Saturday, March 13, 2004

Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
Khayyam was a rationalist

Khushwant Singh

BEFORE the English consolidated their rule over India, the official language of communication between rulers of different states ó Marathas, Rajputs and Sikhs ó was Persian. It was also the language spoken by the elite. Famous Urdu poets ó Meer, Ghalib (and later Iqbal ó preferred to write in Persian rather than in Urdu till they discovered that unless they wrote in the language spoken and understood by the common people, the impact of their writings would remain severely restricted. Persian went into desuetude. A dwindling minority read Rumi or Hafiz; many more read Omar Khayyam (died 1123), not highly rated by Persian scholars. His full name was Abul Fath Omar Ibn Ibrahim. He was born in Nishapur (year of birth unknown). The word Khayyam, which means tent-maker, was perhaps taken from the ancestral business. He distinguished himself as a mathematician, physicist and astronomer.. He was an agnostic and an epicurean. It was three centuries later that he was discovered as a poet. Though regarded as a minor Persian poet in his own country, he inspired Indian poets like Qazi Nazrul Islam, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Majaaz, Josh and Agha Qazalbash. His rubaiyyat were translated into Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Sindhi.

Most of the English-speaking world knows of Omar Khayyam through translations by E.J. Fitzgerald (1809-1883). His translations first appeared in 1859. Many connoisseurs are of the opinion, with which I am inclined to concur that his translations read better than the original. However, Professor S. Ainul Hasan of JNU, author of Studies in Persian Language and Literature (Books Plus), who is organising a seminar on Omar Khayyam in Delhi, is somewhat condescending on his appraisal. He writes: "though Fitzgeraldís translation is comparable to the original in the sweetness and melody, the fact remains that the translator was unable to fully comprehend the ideas of Omar Khayyam." Despite my ignorance of the original, his view is unacceptable to me. I have not come across any translation of poetry to match Fitzgerald. For whatever it is worth, I present myself as an example to prove my point. Imemorised many of Omar Khayyamís rubais while I was student in college, which was more than 70 years ago. They still remain in my mind. I quote a few examples from my memory:

Awake! for the morning in the bowl of night

has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight;

And lo, the Hunter of the East has caught

The Sultanís turret in a noose of light.

After this memorable description of the dawn, Khayyam (Fitzgerald) spells out his views on the purpose of life:

Dreaming when dawnís left hand was in the sky

I heard a voice within the tavern cry

Wake my little ones and fill the cup

Before lifeís liquor in its cup be dry.

Then the most exuberant exhortation to enjoy life while it lasts:

A book of verse beneath the bough

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou

Beside me singing in the wilderness;

Ah, wilderness would be paradise enow.

Khayyam was a rationalist. He did not accept the conventional theories of the origin of life put forward by preachers of different religions and was content to admit he did not know the answer:

There was a door to which I found no key

There was veil beyond which Icould not see

Talk while of thee and me there was

Then no more of thee or me.

I could go on and on. But a 90-year-old should know when to stop.

God: A childís view

Sukhjit Singh who prefers to be known as a Brigadier, which he was, rather than the Maharaja of Kapurthala, which he is, occasionally sends me a clipping of an article which he finds amusing. This one is an essay written by an eight-year-old American boy on his concept of God. It reads:

"One of Godís main jobs is making people. He makes them to replace the ones that die, so there will be enough people to take care of things on earth. He doesnít make grown-ups, just babies. I think because they are smaller and easier to make. That way he doesnít have to take up His valuable time teaching them to talk and walk. He can just leave that to mothers and fathers.

"Godís second most important job is listening to prayers. An awful lot of this goes on, since some people, like preachers and things, pray at times besides bedtime. God doesnít have time to listen to the radio or TV because of this.

"God sees everything and hears everything and is everywhere which keeps Him pretty busy. So you shouldnít go wasting His time by going over your Mom and Dadís head asking for something they said you couldnít have.

"Atheists are people who donít believe in God. I donít think there are any in my town. At least there arenít any who come to our church.

"Jesus is Godís son. He used to do all the hard work like walking on water and performing miracles and people finally got tired of Him preaching to them and they crucified Him. But he was good and kind, like His Father and He told His Father that they didnít know what they were doing and to forgive them and God said "OK".

"His Dad (God) appreciated everything that He had done and all His hard work on earth, so He told him He didnít have to go out on the road anymore. He could stay in heaven. So He did.

"And now He helps His Dad out by listening to prayers and seeing things which are important for God to take care of and which ones he can take care of himself without having to bother God. Like a secretary, only more important. You can pray anytime you want and they are sure to help you because they got it worked out so one of them is on duty all the time.

"You should always go to church on Sunday because it makes God happy, and if thereís anybody you want to make happy, itís God. Donít skip church to do something you think will be more fun like going to the beach. This is wrong. And besides, the sun doesnít come out at the beach until noon anyway.

"If you donít believe in God, besides being an atheist, you will be very lonely, because your parents canít go everywhere with you, like to camp, but God can. It is good to know Heís around you when youíre scared in the dark or when you canít swim and you get thrown into real deep water by big kids.

But... you shouldnít just always think of what God can do for you. I figure God put me here and he can take me back anytime He pleases. And thatís why I believe in God."


Drawn by the crowd, I stopped in at a famous bookstore in Calcutta that had a huge sign in the window reading "newly Translated From the Original French:27 Mating Positions."

Inside, copies of the book pre-wrapped were selling like hot cakes. It was only by accident that I heard one harried clerk of the bookstore say to another after ringing up his 423rd sale of the volume for the day, "This is really the most extraordinary sale Iíve ever seen for a chess book."

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)