“An Englishman in California studying Sufism, and in particular Rumi”, so says the back cover on who the protagonist is. Having discovered Rumi rather late in life and getting drunk on him ever since, the pull was too strong to resist and back it came with me from the last trip to the library.
The story starts with John Macmillan in Damascus meeting up with an enigmatic old professor, Khalil and ending up carrying a gift back for his friend. Originally from London, he seems to be running away from his life and love and moving towards something that neither he nor the reader can make sense of, at least in the beginning. His trip to dleiver Khalil’s gift brings Camilla Jensen to his life, who gets intricately entangled with him. The story goes in and out of their unusual meetings with each other. In between are the encounters with his professor and mentor, Sefadhi, who seem to have an alternate life.
Interspersed (or was it supposed to be the main plot?) is the rumor about an original manuscript of Sufi poems which seem to mysteriously surface here and there. Yes, it even brings John to India. All the characters seem to have some mystery or other that shrouds their past, each one of them trying to uncover or hide from it.
The narrative is mystical, in line with the the theme of the story. There are some good insights by the author on religion, mysticism, Sufism and of course Rumi, Shams and Hafez. To cut a long story short, I had to conclude that I am neither intellectual nor mystical enough yet to really enjoy such an esoteric theme and author 🙂
One interesting anecdote that I loved is, “Rumi has replaced the Dalai Lama in greeting cards”. To a certain extent, the author is able to convey the pain of a race as they helplessly watch their soul getting so blatanly commercialized. Keeping the story apart, there are some brilliant allusions to the genre of poems that we have come to equate to Sufism. The biggest revelation for me was that “The cry of the Sufi is, quite simply, the cry of abandoned love”, and not a celebration of love that is.
The best of piece of advice came from Professor Sefadhi,
“My only words of advice: remember, please, to keep the poets higher than your thoughts of them. Don’t pull them down to your level; let them draw you up to theirs…It is best to make sure always there is something in them you don’t understand.”
Looks like, sadly I have to go a long way to reach that level.
Verdict : Not te be read with abandon. Take it up if you love mysterious characters in all shades of grey and of course Sufis, their lives and poems.