Wednesday, October 18, 2006


It is not every year that I dance a jig to the announcement of the Literature Nobel. There is of course a pleasant feeling each time an author whose work one is familiar with, wins. I might spend an evening or two ploughing through the shelves and boxes to locate if any of their works are in my possession. Perhaps follow it up with a bit of random browsing of the a few pages here, a few pages there variety.

But this year was different.

Agreed that my addiction to Orhan Pamuk-fare had something to do with it. But that aside, there was other reasons for the rejoicing and jubilation. Pamuk, the writer and litterateur, is also Pamuk the sane voice, that has always roared against and above the cacophony of religious and political extremism, both in his country and in the Middle East. His was perhaps the lone voice protesting against the Rushdie fatwa. Pamuk-speak against the Armenian genocide, against Turkey's dictatorial regime got him in trouble with the Turkish authorities, time and again. Last year there was a government order to burn his books (I had blogged about this) and Pamuk has often been labeled as anti national.

When I first read the anti-national bit, I laughed so hard that I almost choked. Funny how an anti-national Turk has come to symbolize how the literary world sees Turkish history, culture and ethos today. As a compass is to the seas, Pamuk's work is the lighthouse for navigating Turkish culturo-historical territory. In fact when the prize was announced, I was in the midst of a page-turning whodunnit of the adventures of a Poirot-wannabe in an Ottoman court, a nice piece of fiction by Jason Goodwin (a Turkophile hitherto given to writing non fictional tomes on the Ottoman sultans). However, every few pages into Goodwin's Janissary Tree saw me reach out for Pamuk's "My Name is Red" as though it were some kind of grid on which the world of the Ottoman Istanbulu needs to be constantly placed.

Pamuk's Istanbul of Ottomon days gets so well etched in one's mind that it becomes a blueprint that finds itself juxtaposed to every other story of this city or of Turkey to get a sense of the cultural time and space. That is the strength of Pamuk's narrative.

My Name is Red is a beautiful recreation of the glory and majesty of the Ottoman empire and the friction between tradition and modernity as embodied by miniaturists and calligraphers on one hand and the influence of modern Renaissance on the other. It isn't the Orient-Occident cultural clash or dichotomy or even the the conflict between the Old world and the New that is the hallmark of this work; rather it is the magnificent narration of the Islamic craft of miniaturization, a craft tethered to the intricate web of power and deceit, that brings this work to life. It is the feeling of loss at its gradual decline-at the passing of an age, at the slow end of an art form that will ensure this book's popularity for decades to come, long after all those East-West divides and dichotomies are gone. The first chapter of My Name is Red is here.

And yet Pamuk does not always inhabit the world of yore. In his latest offering Istanbul, as he captures the lows and highs of the city, he bares out his life and world and indeed his very soul before the readers:

Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul-these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, and even civilizations.
But great literature can also come out of never having gone away: indeed having stayed on in the same city and same home.
Here we come to the heart of the matter: I’ve never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood. Although I’ve lived in different districts from time to time, fifty years on I find myself back in the Pamuk Apartments, where my first photographs were taken and where my mother first held me in her arms to show me the world.
We live in an age defined by mass migration and creative immigrants, so I am sometimes hard pressed to explain why I’ve stayed, not only in the same place but the same building. My mother’s sorrowful voice comes back to me: Why don’t you go outside for a while? Why don’t you try a change of scene, do some traveling…?

It is this never having left that makes for his oneness to Istanbul. Having stayed on he can sense the overwhelming feeling of sadness of this city with every beat of life. There is no word to describe this sadness, it is not melancholy or angst: Pamuk sticks to the turkish hüzün, a word closer to tristesse, denoting the collective pain of a people, the feeling of nostalgia and defeat at the thought of the bygone era and lost glory. From the early sunsets to the ferries on the Bosphurus to the old booksellers and barbers to unemployed men, Pamuk can see hüzün everywhere - as he can see the traces of ruins of the Ottoman rule that pervade the city, heightening its sense of melancholy.

And while his literature comes from never having left, it is not local or regional: in fact it merges beautifully into this larger universal phenomena; what is true for Istanbul is true for Mesopotamia and Cairo, true for the Great British Empire and closer home for Delhi and Calcutta. For every city, culture and people that have seen glory will face this sense of loss as those days fade away taking with them the habits and ways of life of entire generations to make room for the new.


Anonymous neel said...

Thanks Shampa,

for introducing me to Pamuk-duniya.

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Anonymous Nandini Gupta said...

That's a beautiful piece Shampa. I am going to go back and read up Red again.

10:53 PM  
Blogger shampa said...

Thank you guys. Nandini, IMO "Red" symbolizes Ottoman Istanbul as no other work perhaps has.


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