Review: The Last Gathering by Munshi Faizuddin, translated by Ather Farouqui
It is a curious twist of history that the man who presided over the demise of the Mughal Empire, the emperor who had been deliberately grounded to the status of a mere king, who was the least powerful monarch in his lineage, dependent for his very pension on his British colonial masters should be so celebrated in his afterlife. Bahadur Shah Zafar, poet, calligrapher, horse rider, swimmer and archer par excellence, who had once plaintively complained to God that he should ‘either have been made a flourishing, commanding ruler, or that he should not have been accorded a beggarly crown,’ was an elegiac figure made more attractive by the greatness thrust upon him by 1857 fighters. He was a reluctant participant in the 1857 uprising, yet it was his capture, trial and exile in the same uprising which, in the end, provided him a martyr’s halo. Before the uprising, he was popular in the city, no doubt, and, being mindful of his legacy, had nobly tried to resist every encroachment of the British on royal privilege and honour and was still not without appeal for the wider country. As late as the 1840s, with Pax Britannica firmly in place, powerful Rajput dynasties still looked to Bahadur Shah to anoint their successors, and itinerant princes of the house still commanded obeisance from rulers whose patronage they sought. And, indeed, the prestige of the Mughal house, its Iqbal, as the British were keenly aware, had long outlived its potency. But Zafar became the arch patriotic ruler, forever etched in popular memory, once mutinous soldiers of the British Indian Army decided to march to Delhi with the cry Dilli chalo to appeal to the only Indian emperor they knew.
Bahadur Shah’s exile to Rangoon and the destruction of Delhi in the aftermath of 1857 when the British vengefully and sadistically targeted the city’s inhabitants — its Muslim denizens were not allowed to return to the city for three full years — rendered Bahadur Shah’s reign more poignant. Nostalgia for it began early and, ironically, was enabled by the very conditions of colonial rule — print culture, a fetish for memorialization, flourishing trade in antiques and memorabilia, and the privileging of history as a discipline. Within a few decades of Zafar’s death a virtual industry began to take shape. Paintings, books, albums, souvenirs of his times made its way to the Indian and the British market. After Delhi was restored as the Imperial Capital in 1911, there was a veritable horde of publications celebrating his persona, his court and the Lal Qila of his times. Rashid ul Khairi, Nasir Nazeer Firaq, Hasan Nizami, Arsh Taimuri, Farhatullah Beig and several others followed with bestselling memoirs and chronicles. But Munshi Faizuddin’s Bazm-i Aakhir, published within two decades of Bahadur Shah’s death, wonderfully translated here as The Last Gathering was the one which set the trend. Ironically enough it was based on the remembrances of a member of Prince Ilahi Bakhsh’s entourage. Bakhsh, the father of Zafar’s most favoured queen Zinat Mahal, was strongly and correctly suspected by the sepoys of being a British spy in the battle of Delhi in 1857.
The Last Gathering is a stupendous act of linguistic and cultural translation. The original in Urdu, is an account of Zafar’s court, the everyday rituals, food, clothes, rituals, as well as a commemoration of the festivities observed by the court including on Id, Diwali and Dussehra. It is also a repository of the peculiar idiom of the court, the Urdu-e Qila-e Mualla from which the Urdu language derives its name, of the pastimes of the ladies of the court and contains proverbs, poetry and other recondite details. It is difficult to translate as it is full of lists of archaic words and terms to do with cuisine, clothes, royal insignia, objects, rules of parades and processions, fabric and everyday rituals. How the Emperor ate, what he ate, what he did before and after, what he did on festivities, what the city did on days of processions — the details are fascinating but also, often, unfamiliar. It helps that the translator Ather Farouqui has already translated into English one of the most celebrated biographies of Zafar and in addition, heads the Anjuman Taraqqi-e Urdu an autonomous body and one of the oldest engaged in the preservation and propagation of Urdu. Its priceless collection of books and manuscripts, which he is valiantly trying to digitise, would have proved handy for this work. It also helps that he is the editor of two outstanding monographs on the current state of Urdu, the media and the Muslims, which allows him to frame this work in a proper historical perspective. Since his latest work is a translation of essays on Delhi by the pioneering medieval historian KA Nizami, he is able to place this work in the longue duree of Delhi’s multifarious pasts. Ather Farouqui’s enormous linguistic, literary, culinary and ethnographic labour in this work is an inspiring model for translators, historians and museologists alike, for this work is nothing short of an intangible museum of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time.
Indeed, The Last Gathering is a museum of tangible and intangible heritage both. The royal dresses, their fabrics, the ensembles, the tableaux are described in vivid detail, some of it obviously fantastical because Zafar lacked the means for the opulence described here. In some ways this exaggerated, fantasy making is an act of contestation against a condescending colonial regime. Yet the ceremonial details are not untrue, as testified by countless British visitors who chafed under the strict codes observed at Zafar’s court. There is a case to be made that the ceremonial observances of western monarchies, as well as its other institutions — the quaint rituals of Oxford for instance — owe much to the formality of oriental courts and, as the great Eric Hobsbawm observed, are more an invention of tradition rather than a continuous tradition itself.
Bazm-i Aakhir illuminates for us the court culture, in the widest sense of the term, which even in its twilight remained vibrant. It alerts us to the important role played by the women in the invention and maintenance of tradition. Two vital dates in the calendar, the Salono festival and the phoolwalon ki sair owed much to women who wished to celebrate their departed husbands or sons who were saved. The memoir also highlights for us the multicultural nature of Zafar’s court. Not just Dussehra, Diwali, Holi but also the distinction conferred upon pandits, astrologers, singers, dancers and also holy men of all kinds. The sacred calendar of the court owed much also to the influence of the Sufi saints whom Zafar revered. In fact, in 1857, he threatened the rebels with a satyagraha if they didn’t listen to him by saying that he would go away and become a sweeper at the dargah of Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli if they did not stop harassing his subjects.
The memoir also delineates the changing contours of Islamic practice. The centrality of dates for sehnak and madaar sahib and Muharram and the prominence of rituals such as the sattrahvin ie the 17th, and the importance of the last Wednesday, present us with an Islam where the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, and local custom, assumes a central role. This landscape of religious practice is much richer and also indigenised in conception and practice. Zafar and most of his ancestors were quite orthodox in the observance of prayers and the recitation of the Quran, in keeping the fasts and fulfilling the mandated demands of charity. Yet, their orthodoxy of practice did not prevent them from participating in many other kinds of rituals that might be anathema to the puritan Muslims of today. The orthodox Muslims of Zafar’s court did not look askance, for instance, at singing, dancing, may be even wining, and in participating in Hindu rituals and festivals. The contemporary landscape of Islamic practice seems more hollow by comparison. This shows that there is nothing orthodox about orthodoxy itself and that the practice of Islam has changed with time. I look forward to more renditions by Ather Farouqi, as promised, of other gems of Late Mughal Delhi. This is an important book not just for those interested in Mughal history, but also for historians of food, fashion, clothing, and religious rituals and for literary critics and historians.
Mahmood Farooqui is the author of ‘Besieged: Voices from Delhi, 1857’ and of ‘A Requiem for Pakistan: The World of Intizar Husain’