Byline: Mobeena Shafqat
The mid-nineteenth century seems to have been an awkward time for the Muslims of Delhi: The rise of the British Raj loomed large and the city residents tumbled forth into a new reality, still blinking away memories of the Mughal past. But the nineteenth century would also prove to be a time of great excitement and commotion as India broke into a new age of intellectual and literary ferment. In fact, it was early as 1813 that the British East India Company had given voice to its ambition for a grander agenda - "A sum of not
The 1857 'War of Independence' (as the event was dubbed by the Indians themselves) caused a great shift. Flushed with victory and now the official rulers of India, the British hastened to churn such reform into reality. Nearly a decade later in 1868, cash prizes of up to rs. 1000 were offered with the aim of promoting "useful compositions in Hindi or Urdu"3 pertaining to either a branch of the sciences or of literature. It was only in the following year, that the first Urdu best-seller, Mirat ul-Arus, made its entry into the world.
The text is a narrative constructed through the lives of two young women. Though Akbari and Asghari are sisters they couldn't be more dissimilar, and their vastly differing characters serve as foils to one other. To elaborate, Akbari is the elder of the two and utterly spoiled, incapable of performing even the simplest of domestic tasks correctly. On the other hand, her younger sister Asghari, is a gem in the ordinary household: Plunging headfirst into domestic chaos, she never fails to straighten even the most impossible of situations into a perfect order. As her own brother-in-law, Muhammad Aqil, lauds her, "Asghari is girl out of a thousand."4
With his detailed descriptions of the household and a constant, yet energetic unfolding of events, Nazir Ahmad charms his reader, but his every anecdote lies he firm belief: "Education has more importance for women than for men."5 In the tumultuous times following 1857, it had become critical to re-evaluate traditional roles and for the ashraf (elite) Muslims grappling with the changes of a new era, Ahmad's voice had rapidly become one of the clearest. As for its contributions to literature, the novel's significance is perhaps well encapsulated in Gail Minault's words when she states that the "Mirat ul-Arus had an enormous success when it was published in 1869, and it remains one of the classics of Urdu Literature."6
However, the characters are quite like those found in a fairy-tale, and often strike the reader as one dimensional - If Asghari, as an admirable protagonist can do nothing wrong, then Akbari, as a true foil to her character, can do nothing right.7
At the heart of the tale lies an instructive manual, for Asghari is both the model bride, and the ideal woman. Mirat ul-Arus literally translated as 'The Bride's Mirror,' serves as a metaphor for the practical function of the novel: Frequently gifted to young girls at the time of the marriage, it served as a guide to help them perfect and adjust their own character - The more they resembled Asghari, the more likely they were to tread the correct path. Consequently the language of the novel, as Frances Pritchett notes, falls prey to being that of a "well-written didactic tale."8 But the detailed depiction of the life of an urban Muslims' family living in Delhi is of more value than it appears to be at first glance. Filled "with crowded markets and narrow lanes, festivals and weddings, money-lenders and cheats, spiteful servants and machinating mothers,"9 the text is not only relevant to the student of Urdu literature, but also to the student of history.
In its time, Mirat ul-Arus may have been phenomenal as a rallying cause for social change, but as this paper suggests, it continues to live its afterlife as a historical artifact, having carefully preserved the "social life (of a Muslim family) in old Delhi."10
In the afterword to G.E Ward's translation of Nazir Ahmad's novel, Pritchett informs her readers that at the height of its popularity, the book was not usually referred to by its title, but instead simply known "as the tale of Akbari and Asghari."11 In his own research on Hindi fiction, A. S. Kalsi observes the influence of Ahmad's literary techniques on Hindi literature.12 For example in Gauridatt's novel, Devrani Jethani Ki Kahani, Kalsi traces out what he deems the most imitable pattern - that of two antithetical women placed in a "comparative situation" only to demonstrate how the more 'educated' of the two finally triumphs by prospering in life.13 Ultimately, Gauridatt's novel was not as successful as Ahmad's, though it did win a prize of Rs. 100.14 The emphasis on the antithetical protagonists should be noted, but not misinterpreted in its significance.
While Asghari is a remarkably competent woman, and Akbari's many flaws never fail to entertain the reader, there is little doubt that their social backdrop remains a highly communal one. Their individuality then, is a factor that is constantly negotiated with the wider society. Hence, though Akbari is fond of "Chuniya - the daughter of Bhondu the sutler, and Zuflan - the daughter of Bakhshu the tinker, and Rahmat - the daughter of Kimmu the water-carrier, and Sulmati - the daughter of Maulan the greengrocer,"15 these are not sustainable friendships. She is chastised by her elders, and they are dismissive of Akbari's company as such people are "not admitted to our society or friendship."16 It is helpful to compare this with the history that Margrit Pernau provides. She believes that for the Muslim residents of Delhi, "membership in a family and an extended network of relatives was one of the key factors in determining an individual's social and economic status."
Consequently, when Asghari moves into her husband's home after her marriage she cultivates a careful distance between herself and girls of the "lower classes."17
Thus, while Pernau's comment pertained to the Muslims of the early nineteenth century, it seems to hold true for the Muslim families of the late nineteenth century as well, considering that Mirat ul-Aroos was published in 1869.
These notions of upright company can be further expanded into a discussion between the ashraf and the ajlaf members of the Muslim society. The ashraf constituted of the "respectable people," and as Pernau explains, they proudly (albeit often incorrectly) traced their lineage to those who belonged to the "Islamic heartland."18 The ashraf represented the Indian Muslim elite, and Delhi was regarded as the center of their culture.19 When Mirat ul-Arus was published, Sahib Bahadur stated very firmly that Akbari and Asghari's family belonged to the "well-bred [sharif] family of the Muslim community."20 The ajlaf in contrast, comprised of either the common-folk or converted...