There is something strange in our relationship with love stories. While most of us hope for that happy ending, the stories we remember are the ones that end in tears and loss, such as that of Juliet and her Romeo. Even weirder, we will sit in our sofas and snivel as we watch – yet again – how Jenny in Love Story dies, or how Rhett Butler leaves Scarlett O’Hara behind ( although she really had it coming, didn’t she?).
Personally, just the thought of leaving one of my characters eviscerated by the loss of the other has me in jitters for days, so I’ve compromised: no matter the tribulations they go through, there is some sort of reunion at the end, not necessarily all song and dance, but still, I leave them together, with the promise of future tomorrows. I know, I know; not at all realistic, but there you are. I’m a person with a huge romantic streak in me, okay?
Today is Valentine’s day, and in various parts of the world frazzled men will fall over their feet in their efforts to live up to their partner’s expectations on the day. Chocolate in heart-shaped boxes, booked tables at a fancy restaurant, an armful of roses…. Sigh. Obviously, I’ve screwed up somewhere, because in over thirty years with the man in my life I have not seen as much as a glimpse of a heart-shaped box of chocolates. I’ll retaliate by keeping the lacy bits well out of sight…
Anyway; everyone has heard of Romeo and Juliet, most of us have a passing acquaintance with Tristan and Isolde, or Lancelot and Guinevere. But how many of you have heard of Juan and Isabel, commonly known as Los Amantes de Teruel (The lovers from Teruel) or of Salim and Anarkali, a most tragic story from the ancient Mogul empire? No? Well, dear people, allow me to do the introductions.
The Lovers from Teruel is an ancient legend, harking back to 13th century Spain. It has classical ingredients such as a rich girl of good family (Isabel) that fell in love with a young man (Juan – for some reason renamed Diego in re-tellings from the 16th century and onwards) without a dime to his name. Naturally, Isabel’s father was less than inclined to wed his pretty, rich daughter to a pauper, no matter how upright. Juan wholeheartedly agreed; this pearl amongst women deserved only the best. Oh dear; things could have ended already there, but fortunately, Juan had a plan. He succeeded in convincing Isabelto give him five years in which to make his fortune, and so he set off with nothing but a beating heart full of love and commitment.
Isabel sighed. Isabel pined. Isabel dreamed. Isabel counted days, weeks, months. Her father pestered her to marry, but Isabel told him she’d made a vow of chastity for the coming five years, and he, being a good father, respected this (plus I suspect he was very aware of why she’d taken this vow) but wrung a promise from her to marry as he chose once the five years had expired. Months became years, and Isabel took to anxiously scanning the road for her returning lover, but as the fifth year progressed there was no sign of him. And finally, the deadline came and went, and as she had promised to do, Isabel married the man her father had chosen for her the day after Juan should have returned home. (I do find this rather callous behaviour from the father, but maybe he was seriously worried his radiant girl was well on her way to be an old, unwanted maid)
On her wedding night, Isabel woke to the sound of footsteps in her wedding chamber. It was Juan, shocked to find her married when he had, in fact, returned before the deadline expired. You see, Juan counted the day after his agreement with Isabel’s father as day nr 1, while Isabel and her father considered the day of the agreement as day nr 1. Juan approached the bed and stood gazing down at her, heartbreak etching fissures of pain on his face.
“Kiss me, before I die,” he told her.
“No way,” she hissed, pointing at her sleeping husband. “I can’t, I’m a married woman now.”
“Please,” he whispered, “kiss me, lest I die.”
“Juan,” she said, close to tears, “you know I can’t honey, it’s too late for us.”
Upon which Juan sighed deeply and died at her feet.
Poor Isabel went into a fit. She woke her husband, who was just as shocked as she was, and they decided to arrange for a discreet burial of Juan on the morrow, the husband very worried that they might be accused of killing this young man.
Next day, when she saw her beloved Juan lying on his bier, Isabel just couldn’t help herself, hastening forward to give him the kiss he had begged her for the night before. She kissed him and died, collapsing on top of his inert body.
This story so touched the hearts of the inhabitants of Teruel that they buried the lovers side by side. Their effigies (created much, much later) seem to strain towards each other, hands almost touching – but not quite, as Isabel was married elsewhere. Sad, right? Excellent literary material, which is why a number of famous Spanish authors have written about them.
The story of Salim and Anarkali is the same but in reverse. He was the prince, son of the emperor Akbar, ruler of the Mogul empire. She was a mere concubine, a dancer whose beauty has entranced Akbar. Father and son shared a common taste in women, but where Akbar viewed Anarkali as a decorative addition to his many wives, Salim fell in love with her – and she with him. They met in secret, they loved and yearned, and finally Salim couldn’t stand this anymore, but approached his father and told him he had lost his heart to Anarkali, whom he wanted to take as his wife.
Akbar exploded. Maybe he didn’t like the somewhat oedipal touch to all this. Or maybe it was Anarkali’s low birth that made Akbar tell his son to forget it – Anarkali would never be his wife. Salim pleaded, he begged, and when his father remained obdurate, he raged – which resulted in Akbar imprisoning poor Anarkali in a dungeon in Lahore. Things could have ended there, but Salim was a man on a mission, and besides, he couldn’t quite conceive of a life without his beloved Anarkali, so after several attempts he succeeded in breaching Anarkali’s prison and they rode off together. Yet again, things could have ended here, two young people on a horse galloping towards a happy sunset finale. Not to be.
