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Bagh-o-Bahar: the garden whose spring won’t come to an end

By Rauf Parekh



‘Bagh-o-Bahar’, a masterpiece of classical Urdu prose, is ranked among Urdu’s evergreen books. Written by Mir Amman in 1801 in the spoken language of the day, the book, a dastan, or tale, was in essence way ahead of the tastes of its time that favoured a classical and ornate style of prose. ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ has withstood the vagaries of time and is still popular among those who enjoy its simple yet elegantly idiomatic Urdu prose. It has been published in abridged editions and translated into many languages, including English, Hindi, Gujarati, French and Punjabi. It has also been published in other scripts such as Devanagari, Gujarati and Roman English.

Originally planned and written as a textbook for the British officers who were to be trained and taught Urdu at Calcutta’s Fort William College during British rule, Bagh-o-Bahar’s popularity spread beyond the pedagogic circles, and within 20 years or so of its publication it was so hugely popular that it evoked the envy of many. At the same time, it also invited the wrath of the Lucknow school of Urdu literature that thought ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ was nothing but a deviation from standard Urdu idiom and Mir Amman, being a ‘Dilliwala’, was simply not up to the task of writing standard Urdu.

The Lucknow school’s answer to ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ came in the shape of ‘Fasana-i-Ajaaib’, a dastan written in a tortuously ornate language laden with metaphors and poetical expressions. At times, its prose so much rhymes that ‘Fasan-i-Ajaaib’ sounds like poetry. Though first published in 1843, ‘Fasana-i-Ajaaib’ was written by Rajab Ali Baig Suroor in 1824. In his foreword, Suroor is quite sarcastic about Mir Amman’s beautifully plain and colloquial Urdu and what he meant to say was that Bagh-o-Bahar’s Urdu was not on a par with that of ‘Fasana-i-Ajaaib’, which was the correct, idiomatic and standard language. Though ‘Fasana-i-Ajaaib’, too, survived the vicissitudes of time, today it basically serves as a sample of a classical style of prose that is no more favoured, but was very much in vogue till the 1850s when modern Urdu prose began taking shape. ‘Fasana-i-Ajaaib’ also serves as a gratuitous display of richness of Urdu’s vocabulary and Suroor’s mastery over it. ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ and ‘Fasana-i-Ajaaib’ are, in fact, not only the epitomes of two different styles of prose and the literary rivalry between Lucknow and Delhi, but they also portray two different ways of thinking, one supporting the modern and the other clinging to the old-fashioned traditional mould. So Bagh-o-Bahar’s another distinction is that it was a precursor of modern Urdu prose.

As for the source and origin of ‘Bagh-o-bahar’, it is by no means an original story. It is based on the popular tale ‘Qissa-i-chahar darvesh’, or the story of four dervishes, of which there have been many versions in Urdu and Persian. It was generally believed that when Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia fell ill, his disciple Ameer Khusrau (1253-1325) used to narrate the story of four dervishes to help soothe his pains. Mir Amman has supported the myth in the beginning of ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’. But the fact is that Ameer Khusrau had nothing to do with ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ and, as proved by Hafiz Mahmood Sheerani, since it contains couplets of the poets of the later era and it also contains the names of official posts that were introduced by the Mughals, it could not possibly be created by Khusrau and was written much later than his time.

Mir Amman benefited from ‘Nau tarz-i-murassa’, a dastan written by Mir Ata Hussain Tehseen in 1774, which, in turn, is based on a Persian tale. But Tehseen’s book was written in a language peculiar to his times and tastes: ornate and artful but artificial. Mir Amman changed it into a vivid and colloquial language. While writing the dialogues, he reproduced the language spoken by the men and women in the street, keeping an eye on idiomatic and literary expressions when narrating the events.

Another aspect that lends Bagh-o-Bahar credibility among the literary and academic circles is its ability to capture the phenomenon known as Indo-Muslim culture. It describes the norms, etiquettes, rites, rituals, attires, foods, utensils and jewellery. It narrates courts, banquets, receptions, royal processions, means of travel, decorative pieces, hobbies, beliefs, prayers, weather and even the names given to the servants. It is a portrait of the sub-continental culture and values painted by a maestro. And that too in a language that is almost entirely comprehensible even today.

Mir Amman is also held responsible for spreading the erroneous belief that some consider being true even today: Urdu is a ‘lashkari zaban’, or ‘camp language’. Mir Amman in the foreword of ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ declared that Urdu was a camp language since it was born in the camps of the Mughal troops during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, conveniently ignoring the fact that texts of Urdu poetry were available as early as in the period of Ameer Khusrau or even earlier. Mohammad Hussain Azad repeated the myth in his ‘Aab-i-Hayat’, thereby lending credibility to a false statement that held water till it was corrected by linguists in the 20th century, albeit some still find it difficult to swallow the truth. But linguistics tells us that languages are not formed that way and Urdu is by no means a ‘camp language’.

