Here’s a story about how imagination and history get mixed up. Jamali was a 16th century Sufi court poet who lived in Delhi. According to Delhi’s oral tradition, he had a male lover named Kamali, although no-one knows who Kamali was. For nearly 500 years, this story has traveled down from generation to generation.
I stumbled upon these characters while I was in Delhi for a writing residency. One week after I had arrived, the residents were told that later that day, we would have a chance to visit the newly restored Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb.
Our bus arrived at an overgrown park entrance. We traipsed alongside a river full of plastic trash, climbed through hills of brush, climbed over unrestored ruins and arrived on top of a hill where the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb stood. A brand new sign at its entrance informed visitors that the Tomb held the remains of Jamali, a 16th century Sufi Court Poet and Kamali, whose identity, the sign said, was unknown.
The small tomb’s intimacy was stunning. Looking at the two white marble graves, the conservator of the restoration explained who Jamali was, then said, “It is believed, through oral tradition, that Kamali was his homosexual lover.” “What?” I blurted out, “But….the new sign out front says his identity was unknown.”
Jarred by that fractured moment, when I returned to my Delhi desk, I began to write as if I were Jamali speaking to Kamali. The sound of their imaginary voices propelled me forward. I had neither plan, nor goal. Seeing the beauty of their graves, hearing the tale that had been passed down, spurred me on to invent a story of love, sex, separation and death. It is not based on any historical record – there isn’t one.
I went back to India in 2011 to celebrate the book’s publication bringing Jamali-Kamali to the Jaipur Literary Festival. Bipin Shah, of Mapin Publishing, arranged the Delhi book launch. To our amazement, the moderator scolded me. How dare I take on these historical figures and record my imaginings? The audience argued like a bunch of eloquent, intense debaters. I argued my case for the imagination, then read. Jamali and Kamali’s voices filled the room. Later that night, I remembered Salman Rushdie’s words: A poet’s work is to name the unnameable…to shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.
One day, months later, I looked up my Jamali-Kamali book title to see what was happening with it. I ended up on an Indian website, a travel portal to Delhi. I was reading about the historical monument, the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb - which subway to take for your visit – opens at sunrise - closes at sunset - Thai restaurant nearby. Then I was shocked to read:
Jamali Kamali offers a fine piece of structural design and a fascinating story behind it.
After his death in 1535, Jamali was buried in his tomb alongside Kamali. Very few are aware that both these men were deeply in love with each other. In Jamali’s poetic works you can find passionate words and phrases describing his immense love for Kamali such as “On the map of your body, there is nowhere I would not travel.”
The “fascinating story” behind the monument is a fiction! It comes from my imagined poem, not from historical facts. Jamali did not write the line quoted above. I did.
The webpage relates a few details about Jamali’s life as if they are facts, but the details are taken from the invented poem. The website suggests reading my book, Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India, to those interested in more of the men’s histories.
As Rushdie wrote Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts. And Jamali and Kamali, thanks to one website’s misrepresentation, move deeper into the Indian story -- history coming alive through art.