The life story of the great 13th century Sufi mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi, whose ecstatic poems now have a following all over the world, has the intensity and ambiguity of a great poem. In his youth, Rumi was no more than a brilliant theologian furthering the teachings of Islam in Konya, a small town in present-day Turkey. But then a chance encounter with a mysterious wandering dervish, a much older man called Shams of Tabriz, threw Rumi off the well-trodden path.
Shams and Rumi became inseparable. As a result of this meeting of minds, souls, bodies, Rumi was transformed. Like the great saints and prophets, he seemed to become a realized being, but realized not by a command from above but by rapturous love, a love that seemed to lead directly to God. Shams’ sudden departure filled Rumi with a great yearning, a visionary suffering, to which he gave voice in a massive work of verse called the Masnavi (a poem composed in couplets). Thus it was that, as the narrator of Nahal Tajadod’s fictional biography of Rumi remarks, “Rumi inflamed and still inflames, precisely and literally, the spiritual world, which may be the real world.”
Inspired: The whirling dervishes of Turkey are Rumi’s followers. AFP
While a traditional biography earns its legitimacy through a judicious interpretation of the available facts, a fictional biography can do so through concentrated attention on one or two vital themes. And, as part of the house of fiction, it invites our judgement on issues such as the quality of its language and its novelistic architecture.
Tajadod’s answers to these demands of the form are well-worked. Her main theme is the place of love in Rumi’s world view, and she returns to this question again and again. Although she invents many details, she also holds to essentials—much of her dialogue has its source in the recorded exchanges of Rumi and Shams, and many of Rumi’s verses are braided into her narration. Finally, to give her story a novelistic immediacy, a sense of lived time rather than retrospective scrutiny, she tells us Rumi’s story through the eyes of one of his most loyal disciples, Hesam.
The core of Tajadod’s story lies in the contemplation of two movements: first, Rumi’s transformation from an austere scholar to a passionate dancer and lover unmindful of traditional societal prohibitions, and second, the meaning and consequences of his parting with Shams. Hesam marvels at this blooming of Rumi: “I listened to and watched this being who suddenly embodied metamorphosis, movement, ecstasy, excitement, enthusiasm, transition, breath...”.
Rumi—The Fire of Love: Overlook/Duckworth, 318 pages, $26.95(around Rs1,300).
But later, Hesam is even more puzzled when Shams, who has made many enemies because of his arrogance and inscrutability, asks to be let out from the circle of Rumi’s protection and Rumi agrees instantly. How can lovers agree so simply to separate? Hesam’s interpretation is that Rumi has been fulfilled, as far as possible, by his lover’s presence. Now, to be completed, he needs his lover’s absence, for human nature is such that we always privilege “what we would not have, rather than what we did”.
By instigating Shams’ departure, concludes Hesam, “Rumi no doubt sought, through absence and loss, the constant, certain, and multiple presence of his lover”. This idea of love as separation recognizes that love is rooted as much in the imagination, in the idealization of the beloved, as it is in the presence and specificity of a real person. There is a transcendent aspect to love that too much reality can suffocate.
Shams leaves, and is never seen again, and thus begins the cycle of composition of the Masnavi, “the crown of mystic literature”. “Now listen to the flute’s lament at being separated from the reed”—the first line of Rumi’s great work suggests that the most beautiful music has its origins in disjunction and suffering. “My life has lasted only an hour but I spent it with Rumi,” says Hesam at the death of his master, and Tajadod’s book very competently gives us a sense of an hour with Rumi.
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