A story about women who do not see their weakness as gendered, but a result of a difference in social status
Since its first known publication in 1864, Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari (Chhabili the Innkeeper) has been written and rewritten in various genres and under different titles, including a versified version published in 1869 as Qissa Fareb-un Nisa. This translation of the qissa by Musharraf Ali Farooqi is the first into English. The publication of qissas in this series as individual titles in both the original Urdu text and English translation which can be read in one sitting, makes for an excellent reading experience and is eminently suited to the qissa form.
The authorship of Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari is unknown. This class of stories is aimed for an adult audience, and does not fall into the category of folktales. For the modern reader and critic, this has implications for literary analysis and calls for an acknowledgement of how diverse genre categories from the Indo-Pak Subcontinent have been sublimated into assuming Anglophone identities. Qissa, and its connotative and linguistic association with kahani, is necessarily bound up with children’s entertainment, rather than inviting a serious engagement with a plot or story, as in the case of the novel or the short story. This is because genres that belong to the Anglophone world come to us as a system of thought and appropriation. The translation, it is hoped, will bring these stories back into conversation and the sense of ‘strangeness’ associated with them might begin to dissipate.
The thematic concerns of Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari, like all literature that stands the test of time, can very easily be supplanted in the modern world. Here is a story where the tenacity of the female characters (Chhabili and Bichhittar) is pitted against the sordid helplessness of the ‘hero’ (Zaman Shah) for whom they fight. Indeed, according to literary theorist Kumkum Sangari, “misogyny provides the structure of coherence” to Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari. It is difficult for anyone who has encountered the story and its tragedies to not become engaged in a debate about how difficult it is to assign a protagonist to the story.
With the recent publication of the The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1001 Nights by Yasmine Seale, questions are beginning to be asked about how narratives by and about women, especially those that show agency and resolve, have been shunned from modern consciousness especially when it comes to stories from the Muslim world. In Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari, we see ingenuity and trickery inherent in the women characters, who do not see their weakness as gendered, but a result of a difference in class and status within society. The narrative does not comment on the morality of the story but creates a sharp contrast with the hero, Zaman Shah, who is inert and seemingly without agency or resolve.
There are at least two other questions raised by the qissa, and presented very succinctly in the introduction by Farooqi. First is the concept of situational vs individual complexity of the characters. This alters the traditional sense in which characters are studied and will have implications for critical analysis, and flags the need for a poetics of the genre of qissa and dastan. Second, is the concept highlighted by Muhammad Salim-ur-Rahman about Chhabili being representative of the ephemeral, and Bichhittar of the enduring, the eternal. This thought has larger implications for thinking about indigenous literatures that take a Muslim belief system for granted and by virtue of that move between the ephemeral and the real. This has to form the basis of a future theory of these genres.
In the grander scheme of things, bringing this literature into modern consciousness is the first step towards a serious literary, theoretical, and critical engagement with the stories, the histories, and the cultures represented in them. This connection is the only way to sustain these literatures and their language. Losing them is losing a world of thought, emotion, and an entire tradition of storytelling. What is more, if we cannot ensure that we and our children engage with Urdu language and literature and value it, it won’t be long before we fail to find the right words to express our emotions. As it is, the anger and the frustration inherent in our youth today can be attributed to their state of languagelessness.
The Urdu version of this qissa has been published simultaneously as part of the Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics (urduclassics.com) by KITAB.
Chhabili the Innkeeper
Translator: Musharraf Ali Farooqi
(Private) Limited, 2021
Price: Rs 500
The reviewer is an assistant professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics. Her PhD thesis (Sussex 2017) is the first full-length study of the one-volume Dastan-i-Amir Hamza (2007) in the English language.