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The Novelist as Conjuror: The Power of Make-Believe Worlds

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW october 11, 200833The final chapter, on capital account convertibility (CAC), was published last year inEPW. Departing from his usual ur-bane prose style, Subramanian dubs the superficial treatment of exchange rate management in both Tarapore Committee reports onCAC as “shocking”. He points out that rupee appreciation caused by in-flows of portfolio investment has adverse effects on the tradable sectors, but this is hardly the “neglected consideration” that the title of the chapter makes it out to be: see Sen (2005) for a similar argument. Both Sen and Subramanian note that this predicament resembles the well-known Dutch Disease, which arose from oil export revenues. Earlier in the volume, Subramanian had named the correspond-ing Indian phenomenon the “Bangalore Bug”, attributing it to the rapid growth of information technology exports. But if the true cause of rupee overvaluation is foreign investment in India’s capital markets, then perhaps it should be called the “Mumbai Malady”!Subramanian is now on an extended sabbatical from the IMF, writing news-paper columns and, one hopes, further de-veloping some of the ideas articulated in this book. Plugging some of the gaps in the empirical analysis and updating it to cover the last five years of record-breaking growth would be a worthwhile endeavour. But he might want to choose a different publisher next time, for the book is marred by some truly atrocious copy- editing and proof-reading. A table referred to in the Introduction is missing, words are miss-ing, diagrams are wrongly reproduced, and there are numerous spelling, punctu-ation and grammatical errors that were not there in the original articles. Evidence, perhaps, of the growing skill shortage that Subramanian is concerned about?Email: See Nagaraj (2003) for references.2 The Introduction suggests that Subramanian still stands by his dim view of developing-country soli-darity. True, it has repeatedly proved to be fragile, the latest instance being Brazil’s defection at the recent WTO ministerial. But the G-20 that Brazil helped put together for the 2003 Cancun ministe-rial has scored a few victories on agriculture, and did not India along with other developing and “least-developed” countries manage to kick three of the four ‘Singapore Issues” off the Doha Round agenda after Cancun?ReferencesBalakrishnan, P and M Parameswaran (2007): ‘Un-derstanding Economic Growth in India: A Pre-requisite’, EPW, July 14.Bhattacharjea, A (2006): ‘Labour Market Regulation and Industrial Performance in India: A Critical Review of the Empirical Evidence’,Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 39(2), pp 211-32. Lall, S V and S Chakravorty (2005): ‘Industrial Loca-tion and Spatial Inequality: Theory and Evidence from India’,Review of Development Economics, 9(1), pp 47-68. – (2007): Made in India: The Economic Geography and Political Economy of Industrialisation, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.Nagaraj, R (2003): ‘Industrial Policy and Performance since 1980: Which Way Now?’, EPW, August 30.Sen, P (2005): ‘India’s Foreign Exchange Reserves: An Embarrassment of Riches’, EPW, May 14.The Novelist as Conjuror: The Power of Make-Believe WorldsRuby LalThe Enchantress of Florence is a splendid new novel by Rushdie, in-tricately mixing history and leg-end, leaving the reader transported and captivated in worlds of another time – Mughal India and Renaissance Florence.It is easy to imagine that emperor Akbar, “the star of India”, is the hero of Rushdie’s tale. It is, in fact, Qara Köz Begum (even-tually renamed Angelica), the wondrously depicted beauty and her adventures in the middle east and Florence, and her life sto-ries as narrated by “Uccello”, the self-pro-claimed “Mogor dell’Amore” that enthral not only the emperor, but an extensive cast of Mughal women – as well as us. Akbar and his ‘haram’ come together to hear the saga that Uccello unfolds about his ancestry and that of the “secret” Mughal princess, Qara Köz. The inhabitants of Fatehpur Sikri, prostitutes, tradesmen, silversmiths, walkers by, those in the Hindu colony, in the Persian quarter, “and beyond that region of the Turanis and beyond that, in the vicinity of the giant gate of the Friday Mosque…” also learn that the yellow-haired foreigner has a story to tell. The news is all over Fatehpur