The ‘Tale of Marvels’ and its contested style and legacy (Column: Bookends)

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Every literary work has its significance, for good or bad, but sometimes only its negatives receive focus, leading to some striking creations being disparaged, damned and doomed. Like this ornate Urdu tale of fantastic marvels, very popular and praised in its heyday but then long criticised as devoid of merit. Why did this happen?

The case of “Fasaana-e-Ajaib” (c.1843) is a good example of how the fierce struggles in literature, especially on the issues of style and tradition, between rival schools can doom some works. This was rather unfortunate as this “dastaan” by Mirza Rajjab Ali Beg ‘Suroor’ (c. 1786-1867) had one of the most attractive heroines ever seen in Indian literature.

The work is representative of Urdu’s Lucknow style, which, for its practitioners, was intricate and highly-polished, but was derided by rivals (usually of the Delhi school) as convoluted, conceited, frivolous and decadent.

And then he rendered it in “moqouffa ibarat” (rhyming prose), quite prevalent and appreciated in his own era of pre-1857 India but less than easy for readers in subsequent ages. (The style can be understood from Suroor’s chapter headings, eg. “Rihaa hona us giraftar-e-dam sehr ka jadugarni ki jaal se aur mulaqat honi Malka Mehr-Nigar sahib-e-husn-o-jamaal se. Malka ki tabiyat ka lagao, tazah shamseer-e-ulfat ka ghao. Baham ki cherh-charh, banao ka bigarh….”) or briefly experienced late in the first episode on 1857 in Shyam Benegal’s iconic “Bharat Ek Khoj” as a rebel soldier (Om Puri) explains the events at Meerut.

Suroor was also unwise to pick on his contemporary Mir Amman ‘Dehlvi’, who under British direction, sought to pioneer a simpler form of spoken and written Urdu with his “Bagh-o-Bahaar/Qissa-e-Char Darvish”.

Maulana Abdul Halim ‘Sharar’, in Guzashta-e-Lakhnau”, his magisterial tome on all facets of Lakhnavi culture, credits Suroor with developing Urdu prose, but notes “unfortunately, the author made an attack on Mir Amman in his preface, with the result that he was a failure in the eyes of the people of Delhi so much so that a refined and distinguished man like Maulvi Muhammad Husain Azad (whose ‘Ab-e-Hayat’ is the first history of Urdu literature), called him ‘that vagabond from Lucknow’. It is impossible to say how long it will be before the late Rajjab Ali Beg is forgiven for his impertinence…”

Quite long.

In her “A Critical Survey of the Development of the Urdu Novel and Short Story” (1945), Shaista Akhtar Banu Suhrawardy holds that “apart from the fact that it is the first original romance in the Urdu language, there is little to commend” the work “whose rhymed prose makes it difficult to read, and this difficulty is further enhanced by the extensive use of every literary conceit”. She doesn’t think much of its plot or characters too, save one

However, in more recent times, experts like Gyan Chand Jain (“Urdu ki Nasri Dastanen”) and Ibne Kanwal (“Dastaan se Novel Tak”) take a more balanced view of Suroor.

Suroor’s story tells of prince Jaan-e-Alam, finally born to long-childless King Firoz Bakht (like of “Bagh-o-Bahaar”), whose horoscope predicts a turbulent period in his 15th year. One day, at this age, he sees a prattling parrot in the market and buys it. His wife, Mah-Tilat cannot resist, a la Snow White’s wicked stepmother, asking if she is the fairest of all. No, replies the bird, it is actually princess Anjuman Ara of a faraway kingdom. An entranced Jaan-e-Alam leaves forthwith to win her hand.

Braving (and besting) evil magicians (both male and female), jinns and devs and picking up magical skills like transferring himself into another living being’s body, he accomplishes his mission despite Anjuman Ara turning out to be a little coquettish.

But, on his way, he meets and falls in love with the beautiful and wise Malka Mehr-Nigar, who is also patient, understanding and brave. Letting him continue his mission and waiting for his return, it is she who saves the day when Jaan-e-Alam is betrayed by his close associate, the wazirzada, who accompanied him on his mission but gets separated early on.

When reunited, he grows jealous of Jaan-e-Alam, who remains oblivious and even teaches him magic. Figure how that will turn out, when after a demonstration, ‘Jaan-e-Alam’ returns to the camp and orders all monkeys in the area to be captured and killed!

One of the rare works that has never been translated into English, and even difficult to read in Urdu save for accomplished exponents, an abridged ‘children’s version’ is available and tells the story with a flavour of the original language. If even this is beyond you, a transliteration is available at my blog vahshatedil.wordpress.com.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected] )

–IANS

vd/vm/ky

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