Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reflections: The Enchantress of Florence

A man with cascading yellow-colored hair, donning a multicolored leather coat, strides confidently into the lavish court of the great Mughal emperor, Akbar. He calls himself by many ambiguous names, charms the emperor with his wit, his pleasing scent, and his mysteriously magical stories. At a time when the Emperor is longing for company, and for intellectual discussions on religion and life, the questions of which were stirring his soul, the yellow-haired man makes himself the Emperor’s listening board and confidante. He soon earns the name, “Mughal of Love”. Yet, Akbar’s mind is not at peace, for this strange man was slowly unwrapping a story about his grand-aunt, Babur’s bewitchingly beautiful sister, the supposedly banished princess, the enchantress, Qara-Koz. The implications of the story were profound - it meant that the strange man in multicolored clothes, bearing an Italian name, could be a half-Mughal. The weight rested on Akbar to cull the truth from the story.

The book is no doubt, alluring. It crafts an incredibly imaginative story, combining fact with fiction in a way nobody would have previously considered. The woman who was cast away from the Mughal lineage finds her way to Florence, Italy, after passing hands from the Shah of Persia, who had earlier captured her and her sister as conquests of war. This enchantress, Qara Koz, lights a flame within the hearts and minds of the people of the Mughal land. Merely through a story, whose truth nobody could ascertain, the persona of the enchantress creeps into people’s lives, making them curious, cautious, anxious, jealous, suspicious, and venomous. A mere wisp of a thought floating from a story, had the power to corrupt and fascinate. The Emperor is however, obsessed. He passionately adores his grand-aunt, completes missing gaps in her life and personality, and gives life to the figment of his imagination. To him, she soon started to exist in life, much like his other imaginary, but most beloved wife, Jodha.

This, in essence, is the main take-away from the book. Akbar’s imagination, and the will of his thoughts were so strong and vivid, that he could give life to a fragment of his thoughts. Reality blurred with illusion, the boundaries bled into each other and reversed roles. That which is real, fades away in the background, while the illusion, comes alive. It might seem silly and hallucinogenic, but that’s how most of us live our lives. We selectively snatch aspects of reality and ignore several others. We form a cohesive story out of the little bits of reality we piece together, extend and complete the missing pieces with a favorable, imaginative bent. Once the will of our imagination solidifies, we become blind to reality itself. This is how half-baked, rigid opinions are formed, and then stagnate, impervious to any form of rational intrusion. This is also how  most of our likes and dislikes of people are born.

Surely interesting. However, as an anticlimax, Rushdie’s words were not as layered or deep, and I didn’t  have to wait till the end of the book to glean this. The symbolism or message, so to speak, was obvious from the first few chapters of the book. I relished these initial chapters, and even thought so far as to consider this as one of the best books I would read. But, a huge but at that, I was disappointed. The story meandered far too much. It was convoluted and bizarre, but didn’t convey much, or so I think. There was plenty of potential in the initial part of the book - wonderful questions on God, Religion, reality and the Human Ego, that Akbar muses on. But sparing a few wise sentences, none of the questions were developed or integrated into the story.

The book also hints at the need for tolerance between cultures. The story highlights Akbar’s tolerance and openness (specifically, between the East and the West). Akbar viewed the integration of new ways of thinking and living to be paramount for the development of the human race. Rushdie fabulously portrays Akbar’s progressive attitude. His personality was sketched well, and the Mughal Empire was tantalizingly described and brought to life.

I never thought I would say this, but Rushdie’s prose was a delight to read. I finally understand why he is extolled for his word-plays. His sentences are simple, yet complex, sparse, yet lush. Although I lost interest in the story, I latched onto the book to read the prose. Of course, I also harbored some measure of curiosity to learn how the story ended, if at all Rushdie had a surprise waiting there. But there was none, or so I think. I can never be sure after reading Rushdie’s books.

Digested Thoughts: It is worth reading the first 100 pages of the book - for the clever writing, and the threads of wisdom and wit. Beyond that, I found the story stretched out and without much meaning. Qara-Koz’s tale was enigmatic, and incestuous. I don’t understand the need for, and the import of the latter part. So, in comparison to Rushdie’s other works, I would rate this book as surely not as interesting or deep. If you’ve read this book, please share your thoughts and educate me on the other aspects I’ve missed. 

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