Sikri. Several other tales are interlaced with that of the Enchantress; of the Mughal women, Mughal princes, members of the Mughal court at Fatehpur Sikri, as well as those in Florentine Italy, where Uccello belongs: of Machiavelli and Botticelli, Amerigo Vespucci, admiral Andrea Doria and Vlad the Impaler, not to forget several glorious Medicis. The anecdotes travel in many directions, often back and forth between Fatehpur Sikri and Florence: Uccello’s tales of escapes from cannibalism in Sumatra and of the egg-sized pearls of Brunei and of fleeing from the Great Turk up the Volga to Moscow in winter and of crossing the Red Sea, and the ultimate arrival in Akbar’s capital; back to Fatehpur Sikri, the fire lit by the ‘Deepak Raga’ of the great composer Miyan Tansen; back again to Italy, the three childhood friends and their destinies. Each time we “return” from the adjacent tales, it is always to the story of women. Story of WomenThere is the dynamic Khanzada Begum, remembered for the “sacrifice” she made by marrying the Uzbeg warlord Lord Warmwood “who demanded that she be given up to him” as the price for the safe conduct out of the city of the first Mughal king, Babur, Khanzada’s brother, whom she called “Beaver”. Khanzada was acknowl-edged by all her servants and courtiers to be the most beautiful woman in the world, until Qara Köz Begum, “an enchantress without compare”, is born. “From that day forward, Khanzada noticed a change in the timbre of her daily adoration, which began to contain a higher level of insin-cerity than was acceptable.” There is the wonder of the emperor’s imagination, Jodha Bai, whom the other wives resented. “How could the mighty emperor prefer the company of a woman who did not exist”? Rushdie’s Jodha phantom, not the quest for the real, touches The Enchantress of Florenceby Salman Rushdie; Jonathan Cape, 2008; pp 356, £ 18.99.
BOOK REVIEWoctober 11, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly34the spirit of the emperor’s – a man’s – mental world: his desires, his pleasures. To quote the author himself: “The question of love was rendered more mysterious by such matters”. (The phantom of Jodha Bai is persuasive, more persuasive than the re-cent insistent queries surrounding the film Jodha Akbar: was she a real historical figure? Whose daughter was she? Whose wife? “Give details”, to quote one corre-spondent who wrote and asked me, where she could find a complete picture of Jodha Bai). Then there is the unforgettable Gul-badan Begum, the writer of a fabulous memoir, the leader of an all women’s hajj to Mecca, “organised and composed en-tirely of the older ladies of the court”. And the indomitable matriarch, Hamida Banu Begum, the emperor’s mother. I have written about these figures in a historical monograph [Lal 2005]. And Rushdie does a masterly job in his novel. It was impossible to dislike Gulbadan, she was always smiling and telling funny sto-ries about some crazy cousin or other, and her heart was a good loving heart, even if her head was full of this new independent stuff… Hamida Banu would tell Gulbadan, they were plural, their lives were made of independent forces, and if you wilfully shook one branch of that tree who knew what fruit might fall on your head. But Gulbadan would just smile and go her own way. By Hamdia’s side is the constant presence, the old Bibi Fatima, the legendary servant in the histories of the time, who “had acquired the bad habit of becoming her mistress echo”. There are so many other women who crisscross the imperial resi-dences. Gulbadan, Khanzadeh, Hamida, Fatima – and the ghosts of Jodha and Qara Köz – already give us the textures of lives that might have been. Women have been the subject of many spectacular tales – women make breathtaking tales! In Rushdie’s irreverent prose and irreverent invocations, of which he is a master (recall, of course, The Satanic Verses), the unexpected becomes possible. Let me explain how. A reviewer in theGuardian has noted that the women in The Enchantress “are never treated unkindly by the author, but they have no autonomous being” [Le Guin 2008]. Another commentator writes: Although the wise women of Fatehpur Sikri anticipate a world in which women will have many options, most of the book recounts their scheming and egotism; and their use of male desire to get what they want, which seems to be influence since they cannot have power [Morse 2008]. Anxiety over ‘Fitna’An issue that underlines all the tales brought together in this novel