Storytelling In Indo-Persian Literary Traditions

Aqsa Ijaz on Pasha Mohamad Khan and Tony K. Stewart

A society should turn the young into the heirs of history rather than its orphans. In his book, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of our Age, Robert Pogue Harrison emphasizes that the young must be provided with a sense of the past, which is not distant from the present but a living presence in one’s experience. For Harrison, societies can only form a distinct identity and sustain themselves meaningfully if they invest in cultivating such heirs. In an age such as ours, driven by its progressive aspirations, technological novelties and incessant hedonism, one wonders how can we approach the past in all its otherness to properly inherit its legacies?

Pasha Khan, The Broken Spell. Wayne State UP, 2019. $32.99 (paperback)

We can begin by entering into dialogue with our dead across the threshold of their works, ideas that they left us with, forms in which they perceived and represented reality, and modes of thinking through which they laid the foundations of our world. We might experience these foundations in architectural monuments, religious and philosophical doctrines, art, and music. For Harrison, however, the most important site of such engagement with our dead is listening to their modes of storytelling.  Through these narrative forms, they transmit their ways of seeing the world to the next generations of listeners, who then retell those stories to make sense of their own experience.

With the advent of print culture and other modern technologies, these modes of storytelling and their storytellers have almost vanished today. Pasha Mohammad Khan and Tony K. Stewart have done a service by recovering these modes of storytelling and calling for a radically different way of approaching these narratives in the Indo-Persian literary traditions. Each, in his way, challenge our modern tendencies to read these narratives as either fiction or history, making us aware of our blind spots. More importantly, they expose the distinct histories of these blind spots and draw attention to the modes of meaning-making that were deliberately overridden in the subcontinent’s colonial historiography.

Witness to Marvels by Tony K. Stewart
Tony Stewart, Witness to Marvels. University of California Press, 2019. $39.95 (paperback)

What was the art of storytelling in the premodern context? As Walter Benjamin argued in his famous 1936 essay, The Storyteller, the storytellers were the transmitters of knowledge. They provided counsel and imparted wisdom by sharing their experience of the world “from one mouth to the next.” They urged their listeners to stick to their youthful openness and dare to imagine unseen worlds. Drawing from their capacious memory to tell the exemplary tales from the age-old traditions, premodern storytellers did not always provide practical solutions but trained the imagination of their listeners to tell a story well; an ability that might expose humankind to what Benjamin called the fullness of the world beyond the philistine pursuit of “scientific truth.”  In Persianate India, these forms of storytelling were primarily invested in the ethical formation of the human self. From the beginning, they were not burdened by providing verifiable truths but in structuring the human interiority and its relation to others.

A whole way of seeing and representing the world has faded with the loss of such forms of storytelling. And its absence is felt by those who study the past through the cracks of those stories, which were neither histories nor fictions but a unique perspective on reality that used both these modes of comprehension. As Stewart, in his book on the premodern Bengali storytelling tradition, Witness to Marvels: Sufism and Literary Imagination (2019), suggests, narratives are never subject to the test of truthfulness precisely because they are literary. It is different from saying that they are false because they are fiction. They don’t operate on the principle of having a truth-claim but possess a truth-value, giving way to a different kind of contract between the listener and the storyteller.  Such an engagement illuminates the function of these narratives rather than the mere verifiability of their content. As Khan tells us in his book, The Broken Spell: Indian Storytelling and the Romance Genre in Persian and Urdu (2019), the storytellers in premodern North India were crucial to the social fabric. By telling age-old stories with new twists and turns that were instructed and provided models of emulation for an ethical life and good conduct, they kept the past contemporaneous with the present.

In other words, these stories were instrumental in shaping the emotional universe of their listeners by teaching them etiquettes of love, virtues of loyalty and courage and the importance of kindness and guile, all as part of the complex challenges of life. It is no surprise then that when the colonial regime started to consolidate its rule in India in the first half of the nineteenth century, it targeted these very local forms of storytelling as a site of their intervention. The British philologists commissioned new translations of several stories, which were now available in lavishly illustrated courtly manuscripts, scrutinized their content for verifiability and rewrote them for “civilizing” populations, whose ways of seeing and relating to the world were informed by this dynamic corpus of exemplary tales.

The Persian-Urdu form of storytelling known as dastāngoī in premodern India was deeply intertextual. And this poetics of intertextuality, which invoked the past by implicit and explicit poetic strategies in any retelling, reflects this tradition’s remarkable commitment to rejuvenating the present with the legacies of the past. In his analysis of dastāngoī’s devaluation as a form of aesthetic expression under the British occupation, Khan focuses especially on recovering these storytellers’ craft and what it accomplished by closely examining the never before studied manuals of storytelling, the nineteenth century reception of popular stories, and more importantly, how this reception was cut off from the rich poetic tradition that preceded this form of Persianate romance.  The intertextuality of this corpus formed with various layers of classical Indian, Persian and Islamic  practices was the key prerequisite for appreciating the depth and wisdom of its stories.

