The Shelter of the World

March 1, 2008

…Being the First Published in a DisExtinguished Line of Abortive Reviews. 


The story recounts the imaginative exploits of one جلال الدین محمد اکبر, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, or as he liked to be known: Akbar the Great. Much to my shame I have not read anything else by Rushdie so beyond my knowledge of him looking from the outside in I did not know what to expect. The result was a story which seemed to zoom between perspectives while never jarring me with cuts. 
It tells of Akbar in his middle years, having set in motion the construction of his dream city of Sikri, and betwixt a series of successful military campaigns. Having reached his middle years Akbar becomes aware of the respect, bordering on terror, his subjects feel in his presence, and falls victim to a bout of contemplation on the nature of his authority. All his life he has used the singular pronoun ‘We’ in place of the poor mans solace ‘I’. He does this because with his God Given role as emperor he becomes a conduit for the popular and divine will. It is through Akbar that a praxis of divinity is manifested as governance, and so he cannot claim the individuality that his subjects, in a sense, enjoy. This perplexes Akbar, and he questions on what grounds he truly claims this authority. He experiences the pangs of alienation — not from the singing and craic of the pubs and common culture — but from the very idea of existing as a thing in oneself.
Rushdie at once gives Akbar the distance and perspective which befits a direct descendant of his benevolence, Genghis Khan, and gradually allows us to see into the mind of Akbar. In a very real sense we see how Akbars mind and the the world he governs are at one. This is as much manifest politically as personally.  Akbar has many wives, but his most precious and beloved wife has the unfortunate characteristic of non-existence. Jodha is an artifact of his imagination, and yet exerts more control over him than any other. Initially she seems somewhat elusive, docile, fantastic. As the story wears on however she asserts herself, with reactivity displacing receptivity.
In an interesting sense we can compare Akbars political role with his wife’s mental role. If Akbar is the manifestation of popular will, and Akbars thoughts are the living breathing stuff of the populace, in what sense can we say that his imagined wife does not exist? Akbar exists only as a vessel to hold the thoughts of his people, so why so shocked the vessels contents ferment? Akbar is the Medieval Prometheus, no longer content to manifest the will of the world he injects his own will into it: “The creation of a real life from a dream was a superhuman act, usurping the prerogative of the gods”. In a conversation between emperor and queen, Jodha — the escapee — makes clear their world logic:
We are their Dream, and They are Ours”.
When then, shall we all wake up?
You can find “The Shelter of the World” here.

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