Norman Thomas di Giovanni

The Approach to al-Mu'tasim

Philip Guedalla informs us that the novel The Approach to al-Mu'tasim by the Bombay barrister Mir Bahadur Ali 'is a rather uneasy combination of those Islamic allegories which never fail to impress their own translators, and of that brand of detective story which inevitably outdoes even Dr Watson and heightens the horror of human life as it is found in the most respectable boarding-houses of Brighton.' Before him, Mr Cecil Roberts had blasted Bahadur's book for 'its unaccountable double influence of Wilkie Collins and of the famed twelfth-century Persian, Ferid Eddin Attar' - a simple enough observation which Guedalla merely parrots, though in an angrier jargon. Essentially, both reviewers are in agreement, pointing out the book's detective-story mechanism and its undercurrent of mysticism. This hybridization may lead us to suspect a certain kinship with Chesterton; we shall presently find out, however, that no such affinity exists.

The first edition of The Approach to al-Mu'tasim appeared in Bombay towards the end of 1932. The paper on which the volume was issued, I am told, was almost newsprint; the jacket announced to the purchaser that the book was the first detective novel to be written by a native of Bombay City. Within a few months, four printings of a thousand copies each were sold out. The Bombay Quarterly Review, the Bombay Gazette, the Calcutta Review, the Hindustani Review (of Allahabad), and the Calcutta Englishman all sang its praises. Bahadur then brought out an illustrated edition, which he retitled The Conversation with the Man Called al-Mu'tasim and rather beautifully subtitled A Game with Shifting Mirrors. This is the edition which Victor Gollancz has just reissued in London, with a foreword by Dorothy L. Sayers and the omission - perhaps merciful - of the illustrations. It is this edition that I have at hand; I have not been able to obtain a copy of the earlier one, which I surmise may be a better book. I am drawn to this suspicion by an appendix summarizing the differences between the 1932 and the 1934 editions. Before attempting a discussion of the novel, it might be well to give some idea of the general plot.

Its central figure - whose name we are never told - is a law student in Bombay. Blasphemously, he disbelieves in the Islamic faith of his fathers, but, on the tenth night of the moon of Muharram, he finds himself in the midst of a civil disorder between Muslims and Hindus. It is a night of drums and prayers. The great paper canopies of the Muslim procession force their way through the heathen mob. A hail of Hindu bricks hurtles down from a roof terrace. A knife sinks into a belly. Someone - Muslim? Hindu? - dies and is trampled on. Three thousand men are fighting - stick against revolver, obscenity against curse, God the Indivisible against the many gods. Instinctively, the student freethinker joins in the battle. With his bare hands, he kills (or thinks he has killed) a Hindu. The Government police - mounted, thunderous, and barely awake - intervene, dealing out impartial lashes. The student flees, almost under the legs of the horses, heading for the farthest ends of town. He crosses two sets of railway lines, or the same lines twice. He scales the wall of an unkempt garden at one corner of which rises a circular tower. 'A lean and evil mob of mooncoloured hounds' lunges at him from the black rose-bushes. Pursued, he seeks refuge in the tower. He climbs an iron ladder - two or three rungs are missing - and on the flat roof, which has a dark pit in the middle, comes upon a squalid man in a squatting position, urinating vigorously by the light of the moon. The man confides to him that his profession is stealing gold teeth from the white-shrouded corpses that the Parsees leave on the roof of the tower. He says a number of other vile things and mentions, in passing, that fourteen nights have lapsed since he last cleansed himself with buffalo dung. He speaks with obvious anger of a band of horse thieves from Gujarat, 'eaters of dogs and lizards - men, in short, as abominable as the two of us'. Day is dawning. In the sky is a low flight of well-fed vultures. The student, in utter exhaustion, lies down to sleep. When he wakes up, the sun is high overhead and the thief is gone. Gone also are a couple of Trichinopoly cigars and a few silver rupees. Shaken by the events of the night before, the student decides to lose himself somewhere within the bounds of India. He knows he has shown himself capable of killing an infidel, but not of knowing with certainty whether the Muslim is more justified in his beliefs than the infidel. The mention of Gujarat haunts him, as does the name of a malka-sansi (a woman belonging to a caste of thieves) from Palanpur, many times favoured by the curses and hatred of the despoiler of corpses. He reasons that the anger of a man so thoroughly vile is in itself a kind of praise. He resolves - though rather hopelessly - to find her. He prays and sets out slowly and deliberately on his long journey. So ends the novel's second chapter.

