Borges : The Approach to Al Mu'tasim (Summary)

For those who know Borges, knows what kind of density and imagination he packs in the magical and short tales he spins. I have not read much of his work but whatever I have has a certain sense of strangeness to it. A concept, a stretch of imagination that could be used as a construct to make bigger stories or can be left just an idea hanging there. I read another of his short works called "The Approach to Al Mu'tasim". This story is part of the bigger book called "The Ficciones". As with Borges, the focus is on an idea with not much of a prose to work on the idea. The obsession with whats real and what's not, with mirrors and labyrinths is very much in play. The foreword states that instead of writing huge books about an idea that can be stated in five minutes, a far better idea would be to assume that such huge book exists and then write a summary or commentary on them. This story is based on the similar construct. The writer assumes that such a book is already published and provides a commentary on it.

That imaginary book called "The Approach to Al Mu'tasim" set up in per-independent Bombay. The hero (a muslim) caught up in a communal riot, kills (or thinks he killed) a hindu. Fearing that he will be pursued, he runs to the edge of city. There he meets a wretched soul who raids graves for gold teeth. Shaken by the events, the hero decides to lose himself in the vastness of India. In this journey, the hero adopts the evil ways of the underclass. Here in these vile ways, he comes across a companion who has a sudden change of heart, "a certain moment of tenderness". He concludes that that guy is actually echoing someone else, a friend, or the friend of a friend. He deduces that somewhere in this earth, a person exists from whom the light emanates and this gets reflected to any person who gets in touch with him and some light gets on this person who in turn reflects it to whoever he comes across. And so his colleague also come across a person who had that light that came to him reflected by that One. He calls the One Al Mu'tasim. Thus the journey becomes one of a soul looking for that elusive light, which sometimes nearer made the divinity of the mortal soul more profound, but they were still the mirrors reflecting the true light. Finally the hero comes to a door, and behind a curtain is a shining light. He calls out for Al Mu'tasim and enters the door. The novel ends here.

In the footnote the author refers to the poem Mantiq ut-Tair (The Colloquy of the Birds) by the Persian mystic Mohammad ibn-Ibraham Attar. In the poem the king of birds, the Simurgh, drops one of his splendid feathers somewhere in the middle of China; on learning this, the other birds, tired of their age-old anarchy, decide to seek him out. They know that the king's name means 'thirty birds'. Setting out on epic journey, Thirty, purified by suffering, reach the great peak of the Simurgh. At last they behold him; they realize that they are the Simurgh and that the Simurgh is each of them and all of them.

Reading the footnote, the story becomes clear. The hero was Al Mu'tasim. The seeker was the one that was being sought. The search for truth becomes the search for one's identity. The travails of the life reflected on him incrementally to make him the one. Each experience, each moment, each meeting contributed in making him a complete perfect man, The Al Mu'tasim. In a way Borges uses an actual poem and an imaginary novel to come up with an idea on search for one's identity. The one that we do not see on the mirror everyday. The one who though not visible in the clarity of the mirror, yet shins out so brilliant that its reflects its brilliance all around. Where one loses oneself into enormity to discover oneself. Where the searcher takes the iota of the sought slowly by slowly to ultimately become one that is being sought. As Nietzsche puts it, when you stare at the abyss it stares back at you. As you know about things, you take a piece of it and ultimately become a part of it. Come to think of it, each one of us is the God and god is each One of us. 

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