Friday, October 12, 2007

Tlon, Uqbar: A view from Orbis Tertius

In concluding his remarkable work of philosophical fiction, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Jorge Luis Borges calls his imaginary world of Tlon "a labyrinth designed to be deciphered by men." Herein lies (for me anyway) a central paradox of this story. That a world running on laws entirely unfamiliar to "men," laws that could be described as irrational, is inevitably also a world "designed to be deciphered" by them. While our own world, a world not so designed (not by us anyway), is for Borges (writing in 1940) too bleak to be understood rationally. Familiarity is not the same as comprehension, and unfamiliarity need not imply incomprehension. In fact the familiar is also the incomprehensible, the unfamiliar holds decipherable laws.
Turning away from the nightmare that is Europe in 1940, Borges seeks refuge in Tlon, Uqbar a world of Berkeleyian idealism where Earthen laws of causality do not hold. (Bishop George Berkeley the 18th century English empiricist philosopher was famous for his question "does a tree falling in the middle of a forest, with no one to hear it fall, still make a sound?")

The story is very famous (it gets its own wikipedia entry) and analyses abound on the Internet. The story is particularly plentiful in all the devices that Borges regularly employed. Fictional characters mingle with real ones; real characters engage in fictional acts; an extraordinary range of philosophers make guest appearances (Berkeley, Schopenhauer, Spinonza...) plus the usual suspects pop up; labyrinths, mirrors, the cabala and 1001 Nights. But I am not going to summarize the plot (which is hard to do in any case). Just go read it!

Instead I titled the blog-entry "a view from orbis tertius" (orbis tertius is Latin for Third World) to indicate that I want to take a different tack here. A Third Worldist reading of Tlon. A what! What on Earth (or on Tlon) would that be?
Tlon, Uqbar first appears in the story as a place somewhere in the vicinity of Iraq. Before it becomes a world onto itself, Uqbar looks and sounds like another newly discovered "Eastern Land". The discovery of a new world, where known (read European) laws of rationality do not apply is a common theme in the European imagination of the colonial period. But instead of reading this as Borges' attempt at creating an exotic New World, I prefer to read it as a satire or a jab at that genre. This reading is sustained by the fact that the exotic world that could exist in reality becomes just another figment of the European imagination ("a secret and benevolent society" among whose members is George Berkley arises "to invent a country"). Thus the mythical "other" land is an invention of the self. Sound far-fetched? I would love to hear from you if you think so.

Second, despite being rather unfriendly to what we would call science (remember causality is denied here, all events are mere associations), Tlon seems to do just fine. People there seem to be more interested in being inventive than in discovering truth. Borges tells us that the "metaphysicians of Tlon do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding." This could be taken a couple of ways. One way to read it is once again as an attack on the scientism of modern civilization. The insistence on pursuit of truth to the detriment of beauty, morality, what have you. A less charitable way (i.e. one that puts Borges amongst the European "self" rather than the Latin American "other") is to say that the description of Tlon as a place where science takes a back-seat is akin to European portrayal of the "East" as uninterested in the practical matters of life, as being other-worldly. In one reading the "other" of Europe is a place where rationality and science do not oppress the psyche, in the second reading we put a different "spin" on the same fact and say that the "other" is a place where irrationality and superstition abound.

You take your pick.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bulbul-e-Chisht: The Nightengale of Chisht

The qawwal party sits just in front the wall that divides the compound of Hazrat Nizamuddin's dargah from his disciple Amir Khusro's. But that night, the first night I am at Nizamuddin, I am unaware that Khurso lies buried just next door. The crowd of pilgrims stands and sits in a U in front of the party. Two harmoniums, one dholak, two lead and two backup vocalists and four or five chorus members. The air of informality that typifies even the most "westernized" qawwali "concert" surges pretty freely around here. Chorus members and vocalists get and leave for chores, for chatting with an acquaintance and rejoin the singing. A few minutes into the start there is already a pile of rupees on the floor in front of the harmoniums. Periodically someone walks over into the clearing in the middle and deposits some more money. Wonder how much they make in an evening...I can't help but have a materialistic thought in that atmosphere saturated with spirit. But even as i think that, the action itself, the act of showering money on the qawwal (and sometime this is literally done, at moments of great spiritual passion or ecstacy) shatters the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material. It is not hidden, a fee received in some quiet room or corridor by the "manager" of the concert hall, or a direct deposit into the bank account, but blatantly overt. It symbolizes the community support that would typically sustain the qawwal. Of course I wouldn't be surprised if today we depart somewhat from this ideal.

The qawwals face the inner sanctum and just in front of it stands a chap whose job is to energetically clear thronging mobs away from the clearing, perhaps so as not to occlude the qawwal's view of their pir, in whose service they sing every night. I am squatting on my haunches, the rain is still pattering on the tarpaulin that covers us, but it seems to be abating some what. This night there seems to be a team of reporters from some TV program here. About 10 minutes into the singing they begin setting up a large camera. Next to them sits a group of white people in Indian clothes, a medium-sized bearded man seems to be the "leader". He has on with a fine cap and jacket with a kurta and khaki trousers. These are the only people sitting on a rug. Oh by the way, if you are patiently reading through this description, I should have said earlier, just to the previous post and click on the movie link. Its a far more pleasant way of learning the same things!

