Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence

I read 'Shame' as written in of my previuos posts and also read 'The Enchantress of Florence'. 'Shame' is good book for anyone interested in the history of Pakistan and had some excellent passages on the interpretation of the word 'Shame' but this post is not about that book but the exquisite 'The Enchantress of Florence' by Sir Salman Rushdie . Its more of a summary rather than a review.

The book is basically story of the eponymous Qara-Koz or 'Lady Black Eyes' or Angelica. The story is set in fifteenth century India where Emperor Akbar, the Great Mughal Emperor is in power. The Mughal capital is the city of Sikri inhabited by people from all walks of life. Akbar has many wives but the only one he loves is Jodha who does not exist in reality but is a figment of his imagination just as lonely children dream up imaginary friends. Jodha is his idea of a perfect wife and he talks to her and even makes love to her but of course, nobody else question the existence of this apparition as Akbar is the Jahanpanah, the shelter of the world. He is dealing with intrigues by his good for nothing drunkard sons especially Salim and has his own doubts over the existence of God and the presence of a supreme power where he himself at one point thinks to call himself 'I' instead of 'WE'.

Then one fine day a mysterious foreigner named Mogor dell' Amore claiming himself to be the Ambassador of the Queen of England comes to the city of Sikri to tell a fascinating story to the emperor about an enchantress who has put him in a spell to tell this tale. The enchantress is Qara-koz, Babar's sister who was captured by the Uzbegs along with her slave 'the Mirror' and her sister Khanzada begum. The Shah of Persia won over the Uzbegs in another battle and offered to return these three ladies to Babar. However, Qara-koz refused to go back and stayed in Persia with The Shah and her slave while Khanzada went back. Babar disowned her and her story was lost from the annals of the Mughal empire. Her slave looked so much like herself that people called her The Mirror and they were lovers as lesbians who completely understood each other and were inseparable.Qara-koz found her true love in a man Argalia, a warrior from the city of Florence who had sold his services to the Ottoman Empire. Argalia, Niccolo Machiavelli and Ago Vespucci were three friends in Florence. Argalia had moved out of Florence to fulfill his dream of becoming a mercenary while Niccolo and Vespucci remained in Florence and served the republic. Argalia went back to his homeland along with Qara-koz and the Mirror to become the chief of the army of Florence. Qara-koz was a sorceress who bewitched anyone she met, any place she went by her ethereal beauty. She could heal the sick, make barren women fertile and cure the blind. One day the ruler of Florence died of syphilis and people thought Qara-koz did this and all of a sudden she became a witch from a saint and everyone rooted for her blood. Argalia was killed in her defence and she fled away with the mirror and Ago Vespucci. Her magic had begun to fade and she wanted to be reunited with her family but there was no way to go back to India until a new route was found. Her procrastinated stay came to and end with her death. But she had a son, none other than Mogor dell' Amore meaning the Mughal of love who she told to tell this story to Akbar who thus is his uncle. He had come to Sikri travelling from faraway lands. Akbar thought him as unpure blood and made him a commoner. But Salim wanted him killed as he was a threat to the throne and plotted to kill but he was saved and he took his own revenge. The city of Sikri was no longer the Mughal capital.

Best Parts of the Book-

Sir Salman's description of the beauty of Qara-koz and the painting by Dashwanth is grand. His belief in the power of love when Akbar can conjure an imaginary wife and finally conjuring up Qara-koz to fall in love with her, Dashwanth getting immortalised in the painting of Qara-koz is enchanting.

There is that brilliant scene in which Akbar's first wife and his mother talk imaginarily to Jodha to give her tricks to stop Akbar falling in love with Qara-koz, only to find out that all the while they have been talking to Qara-koz .

Akbar's doubts over God where he says-'if there had never been a God, it might have been easier to work out what goodness was.' 'The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another but that we are so alike'. So true.

The passage where truth is revealed to Akbar about Qara-koz is lovely.

The subtle humour depicted brings a smile to the face. Mohini, the Skeleton and the Mattress, Akbar and Birbal stories, the deaf Bhakti Ram Jain, Qara-koz's enchantment of Marietta,Machiavelli's wife:)

The epic grandeur of the palace especially the name of the boats- Gunjayish,Asayish,Farmayish, and Arayish, and the concept of Mundus Novus where time becomes still is impeccable.

My Take-

The book is like a fable just like Arabian Nights but surely not a book for children. The prose is as usual enthralling. He weaves a magic with words but not at the cost of the story.Though not an easy read, even if a line is missed something is missed.The research done for the book is stupendous. The culmination of the East and West that we everything is linked is clearly brought in the book. Names themselves are a character in the book like Elizabeth becomes Zelabat and Akbar becomes Echebar or the names of giants Otho, Botho, Clotho and D'Arangtan and many others. The only thing I found boring was Argalia's exploits.Over all the book has a mixed response.The New York Times has called the book shit where as the Washington Post calls it Sir Salman's finest work. Already there is speculation that the book will win a booker. Anyway its all a subjective thing-some may like it some may call it trash but for huge fans like me it always works:). No doubt Sir Salman Rushdie is a master story teller and magical realism is pure magic.

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