'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, September 09, 2013

An 'Eastern Romance'

Let's begin with a quote (note: it has been edited a bit but hopefully, with no essential changes):

****** said decisively: “... the old game seems about to begin again in *****. And what, if it cannot be stopped in time, will be the unavoidable consequence? The different parties (to the dispute) will take up arms and civil war will destroy your country. On all sides bands will be formed (that may) carry fire and sword (out of your borders). And now I say, without circumlocution, and once for all, that I will not tolerate it. ... if force is required, whatever the cost, I will assemble my armies to re-establish peace. Better to tear down and destroy the whole robber’s nest than allow it to remain....”

Question: What is the above all about?

And would you, Reader, answer: "Obama, planning to pacify (not invade) and secure (not occupy) Syria!"?

The actual source is 'Akbar, an Eastern Romance', a Dutch(!) novel written back in 1872(!!) by a certain Dr. P.A.S. van Limburg Brouwer, translated into English soon thereafter by a certain "M.M" and available at Project Gutenberg.

Needless to say, that quote is about the emperor Akbar planning to annexe a neighboring state. And isn't what is now being played out all over the world the "same old game"?

Thanks to a certain Mr. Ratheesh, I made acquaintance with 'Akbar' via a Malayalam translation of the above English translation. The Mal rendering, published in 1890 or so, is by Keralavarma Valiyakoyi Thampuran. An eminent man of letters from the late 19th century, Thampuran had been asked to do the translation by the then Maharaja of Travancore. Although 'Akbar'is not particularly lengthy, the project is known to have taken many years. And it shows; the quality of the translation fluctuates too violently between the crisp and the insufferable for one to feel Thampuran's heart was in any way in it. But Gutenberg's English version reads well.


Let me quote another passage from 'Akbar', interleaved with some short notes.

The context: The young protagonist Siddha observes some curious foreigners walking down a busy Agra street.

Just as Siddha was about to inquire from some of the passers-by who the strange men were, he saw his friend and benefactor Faizi approach, and addressed his question to him.

“They are Franks,” was the answer, “called Portuguese; they come from far-away countries in the West, for the sake of commerce; and those with them have come to try and convert us to what they say is the only religion which can save souls.”

“And those two,” asked Siddha, “coming from the other side? do they belong to them? They wear nearly the same clothing, but their companions appear to me fairer, and how red their beards are!”

“They are also Franks,” answered Faizi, “though not quite the same as the others. They are English, who seek to drive out the Portuguese, but with little success; however, they are well received by our Emperor and our great people.”

A few years later, Faizi would have been able to point out others among these visitors from the West, who, though also included under the name of Franks, yet were quite different. He could have pointed to the robust and somewhat plump figures and good-humoured faces of Hollander and Zeelander, who, under Pieter van der Broeche came to seek their own fortunes and those of their masters the Directors of the East India Company. For long years they were considered both by English and Portuguese as their most formidable rivals in the markets of Hindustan, and as men who knew how to sustain the fame of the flag of the Netherlands in the Indian waters against the Gijs, or“Gijsooms” as they mockingly, though not very grammatically, named their arch enemies. But their time was not then come.

(Note: Thampuran's translation very prudently excises these apparently mocking references to the British)

As the two Englishmen passed by, Siddha looked at them with a curiosity which, though perhaps natural, at first seeing such strangers, yet was far from courteous; but Siddha felt—although he had heard nothing of these people—very little respect for them, and even Faizi seemed to consider them hardly worthy of a glance.

“Cursed proud Moors!” muttered one of these sons of Albion in his own tongue as he passed. Had these men, the haughty Indians and half-despised English, been able to cast one single look into the future, and could the former have guessed that the descendants of the latter would one day rule over their people and country, they would certainly have observed them with more attention. With still closer interest would they have gazed, if anyone had told them that these strangers sprang from the same race, and stood nearer to Siddha than many of his friends whose origin was from the Semitic race.

(Note: Some curious Aryan-Aryan thing going on there. Thampuran again leaves out any talk on the racial affinity between Indians and the British; he might not have wanted to offend the sentiments of any of his British masters)

“The visits of all these strangers,” said Faizi,“do us no harm; on the contrary they give fresh impulse to our trade and various industries; and from them also we have many good painters and other artists. Then we have learnt much from them respecting their own countries. Still they must not attempt to play the master here, which appears to be rather according to their tastes.”

“Then surely we should show them the door,” said Siddha.

"That would soon happen, I can assure you..."

(Note: I salute van Limburg Brouwer across the chasm of a century and a half for that exchange. Even the careful Thampuran has rendered this bit of subversion almost verbatim into Malayalam!)

The Gutenberg version of the novel has generous notes and footnotes. They had better be checked against more up-to-date references but are nevertheless hugely informative and interesting. Here is one (broadly corroborated by Wiki):

Mulla Abdul Kadir, called El Badauni, was born at Badaun, in 1540, and studied music, astronomy, and history. He was employed by Akbar to translate Arabic and Sanscrit works into Persian; but he was a fanatical Muhammadan, and in his “Tarikh-i Badauni,” a history brought down to 1595, he always speaks of Faizi and Abú-l Fazl as heretics, and all references to the speculations of Akbar and his friends are couched in bitter and sarcastic terms. He, however, temporized, and did not allow his religion to interfere with his worldly interests. His history contains much original matter. He also translated the great Hindu epic “Mahabharata” in 1582, and the“Ramayana” between 1583 and 1591. Of the former poem he says, “At its puerile absurdities the eighteen thousand creations may well be amazed. But such is my fate, to be employed on such works! Nevertheless, I console myself with the reflection that what is predestined must come to pass.”

Note: Did Thampuran's feelings on 'Akbar' echo those of Abdul Kadir's towards Mababharata?

Conclusion: 'Akbar'is no great work of fiction. Its attempts to develop the Siddha- Iravati romance as a parallel to the Nala-Damayanti myth are somewhat contrived and some of the herione Iravati's utterances belong in Amar Chitra Kathas. The novel also gets many things factually incorrect - including the basic geography of North India. But what it does get right, it often gets splendidly right; and this is over and above the real interest it holds as a quaint mix of European Enlightenment and Orientalism. 'Akbar' deserves a proper Malayalam translation - I think Thampuran's effort could be reworked into one (although hardly anyone in Kerala knows about 'Akbar' now, I see its influence in the plot of C V Raman Pillai's 1910 masterpiece 'Dharmaraja') - and any serious Indian can do worse than read it in whichever language. In Faizi, Abul Fazl and of course, Akbar himself, we have three characters worth taking after in matters interfaith. The racy exchanges Akbar has with the fervent Jesuit missionary Rudolf Aquaviva and the aforementioned Abdul Kadir deserve special mention (the chapter titled 'The Parting'). I can't but end this post with this bit from what the emperor of Hindustan says to Aquaviva:

"My job, Father, is to watch over the liberty and rights of my people, and to defend them against you, as against the mullahs or priests of any other creeds. Remain here, or go, as it best pleases you; preach as seems good to you, and build churches. You shall enjoy the same privileges as Muhammadans in their mosques and Hindus in their temples. There is, however, one warning which I must give you: the moment I find you attempt to introduce any persecution amongst your converts or others, as already has been the case on the coast of Malabar, that moment shall you be banished from my kingdom, never to set your foot within it again.”


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