The Ingenious Farkhanda and the Two Conditions, translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, is a story in five parts. Originally compiled in the early 19th century by Rai Beni Narayan as Qissa Chaar Gulshan [The Story of Four Gardens], it remained unpublished till 1967. The translator’s note suggests that the qissa was most likely authored by a woman.

The tale is one of a series brought out by the Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics and the Urdu version is titled Qissa Shahzadi Farkhanda Ka.

The story begins with a faqir selling three rather pedestrian philosophical insights to the king Kevan Shah, at the exorbitant price of 100,000 pieces of gold each. In the guise of offering profound wisdom, these are: wake up instead of continuing to sleep, rise instead of idling in bed and walk instead of sitting around.

Despite obvious dismay at his useless purchase, the king maintains composure, acts in accordance with the injunctions and is rewarded that same night with an excellent opportunity to catch his daughter in a secret garden, fornicating with an Abyssinian.

“After beheading them, the king prostrated himself before God to offer thanks, and proclaimed: ‘They reaped as they had sown!’”

The latest 19th century qissa translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a short, vaguely fun read, which will provoke much discussion and debate

Much the same happens to the royal vizier’s daughter in the second part. She too has an Abyssinian lover. Along with the princess’s lover, he too is laid to rest. Interestingly, while the men are buried, the bodies of the two now-beheaded women are stripped and set on display outside the palace with instructions to his scribes that any comments made by onlookers be noted and brought to the king.

The translator pre-emptively notes: “In the beginning the qissa may read like a violent, misogynistic narrative, where women’s bodies are an extension of men’s honour … But this view is called into question as soon as Princess Farkhanda enters the story.”

And thus far it really does appear as if the qissa has only managed to justify karo kari [so-called ‘honour killing’] with a bit of racism and sexual insecurity thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, to look beyond the superficial is often the point of fables and so, with the translator’s encouragement, we proceed.

The third part introduces Raja Baidar Bakht’s four daughters. Independent and headstrong, they shun traditional gender roles for a life of occasionally donning men’s clothing and going about hunting and so forth.

On one such outing, they come across the headless corpses displayed outside the palace. Their cryptic remarks upon observing the corpses are so insightful that the king, upon hearing of them, becomes fascinated. He decides he must have all four sisters as his wives.

One wonders if the king’s actions hereafter are a consequence of his shock and dismay over his only daughter’s behaviour, or if he really was just a hypocrite and a fool to begin with. The story that follows lends credence to the latter hypothesis. And it is beyond this point that the qissa quickly reaches its climax as the king has to deal with Farkhanda — the youngest and wisest of Bakht’s daughters and the only one clever enough to expose, as it were, that the emperor has no clothes.

Overall, the tale rests on the idea of fate, placing great value on those who face their destiny with equanimity and put their trust in God and in Divine justice. It also privileges intellect over power, but recognises that the former without the latter would be quite inconsequential.

Think of it as one of those charming fables in which a fox outwits a lion for the sake of dignity and self-preservation, recognising always that, in the jungle, if a lion chooses not to eat you, that is sufficient grounds for gratitude.

And though the qissa does well to take the mighty down a peg or two, it is ultimately a product of its time and cannot help but place justice (Divine or otherwise) several measures beneath what is due the king, considering his stature as a king: a rapist, a bully and a fool though he may be, Kevan Shah will not be punished for his iniquity in the same heavy-handed way that he was quick to dispense “justice” when the guilty (in his opinion) party was his daughter.

Instead, his lot will be to come to value Farkhanda’s wisdom. Rather than death, he will receive enlightenment. The status quo will thus be preserved: the king will continue as before, only now Farkhanda will not have to lose her head — a fate she never deserved in the first place.

The reader may feel a sense of elation at how things turn out at the end for Farkhanda’s sake. And then there’s also the pleasure and excitement in following her character as her schemes unfold. But really, the fact that the best she can hope to achieve in life is to be stuck forever with a nitwit despot is hardly cause for celebration, though that is how the story ends.

One wonders if there’s a moral lesson here and if it is to be excavated from the fact that, of the four intelligent young women bound to the king in holy matrimony, only the one who challenges him and manages — at great personal risk — to expose his buffoonery, receives the high honour of being impregnated by his royal highness in an act that can only be described as rape.

Farkhanda then proceeds to give birth alone in a prison to the future king, before being patted on the back by the current king — her husband — for a job well done, thus being rescued from a situation she could have chosen to escape from at any point.

We may as well pin our hopes on Farkhanda biding her time till Kevan Shah inevitably dies — probably as a direct result of his natural idiocy — and she gets to rule the kingdom in peace, either directly or by proxy, in the event that her son ascends to the throne and displays better sense than his father.

Perhaps the story is representative of a time when the Divine right of kings, or the conventions of a society, could not really be questioned, even in fiction. Think of it as one of those charming fables in which a fox outwits a lion for the sake of dignity and self-preservation, recognising always that, in the jungle, if a lion chooses not to eat you, that is sufficient grounds for gratitude.

The Ingenious Farkhanda and the Two Conditions is a short, vaguely fun read, yet the general reader and the serious student of literature alike will find much to discuss and debate in it. And, as such, there is great value in it beyond the fact that it is a work of art that preserves within it a particular stage of our literary tradition.

The reviewer is a bibliophile

Qissa Shahzadi Farkhanda Ka (Urdu)
By Rai Beni Narayan
Kitab, Karachi, in association with Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
ISBN: 978-9696160762
118pp.

The Ingenious Farkhanda and the Two Conditions (English)
Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Kitab, Karachi, in association with Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
ISBN: 978-9696160656
116pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 27th, 2022

Opinion

Editorial

IMF’s firm stance
Updated 05 Feb, 2023

IMF’s firm stance

Pakistan needs to complete the review to stave off a default as well as to unlock inflows from other multilateral and bilateral lenders.
Grotesque bigotry
05 Feb, 2023

Grotesque bigotry

FREEDOM to profess one’s faith is guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan. However, for the country’s Ahmadi...
Kashmir reflections
05 Feb, 2023

Kashmir reflections

ASIDE from Kashmir Day, which the nation is observing today as an official holiday, there are a number of other days...
Crisis conference
Updated 04 Feb, 2023

Crisis conference

PTI's refusal to engage with the govt in such testing times will only be seen as sign of ideological bankruptcy.
Revenge politics
04 Feb, 2023

Revenge politics

A SENSE of déjà-vu prevails as cases pile up against PTI politicians, many of whom, along with their allies and...
Inappropriate remarks
04 Feb, 2023

Inappropriate remarks

OFFICIALS of the state, especially when representing the country at international forums, need to choose their words...