An Unconditional Woman
First published in The News on Sunday, January 30, 2022
One would think the qissa was a lost art. That instant form of storytelling relegated to an ancient past. But we live in the age of short form fiction. Narratives born of a moment. Fleeting thoughts captured in a flash of words, documenting experiences, anecdotes, too elusive to be relayed beyond a single utterance. Leaving the actual story in the silences, between the lines. That’s what a qissa does.
‘It is said that cotton and fire cannot be gathered together, and a woman cannot prevail against a man,’ writes Rai Beni Narayan, the narrator of The Ingenious Farkhanda and the Two Conditions, a qissa translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi in the newly launched Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics series (urduclassics.com). It is a telling line. And the way I see it, a fitting appraisal of the conundrum that surrounds the titular character’s passage through the changing hands of gendered narrations.
The origins of this tale are not known, but as Farooqi notes, the author was most probably, and most likely, a woman. The story was compiled and given form and voice by a man, Rai Beni Narayan, in the 1800’s, a story that ‘he had carried in his heart since long,’ delivering it to the orientalist audience of British India. It comes as no surprise then that the qissa’s world is replete with elements and structures evocative of The Arabian Nights or rather The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments as they were known during their first ingress into Europe, around the same time. The fables and folk tales comprising the wealth of The Thousand and One Nights trace their roots to Indian sources, drawing heavily from themes and plots present in early Sanskrit literature and the Persian Hezar Afsaneh (The Thousand Stories), before being translated and incorporated into wider Middle Eastern traditions from the 8th century onwards. That would explain the overt commonality in these stories and frame narratives: ruthless kings vindicating their manhood by waging deadly wars on women’s bodies, one woman rising out of a hapless multitude, resorting to the power of her mind as her only defence against an opponent predisposed to overpower her.
But where Scheherazade and Dunyazad weave fiction in order to buy hours and days and years of life from Shahryar, Farkhanda does a surprising thing. She courts her own doom by denying Kevan Shah what he wants. She posits an impossible condition that the king must fulfil before she will allow herself to submit to his demands, provoking his ire, unleashing a chain of events where she is imprisoned and in turn served with a series of equally impossible challenges that she must overcome in order to survive.
Female sexuality is the world’s oldest battleground. Farkhanda’s travails are a chilling picture of a world that hasn’t changed at all. By virtue of being a woman, there are pitfalls in every encounter, sexual violence lurking at every turn, where men give free rein to an unchecked sexuality shockingly naturalized in the course of events, getting away free of all accountability, while women are sent off to the chopping block for daring to vent the same desire.
Female inventiveness and independence are portrayed through a woman wearing men’s clothes. Daughters remain the custodians of familial honour and dignity, to be treasured as long as they remain sequestered within four walls, trouble erupting the moment they step beyond those confines, and of course, the moment they open their mouths, for a cryptic remark made by Farkhanda sets in motion the wheels of conflict and danger that beset her for the rest of the pages.
Farkhanda is described as the sharpest and wisest of her sisters, particularly when compared to their handling of Kevan Shah. But there is something else that pushes out of the pages, revealing what lies behind her choice of action. Something more than ingenuity, or guile, or mere defiance. What she has is a determination to break free, a refusal to submit to what is expected of her, a hope to make it across, even when that hope hinges on nothing but chance. An unconditional hope that is worth the gamble of her life. And that is why something goes terribly wrong at the end of her spirited, willful adventure. The strings that tie up the qissa by no means correlate with the character we’ve grown to recognise and understand and cheer on. The end begins to read like someone else’s narrative, coiling back into unequivocal conformity, appeasement, assuaging the dictates of a man’s world. And perhaps that clash and duality of voice is not a coincidence, but precisely what happens when women’s stories are denied their agency, by intent or by neglect, to be reinstated in a socio-literary milieu and an authorial voice that is not their own.
‘Women contributed to qissa literature in both the oral and written literary traditions, but except for a few rare instances their works remained unknown and unpublished, and may well have been forever lost,’ writes Farooqi in his introduction.
What does it mean to read and write into these silences? Looking at the black and white miniature on the cover of the book might hint at an answer. The image shows a young woman astride a white horse, a hawk on her arm, her face boldly looking ahead, swirling clouds drifting past her. There is courage and adventure. Flight and freedom. Maybe it’s always in the silences that the actual story survives. Let the tradition continue.
The Ingenious Farkhanda and the Two Conditions
Author: Rai Beni Narayan
Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Series: Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
* The reviewer is a novelist and founder of Àla Books and Authors