Without cause God gave us Being;
without cause, give it back again.
Do you know how bored I was today? I came this close to actually cleaning the house.
– Gabrielle Solis (a character in the series ‘Desperate Housewives’)
The novel ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ is actually two novels being played out in two different lands and have a distance of seven centuries in between. This ambitious title authored by well-known Turkish writer Elif Shafak consists of two simultaneous narratives intertwined together. A forty year old American housewife, Ella Rubinstein, lives a life of ‘still waters’ doing ‘more important things than passion and love in a marriage.’
The family has everything a decent middle class should have- big house, cars, insurances, savings etc. Ella’s life revolves around her children and husband, and attending to their needs and care. She has sacrificed her own career and ambitions and tastes.
Everything seems so alright. And, then a manuscript enters her life. Just to kill her boredom and keep herself off from worries emanating from kids, who are not listening to her, and husband, who is focused more to his work and his women, she takes up an assignment to read a manuscript and give her opinion to the publisher.
This manuscript tentatively title ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ tells the story of great Sufi Rumi and his teacher Shams of Tabriz. Ella falls in love with AZ Zahara, the author gradually. Zahara is European ‘converted’ to Sufism. They converse through e-mails. He wanders across planet seeking spirituality, she longs for love.
In another world and another time, Shams Tabriz teaches the true meaning of divine love to Rumi, a preacher with all pomp who becomes a spiritual poet ultimately.
The thirteenth century Asia was a period of devastation and destruction. At the same time, spiritual masters, scholars and wanderers roamed the cities and walked the streets from the Turkish landscape to the plains of South Asia. It is almost bizarre that the bloody Mongol havoc propelled the vast traditions of Islamic mysticism to flourish all over.
In all these traditions, love and compassion make the core. Inclusiveness and incisiveness are inherent. Within and beyond dissolve into each other transforming into nothingness. The Mongols of the Altai Mountains raided most of Asia and a significant part of Europe. The Central Asian nomadic Turkic tribes were also spreading their wings.
Amidst this turmoil, Rumi’s family fled Bukhara and settled in Konya in today’s Turkey. The grandparents of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, the patron saint of Delhi also migrated from Bukhara and settled in India.
It is interesting to note that the places where the events of the novel unfold are in desperate situations today. The US and Turkey, both led by the strongmen, are divided nations. From Baghdad to Damascus, the Middle East, is ruined by terror and war. And, the country of this reader is witnessing a similar scenario, though in different ways and measures.
As Shafak tells in an interview, the words of Rumi, like the message of love from various Sufis and Qalandars, are forever, and for all the peoples. The author has employed interesting literary methods to convey this. The contemporary story of Ella is told from her viewpoints and other characters do not speak except Zahara, the author of ‘Sweet Blasphemy’. The ‘manuscript’ has multiple voices, it is polyphonic, where they tell their version as ‘I’. But Ella’s story is expressed in the third person, ‘she’. Such ambiguity, plurality and flexibility provide a monumental dimension to the novel. This multiplicities overwhelm the reader in more than one ways.
Though not that important for a reader of a single language- Turkish or English, an interesting aspect of this novel is its writing and re-writing. Shafak wrote it in English first, then it was translated into Turkish by a translator. Shafak re-wrote the novel over the translation. Such efforts show her total dedication to the project. Remarkably spiritual in itself!
I am not going into the problems with the text or writing style, or even the shortcomings. I leave it to you to judge with a strong recommendation to read this fabulous work. There are criticisms in certain quarters that the novel mainly aims to cater the Western readers, particularly those in the US to exploit something called ‘the Rumi Phenomenon’ started in the mid-1990s. There might be some truth in it, but for this you cannot blame Mevlana Rumi or the power of his message, or a novelist who is ready to burden herself to any extent to tell a tremendous story.
I am not a Westerner, I belong to a sphere where Sufism is a living tradition and where a significant portion of the old world still exists amidst the onslaught of everything West and the resultant hybrid of post-colonial circumstances. I need Rumi as much as that desperate American housewife. I am equally desperate. I long for love. I long for beautiful stories from the past to light the path ahead that is seized by a horrendous darkness.