The European Enlightenment relished Sheikh Sa‘di of Shiraz, 13th-century Persian poet and moral philosopher for his work, The Rose Garden, a witty mixture of prose and poetry, morality and ribaldry, lyric and proverbial wisdom.
The 19th-century Indian poet Mirza Ghalib always evoked strong opinions about his literary worth. An early 20th-century critic proclaimed, “India has just two scriptures or divine gospels, the holy Vedas and the poetry of Ghalib.” Meanwhile an anonymous Delhiwallah quipped: “I get the verse of MirMir Taqi Mir 1725-1810, Ghalib’s most illustrious predecessor but Mirza’s just too odd. Maybe he gets himself, or maybe only God.”
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|1.||↩||Mir Taqi Mir 1725-1810, Ghalib’s most illustrious predecessor|
Riding to join the army in Armenia, Russia’s greatest poet Alexander Sergeievich Pushkin met a ox-cart heading in the opposite direction, carrying a plain box made of planks. “What are you carrying?” the poet asked the carters. “Griboedov”, came the answer. That was Pushkin’s last encounter with his friend, namesake, fellow playwright, diplomat, and now terrorist victim, Alexander Sergeievich Griboedov. Yuri Tynyanov’s 1929 biographical novel describes the last year of the hero’s life and his death, offering a portrait of Russia’s Golden Age of literature as well as a veiled critique of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
“When people talk of horses, no one ever thinks of China,” complains Yin Hung Young in the opening lines of The Horses of China. By “people” she may have in mind the kinds of people who compete in dressage, follow thoroughbred racing or work on Kentucky stud farms, the “horsey” people to whom Young dedicates this book. While horses have had an immense impact on China’s ancient civilization, this super power in so many aspects of the modern world is an also-ran in the world of breeding and racing. Young delves into the many reasons why this is, and why this should not be the case. In this enjoyable-to-read and instructively-illustrated book, readers will learn that this chapter of China’s rise remains to be written.
The Ming Dynasty ended in a slow-motion train wreck that inspired poetry, opera and wistful memoirs. It also provided a platform for remarkable women entertainers, the mingzi, to shine and even outshine their male contemporaries, politicians, literati and courtiers. Later observers admired the “manly” virtues of three heroines, Chen Yuanyuan, Liu Rushi and Fragrant Princess Li, their loyalty, their incorruptibility and their refinement, as well as their incomparable beauty and musical talent. All three met tragic ends in the collapse of the dynasty, but continue to live in literature, opera and cinema.
Murder mysteries make natural period pieces, because passion, crime, investigation and come-uppance speak to material culture and social manners. Miss Marple evokes mid-20th century Britain, Inspector Montalbano—contemporary Sicily. Raza Mir’s Murder in the Mushaira brings to life mid-19th-century Shahjahan-abad (as Delhi was then known), its Ramazan celebrations, noble palaces, shrines, shops and slums. He lets us smell the boiled sweet meats, the ambergris-heavy perfumes and the odors of the outhouse. We hear Urdu poets declaim their ghazals to polite applause as part of the mushairas of the title. So depicted, Mir’s Shahjahan-abad becomes a familiar place, despite the barriers of time, culture and language that separate us from the characters of his new novel.
The gold of the Scythians exploded into the world of museum goers when Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum sent these treasures touring to London and New York in 1975. An equally noteworthy exhibition, Masters of the Steppe, took place in 2017 at the British Museum. This copiously-illustrated volume enables readers to revisit that exhibition, and to ponder essays produced by 30 scholars from 12 countries. These essays appear, confusingly, in alphabetical order by author. It is best to start by reading the magistral concluding essay, and then return to the essays in the order they are discussed in the conclusion.