A Mirrored Life has been the surprise of the season for me. Glancing at the name on the spine of the book, unknown to me, it was nothing but curiosity which made me pick up the novel from a stack of new arrivals. The description seemed intriguing enough even though I have learned never to judge a book by its blurb. I was a few pages into the book when I decided to go back to the bookstore and purchase a copy of the previous novel by this author. So before going further into Rabisankar Bals A Mirrored Life, I could not stop myself from picking up Dozakhnama, and breezing through its pages, unable to stop.
Dozakhnama appeared in 2010 but it was only recently that I got to hear about this extended conversation between Mirza Ghalib and Saadat Hasan Manto, rich with references to Urdu poetry and highly relevant, so much so that I was compelled to read it first before turning to the new novel. A masterly ease in handling historical material is evident in A Mirrored Life, as the subject is very ambitious, much as it is with Dozakhnama. This is no less than the life of Rumi, visualised from the eyes of the legendary Islamic traveller Ibn Battuta who reaches the city of Konya about 60 years after Rumis demise and finds that the city still reverberates with the larger than life figures. It is through the historical figure of Ibn Battuta that Rumi comes alive on the novels pages, and this is no small feat. The reputed Bengali author Nabaneeta Dev Sen is quoted on the back of the book saying the power and beauty of Rumis love and philosophy come alive in this sensitively created book, and one agrees with her endorsement.
Well-known in Sufi circles, Rumi has grown posthumously from his first claim to fame and acquired a large reputation as an iconic figure known all over the world, even among those who dont have much to do with his thinking or philosophy. He has also attracted various other modern novelists, ranging from Muriel Maufroy (Rumis Daughter) to Elif Shafak (The Forty Rules of Love, a more ambitious book and a bestseller). The internationally-acclaimed Turkish novelists Forty Rules is immensely readable, but one cannot help but suspect that it must have been written with an eye on the commercial interest in Rumi as a selling point. Such an interest would not have been lost to Bal either, but his novel is a far cry from a commercially concocted fable that follows the Rumi trend. And there are no lessons in practical wisdom in A Mirrored Life, unless you are willing to learn the lesson of life from a novel which will make you ponder and contemplate things.
In spite of my admiration, I am rather surprised by the inscription on the cover: The Rumi Novel. This is too definitive. The name of the novel in its original Bangla language is written as Ayna Jiban, which can be easily understood. But when you put The before Rumi and Novel, you are making a tall claim. And yet despite my reservations I have to say that the man and his fabulous poetry will continue to inspire writers and readers this is a fact that is borne out by this amazing novel which definitely is a cut above yet another Rumi novel.
You have not read this particular kitab of mine before, is how the novel opens and introduces us to the narrative voice, which tells us its name in its inimitable manner: Shaikh Ibn Battuta salutes the earth and wind and air and water and fire, again and again. He did not set out to become the globetrotter he turned out to be: on his way to performing the pilgrimage, he heard about Rumi in the city of Alexandria, but it was really looking at the full moon reflected in the waters of a hammam which took him away from ever living at home.
Ibn Battuta does what he can do best and that is travel and recount. A vivid description of Konya, the city which was Rumis playground, with its sights and sounds, and above all its delicious food, is followed by attempts to trace the memories of the person he had never seen. All writing is actually a short-lived attempt to hold on to memory, he says memorably, and goes on to speak of stories even before there are stories. The authors style is crisp and beautiful, devoid of verbose purple patches or gilded prose. There are sentences which sparkle like tiny epigrams and descriptions which contain the beauty and wisdom associated with Sufi writings. The much anticipated meeting of Rumi with the life-transforming Shams is rendered in an inimitable style: love is actually a prolonged vigil. The long wait for your sleeping lover to awaken while you sit alongside.
From the meeting of Shamsuddin Tabrizi and Rumi to the formers disappearance under mysterious circumstances and the outpouring of Rumis lyrics, the events are so well-known that they can be tantalising for any imaginative writer. To his credit, Bal has escaped narrow or literal interpretations. There are a few flaws that one can find with the book, such as one character calling the other bhai using the Urdu word instead of the Persian one, and the use of ulema as a singular word. On all accounts, however, this is a novel to be relished.
A Mirrored Life
By Rabisankar Bal
Translated by Arunava Sinha
Random House, India
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