Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Munshi Faizuddin’s Bazm-i Aakhir: A Picture Of Delhi From A Historian’s Eye And An Insider’s Memory

By Salman Khurshid 30 November 2022 The Last Gathering presents a picture of Delhi from a historian’s eye and an insider’s memory. It is also a handbook for the common reader interested in the life of the last two Mughal kings and life inside the Red Fort. It offers ideas of syncretism, empires and their impact, and evokes a cultural life in bloom through pre-eminent and contemporary personages such as Amir Khusrau and Ghalib. In 2012, when Ather Farouqui took over the reins of the oldest and most respected Urdu organisation, the Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu, Hind, established in 1882 to douse the fire of Urdu–Hindi controversy, he utilised his knowledge of Urdu and his translation skills to ensure Urdu was featured on the global stage again without diluting its authenticity. Anjuman is the organisation which is responsible for the canon formation in Urdu, much like the Academie Francaise in French. In 2017, Farooqui’s first English translation of Bahadur Shah Zafar as The Life & Poetry of Bahadur Shah Zafar was published, which saved the original book in Urdu by Aslam Parvez from further plagiarism by the English elite and historians who had had a field day using the text of the book ruthlessly without any acknowledgement since 1986. As he puts it in the Translator’s Note of Bazm-i Aakhir, ‘I do not aspire to the identity of a translator, knowing my limitations. These tasks for me are not just translations, but a serious effort at putting the historical record straight’ (p. xiv). And more importantly, when he succinctly says, ‘In new India, where the names of places are fast changing, nobody knows the future identity of these locations with their centuries-old names. Their topography has already changed completely’ (p. xvii). However, my take is that it is imperative to translate essential texts, especially the text of history from Urdu into English and, subsequently, other languages, from informed and authentic positions. With the fast-diminishing knowledge of Urdu, not only among the common masses but also among historians specialising in medieval Indian history, which is deplorable, these texts will be destroyed in transition by clumsy translations. Interestingly, Farouqui’s focus area is Delhi, and his translations open up the casement from which to view this ancient city through a modern lens. I have found the translation at hand especially to be a faithful testament to this. Bazm-i Aakhir: The Last Gathering is almost impossible to translate in the manner Farouqui has, exploring every shade of every word for which he has consulted practically every old and new dictionary in Urdu. This is evident not only from the text but also from the footnotes, which provide remarkable insights, and an extensive list of the dictionaries and glossaries consulted. An arduous task, to say the least—one of the dictionaries has 22 volumes! The original text comprises merely 66 printed pages in Urdu and 88 pages in English translation. Still, the scholarly Translator’s Note of 18 pages is remarkable, and the translated text with 133 notes is spread across 10 pages. This work is thus not just that of a translator but also a lexicographer. There are several instances where Farouqui has gone beyond mere dictionary definitions of terms. Like a fly on the walls of living rooms of Urdu-speaking families, he has sought out words in currency in lived private spaces that one cannot find in dictionaries, and to which historians working on Delhi are certainly not privy. One such example is Mirdhe (p. 87, fn. 3): ‘…a small section of Muslims comprising people who originally belonged to various castes, and had married outside their respective castes’, a meaning prevalent only in the small towns of western Uttar Pradesh, the Urdu heartland. Similarly, his meanderings in the narrow streets of Old Delhi gave him access to the word Tabreed, used in the local context: a drink used to counter the effects of a hangover (p. 88, fn. 6). This is in addition to the more prevalent meaning of the word, for which he has added four lines of verse, or qat’a, of Ghalib. He has recorded minor differences between the many dishes of Dilli with even the slightest variation in name. There is undoubtedly room to publish a separate coffee-table book on the culinary treasure trove from the reign of the last Mughal in the Red Fort featured in Bazm-i Aakhir. These dishes are fast disappearing from the Indian Dastarkha’n. There are many more instances of