If one were to play the game of picking ‘the odd one out’ of these four books from another age—very different ages actually, elegantly produced by Aleph as part of its Classics series, each of them could prove to be the exception in one way or another. Manimekhalai, a fifth-sixth century work from the Tamil land, produced in a courtly context, is considered a Tamil epic, while the sixteenth century Telugu Prabhavati Pradyumnamu of which The Demon’s Daughter is a translation, is the only poem; The Bride’s Mirror, written in Urdu in nineteenth century Delhi would, alone of these four, be considered a novel, a literary form that in any case traces its beginnings to the late eighteenth century. The clear winner in this game of exceptions is, however, The Principles of Sufism. An Arabic work of the sixteenth century, this philosophical and spiritual meditation does not, unlike the other three, have a ‘plot’ or ‘story line’ upon which different purposes can be hung—discussion of various contemporary philosophies, Vedism, Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikism among others, and extolling of the Buddhist path as superior in the case of Manimekhalai, a composition in honour of one’s father in the second case, and instructing young women in good conduct and efficient housekeeping—a fascinating example of didacticism, in the third. While Manimekhalai is named after its heroine, The Demon’s Daughter after both the hero and heroine of the romantic pair, Prabhavati and Pradyumna, and the third book is addressed primarily to a female audience, these three are works by men, unlike The Principles of Sufism, which despite little reference to women per se, is the composition of a woman mystic. It is also the only book of the four which employs diacritics. And of course, the fact that it comes from Damascus also sets it far apart from the rest; in fact, it is interesting that it is included in this Aleph series, which is apparently dedicated to preserving the Indian subcontinent’s literary heritage.
The choice of Manimekhalai for this series is also slightly puzzling because it is simply a reprint of Alain Danielou’s thirty-odd years’ old translation which till very recently continued to be available in Penguin Classics. The plot of the epic itself is convoluted beyond belief or comprehension—the Mahabharata which has more subplots and parallel stories than any other text on earth is probably less knotty and less given to improbable magic. At the risk of appearing a total philistine without sufficient appreciation for classical literature, I must confess that the plot of Manimekhalai appears just short of bizarre to me.
In republishing this old translation, Aleph could have commissioned some scholar to write a new introduction which cognizes newer historical thinking on early South India. In fact, I wonder if historians even in the late 1980s placed the two late Sangam epics, Cilappatikaram and Manimekhalai, in the first two centuries of the Christian/ Common Era. Many of the statements in Danielou’s introduction would be contested today, and would not perhaps have passed uncritically even three decades ago. For instance, the claims that the society depicted in Manimekhalai has ‘little to do with the Aryanized civilization of the north which we know through Sanskrit texts’, and that ‘spiritual and religious life is guided by sages, seers (rishis), who lead an ascetic life, living in the mountains or secluded places’ seem to be almost Orientalist. Merchants are said to have been ‘ennobled’ by the king (echoes of European courts?) and given ‘titles such as Chetty or Etthy’. However, Chetty/ Chettiar/ Shetty/ Settar in the south, like Seth and Sethi in the north, are not titles granted by kings but appellations of merchants derived from the Sanskrit Sreshtin. India of this period is said to have ‘colonized’ south-east Asia and Indonesia and spread Shivaism—and later, Buddhism—to these distant lands. Apart from such supremacist and ahistorical terminology as colonization, it also belies the earlier claim that northern influences were little known in the south at this period.
The Demon’s Daughter, a fresh translation by perhaps the finest scholars of Telugu literature and history, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, naturally makes no such gaffes. The erudite introduction helps contextualize the text both historically and in terms of contemporary literary conventions and points out the departures this poem makes. Without it, I would have found the story certainly more tedious than I did—I have little patience with long, stylized descriptions of the magnificence of cities, the heroism of men, the beauty of women, the love pangs of un-united lovers. Shulman and Rao painstakingly map, through both the introduction and detailed footnotes, the literary landscape and show the ways in which Pingali Suranna, the author, creatively expanded the idiom. Though they say that this text is unique in its depiction of ‘love as individualized and individualizing emotion animating a psychologically integrated subject’, and leads to the emergence of an ‘altered, proto-modern sense of self’, I found the ‘romantic’ passages largely stereotypical and wearying. Rao’s and Shulman’s analysis, based on a survey of a vast body of pre-modern texts in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Sanskrit, would certainly be accurate, but philistine that I am, I could see no merit whatsoever in the frills and furbelows which seemed simply to hamper the progress of the story. Nor could I discover any ‘individual’ spark in the love of Prabhavati and Pradyumna, who fancy themselves in love with one another having heard of the other through a divine, talking goose, Suchimukhi, and whose eventual union plays out in standard erotic ways. Fellow philistines are advised to stick to more modern literature for insights into human nature or romantic love. However, the only real complaint I have of this book is the lack of diacritics which are necessary for a specialist; if publishers believe that diacritics would detract from the reading experience of lay readers, there could be an appendix with the diacritics of all the vernacular words that appear in the text. I wish I knew how to pronounce the name of at least the author.
