Love's Subtle Magic: An Indian Islamic Literary Tradition.

Author:Sheikh, Samira
Position:Book review
 
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Love's Subtle Magic: An Indian Islamic Literary Tradition, 1379-1545. By ADITYA BEHL, edited by WENDY DONIGER. New York: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2012. Pp. xii + 403. $74.

After Aditya Behl unexpectedly died in 2009, his former adviser Wendy Doniger painstakingly and lovingly put together his unfinished essays into this handsome volume. She has reconstructed, smoothed, and trimmed with skill and attention but the voice remains unmistakably that of Behl. Doniger is at pains to tell us that while the book is not, perhaps, exactly as Behl would have intended, it is not a "patchwork"; it is based on a draft he was expanding and on lectures he delivered in Paris and London in 2004-5 and in 2008.

The nine essays in this volume are on the intriguing story poems, "romances," written in North India between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, in mutually intelligible variants of the widespread North Indian vernacular, Hindavi. They were all written by Sufis associated with provincial courts who chose the vernacular in preference to transregional classical languages such as Sanskrit, Arabic, or Persian. Each of these writers belongs to a time, the "long" fifteenth century, when the sultanate of Delhi was reduced to a regional power and North Indian politics was dominated by unstable alliances.

By the fourteenth century Muslims had already lived in India for six hundred years. Islam was no longer foreign to many of the inhabitants of India, and by this time there were many Muslims who had been born in India and who had never known any other land. But if the encounter between Hindus and Muslims was no longer new, the fourteenth century was a time of other encounters between strangers: between country herdsmen and city dwellers, between traveling traders from distant lands, between chiefs and new overlords, and between fortune-seekers and mysterious women. These encounters--often made strange by barriers of language, ethnicity, dress, and ethics--begat new stories and, eventually, new literatures. The prema kahdni ("love story") genre discussed in this book is one of desire and longing--of love of the stranger, of encounters with the wilderness and the seduction of the city--born out of the great ferment beginning in the fourteenth century that drew young men to seek employment in the many regiments or a.scetic collectives of the time or to make a living from the opportunities of the new towns. As new towns grew, often encompassing older, simpler...

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