Sunday, November 23, 2003

Jahanara’s tale well told
Darshan Singh Maini

by Lyane Guillaume Translated by Uma Narayanan & Prema Seetharam. East-West Books, Madurai.
Rs 295. Pages 299.

Jahanara gives a vivid account of Shahjahan’s life

JAHANARA, a historical novel translated from the French language, is based upon the memoirs of the Mughal princess, written in Persian. Yane Guillaume who had spent several years in India and Afghanistan has brought her imagination of fabulation and sense of history into full play. Written in an elegant style and translated by the Indian scholars felicitously, it abounds in picturesque imagery, chromatic landscapes and poetic flourishes.

A first-person narrative, it has all the charm that characterises a long confessional poem. Jahanara, being a poet of considerable weight, has put her muses to good use, and the poetic prose of the novelist has a matching metaphorical richness and elegance.

The historical novel is a time-honoured genre, and requires great skill to work out its dialectic and aesthetic. Since various skeins are to be woven to effect a striking pattern, the narrator can often slip into solipicism, philosophically speaking. That’s why Henry James, the great American novelist and theorist, was averse to the use of the first person in a novel which he considered the ultimate form of artistic expression. These caveats, notwithstanding, Jahanara remains a work of great virtuosity and power.

Jahanara is 67, just a couple of years away from her cease when she begins to tell her tempestuous story in a reflexive mode. Memories of a childhood in royal palaces, humming with harem politics, intrigues, familial feuds, princely philandering and furtive scenes of love, dalliance and sex, give Guillaume a platform from where to launch her crowded narrative.

If the palace scenes are gripping in their luxuriant frames, the scenes of battles, sieges, marches, of caparisoned elephants and of the royal howdahs studded with jems and gold are equally splendid and colourful. Both the glory in arms and the trauma of defeats and tragedies en route heap upon the reader’s imagination to carry him along the effortless flow of the narrative. In between, we find the portraits of the monarchs and princes, of the queens and princesses emerging gradually to become compelling, each in its own way. The pressure of art creates a dense and compact picture, and this kind of aesthetic economy remains in place for the rest of the narrative.

The fabulous, romantic story of Jahangir and of Nur Jahan with whose stunning beauty and endless charms the Emperor remains infatuated, is meant to serve as “a prelude to the swelling theme” (Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth) of this novel — the theme of dynastic crises, manipulations, murders and usurpations. It’s really a tortured tale of the two contenders for the throne in the end, though at the commencement of the long struggle, it’s chiefly a narrative with two pivotal protagonists, the Emperor Shah Jahan and his rebellious, bigoted son, Aurangzeb, described as “the white serpent” by Jahanara throughout this novel. Meanwhile, Nur Jahan fades into obscurity and isolation.

Guillaume, however, turns, once again, to the royal harem where queens and princesses, concubines and courtesans, slave girls and hand-maidens — and the watchful enuchs and Negro guards are seen enacting their own muslin dramas. Scenes of orgies of sex and concupiscence, of reckless profligacy and drunkenness, involving princes and the victims of their lasciviousness, are, then, a story within a story. It’s the hedonistic side of the Mughals, and little is spared where their empire of appetite is concerned. This is an imperium at work behind the veils, matching the Mughal predators’ unappeased hunger for more and more territories.

If we find the royal seed scattered promiscuously on the one hand, we see the grand armies in awesome action, on the other. All manner of sexual depravities, from formications to incest show the deep Freudian “fixations” of the Mughal offspring and their “by-blows”. However, Guillaume does not get down into “the shaggy undergrowths” after the style of the modern psychological novelists, and is content to keep the narrative on the descriptive level. So far as the princesses are concerned, their illicit affairs are understandable, for Emperor Akbar, otherwise a God-fearing ruler, had prohibited the marriage of royal princesses for fear of dynastic ambitions of sons-in-law. This cruel and dangerous firman could not but create tragic and disasterous consequences.

Jahanara, a humanist and broad-minded person in deep despair — turns now to mysticism, and to a life of the spirit and of the imagination. Her dreams of love soon became oppressive enough to make her brood continually over her two first loves — Najabat Khan, the commander-in-chief of the Mughal armies, and later, a young Persian steward of her household. Both these loves are soon nipped in the bud, and all she is left with are the ashes of those nubile dreams. She is just beginning to feel like a girl tuning into a woman with the needs of the body becoming compelling.

And then in “a vision” during her sleep, she sees the Prophet Mohammed, though she cannot hear the voice clearly. The message, nonetheless, she feels, is from Allah Himself, telling her to regard his created creatures on earth as worthy of love, irrespective of their religion, creed or colour. This is a decisive moment of her life, and now for salvation and peace of mind, she follows her brother, Dara, who had earlier turned towards the Sufi saints like Mian Mir. Dara had in his spiritual quest even written a book called Paths of Truth.

The most painful period of her troubled life begins when soon enough her aged father, Emperor Shah Jahan forces her into a sexual relationship with him, for in his young daughter he finds the image of his dead wife, Mumtaz Mahal. In sheer pity and love, she does submit to this ugly assault on her dignity. In reality, this is an act of displacement and perverted nostalgia. Meanwhile, Aurangzeb, a Machiavellian of the deepest dye, full of vile thoughts, masquerading as a pious Muslim and wrecking the lives of his own brothers and sisters to further his evil designs, succeeds in poisoning the atmosphere around, and overthrows his own father to become the emperor of the vast empire. He captures his brother Dara, parades him in chains in the streets of Delhi, arousing a feeling of revulsion amongst the capital’s citizens who have all along adored Dara for his sterling qualities of character, for his visionary philosophy.

Now, the deposed emperor and his favoured daughter Jahanara are imprisoned in the Agra Fort, and humiliated in all possible ways. These seven long years, spent in imprisonment, are spent by both in an uneasy silence, precipitated by their mutual sense of sin and guilt. Their fate, they know, is sealed, and to dispel the resultant darkness, Jahanara spends most of her time in prayers, in writing poems and her memoirs.

As for Aurangzeb who assumes the name of Alamgir or “One Who Holds the Universe”, his true character now becomes transparent when “the White Serpent” razes several hundred Hindu temples to the ground, imposes the Jazia tax on them, forbids music and dance as vices condemned by the Muslim divines and theologians. He is set upto a course of fanatical lines of thought, and puts all those to the sword whom he considers “infidels”.

And it’s thus that he commits a most heinous crime when he treacherously calls the Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, to Delhi and beheads him in Chandni Chowk when he is found pleading the cause of Kashmiri Brahmins. It’s a pity, Guillaume disposes of this horrendous event in a page or so, for the banner of revolt which the Tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, unfurls, and a relentless war he wages against the Mughal armies, results in giving a disasterous damage to this empire of loot and aggrandisement.

The concluding paragraph of the novel sums up the entire world-view of Jahanara:

“Dara, you were right, our Sufi masters were right, Mohammed and Buddha were right, Christ was right, and these words inscribed at the entrance of Fatehpur Sikri by my great grandfather, Akbar, resound in any memory” ‘The world is but a bridge, cross it without pausing, without building a shelter.... Pass your life in prayer, the rest lies in the domain of the unfathomable.”

A beautiful book to be pondered and cherished as a minor classic.