PAL MAITRA’S GIFT OF OMAR KHAYYÁM’S WORKS ARE LIKE ROSES IN THE MIDST OF MID­DLE EAST TUR­MOIL Poet Omar Khayyam was one such ge­nius whose love for life was greater than the false re­wards promised in an af­ter­life, says Fiji’s lead­ing writer.

Fiji Sun - - Big Story - Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan

Last month as au­tumn leaves were turn­ing into gold and scar­let il­lu­mi­nat­ing trans­planted trees, my birth­day on March 25 fell on Good Fri­day. The day had a melan­choly rhythm for rea­sons I can’t quite ex­plain ra­tio­nally. Can­berra was over­shad­owed by some dark clouds of an im­pend­ing apoc­a­lyp­tic event. Or so it seemed to me. A few days later, the news from In­dia was tragic and dis­as­trous: a half-built bridge-over­pass had col­lapsed in a busy street of crowded Cal­cutta. More than a score of peo­ple per­ished; another cou­ple of hun­dred feared buried un­der the huge slabs of con­crete and cor­rup­tion.

Friend, Pradeep Maitra

Cal­cutta pre­oc­cu­pied my mind as did the week’s bru­tal­ity in Brus­sels. Many years ago, be­fore au­tumn leaves touched the fringes of my life, I’d a friend who stud­ied with me in Delhi. He was from Cal­cutta and his fa­ther was a banker. He was a cou­ple of years se­nior to me and a pas­sion­ate lover of English po­etry. His favourite poet was Percy Bysshe Shel­ley (17921822), one of the most lyri­cal Ro­man­tic po­ets. Like his con­tem­po­raries Lord By­ron and John Keats, he, too, died young. Good po­ets and good politi­cians gen­er­ally die young! Pradeep Maitra could quote Shel­ley’s lines co­pi­ously. His favourite poem was -‘Ozy­man­dias’:

I met a trav­eller from an an­tique land Who said: Two vast trunk-less legs of stone Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shat­tered vis­age lies, whose frown,

And wrin­kled lip, and sneer of cold com­mand,

Tell that its sculp­tor well those pas­sions read Which yet sur­vive, stamped on these life­less things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words ap­pear: ‘My name is Ozy­man­dias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and de­spair!’ Noth­ing be­sides re­mains; Round the de­cay

Of that colos­sal wreck, bound­less and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

It’s a dev­as­tat­ing epi­taph for many a king and dic­ta­tor in the deserts sands of time. ‘Ozy­man­dias’ should be read daily by those who ex­er­cise un­just power over oth­ers.

Pradeep’s 21st birth­day gift

On my 21st birth­day my col­lege mate Pradeep had given me a copy of Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam ren­dered into English verse by Ed­ward Fitzger­ald (1809-1883).

In all the tur­moil of oil in the king­doms, one of­ten for­gets that those deserts pro­duced not a few prophets, and per­haps more im­por­tantly, many great po­ets. When­ever some loss, some silent sor­row in life laps the heart­land of my heart, I seek so­lace and com­fort in lines of po­etry and in the lives of those who cre­ated those verses in their cre­ative lone­li­ness. The tragedies of the Mid­dle East have so com­pletely dom­i­nated our con­scious­ness for the past two decades that apart from bombs, bloody bat­tles, black flags, we hardly see and read any­thing else. In all this may­hem, my mind goes back to a poet, Omar Khayyam, who lived al­most a thou­sand years ago. I read him as a stu­dent in the Delhi sum­mer’s heat, more than fifty years ago.

Friend’s gift again given by one of my chil­dren

My friend’s gift, of course, got lost in my peri­patetic life. But as luck would have it, on this my Good Fri­day birth­day, I got a copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Ed­ward Fitzger­ald—a gift from one of my chil­dren.

Fitzger­ald had in­her­ited a for­tune and spent his time read­ing and writ­ing, af­ter he fin­ished his stud­ies from Trin­ity Col­lege, Cam­bridge.

Although a reclu­sive fig­ure, he’d sev­eral writ­ers as his friends, among them Al­fred Ten­nyson whose works some of us stud­ied for the Se­nior Cam­bridge ex­am­i­na­tion.

In 1859, he trans­lated, rather tran­scre­ated, Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiy­ats into four-lined stan­zas with ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­dence, un­for­get­table im­agery, and mem­o­rable splen­dour. The tragedy in Cal­cutta—de­scribed both as the Dread­ful City and the City of Joy -- brought back into mem­ory this gift from my col­lege friend. Dur­ing one’s un­der­grad­u­ate days one makes pure, ab­so­lute friend­ships. I’ve been lucky enough to re­con­nect with

my Delhi univer­sity friends: only Pradeep is lost in that vast me­trop­o­lis cre­ated by the Ben­galis and the British. For me Cal­cutta, now Kolkata, has another sub­lim­i­nal con­nec­tion: many of our gir­mit grand­par­ents and great grand­par­ents em­barked from 1879 on those sail­ing ships from the port of Cal­cutta for the South Seas. But that is another epic story, yet to be fully writ­ten and filmed, read and re­mem­bered.

