The poem in my mother tongue had an acknowledgement:
“This poem has been inspired by the feelings evoked on seeing the painting by Henry Siemiradzki ; in which he depicts an incident from the life of Emperor Alexander.”
What a joy! The poem and the search for the origin of the gorgeous painting! From various sources available freely online, I ended up discovering that Alexander the Great had caught a severe fever during an expedition in Cilicia, in 333 B.C.,by bathing in the river Cydnus. Philip of Acarnania was his royal physician, who prepared a medicinal draught for him. Alexander’s Macedonian General, Parmenion sent a missive that Darius III had bribed Philip and that the medicine might be deadly poison!
Alexander the Great trusted his physician and drank the medicine. Philip had not betrayed his emperor and Alexander recovered.
The scene by the great Polish artist, shows Alexander drinking the medicine, while fixing his gaze on the face of the physician to whom he handed over the note.
The poet Prabha Verma, took some liberty with the story -he imagines Alexander handing over the empty cup to Parmenion and the note to Philip. Also, he tries to surmise Alexander’s thoughts on why he would trust his physician and risk his life in spite of his faithful General’s warning!
Interestingly in the historical interpretations that I ended up reading, Alexander did not go by emotion but by hard steel logic: if he did not take the medicine, he would die anyway! If he did die, the physician would follow suit- no betrayer would survive after the emperor’s death. In fact a decade later, another physician Glaucias would be killed in 324 B.C., when Alexander was unhappy- Hephaestion had died in spite of the physician’s efforts.
Translation : Because he loved a flower without any reason (Onninumallathoru poovine snehichavan…)
Prabha Verma , Malayala Manorama Annual Issue, Onam Special 2015.pg 181-182
The medicine of life in his right hand
The missive that it is poison , in his left hand
Both reach him at the same instant
The great emperor: what will he choose?
The life draught is sure to be sour, in its vessel
Forbidding it, the letter from the General himself
Which to accept, which to reject,
The world conqueror drinks the medicine!
Death’s poisonous mixture, and life saving nectar
Are both these the same in this emperor’s eyes?
He extends the empty cup to his General and the note
Burning in intensity, to his physician!
The royal doctor stands terrified, sure of death
To his truth, to his own self.
The General’s body shivers, he is sure
He has failed to save the King.
If only he had pushed off the cup
Instead of passing on the message!
His sword has not warned, and failed
No answers to anything at all !
His chest burns with the smouldering
Doubt; the emperor does not trust me
He has not accepted the truth as seen
By the eyes of spies.
And then he concludes for a moment
Perhaps the way to cut this Gordian knot
And let go off, as a light breeze
This path of poison, the King has chosen!
Like a still flame, stands the royal physician
His eyes at a distance
Caressing his beard slowly,
Sure of his death, his destiny.
How many more moments for the King?
Those many for the doctor too
The General felt his silver touched sword head
Glittering as if in deadly thirst!
He stands staring at his King
The expressions, are they changing?
The heart beats- are they slowing, ceasing?
Are those eye lids falling, down and down?
The change is visible-
Like sun light the eyes glitter!
The face radiant with life,the emperor rises
Holding on to his physician’s finger tip!
Deadly poison, just a bit and death would come
The spy groups had said!
They are trust worthy, then how is it
The truth is different?
The doctor has been a child hood friend
Yet recently he has been seen
With the enemy,
Or so said the message.
Never has the spy words been wrong
Now life itself has proved it so
The King walks with renewed strength
In the path shown by his physician friend.
The General feels that the sword
Is looking at him,he feels a quiver within
Could it be that I invited death trying to stop
The medicine of life?
A hand on his shoulder;
The King leaves a petal touch of understanding
The General forgets himself, asks
“Why did you drink it knowing it is poison?
Because you know him from childhood?
Because you had reached detachment?
Because he had healed your pain many times?
Because the pain and agony were too much?”
“None of these,” said the King.
“Even those from childhood can betray!
Even while healing your pain,
Can kill silently indeed.
I saw him different because of
Some truths that will never change across ages!
The truth that the Universe has taught,
The eternal truth of Nature herself!
He smiles on seeing a flower,
Cries while staring at a heavy cloud’s pain
Patiently listens in the night to the wind’s music
That comes through the leaves and trees!
He loves the moonlight, flowers,the butterflies
Right from our childhood, with a compassionate heart
He stands here as my physician
All the documents I need to trust him are these:
Because he loved a flower without any reason
He will never kill a human being for any reward!
Because he has hummed a tune in his heart, without any reason
He will never destroy anyone’s life breath, ever!”
I finish translating.
A voice in me quotes,
Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek headed men and such as sleep o’ nights
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look
He thinks too much, such men are dangerous…
He reads much;
He is a great observer and sees quite through the deeds of men
He loves no plays, Antony like thou dost
He hears no music
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mocked himself and scorned his spirit
That could be moved to smile at anything…”
Ahhhh! Another great emperor! Julius Ceasar reading men and their motives !
Cassius does not smile from his heart, he does not watch plays, he hears no music…he cannot be trusted!!!
I acknowledge all the mistakes of my translation as totally my own! But perhaps this Malayalam poem, inspired by a great Polish artist’s depiction of a Macedonian Emperor- making a case for loving nature, tolerance, and insight- this is the sort of conversation people should be having world over….We will smile over the irony that the Great Emperor’s sword itself had not been that merciful!