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history or fiction?

By Rauf Parekh



It was perhaps Voltaire who once said: “All our ancient history is no more than accepted fiction.” But Ambrose Bierce, while defining the word ‘history’ in his ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’, has indeed outthought him: “History, n. an account, mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools”.

Ahem, I hope none of the kinds mentioned above are reading these lines, but if they happen to do so, most probably by mistake, we can safely assume that both Voltaire and Bierce didn’t have it quite right.

However, when it comes to writing the history of Urdu literature, one realises that many notions that have been accepted as history are no more than fiction or, at least, should not be taken without a pinch of salt. One such ‘history’ of Urdu literature is Mohammad Hussain Azad’s ‘Aab-i-Hayat’.

First published in 1880 from Lahore, the title ‘Aab-i-Hayat’, (or elixir of life, literally), proved to be prophetically true and over a century and a quarter have elapsed since its appearance but it lives on as though the author had poured a bit of elixir of life on the manuscript before sending it in to the printers.

In fact ‘Aab-i-Hayat’ is one of Urdu’s evergreen books and has run into many editions and reprints, notwithstanding the fact that it is basically not a kind of book that may catch the imagination of the ordinary readers. But somehow it has hooked the scholars of Urdu and general readers alike.

One of the factors that have contributed to its immortality is the writer’s inimitable style. Azad was enlisted as one of the so-called ‘five basic elements’ of Urdu literature by Mehdi Ifadi, the other four being Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Shibli Naumani, Moulvi Nazeer Ahmed and Altaf Hussain Haali. Azad was a poet, researcher, historian, teacher, journalist, linguist, and a spy, or an ‘emissary’ of the British – as he has euphemistically been called by some of his admirers. But on top of all that he was a prose-writer, a story-teller who could weave at will amazingly attractive tales and was capable of drawing vivid images to the perfection, with his ornate and metaphor-laden language only accentuating the mesmerising effect on the readers mind.

Abrar Abdus Salam, once a student of MPhil and now a student of PhD at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakaria University, chose ‘Aab-i-Hayat’ for his MPhil dissertation and the result is a new, annotated, collated and authentic text of ‘Aab-i-Hayat’. The young researcher has sifted through all early and subsequent editions and reprints of the book, collating them patiently and pinpointing the differences and errors that have crept in the text as the result of apathy and inefficiency of various publishers, making corrections in the text at whim.

Consulting all the previous research works on Azad and with a keen eye on the history of Urdu literature and historiography, Abrar has been able to tell the myth from reality, making explicit mentions where Azad has stretched the facts a bit too far and where his imagination has played tricks with his memory.

Speaking about the making of a great writer that Azad was and the making of a masterpiece that ‘Aab-i-Hayat’ is, Abrar says that Azad had been planning to write the book since long. According to him, Azad’s father Moulvi Mohammad Baqar, a journalist who was later shot by the British on charges of co-operating with the ‘rebels’ during the 1857 war of independence, and Ibrahim Zauq, the poet-mentor of the Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar, were close friends. Azad had the opportunity to be in their company since his childhood and he would listen with great interest to what was discussed in the erudite company of his father’s learned friends. Zauq knew a lot about the classical poets, their ways, their rivalries, the skirmishes with their contemporary giants, the interesting events of mushairas and would relish telling them at length. Azad would be impressed and would absorb and savour these details.

With the revolution of the 1857, the personalities and the traditions that symbolised Delhi with all its grandeur began to fade. Some two decades later, Azad set upon writing a book that would preserve the history and culture so that the great poets and the cultural and historical phenomenon would live forever, hence the name ‘Aab-i-Hayat’.

Azad’s vivid imagination that reads like an eye-witness account of a bygone era with minute details is beyond contention but, at the same time, it creates many questions about the accuracy of the ‘historical facts’ that Azad narrates. The account of Mir Taqi Mir’s arrival in Lucknow as described in ‘Aab-i-Hayat’, for example, says Abrar Sahib, leaves much to be desired as far as historical facts and research standards are concerned. Similarly, the sketches of poets, their personal appearances and idiosyncrasies are true only partially.

Azad loved the old times. He thought 1857 marked the death of old civilisation and wanted to resurrect it in his book. The author thinks that Frances Pritchett’s notion that Azad was an enemy of the old is incorrect. According to Frances Pritchett, “Azad does feel that he has a licence to kill and he is gunning for the poetry. He is ready to use fair means or foul, real texts or fakes, truths or falsehoods, to bring it down. He’ll see it lying before him as a corpse. Then he’ll swath it in billows of genuine, tearful, heartfelt nostalgia and lay it reverently to rest with a stake through his heart.”

Personally I agree with Pritchett only where she mentions ‘fair means or foul, real texts or fakes’, as it is a well-known fact that Azad did not hesitate to ‘create’ historical facts. He not only made corrections in Zauq’s poetry to improve it, as he was his beloved teacher, but even wrote some poetry and attributed it to Zauq.

Aside from the weaknesses of Azad’s critical opinions, his statements on the history of the Urdu language are erratic. In fact it was Azad who promoted, through ‘Aab-i-Hayat’, Mir Amman’s faulty conclusion about Urdu that it was a ‘lashkari zaban’, or a ‘camp language’ and that it was born in the camps of Mughal emperor Shahjahan. Due to Azad’s giving credibility to this unscientific theory it remained a common belief among the scholars of Urdu for a long time to come that Urdu was a ‘lashkari zaban’ and common people even today believe so.

At times Azad became so biased that his personal likes and dislikes made him decide whose name was to be included in the book and who was to be dropped. The most glaring example is that of Moumin Khan Moumin, a poet of repute and one of Ghalib’s most prominent contemporaries. The young researcher has mentioned in his notes that Maumin was excluded from the first edition just because he was a ‘Sunni’ and Azad, being a Shiite by the creed, did not like him. He would have done better had he mentioned that Maumin was a ‘wahhabi’, too, and had composed a ‘masnavi’ in favour of ‘wahhabi mujahideen’. And there were ‘other reasons’ too which have not been mentioned in detail.

It was only after the protest by the readers and critics that poor Moumin would be allowed an entry by Azad into the hall of fame. Similarly, many poets were underrated or overrated by Azad for reasons other than literary. If Azad’s evaluation is any yardstick to go by, Ghalib, for instance, appears to be a poet of much lesser importance and brilliance than Zauq, Azad’s teacher.

There are many incidents narrated in ‘Aab-i-Hayat’ which are pure creation of Azad’s rich imagination and the ones tainted by either his good humour or personal feelings are countless. The young researcher has quite well pointed out all such dubious parts of the text in his footnotes and annotations.

One must congratulate Bahauddin Zakaria University not only for publishing such a treasure trove of information but also for nurturing a rising star of Urdu research, named Abrar Abdus Salam. By just having a look at the bibliography and annotations in the book, you feel certain that a lot more brilliant work can be expected of this young man.

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