From the thirteenth century poet, Amir Khusrau of Delhi, who conjures the presence of his long-dead literary predecessors in his poems and prefaces, down to the last premodern poet in India, the reader/listener of these stories was able to appreciate this tradition primarily because both, the reader and the poet established their worth by the degree of innovation and their ability to be in a creative dialogue with the past. A single expression could trigger several other renditions of a story, and one word could evoke a plethora of diverse meanings. One disadvantage of this philosophy of literature was that it was not easily comprehensible to the outsider who was not well-aware of the complex interplay of symbols and signs in the long durée of Persianate literary tradition.

Khan’s interest in discussing the nature of these narratives and their place in the cultural and literary history of premodern India arises from their fate in British philologists’ hands. Later came Indian modernists, who took the content of these stories literally and read them in a Procrustean manner. They translated and interpreted them into forms and idioms that conformed to their rational and naturalistic frames of seeing the world. A close study of this corpus of translations provides a nuanced understanding of translation politics under colonial rule. For example, a comparative analysis of the two Urdu versions of Qissah-ī-Gul-ī-Bakāwli (The Quest for the Rose of Bakawli) in 1803 in Fort William College and 1844 (by Pandit Daya Shankar Nasim) reveals how these stories were domesticated into the colonial worldview. A popular romance frequently retold in Dakhani, Bengali and Persian, these two Urdu versions of Gul-ī-Bakāwli engage the multilayered meanings of these narratives and reveal how they were compromised by being read away from their intertextual poetics in the British sponsored translations.

The Urdu translations under the Fort William College’s auspices are but one example of such gradual extrication of Persianate sensibility from these stories. In examining the multivalent nature of genres in the pre-colonial literary context, Khan challenges the colonial terms of such literary-critical readings. He highlights their intertextual nature and the storytellers’ social role, who performed these stories­ and played with historical and fictional narratives alike.  Khan aims to recover the function of these forms of storytelling within their social context. He proposes an alternative that neither seeks the approval of neatly charted colonial categories nor surrenders the possibility of the novel’s budding precedence within the dāstān tradition. However, one wonders if the potential of the novelistic form within the complex poetics of the dāstān or qissah is needed for its aesthetic valuation to stand on its own?

These stories, which we now categorize in terms of fiction and history based on the degree of their veracity, informed the very nature of the Persianate self they helped constitute. Khan’s book demonstrates that the epistemological limitations of the modern/colonial analytical approaches at best atomized and reduced the scope of the Persianate world in the nineteenth century. By dividing these stories into current history and fiction categories, the colonial translations refused to acknowledge their literary horizons’ breadth and depth. The British philological engagement with these stories shows the colonial conviction that overt disciplinary methods could achieve only a certain degree of domination. If a real change in people’s emotional universe is to be achieved, they must be convinced to rewrite their stories. According to the colonial yardstick of scientific empiricism, this conviction brought into question the epistemological credibility of these age-old narrative traditions. The self-Orientalized critics, like Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, Muhammad Hussain Azad and Abdul Halim Sharrar, backed by colonial patronage, deemed these narratives undeserving of being part of the “modern” Indian education precisely on the grounds of new colonial standards. Yet, as Khan shows us, these narratives were more than figments of the imagination of “uncivilized” minds”; an argument that gained quite a currency during the late nineteenth century.

The human subject that these narratives envisioned and projected was not a solitary individual disconnected from the past; he was more like a vessel into which the wine of the past must be poured anew. The old wine being poured anew is one of the most ubiquitous metaphors in the Urdu romance narratives of the mid-nineteenth century, which were arguably written under the Naval Kishore Press to respond to the new aesthetic impositions of the British regime in north India. One is reminded of Daya Shankar Nasim’s opening verses in Gulzār-e-Nasīm (Garden of Nasim), in which he revives the poetics of inheriting the (Persianate) past as a way to continue the story of his threatened present:

O’ Lord! allow my pen the ability to speak

And grant it the beak of the nightingale to sing.

The story of the Rose of Bakawli

Enchant the garden of love with Spring.

Although it has been heard far and wide

I tell it here again in the eloquent tongue of Urdu.

I applaud with poetry that was set in prose before,

As I distill the old wine and pour it anew.

