Qaraar Ali is a young craftsman in love with the beautiful Abeerah, cherished daughter of a General in the Mughal army. A wanderer, he seeks the company of poets and spends his time visiting the shrines of 18th century Delhi. Trouble is brewing as Persia’s Nadir Shah is gathering a large army and heading towards Delhi. In a few catastrophic moments, Qaraar’s life will be turned upside down. The once idyllic, bustling streets he knew and loved, become tragic scenes of chaos, bloodshed and destruction.
Author Moin Mir, already well-known for his non-fiction (Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince, a well-researched work that sheds light on the fight of an ancestor of his right from the East India Company to regain what belonged to his descendants), turns his hand to fiction with The Lost Fragrance of Infinity, a historical novel set during a time of political instability.
Qaraar hails from a family of artisans that have for centuries worked alongside the imperial architects of the Mughal court. Much to his father’s dismay, he prefers the company of poets and immerses himself in the works of Hafez and Omar Khayyam. He shares his love of poetry and philosophy with Abeerah and both are free to pursue their romance under the watchful gaze of onlookers.
Shah Rezaan, a reclusive Sufi scholar originally from Isfahan, arrives in Delhi, coinciding with a phase in Qaraar’s life when he needs an ustad (master). Trained in the art of Persian girih tile-making, he teaches Qaraar this craft, which later becomes a means of survival for him. Girih—which means “knot” in Persian—involves the arrangement of just five tile shapes allowing for infinitely repeating designs in architectural decoration. It is the “infinity” of these tile designs that are alluded to in the book’s title The Lost Fragrance of Infinity.
While the transformation of a mundane material such as clay into dazzling glazed tiles is an act of creation, it is tile-making for the purpose of conservation (restoration) of architectural buildings that becomes the central theme throughout the novel. “Restoration” serves as a metaphor for the rebuilding of Qaraar’s own life.
Sufism is intertwined through fables, poems and stories throughout the novel. As Qaraar travels through Central Asia, a miniature painting reflecting the 13th century Sufi Farid-al ʿAttar’s famous poem, Conference of the Birds, is revealed to him. Through storytelling, the author relates the poem to the characters in the novel.
On reaching the mountain, they discovered an inward realisation that the best resided in each one of them, and it was actually the search to understand themselves which was more important than finding the king.
In Turkey, the author weaves in the biblical story of Yusef (or Joseph) and Potiphar’s wife Zuleika during an encounter between Qaraar and a tempestuous Ottoman princess. The 15th century Persian poet Jami’s Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones) is the most famous version of this old story that had many elaborations, including the Sufi interpretation, where Zulaikha’s longing for Yusuf represents the soul’s quest for God.
Catching his breath, Qaraar spoke, ‘In the Haft Awrang the Sufi meaning of Zuleika’s search is explained. It’s love she seeks. Initially Yusuf’s physical beauty enthrals her, but when rejected, out of anger she accuses him of all sorts of things.’
The novel immerses the reader into the fading Islamic empires of the 18th century through atmospheric descriptions of street life, palaces and mosques, adapting the cultural setting as the story shifts from empire to empire, from Delhi to Istanbul:
In between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were avenues of lush green cypress trees and tulip gardens which encouraged people to stroll through them. Far beyond were dense untamed pine forests.
Much as Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red examines Ottoman society through painting of miniatures and in which representational art becomes a source of contention, The Lost Fragrance of Infinity is a novel about the conservation of Islamic architecture through the traditional craft of tile-making, an art form that as non-representational lies within the strict interpretations of “Islamic” art. Moin’s choice of art-form in the story gives him free reign to explore and bring forth ideas of Sufism to the reader.
Author Moin is the descendant of Hazrat Modud Chishti, one of the founders of the Chishti order of Sufis. His grandfather was a scholar of Sufism itself as well as the poets Mirza Ghalib and Omar Khayyam. Moin rather humbly describes himself as an individual with Sufi leanings. As to whether he is more than that, readers can make their own judgements.
The Lost Fragrance of Infinity is an inspirational story about the rebuilding of a young man’s life, conveyed through metaphor and symbolism adapted from Sufi poetry and philosophy to modern storytelling. It is also a story of love, friendship and the celebration of the diversity of people and ideas. Most intriguingly, perhaps, the novel gives Sufism a voice at a time when fundamentalist Islam has become the spokesperson for the second largest religion in the world.
Farida Ali @farida_art is an art historian and writer. Her work has appeared in Scroll and elsewhere.