Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari (Urdu)
By Unknown, edited by Abdur Rasheed
Kitab, Karachi, in association with Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
ISBN: 978-9696760731

Chhabili the innkeeper (English)
Translator: Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Kitab, Karachi, in association with Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
ISBN: 978-9696160663

When I was eight, my mother took me to a shoe store on Tariq Road in Karachi where, while shopping for a nice pair of beautiful red pumps with golden bows, the bearded trader slipped a little book with my purchase.

I read it on the bumpy drive on the way home: my first qissa was a story with dramatic skits about a developer [ogre] and a chahzadi [princess] and a brave raja who tried to save his love, but repeatedly failed. Eventually the princess got tired of waiting and saved the raja instead and they ruled happily ever after.

Receiving Chhabili the Innkeeper, a qissa translated into English by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, was a treat and reading it brought me back to red shoes and a little slice of childhood magic. Nothing replaces the gift of an interesting story well told. It’s a heady combination.

But first, what is a qissa? A conversation with Farooqi helped to understand this particular narrative genre in more detail; in essence, however, it is not so much a form as a vehicle for telling stories.

A new series of old Urdu “qissas”, along with their English translations, is being released in Pakistan. The first revolves around two scheming women vying for the attention of a lewd but gullible prince

According to the “Translator’s Introduction” at the beginning of the book, “the first known impression of Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari dates from 1864… in 1869 a versified version was compiled”. It was also released as a form of musical theater to be performed by traveling troupes.

Not that this qissa is for children. On the contrary, it is Prince Zaman, who, although a scholar in all branches of knowledge, continues to fall in love, literally and metaphorically, for all the beautiful women – and men dressed as women – who cross his path. As the story revolves around our prince, his vigorous tendencies and easy-to-give affections make him more of a pawn in the hands of other people. He’s not particularly impressive, but he’s the sole heir to the throne and, therefore, everyone’s problem.

The real conflict takes place between the two women who capture his interest. When he sees her drawing water from a well, the innkeeper Chhabili stops her fantasy and becomes her lover. When the nobles of the court find out that the prince is spending his days and his money in the arms of a humble innkeeper, they decide to marry him.

The likenesses of many suitable girls are drawn and presented in front of him. To underline the “value” of these girls, it’s relevant to mention the sly way these portraits are drawn: a tub of water is placed against the wall outside the girl’s house. The girl is taken to the roof under some pretext by a “kutni” – defined in the “Endnotes” as a “devious woman who fulfills the role of messenger between lovers and also performs deceptive acts for remuneration” – named by the vizier. The girl on the roof is reflected in the water below and a painter paints her picture in this way.

The photo of a landowner’s daughter, Bichhittar Kunwari, captures the prince’s interest and he is married to her. Chhabili, not wanting to lose her influence over her powerful lover, hatches a plan to prevent Prince Zaman from seeing the beauty of his new young bride.

Always obedient and gullible, Prince Zaman follows his advice and it is up to Bishhittar to disguise herself – first as a curd vendor then as a nobleman – to seduce her husband. It is not an instant solution since, after his first attempt, “the ignorant idiot still has not understood anything”. But she perseveres and when she finally gets the prince to look at her and know her as his wife, Bishhittar’s power asserts itself and Chhabili’s life is in peril.

This qissa concerns the interaction of castes and the ideation of women as saints or prostitutes. Chhabili is beautiful and cunning and not afraid to have fun or have sex, but she is a humble innkeeper and we are not told what happened to her own husband – her mother-in-law, when to her, is very encouraging of her relationship with the prince. Bichhittar Kunwari is the daughter of a landowner. In a uplifting tale, order must be restored and the upper caste woman – more beautiful and patient – must prevail while her lustful, opportunistic and more interesting counterpart must lose everything.

Farooqi notes in the introduction that there is “a tradition of warning literature in Urdu and Persian literature to instruct men on deceiving women.” He also refers to the daastaan ​​scholar Muhammad Salimur Rahman, who suggests that the qissa is an allegory: “Chhabili represents the ephemeral world, which spoils our senses and puts blinders on our eyes so that we remain blind to reality. . Bishhittar represents the truth, or the reality the sight of which fills us and allows us to look away from the false world.

If this story were to be televised, the UK’s Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, would play Chhabili, while Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton would be Bichhittar Kunwari. I say this jokingly, but I also note with interest how the same attitudes towards “upstarts” and “unworthy women” raised to their ranks by hapless and generally uninteresting princes still persist in modern times, as evidenced by the depiction. of the two women in the UK media last year.

For me, Chhabili is the more vital and interesting of the two women. While I sympathized less with Bishhittar Kunwari, I appreciated how his disguises and clues allowed him to exercise his brain and his mind, which would have been dazed within the four walls of his house, while waiting for a suitor the advertisement.

Both women are extremely power-hungry in their own way, and equally malicious and vindictive. Chhabili’s punishment far outweighs his crime, but it is inflicted on him at the insistence of Bishhittar Kunwari. So the ending seems very ironic: we are told that the prince continues to rule the country with justice, even though his treatment of his former lover is anything but fair.

This is the subversive power of qissa – it says one thing, but shows something completely different. Readers and listeners do what they want with it.

The reviewer is the author of How it happened and a firefly in the dark.

she tweets @shazaffatima

Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 2, 2022


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