From “Seven Cities and Anycity”

Manila 1974: The sari and the fan

In the early months of 2005, a burglar broke into the small flat in Delhi I then used as a workplace. I didn’t chase the police about following up my complaint. Instead I wasted time speculating on what the burglar made of the place. (I don’t know that it was only one man, but that seemed neater for purposes of speculation.) I imagined his disappointment at the rows and rows of books, not dusted as often as they should be. Perhaps he noticed, with disgust, how many unfinished manuscripts sat forlorn on the tables and in the cabinets. At any rate, he only trashed some of them.

When this man found the flat’s one ‘Godrej’ cupboard—an imitation one called ‘Be Happy’—his faith in happiness must have been restored. (There were large patches of blood-coloured gutka spit on the floor by the cupboard, patches I took as evidence of relief.) Of course, there was no cash or jewellery in the Godrej, so his night was wasted. But he got a consolation prize—my three wedding saris that I had stored in the cupboard, just in case my offspring decided to marry in a more suitable fashion than I had. He also got a bonus—the fourth silk sari, a sari M.S. Subbulakshmi gave me when I was nineteen years old. I had never found occasion to wear the sari; it had too much gold for that. But in December 2004, when M.S. died, I took it out, admired it, and promised myself I would wear it one day.

No one in her right mind would associate Subbulakshmi with Imelda Marcos. One was a great singer, much loved by those who knew her or those who had heard her voice raised in song. The other was the Iron Butterfly—a dictator’s hard, ambitious wife, given to wearing ternos with exaggerated butterfly sleeves and owning a shocking number of shoes. But I met both women in the same year. More accurately, I met Imelda Marcos briefly, in a group, because of Subbulakshmi’s visit to Manila. The pineapple fibre fan I got as a token of my visit to Malacañang Palace lay among the mementoes of the years in the same cupboard. The burglar took Subbulakshmi’s sari and threw Imelda’s highly wrought fan on the floor.

There is some moral here, I suspect. The fan, which I had pretty much forgotten, now serves to make me remember and mourn Subbulakshmi all over again.

In 1974, I was at that awful point suffered by so many young people, between my B.A. and M.A., unsure of what to do with myself. I spent most of this restless year with my parents who then lived in Manila. The high point of this limbo-like year was Seven cities and anycity M.S. Subbulakshmi’s visit to Manila to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

Soon after the award was announced, we also heard that Subbulakshmi was to be our houseguest, along with her husband Sadasivam and his daughter Radha. The closest we had to family heroes and heroines were Carnatic musicians. But still, I was surprised to see my mother’s shining eyes and barely suppressed excitement. My mother is the sort who is, in principle, scornful of celebrity worship. If we admired anyone only for fame or social position, she liked to ask, with great sarcasm, ‘Has her head grown a horn?’ (This is a far more effective question in Tamil.) So my mother’s anticipation was a measure of the honour of playing hostess to Subbulakshmi. It was as if she was letting me know that anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear would understand that Subbulakshmi was not just an accomplished musician.

I saw my mother’s point the instant I set eyes on Subbulakshmi. I had grown up hearing her music; I had seen any number of photographs in newspapers and magazines. Still her beauty, the quality of her beauty, came as a discovery. The innocent eyes and the warm smile; the fragrance of jasmine and sandalwood about her; and the soft-spoken voice that never seemed to say anything unkind even if someone was asking for a put-down: all these came together wonderfully in Subbulakshmi.

Part of her beauty was her genuine lack of consciousness of the fuss and attention surrounding her. Once or twice, sitting next to her, I heard her humming under her breath as people made the kind of long and fulsome speech that accompanies any award. For me, this was the first inkling of how a real artist sets her priorities.

It was after the award ceremony, I think, that Subbulakshmi and her troupe were invited to meet Imelda at a lunch in Malacañang Palace. My mother and I went along. The lunch—the food that is—was a fiasco. Clearly the Palace officials had not done their homework, and course after course of meat and fish came and went, untouched by the vegetarian guests of honour. Imelda, wearing a dress with her trademark butterfly sleeves, ignored this like a well-trained memsahib. She turned to her neighbour, the Indian ambassador, and asked whether Subbulakshmi was from the North or the South. She then looked soulfully at Subbulakshmi and made a little speech about how she had always found the music of South India especially spiritual. On Imelda’s request, Subbulakshmi sang a bhajan at the table, though she must have been tired and hungry, and though there was no accompaniment.

