Review: Sawaneh-i Dehli by Mirza Gorgani, translated by Ather Farouqui
Sawaneh-i Dehli, which claims to be a biography of Delhi, has often been used to distort late Mughal history. Ather Farouqui’s translation puts an end to such manipulation
It is said that context is everything.
In 2005, as the nation prepared to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the First War of Independence, there was a surge in books, heritage walks, and visual depictions of Delhi. Fuelled by this fervour, I decided to revive a project that had been put on hold for almost 25 years: a play about the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. By early 2007, the play was finalized and entitled Sons of Babur. The titular role was played by thespian Tom Alter, who sadly passed away in 2017. Fortuitously, I was able to task Ather Farouqui to undertake the Urdu translation of the play which he named Babur ki Aulad and translated in both Urdu and Nagri scripts without changing the language of either of the two: the Nagri version was the same as the Urdu one. The translation, which was more in Hindustani than pristine Urdu, garnered more than 100 performances, even in unexpected places, such as Saudi Arabia, Lithuania, and of course, London. Our goal was to propel Urdu onto a global stage and contribute to its dissemination as a functional language of modern-day life and not just the stuff of romantic shayari.
Unfortunately, the progress of Urdu in the global space has been consistently hindered due to Urdu academia’s myopia and the apathy of the general public, especially the newly emerging middle class.
In the postmodern world and amidst the liberalized Indian economy since 1991, anything that did not offer apparent financial benefits gradually lost significance. Urdu too suffered the same fate. For complex reasons, it became confined to religious seminaries and, as a result, was regarded as the language of Muslims and a vehicle to promote Islam.
The unfortunate reality is that knowledge of the language is rapidly diminishing among the general population and among historians specializing in medieval Indian history, who should ideally be well versed in, both, Persian and Urdu.
This decline will lead to the loss of these texts during the transition, making it easier to distort history. Interestingly, Farouqui’s primary focus across his multiple translation works has been Delhi. His translations provide a contemporary perspective on this great and ancient city and make a genuine effort to rectify inaccurate historical records. In the last six years, he has undertaken the translation of four historical texts, along with the responsibility of editing the academic quarterly journal Urdu Adab published by the Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind). Farouqui has been heading the ATU(H) since 2012 and has made it a vibrant and modern organisation. Established in 1882 by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the revered nationalist institution can be likened to the Academie Francaise (French Academy) in its role in determining the official Urdu canon and standardizing Urdu orthography as an independent script distinct from Arabic and Persian.
Over the years, he has authored numerous books in Urdu and has edited various volumes in English. Notable among his contributions are groundbreaking works like Redefining Urdu Politics in India (OUP, 2006)and Muslims and Media Images (OUP, 2009). Another remarkable translation by Farouqui is Bazm-i Aakhir (Roli Books, 2021), which delves into life in the Red Fort post-1857. In this most challenging translation, Farouqui’s methodology involved the thorough consultation of all available Urdu dictionaries, one of which spans 22 volumes, showcasing his scholarly rigour and historical diligence.
The same can be said for the work under review, Sawaneh-i Dehli; Biography of Delhi (Roli Books, 2023), which posed an even greater challenge to translate. Reading this translation alongside Bazm-i Aakhir will provide a complete understanding of the lives of the last Mughals before and after the events of 1857.
Sawaneh-i Dehli, originally written in Urdu by Mirza Ahmad Akhtar Gorgani, claims to be a biography of Delhi. Gorgani was the eldest son of Crown Prince Mohammad Dara Bakht Miran Shah, who, in turn, was the eldest son of the last emperor of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar. After the death of Dara Bakht in 1849, some members of the family left the Red Fort but continued to receive allowances from the emperor. It remains unknown where Gorgani and his family were during the 1857 uprising and how he ended up in Kairana, a small town in western Uttar Pradesh, approximately 100 kilometres from Delhi and Meerut — both cities closely associated with the mutiny — where he is said to have spent his last days. It is said that it was in Kairana that the manuscript of his book was discovered after his death. If the family was in Delhi during the events of 1857, they were fortunate to have escaped the British massacre. This escape likely required loyalty to the British and it is possible that Gorgani served as one of their trusted spies. Farouqui suggests Gorgani lived incognito in Kairana “with the expressive consent of the British”, and “lived a peripatetic life for 20–25 years and practised Unani medicine”.