Published for numerous times by a host of publishers, ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ had suffered at the hands of some unscrupulous publishers whose sole aim was to mint money. Not only did they reproduce the text from the older and erroneous versions, they ignored the typographical errors as well, adding thereby new errors to the classical text worth reading and analysing meticulously. This went on, though some better versions too were published, but it was not till Rasheed Hasan Khan published his annotated and edited version of ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ in 1992 when we had an authentic and reliable one.

Having got the corrected version, it was for someone like Suhail Abbas Khan to evaluate the literary merits of a work like ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ that needed to be judged thoroughly for its various aspects. Deeply engrossed in classical Urdu literature with a perfect eye for grammar, prosody and rhetoric, Suhail Abbas was just the right fellow for the job. When one surveys the extent to which Suhail Abbas has thrashed ‘Bagh-o-bahar’, one is truly amazed. No grammatical or rhetorical aspect of ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ has escaped him, whether it is the lexicon, idioms, verbs, adjectives, nouns or morphological variations, Suhail Abbas has dealt them with rapt attention and erudition they deserved.

Suhail Abbas Khan, a young scholar from Multan currently serving the Osaka University, deserves full marks for the work he has done. Now we hope he will bring out another research work that will be as much worth-reading as his work on Mir Amman’s classical piece.

Mir Amman had hoped that anyone who would read ‘Bagh-o-Bahar’ would feel like visiting a garden. Even after the lapse of 207 years, his garden has not withered.

English translation

Tale well told/ Early Urdu prose at its best./ Mushirul Hasan/ January 31, 1995 | India Today

A Tale of Four Dervishes

By Mir Amman


Pages: 158

Price: Rs 100

Those whose image of Urdu literature is built on filmi songs and gajals (as against ghazals) will do well to turn to this slim volume, ably edited and translated by Mohammed Zakir of the Jamia Millia Islamia, to get a feel of the development of Urdu prose.

And those who insist on Urdu being a "foreign language" may learn a lesson or two from the tales of four dervishes. Urdu represents, though so few in our country are prepared to concede it, the values and traditions of a truly composite and syncretic culture. Read the Bagh-o-Bahar and you will know.

Consider the following facts. The Bagh-o-Bahar, an Urdu translation of Qissa-e-Chahar Darvesh, appeared in 1803, was rendered into English by Duncan Forbes, and published in London in 1862. It has since run into many editions and regaled readers of all generations and in most parts of the country.

The author, Mir Amman, belonged to Delhi but settled in Calcutta to take up employment at Fort William College. Unlike many of his co-religionists from his class who grudged British rule, he shed his inhibitions and joined an institution created by the East India Company. In fact, Mir Amman eulogised the contemporary governor-general, Warren Hastings, and his "ingenious" administration.

In a passage that would surely tease and torment present-day historians, Mir Amman commented: "By his charity and beneficience the majority of people lead a happy life; the poor pray for his life and prosperity. No one dare tease or wrong another; the tiger and the goat drink at the same fountain." He was particularly impressed by the spread of and the British administrators ability to con-verse in Urdu.

But then, Bagh-o-Bahar is not a historian's account or a chronicle of contemporary events. It is a fine specimen of early Urdu prose, rich in texture, brilliant in conception and realistic in portraying human emotions. It is a story-or rather, five stories set within a single-frame story-very much in the style of the Arabian Nights. It is delightful reading.

The book brings out the details of an unusual encounter of four wandering dervishes, three princes, an affluent merchant, and several other characters. These individuals are from different backgrounds. Yet they meet, chat and share their experiences without fear or inhibition. There is no bitterness or rancour. There is no misunderstanding of each other's position. They are candid and frank. They capture moments of joy and happiness in their lives, as also their trials and tribulations. Listen to what the prince of Neemroz had to say: " What strange afflictions this love may cause; It makes the heart restless and sad."

In the end, the story has a happy ending. Patience and forbearance has its rewards. Azad Bakht, the king, has a son, his heir-apparent. The merchant, the army chief and the four dervishes are beneficiaries of the king's patronage. All is well that ends well.

The locale is Basra, Baghdad, Damascus or Constantinople. but the characters are rooted in Indian soil. Their customs, ceremonies, festivals, manners and eating habits are Indian. We can so easily relate, admire and dialogue with them. We can join in their festivities, and also share their anger and anguish. Though the symbols bear an Islamic colouring, the reader is not pushed into an unfamiliar, unfriendly or hostile world. The structure of the tales, as indeed the narrative, is woven around themes of humanity, tolerance, kindness, benevolence and charity. Their appeal is truly universal.

Mir Amman concludes with the following prayer: "Just as God fulfilled the wishes of king Azad Bakht and the four dervishes, may He through His beneficience and kindness, and by the Five Pure Bodies, the 12 Imams and the 14 Innocents(God bless them all), also grant the wishes of those who are in despair. Amen!"

We can share Mir Amman's noble sentiments at the beginning of this new year.

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