In the nineteenth century Urdu narrative poem such as this, one could see a deep literary memory of the entire poetic tradition that preceded it. The pen’s ability to “speak” and its juxtaposition with the nightingale’s signing in the garden setting conjured up the entire tradition of Persianate forms of storytelling for its readers. Here, we see the poet’s desire to speak like a nightingale invoking the Persian poet, Sa ‘adi’s Gulistān (rose garden) along with Nizami’s reflection on sukhan (speech as the animating force of life) implicitly present in the verses as he prays for his pen to speak like a nightingale. The creative play on the double distillation of wine as a metaphor for writing a better-fermented poem is evocative of Omar Khayyam’s multidimensional play with wine. In other words, Nasim’s poem at the flickering moments of the Persianate world in India rekindles once again the cosmopolitan past of Persian poetry through well-established images, allusions, and wordplay; a past that was being deliberately erased from the society’s collective memory. The Persianate literary tradition in premodern India through the lens of these narratives appears like Jorge Luis Borges’ Aleph: a point in space containing all other points. Anyone who gazes into it can see everything from every angle simultaneously as a sustained contemporaneous instance of infinity.

Both Khan and Stewart engage premodern forms of storytelling and study their rise and fall from the sixteenth century onwards. They highlight how these forms were an inextricable part of the cultural world of premodern India. The genre of romance narratives called qissah/dāstān in Urdu or katha in Bengali has been historically popular among other Indian languages. Khan and Stewart make these narratives their entry point into the crucial moments of rupture in Persian and Urdu’s literary histories on the one hand, and Bengali on the other. As these authors engage the same genre in the three major Indian languages, they don’t take for granted the fact that a lot gets lost in translation.  For example, the qissah/dāstān as a form gets readily understood in the European literary category of “romance” without problematizing their conceptual contours. This question of conceptual translation is another concern of Khan’s book, which deals at length with the problems of translation related to the fading of dastāngoī in the wake of British colonial rule in India and, more importantly, with the advent of the novel.

The colonial notion of translation was not in pursuit of preserving these texts and understanding them on their terms. It is what, translation theorist, André Lefevere, calls a form of rewriting that submitted these texts to a new poetics and ideology. Avril Powell and Margrit Pernau have shown in their work the politics of knowledge production in nineteenth century India, highlighting the importance of translation. Such translations were effective in rewriting the classical Persian and Sanskrit texts for modern education purposes. They were also operative in how emotions were “taught” within the problematics of translating the Victorian concept of civility into the Indo-Persian concept of tahzīb. This issue of troubling translations has been studied within the ambit of history and colonial education policy. However, it is the comparative literary analysis of these translations, especially of the qissah canon and their role in sidelining the Persianate literary sensibility, that brings to the fore the full impact of translation. It also demonstrates how it replaced and simplified a whole way of feeling and seeing the world. It is an aspect that Khan’s book leaves mostly unaddressed. Instead, he focuses on the dynamic valuations of genres, storytellers’ role, and their reception in the premodern and colonial contexts.  He demonstrates how the layered genre code of the qissah needs to be studied within the reading practices of its time to recover and understand its function. However, occasionally, he dwells on the poetics aspect of his study, which leaves the reader desiring a more intimate contact with the stories themselves. Khan’s book provides important insights into these storytellers’ lives and times, in both courtly and popular settings, and how they performed and understood their craft. However, I think that the scope of Khan’s book would have been wider and the argument on the ideological adaptation of genres more nuanced had he explored the translation case-studies of popular romances in Urdu. It could provide a ready opportunity to demonstrate the competing sensibilities and worldviews and how they found expression on the page.

While Khan’s book shows the complexity of the genre systems in the premodern context and exposes the limits of the colonial way of reading these texts as ‘fiction’ understood as synonymous to lying, Stewart’s book provides a way forward: to read these stories on their terms.  Instead of mining these stories for factual data, he gives us an approach to read these stories as literary. Thus, he helps us understand the profound cultural work that these highly imaginative stories did in subtle ways and recover their social and cultural function.

