(Sumeet Sood provides some background in comments following the story. Helpful to read it in its social and cultural setting. )
At dawn the haunting sandstone palaces of the new “victory city” of Akbar the Great looked as if they were made of red smoke. Most cities start giving the impression of being eternal almost as soon as they are born, but Sikri would always look like a mirage.
So begins The Shelter of the World, Salman Rushdie's mirage of a tale in The New Yorker ( February 25, 2008). It would be difficult to classify this story, not that classification, slipping it into the proper box, would tell us better how to read--or how to judge it; but that the question hangs there when you put it down, a distraction, a tease: an Oriental Tale, perhaps, from someone who knows the territory inside out--who might, in another time and place, have written the real thing, but--by way of saying that we are all outsiders and expats now, looking back, mining our memories and putting them on display as a kind of exotica--writing instead, a parody of a European's fantasy of an exotic tale from the mysterious East.
All playful language and imaginative winks, draped on a minimalist narrative frame, the story works in about as many folk and fairy tale conventions as can be contained in some 7500 words. The Emperor Akbar, a descendent of the conquering Khans, Genghis, Changez, Jenghis, or Chinggis Qan, a Mongal, who finds the word "horde" distasteful, and prides himself on a poetic soul capable of limited remorse at the need to dismember his enemies, has imagined for himself the perfect Queen--more real than the queens of flesh and blood who float about the palace like ghosts. Akbar has but one remaining military engagement, a "diversion ... to quell the obstinate Rana of Cooch Naheen, a young man with a big mouth and a bigger mustache (the Emperor was vain abut his own mustache, and took unkindly to competitors), a feudal ruler absurdly fond of talking about freedom." Akbar plucks out Rana's offending mustache and, after a brief philosophical exchange, removes his head. Akbar "had begun to meditate ,during his long, tedious journey home, on which he was accompanied by the heads of his defeated enemies bobbing in their sealed earthen pickle jars, about the disturbing possibilities of the first-person singular—the “I.” Back in the palace, he tries this out on Jodha. She ignores his bold innovation, drops her veil and murmurs: "When a boy dreams up a woman, he gives her big breasts and a small brain. ... When a king imagines a wife, he dreams of me... She understood that he had changed. And now everything else would change as well." And so it ends.
But of course, nothing changes. He will never refer to himself in the singular again. The "everything would change" is a stock phrase. We know this because it's the second time we've heard it. Early in the story, after introducing Jodha, we are told how everyone in the city around the palace had to remain silent when Akbar was in residence, home from fighting his many wars: a set-up for Rushdie to indulge in a bit of fun.
when the Emperor came home from the wars the command of silence felt, in the mud city, like a suffocation. Chickens had to be gagged at the moment of their slaughter for fear of disturbing the repose of the king of kings. A cart wheel that squeaked could earn the cart’s driver the lash, and if he cried out under the whip the penalty could be even more severe. Women giving birth withheld their cries, and the dumb show of the marketplace was a kind of madness. “When the King is here, we are all made mad,” the people said, adding, hastily, for there were spies and traitors everywhere, “for joy.” ...When the Emperor set forth once more on his campaigns—his never-ending (though always victorious) battles against the armies of Gujarat and Rajasthan, of Kabul and Kashmir—then the prison of silence was unlocked, and trumpets burst out, and cheers, and people were finally able to tell one another everything they had been obliged to keep unsaid for months on end: I love you. My mother is dead. Your soup tastes good. If you do not pay me the money you owe me, I will break your arms at the elbows. My darling, I love you, too. Everything.
Fortunately for the mud city, military matters often took Akbar away. In fact, he had been away most of the time, and in his absences the din of the clustered poor, as well as the racket of the unleashed construction workers, daily vexed the impotent queens. The queens lay together and moaned, and what they did to distract one another, what entertainment they found in one another in their veiled quarters, will not be described here. Only the imaginary queen remained pure, and it was she who told Akbar of the privations the people were suffering because of the desire of overzealous officials to ease his time at home. As soon as the Emperor learned this, he countermanded the order, replaced the minister of works with a less dour individual, and insisted on riding through the streets of his oppressed subjects crying out, “Make as much racket as you like, people! Noise is life, and an excess of noise is a sign that life is good. There will be time for us all to be quiet when we are safely dead.” The city burst into joyful clamor.
That was the day on which it became clear that a new kind of king was on the throne, and that nothing in the world would remain the same.
The bulk of the story is like this. Akbar raised by an uncle, who would have killed him but for the intervention of his aunt. The flattering phrases of the obsequious sycophant, Bhakti Ram Jain, the witticisms of his wise first minister. "If you were an atheist, Birbal... what would you say to the true believers of all the great religions of the world?"
Birbal was a devout Brahmin from Trivikrampur, but he answered unhesitatingly, “I would say to them that in my opinion they were all atheists as well; I merely believe in one god less than each of them.” “How so?” the Emperor asked. “All true believers have good reasons for disbelieving in every god except their own,” said Birbal. “And so it is they who, between them, give me all the reasons for believing in none.
As we might expect, Rushdie doesn't miss an opportunity to play with quasi-philosophical conundrums, how in the end, Jodha will attain reality equal to the other queens, as in the end, "none of them will exist any more than she does," on "the power of language and image to conjure beautiful somethings from empty nothings." All, as I said--in play. This would not be a problem if I felt that Rushdie was playing with real ideas, if the conundrums left me baffled, rather than merely amused; if, when I put the story down and ask what it is about, and can find no answer, it's not because what has been created on the page resists or transcends my ability to explain or classify it, like a story by Beckett--or Kafka; rather, there is no resistance. It slips though your mind like water--or air. A mirage, like the city of Sikri. Someone else's dream, like the beautiful Jodha. There's no resistance, and no wonder... when there's nothing there.