A most unusual portrait of the artist gradually takes shape in this Anglo-Indian author’s limpid second novel (after The Opium Clerk, 2003).
The story’s set in 16th-century Hindustan, where the gifted youth Bizhad, son of Mughal emperor Akbar’s favorite court painter (“the Kwaja”), grows up among the emperor’s inner circle. Bizhad, the namesake of a legendary artist renowned for his illustrations of classic Middle- and Near Eastern tales, is raised in a hothouse atmosphere by his father and beautiful young stepmother Zuleikha, kept away from all corrupting influences (i.e., other people), and forbidden to learn to read or write. Instead, he’s forced to concentrate his energies on an artistic bent that manifests itself in vivid, lurid miniatures depicting “haunting dervishes, lovers, poems of death and unrequited dreams.” The most compelling of such dreams is Bizhad’s unrequited love for his emperor, which he fantasizes in explicit erotic scenes showing himself and Akbar as lovers. A jealous rival reveals Bizhad’s secret, and he’s banished, thereafter condemned to years of wandering, poverty, and unfulfillment. But the death of a beloved friend stimulates new emotional and artistic growth, and a kind of miracle occurs. Out of Bizhad’s love for one man emerges a heartfelt identification with all human life, indeed the entire visible creation: a renewed passion of a very different kind, manifested in Bizhad’s much celebrated portrait of a Madonna and child, flowering in a life-affirming denial of the warning posed in the novel’s epigraph (that “thou who draw pictures will be punished on the day of resurrection”). This moving parable of the manifold sources of art bears some resemblance to Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. But it’s a richly satisfying original creation: a story that might have come out of a contemporary Arabian Nights.
Brilliant work, from one of the finest new novelists at work today.