The Principles of Sufism comprises the revelations of a woman passionately in love with a beloved who has oriented her being and turned her to ‘what is real and true’. Ā’ishah Al- Bā‘Ūniyyah addresses the four essential roots of Sufism—repentance, sincerity, recollection, and love—in separate chapters. The mystic outpourings have been translated by Th. Emil Homerin, who has also written a scholarly introduction. A fundamental difference from writings of women mystics and bhakti poetesses from India—Andal, Akka Mahadevi, Lal Ded, Mira, Janabai—was the complete absence of autobiographical engagement. We learn precious little about the composer herself; the work is not about her experiences in the person of A’isha, but almost as though she has no subjectivity in her experience of the spiritual. The only equivalent I can think of is Karaikkal Ammaiyar, of whom we know next to nothing despite an abundance of poetry and mythology.
The book I enjoyed most of this set of four was undoubtedly The Bride’s Mirror, translated into English by GE Ward in 1903. Unfortunately there is no introduction; the section called ‘Introduction’ is also a translation of the introduction to the original novel by the author, Nazir Ahmad. A short blurb at the end informs us that he was a colonial administrator who died in 1912. Even without that information, it was easy to see that it was written some time in the late nineteenth century as British officials and British law seem to be part of the social landscape, and there is a discussion featuring Queen Victoria. Nazir Ahmad—who seems to have been a great advocate of some degree of literacy for women— says he wrote this book after having searched unsuccessfully for one for his daughters that would provide ‘moral instruction’, to ‘improve their ideas and correct their habits in respect of those affairs which a woman encounters in her daily life’. The tale revolves around two sisters, of whom the elder, Akbari, is a slothful, ill-tempered shrew and makes her marital household hellish. ‘It is always the case. Girls who are perpetually being coddled and indulged when they are little, and who are taught nothing that is useful or practical, invariably reap trouble and sorrow throughout their after lives, just like Akbari.’ Her younger sister, Asghari, married to Akbari’s brother-in-law, is however, quite a paragon, and though her husband is a less responsible man than his elder brother, manages to make everyone happy and, by her hard work and excellent housekeeping, increases the family’s prosperity. A simple enough tale, and fairly predictable, it yet has a charm which kept me engaged throughout. Considering that the book was meant primarily for a Muslim audience, and is placed squarely in a Muslim social context in what is now old Delhi, it is interesting that in an informal school that Asghari runs for the girls of her neighbourhood, she teaches them, besides reading and writing, cooking and housekeeping, knowledge about various ceremonial functions such as ‘betrothal, the feasts and holidays, the creams and cakes of Muharram, the Hindu festivals, the weddings, and all the ceremonies which occur before and after a wedding’.
The gems were the insights this book gave into late nineteenth century Delhi’s everyday life. I had believed that Indians started drinking tea only some time in the 1920s or 1930s, and was surprised to find tea making an appearance in this book. Asghari offers her brother-in-law tea early in the morning, asking if he prefers it with milk or without. She brings in a small tray with ‘hot tea in the teapot, two cups, two spoons, and sugar in a little bowl’. It is, however, paan which visitors are typically offered, and the preparation of paan finds numerous descriptions. Another interesting revelation was the use of firecrackers. Thirteen year-old Asghari dissuades her slightly older husband from spending money on firecrackers at the festival of Shab-e-baraat. His sister, still a child, needs to be convinced that she can derive the same joy for watching anars set off by their neighbours as from watching her brother do it. In the weeks leading up to our super-polluting Diwali, there was much debate a couple of years ago on the historicity of firecrackers, and I was easily convinced by the argument that they came to be associated with festivities only in the 1940s, by wily advertising after a firecracker factory was set up. But anars and phooljhadis seem to have been sparkling merrily in the closing years of the nineteenth century! Good intentions evidently do not necessarily make good history!
The Bride’s Mirror seems to have been translated into English to help English ladies know about the social and domestic life of Indians. To this end, there are detailed footnotes glossing phrases, idioms, customs, contextualizing conversations, and showing how to pronounce every name and word which appears in the vernacular. Many of these glosses were delightful in themselves.
While all four books would make useful source material for a scholar studying the times of their composition, The Bride’s Mirror has my vote for reading pleasure as well.
Bharati Jagannathan teaches History at Miranda House, enjoys conducting tree walks and narrating the Ramayana, and has written several books for children.