'He who is not my friend-
May God be his friend.
And he who causes me distress-
May his joy increase.
He who places thorns in my path-
With malice in his heart,
May every flower that blooms in the garden of his life
Be without a single thorn.'
When I got an opportunity to review ‘Song of the Dervish’ (Bloomsbury, 2017) by journalist Meher Murshed, I immediately grabbed it. The shrine of the renowned Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya is around 6 kms from my residence and I have seen (and read) about the huge number of devotees and visitors from all walks of life thronging to the shrine throughout the year. Many celebrities (including Ranbir Kapoor and AR Rahman) are regular visitors and there are many stories of people’s wishes having been fulfilled after they have payed obedience at the shrine. Hence I was looking forward to reading a good non-fiction account of the life of Mehboob-e-ilahi (as Nizamuddin Auliya is often known).What is that attracts so many people from all over the world again and again to the dargah? At a time when religious intolerance is rampant in our society, is there something that the Sufi’s life can teach us? What does it take to be a Sufi?
Were all my questions answered by this book? Yes and No.As far as the life and times of the Sufi saint and his favorite poet-disciple Amir Khusro is concerned the book fell short of my expectations. Perhaps normally when you read non-fiction the expectation is that everything should be explicit! In black and white. However in this case maybe that is not possible as we are dealing with mysticism where the line between the real and the unreal often blurs. There will always be many shades of grey. Maybe you got to read it yourself and then reach your own conclusion.
From an early age Nizamuddin had become a mureed of the Sufi dervish Baba Farid who stayed in Ajodhan. After completing his education in Delhi, he had planned to become a judge as he was good in studies but fate had something else in store. At the age of 20 he told his mother ‘I have to go to Sheikh Farid’ and their first meeting was an emotional one. Baba Farid welcomed Nizamuddin with these words:
‘The fire of your separation has burnt many hearts. The storm of desire to meet you has ravaged many lives.’
Nizamuddin became Baba Farid’s disciple and he knew that his journey had begun. He started staying at Baba Farid’s place along with the other disciples. Life here was tough as they had no source of income and their whole life was devoted to realizing God by serving the poor (the essence of Sufism). Simultaneously Amir Khusro was prospering as a poet in the court of Delhi’s Sultan. However the throne of Delhi frequently had a new ruler during Nizamuddin’s time as the ruler’s frequently had to face rebellion and the machinations of their relatives/nobles who were always ready to strike in their back. The ruling dynasties (Khilji, Tuglaq etc.) are not covered in much detail in the book except for the frequent blood shed which led to the coronation of a new king and the uneasy relationship they shared with Nizamuddin. On returning from Ajodhan, Nizamuddin eventually settled in Ghiyaspur (present day Nizamuddin area in Delhi) where he passed away in 1325.
Where the book triumphs are the back stories of people whom the author met at the dargah to understand their unwavering devotion to the saint. From Sanjiv who survived a stabbing on a train to Feroza who picked up the pieces of her life after a rape, each one has a unique story to tell. In the end think it all boils down to faith. This is what Moti Lal Mehra, who has been coming to the shrine for the past forty-three years has to say.
‘Nizamuddin draws me to him. He gives me a sense of belonging. I know he’s there to protect. My mood is lifted. There is no explaination.That is the beauty of this.’