Tuesday, 18 May 2010

'Pursue Knowledge even unto China!'

(This is extracted from my novel 'Samlee's daughter' )
Once upon a time, there was a great Mujtahid ul Asar[1] in the City of Azimabad. He was the most venerated Shia Divine in living memory. Then tragedy befell him. His wife died in child-birth. The Mujtahid controlled his grief and consoled himself with caring for the new-born. The infant showed every sign of intellectual and spiritual precocity. Dispensing with nursemaids and housekeepers, the Mujtahid brought up the boy- a Salaman without an Absal[2]- in the company of venerable scholars and veritable saints. Soon, the lad excelled his teachers. The devout assembled from the four corners of Hindustan to witness this Hujjat ul Islam- this living proof of the True Religion.
Thus, when his own health failed, the fond father died secure in the knowledge that his son would be a worthy successor to his own great office.
The boy was called before the King, to preach his first sermon. Mounting the minbar, he began with the profession of the True Faith. But, he got no further than saying ‘there is no God’. No matter how hard he tried he could not complete the sentence ‘there is no God but God’.
He was hounded from the court as an apostate and a painted sepulchre. The boy was stunned. He stumbled down the highway scarcely sensible to the taunts and jeers that dogged his footsteps. One day, he met a crazy dervish. The dervish rolled his eyeballs into their sockets and went into a trance. “Pursue Knowledge even unto China!” The dervish pointed north. So, it was his Knowledge that had been imperfect. The boy turned his steps towards steep paths and snowy wastes. After years of travelling, he gained his objective. Learning the strange languages of the heathen, he travelled up and down the thronging roads and teeming rivers of that vast land. He met scholars and scoundrels, monks and mandarins. But, that Nation possessed of a thousand books, yet was not a People of the Book. He had wasted his time.
One night, his boat moored at a lonely quay. Suddenly, out of the shadows, a figure emerged. It was a peasant in late middle age- still hale and hearty- carrying his aged mother on his back. The boy invited the peasant to come and rest on the boat. The peasant’s broad, weather beaten, countenance beamed with pleasure. He told his story in few words. First came the famine, then the bandits, and then the tax collectors. He had not waited for the tax collectors, but loaded his mother on his back and left the ancestral graves to look after themselves.
That night the boy had a dream. He was reading a book by lamplight. Suddenly, he looked up and saw the light was not coming from the lamp. It was coming from the body of a man. The boy woke up abruptly. He had nodded off while reading. But, when he looked, the lamp had not been lit. The illumination was coming from the body of the peasant. The boy shook him awake. The boy said- ‘having a luminous body is a mark of the Prophet. What Book has been revealed to you?’
The peasant said- ‘I’ve been lucky. Mother’s face is my book. Each day, some new wonder.’
‘Truly,’ the new-made Mujtahid said, ‘there is no God but God.’

[1]    Mujtahid ul Asar- Chief Shia Cleric. A Mujtahid is one licensed to use his own judgement (ijtehad) to pronounce on matters of Faith.
[2]    In Jami’s ‘Salaman & Absal’, which fascinated the Victorians, Salaman was born, without a mother, to the King of Greece. Absal was the Nanny who brought him up, before- & more successfully than the Nanny in ‘the Pirates of Penzance’- amorously entangling her charge & eloping with him to the Earthly Paradise. The Court Magician, by his mesmeric power, gets Salaman to build a pyre of brushwood on which the two lovers immolate themselves. However, only Absal (who symbolises Earthly passions) perishes in the flame while Salaman emerges purified.   Finally, Zohra (Heavenly Beauty) expels even the memory of Absal from Salaman’s mind.

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