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On the Garden of Shalimar

March 10, 2016


‘The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell.’


Vladimir Kush, Heavenly Fruits 


William Blake wrote these lines in 1793, in the bloody social and political aftermath of the French Revolution. There was no imagery to his words; Europe was in Hell.


In that world, revolutions were being launched, wars fought, heads chopped. Steam used, factories built, coal produced and burnt. But Blake was in another world, where there was romance, poetry, good. The birth of Venus was being painted, the flight of Icarus told.


There are two worlds, both equally real. In one live facts and history. In the other, stories and dreams. The two worlds mirror one another and unfold in parallel; we are condemned to live in the first and only imagine the next.


But straddled across them is a fragile path that only storytellers and children can see. Philosophers call it a metaphor. We will call it the garden of Shalimar.


Shalimar is a Sanskrit word that means ‘abode of love.’ Like anything else believed in enough, the garden of Shalimar is real. It was built in 1619 near the city of Srinagar by Mughal Emperor Jahangir for his wife, Nur Jahan. Perched on four terraces irrigated by fountains and cascades, planted with trees that change color in autumn and spring, it is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.


Paradoxically, this ‘garden of earthly delights’ is located in the valley of Kashmir, violently contested by Pakistan and India since the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947. In the world we live in, on the 26th of October that year, the garden was plunged in utter darkness when Pakistani militants massacred eleven thousand residents and destroyed the Mohra power station that supplied electricity to Srinagar. In the other world…


‘A drum boomed immensely in the night, louder and louder, commanding attention. So potent was the drumming that it froze people in their tracks, it silenced the rumors and got everyone’s attention. The little man, Sarkar the magician, was marching down the central avenue of the garden, hammering away at his mighty dhol. Finally, when all eyes were on him, he raised a megaphone to his lips and bellowed, “Fuck this. I came here to do something and I’m going to do it. The genius of my magic will triumph over the ugliness of the times. On the seventh beat of my drum, the Shalimar garden will disappear.”


He banged the drum, one, two, three, four, five, six times. On the seventh boom, just as he had foretold, the whole Shalimar Bagh vanished from sight. Pitch blackness descended. People began to scream.’


- Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown


There are two worlds, both equally real. We live in one where a gun fired becomes a child dead, too much rainfall becomes a flooded refugee camp, a voice against a government becomes last words said. But across the garden of Shalimar exists another world, where ‘a rope could become air. A boy could become a bird.’


In it float thousands of red balloons that that no bullet can pop. A refugee pianist plays Beethoven in the rubble and mud. Wars are fought with actual roses, ceasefires declared in verse.


Reality is what you make of it. ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.' We sad and jaded grownups, who live on this side of the garden of Shalimar, can only imagine

‘To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.’

- William Blake, Auguries of Innocence


But if the storytellers and children can see it, then that other world is real.


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