It is hardly possible to outline here the involved adventures that befall him in the remaining nineteen. There is a baffling pullulation of dramatis personae, to say nothing of a biography that seems to exhaust the range of the human spirit (running from infamy to mathematical speculation) or of a pilgrimage that covers the vast geography of India. The story begun in Bombay moves on into the lowlands of Palanpur, lingers for an evening and a night before the stone gates of Bikaner, tells of the death of a blind astrologer in a Benares sewer; the hero becomes involved in a conspiracy in a mazelike palace in Katmandu, prays and fornicates in the pestilential stench of the Machua Bazaar in Calcutta, sees the day born out of the sea from a law office in Madras, sees evenings die in the sea from a balcony in the state of Travancore, falters and kills in Indapur. The adventure closes its orbit of miles and years back in Bombay itself just a few yards away from the garden of the 'mooncoloured hounds'. The underlying plot is this: a man, the fugitive student freethinker we already know, falls among the lowest class of people and, in a kind of contest of evil-doing, takes up their ways. All at once, with the wonder and terror of Robinson Crusoe upon discovering the footprint of a man in the sand, he becomes aware of a sudden brief change in that world of ruthlessness - a certain tenderness, a moment of happiness, a forgiving silence in one of his loathsome companions. 'It was as though a stranger, a third and more subtle person, had entered into the conversation.' The hero knows that the scoundrel he is talking to is quite incapable of this unexpected turn; he therefore deduces that the man is echoing someone else, a friend, or the friend of a friend. Rethinking the problem, he arrives at the mysterious conclusion that 'somewhere on earth is a man from whom this light emanates; somewhere on earth a man exists who is equal to this light.' The student decides to spend his life in search of him.

The story's outline is now plain: the tireless search for a human soul through the barely perceptible reflections cast by this soul in others - at first, the faint trace of a smile or of a word; in the end, the multiple branching splendours of reason, imagination, and righteousness. The nearer to al-Mu'tasim the men he examines are, the greater is their share of the divine, though it is understood that they are but mirrors. A mathematical analogy may be helpful here. Bahadur's teeming novel is an ascendant progression whose last term is the foreshadowed 'man called al-Mu'tasim'. Al-Mu'tasim's immediate predecessor is a Persian bookseller, an exceptionally happy, courteous man; the one before him, a saint. Finally, after many years, the student comes to a corridor 'at whose end is a door and a cheap beaded curtain, and behind the curtain a shining light'. The student claps his hands once or twice and asks for al-Mu'tasim. A man's voice - the unimaginable voice of al-Mu'tasim - invites him in. The student parts the curtain and steps forward. At this point, the novel ends.

