This is no doubt one of the most enjoyable stories in Anderson's collection – brief, uncomplicated, hilarious. It's only recently that I began to have doubts about its purported significance. Let us begin by reminding ourselves of the salient features of the tale.
There is an emperor obsessed with fine clothes. He is always ordering new ones and trying them on. Enter two 'cheats' who claim that they can weave the finest of fabrics, invisible to all save idiots and people undeserving of their position. The emperor must have clothes of this extraordinary material for a grand procession of state that is coming up shortly and provides the so-called artisans with all the money and gold and fine silk they want, as well as a studio where they may work undisturbed. They only pretend to work; their looms are bare, their shuttles weave air, their scissors snip but cut nothing, their needles don't stitch anything. Courtiers sent to review progress stare pop-eyed but dare not say they see nothing, lest they be sacked; and nod enthusiastically as the 'artisans' point at the gorgeous designs they have created. The emperor comes for a final inspection and behaves the same way. Before the procession he strips to the buff and is helped into his new finery, complete with an extra-long train. He steps out, followed by courtiers pretending to hold the train, to loud acclaim from the crowds for none wishes to be taken for an idiot. Only a child says out loud that the emperor is naked; the populace breaks into murmurs of assent. The emperor shivers in embarrassment but having come this far cannot give up the pretence and carries on.
Now for the critical examination. We can take the setting to be Anderson's homeland, Denmark. The season is not mentioned but let us assume it's summer when the weather is most equable. Summer temperatures at Elsinore, most famous of Denmark's royal castles, vary from lows of 11 and highs of 21 degrees Celsius. Would even the most eccentric of European emperors wear only clothes of extremely diaphanous material in such weather? True, Dacca muslin enjoyed as much of a cachet among the royalty and aristocracy in Europe as it did in the East. But it was worn never by itself; and always over other items of relatively heavy stuff: bodices and petticoats among ladies, trousers and coats for men. I will spare you an elaborate description and refer you to Google Images.
It should be obvious that the emperor at Elsinore or wherever else in Anderson's Scandinavia could not have wished to parade in clothes made solely of material finer – let us say – than the finest of Dacca gauzes, even if it was summer. We must therefore rescind the suspension of disbelief that we have so long willingly accorded this tale.
After such deconstruction what can we retrieve from the absurd royal parade? There is nothing to retrieve but we can reconstruct the true story that has been disguised by the totally unacceptable fabrication.
The emperor, we are told, is inordinately fond of finery. We detect here the all-too-common phenomenon of displacement. It is not fine clothes he craves but refinement – cultural, aesthetic, spiritual. It is said he neglects his worldly duties and spends long hours prinking before the mirror. Is he a courtesan? What a caricature! Mirror gazing can only be a metaphor for introspection. The emperor tries to plumb the depths of his soul. He meditates.
At this point come the two so-called cheats. Who are they, where have they come from? A synonym for 'cheat' is 'charlatan,' a word frequently used for fake holy men.
The common herd, lacking the wisdom and enlightenment to tell the genuine from the spurious article can easily fall for the latter and dub a truly spiritual person a charlatan: it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that the two men who call on the emperor have suffered such a fate in the story.
I can clearly envisage the scenario. Two holy men of the East – mendicant sadhus or rishis or sanyasis – wander into Europe. They hear rumours of the strange otherworldly behaviour of a certain emperor in one of the freezing northern countries. They intuit at once that here is a man who wields temporal authority but secretly craves spiritual power. They are not at all surprised, for back home they have seen many such cases of rulers with spiritual longings. It would be gratifying if they could help the emperor on his quest. Being used to icy Himalayan weather they are not daunted by stories of the severe northern climate and set off for Scandinavia. When they arrive at the emperor's capital – Elsinore, shall we say? – their outlandish appearance draws curious crowds. They tell them that they have been wandering for years but that their ancestral home is in Bengal, by the sparkling Sitallakhya river.
The reader who has followed me with good-humoured acquiescence so far may baulk at this point and demand to know how I have located their original home. Why can't it be, say, Bangalore or Braj? I will tell you why. It is not because – let me be absolutely clear on this point – my own ancestral home is by the no-longer-sparkling Sitallakhya river. No, when the holy men announce that they are from a village by the Sitallakhya river, they can make out from the blank faces around them that the Danes have never heard about it; so they also add that the region is famous for the Dacca muslin, whose mention elicits appreciative gasps. The reader will realize at once that herein lies the trigger to the European folk imagination that produced the canard about 'new clothes.'
In reality the two sadhus spend their time privately initiating the emperor in the ways of advancing towards moksha or liberation. The emperor is a quick and adventurous learner and chooses to become a Digambar sadhu – sky-clad, ie with nothing on but the wide sky spread over us. The imperial crier announces that the emperor will reveal himself in his true form in a procession. By now the populace have acquired some acquaintance with Oriental spirituality, thanks to the presence of the sadhus, and are almost ready to meet the exotic tradition halfway. But the egregious folk tale is spot on in one detail: a brat blurts out that the emperor's got nothing on. The masses, forgetting their nascent spirituality, giggle and titter and guffaw; gales of laughter spread throughout the continent. The emperor is a model of dignity as he keeps walking, flanked by his preceptors, but all three are painfully aware that Europe has just missed a historic opportunity – comparable to Alexander's aborted encounter with gymnosophists – to integrate itself spiritually with Asia.
We are still suffering from the consequences of the chance missed. The woefully inadequate attempts made by Theosophists and New Age gurus to redress the situation only indicate what a sorry state we are in.
As for our emperor and the two sadhus, I imagine they beg and trek all the way to India, where they are warmly received by those of their ilk, who are numerous.
In the first two decades of my life Digambar Naga sadhus were an intriguing, awe-inspiring, disturbing, playful presence. Nanga Pagla, 'crazy, naked guy,' is my personal appellation for them, coined not without respect and affection. They are a colourful reminder of the narrowness of a petit-bourgeois artist/writer/intellectual's life, much as the Dadaists highlighted the narrowness of conventional art and letters.
But where are those outlandish, imperious presences now? In the independence war of 1971 the rampaging Occupation army would have shot at them or scared them off to the other side of the border. Ever since they are hardly to be seen, like a seriously endangered species. Making the land even more uncongenial for them, over the last few decades, as globalization has induced robust growth in GNP, Homo Economicus has become the dominant sub-species. As wealth and consumption grow our spiritual indigence deepens. Homo Spiritualis skulks in poky corners.
With such depressing thoughts I brought my revision of Anderson's tale to a close. My day's teaching was done. Then as I stepped on to the pavement I found myself face to face with a Nanga Pagla, a genuine Naga sadhu presenting dramatic mudras – mystic gestures. I was seized with a strange exaltation. I wanted to go up to him and ask for his blessings. Then I heard the jeering laughter and irreverent jibes of a few street brats behind me. Something was hurled, it struck me on my back and I pitched forward in awkward obeisance.
Kaiser Haq is a poet, translator, essayist, critic and academic. Currently, he is the Dean of Arts & Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.