On the way back, Subbulakshmi, incapable of thinking badly of anyone, made only one remark about the visit. Imelda, she said, seemed to have gnanam—knowledge, sensibility. Imelda Marcos and gnanam—my mother and I were silent, but we exchanged an eloquent look. We had our revenge though. When we were back home and Imelda’s guests were breaking their fast with idlis and curd-rice, Subbulakshmi’s daughter opened the extravagantly packed boxes she and her mother had received from Imelda. The boxes were full of cigars.

There was no more talk of Imelda, her gnanam or anything else. Luckily, as a fringe member of the group, I got a fan, not cigars. And for some reason, it still lies in my cupboard all these years later, ready to tell me of the astonishing difference that separated two famous women in the same room.

I’d rather have kept the sari as a memento of my meeting with Subbulakshmi. But the burglar changed that story. The sari and the story would remain mine only if I imagined a suitable end to the burglar’s encounter with my cupboard. I resisted the unhelpful suggestions of friends that my silk saris were melted down to yield a few tiny lumps of silver. This is what I saw though I had not seen my burglar: there was a woman in his life, and he had given her Subbulakshmi’s green and gold sari. The sari, despite its years of hiding, despite its being stolen, had brought grace—some kind of soul-changing music—into this woman’s life.

But this gentle mood of reconciliation came to me later. By then the aging century had faded and given way to the new millennium. To cities where the old homes of the seventies sat waiting in memory, a little too far from the twenty-first century.


From “Traiblazing in Andalusia”

Andalus, circa eleventh century: The fair lady’s literary salon

Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, also known as Wallada the Umayyad, or simply Wallada, lived in Córdoba, sometime between 1001 and 1091. She was the daughter of the Caliph al-Mustakfi Billah, Mohammed the Third, who had no male heir; but still it needed a certain kind of society to ensure that she would inherit her father’s wealth. The city, the times, the woman—all needed to be open enough for Wallada to do what she did with her inheritance. She set up a literary hall in Córdoba which attracted leading poets and intellectuals. She used the hall to conduct classes for women in poetry—and the art of love. The women in these classes were a mixed lot. Several were from the nobility, but there were common women as well. Some were slaves bought by Wallada.

Wallada styled herself as the reigning debutante of Córdoba. But she was no garden variety debutante. She hosted salons for poets, musicians and artists—men and women—many centuries before France’s legendary Madame de Rambouillet held sway over her literary salon. Wallada gathered around her the finest poets and musicians of Al-Andalus. They would sit around her on cushions and rugs, improvising ballads and epic sagas to the sound of the lute and zither. Wallada was herself a poet, writing in Arabic. She was partial to the Córdoban practice of poets competing with each other to finish incomplete poems. Almost all these poets were men, but that didn’t deter Wallada. Not only did she take part, but she also, with her quick word and her agile twists of thought, earned herself a reputation for skill.

Most of all, she was a free spirit, choosing to remain unmarried though she had several lovers. And there was a grand passion too in her life. It was during one of those complete-the-poem events that she met Ibn Zaydun (or Ibn Zaidoun).

Ibn Zaidoun was a nobleman with considerable political influence, but he had ties with the Banu Yahwar, rivals of Wallada’s Umayyad clan. This gave the relationship between Ibn Zaidoun and Wallada a controversial edge, but they managed to conduct a very public love affair. It appears, in fact, that their love story assumed a life of its own, almost overshadowing his political reputation. Ibn Zaidoun was a leading figure in the courts of Córdoba and Seville; even his love poems spoke of his love for the city. But people tended to think of him first as the man who had a scandalous affair with Princess Wallada.

Only nine of Wallada’s poems have survived. Five of these are satirical, even caustic. The best lines were written for the love of her life, Ibn Zaidoun, but they are not all loving. Their affair was a stormy one, and some of her harshest satire was addressed to him. But in the Córdoba of 2009, I saw that this unconventional couple is remembered in a less troublesome fashion—simply as los enamorados, the lovers. A sculpted pair of hands stands in El Campo Santo de los Mártires, a plaza near the old medieval walls. The lovers’ hands, one of Ibn Zaidoun’s, one of Wallada’s, do not make it clear if they are already lovers, or just about to embark on their affair. Each hand seems to be straining towards the other. The hands just about touch; it is as if yearning has not yet been fulfilled. The one to the right holds itself sideways, like a call to the other. The other hand has just touched the calling hand; it may clasp it any minute. Both hands are safe, fixed on a commemorative stone engraved with what I was told are two tender love poems in Arabic, with a Spanish translation. The love poems, and the lovers’ hands, are shaded by a marble rooflike slab supported by four elegant pillars. But the lovers, Wallada certainly, would be happy to know that the structure is unwalled, open to the world.

These hands and poems feed our need for romance—whether in the present or the past. They make Wallada something of a romantic, being remembered only for her love, for only one love affair. What was she really like, this passionate and daring princess? What would she have thought of being remembered in her city, a city she both loved and challenged, as a tender hand, a devoted lover and beloved? The chances are she would have recited a caustic verse or two.

Here is Wallada, ready to go out into the streets of Córdoba, on her way to the women in the hall waiting for the lesson of the day. Wallada leaves home with her best student. This protégé, Muhya bint al-Tayyani, daughter of a fig seller, has been living in the palace for a while at the princess’s invitation. (Later, after Wallada’s death, Muhya would pay tribute to her benefactress with a number of ‘kind satires’.)

For now, Muhya looks at Wallada with admiring eyes, no hint of satire on her lips or in her thoughts. She knows every inch of Wallada’s face by heart, but it takes her breath away as if she is seeing the face for the first time. Muhya is not the only one looking at Wallada. As always, all eyes are on her. It is one thing for the city, for the aristocratic opinion makers, to have an exotic image of ideal beauty. But to see this ideal grown human with flesh and blood, walking proud and tall past them! The curls hanging on either side of her face have a golden sheen to them. Her skin is pale, milky. Her eyes are blue. The city, aristocrats or otherwise, can find no fault in her looks. If she did nothing but display the fair skin and the blue eyes, she would still be admired, so exotic is she. But there is a special quality to Wallada’s beauty. She is intelligent; she has a sharp tongue she is ready to use; she is bold.

She is in the streets without a veil. And her tunic is transparent, a fashion she has picked up from the harems of Baghdad. There are verses embroidered on her sleeves, the sort of verses unlikely to pass muster in a harem, in a palace or elsewhere.

Córdoba is liberal enough; perhaps it can’t help being liberal, given the crazy mix of cultures, the constant debate among ideas. There are enough people who not only defend her brazen flouting of the veil, an upper-class convention, but also admire the style with which she does it. But there are, as always, the spoilsport mullahs, on the lookout for what they call perverse. They are ready to be harsh, let the world know they are enraged. Besides, it is not the best of times to wear your rebellion like a flaming scarf on your body, especially if you take that body out in the streets. It is the time of the great rebellion, the fitna, and the Berbers are rising against the Umayyad caliphate. Tensions are high.

Wallada and Muhya pass unmolested this time too. There are more approving glances, more gasps of admiration than looks of disgust. Only Wallada has not taken note of any of this today. Today she is not thinking of the effect she has every time she steps out of her palace. She is not even thinking of what she is going to do with her women pupils in the hall, whether she is going to stun them with a new verse, or the delicious details of a particularly piquant act of love.

She is preoccupied with her own love life this morning.

The salon last night: she goes over it in her mind. She knows she sang well. And she looked good. She had on a new robe, the embroidered words on the sleeves fresh and forthright. On the right sleeve, in a deep forest-green mixed with gold, was written, ‘I am fit for high positions, by God, and go on my way with pride.’ On the left sleeve, in gold thread interspersed with pink: ‘I allow my lover to touch my cheek, and bestow my kiss on him who craves it.’ As usual, two or three of the men lolling on the silk cushions recited poems they made up on the spot, all poems inspired by her song, and her not so secret love for Ibn Zaidoun.

Ibn Zaidoun; her love; their love; the image of last night grows less rosy.

Maybe their love is getting too famous. Maybe it is getting to be such a showpiece, it has begun to outshine the lovers themselves. Who doesn’t know about that evening when her eyes held his and she said, for everyone to hear, ‘I fear for you, my beloved. I fear that even this loving gaze of mine, or the ground you tread on, or the hours that pass us, may snatch you away from me. Even if I could hide you in the pupils of my eyes, even if I could hide you there till the Day of Judgment, my fear would not go.’ And Ibn Zaidoun matched look and word, taking her hand in his. ‘With the jasmine you offer me, I collect bright stars from the hand of the moon.’

But last night there had been no ardent words, only anger.

Last night, her lines had been needle-sharp with scorn: ‘You know that I am the moon of the skies. But, to my disgrace, you have preferred a dark planet.’

She does not want to think about this dark planet now, give it a form, confirm its colour, name it as a slave or a woman or a man. She does not want to think it was a person, not a planet, that made her, princess and poet Wallada, woman who showed her face to the city, a mere part of a humiliating triangle. There are other men in the city, more than enough willing men. There is Ibn Abdus, the wazir, whom she can have if she snaps her fingers.

She should be giving her attention to that list, taking stock of what Ibn Abdus has to offer. Instead she composes one riposte after another to Ibn Zaidoun. The more she does this, the more crude she gets. ‘Your nickname,’ she thinks, ‘is Number Six. And it will remain your nickname till you die. Because you are a whoremonger, a bugger, a cuckold, a swine, a thief.’ She smiles at Muhya, who is surprised at this unprovoked smile that combines anger, spite and gloating. ‘A phallus. A penis,’ thinks Wallada, then goes beyond name-calling. ‘If a phallus could become a palm tree, you would turn into a woodpecker.’

Ibn Zaidoun didn’t do too badly with quarrelsome poetry either. When he saw Ibn Abdus and Wallada walking side by side in the streets of Córdoba, he wrote to her: ‘You were nothing to me but a sweetmeat. I took a bite of it, then tossed away the crust. That’s what the rat is chewing on now.’ The city was amused; the wazir was not exactly popular, and they liked hearing him described as a rat. But the bitter arrow found its mark. The wazir’s complaint to the caliph showed his wazir-like ability. He ignored the rat bit. ‘What kind of man,’ he asked the caliph, ‘compares the princess to a pastry? Only a dangerous, mutinous poet. Only a traitor.’

The caliph was fond of Ibn Zaidoun. But the court did what courts do: it intrigued. Ibn Zaidoun fell out of favour. He was imprisoned, then exiled. Later, when the caliph died and Ibn Zaidoun returned, the lovers forgave each other and took up their stormy relationship where they had left off. The passion was still there, but it was different now; Wallada lived in the wazir’s house, under his protection. Better to make exile home, thought Ibn Zaidoun, and packed his bags for Seville again. There he would be the favourite poet of the sultan’s court.

In any case, the Umayyad universe was crumbling. And Ibn Zaidoun would write his best verse in exile. His qasidas were odes equally elegiac about Wallada and the gardens of Córdoba.

Or the Madinat al-Zahra, not only lost to him, but ruined in the turbulence that marked the passing of the Umayyads. For Ibn Zaidoun, it was a paradise lost; but it was also a loss that sparked a powerful longing, and powerful poetry. He spoke of the woman he loved, the city he loved, and the times which made such love possible:

With passion from this place, al-Zahra,
I remember you.
… A tenderness sweeps me
When I see the silver
Coiling waterways
Like necklaces detached
From throats. Delicious those
Days we spent while fate
Slept. There was peace, I mean,
And us, thieves of pleasure.
Now only flowers
With frost-bent stems I see…

And Wallada? She lived on to love, sing, write poetry and remain, we must assume, as independent as she could be. She died, the tale goes, the same day that the Almoravids, the Berbers commonly called al-mulathimun or the veiled ones, entered Córdoba.