Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Rubaiyat: Omar Khayyam revisited

Millions of words have been written about Omar Khayyam, the great Persian poet. So, what is new? Nothing, except that I came across an interesting review of the book Omar Khayyam: Poet, Rebel, Astronomer by Hazhir Teimourian (Sutton, £20, pp.384). The review by Justin Marozzi was originally published in the Spectator and reproduced in the Deccan Chronicle.

Marozzi starts with a statement that what most people know about Omar Khayyam could be summed up in two words – the Rubaiyat. This is true in my case. My love affair with the Rubaiyat started in the early 1950s during college days in Bangalore. Someone presented me a clothbound book containing the famous translation of the Rubaiyat by Edward Fitzgerald and a Kasida (qasida).

Rubaiyat means a pentameter quatrain. Kasida is a poetic form which has pre-Islamic origin. It has been nurtured over the centuries and is still popular. Many have been translated beautifully into English.

Kasida also means a kind of Arab needlework imported into India in the 9thc AD and practiced by the women of Bengal and Bihar. I think there is a breed of Arab horses too with that name.

I loved the collection that was presented to me and read it many times over. But I never bothered to find out more about Omar Khayyam. Now, from the book review I understand that Khayyam, born at Nishapur in the north-eastern Iran in 1032, learned music, cosmology, astronomy, and logic, among other things. He created a calendar which was more accurate than Gregorian calendar.

Justin Marozzi also says that Fitzgerald’s translations of the Rubaiyat have enriched the English language with more phrases than the Bible and Shakespeare together. The review has kindled my interest in the poet and his life. I must get hold of the book by Hazhir Teimourian.

One quote from the Rubaiyat given in the review is:

Today I will shed my robe of restraint;

Let trails of red wine my white beard taint.

No more piety; I am seventy

If not dance now, when might it then be?

Well, I am seventy-four. But it is difficult to follow Khayyam’s advice about wine. Though India exports sparkling white to France and produces fairly good wines for foreign and home markets (top makes: Grover Wineyard in association with Michel Rolland of Bordeaux, Indage, Sula), for some reason the Chennai shops do not seem to stock them.

Returning to the Rubaiyat, one of my favorite stanzas is:

Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin

Beset the road I was to wander in,

Thou wilt not with Predestination round

Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?

TAMAM SHUD (It is completed.)

Also see: Book review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

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