The Book That Changed the Way I Think About Love
Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love
One evening in December, I was walking aimlessly around the local bookstore when I spotted a book. Or should I say, the book spotted me?
It might have been a coincidence, but, it could very well have been destiny.
I am not someone to judge a book by its cover, but from the moment I saw The 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, I knew I wanted to read it. This was despite the fact that the title suggested the book might be a guide on how to love (which it is, ironically, but not in the way you would expect).
I took the book home with the intention of reading it right away, but strangely, I did not feel ready for it yet.
And so, I waited.
The book spoke to me again a few nights later. This time around, I was at home, alone, tears of regret and self-retribution running down my cheeks. I was at my lowest. The self-imposed home-isolation and several personal dramas had left me in the worst mood I had been in the past couple of years. It felt like I had lost all passion in life. I was going through a messy breakup, mourning the loss of a three-year-long relationship. My workout regime was forgotten and I had resorted to binge eating — filling my body with junk food in the nights and my head with regret the mornings after. I had lost connection with my spiritual self and kept following trends blindly without listening to what my heart said.
In short, I was a mess — emotionally as well as physically.
That night, it was raining outside, almost as if the heavens were weeping with me. Intermittent flashes of lightning kept splitting the inky sky above into two with loud rumbles of thunder.
And then, by the flickering light of the lavender-scented candle I had lit, I saw this book again. This time, I knew I should read it.
This time, I knew the time was right.
The 40 Rules of Love is the story of Ella, a forty-year-old housewife in Northampton living with the knowledge that her husband and her teenage children have outgrown their need for her. The knowledge weighs heavy on her heart, but she finds herself in a state of denial, desperately clinging on to the version of reality that she had lived for 20 years — that they are a happy, closely-knit family with no cracks running down the spine threatening to tear them apart.
Like me, Ella comes across a novel by sheer chance that ends up changing her life. Written by the mysterious Aziz Zahara and titled Sweet Blasphemy, the novel is set in Turkey of the 1200s and chronicles the mysterious relationship between the poet, Jalal-ud-din Rumi, and his mentor, Shams of Tabriz. Shams is a wandering dervish who comes into Rumi’s life most unexpectedly and turns everything upside down — the relationship dynamics among his family members, his disciples, even his understanding of Islam. This disassociation helps Rumi lose his worldly ideologies and get in touch with his deepest, most fundamental values.
Every true love and friendship is a story of an unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.
The 40 rules of love are seen as universal and as unshakeable as the laws of nature. They are scattered throughout the prose like gems, hidden in snippets of conversations between Shams and Rumi, and the common people — the drunkards, the lepers, and the harlots who cross their path. Through these 40 rules, Shams speaks of the layers and complexities of a love so divine, it cannot be contained within the limits set by our mortal minds.
On the surface, it might feel like Shams is talking about romantic love, but his words can be interpreted in many ways. After all, love itself can’t be defined. It comes to us in many forms, the simplest and purest of which is the kind of love one feels for their Creator.
Love has no labels, no definitions. It is what it is, pure and simple. Love is the water of life. And a lover is a soul of fire! The universe turns differently when fire loves water.
As Ella delves into Aziz’s words and discovers about the special bond Rumi shared with Shams, she finds her life decisions being questioned. Unable to hold herself back, she looks up for Aziz online and sends him an email. Thus begins this clandestine correspondence over email, text messages, and phone calls, that helps Ella understand not just the novel better, but her own life.
She realises that all these years, she had been living without love, that she had been unhappy. And, as if it was predestined, she finds a flame of passion burning in her heart for Aziz Zahara. A flame that threatens to burn her comfortable, “happy” life to ashes. A flame that might be more purgatory than destructive.
A flame, without which, her world was burning anyway.
She questions herself, asking herself repeatedly whether she should leave her family for a man she knows nothing about, and yet, feels more intimately connected with than anyone else in her entire life. She chooses to take the plunge anyway, finding courage in one of Shams’ rules:
Fret not where the road will take you. Instead, concentrate on the first step. That is the hardest part and that is what you are responsible for. Once you take that step, let everything do what it naturally does and the rest will follow. Don’t go with the flow. Be the flow.
Every page of this book spoke to my heart. It made me rethink my life and the way I had set my priorities. It helped me get over many emotions I had been clinging on hopelessly to.
But more than everything else, the book changed the way I would look at love. After I finished reading, I sat in with the book in my lap, too dazed to go to sleep. I felt as weightless as Rumi might have felt, spinning to the music of the ney, feeling nothing but a deep connection with the divine, a love transcending the boundaries of time and space.
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