“The Sufi’s Nightingale” by Sarbpreet Singh

The Sufi’s Nightingale, Sarbpreet Singh (Speaking Tiger, January 2023) The Sufi’s Nightingale, Sarbpreet Singh (Speaking Tiger, January 2023)

Shah Hussain was a 16th-century Punjabi Sufi poet based in Lahore. His kafis, (mostly) short rhymed poetry with refrains, referring to the relationship between God and devotee with metaphors of lover and Beloved, or Murshid (literally, the master but also a metaphor for God as well) and mureed (disciple), are sung and relished even today as rhapsodic expressions of love, longing, and devotion. Considered scandalous by clerics as well as by people in general for his relationship with Madho, a Brahmin boy who became his devotee, he is today venerated as Madho Lal Hussain at his dargah (tomb) in Lahore with Madho buried by his side. Sarbpreet Singh’s new novel The Sufi’s Nightingale turns to this mystic and his strange love story that challenges gender and religious boundaries erected by the people of his time while redefining what it means to be in love.

The story is written from two perspectives: that of Shah Hussain and that of Maqbool, a devotee of Shah Hussain, who feels jealous of Madho. Maqbool is the eponymous character; he is blessed with a beautiful voice that turns his master’s poetry into song. His narrative begins:


I curse the day when my murshid clapped eyes on Madho.
      For until that black, godforsaken day, I, Maqbool, had known the warmth of my murshid’s love. Then, in an instant, I was displaced.
      Of parting, the pain is intense
      O Mother, where shall I turn?
      Rises from His fire smoke,
      And red is its burn.
My murshid wrote these words.
      This bread of sorrow, this stew of thorns
      Cooked on a flame of sighs…
These words soaked in the beauty of pain. He wrote them yesterday, writhing in agony.


In a way, the two narratives are the same: the poetry in the Maqbool chapters speaks of Shah Hussain’s love for Madho but they also express what Maqbool feels for Shah Hussain. Interspersed with Sarbpreet Singh’s own translation of the kafis, this narration of love and longing by Shah Hussain feeds into Maqbool’s longing, indeed any beloved’s longing. Here is Shah Hussain making a point about sufi’s way of loving:


The awakening of divine love in the soul of a Sufi is a mysterious thing and is often difficult for the world to understand. The poems of Shaikh, which were inspired by that awakening, were much misunderstood, as was the awakening of love in Maulana Rumi that was brought by his encounter with Shams of Tabriz.


Apart from such meditations on soaking in pain and love, the novel is quite grounded in history. Shah Hussain’s encounters with Emperor Akbar, Bhagat Parasram, and Guru Arjan (the fifth Sikh Guru), and references to Shah Hussain’s contemporary Ras Khan (the Muslim poet who became a devotee of the Hindu deity Krishna) add to the novel’s appeal.

The larger, historical parts that bring alive the 16th century are sometimes far stronger in their fictional treatment than the parts about Shah Hussain or Maqbool as individuals in love. Here is Shah Hussain being questioned in front of Emperor Akbar being questioned for not sporting a beard like a good Muslim. The episode is engaging not just for its  reference to the historical figure but also for its wonderful handling of one of Shah Hussain’s “miracles”. The Emperor’s chief cleric questions Shah Hussain:


‘… perhaps you will explain to the Badshah Salamat [Emperor] why you do not keep a beard of the appropriate length?’
      My master said nothing. He merely stroked his chin and looked reflectively at the Badshah, who looked at the cleric with barely suppressed anger.
      ‘What do you mean, Abdul Nabi?’ said the Badshah. ‘His beard looks exactly the prescribed length to me!’
      The cleric looked at the Badshah aghast. ‘But Sire, his face is shaven smooth!’
      ‘Have you gone blind, Abdul Nabi?’ the Badshah thundered. ‘I see his beard clearly.’
      The entire assembly looked at my master’s face and none dared to affirm that my master’s face was indeed as smooth as a baby’s.


The Sufi’s Nightingale is delightful in those parts that concern history and wonderfully aching in the ones that speak of yearnings of love. In both, it maintains a sense of tenderness towards the sufi saint it is dedicated to. Because it borders on hagiography, it arguably fits into the genre of sensitively written hagiographical fiction, the form that blurs the difference between history, myth, legend, and fiction about a figure from the past.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.