Book Review: The Saga of the Shahanshahs

The Saga of the Shahanshas is an attempt by Adi F. Merchant to chronicle Firdausi Toosi’s poetic magnum opus – The Shahnameh, in prose.

Shahnameh or the Book of Kings is the world’s longest epic poem written by the Persian poet Firdausi of Toos between 977 and 1010 CE. Any attempt to translate it from Persian to English takes away its original charm and then reducing poetry to prose leaves one with just a dry flavor of the original. Yet, this is a brave attempt in presenting what the author considers as “a holistic work reflecting the pageantry of Persia.”

Firdausi wrote the Shahnameh in Persian at a time when modern Persian was emerging from middle Persian (Pahlavi) admixed with a number of Arabic words. However, in his work, Firdausi used pure Persian and in doing so, he established classical Persian as a language of great beauty and sophistication, a language that replaced Arabic as the language of court literature in all Islamic regimes in the Indo-Iranian region.

Adi Merchant’s book is easy to read and not entirely dry. Certain chapters do evoke mixed emotions of both pride and grief. The author skillfully succeeds in capturing interesting and amusing stories of great kings and paladins reflecting great contracts – of magnitude and meanness, love and hatred and of champions pitted against scoundrels. The book is laced with moments of glory and disgrace in equal measure.

Divided into 42 chapters, the saga begins with a narrative on Kaiomars, the legendary founder of the Persian nation; followed by Shah Hooshang, who discovers fire, the great Shah Jamsheed followed by Zohak’s evil regime, but, soon thereafter, a reign of goodness under Faridoon. It covers the Persian epoch from pre-historic Peshdadian times to the Sasanid era. The chapters on the paladin Rustom are naturally more exciting, including the dangerous expedition famously known as the haft khwan of Rustom. The chapters end with the sad story of Yazdigird III who was betrayed and killed in 651 A.D.

To give readers a flavor of the original, towards the end, the author also dedicates two pages to the wisdom embedded in the poet’s great work. For example, he quotes: “Tawana buvad hark e dana buvad. Ze danesh dil-e-pir barna buvad”, which means, whoever is wise is powerful. By knowledge, the heart of an old man becomes young again!

The hard bound book with a dust-jacket is printed on good quality paper with fonts which are comfortably readable. The book is also interspersed with pictures and illustrations which add to the book’s charm. Firdausi’s image in particular is very good. On the other hand, the coloured depiction of Shah Jamsheed looks more like the Mughal emperor Akbar or Aurangzeb. Maps of ancient Iran help the reader get a better understanding of the geography of that time.

Priced at Rs. 675/- it is a good investment for those seeking to know more about ancient Iran’s rich history, legends and culture. It makes interesting and inspiring reading for both, the young and old.

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