A Mirrored Life: The Rumi Novel by Rabisankar Bal (translated by Arunava Sinha) is a metaphor-and-anecdote-heavy ride through a world of mysticism, with the ever elusive Rumi acting, in some manner, as the central light.
The book is narrated by Shaikh Ibn Battuta, a traveller searching for the story of the man he calls ‘Maulana’. To this end, he travels to Konya, the city where Maulana spent a great part of his life. At the edge of the city, he visits the ‘adabistan’, the ‘home of books, abode of literature’ run by Yaqut al-Mustasimi. After spending a few nights with him, Mustasimi gives our narrator a book he has created which contains, he tells him, the story he is searching for.
What unfolds is a winding, sensual tale that loops back and forth and around itself, its language faltering now and again in its attempt to convey what cannot be conveyed about a man myth and mist enshrouded as the poetic Rumi. Bal has created a world that resounds with the music of the extravagant East, one that reminds readers of Orhan Pamuk’s decadent flights of fancy in My Name is Red. The Sufi hero is brought to life through the tales, painted in contexts public as well as his most private moments with his wives, his sons, his lovers.
Translating this world could not have been an easy task, and Arunava Sinha has done a splendid job. The prose flows smoothly, painting a portrait of an intensely troubled, spiritual and achingly fallible man. Maulana, for all his recognition of and proximity to the divine, is not a pure, untouched hero. He can be arrogant, he can make silly remarks, and he can, at the last, hurt those who love him deeply with his commitment to what he believes to be right. This is no book of sugar-coated praise for the poet many of us have read, and revere. Bal’s narrator does not hide those narratives that might show Maulana in an unflattering light, and he presents even these sides of his personality with no judgment.
There are a bevy of characters, each of whom leaves some sort of mark on Maulana’s life, or serves to bring out a previously hidden nugget of wisdom. There is the devoted Hussam, Maulana’s son; Kira, his beautiful wife who, perhaps, suffers longest from her husband’s devotion and self questioning; Alauddin, the worldly, ill-done-by younger son, whose break with his father is violent and strikes a jarring note in a life otherwise ringed by harmony and if not approval, at least a tacit tolerance. Alauddin is the one character who consistently rebels against his saintly father, and therefore functions as a foil to a man who seems, as the pages turn, harder and harder to relate to.
In this book, Bal has taken on a heady task: how to present the life of a man whom readers know only through his intoxicating poetry. A Mirrored Life demands time and patience from its readers, and an intense engagement.