Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India, Karen Chase (2011)

I’m not usually one to read poetry, I find its brevity unsatisfying. But I bought Karen Chase’s Jamali-Kamali not knowing it was of this genre, and was glad that I was forced out of my literary comfort zone. Jamali-Kamali is a long narrative poem recounting the love affair between sixteenth-century Mughal court poet Jamali, and his male lover Kamali.

But more than just a poem, this book is a whole visual and historical account. A long introduction by art historian Milo Beach sets the context for Chase’s poem. The Jamali-Kamali tomb today lies off the Mehrauli-Gurgaon highway in Delhi, in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, just south of one of Delhi’s most visited tourist sites, the Qutb Minar, but receiving far fewer tourists itself. It is intricately decorated with blue and red tiles and decoration, in a way that many of north India’s Mughal monuments must have once been, and is quite well preserved and maintained. Several photographs of the exterior and interior of the building accompany Beach’s short essay. The building contains two tombs, side by side, Jamali’s and Kamali’s. Jamali was a court poet of Sikander Lodi’s reign in the sixteenth century, but nobody knows who Kamali was. As Beach notes, legend and oral histories variously state that Kamali was Jamali’s pen-name, that she was Jamali’s wife, or that he was Jamali’s male lover.

Chase has followed the last suggestion. As the court poet, the narrative voice largely belongs to Jamali, and this is where the poem begins:

In the plump dusk, I hear/ a peacock screech,/ eye marks on my lover’s neck.

Kamali, let’s go/ to the lake/ to moisten our love scars.

I will wash mud from/ your muscled legs.

My secrets rest/ in the wedding/ hut. I visit another/ man as the moon/ circles down.

Come my protege,/ my Kamali, to bed./ I will show you/ moves of a new/ planet as no/ astrologer could.

(p. 23)

Jamali was known to be an extensive traveler, traveling to places as far away as Spain in his role as court poet. The poem recounts the pain of the long periods of separation that Jamali and Kamali would have had to endure. Finally, Jamali is killed while accompanying king Humayun on a military expedition west to Gujarat. Kamali’s poetic voice is heard, more staccato than Jamali’s as he, of course, is the narrator purely of Chase’s imagination, with no historical persona upon which to draw:

Nights now/ sleepless.

Gulping water./ Tuk tuk tuk–the owl.

I am dismantled/like glass chips.

(p. 61)

Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India contains a beautiful poem, but as a book it is more than this. It is the sum of several parts–photography, historical essay, poem–that together, add up to an experience, a suggestion that history does not just lie in the known and the unknown, that the unknown can perhaps be imagined and put into words to become an alternate possibility.

The Patience Stone, Atiq Rahimi (2008)

(Translated from French by Polly McLean; Winner of Le Prix Goncourt, 2008)

Some readers might find it a bit strange that a book by an Afghani writer, about Afghanistan, is included in a blog on South Asian literature. This is where geo-political boundaries become a bit messy. Afghanistan is not strictly South Asia, but it is often included in this category for geo-political reasons. What happens in Afghanistan is deeply tied up with what happens in Pakistan, which is firmly South Asia. I do not feel the need to justify myself too thoroughly, because this is my blog, and I can write about what I choose! But I do recognise that Afghanistan is only arguably and occasionally considered South Asia.

But I will apologise no further for the inclusion of The Patience Stone in this blog, because it is a truly beautiful and mesmerising book. Atiq Rahimi has to be one of the most unique contemporary authors from this part of the world. Though the edition of The Patience Stone I read had an introduction by Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner), Rahimi is a far superior author to Hosseini. Whereas Hosseini leaves nothing to the imagination and finds it necessary to hammer home his political commentary in the most un-subtle ways, Rahimi’s writing is understated and humming with passion, anger and injustice beneath a deceptively measured surface.

Perhaps better categorised as a novella than a novel, The Patience Stone is a brief 141 pages, as the other of Rahimi’s books I’ve read, Earth and Ashes, is too. Best read in one sitting, like a long narrative poem, The Patience Stone follows the actions of an Aghani woman taking care of her bed-ridden, brain-dead husband. The sub-title of the book, and in fact its title in the original French, is “Sang-E Saboor”, which the introductory material describes as meaning “the patience stone”. According to Persian folklore, the magical patience stone is the receptacle of the troubles and pain that its owner may tell it in times of difficulty- it is believed that one day the stone will explode from the pressure of the hardships and pain it is forced to absorb. Once the woman protagonist of Rahimi’s tale realises that her husband cannot respond to her, she treats him as that mythical stone, and pours her secrets, frustrations and desires into him. The fear is, however, that like the magical stone, he may explode.

The tales she tells him are full of sexual frustration, hypocritical patriarchal injustices, and disappointed dreams. If ever proof was needed that men are capable of writing feminist literature, Rahimi’s The Patience Stone is it. His protagonist is not only capable of acting independently despite the harshest restrictions, but of thinking and feeling truly subversively. But in case a reader should mistake this tale for a uniquely Afghani one, and associate it with that particular strand of western literature that likes to point out how backwards “they” are so that “we” can applaud ourselves for being so liberated, the book begins: “Somewhere in Aghanistan or elsewhere”. Universality is a problematic concept, but the passions and the frustrations that Rahimi’s protagonist exudes could be those of women anywhere living under extreme patriarchal control. The context is Afghanistan, the problems are not restricted to there.

Rahimi himself is Afghani, but has lived in France since 1985. He writes in French, and thus my exposure to him has been through English translation. I don’t know what may be lost in translation, but it is difficult to see that anything has been, as the translation reads so beautifully and fluidly. If ever I was to need an excuse to learn to read French, it would be to read Atiq Rahimi. But for now, I will have to be satisfied with the translations, so I hope they keep coming.

Empowering Women? Feminist Responses to Hindutva

I’ve just had an article published in Australian academic journal Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific. It looks at two books on women and communalism in India, Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia’s Women and the Hindu Right (1995) and Atreyee Sen’s Shiv Sena Women (2007). It’s an open access e-journal and available at the following site: