Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Courts of the Caliph, or, The Tigers That Roam Baghdad

The court, or courts, for there were several, of Haroun Al Raschid, king of Arabia, were magical. They were the jewels of the city of Baghdad, and they received visitors from far and wide, from the frigid wastes of Russia to the deserts of the Sahara. Haroun, known to the white Europeans as Aaron, and the dark Indians as Arun, was a great king, and his kingdom was greater still. There was little in the world to match the wonders of Arabia in the times of the fifth Caliph.

This is a story, one of many, of but one of the courts of Haroun, and may Allah strike me down if it is not the truth.


Walk down one of the many promenades of Baghdad, into one of thousands of gullies, past the butcher and the small time bookkeeper, and you just might see one. They are not very common, but most who come to Baghdad catch a glimpse, enough to keep the tales of their existence alive. Stories of the tigers that roam the city. They had started six months ago, just after the month of fasting, and they grew only more fantastic by the day. Perhaps, on the first day, there had only been one or two. By now, there was an entire family of fourteen, hungry for human flesh. Of course, everyone in the city had a cousin or an uncle whose neighbor knew a man eaten alive by these evil beasts, and all decried the sad state of affairs perpetuated by the city guard’s inefficiencies.

Ask a guard about it, and he will tell you ‘Good citizen, pay no heed to the mutterings of these fools. They will swindle you without a thought, and slip a dagger in your back without a warning. Break no laws, keep to the main roads, and ask no dangerous questions, and you will not be troubled in the fine city that is Baghdad’

Ask a merchant on one of the city’s dingier lanes, and he will tell you ‘Friend, be very careful. Just last night there was a sighting of a large male. They say he is the king of them all, and that he has been brought to our holy city by Azazel-called-Iblis himself. Take care, for the Devil is allied with these brutes. Peace be with you.’

And, of course, if you were to ask a noble who frequented the Court of Wagers, he would give you a smile, and nod in a knowing manner, and say he knew absolutely nothing about it.

The Court of Wagers was one of the more affluent courts of Baghdad. Not that any Court was poor, but the richest could buy the rest of the city and treat the cost as nothing more than the loss of spare change. And if one wanted to know the truth of this particular story, there would be no better time than five days after Eid, and no place better than the main hall of the Court, where a very peculiar argument was taking place.

‘ORDER! ORDER, I say! By the beard of the Prophet, STOP SHOUTING!’ said the man in what must have been the most colourful robe in all Persia, ostensibly the leader of the Court in the Caliph’s absence. While it wasn’t immediately obvious, the man was called Omar, and more importantly, he was one of Haroun’s most trusted confidantes. While he gave brilliant advice, and his view on political situations was very nearly always invaluable to the ruler of Arabia, he was incapable of getting the attention of any group of people, large or small.

‘Respected Leader, I only ask my good friend Zakir whether his chickens have hatched.’ This was Shahid, the most popular noble in the Court. His often-indifferent manner hid a most vicious wit, and few, if any, challenged him in a war of words any more.

‘Exalted Chairman, I merely bring to your attention the matter of my eggs, all of which seem to be broken, and all of which were in the care of my dear ally Shahid.’ This was Zakir, newly elevated to noble status, who had still not learned not to cross Shahid, though that would be corrected very soon.

‘Revered Arbiter, I simply must declare my consternation at both my associates, who refuse to let a poor man like me speak simply because of a trivial matter concerning poultry.’ This was Abbas, who simply liked to make a racket, but almost always ended up winning any argument he faced, having an uncanny knack for choosing the right side.

‘SILENCE, OR I’LL BEHEAD THE LOT OF YOU!’ thundered Omar. This tended to get the attention of most mobs, but it had little effect on the nobles, who knew that the most he could do to them was lock them in jail for a night.

But something else happened, and it was this that caught everyone’s attention. The Caliph entered the Court of Wagers.

Immediately all five hundred nobles knelt in obeisance to their king, and immediately the Caliph gestured them to rise again. He walked to the throne, which was always empty, and sat next to Omar, and watched as if expecting something.

Zakir had a grin on his face. With the Caliph in attendance, Shahid would not be able to fool around and would have to concede the argument. Abbas, on the other hand, was disgruntled. There would be no frivolous wagers today, no trivial matters to be concerned with. Today they would be serious.

Then the Caliph spoke. ‘Tell me, then, for I could not help hearing and my curiosity was awakened. What is the matter concerning Zakir’s eggs, which I understand to be in the possession of Shahid Hassan? But wait, this tale cannot be told by one who is involved in this matter. Hmm. I believe Orhan the poet is here today, is he not? Orhan! Come forward, and recite this tale as best you can, and mind you do not choose sides!’

Orhan the poet was, in fact, a terrible poet. He could not rhyme to save his life, and his grasp of meter and rhythm was almost non-existent. But by luck or fate, every other noble called Orhan in the various Courts of Baghdad wrote poetry that made one shiver. There were four others, and all had, at one time or another, been personal scribe to the Caliph. Not Orhan the poet. Which was why, in a display of supreme irony, it was Orhan who could not rhyme whom they called Orhan the poet, and he had had that name for five years.

And so, a tall man with a grin that spread from ear to ear, presented himself to the Caliph and his friends in the Court of Wagers, and spoke thus:

‘Dear Friends, and Ruler of our Baghdad
I will endeavour to speak the truth, lest I be called a cad
And end my lyric quickly, for I do not want to start a fad
Of long winded verse, to which a meaning cannot be had.

My friend Zakir, two weeks ago, declared to the world
News of his joy unbounding, of his happiness unfurled
And his smiles lit up our cosmos, on our Court he twirled
But on his joyous moment, a spot of bad was hurled.

For when Zakir told us of a fortune he made from eggs
Shahid, who of humanity must be the lowliest dregs,
Said if he were a poultry merchant, he would run away on the fastest legs,
From the hatchlings of his product, which would surely taste of pegs

Thus this wager began, a fortnight ago, in this very exalted hall
Zakir gave Shahid the best of the eggs in his thrall
And said the chicks hatched from these eggs will be able to fight in a brawl
And even perhaps fifteen lions maul.

Today it came to light
That the eggs were out of sight
Shahid alleged they’d go home without a fight
But Zakir never saw them, which brings us to tonight!’

The brows of most nobles in the audience were furrowed as they tried to sort out the maze that Orhan had constructed and a few groans erupted from those who had never heard such a butchery of language, but Haroun was not the Caliph for nothing.

‘So Shahid insulted the quality of Zakir’s eggs, and the chickens hatched from these eggs, and wanted proof. But two weeks later, these eggs have gone missing. Perhaps the chicks have hatched, perhaps they have not. But they are now missing, which is what the argument is about, yes? Very well. Shahid, what do you have to say for yourself?’

‘Oh Awesome Ruler of all Arabia, I must now speak the truth. I was afraid this matter would come to this, but it seems that I must bare all.’, Shahid said in the gravest tone he could muster.

‘The truth is, my lord, there is a tiger loose in the city. I am afraid it is indeed this same tiger that has eaten poor Zakir’s chicks, and that we will never see the quality of them’

A hush followed these words. No one dared lie to the Caliph, not even Shahid. But any mention of a tiger in the city was surely jest? Shahid’s face was as solemn as a judge at a murder trial, and the king himself looked troubled by this news.

‘Leaving the matter of the tiger aside,’ the Caliph said, ‘Surely Zakir can just supply a fresh batch of eggs, and end this matter?’

It was Omar who spoke next; he knew the rules of the Court better than anyone else. ‘Any new batch of eggs will come from chickens different from the ones who laid the first batch, for Ramadan was a week ago, and the chickens have all been eaten. It is not a fair wager anymore, which is what I was trying to tell these fools. What must now be determined is whether Shahid is responsible or not, if he is, he must pay triple the original wager, and not enter this Court for a period of no less than three months.’

‘Very well,’ the king said, ‘I suppose it is a matter of whether there is indeed a tiger in the city and if it did indeed penetrate the house of Shahid Hassan, and whether it did indeed kill and eat the chicks of Zakir the eggseller. Very well. I do not believe that Shahid would lie to his king, whatever the reason. Of course, this means there is a tiger loose in the city. Something will be done about it, of course. If that is all, I declare this Court finished for the day.’

And the king rose, and the entire Court rose with him. As the king walked out, he said, in a whisper heard only by the ones standing next to him ‘I do believe lying to the king is punishable by death, but not before the eyes are plucked out and fed to the one who is guilty.’

To his right, walking with him was Omar. To his left, standing, was Shahid Hassan.


Baghdad is a city of much splendour. If you were to walk down from the Court of Wagers, past the large camel emporium on your right, and turn left at the building that used to be the Court of Jesters, you will come to the most famous inn in all of Arabia, the Sea of Stories. If you were to enter this inn, and ask for a pitcher of wine, you would be directed to a table not far from the entrance. At this table would be sitting the few men in that inn who partake of alcohol, for has not the Prophet spoken out against it? And of that number, one bearded heavyset man would be called Sohail.

If you were to buy Sohail a few drinks, he would tell you his profession, that of zookeeper at the largest zoo in Baghdad, one of the city's most attractive spots. And if you were to buy him a few more, and ask him specifically about the tiger exhibit, he would confess that for fifteen thousand dinars, he sold one of the three tigers he was planning to introduce to the city the next week. But if you pressed him, he would not tell you to whom, for he himself would not know.

And that is the tale of the tigers that roam Baghdad, and may I never know the peace of the Prophet if it is not true.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

There are different sizes of infinity, yes? Infinity means huge, by definition the largest thing in the universe. But there are things bigger than infinity. Namely, infinity.

Think of the number of numbers between one and two. Infinite. Now think of the number of numbers between two and three. Infinite. So how many numbers between one and three? Infinite. But logically, the infinity between one and three is twice as large as the one between one and two, or two and three.

Each person is an innumerable number of people. This is true. Each person has millions and millions of facets, each distinct from the last. But some people are more innumerable than others. Some people have a larger infinity of people in them, some people seem to have no infinity within them at all. There are some who are more complex than any string theory you've come across, who don't seem to make any sort of sense. There are none who operate purely on logic. Despite what the TV shows tell you. Despite anything you hear about Asperger's, or any other syndrome. They are all us. We and they, we are the same, only different.

So does the size of the infinity we are make us different? Of course. Does it make us unequal? Does diversity imply inequality?

But then, doesn't it? The circumstances of my birth affords to me certain privileges that others are not given. It is the very existence of these inequalities that drives the human endeavour.

But the aim of the human endeavour is to end these inequalities. Given enough time, one assumes it will happen eventually. Eventually, we will be equal. Think about it. They will wake up in the morning without fear of discrimination. They will go to sleep not worrying about race or caste or creed. A world which is much more perfect than ours will exist, and they will live in it. Am I painting you a picture of heaven, or hell? A world where there is no war. No violence. In its logical extreme, no sadness. There is a webcomic, somewhere on the internet, that goes something like this: 'With one pill we cured sadness. And art.'

Is perfection that terrifying?

There is, somewhere in the definition of perfection, a clause about infinity. Like the guy said, perfection does not have limits. Perfection is being there.

There are moments, rare and not often recognised by me, when one feels the perfection of creation. When physics and mathematics come together to show me something I'd never have suspected. When Sanjay Subramanyam sings a Ritigowla that stuns me. Whenever I hear MS sing Jo Achyutananda. Perfection is there. We just can't reach it as often as we'd like to.

What we obtain too cheaply we esteem too lightly. If perfection were not impossible, it would not be worth the effort.

Perfection is truth is beauty. Perfection has no limits, is infinite in its scope, and pretty much does what it likes.