ESSAY: THE AMAZING TALE OF NIZAMI BANSARI

Published September 5, 2021
Thronging with devotees, the saint’s dargah with its white, onion dome in Delhi
Thronging with devotees, the saint’s dargah with its white, onion dome in Delhi

Seldom has a book been owned — nay, authored — by three people so far removed from each other in time and space. Nizami Bansari fits the bill by virtue of the original two writer-protagonists being centuries apart, while the third — a man of our times — was drawn to the buried and forgotten text after an epiphany of sorts.

Neither has a book been buried and born so many times in its lifetime. Lost, found, given a new title, then lost and then found again, each rebirth has been a miracle testifying to its worthy content and the devotion of its three writers to the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia.

The Nizami Bansari that is being marketed today is this amazing text. Originally authored by Raj Kumar Hardev, it was set in the lifetime of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia (1238-1325) during the reign of Alauddin Tughlaq. Unearthed centuries later amidst dustcovers in a library in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, it was conserved as a copied document and then translated from the original Persian into the classic Urdu of the 1940s by Khawaja Hasan Nizami. Finally, it was abridged into readable, contemporary Urdu by Dr Mehmoodur Rehman. The one major change along this journey was the shift from the original Persian title, Chehel Roza [A Discourse of 40 Days], to Nizami Bansari, because the translation into Urdu also required an Urdu title.

A work of historical value as well as a composite of reading pleasure and spiritual enlightenment, the book adds up to an emblematic piece of art which reflects, and not merely records, the multi-ethnic, multicultural and religious largesse of Delhi’s patron saint, whose iconic transcendence has mesmerised hearts and souls across generations.

Unlike a lot of other books about the saint, Nizami Bansari has an almost musical tenor that softens spiritual discourse to the point of making it read like a romance, complete with a wide range of characters, conversations, lessons of life, court gossip, conspiracies and princely intrigues for power and pelf. Pitted against these is the power of the saint — curiosity about whose clout and influence across the Delhi divide upturned the young Hardev’s life and thinking.

Small, often single page chapters sum up other aspects of life in those tumultuous times, when palace politics needlessly spread their tentacles to the saint’s khanqaah [spiritual retreat], trying to draw him into partisan controversy. Hardev — who, in time, made it to the higher echelons of worldly authority in the Delhi of those days — was a keen observer of the very visible resentment and suspicion directed at Nizamuddin Aulia by the Delhi court.

Discarded, unearthed, mislaid… then retrieved again, a manuscript about Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia spans centuries and three authors

The saint’s total disregard for court misgivings and, thereafter, intrigue, against his teachings and person and his steadfastness in dispensing harmony and love to the ethnic mix of masses coming to his khanqaah was, and still remains, an enigma to many.

Hardev’s introduction into the saintly circle made him privy to the dignity, the decorum and even majesty with which the saint stayed clear of the larger polemic. It is the simplistic recording of the wisdom dispensed ever so subtly by the saint in his daily assemblies, of the purist khanqaah ideology and the activities and anecdotes shared by the other devotees, plus personal encounters and wondrous spiritual enlightenment, that make up the body of the book. The beauty of the text lies in mundane curiosity morphing into devout belief and love beyond reason.

Each of the three people who worked on the book during different time periods has a palpable presence in the pages, though each came to it for different reasons. The original author, Raj Kumar Hardev — who wrote in Persian as a linguistic necessity of the times and to reach a wider audience — started his career as the court historian in the Telangana court of the very farsighted Raja Ram Dev, right after Alauddin Khilji invaded his home state and carried away immense booty. The erudite raja of the vanquished state, foreseeing the turning of the tides, launched an aggressive programme for proficiency in the Persian language and arranged for special tutors for the court youngsters.

Author Hardev’s foray into the conquerors’ language, as one of the official trainees selected for initiation to the foreign linguistic culture, was furthered by his own intrinsic intelligence and instinctive curiosity. Both led him into the company of Khawaja Hasan Alaa Sinjari, the representative of the Delhi court who, at the time, was camped at Telangana in order to collect war booty.

Along with his military rank, Khawaja Sahib was also the officially designated khalifa, or spiritual torchbearer, of Sufi Nizamuddin, and he developed a soft corner for the young Hardev. In turn, Hardev was intrigued by the general’s unwavering allegiance to his spiritual mentor. Thereafter, Hardev set off on a journey of discovery which was one day to lead him into the fold of the saint’s devotees.

Hardev’s journey was long and exploratory, carrying him as the general’s pampered guest to the Delhi khanqaah of Nizamuddin Aulia, where the seed for this amazing book was sown. Hardev’s keen perception of the cutthroat mindset of Delhi’s political milieu, his avid observation of the spiritual traditions of a Sufi khanqaah and his recognition of the glaring abyss between worldly avarice and extrasensory satiation, became potent incentives for him to pen a marvelous narrative.

As was the norm in those tumultuous times, Hardev’s handwritten manuscript went into forced hibernation and landed in the state coffers of Bharatpur’s Maharaja Suraj Mal. It was dumped there as part of the war spoils when, during the ransacking of Mughal emperor Ahmed Shah Rangeela’s empire, Nizamuddin Aulia’s dargah [shrine] was also looted by marauders.

Centuries later, it was in a Bharatpur library that Khawaja Hasan Nizami ran into Chehel Roza. Hasan Nizami, realising the significance of the book’s textual knowledge, historical worth and transcendental merit, began translating it in the year 1941. He also changed Hardev’s given title to Nizami Bansari.

But the Nizami Bansari we see today is far from a work of literal translation. It is a rewriting, in the sense that generation-two author — Hasan Nizami — picked out the most relevant parts, especially those uncovering the saint’s life and teachings, and carefully edited out irrelevant political details. Hasan Nizami’s focus was the sections that highlighted the saint’s ideology, life and public dealings.

The translator become a second-generation author by conducting detailed, painstaking research into the available treatises on Nizamuddin Aulia’s life and teachings, Seeratul Aulia, Tareekh-i-Farishta and Tareekh-i-Ferozshahi being some of his reference points.

But once compiled and completed, Nizami Bansari did not see the light of day until 1945. This time round, the reason for its hibernation was geo-political: the paper shortages caused by the Second World War. And so, the book rested in archives until things settled down.

It would be many more decades later that, drawn by an epiphany, staunch Aulia devotee Dr Mehmoodur Rehman would find the time to dust his collection of books. The fruit of that spring clean would be the phenomenal rebirth of a piece of literature that, until then, had been lost to the contemporary world.

Dr Rehman was well aware of the dust-ridden, yellow-paged treasure in his possession. He is on record as having shared reservations that writing about spiritual personalities was in itself a grave undertaking when he started work on contemporising the text and language. It could well have been some sort of divine inspiration, aided by Dr Rehman’s devout attachment to the Delhi saint, that Nizami Bansari, nee Chehel Roza, was born anew.

The trajectory of the book, as it has been handled by three people in vastly different eras of time and space, has been long and arduous, and the last two writers must be applauded for having kept alive the original allure. Classic texts, like the classic topics they mirror, cannot be translated easily and cannot woo latter-day intellect by mere change of language and words.

What makes this particular book a must-read — not only for the transcendentalists, but also for students of cultural history — is the ease and sincerity of narrative that provides the reader a time travel experience.

The writer is a freelance journalist, translator and report writer with a special interest in stories of creative development. Currently she teaches Content Writing and Editing for Journalism at the Lums Lifetime Learning Programme. She tweets @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 5th, 2021

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