Saturday 19 August 2017

A Mirrored Life, by Rabisankar Bal

A few thoughts on Rabisankar Bal’s A Mirrored Life

So, a biography of Rumi, as narrated by Ibn-e-Batuta? What’s not to like, for a modern reader who’s read the Coleman Barks’ translation of Rumi’s iridescent poetry, who want to hear more of that Sufi longing for the beloved?

This book is a mistake for you, modern reader. Because it talks of Rumi not as a poet, but as a Maulana, a religious teacher. And the focus of the book is the deep (shall we say divine) affection between Rumi and Shamsuddin Tabrezi, another mystic that Rumi revered as his teacher and guide. It also talks of Rumi’s father (a religious teacher himself), and his wife and children, and of Rumi’s composition of his masterpiece, the Masnavi. A few places, yes, Rumi’s poetry shines through, but that’s not the focus. The religion and the person is.

Once that expectation is set, the book reads better. It describes how Ibn-e-Batuta came to be entrusted with a manuscript written by Rumi, which talks of his, Rumi’s, life story. Batuta then narrates from this manuscript in Rumi’s voice, interspersing it with a bit of his own intentions to travel. The story begins from Rumi’s childhood and his wandering life with his father, and goes up to him preparing for death. Shamsuddin Tabrezi - I had to look him up on the net - yes, he’s a real figure and his companionship with and guidance of Rumi is extremely well known - the book expects you the reader to know who he is, actually, and foreshadows his appearance in the narrative - but I found the whole thing a little contrived, and couldn’t quite grasp the reason for the affection. That's the drawback of coming at this story blind.

The translation by Arunava Sinha is top-notch, as expected from the unofficial king of translation from Bengali. I have a copy of Dozakhnama somewhere, by the same pair of Bal and Sinha, and I probably will read it, but with tempered expectations. That one is a dialogue between Manto and Ghalib - but who knows whether Bal’s picure of Manto and Ghalib is the same as mine!

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