By KAREN CHASE
This story about how history and imagination infect one another unwittingly began a week after I arrived in Delhi for a month-long writing residency. The Sanskriti residents were told that we would have a chance to visit the newly restored Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb. It was about to open to the public. O.P. Jain, the founder of Sanskriti, was a major supporter of the restoration, thus this outing.
Our bus arrived at an overgrown park entrance where we traipsed alongside a river full of plastic garbage, climbed through hills of brush, stumbled over unrestored ruins, and finally arrived on top of a hill, a plateau, where the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb stood. At its entrance, a brand-new sign informed visitors that the tomb held the remains of Jamali, a sixteenth-century Sufi court poet and saint, and a person named Kamali whose identity was unknown. The conservator of the restoration would guide us at the site.
When we entered the small space of the tomb, I was stunned by its beauty. Two white marble graves sat side by side on the floor. The red and blue circular ceiling was decorated with sunbursts and floral forms carved in plaster. A band of Jamali’s verses encircled the ceiling. The conservator spoke, “Some have thought Kamali was Jamali’s wife or perhaps his brother. Others have thought that Kamali was a disciple of Jamali, the saint. The undisputable fact is that both were men. A symbolic pen box, traditionally a sign of a male, is carved on each of their tombs. It is believed, through our oral tradition in Delhi, that Kamali was Jamali’s homosexual lover.”
“But,” I said, “the new sign out there that you just put up says his identity was unknown.”
The conservator explained that in India a public sign would never mention homosexuality.
Jarred and inspired by that fractured moment as well as the intimate beauty of the tomb, I returned to my Delhi desk, and, to my surprise, I began to write as if I were Jamali speaking to Kamali. The imaginary sound of their 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. But for the next three weeks, every day I sat at my Delhi desk and wrote.
The night before I flew home to Massachusetts, the Sanskriti administrator knocked at my door and said that O.P. Jain had heard about my poem. He was coming to Sanskriti in a little while and wanted to hear what I had written. So that evening, I read my pages aloud to O.P. and a small group of artists. One man said he thought that I was inhabited by Jamali, channeling him. His comments seemed far-fetched and rolled right off me, but I kept that to myself.
While at Sanskriti, I hounded the people in the office with questions like “Did apples grow in Delhi in the 1500s?” Although the poem was a fiction, the physical details had to be accurate. Finally, they put me in touch with Bruce Wannell, a Persian scholar from York, England, who answered question after question as the poem unfolded.
A few facts are known about Jamali—where he traveled, the Mughal emperors he befriended, and that he was killed in battle in Gujarat—and are included in the poem. For the next year and a half, I kept writing.
I wrote one section during a month in Nova Scotia on Cape Sable Island, living in a trailer overlooking the ocean as the fog came and went. Mostly, I wrote at home. It didn’t matter where I was. Whatever was in front of me, leaves blowing or a bird hopping, appeared in the poem. I was comfortably living in the world of the characters. A year and a half passed and finally, Jamali and Kamali had had their say. The book was done.
Many people have asked, “Why did YOU write this book?” I’m not a man. I’m not gay. I’m not Indian. I’m not Muslim. I’m not a Mughal scholar. I’m not an art historian. I’m a straight white American Jewish 21st-century woman. And I’m not even young! I’ve crossed so many lines here—gender, sexual orientation, time, hemisphere, et cetera. Call it imagination.
Opening oneself to the unknown paves the way for a large exploration rather than the up-close, confining details of “what I know.” The unknown is a wider plain—a big, flat, open space where options abound. The endless screen makes possible a roomier grasp of universals, like love, death, separation. It makes possible “what is known by all” rather than the smallness of “what I know.” There is largesse.
When Jamali Kamali came out, friends and relatives gathered in my hometown bookstore to celebrate. In attendance was my old therapist. Afterwards he came up to me and said, “The flags are unfurled! This book is your whole unconscious!” Did the story spring unfettered and fresh from my imagination? Was I inadvertently mining my personal history to imagine this love story? Was I channeling the spirits of Jamali and Kamali so they could tell their story, as many have believed? Was I unknowingly braiding together Jamali and Kamali’s history and my own? Was the story somewhat true, somewhat factual? Curiously, a few people have asked me if my poem is a translation of an ancient text.
I do not believe that Jamali and Kamali took over my body and spoke through my poem. To explain this in concrete terms, i.e. “The spirits of the two men chose me to tell their story,” is too of-this-world, too bricks-and-mortar. But something was going on. The truth is elusive.
Writing these two men into life was unlike any writing experience I had before. Certainly, while working on a poem, I have felt inspiration, but never sustained for so long. It felt “given.”
Supernatural means “attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.” Before writing Jamali Kamali, the kind of things that happen to everyone happened to me. For example, for a few years after I graduated high school, every few months I would think about a particular friend, then the next day he would call. Not dramatic, but noticeable. I thought it was an odd coincidence.
