January 2, 2013 By Auswaf Ahsan

Abandoned in Abandon

AbandonOne day I ended up with Pradeep Sebastian’s Groaning Shelf, an engrossing account of a book lover. The book has arrayed an assorted group of some interesting characters: Rick Gekoski, the book collector, who bought the very first edition of Vladimar Nebakov’s Lolitha for a whopping $ 4000 to later sell it for a more whopping $ 264000; monk Don Vincente who vanished with the books of his monastery to reappear as an antiquarian bookseller.

Among these, Pradeep narrated the tale of an Indian writer cut off from all our distractions: “Pico Iyer lives in a small, austere apartment in rural Japan. He checks email but does not surf the net. When he is not writing and travelling, he spends part of the year in a Benedictine hermitage, mostly in silence. He has never owned a cell phone, a Discman, or an IPod. Often in the evenings, he will turn out the lights in his flat and listen to U2 or Van Morrison or Sigur Ross or Leonard Cohen in the dark.”

My curiosity was again piqued by the name of his novel: Abandon, a word evoking the picture of loss, the greatest of it being the loss of self, of ego. Again the book was about love and Rumi, the two words inextricably related. Pradeep had the following praise about the book: Abandon is the best contemporary love story I have ever read. It belongs to the small, beautiful tradition of mystical love story. Reading it, you are reminded of other stories about God amidst lovers.” Moreover, there was in Groaning Shelf, this tantalizing quotation from Abandon: “The soul is an abandoned girl, lost in wilderness and crying out for the love she has lost. The cry of the Sufi is, quite simply, the cry of abandoned love.” How could I not add the book to my shopping cart?
I came to call that book mysterious rather than mystical during the initial months of my reading. I have lost it somewhere I don’t know. A friend of mine had read the book on my recommendation. I borrowed it from him. I chose it for reading on the way to Sharjah to participate in the international book fair. In the flight, I went on to read the same pages that I had read earlier. The plane landed in Sharjah and there was din and bustle caused by eagerness to exit. I was enjoying the ebullience of people hurling down their luggage causing thereby a traffic snarl of briefcases and apologies. When I brought my eyes back to the book, it was nowhere there. Again I got that book snitched. ‘Abandon’ was thus twice abandoned.

I landed back in Delhi. To purify me from jet-lag, my son Ali took me to the heady, unpredictable streets of India’s capital city. He took me to Full Circle, a two-storey bookshop meant for cushioning our eager search for books in the ground floor with freshly-minted coffee in the first floor. There it bewitched me again: Abandon
Rumi and his timeless Mathnawi is the backdrop where the romantic saga of John McMillan and Camilla is being played out. John is doing his research for PhD under the guidance of Sefadhi, an Iranian intellectual. Camilla is the sister of the woman to whom John is supposed to deliver the gift sent by a gifted Damascan authority on Sufism. The novel begins with John’s meeting with the scholar who, he expects, will give him advice on Rumi manuscripts. What he receives from the scholar is the gift and a surprise responsibility to hand over the gift. The scholar, however, throws in:“You don’t come to the Sufi way through your heart. You come to it through your grief. Our hearts are broken open. Then we know real loneliness. We say yes to affliction, and in affliction find our faith.”

As someone who is interested in Persian mysticism, especially the Shia ramification of Sufism, I felt kind of deja vu, while reading it, as if the scholar was saying those words to me, not just to John. Though the novel throws in mystical wisdom at times, I could not agree with Pradeep Sebastian’s eulogy of the book. “They are perhaps two of the most convincing, interesting lovers in contemporary fiction.”

Pradeep, I think, has been carried away by what he calls the depth of silence between the two lovers. (“When John first meets Camilla, he is not even drawn to her. His constant chattering feels like an intrusion on his usual silence.”) I felt their occasional ride to the unpeopled landscape (may be a metaphor of their deep silence-their Benedictine monastery) and their physical and mental excursions, including the sexual escapades, as prosaic and commonplace. Pico Iyer rather tries to gravitate the tryst to something elegant and sober by occasionally chiming in with references from Rumi.

Iyer fails to combine the layer of his fictional narrative with the layer of Sufism, which, in the process, is relegated to the background. This is more evident when Iyer betrays his superficiality as regards Sufism (he can’t find resonance between Ayotallah Khomeini’s mystical poetry and his revolutionary career, while a sneak purview of Khomeini’s Traditions (there are forty Traditions attributed to Imam) will obliterate the contradictions). One of the consequences of the two layers of Abandon appearing starkly different from each other is that the novel at times misses out on vitality and becomes dull.

There is a gigantic drawback in the contemporary fiction of not being able to mingle the mystical depth of love with the incidence of love being actually played out. When we read Nafeezi’s Tale of Laylah and Majnoon or Jeyadevar’s Gita Govinda, we see the two layers brilliantly annexed. The book, though, is an interesting read. Make sure it is not abandoned, while you are reading it.

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