Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 July 2004
Issue No. 700
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Manmohan Singh

Staging independence

Manmohan Singh, India's new prime minister, reminisces about meeting with Naguib Mahfouz

Once turbulent and swollen, the mysterious Nile now flows gently through Cairo like a flat, tamed picture of peace and non-violence. Thousands of neon lights and flashing signs in French, English and Arabic break into eerie reflections on the ripples stirred by boats sailing on Cairo by night cruises.

Click to view caption
Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, the year of his meeting with Manmohan Singh, and of his Nobel citation

As we walked on the waterfront of the Casino El-Nil, on the left bank of the Nile, our conversation turned to river themes, to the great riparian spirit of the Nile that had shaped the destiny of Egypt. I asked Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel Laureate, if the lights of Cairo by night covered rather than illuminated the sins and stinks of the city.

"Yes," he answered. "These lights hide the pollution of a damned river." Or was that dammed?

Accompanied by Ibrahim Ayad El- Marghy, the then Under-Secretary for International Cultural Cooperation and an Egyptian Indiophile, we found Naguib Mahfouz waiting for us in the coffee house he had haunted, like the living spirit of Cairo, for many years. I had already seen many photographs of him before in the adulatory coverage that was a regular feature of the press. In his cream coloured jacket Mahfouz appeared a picture of perfect simplicity and austerity. When I first saw him he immediately reminded of Dr Salim Ali, the grand old man of Indian ornithology, minus the beard. Indeed, the resemblance became painfully nostalgic when, like Salim Ali, Mahfouz leaned towards me with the hearing aid fitted on his left ear.

I told him later that in contrast I appeared to be colourfully dressed. Perhaps like an Indian bird? He seemed to agree. Or perhaps to cover up my lacklustre self? He laughed it away, shaking his head.

Our conversation in the coffee house turned to Rabindranath Tagore. Everybody in the Indian Mission had told me about Mahfouz's fondness for Tagore. I had framed many questions in my mind before I met him. Like which work of Tagore did he like best? Did he read Tagore in Arabic translations or in English? When did he last read a major work of Tagore?

"I read Tagore every morning, like a prayer," Naguib Mahfouz interrupted me. After that I knew no more questions needed to be asked except, perhaps, what so fascinated him about Tagore. He clinched that in a short sentence: Mahfouz liked Tagore because Tagore was the soul of the world. Tagore lived in the cosmos, Mahfouz emphasised, and was its very soul.

Mahfouz turned out to be precise in his conversation, perhaps because of his auditory disability. He would often break into English to elaborate, to correct and to redefine what he had really said and meant. And when he stopped talking his silence spoke through gestures and rounded off his statements. He told me that four of Tagore's works had been translated into Arabic.

Being so close to the river we tended to return to it. I asked him about the Nile and what the river meant to him in his personal life and as a part of the Egyptian collective unconscious. "The Nile," he said, pointing to the river, "was the very source of life. You see that great river. It rolls on and on. This is our culture." I told him how we treated our rivers like the books of wisdom, like living beings, kind and sometimes angry. "Like the Ganga," he intervened. I told him about how these Books of Wisdom in their polluted state now carried the sins and stains of progress. He responded in Arabic, suggesting how progress had effaced the alphabet of learning from the pages of the rivers.

He told me in English about how he was affected by "the pains that are so numerous". I particularly asked him about the compassion and understanding his novels showed for suffering women, particularly for those whom we ostracise as "fallen". He articulated his answer within the much larger framework of human destiny and the eternal battle between ambitions and values, between the good and the sordid.

About injustice and cruelty in the world, Mahfouz said that he was beginning to see some hope in the dialogues of peace that had started. Perhaps he referred to the then recent peace overtures and the Camp David spirit. He was hopeful, he said, that good might eventually triumph and that the best part of human creativity was yet to be.

I asked him about the invitation that he had received from India and he told me that he was not even going to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. He hardly ever traveled abroad, though he fondly hoped that he would still be able to visit India. "Insha Allah, one day," he said to my persistent inquiries as to when that could be. He told me, too, how the news of progress being made by India and our commitments to peace pleased him.

When I told him that I had not brought his books along for the autographing, he was very gracious in his response. "I have an open door for you," he told me. "Come anytime." It was not one of those formal responses that are made but never meant.

We walked to the flight of steps that led out of the Casino and as I looked back, we waved goodbye. In the medley of lights and shadows on the Nile he was a luminous and distinct presence. On his tinted glasses the tiny lights broke into a prismatic radiance.

Mahfouz is like a brooding presence over Cairo. Ibrahim, my escort and a great friend of Mahfouz for years, told me how he had once asked him about buying a car. Mahfouz walked almost everyday from his third floor apartment to this casino on the river. If he bought a car, he told Ibrahim, he would be deprived of the sights and sounds of people. When he walked through the streets he did not resent the discomfort of walking or, for that matter, being deprived of the luxury of a car. A car would have amputated him from the common people who were the main characters in his books.

Ibrahim produced a torrent of stories about Mahfouz. The driver of our car, hearing the name Mahfouz, intervened to tell us about the books of Mahfouz that he had read. Even the mechanic from the Indian Embassy knew a great deal about Mahfouz. He had read the novel The Beginning and the End before seeing the film based on this novel. I told Ibrahim that Mahfouz was right in not purchasing a car. He truly was a people's writer. He has written for paupers and prostitutes, for workers and mechanics, for clerks and drudges. His was the voice of their silence.

Next day was the day of the open door that had unexpectedly opened for me. Mahfouz was surrounded by a number of school-age children. He hugged them and kissed them.

The taped question and answer session that followed was largely conducted by a TV producer from India. I often helped in refining the questions. The range of questions covered Tagore, India and the destiny of man in an anguished world. He answered them with his usual precision. The cameras clicked. He autographed all the books that I had with me and the photographs too. When someone asked him about his next book, he repeated the widely publicised remark that the day he ceased to write he would cease to be.

I told Mahfouz that I had one last question to ask of him, whether he had a message for the writers in India. "Indian writers," he said, "should carry the spirit of India to the world." I did not insist on any elaboration of a statement that seemed pregnant with meaning, and with a profound fondness for India.

Mahfouz got up again to see me to the door. I looked back at him. Never before had I encountered such a stately five-and-a-half-feet of pure humility.

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