I stay on till the end of the singing. It lasts about an hour. It is a little past 9pm and the rain has stopped. They start wrapping up, someone takes on the job of collecting all the money to which I have also added my 50 rupees. I loiter around waiting to see if I can speak to one of the lead vocalists whose voice has mesmerized me. The pilgrims are dispersing. I go up to Ghulam Hasnain Nizami, for that is his name (ji, mera naam Ghulam Hasnain Nizami hai). He hands me his business card. It says "bulbul-e-chisht ke khitab se nawaze gaye" (Bestowed with the title, nightengale of Chisht). Hazrat Nizamuddin was from Chisht.

On my way back I take the same route, the back door through which I have come. Emerging from the bowels of the watery corridor, I collect my sandals from the keeper at the door. What should I give you? Whatever you think appropriate. I hand him five rupees and head out into the gulli lined with dhabas on either side. Now that the dargah and its atmosphere it behind, I am face to face with a more mundane question. How do I get back to the hostel? Its almost 9:30pm. I am staying in a part of town thats mostly offices. I ask a random autowallah on the main road, ITO chalenge? (Will you go to the ITO?) I am not hoping for much, but I am unprepared for the Delhi brand of candor. Sawal hi nahi! (Out of the question!) I am taken aback but I think I smile. Pressing on I gather quickly that more queries will only elicit variants of the above answer. But I needn't worry. I have responded to a call from Hazrat saheb. He will see me home. I start walking in search of a bus stop. A few inquiries on the street land me in front of one. And lo! The first bus to come is my bus. In Delhi, the bus conductors often sit by the pedestrian-side window (usually the first or the last seat) and shout out the stops that the bus will be making (ITO, Jama Masjid, Lal Qilla, Chandni Chowk...and so on). So one only has to keep ones ears open for one's stop and then hop on.

(to be concluded)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Qawwali at Nizamuddin Dargah

It all starts, not at the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, but instead at the Indian International Center. Not, in other words, at the symbol of medievalism,, old Delhi and of religious syncretism but at the symbol of modernity, the New and the Secular. I have just finished a meeting at the IIC and my plans of visiting Nizamuddin Dargah in the evening to listen to the Nizami-Khurso Bandhu offer Qawwali (somebody has told me they play on Thursday nights) seem to be washed out by a mid-July downpour. I am absolutely drenched by the time I can find an auto. Even as I stand near Lodhi Gardens hoping an available auto will show up, I feel the tussle inside me. Will it be the warmth and dryness of the Gandhi Peace Foundation Hostel where I am staying while in town, or will it be a jaunt in the darkness and the rain to a place I have never seen before, but which has been pulling me not only since I have been in Delhi, but all the way from the US. By the time an auto comes around, Hazrat Nizamuddin has decisively called me to him. There is no room for doubt. I ask the auto-wallah to take me to Nizamuddin. I don't mention the calling part. By the time we reach it is very dark and the rain is still coming down heavily. He lets me off somewhere. Nothing much is visible. Certainly not a magnificent mausoleum with crowds of worshipers, as I have imagined it in my mind. I stumble towards the hazy structures in the middle distance. A dingy, narrow alley, leads to a black hole. An entrance? All I can see is an unlit marble lined passage through which water is flowing in great torrents, already my feet are more than ankle deep in muddy water. A man is standing at the mouth of the tunnel. Is this is the way to the Dargah? I ask. He nods. Is there Qawwali tonight? He looks more skeptical. Probably not, he indicates the rain and the general inhospitability of the environs. But I have come all the way, so I must press on. I brave my ignorance of the terrain and push on into the water and the darkness.

After what seems like endless watery corridors, there are some promising signs. Brightly lit stores selling religious gear (head-coverings, chaddars, frames with verses from the Qur'an, copies of the Qur'an itself and so on). Suddenly the narrow passage open into a clearing, a splendid marble structure right in front of me and all around, marble and other stone flooring, water everywhere. To my right a large mosque is semi-visible through its gates. I notice I have entered through the back door, so to speak. I walk around to the front of the compound and at last the actual inner sanctum is visible. It is dazzlingly lit and there is a line of worshiper waiting to go into the small room and pay their homage to the grave itself. The grave of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the famous Chishti saint of Delhi, Amir Khusro's pir, the one for whom Khusro, the polymath, is said to have invented the Qawwali. Since 13th century an unbroken tradition exists of singing Qawwali at the grave of Nizamuddin Auliya. Today, seven hundred years on, it is a watery, messy day to reenact the rituals, water is leaking everywhere from the make shift tarpaulin covers in the compound. Only one area is relatively dry. This is where, a little before 8pm the Qawwals arrive. Ah! The chap at the door was wrong after all. I will after all have the privilege. It is Thursday night, Jumme raat, and there is a big crowd there waiting patiently for the Qawwals to begin. They start with a hamd to Allah. In a usual Qawwali recital there is an order to be followed for praise. First Allah, followed by Mohammad, then Ali and finally the saints (Nizamuddin, Moinuddin).

I manage to take a small video clip on my digital camera. Needless to say the video clip captures hardly anything of the atmosphere there.
(to be cont'd)