Review: The Lost Fragrance of Infinity by Moin Mir
A descendant of Hazrat Modud Chishti, one of the stalwart founders of the Chishti Sufi order, Moin Mir, born and raised in India, began writing under the influence of his grandfather, a scholar of Sufism. His first book, Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince was a journey into his forefather’s quest to reclaim his inheritance of Surat from the British East India Company. The Lost Fragrance of Infinity is a novel which seeks to reclaim the essence of Sufism and introduce the reader to the infinite fragrance of ishq-e haqeeqi or love for the divine, which is the only love worth striving for.
Today, Sufism is equated with a dargah where qawwalis are sung, chadors offered, and the heady fragrance of incense and roses pervades. Yet, Sufism, which is a rigorous ethical discipline based on meditative devotional practices and exercises, is much more than this.
Through the love stories of the protagonist, Qaraar Ali, Mir takes us into the 18th century, where conflicts, ambitions and intrigues prevail. Three magnificent empires which powered discoveries of new frontiers, not just territorial but also in arts, literature and spirituality: the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal stand on the brink of destruction and with that the Old World order gives way to the new and Europe starts pushing the boundaries. We look up to the west, today, for everything including science and philosophy but it wasn’t always so. Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci is described in the book as the Omar Khayyam of the west! We forget the emphasis on knowledge in Islam, and the great corpus of literature written by the Sufis. This book serves as a reminder of the growth and development of science in the east.
The romantic and spiritual journey of Ali became the trope for the Sufi quest for love and Ibn al-Arabi’s concept of wahdat ul wujud or Unity of Being. This complex and intense inward journey makes the protagonist seek within for fulfilment. We follow his story of love and loss through Central Asia to Turkey and finally to the olive groves of Andalusia, where he finds love.
Using symbolism and metaphors, Mir traces this inward journey, from the hero’s destruction of his ego to self-analysis and eventual realisation that the journey is about bettering one’s life through deeds of kindness (khidmat-e khalq) and polishing one’s soul. The Quran is not just a rule book to impose on others but a guide to undertaking a journey within oneself and finding inner peace.
The prevailing symbol in the book is architectural. Architecture in the Islamic world was inspired by the sense that it is sacred, and therefore also a replica of the cosmos and the locus of the encounter of man and the Divine Word or Logos. Everything led to the ‘Oneness’ of the Divine: the square shape reflected the Holy Kaaba; the octagonal shape called hasht bahisht was inspired by the Divine Throne referred to as arsh, which is supported by eight angels; the dome was a reminder of the vault of heaven, beyond which is infinity.
However, it is not only the ability to create but to restore that is important: Mir’s hero has the ability to restore not only broken tiles on tombs and mosques, palaces, and mausoleums, but as he finds his inner strength, when mathematics, mysticism, love and art merge, he is able to restore the spiritual lives of his friends.
Mir’s knowledge of Sufism comes through in the hero’s spiritual journey. There is a brief lapse in description of the heroine’s physical journey, as she negotiates her way through Shahjahanabad, the eighteenth century Mughal Fort and capital. Here, in a symbolic leap of imagination she can move around freely in the male section of the Red Fort and meet the hero without being encumbered by restrictions or veils. Though spiritually possible since there is no gender segregation of souls, it would have been physically improbable back then.
This novel will go a long way in helping the reader discover the Sufi path and find perfection in physical and spiritual relationships.
Rana Safvi is the author of, most recently, Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi.