So Much Poetry There (A Life of Rumi) – Chapter 1: Rabisankar Bal

You have not read this particular kitaab of mine before, though some of you may have read my account of thirty years of travel. People refer to it as my travels now, but actually I was on pilgrimage. Wandering from one land to another over thirty years, it struck me that there is no end to pilgrim spots on this earth; you could even say that the world itself is a pilgrim spot. Sheikh Ibn Battuta salutes the earth wind fire water air again and again.

Touch me to check for yourself if you don’t believe me, I am indeed Ibn Battuta. I do have a longer name, of course. Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta. I left Tangiers in the Hijri year 725, 1324-25 by the Christian calendar. Crossing one town after another, the first extraordinary city that I reached was named Alexandria. I felt I had arrived at a blue city. This was where I met Imam Burhanuddin Al Arz for the first time. It was from him that I heard of Maulana. The secret manuscript that I am about to read out to all of you features Maulana as its principal character. If my idiom seems topsy-turvy, not the language of literature, pardon me. From what I have seen and understood of Maulana, he cannot be captured by the language of literature. Can you put the strains of a flute in words? But still I have tried, if only for myself, to create a limping account of this radiance. Maulana’s life is like a patterned quilt. I shall be gratified if I can present even one or two of those patterns here in this majlis to all of you. Allah be merciful. All praise to the almighty, the keeper of the world, the supreme lord of Judgement Day. We only pray to you, seek help only from you. Show us the simplest path. Show us the path of those whom you have blessed, not the path of those whom you are enraged with, or of those who have lost their way.

‘You want to travel in different lands, don’t you?’ Imam Burhanuddin asked me one day.

– Yes, such is my desire.
– When did this fancy overtake you, my friend?
– I had been to the hamam for a bath late one night. There was no one there. It was the night of the full moon, which was floating in the water of the hamam. I played for a long time with the moon in the water. I’ve never wanted to live at home since then.

The Imam burst into laughter.

– No one can stay home once the moon has struck them. Now that you are out, travel the world.

To tell you the truth, I did not really want to wander far and wide then. My only desire was to visit Mecca. But the Imam sahib instigated me. ‘Off you go, then,’ he said, ‘Go and meet my brother Fariduddin in Hindustan. I have another brother in Sindh, Ruknuddin Ibn Zakaria, and one more in China. Tell them about me.’ At once I determined to visit all these places, and to take news of the Imam sahib to his brothers.

That was the beginning of thirty years of wandering. One day I arrived in Anatolia in the course of my travels. Anatolia. The name spoke to me like the call of destiny. A song was concealed in it. And I decided that I would have to visit Konya, its capital. As the Imam sahib had said, this city was the Maulana’s playground. The amazing whirling dance was born here. I passed the fort at Tawas and the town of Milak to arrive at Konya. A city of water and of gardens, Konya. It has risen after a cataclysmic flood, Konya. St Paul, along with Barnabas and his disciple Timothy had come here. The Christians’ conference took place here. Even after being ransacked by the Crusaders, Konya was revived as the capital of the Selzuk sultans. Not even the invasion of the Mongols could vanquish the city. And the people of Konya? The entire world seemed to have gathered here. Besides Turks, there were Greeks, Arabs, Indians, Iranians, Armenians, Venetians, even the Chinese. It was from this Konya that the glow of love spread to Samarkhand and Bokhara. So the Maulana wrote.

I heard many stories of the Maulana’s magical life from the Imam sahib of Alexandria. He told me, ‘Maulana’s poetry is written on every rock, every tree, on the road to Konya. But you must discover it. And listen, examine the inns carefully. That’s where the soul of Anatolia is hidden. Maulana said this world is an inn, where we wait in the depths of winter for the first day of spring, when the ice will start melting, the road will be visible, and our caravan will be on its way again.’ The Imam sahib used to say such strange things. One day he told me, ‘Anatolia isn’t just a place, another name for the soul is Anatolia.’

Anatolia got a new lease of life when the Sezuk sultan Ala Aladdin Kaikobad ascended the throne In 1219 AD. There was a wave of construction everywhere, with new mosques, walls and inns coming up. Trade routes radiated out from Konya towards Constantinople, Aleppo, Mohshul, Tabriz – and even further, to the port of Sinop on the Black Sea, to Mediterranean harbours. And countless inns on either side of these roads. Konya was an important centre of trade then – only Baghdad was comparable. When I reached Konya sixty years after Maulana’s death, it was just as lively, as full of spirit. Konya would awake to the sounds of the water being splashed on the roads after the azaan at dawn. Then came the water-carriers, transporting water in goatskin bags on camelback from the canals outside the city to every home. The washermen rushed from one house to another, collecting dirty clothes. Masons squatted by the road, waiting for work. Konya was coming alive. The lilting tones of children reading out loud from the Koran could be heard. Fragrant vapours rising from the water suffused the hamam. Shops opened for business, talk of buying and selling gathered momentum. A lunatic walked past, muttering to himself. A girl’s face appeared in the window of a house, the window emptying as soon as someone’s eye fell on it. Only the memory of a beauty floated about in Konya’s air. All writing is actually a short-lived attempt to hold on to memory. The secret manuscript that I am about to read from it also a memory, the memory of Maulana, whom I have never seen. But how can I write about my memories of a person I have never seen? I have asked myself this question repeatedly. And a voice has asked me in return, ‘Do you love Maulana?’

– Yes.
– How?
– I don’t know.
– Let’s say you lose yourself completely as you love, you do not exist anymore. Is that how you love Maulana?
– I don’t know.
– Then begin, Sheikh. This ignorance will lead you to Maulana eventually. You have to move forward so that you can cook yourself.
– Cook?
– Do not question everything, infidel. You will realise as you write. You are the food, you are the one who eats, you are the cook.

Many years later, when I reached Tangiers, I completed dictating my accounts of my travels to a scribe and then turned to write Maulana’s life story myself. I felt I would have to write this story in my own hand, for I have heard the strains of the flute, the melody that weeps to go back home.

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