My friend, a good cook

Pradeep Maitra was also a very good cook, an ex­pert in mak­ing spicy fish cur­ries, Ben­gali style. In sum­mer hol­i­days, he and I stayed in the col­lege hos­tel and to­gether we cooked some of the most de­li­cious meals, fish cur­ries with plain bas­mati rice and tomato-chilly chut­nies. Life then was, as you might say, the chut­ni­fi­ca­tion of his­tory and lit­er­a­ture and you lived a pick­led life.

My friend’s out­landish the­ory was that Ben­gali col­lege girls have big eyes be­cause they eat a lot of fish. In my innocence I be­lieved him. On some Sun­days we were joined by a monk from Cam­bo­dia who, too, stayed in an ob­scure cor­ner room of the hos­tel and roamed around the cam­pus in his holy at­tire.

Then, sud­denly dur­ing the sec­ond sum­mer, Pradeep fell in love with a girl from Mi­randa House: then the most mod­ern women’s col­lege in Delhi univer­sity.

Fifty years is not a long time in love or lit­er­a­ture. Both sur­vive us. The bust of the poet lives long af­ter the dust and de­tri­tus of bro­ken bridges in cities. And love grows amidst the ruins of lives and landscapes. Why else would we re­mem­ber Homer’s or Vir­gil’s epics or Valmiki’s

Ra­mayana or Vyasa’s Ma­hab­harta?

Po­ets live on imag­i­na­tion

So much more has hap­pened since they imag­ined their mar­velous myths in our hu­man id­iom – words. Or the more re­cent works of Shake­speare whose four hun­dredth death an­niver­sary, quad-cen­ten­nial, falls on 23 April, 2016. It should, I think, be cel­e­brated in ev­ery school and univer­sity.

Po­ets live in the repub­lic of the imag­i­na­tion and they be­long to all hu­man­ity. How deeply our lives are en­riched, deep­ened, and given mean­ing by the most po­etic ut­ter­ances in the sa­cred and pro­fane scrip­tures and scripts. Take the po­etry out of them, only the bleached bones re­main with­out the beauty of flesh or feel­ings or that hu­man breath we call Life. In the long sum­mer hol­i­days we read and read. In the heat and dust of Delhi we read Shake­speare’s plays and a lot of English po­ets, in­clud­ing Wordsworth who has re­mained my favourite. I have made my pil­grim­age to the Lake Dis­trict and to Strat­ford-up­onAvon.

Poet Omar Khayyam

But the poet whose lines I re­mem­ber most vividly are those of Omar Khayyam—the lines were trans­lated, rather ren­dered into English, by Ed­ward Fitzger­ald, born on March 31, 1809. Omar Khayyam was born in the eleventh cen­tury, in Naisha­pur, in Per­sia, now Iran, and died in the 12th cen­tury. Some of Omar Khayyam’s great verses: They say the Lion and Lizard keep The Courts where Jamshyd glo­ried and drank deep: And Bahram, that great Hunter – the Wild Ass

Stamps o’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.

Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears To­day of past Regrets and fu­ture Fears – To­mor­row? –Why to­mor­row I may be My­self with Yes­ter­day’s Sev’n Thou­sand Years.

One’s re­ward is nei­ther here nor there: Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise

To talk; one thing is cer­tain, that Life flies;

One thing is cer­tain, and the Rest is Lies; The flower that once has blown for ever dies.

The Mov­ing Finger writes; and hav­ing writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor wit Shall lure I back to can­cel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a word of it.

Here with a lit­tle bread be­neath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou Be­side me singing in the wilder­ness – Oh, wilder­ness were Par­adise enough.

Im­po­tent Pieces of the Game he plays Upon the che­quer-board of Nights and Days Hither and thither moves, and checks and slays;

And one by one in the Closet lays.

In his MA class at St Stephens col­lege, where C F Andrews had once taught, Pradeep Maitra fell in love. Shel­ley, Tagore, and the Rubaiyat came to his aid. His love-let­ters were full of quo­ta­tions to his girl­friend who lived in Bom­bay. He used to read them to me be­fore post­ing them to his beloved. Then we lost touch with each other. I’ve tried to lo­cate him but to no avail. And when I saw the bro­ken bridge in Cal­cutta, for a brief moment on my TV screen, I won­dered if my lost friend Pradeep Maitra’s chil­dren or grand­chil­dren could have been lost un­der it. One of his favourite verses was: Ah love! Could you and I wish with Fate con­spire To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things en­tire,

Would not we shat­ter it to bits – and then

Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s de­sire!

Khayyam’s Rubaiy­ats- roses in Mid­dle East

Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiy­ats are like roses bloom­ing in an oa­sis, given life and im­mor­tal­ity by another poet from another land. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that amidst its share of mod­ern dic­ta­tors, the Mid­dle East pro­duced some of the finest po­ets, philoso­phers and sci­en­tists—once upon a time. Omar Khayyam was one such ge­nius whose love for life was greater than the false re­wards promised in an af­ter­life.

The huge slabs when this fly­over bridge in Kolkata, In­dia, col­lapsed.

Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan is Fiji’s lead­ing writ­ers. His trav­el­ogue, Lov­ing You Eter­nally, and his fourth book of es­says, Au­tumn Leaves: Writ­ing My­self, will be pub­lished later this year.

Per­sian poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131).

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