The renowned Indian English dramatist, Sri Aurobindo, was reared in the West for almost a decade and a half in his formative years. He was exposed to the Eastern culture only after he returned home in the first decade of the twentieth century. Contrasting ways of living between these two vastly different cultures had a profound influence on his creative mind. His earliest play, The Viziers of Bassora, clearly reflects this influence. It is an engrossing drama of wild passions, religious freedom, cultural encounter and the East-West conflict. The Western ideals are contrasted sharply by the dramatist in the play against the Eastern principles of the socio-religious code of conduct. The article here attempts to shed some light on this theme as dramatized by Sri Aurobindo in The Viziers of Bassora.
The Viziers of Bassora, one of the better-known plays of Sri Aurobindo, portrays the Eastern culture through a highly religious Islamic world of Persia where every individual is expected to follow the divine code of conduct ordered by the Lord through the Prophet. The play is actually based on a folktale from the Collection of 1001 Nights, popularly known as the Arabian Nights. There are still some questionable precepts of the society neglected by the characters of Arabian Nights that found their way in this play by Sri Aurobindo. It is a medieval world where humanity was still trying to evolve out of a few archaic, inhuman customs such as human slavery. There are plenty of references to slaves, slave trades, inhuman punishments and human sacrifices in the dramatic literature of Sri Aurobindo which are unacceptable to the modern Western consciousness. Like all his plays, The Viziers of Bassora is one such play where humanity afflicted with such inhuman practices, transforms into a better world with acceptable precepts in the end. Unwavering faith in God, His timely intervention in crises, belief in indigenous customs and, the pure, unadulterated love is shown forcing them on a virtuous path free from vices and worldly worries. The scenes are staged alternately in Bassora and Baghdad of medieval Arabia. In this holy land of the Caliph, clash the two opposing forces against each other to assert the individual supremacy, through jealousy, petty quarrels, treachery and fierce fights.
It is a fascinating tale of medieval Persia with all the ingredients of an entertaining drama. The marked contrast between the two worlds of good and evil is similar to the contrast between the two opposing cultures of the globe. The play centers, as the very title suggests, on the contrasting personalities of the two viziers – the sinful Almuene and the virtuous Alfazzal, and their sons – Fareed and Nureddene, respectively. The sons follow the footsteps of their fathers. The different style of parenting by the two viziers has an indelible mark on their son’s personalities. The first vizier, Almuene, is a symbolic representation of the West whereas the second vizier, Alfazzal, is an epitome of the Eastern culture. Almuene brings up Fareed as he himself is – wanton, lecherous, cunning, selfish, insulting, stubborn, and lethal. In the words of Murad, the Turk Captain of Police in Bassora, Fareed is:
A misformed urchin full of budding evil,
Ranges the city like a ruffian, shielded
Under his father’s formidable name;
And those who lay their hands on him, commit
Not outrage, but a rescue. (Aurobindo Sri, 1971: 566).
Similarly, in the words of Alfazzal, Fareed is a “half-devil” (ibid.). But for Almuene, who himself is another Iblis, his dear son is an apple of his eye. In his opinion, “let him be anything, he is a Vizier’s son” (567). His over-indulgent, irreligious and carefree attitude towards his son and, in turn, Fareed’s materialistic, disrespectful and over-demanding attitude towards his father and society imply a Western way of living in the modern world. Such an attitude by a Vizier of an Islamic country is quite inimical to his subjects. The virtuous and religious Alfazzal’s comments against such parenting by Almuene throws light on his dislike of the Western culture and their upbringing of children in a carefree and wanton manner much against the code of conduct of the religion. He replies to Almuene:
These are maxims, brother,
Unsuited to our Moslem polity.
They savor of barbarous Europe. But in Islam
All men are equal underneath the King. (ibid.)
Earlier he comments:
. . . Why, it is just
Such barbarous outrage as in Christian cities
May walk unquestioned, not in Bassora
Or any seat of culture. . . . (ibid.)