rigorous research undertaken during the translation of this text. I have two suggestions, however. The 20-page scholarly Introduction and the Translator’s Note appear separately, which makes little sense, and ought to be merged into one. As endnotes tend to interrupt the flow of reading this richly layered text, notes as footnotes on the relevant pages are preferable. I suggest ironing out these details in future reprints. Ninety per cent of the material referring to the later Mughals, specifically the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is in Urdu. As a result, only those with a good command of the language will be able to understand this reference material. The main text makes for easy reading and is lucid and succinct. Ironically, the decline of the Mughal empire was also the time when Urdu language and literature flourished, with spectacular contributions by great poets like Mir and Ghalib. Ghalib is undoubtedly the most fascinating figure of 19th-century Delhi. To use syncretic material from this period that is devoid of religious bigotry requires the translator to be familiar with the nuances and cadences of the Urdu language, as the untrained eye can easily be swayed into misrepresentation. This Farouqui has done with aplomb. At this point, I must devote a little time to acquaint readers with the original book’s author. Munshi Faizuddin was a courtier working with one of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons; therefore, his Urdu, though not accomplished, had the flavour of not only that period but also of the Qila-i Mubarak or Qila-i Mualla (Red Fort). In service since the days of Akbar Shah II, he had witnessed life in the Red Fort during the reign of the last two Mughal emperors. Faizuddin served as the servant of Prince Mirza Mohammad Hidayat Afza alias Mirza Ilahi Bakhsh (1809–1878). Ironically, Prince Mirza was a member of William Hodson’s spy network and was instrumental in the arrest of Bahadur Shah Zafar by the British. He was conferred the title of Shehzada and that of Chief Representative and Head of the Royal House of Timur for his services. He received an annual pension of ₹22,830 from the British government and lived in the Rang Mahal of the old city’s Suiwalan locality. The book was published in 1885 after the impact of 1857 had subsided. Faizuddin presents a lively account of day-to-day life in the Fort and its significant social events and celebrations. All festivals, especially Diwali and Holi, were celebrated with gusto. One gets a detailed picture of the royal trips to the Jharna (waterfall), the frantic melancholia of Muharram, or when the Fort was abuzz with Sair-i Gulfaroshan (Phool Walon ki Sair: an annual several-day fair of flower-sellers held in Mehrauli during the rainy season). As this was the 18th century, the nobility took great interest in Mehfils (musical gatherings) and dance. Marsiya Khwans (Marsiankhan were professional reciters of elegies) were in great demand during Moharram. Shatranj (chess) and Chaupar (a board game played with dice) were popular pastimes, while wrestling, kabaddi and swimming were equally loved. Food was also central to the life of the nobility: being an accomplished gourmand came second to being a music aficionado and poetry lover. The code of conducting oneself while dining, speaking and presenting oneself to senior nobility was clear. These mores were clearly understood and expected. The original Urdu work presents essential information that is not available even in well-researched books by renowned scholars. Its translator, Farouqui, has done yeoman’s service by bringing these lesser-known facts to a larger readership by successfully representing 19th-century ethos through his translation. Delhi has always been the focal point for historians working on medieval India. Currently, Farouqui is translating the massive three-volume tome about Delhi called Waqia’t-i Dar ul-Hukumat Delhi, an uphill task close to impossible, and because of this, in a way, concluding work on Delhi has remained untranslated. If the achievement of The Last Gathering is any indication, historians interested in Dilli are in for a treat. We eagerly look forward to more hitherto unknown facets of Delhi that the translation of Waqia’t-i Dar ul-Hukumat Delhi will undoubtedly unearth. URL: New Age Islam, Islam Online, Islamic Website, African Muslim News, Arab World News, South Asia News, Indian Muslim News, World Muslim News, Women in Islam, Islamic Feminism, Arab Women, Women In Arab, Islamophobia in America, Muslim Women in West, Islam Women and Feminism

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