The original work consists of eight chapters and two tables, listing the kings of Delhi and the existing monuments in the city. Unfortunately, the compilation and editing of the text were earlier done with extreme carelessness by an apprentice hand of textual criticism, and two tables were added by the editor. As a historical document, Gorgani’s work does not provide significant new information about the history of Delhi and can hardly be considered the work of a scholar. One chapter focuses on the ‘Maharajas who ruled over Delhi’, beginning with Yudhishthir in 2687 BC and ending with Prithviraj Chauhan. Gorgani seemed to have a keen ear for tales spun to him. Farouqui, in the Translator’s Note, explains that Gorgani had little knowledge of history, which accounts for his lack of adherence to historical writing. The original text contains numerous errors on nearly every paragraph, but Farouqui diligently corrects them and provides accurate information and additional insights in his extensive 18-page notes. These notes provide a wealth of information and explanations, and will lead the reader to numerous sources. Anyone who quotes from the original work on social media needs to skim these notes first to find out if their interpretations are accurate. Social media is rife with half-baked translations and incorrect representations of the original text. It is primarily for these nuanced explanations that this work becomes extremely valuable.
The question arises as to why Gorgani wrote this book despite its multitude of mistakes. Perhaps, he wrote the book to demonstrate his loyalty to the British in exchange for support. Supposedly, it was a document recounting the events of 1857. It is said that it was discovered among his belongings after his death, which seems more fiction than reality. In all likelihood, he might have presented the manuscript to his British masters. Examples of this practice include Ghalib’s Dastanbu, a text characterized by sycophancy. Sangin Beg’s Sair ul-Manazil is the most critical text on the socio-geography and architecture of Delhi, which too was written on the request of the British, but it was never published. Originally written in Persian, Sair ul-Manazil saw the light of day only in 1981 with an Urdu translation by Professor Sharif Husain Qasemi. The recent accessibility of the work to a broader audience, in conjunction with nearly simultaneous English translations accomplished by Shama Mitra Chenoy (Delhi in Transition: 1821 and Beyond, OUP, 2018) and Swapna Liddle’s edited version, Sair-ul-Manazil, marks a noteworthy development.
In Sawaneh-i Dehli, Farouqui expands on this British intervention to paint the Mughals a certain way for their own ulterior motives. In his translator’s note, he shares how the Mughals, especially the later ones, were unfairly portrayed in accounts of Indian history commissioned by the British. While the earlier Mughals were and are labelled anti-Hindu tyrants, the later ones were dismissed as powerless and hedonistic. According to Farouqui, the evidence is that they were highly intelligent, extremely cultured, and sophisticated, albeit flawed like kings anywhere. The idea that the East India Company filled a vacuum left by the later Mughals is a British fabrication.
The original book by Gorgani can also be seen as part of a British conspiracy, where a prince was made to write a subpar text to propagate the notion that the later Mughals were “powerless, pleasure-seeking, and hedonistic” in Faroqui’s words. We cannot ignore the fact that Gorgani, stripped of his wealth, family, birth city, and past, was left destitute. He was unable to tell the story as it truly was due to his need to survive, and was clearly indebted to the British. The retribution faced by Muslims and rebels after 1857 persisted in various forms for a long time.
One must read between the lines of these texts, interpreting the contexts in which they were written and the implicit allusions and implications to understand those times better. Presently, when Islamophobia is rampant in India, there are concerted efforts to distort history, explicitly targeting the Mughals. These destructions have become more effortless without complete translations of the books written in Urdu. Excerpts from Sawaneh-i Dehli have been used for a long time to manipulate history, with right-wing scholars selectively choosing passages that align with their prejudices and bigotry. Farouqui’s translation puts an end to such manipulation. Books written with the intention to distort history need to be called out. This was a significant reason for translating the book objectively and with the help of historical evidence.
Conversely, texts that were patronized to tarnish the Mughals’ reputation and to distort history should also be translated. The problem is when one chooses to be selective. The lesson from history is unforgiving. Those who attempt to impose their own whims and fancies as history should take heed from this book, as they too will be remembered as the British are now, once their true intentions are exposed. Scholars involved in distorting history, lacking an understanding of the challenges people like Gorgani experienced and willingly participated in, will not garner empathy from future generations.
Farouqui’s extensive translations will significantly benefit scholars who research and write about Delhi. I hope we get to see more such translations of literary gems, such as Bashiruddin Ahmed’s Waqiat-i Dar ul-Hukumat- i Dehli, which demand extreme conscientiousness, historical understanding and objective and academic rigour.
Salman Khurshid, former minister for external affairs of India, had taught Law and Jurisprudence at Trinity College, Oxford. Delhi’s history is his passion.