If I am not mistaken, the proper handling of such a plot places the writer under two obligations. One, to abound richly in prophetic touches; the other, to make us feel that the person foreshadowed by these touches is more than a mere convention or phantom. Bahadur fulfils the first; how far he achieves the second, I wonder. In other words, the unheard and unseen al-Mu'tasim should leave us with the impression of a real character, not of a clutter of insipid superlatives. In the 1932 version, there are few supernatural touches; 'the man called al-Mu'tasim' is obviously a symbol, though he is not devoid of personal traits. Unfortunately, this literary good conduct did not last. In the 1934 version - the one I have read - the novel descends into allegory. Al-Mu'tasim is God, and the hero's various wanderings are in some way the journey of a soul on its ascending steps towards the divine union. There are a few regrettable details: a black Jew from Cochin speaks of al-Mu'tasim as having dark skin; a Christian describes him standing on a height with his arms spread open; a Red lama recalls him seated 'like that figure I modelled in yak butter and worshipped in the monastery of Tachilhunpo'. These statements seem to suggest a single God who reconciles himself to the many varieties of mankind. In my opinion, the idea is not greatly exciting. I will not say the same of another idea - the hint that the Almighty is also in search of Someone, and that Someone of Someone above him (or Someone simply indispensable and equal), and so on to the End (or, rather, Endlessness) of Time, or perhaps cyclically. Al-Mu'tasim (the name of that eighth Abbasid caliph who was victorious in eight battles, fathered eight sons and eight daughters, left eight thousand slaves, and ruled for a period of eight years, eight moons, and eight days) means etymologically 'The Seeker after Help'. In the 1932 version, the fact that the object of the pilgrimage was himself a pilgrim justified well enough the difficulty of finding him. The later version gives way to the quaint theology I have just mentioned. In the twentieth chapter, words attributed by the Persian bookseller to al-Mu'tasim are, perhaps, the mere heightening of others spoken by the hero; this and other hidden analogies may stand for the identity of the Seeker with the Sought. They may also stand for an influence of Man on the Divinity. Another chapter hints that al-Mu'tasim is the Hindu the student believes he has killed. Mir Bahadur Ali, as we have seen, cannot refrain from the grossest temptation of art - that of being a genius.

On reading over these pages, I fear I have not called sufficient attention to the book's many virtues. They include a number of fine distinctions. For example, a conversation in chapter nineteen in which one of the speakers, who is a friend of al-Mu'tasim, avoids pointing out the other man's sophisms 'in order not to be obviously in the right'.


It is considered admirable nowadays for a modern book to have its roots in an ancient one, since nobody (as Dr Johnson said) likes to owe anything to his contemporaries. The many but superficial contacts between Joyce's Ulysses and Homer's Odyssey continue to receive - I shall never know why - the hare-brained admiration of critics. The points of contact between Bahadur's novel and the celebrated Parliament of Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar have awakened the no less mysterious approval of London and even of Allahabad and Calcutta. As far as I can judge, the points of contact between the two works are not many. Other sources are present. Some inquisitor has listed certain analogies between the novel's opening scene and Kipling's story 'On the City Wall'. Bahadur admits this but argues that it would be highly abnormal if two descriptions of the tenth night of Muharram were quite unlike each other. Eliot, more to the point, is reminded of the seventy cantos of the unfinished allegory The Faerie Queene, in which the heroine, Gloriana, does not appear even once - a fault previously noted by Richard William Church (Spenser, 1879). With due humility, I suggest a possible remote forerunner, the Jerusalem Cabbalist Isaac Luria, who in the sixteenth century advanced the notion that the soul of an ancestor or a teacher may, in order to comfort or instruct him, enter into the soul of someone who has suffered misfortune. Ibbür is the name given to this variety of metempsychosis.*

*In the course of this review, I have referred to the Mantiq ut-Tair (Parliament of Birds) by the Persian mystic Farid al-Din Abu Talib Mohammad ibn-Ibraham Attar, who was killed by the soldiers of Tului, one of Genghis Khan's sons, during the sack of Nishapur. Perhaps it would be useful to summarize the poem. The distant king of birds, the Simurgh, drops one of his splendid feathers somewhere in the middle of China; on learning of this, the other birds, tired of their age-old anarchy, decide to seek him out. They know that the king's name means 'thirty birds'; they know that his castle lies in the Kaf, the range of mountains that rings the earth. Setting out on the almost endless adventure, they cross seven valleys or seas, the next to last bearing the name Bewilderment, the last, the name Annihilation. Many of the pilgrims desert; the journey takes its toll of the rest. Thirty, purified by suffering, reach the great peak of the Simurgh. At last they behold him; they realize that they are the Simurgh and that the Simurgh is each of them and all of them. (Plotinus [Enneads, V, 8, 4] also posits a divine extension of the principle of identity: 'All things in the intelligible heavens are in all places. Any one thing is all other things. The sun is all the stars, and each star is all the other stars and the sun.') The Mantiq ut-Tair has been translated into French by Garcin de Tassy; parts of it into English by Edward FitzGerald. For this footnote, I have consulted the tenth volume of Burton's Arabian Nights and Margaret Smith's study The Persian Mystics: Attar (1932).

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