jehan’s fourteenth child, a girl. It is said that on her deathbed she asked Shah Jehan for two things, first that he will not marry again and second that he will build a grand mausoleum in her memory. Her death devastated Shah Jehan it is said the grief had grayed his hair soon after.  He ordered to exhume the body of his beloved wife from Burhanpur and bring it in a gold coffin to Agra. Shah Jehan may have eventually found some consolation in devoting about two decades and 20, 000 workers for the construction of the promised mausoleum on the banks of River Jamuna. In the last years of his life fate deprived him of all the splendor. His son, the austere emperor Aurangzeb, imprisoned him in the Fort of Agra, allowing him a window to watch the Taj and finally getting him buried under its dome next to his beloved wife.

Much has been written on Taj Mahal, poems and plays even movies have been made in India and Pakistan. Here is a documentary , here is a song from an old movie and here are a few glimpses from the last movie (2005) made on Taj Mahal.

 

 

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There was a preacher who, whenever he mounted a pulpit, forthwith would offer up a prayer for highwaymen.

“Lord,” he would cry, lifting up his hands, “visit with compassion the wicked, those who do corruption, the insolent sinners, all who make mock of the righteous, all who are infidels at heart, all who dwell in convents.”

Not one prayer he would say for the pure; his prayers were only for the depraved. Such conduct is certainly unusual, people protested. “It is hardly generous to pray for erring men.”

“Such are the sorts of men from whom I have derived most good,” he answered. “That is why I have singled them out for my prayers. They have wrought such depravity, oppression, injustice that they have violently flung me out of evil into good. Every time I turned my face towards this lower world, they would receive me with cuffs and blows; so I would take refuge from their buffering in the other side. It was wolves who brought me back always to the right road. Since they contrived the means of my salvation, it is incumbent on me, my clever friends, to pray for them.”

Every enemy you have is in reality your cure, your sovereign alchemy, your benefactor, your well-wisher.

(Jalal-ud-Din Rumi . A thirteenth century mystic poet and a great storyteller)

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