The Legacy of Fatephur Sikhri

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks, partly because world news has been so horrific that it didn’t seem right just to burble away over trivia. But a letter from a young friend of ours travelling in Northern India reminded me of our first journey to India. Our visit then took us to Rajastan, the most touristy area of the country, and with its glittering temples and mosques, its jewelled palaces reflected in lakes, its exquisite colours, it’s easy to see why people want to come. I think the most beautiful place we saw was the long abandoned city of Fatephur Sikri, built by the Mughal emperor Akbhar in the late fifteen-hundreds. Constructed of red sandstone in the centre of barren mountains, it consists of many ornate pavilions laid out among patterned gardens; a beautiful rose-red city, probably abandoned because of its lack of water, it survives almost intact.
Akbhar was an unusual figure among the autocratic rulers of the day. He was brought up as a Sunni Muslim, in a family that was more open to liberal ideas than many others. When Akbhar became ruler, he encouraged, art, calligraphy, architecture and poetry. He was saddened by the fact that though he loved Islam, many of its followers seemed to do nothing more than argue. In the rest of Europe and Asia, Catholics and Protestants were busy slaughtering each other, and the Inquistion was in full flow. One of the saddest memorials I saw in India was a plaque in front of the Portugese Catholic cathedral in Goa, marking the spot where two thousand Hindus had been burned to death for refusing to convert.
In Fatephur Sikri, Akbhar constructed a pavilion which he called the Ibadat Khana, the House of Worship, where Moslems could meet to discuss religion. Unfortunately, everyone argued, so Akbar invited Jesuits and other Christians to join in. They argued too. Akbhar decided that the only way ahead was to found his own religion, one in which people would become enlightened and tolerant. He called it ‘Din-i-llahi’ – ‘the Religion of God’, and unsurprisingly saw himself as its prophet. It was a fusion of Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, a monotheistic cult, but as much an ethical system as a formal religion. Adherents were to be tolerant, pious and prudent. There was no priestly hierarchy, no sacred scriptures. They ate no meat and killed no animals. Sadly, the new religion never gained many adherents, and didn’t long survive the death of Akbhar.
And yet – it was a brave and thoughtful attempt on his part. A religion that doesn’t make the world a better place is a travesty. But it seems that nowadays, religions have become less, not more, tolerant and humane. Men seem to think that God demands burned and mangled corpses, rivers of blood. Perhaps we need another Emperor Akbhar, more ‘Houses of Worship,’ more tolerance, more talking. Let’s not send the world back to the murderous Middle Ages.

Not a proper blog…

Well, it’s been a funny old week – spent mostly on very long journeys for very short hospital visits. Ten hours driving in three days – exhausting for my poor husband. Also we remembered – we’re not very good at remembering it – that yesterday was our wedding anniversary – the 49th, actually. But by the evening I was feeling too dismembered to do anything other than look at the bottle of champagne we’d optimistically bought on the way home. So I raised a glass of water and Richard raised a glass of sherry, and we determined to do better next year.

Anyway, instead of a proper blog, here’s a poem by Thomas Hardy, suitably austere; melancholy but with a note of hope, about a long married couple and their relationship.

Between Us Now

Between us now and here –
Two thrown together
Who are not wont to wear
Life’s flushest feather –
Who see the scenes slide past,
The daytimes dimming fast,
Let there be truth at last,
Even if despair.

So thoroughly and long
Have you now known me,
So real in faith and strong
Have I now shown me,
That nothing needs disguise
Further in any wise,
Or asks or justifies
A guarded tongue.

Face unto face, then, say,
Eyes mine own meeting,
Is your heart far away,
Or with mine beating?
When false things are brought low,
And swift things have grown slow,
Feigning like froth shall go,
Faith be for aye.

Thomas Hardy

Ideas – so where do they come from?

I suppose everyone confronts professionals with the same questions over and over- actors must be tired of being asked whether they ever forget their lines, surgeons if they are afraid of blood, tight-rope walkers what happens if they lose their balance. The answer comes with a polite smile and a sense of gritted teeth. The question that writers are always being asked, by young and old, is this: Where do you get all your ideas? It’s an odd question, if you think about it – not everyone has the skills to act or do surgery or tight-rope walking, but everyone has ideas; they aren’t exclusive to writers. I suppose the difference is that not everyone recognises them for what they are, and a writer is more likely to worry at an idea and shake it about violently until they can find a use for it. But every time you are intrigued by a newspaper article,or see a couple arguing and wonder what the hell is going on, or have a strange feeling of deja-vu as you turn into a street you didn’t think you knew – on these occasions and many more, you’re accumulating ideas, ideas that if you wanted to, you could fan into a story. For as long as you’re interested in things, then you’re having ideas.
People think that ideas come as flashes of inspiration, and sometimes they do. But there’s another sort which are more like the making of a patchwork quilt, assembling a pile of ill-assorted scraps, looking for a pattern, painstakingly stitching all together. Stories that have their birth in this way are just as valid, if less romantic than those that are generated in a blinding flash. My last two novels for teenagers demonstrate both sorts.Finding Minerva, which is a counterfactual story set in a Roman empire which has never declined or fallen, came pretty much in an instant on a visit of Wroxeter, when I found myself thinking, suppose all this was still here? Suppose the Romans had never gone away? And then I had an image of a tall dark girl running, and I had to find out what it was she was running away from. My new story, Helen’s daughter, is more of a patchwork affair, shuffling around scraps of stories in my head.There was a lightbulb moment, though, when I discovered that Helen of Troy had a daughter Hermione, whom she left behind when she eloped with Paris, and all at once a series of questions rushed into my head; and you can only answer such questions by writing about them.
My favourite story-about-inspiration is one that Trollope tells -I’ve been reading him avidly all summer. As a poor and clumsy boy at Harrow school, he was made miserable by being bullied, and used to escape into fantasy worlds; long and elaborate narratives, so that when he came to write them down as a professional, he was already skilled at plotting and pace and dialogue. This particular event, however, happened after he’d left Harrow and was working as a clerk in the Post Office. It was a wintery twilight night, and he was walking in London drizzle through a park, where he passed a young girl and her nanny hurrying through the wet gloom. He overheard the girl say ‘Oh, I wonder what he’ll be like!’ and the nanny replied ‘Well, we’ll soon know.’ At once something took fire in his mind. What were they doing walking in the rain, and why in such a hurry? Who were they going to meet? And above all, who was the enticing ‘he?’ A long lost cousin? A brother back from America? A rich uncle? All the way home, he was turning these fragments into a story. The girl became older and beautiful- well , he was a young man -and he became her protective hero. I don’t think this fragment ever made its way into any of the surviving Trollope novels, but I love it as a description of the way something trivial can make imaginative fodder. Probably ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have heard the little exchange and almost at once forgotten it. But Trollope knew that it was – it was an idea, and as such to be cherished.