Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari (Urdu)
By Unknown, Edited by Abdur Rasheed
Kitab, Karachi, in association with Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
ISBN: 978-9696760731
51pp.

Chhabili the Innkeeper (English)
Translator: Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Kitab, Karachi, in association with Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
ISBN: 978-9696160663
56pp.

When I was eight years old, my mother took me to a shoe shop on Tariq Road in Karachi where, upon buying a pair of beautiful red pumps with golden bows, the bearded shopkeeper slipped in a small book with my purchase.

I read it on the bumpy car ride on the way home: my first qissa was a tall tale with dramatic sketches about a dev [ogre] and a shahzadi [princess] and a brave raja who tried to save his love, but failed repeatedly. Eventually, the princess got tired of waiting and rescued the raja instead and they reigned happily ever after.

Receiving Chhabili the Innkeeper, a qissa translated into English by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, was a treat and reading it took me back to the red shoes and a tiny slice of childhood magic. There is no substitute for the gift of an interesting story well told. It is a heady combination.

But first, what is a qissa? A conversation with Farooqi helped in understanding this particular narrative genre in greater detail; in essence, though, it is not so much a form as it is a vehicle for telling stories.

A new series of old Urdu ‘qissas’, along with their English translations, is being published in Pakistan. The first revolves around two scheming women vying for the attentions of a lustful, but gullible prince

According to the ‘Translator’s Introduction’ at the beginning of the book, the “first known printing of Qissa Chhabili Bhattiyari is from 1864 … in 1869, a versified version was compiled.” It was also published as a form of musical theatre to be performed by travelling troupes.

Not that this qissa is for children. On the contrary, it is about Prince Zaman, who, despite being learned in all the branches of knowledge, keeps falling, literally and metaphorically, for all the beautiful women — and men dressed as women — who cross his path. While the story revolves around our prince, his lusty tendencies and easily given affections make him more a pawn in the hands of other people. He is not particularly impressive, but he is the sole heir to the throne and, therefore, everyone’s problem.

The real conflict takes place between the two women who capture his interest. When he sees her drawing water from a well, Chhabili the innkeeper arrests his fancy and becomes his lover. When the court nobles discover that the prince is spending his days and his money in the arms of a lowly innkeeper, they decide that he should be married off.

The likenesses of many suitable girls are drawn and presented before him. To emphasise the ‘worthiness’ of these girls, it is pertinent to mention the sneaky way in which these portraits are drawn: a tray of water is placed by the wall outside the girl’s house. The girl is taken to the roof on some pretext by a “kutni” — defined in the ‘Endnotes’ as a “devious woman who performs the office of messenger between lovers and also carries out deceitful acts on payment” — appointed by the vizier. The girl on the rooftop is reflected in the water below and a painter thus paints her picture.

The picture of a landowner’s daughter, Bichhittar Kunwari, captures the prince’s interest and he is married off to her. Chhabili, unwilling to lose influence over her powerful lover, devises a plan to prevent Prince Zaman from seeing his new young wife’s beauty.

Ever obedient and gullible, Prince Zaman follows her advice and it is up to Bichhittar to disguise herself — first as a curd-seller and then as a nobleman — to win over her husband. It’s not an instant fix since, after her first attempt, “the ignorant idiot still has not understood a thing.” But she perseveres, and when she finally gets the prince to look at her and know her as his wife, Bichhittar’s power is affirmed and Chhabili’s life is imperilled.

This qissa is about the interplay of caste and the ideation of women as either saints or whores. Chhabili is beautiful and crafty and unafraid to have fun or sex, but she is a lowly innkeeper and we are not told what happened to her own husband — her mother-in-law, meanwhile, is very encouraging of her relationship with the prince. Bichhittar Kunwari is the daughter of a landowner. In a cautionary tale, order must be restored and the higher caste woman — more beautiful and patient — must prevail while her lustful, opportunistic and more interesting counterpart must lose everything.

Farooqi notes in the introduction that there is “a tradition of cautionary literature in both Urdu and Persian literature to instruct men about the deceitfulness of women.” He also references daastaan scholar Muhammad Salimur Rahman, who suggests that the qissa is an allegory: “Chhabili represents the ephemeral world, which indulges our senses and puts blinders on our eyes so that we remain blind to reality. Bichhittar represents the truth, or the reality whose sight fulfils us and allows us to turn away our gaze from the false world.”

If this story were televised, the United Kingdom’s Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, would play Chhabili, while Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton would be Bichhittar Kunwari. I say this in jest, but I also note with interest how the same attitudes against ‘upstarts’ and ‘unworthy women’ raised to their station by hapless and generally uninteresting princes still persist in modern times, as evidenced by the representation of the two women in British media this past year.

To me, Chhabili is the more vital and interesting of the two women. While I sympathised less with Bichhittar Kunwari, I did appreciate how her disguises and her clues allowed her freedom to exercise her brain and her wit, which would have been stultified within the four walls of her home, waiting for a suitor to claim her.

Both women are extremely power hungry in their own way, and equally malicious and vindictive. The punishment of Chhabili far outweighs her crime, but it is meted out to her upon the insistence of Bichhittar Kunwari. The ending, therefore, appears highly ironic: we are told that the prince goes on to rule the land with justice, even though his treatment of his former lover is anything but just.

Such is the subversive power of the qissa — it says one thing, but shows something entirely different. It is up to the readers and listeners to make of it what they will.

The reviewer is the author of How it Happened and A Firefly in the Dark.

She tweets @shazaffatima

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 2nd, 2022

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