These words of Alfazzal can be interpreted in the light of cultural differences that existed between the Eastern and the Western worlds of Sri Aurobindo’s times. As he himself puts it in his well-known philosophical treatise, Essays Divine and Human, “if circumstances have changed, the essential opposition abides; East is still East in its soul and West is still West . . .” (Aurobindo, 1997: 389). It could be that the changing culture of the East was emulating the West which he found disturbing when the dramatist returned to India after his education in England. The young generation of such a world in the West was being led astray on the materialistic, irreligious and sinful path of wanton behavior and wine and woman due to the decline of the religious, ethical and moral values in their part of the world. In the late Victorian and early modern period, there was a definite change noticeable in terms of familial values in Europe and in England. As the noted critic, W.R. Goodman, points out in his book, Quintessence of Literary Essays, in England “where parents and children were concerned, there was a breakup of the old authoritarian pattern” (Goodman, 1995: 111). The dramatist so presents the darker side of such a modern but disturbing world of the new generation using the popular folktale from the Arabian Nights in his Viziers . . . to highlight the cultural differences between the West and the East and to emphasize the significance of good breeding according to the dictates of indigenous culture and, above all, of the religion and belief in and submission to the will of God. Fareed, and initially, Nureddene, too, represent such a careless younger world emulating the West. Unfortunately, Fareed’s proud father fuels the materialistic, carefree, and wanton behavior of his son. He even does not heed the protests and warnings of his wife and Fareed’s mother, Khatoon, against allowing him a free hand. Such parenting would naturally lead the offspring to the path of destruction. The son so becomes a wanton, careless, and a spoilt brat much to the chagrin of his mother. To fulfill his growing needs and also in frustration of not getting the beautiful slave, Anice, Fareed even doesn’t hesitate to insult and to attempt poisoning his own father. Even then, Almuene doesn’t bother to show him the right way to live. Instead, the Vizier plans revenge against Alfazzal’s family for snatching away Anice from Fareed’s hands. In the process, he forgets all the ethical, moral, humanitarian, and religious values of the world. In the end, he is destroyed by the Caliph, the “great Vicegerent of the Lord” (734).
On the other hand, Alfazzal brings up his son, Nureddene, in the virtuous mold just like him. He is a genuine follower of Islam. The culture of the East runs through his blood. “The kind Alfazzal! Bassora is bright only because of his presence” (563) as Murad, the Turk Captain of Police of Bassora says of him. Like a concerned parent, the good Vizier does not appreciate vagabond Noureddine’s youthful vagaries. True to his eastern parental mentality, he wants his son to marry and settle down in life as early as possible. He often scolds him and checks his youthful indulgences and extravagant expenses. He even forbids him initially to cast his eyes on the beautiful slave girl, Anice, to avoid any sinful and ill influence of ‘woman’ on his young heart. However, after noticing the light of pure love in the hearts of the lovers, and due to the entreaties by his wife, Ameena, and his niece, Doonya, he relents and assents to their union, but not before warning his son against indulging with other girls other than the chosen one. Here, Alfazzal recognizes the power of genuine and sacred love, not merely a physical attraction, between the two righteous young ones, and backs them wholeheartedly until the end even at the cost of his position in the King’s Court. For his wife, Ameena, the love between Nureddene and Anice is “Fate intended” (614) – God’s Will. His father, Alfazzal, is a true devotee of the Lord Almighty and follows His dictates wholeheartedly in his day-to-day life as the following verses from the Holy Koran expected him to do:
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
BY the noon-day BRIGHTNESS,
And by the night when it darkeneth!
Thy Lord hath not forsaken thee, neither hath he been displeased.
And surely the Future shall be better for thee than the Past,
And in the end, shall thy Lord be bounteous to thee and thou be satisfied. (The Quran, Rodwell edition ; at sacred-texts.com, Sura XCIII.)
Hence, Alfazzal’s belief in God and His benevolent powers are stronger than even his affections for his son. That’s why, even in a terrible crisis of the forced execution of his son by the King, he remains calm without revolting against the unjust King. His son, Nureddene was cheated and falsely accused of treason by the wily designs of the bad Vizier, Almuene, and so later was ordered of beheading by the King. The good Vizier, Alfazzal, however, prays for God and asks the distraught Nureddene on the scaffold to believe in the justice and benevolence of the Lord:
Bow to the will of God, my son: if thou
Must perish on a false and hateful charge,
A crime in thee impossible, believe
It is His justice still. (728)
In the end, justice is done by the timely intervention of the Caliph just before the execution of Nureddene. Nureddene is so saved by the Caliph who assigns him to serve and rule the subjects of the Almighty. The enemies of God are punished and the sacred love of the slave girl, Anice and the good Vizier’s son, Nureddene, leads to their wedding. Before leaving for Baghdad, the great Caliph endorses the power and mercy of the Lord for such a belief in Him when he says to the newly appointed King, Nureddene:
. . . . . . . . . . . remember,
That life is grave and earnest under its smiles,
And we too with a wary gaiety
Should walk its roads, praying that if we stumble,
The All-Merciful may bear our footing up
In His strong hand, showing the Father’s face
And not the stern and dreadful Judge. . . .(735).
This is a typical eastern feeling which asserts that everything is governed by God.
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—- Essays Divine and Human Vol. 12. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1997.
Goodman, W. R. Quintessence of Literary Essays. New Delhi: Doaba House, 1995. Print.
Jaiswal, Sheo Shankar. Sri Aurobindo Plays. New Delhi: Classical Publishing Company,
Kumar, Satish, 1993, A Survey of Indian English Drama. Bareilly: Prakash Book
Depot, 1993. Print.
Rodwell, J. M. The Quran, Sura XCIII, (tr.) 1876. sacred-texts.com,
Web . 04 Aug 2008.