A striking recent example. One of the loves of my life died a short time ago. I visited a mutual friend to find comfort. As I was leaving, she said, “Did you use honeysuckle shampoo to wash your hair?” No, I said. “Are you wearing honeysuckle perfume?” “No.” She was so curious about the smell, she looked up its meaning and later emailed me this: “Honeysuckle represents the flames of love, and the tenderness for love that has been lost.” I do not attempt logical explanation—something unexplainable was going on.
Here’s a different kind of example. Now when I see a butterfly, I often say “Hi Mom.” All to say, since writing Jamali Kamali an aspect of my lived experience has shifted and enlarged in a roundabout way. Although I don’t believe that the spirits of the two men chose me to tell their story, I do think that opening the passageways for whatever might come clears the air for unexplainable forces to breathe. It is beyond consciousness. Perhaps that’s what “given” means.
The Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb is said to be inhabited by djinns and ghosts. In the Koran, djinns are earthbound spirits that appear as animals or humans. Numerous people have reported all kinds of sightings over the years. Laughing voices, animals growling, apparitions—the list goes on. I was unaware of this when I visited the site. Maybe the notion that the site is haunted plays a role in the question of channeling.
I went back to India in 2011 to celebrate the publication of Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India, bringing the book to the Jaipur Literary Festival. Bipin Shah, of Mapin Publishing, arranged the Delhi launch beforehand. As I read from the book, Jamali’s and Kamali’s voices filled the room. Afterwards the moderator, a well-known cultural figure, opened a discussion by attacking me. I was shocked and surprised that he had been chosen to moderate the evening and suspect that Mr. Shah was as well. “You distort history by fictionalizing it!” he said. Then I talked about the place and power of the imagination. The eloquent audience broke out into intense but polite arguing, making for a thought-provoking evening.
To me, at that point, it was clear that fact and fiction were two separatable entities. I wasn’t “distorting history,” I was inspired by a snippet of history to make up my own story and saw no conflict. It’s not as if my fiction would alter the historical record.
That’s what I thought until, a few years ago, I looked up my Jamali-Kamali book title on the web to see how it was faring and found myself on 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—when I landed on something unexpected.
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 my invented poem. The website suggests my book, Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India, to learn more about the men’s histories. I immediately emailed the people at the website and asked them to correct their mistake, which they did. Relieved to have set things straight, I thought that was that.
But now, eleven years after my book was published, an article came out in CitySpidey, a media company in New Delhi, “How the tomb of Jamali-Kamali enabled the Queer Community to claim their spaces.” An excerpt:
Many stories are told about the tomb of Jamali-Kamali. Some believe both of them to be brothers. At the same time, another story is that of Kamali being the wife of Jamali. However, the tomb’s structure represents a man being buried. However, the Indian queer community sees this tomb as a ray of hope for queer history, which had been ignored.
Karen Chase’s work on the tomb further tries to legitimate this claim. Chase writes that the verses inscribed are of love. In Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India, Chase cites the verse:
In the plump dusk, I hear a peacock screech eye marks on my lover’s neck Kamali, let’s go to the lake to moisten our love scars.
I will wash mud from your muscled legs.
My secrets rest in the wedding hut.
I visit another man as the moon circles down.
Come my protégé, my Kamali to bed. I will show you moves of a new planet as no astrologer could.
Again, my imagined story has found its way into what is called history. The verses cited above are from my poem. They are not the verses written by Jamali, which encircle the ceiling of the tomb. Bruce Wannell, the Mughal scholar whom I consulted on research matters, visited the Jamali Kamali tomb and translated Jamali’s ceiling verses from Persian. These are included at the end of my book. Writing the story of Jamali Kamali was not “work to legitimize” anything.
And again, yesterday, while working on this essay, I looked up my Jamali Kamali book on the web and found a new example of my poem polluting history, cited as fact. I will not send corrections. What we call history is not always a factual record. More often it is a messy conglomeration of fact, fiction, and truth. It is beyond my control, like it or not.
I cannot help but wonder if the stories told in these pages connect. One story is how this writer followed her art wherever it led, to imagine a tale plucked from who knows where. The other story is how her tale is becoming woven into Indian history. Maybe my Jamali Kamali story is true and surfaced for enigmatic reasons. Maybe it is a “historical” text about homosexual men in India. There is no way to know.
But I do know this: as Salman Rushdie said, “Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts.” So it is that Jamali and Kamali, thanks to the impure way history forms itself, move deeper into the Indian story—they come alive through art.
Karen Chase is the author of three volumes of poetry and three collections of non-fiction. Her book of personal essays, History Is Embarrassing, will appear in 2024. She and her husband live in Western Massachusetts.