IN MEMORIAM: `Something rich and strange`

25 Apr 2010


Around 1610, William Shakespeare wrote one of his last plays, The Tempest. Unlike most of his other plays, this one takes place on just one location, which is an enchanted island. The plot is complex and involves flashbacks.

So, how do we explain the fact that if we were to unravel the complex plot and rearrange incidents in a plain chronological order, they would turn out to be the same as the stories of the seven heroines narrated by Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai of Sindh nearly 100 years after The Tempest?

There is not the slightest possibility that Bhittai was familiar with The Tempest. Besides, the stories of the seven heroines were written at different points in the life of the Sindhi poet and even in the authoritative edition of his Risalo they are interspersed with other stories. The similarities compel us to look elsewhere for an answer, but first we should know what the similarities are.

Shakespeare's play begins with a storm at the sea, however, as we learn in the next scene, the conflict had started 12 years before when Prospero, the duke of Milan, became preoccupied with his books and his brother Antonio usurped the throne. Prospero, with his infant daughter Miranda and some of his books, was left to perish in the sea.

The first of the seven heroines of Bhittai is Sohni, who drowns in the river but according to the Sufi her drowning is a seeming disaster only. In reality, it is a union which she had been seeking with all her heart.

Prospero lands on an uninhabited island but with his art he tames the unseen forces of the place and liberates Ariel, the free spirit confined by a dreadful witch long ago.

Bhittai's second heroine is Sassi, who wanders in the desert until the sands split open on her asking and lawless bandits are reformed under her influence — although Sassi pays a greater cost for her achievements than does Prospero; Sassi has to die.

The third major conflict in The Tempest occurs when Prospero's daughter Miranda comes of age. Caliban, an uncouth creature who is the opposite of Ariel in every way, attempts to molest the maiden who had been teaching him language.

The culprit is punished by Prospero. The nature of this conflict is not unlike what happens in the story of the third heroine of Bhittai, Leelan, whose love for her husband Chanesar takes second place to her lust for material gains.

Beyond these first three conflicts, the parallels between The Tempest and the seven heroines of Risalo become more marked.

The fourth conflict in the play involves Ferdinand, the prince of Naples, and Miranda. In order to marry Miranda the prince goes through a series of tests proposed by her father. That is basically the substance of the story of the fourth heroine of Bhittai, Moomal, whose lover Rano passes through several tests in order to marry her.

The fifth conflict in the play involves the good-hearted courtier Gonzalo who finds in the natural beauty of the island the possibility of a perfect world not unlike Bhittai's fifth heroine Marvi, who remembers the flowering of spring in her native village in a very similar manner.

The sixth conflict in the play is a conspiracy by two servants of the King of Naples to kill Prospero and take over his island. When the conspirators arrive at Prospero's cell, they forget their real purpose in their lust for putting on flashy costumes left there by Prospero for the very purpose of distracting them.

The moral is not unlike that of the story of the sixth heroine of Bhittai, the fisherwoman Nuri, who chooses not to put on the flashy costumes of the palace and thus succeeds where the lesser characters of The Tempest fail.

The climax of the play involves the appearance of spirits claiming to be 'ministers of fate', repentance by the sinners, coming back to life of characters long presumed to be dead and a union that promises the birth of a brave new world. All these elements can be found in the complex and, in some ways, jarring story of Sorath, the seventh heroine of Bhittai

At dawn, the bard plays music soft and sweet;

King in his palace with it is pleased;

'O musician! Come and play again that strain,

That I may give away this head,' he says.

So, how do we explain the similarity between the works of two great poets from different cultures who never knew each other? It seems that despite all their richness, the diverse approaches of modern literary criticism have not even touched upon the outer fringes of the kind of unity of human existence that is reflected in uncanny observations like the one presented here.

Perhaps we can make some use of another sort of poetics that was once worked out in elaborate detail by such great masters as the 12th century Persian poet Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209), to whom such similarities between Shakespeare and Bhittai would not have seemed unusual at all.

On the contrary, Nezami might have smiled and quoted from his Haft Paykar (Seven Beauties) 'Language, if its soul is untainted, is the keeper of the treasury of the unseen it knows the story that has not been heard and reads the book that has not been written.'