For some reason, Salim decided to rise in armed revolt against his father. Though a skillful general and a veteran of warfare, Salim was no match for Akbar’s superior forces, and so things ended as one could expect, Salim vanquished and grovelling at the feet of his father. Well, I don’t think he grovelled, I believe he fixed beautiful, almond shaped eyes on his father and glared, head held high. Akbar studied his prisoner. A long, long time he studied him, torn between the love and pride he felt for his son, and the anger he felt for his rebellious subject. Finally he gave Salim two choices: either he surrendered Anarkali to die, or he would be put to death.
“Death!” hollered Salim, getting to his feet, chains jangling. The emperor must have been taken quite aback, perhaps realising for the first time just how much his son loved his Anarkali. But things were beyond the point of no return, and Akbar could not stay his son’s execution – not now. (Hmm. I would like to point out that Akbar was the EMPEROR. Of course he could have stopped things, but I guess he didn’t want to lose face)
The day of Salim’s execution dawned. He sat in his cell and watched the sun tinge the skies pink, and knew that very soon he would be dead. Did he whisper her name, did he beg for one last chance to speak to his father? No idea. But someone else did speak to his father. Little Anarkali, graceful as a doe in flight, left her hiding place and came to see the emperor. She loved Salim too much to let him die for her, and so she made a deal with Akbar: one last night with Salim, and then she would go to her death in his stead.
There was no curved scimitar waiting for Salim when he exited his cell. Instead there was Anarkali, his beautiful Anarkali, and Salim couldn’t believe his eyes. Had the emperor relented? She just smiled and led him away, and for one full night she loved him and held him, until the moment when she drugged him and left him fast asleep. She didn’t want him to witness what was to follow – or maybe she feared he might yet again attempt to save her, thereby condemning himself to certain death.
It is said Anarkali was buried alive. Or immured into a wall – alive. Neither of the alternatives hold much appeal… Even worse, in some versions of the story, Salim was forced to witness as the love of his life was walled in – which must have left him with permanent claustrophobia. Tradition has it that once he became emperor, he built his beloved Anarkali a golden shrine, a monument to a love so strong she gladly went to her death for him.
Sheesh. I’m emotionally exhausted by all this. It also seems sort of wrong to end a Valentine’s blog on such a sad note. After all, one may come away with the impression that love hurts far too much for it to be worthwhile. This is anathema to my pounding romantic heart, and so to end this little tour of fated lovers, I will give you a story of perseverance and steadfastness, of a woman who wove and wove while she waited for her man to return home. Took him twenty years to do so, and by now those more classically versed among you will have gathered that I am talking about Penelope and Odysseus.
Let me be frank. Odysseus is NOT my favourite guy (I’m a Hector fan). I hold him personally responsible for the destruction of Troy, the death of Andromache and the exile of Aeneas – although this last thing was maybe a good thing as without Aeneas no Rome (according to Virgil). He is also a savvy type, one of those people you can’t quite trust as they will extend their hand to seal a deal while keeping the other hand behind his back, fingers crossed. Ask the Cyclops what he thinks of Odysseus, and you won’t get a panegyric, rather he’ll spit and rage, cursing this particular sheep-thief to hell and back. The Siren will pout prettily and tell you it ain’t fair when men she tries to entrance tie themselves to a mast so as to hear her lovely song but be incapable of going to her. But Penelope will smile and stroke the fabric on her loom, telling us that “nowhere lives a man so true and fair”. Huh: I guess he didn’t tell her about Circe and Calypso, did he – although to be fair, one was a powerful witch, the other a nymph, and what was a poor mortal man to do but succumb?
While Odysseus was out doing his man thing (besiege and conquer a city; check, steal away important treasure; check, see the world at large; check) Penelope was patiently waiting for him in Ithaca. Their son she raised on stories of his fantastic father, and her days she spent industriously at her loom, always weaving. After some years, Penelope began to experience man problems – well, apart from the constant man problem of being without her husband, that is. We are told that 108 men came to beg for Penelope’s hand, and to stave them off she told them that only once she’d finished the burial shroud for her father-in-law would she make a choice. Every night Penelope snuck out to tear apart what she’d woven the day before, every morning she sat down to weave some more. Poor woman; how utterly boring! Anyway, one day her ruse was revealed, and Penelope’s rather odious suitors became even more insistent that she had to make a choice.
Fortuitously (which is how we know this is a story rather than the truth), Odysseus came hobbling in, disguised as a beggar, just on the day that Penelope had promised to make some sort of choice. Tired of her milk-sop suitors, of greedy men in general, she told the assembled men that he amongst them who could string Odysseus’ bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe-heads would be her chosen spouse. Now, had I been one of the suitors I would have protested loudly at this impossible test, and maybe they did, but lo and behold, the beggar stepped forth, stringed the bow and shot an arrow through the twelve axe-heads (which, one must presume, were made of something soft and penetrable. Odd axe-heads…)
After something of a slaying spree – Odysseus was mightily irritated by these pesky suitors – Odysseus and Penelope settled down to live in uxorious bliss. And while Odysseus is not my favourite man, I do have something of a soft spot for patient Penelope, sitting there day after day while never giving up hope that someday her man would return. Awwww…..
With this rather appropiate ending, this Valentine’s day post of mine comes to an end. And as to love, what is it Paulus says? “but the greatest of these is love” Couldn’t have said it better myself!