Omar Khayyam is today best known for his rubais or quatrains but in his time he was better known as a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer.
The other day, halfway through a virtual conversation, or chat, I found myself unable to recall a much loved rubai of Omar Khayyam. This lapse, unimaginable in one’s youth but part of the daily landscape now, soon had me searching the bookshelves. I was looking for my Omar Khayyam and unconsciously, I was looking for that coverless, disintegrating Jaico edition that I had bought in the mid-1970s for two or three rupees from the booksellers who used to shout “take a look, buy a book” in the corridors of Connaught Place. The book with the tempting sketches of the hedonist resting against a tree and drinking cups of heady wine from the hands of a sinuous saki under a full moon, sketches which, in a summer of artistic delusion, I copied on chart paper and hung all over my room.
But that book was nowhere to be found; it has not survived the three dozen years and the dozen or so moves. Instead, I found three other Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, each an embodiment of pure physical beauty. The first, barely the size of a pocket dictionary, has a rich rust-brown cover depicting a medieval garden with intertwining branches, full-bodied roses, singing birds and fruits in the boughs. Each page featuring a single rubai, or quatrain in Persian, is framed like a carpet from the same land. The English version, with 102 rubais cramped into a few pages, is based on Edward Fitzgerald’s translation from the first of his five editions. This edition can be distinguished from the later ones by slight differences in some of the rubais. The most famous of these is: Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,/A flask of wine, a book of verse and thou…….; in the third and later editions this becomes: A book of verses underneath the bough/A jug of wine, a loaf of bread – and thou…I found this little gem of a book in the bookshop in the gardens of Hafiz’s tomb in Shiraz, where newly-weds come to seek the blessings and a turbaned dervish with deep set eyes and a flowing beard walks around the chai-khanah.
The second is a very slim 1955 production that I found tucked away in a second-hand bookstore bursting at the seams. The rubais, once again based on Fitzgerald’s first edition, are all inscribed on dull yellow pages and the remarkable accompanying miniature depictions of hedonistic abandon are in the same yellow and pastel pink. This edition satisfies itself with 75 quatrains and ends with the emblematic signature phrase Tamam Shud or “it is finished.”
And the third has nothing miniature about it; it is a large, lush and generous coffee table book entitled The Wine of Nishapur harking to the capital of Khorasan, which once rivalled Cairo and Baghdad and where Khayyam was born in 1048, as well as buried in 1131. This book is based on the belief that in order to fully understand Khayyam, it is not enough to master the Persian language; one has to be Iranian and have “breathed the same air, felt the same spring breeze on his cheeks, enjoyed the same picnic in the meadow…”
Using an all-Iranian team, it combines the English rendering of 72 rubais by Karim Emami and the skilful Persian calligraphy of Nasrollah Afje’i with the perceptive photography of the man who has put it all together - Shahrokh Golestan. The photographs are a non-literal, philosophical take on Khayyam- red sunshades of a side-walk café (each Nowruz hold tulip-fashion a bowl of wine), a long shadow of a passerby (whence is the entrance and whereto our exit?), the sun’s last rays on raindrops (the moon will wax and wane over and over again)…
Incidentally, nobody quite knows how many rubais Khayyam actually wrote. In the oldest extant manuscript, copied 500 years ago in Shiraz and now held in the Bodleian Library, there are 158. In later versions, succeeding scribes added more until the total swelled to nearly 1200. Edward Fitzgerald culled out the essential ones and rendered them in a free English translation, or as he called it a “transmogrification,” in 1859. He did not pretend to be too faithful to the original, often combining more than one rubai to make a brilliant whole that reads as one poem and not as separate epigrammatic quatrains. Incidentally, there was an Indian connection: his colleague, Prof. Edward Cowell discovered a Persian manuscript of the rubaiyat in the Asiatic Society of Calcutta and sent it to him. The resulting book went almost unnoticed and was soon in the one-penny boxes on the streets until it found admirers in the poets Rosetti and Swinburne (followed by Hardy, Elliot and Conan-Doyle) and went on to become one of the most famous, essential and oft-quoted books for the next 100 years.
In his lifetime, Omar Khayyam was known not as a poet but as a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. It is difficult to believe that his most influential work was a treatise that demonstrated the problems of algebra in which he solved cubic equations through intersecting conic sections; if you don’t understand that, please join the club. He made far-reaching reforms to the Persian calendar, linking it to actual solar transit. He was in fact the precursor to non-Euclidian geometry and to a heliocentric view of the world. In addition, he wrote on mechanics, geography and jurisprudence.
It is for this work that the man - who has hundreds of wine-houses named after him - is also commemorated in a lunar crater on the far side of the moon and in a minor planet - 3095 Omarkhayyam - discovered in 1980. One can only conclude that his scientific mind and philosophical bent questioned Divine providence and finding no answers to the perplexities that he encountered, he preferred to focus on the fleeting and sensual pleasures of the material world. Fitzgerald’s rendering of Khayyam’s rubaiyat has eclipsed the other achievements of this remarkable man, at least to the English speaking world, in a manner best expressed by Khayyam himself:
Indeed the idols I have loved so long
Have done my credit in mens’ eye much wrong;
Have drowned my honour in a shallow cup
And sold my reputation for a song.