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Celebrating History and Legend


Semeen Ali

FIRE ALTAR: POEMS ON THE PERSIANS AND THE GREEKS
By Keki N. Daruwalla
Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 200, Rs. 350.00

VOLUME XXXVIII NUMBER 10 October 2014

The past and memory—(a bit of the same thing, one a mirror to the other, aren’t they?) So much of both are lost, you’ve to invent as each day regresses, day after day. Written between 1991 and 1993, Daruwalla’s collection celebrates the histories and legends of the grand Persian Empire, a phase of history barely glanced at in contemporary literature. The book explores the stories of the kings—Darius, Cyrus and Alexander.  Before history is revisited, Daruwalla begins with ‘The Barbarians’—and it is a riposte to Constantine P. Cavafy’s famous poem—‘Barbarians’. Daruwalla’s poem is outstanding in bringing out the feeling of being termed ‘exotic’; how the word ‘barbarians’ is a ‘hand me down’ as well as an acknowledgement of the theory that the ‘West’ needed a ‘dark hemisphere against your hemisphere of light.’ The last line sums up the misconceptions one has created regarding the Other and which has been discussed in great detail in the postcolonial studies—‘There never were any barbarians’.  In the poems titled Letters from Tomyris  which are addressed to King Cyrus from the Queen of Tomyris, we are given a glimpse of how the ‘barbarians’ and their practices are described by a messenger to the king. The descriptions are such that as a reader one can imagine being a witness to those practices. There comes a moment at the end of the description when the messenger dares to ask the king—‘What are we doing in these marshes sire? What is the King of kings doing here?’ That moment of questioning is a powerful one as it overrides all the intentions of a possible invasion of the place as well as the glorification that a king hungers for. The letters give voice to the ‘ barbarians’—what the ‘barbarians’ think of others and of themselves.  The lines from a letter that the Queen of Tomyris sends to King Cyrus would illustrate it well:  Cyrus, King of the Medes and the Persians when you open the scroll and find nothing written on it don’t be surprised. You see, we haven’t got a script. She realizes his need to rule and the desire to put a stamp of authority wherever he goes. It is the abduction and the killing of her son by the king that has been described through the following letters that leads her to kill the king ...


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