This historical novel about a pair of male lovers from 16th-century Punjab seems unable to accept the story’s history.
The success of the Hollywood film Call Me by Your Name (2017), an adaptation of André Aciman’s eponymous novel (2007), has made “call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine” a charming novelty for lovers. The phrase is spoken by the older man to his much younger male lover in the film. A part of the novelty is also the age-differentiated and gay relationship depicted in the novel and the film. In our part of the world, however, the practice of calling yourself by your beloved’s name is a long-held poetic conceit. Sarbpreet Singh’s fresh novel is about one such pair of male lovers: Shah Husain and Madho, jointly known as Madho Lal Husain, whose spiritual-mystical union, and not physical or sexual connection (as the author insists), forms the main story.
The Sufi’s Nightingale
In popular memory, Shah Husain, the 16th-century Sufi saint of Punjab, prefixed the name of his favourite mureed (a disciple in the mystical vocation), Madho, to his own. The saint’s shrine in Lahore, a popular place of devotion and celebration in the form of the ecstatic dhamaal (an uproarious merriment), houses the graves of both Shah Husain and Madho. How the two came to be joined in name and in death is a legend around which Singh has written this novel. It is a work of fiction and imagination and should not be held to the standards of historical veracity.
Also Read | The way of all flesh
Its most significant departure from history is the invention of a second primary character called Maqbool, the eponymous Sufi’s nightingale. The story is told in alternating chapters titled after the speaking voice in the chapter. It begins with a prologue in the voice of Shah Husain reflecting on his initiation into mystical self-awareness and in subsequent chapters becoming the master (murshid) of a Sufi circle of disciples and followers. His voice is counterpointed to Maqbool’s, a preternaturally musical voice on whom falls the duty to sing the near spontaneous utterances of his master—a poetic form in Punjabi known as kafi.
Maqbool appears to be the author’s representative in the novel, partly because Sarbpreet Singh is himself a singer and shows knowledge of the Hindustani music system throughout the book, and partly because, like Maqbool, the author betrays a hint of envy about not belonging to the innermost circle of mystical devotion and practice as represented by Shah Husain and his much younger boy-disciple, Madho.
- The novel is loosely based on the lives of a pair of male lovers from 16th century Punjab: Shah Husain and Madho, jointly known as Madho Lal Husain, who was revered as a Sufi saint
- Sarbpreet Singh repeats the main details of the historical story for his plot but invents and adds the pain and passion of the vocal but ventriloqual Maqbool, a troubled self, born in an intersexed body and abandoned by his caretakers
- This historical novel, due to its insistence that erotic love must be subtracted from spiritual love, seems unable to accept its history
The official history of Madho Lal Husain is largely hagiographical. Husain was born into a weaver caste, and a forefather of his had converted to Islam. He trained as an alim, that is a scholar of orthodox religion, but was inclined towards the mystical. The most popular part of the story is Husain’s falling in love with a Brahmin boy called Madho. The older man’s spiritual obsession with the boy’s face and physical presence is said to have caused a scandal in Lahore’s Hindu community presumably less because of the gender of the lovers than the fear of religious (and caste) intermixing. Madho is drawn to the spiritual powers of the older man and ends up becoming his primary disciple, the bearer of his spiritual lineage. The popular story has a happy ending.
“Singh repeats the main details for his plot but invents and adds the pain and passion of the vocal but ventriloqual Maqbool, a troubled self, born in an intersexed body and cruelly abandoned by his caretakers.”
Singh repeats the main details for his plot but invents and adds the pain and passion of the vocal but ventriloqual Maqbool, a troubled self, born in an intersexed body and cruelly abandoned by his caretakers when they discover the facts of his gender. He is adopted by Shah Husain and given the task of singing his compositions, many of which mention the saint’s passion for Madho. The cruelty of Maqbool’s abandonment is replayed by him having to sing verses of his beloved master dedicated not to him but to another favourite.
The novel climaxes with the initiation of Maqbool by Madho once the master has died: Madho himself had undergone a similar ritual with Shah Husain earlier in the novel. Maqbool jealously watches the earlier ritual through a peephole: just like us today, he is troubled by the insinuation of sex and sexuality in mystical practice. At his own initiation, he realises that the acts of touching bare chests and taking a substance from the master’s mouth into one’s own are not sexual acts. Madho’s parents too fear a similar absence of differentiation when Shah Husain claims to love their son passionately.
Also Read | Herstory, illustrated
It appears that Singh himself wants us to learn to separate what were passionate all-male mystical encounters from sex. It is in this respect that I found this historical novel, due to its insistence that erotic love must be subtracted from spiritual love, unable to accept its history. This sounds more like a modern anxiety than one befitting the 16th-century setting of the novel.
A novel in English that leaves a lot of Arabic, Persian and Punjabi words untranslated may be forgiven a few inconsistencies in the spelling of such words, but what is harder toforgive is the more than usual incidence of English typographical errors.
Shad Naved teaches comparative literature and translation in Delhi.