speaks to the commentators’ concerns quoted above. Scholars have argued that in several textual traditions of Islam, there is a persistent in-dication of anxiety over ‘fitna’ (social sub-version/chaos), most commonly associat-ed with women’s sexuality and their pow-er to “destroy”, thus resulting in all sorts of prescriptive strategies to “control” and “discipline” women’s “disorganised” sexu-ality. What Rushdie does, in my view, is to play with fitna, to work precisely with that “destructive”, “chaotic” potential in women: thus suggesting to us alternative possibili-ties of thinking and marking out what the “chaotic” women figures might look like. In Rushdie’sEnchantress, women fully explore their “sexual” potential: not only Qara Köz, the enchantress among en-chantresses. You also have her sole com-panion, a servant girl called the Mirror, only a smidgen less beautiful than her mistress, nonetheless the sharer of her bed; you have Jodha Bai, who is adept at “the seven types of unguiculation, which is to say the art of using the nails to en-hance the act of love”;youhaveSkeleton, the whore and several other prostitutes of Fatehpur Sikri mixing potions and inducing great sex. In Rushdie’s irreverent prose, in his extending and allowing the frontier of the “chaotic” to be explored fully, in his sumptuous mixing of the royal and the destructive, a time and its variant cultures are amplified: Fatehpur Sikri and Florence come to life with believable, desiring, dreaming, living men and women. One sees the world of Uccello, Gulbadan, Akbar, Mohini, and others. It is chaotic, but not constraining. There is a further point that needs to be made about the women protagonists of theEnchantress. They are in a man’s world. No question. There is, however, as Shirley Dent puts it in a review of the book, “a woman attempting to control her own destiny in a man’s world” [Dent 2008]. I would emphasise: there are many women here who attempt to “control their desti-nies”, express their paths and desires and destinations, in their own terms. It is a multiplicitous world that Rushdie brings to life; the expressions of the inhabitants of these worlds are multiplicitous too. ConclusionViewing it from our vantage point of the “modern” and its attendant liberal lan-guage of “autonomy” and “power” will not provide the images that we want. Rush-die’s characters suggest a world clearly different from ours. So yes, “the wise women are post-menopausal”; the young are “dangerously beautiful” and they do “cast a spell of desire”.1 The women of the Enchantress are per-fectly imagined characters. They are pal-pable because they are flawed, because they are vulnerable, because they doubt, because they are jealous – because they cannot be powerful. Their stories allure us like Shaharzade’s recounting of theThou-sand and One Nights, entrance us like the legendry ‘qissa’s’ of the Persian and Urdu literary traditions; hold us like we are held by a book of fables. The Enchantress Is a book of fables, but it is a fable that at once has compelling human images at the core: fragile, fallible, sexed, desirous, contem-plative – images that diverge and converge in a tapestry, in lush brush strokes (as in the “perfect” hands of Dashwanth), and in an irreverent obliteration of anything that is fixed, defined, decided. Email: rlal2@emory.eduNote 1 “In The Enchantress of Florence there are familiar patterns: the wise women are post-menopausal (and therefore out of erotic action); the young women are dangerously beautiful, and cast the spell of desire. In Florence, good wives such as Marietta Corsini Machiavelli value home, family and loyalty, while their husbands stray after youth and beauty. Loyalty to her husband requires her to shelter his childhood friend, once Antonino Argalia, now the foreign condottiere, Argalia the Turk. If she, too, falls under Angelica/Qara Köz’s most benign sorcery, she recognises that it is – as the narrator repeats – a short journey from enchantress to witch” [Morse 2008].ReferencesDent, Shirley (2008): ‘The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie’,New Humanist, Vol 123, Issue 2, March/April.Lal, Ruby (2005): Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, Cambridge University Press, Cam-bridge and New York.Le Guin, Ursula K (2008): ‘The Real Uses of Enchant-ment’,The Guardian, March 29.Morse, Ruth (2008): ‘Salman Rushdie’s Dangerous Stories’,The Times Literacy Supplement, April 2.

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