Rushdie ponders over life and myth of Jodha
Emperor Akbar's wife Jodhabai was merely a figment of imagination, writes Salman Rushdie in his latest short story, The Shelter of the World, published in the latest issue of the New Yorker.books Updated: Feb 26, 2008 15:31 IST
Emperor Akbar's wife Jodhabai was merely a figment of imagination, if one were to go by Salman Rushdie's latest short story that has come at a time when a section of the Rajput community is protesting a Bollywood film on the royal couple for allegedly distorting facts.
Rushdie, the magic realist, has the great emperor and his altogether imaginary wife meditate on life, existence, identity, love and other abstract nouns in the short story, The Shelter of the World - the Urdu word for which is Jahaanpanah - published in the latest issue of the New Yorker.
"Queens floated within his palaces like ghosts, Rajputs and Turkish sultanas playing catch-me-if-you-can. One of these royal personages did not really exist. She was an imaginary wife, dreamed up by Akbar in the way that lonely children dream up imaginary friends, and, in spite of the presence of many living, if floating, consorts, the Emperor was of the opinion that it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the nonexistent beloved who was real. He gave her a name, Jodha..."
Naturally, "Jodha's sisters, her fellow-wives, resented her. How could the mighty Emperor prefer the company of a woman who did not exist?"
They know the emperor has "put her together ... by stealing bits of them all".
"So: the limitless beauty of the imaginary queen came from one consort, her Hindu religion from another, and her incalculable wealth from yet a third. Her temperament, however, was Akbar's own creation. No real woman was ever like that, so perfectly attentive, so undemanding, so endlessly available.
"She was an impossibility, a fantasy of perfection. They feared her, knowing that, being impossible, she was irresistible, and that was why the King loved her best.
"The creation of a real life from a dream was a superhuman act, usurping the prerogative of the gods."
In this area of imagination, artists could be the only rivals for Akbar - "A Muslim vegetarian, a warrior who wanted only peace, a philosopher-king: a contradiction in terms".
"In those days, Sikri was swarming with poets and artists, those preening egotists who claimed for themselves the power of language and image to conjure beautiful somethings from empty nothings, and yet neither poet nor painter, musician nor sculptor had come close to what the Emperor, the Perfect Man, had achieved."
Jodhaa Akbar director Ashutosh Gowariker can quote that in response to a section of Rajput community that maintains Jodha was the emperor's daughter-in-law. The community has even stopped the screening of the film in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Amid a trademark display of word games, the story also gives the Mumbai-born, once fatwa-facing author an opportunity to ruminate on the question of freedom, authority and religion.
There is an "obstinate Rana of Cooch Naheen ... a feudal ruler absurdly fond of talking about freedom. Freedom for whom, and from what, the Emperor harrumphed inwardly. Freedom was a children's fantasy, a game for women to play. No man was ever free."
Before beheading him, the emperor asks the Rana "what sort of paradise do you expect to discover".
"'In Paradise, the words 'worship' and 'argument' mean the same thing,' he declared.
'The Almighty is not a tyrant. In the house of God, all voices are free to speak as they choose, and that is the form of their devotion.'"