Friday, January 10, 2014

Literary Gardens - Part 2: Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa (1899)

Between the freezing cold outside and the kitchen remodel and various minor home improvement projects inside the apartment, there has not been much gardening-related activity here in the last three weeks. I ordered some more seeds which I might post about when they arrive. That being said, the days are getting longer again, an infestation of spider mites that plagued some of my plants over the last two months seems to finally be under control - knock on wood! - and soon it will be time to begin sowing seeds in earnest. In the meantime, here is an intriguing little passage from the Urdu novel Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa that I came across while studying for my general exams. Published in 1899, Umrao Jan Ada is by many considered to be the first real novel in Urdu. It chronicles the life of a tawā'if or courtesan who is also an accomplished poet in the northern Indian city of Lucknow over the course of the 19th century. You can think of it as a sort of early Indian Memoirs of a Geisha, and like that much later American work it has spawned sumptuous cinematic adaptations. Perhaps the most famous is 1981's Umrao Jaan starring Rekha, the most recent a 2006 version with Aishwarya Rai in the title role. The textual passage in question comes from a scene detailing a traditional poetic gathering or mushā'irah early on in the novel, the translation is my own:

اتنے میں ایک آدمی آیا اوراس نے ایک پرچہ  منشی احمد حسین کو دیا۔
منشی:(رقعہ پڑھ کے) لیجئے۔ مرزا صاحب تشریف نہیں لائیں گے۔ غزل تازہ بھیج دی ہے۔
میں نے آدمی سے پوچھا: کیا کر رہے ہیں؟
آدمی: (مسکرا کے) جی حضور سکندر باغ سے سر شام بہت سے انگریزی درختوں کے ناندے لے کے آئے ہیں۔ ان کو گول حوض کے کنارے پتھروں پر سجا رہے ہیں۔ مالی پانی دیتا جاتا ہے۔
رسوا: جی ہاں! انہیں اپنے اعمال سے فرصت کہاں جو مشاعرے میں آئیں۔

In the meantime a man came and gave a slip of paper to Munshi Ahmad Hussain. 
Munshi: (Reading the note) Take this. Mirza Sahib will not be able to grace us with his presence. He has sent a fresh ghazal*.
I asked the man: What is he doing?
The man: (Smiling) Sir, his highness came from Sikandar Bagh** towards evening bringing lots of pots of English trees. He is arranging them on the stones at the edge of the round pool. The gardener goes around watering. 
Ruswa: Yes! Where would he find free time from his activities to attend a mushā'irah. 
(Ruswa 14)

* A ghazal is a form of love lyric with a strict rhyme scheme and other elaborate conventions. It is one of the predominant poetic forms in Persian and Persian-influenced languages like Urdu.
** Sikandar Bagh or "Alexander Garden" is a former royal garden in Lucknow. It now serves as a park and botanical garden.

What would "English trees" have been in Lucknow in the 1890s, well into colonial rule? Clearly Mirza Sahib is rather excited about his acquisition, and as inconsequential as the vignette might be for the plot of the novel, it is an endearing invocation of the excitement of the passionate gardening aficionado.

Rusvā, Mirzā Muḥammad Hādī. Umrāʼo Jān Adā. Naʾī Dihlī : Maktabah Jāmiʻah, 1971.

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