Stewart engages with mind-boggling tales of Satya Pir and the other legendary Sufi saints of Bengal, which have dominated the Bangla-speaking regions for as long as over six-hundred years with their miraculous events and fascinating escapades. Like Urdu qissah, these stories self-identify as fiction and occasionally resemble particular geography, historical event, temporality, or even a historical figure, but remain highly fantastic. In a fictional hagiographical manner, they depict the world of miracle-working saints, suphi (Bangla for Sufi), who represents the ideal of a warrior (ghazi) who is on a mission to persuade people to recognize the Islamic faith. However, more importantly, the saints’ aim is to “win over people by providing them with wealth, with protection from the vagaries of existence in the miasmic mangrove swamps, by helping the childless gain sons and daughters, and by brokering peace, usually through the fixing of kinship relations in which all parties have vested interest.” As Stewart puts it, they conjure cities overnight to help people, fly to the heavens to consult with Prophet Muhammad and with the same ease go into the underworld of the Hindu god of death, Yama. Within the traditional Indic imagery and forms of divinity, these saints recite God’s names (zikr) and present an inclusive worldview even as they inculcate an appreciation of Islamic ideals into the traditional Bengali landscape.  On the surface, perhaps, these narratives make little sense as they show the marvellous acts and miracles of these incredible saints and draw attention to a more entertainment-driven contract with the reader/listener than educating them. They deal not in abstraction but in fabulations that rival the ones in Arabian Nights and the Urdu romance of The Adventures of Amir Hamza. However, as Stewart’s reading shows, if we read these narratives by focusing on their cultural function rather than their incredible epistemology, these texts illuminate the subtle processes through which Islam habituated itself within the traditional Bengali imaginary. Such a reading reveals these stories as ideological literature on the one hand–and the parody of that ideology on the other.

Through copious translations and annotations of the Bengali originals, Stewart dwells on these narratives rather closely and provides readings, which are enlightening to a literary scholar as they are to a historian or a scholar of religion. He reads these narratives with a rich theoretical understanding of the question, what is fiction, and its relationship to historiography? – and provides an astute analysis of the underlying presuppositions of these narratives regarding “the way the world works and the presentation of images rather than arguments,” which, however ambiguous and imprecise, reflect a religious ideal. While focusing on the historically specific work of pir katha and its relationship to one’s understanding of premodern Bengal’s history, Stewart provides rich insights into the nature of fiction in the context of premodern forms of storytelling. His analysis is conceptually rich and offers abundant opportunities to think about the directions that the study of similar narratives can take in the scholarship of other Indian languages. However, he barely follows up with how the indigenous understanding of fiction, language, form, and rhetoric was related to the high Sanskrit and Persianate literary traditions. In what ways that experience contributed to the production of such narratives and made them distinct, if at all, from the European category of “romance”? In the second chapter of his book dealing with the structures of narrative romance, he states that working with these narratives as the genre of ‘romance’ does not “impute them with an ontological reality.” For Stewart, it indicates “authorial strategy” that provides a well-established reference to deal with a corpus of texts within the existing categorical vocabulary.

Be that as it may, in agreeing with Khan’s discussion of the ideological adaptation of genres and the role that translation plays in their reception and meaning-production of indigenous forms of storytelling, I believe that Stewart dispenses with the difficult work of translating the untranslatable­. It is especially when he makes an exception to those dynamic narrative traditions such as the Premakhyān and the Shāhnāmeh, which one must study with a re-signified understanding of the term “romance.” After all, “romance,” even in the European tradition, is not a static category. As Barbra Fuchs has argued, considering romance as a fixed genre is fraught with problems that make it hard for us to distinguish it from other genres in the premodern context fully.  Therefore, in my view, the pir katha or the qissah may be compared to European romances but should not be replaced with their generic peculiarities. As opposed to Stewart’s characterization, I think that engaging with a piece of literature within a readymade analytical category does impute to it an ontological as well as epistemological reality; the perils of which we saw all too clearly in Khan’s analysis of how the forms of such storytelling were devalued precisely because they were understood in that “well-established category.” Language, as we know it, is not something that only encodes reality, i.e., names things instrumentally. It also has a constitutive dimension that allows it to construct the very reality it purports to express. Therefore, a mere instrumental approach to language, which focuses on naming a phenomenon rather than expressing it, makes the problem of translation at a different level of analysis all the more significant.

Through their perceptive analysis of two major storytelling traditions of the Indian subcontinent, Khan and Stewart draw our attention to the modes of meaning-making that such narratives enabled in the premodern world. They show us ways in which such stories were integral to the persistence of societies. They reclaim these forms of storytelling and demonstrate how social life went hand in hand with the life of aesthetic forms. They invite us to expand our horizons by witnessing the worlds these storytellers created and shaped for their premodern listeners. Like their storytellers, they too recount the stories of faraway people and places and alert us to what language and literature can accomplish in any culture.  Notwithstanding the criticisms that can be leveled against each study, they show us how stories shape the way we feel and inhabit the world while urging us to recognize the artisanal labor directed at cultivating, what Harrison calls, the heirs of history.

Aqsa Ijaz is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Islamic Studies McGill University. Her research focuses on the North Indian reception of medieval Persian narrative poetry.  She is a book reviewer and a literary translator and has published her work in various publications worldwide. Currently, she teaches Urdu at McGill University.