Qissa Maqtool-i-Jafa (Urdu)
By Hafiz Muhammad Ameeruddin Maani
Kitab, Karachi, in association with
Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
ISBN: 978-9696160748
96pp.

The Victim of Malice (English)
Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Kitab, Karachi, in association with
Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
ISBN: 978-9696160601
112pp.

Qissa Maqtool-i-Jafa — translated into English by Musharraf Ali Farooqi as The Victim of Malice — was penned by Hafiz Muhammad Ameeruddin Maani in the late 19th century, based on the oral narrative of his father, Hafiz Ghulam Nizamuddin. The translator’s introduction states that the qissa may have even older roots and that its central plot can be traced back to a second century story, The Legend of Raja Rasalu.

The qissa is one of many tales presented by the Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics, with the aim of introducing these literary gems to the readers of today and tomorrow. These engaging tales — originating in the Subcontinent and passed on from generation to generation — entail riveting plotlines, ingeniously crafted characters and vivid, magical settings.

The Victim of Malice is divided into 11 chapters, each bringing about a significant development in the plot.

It opens with the king of a prosperous city asking his four viziers if they’ve come across a woman who is strikingly beautiful, possesses a talent in music unmatched by anybody else, is a highly knowledgeable religious scholar, yet is so modest that no one has ever seen or heard her.

Combining an intriguing plot with fascinating characters and a tragic conclusion, a 19th century qissa is an excellent read that manages to convey plenty of profound wisdom

Three viziers admit they don’t know of such a woman; the fourth surprises everybody by claiming his wife possesses all four qualities.

Overcome with anger and jealousy, the first vizier hatches a plan to visit the fourth vizier’s wife and spend time with her, with the ultimate aim of damaging her reputation. He signs a pledge before the king which states that, if he succeeds in proving that the fourth vizier is lying, the latter will be punished. If, however, the first vizier fails, he will be instantly beheaded.

Vizier One reaches Vizier Four’s hometown and recruits a kutni — a guileful and conniving woman — to help in his quest. Being exceptionally skilled in the art of disguise and impersonation, the kutni gains access to Vizier Four’s wife by posing as her mother.

Having artfully manipulated her, the kutni manages to draw two portraits of the wife and coerces her into handing over four of her most prized possessions. These items are passed along to the jubilant Vizier One, who gloatingly presents them to the king. The king views the articles as apparent proof of the wife’s impious character. Finding this to be in stark contrast to Vizier Four’s claims about her righteous qualities, the king has him promptly arrested. The humiliated vizier then visits his home as a prisoner and divorces his innocent wife.

The wronged wife sets out to prove her innocence by advertising herself as a talented singer. She accepts an invitation to the king’s court and delivers a magical performance, leaving the audience spellbound. Awestruck by her enchanting beauty and heavenly voice, the king offers to give her anything she could possibly want in return.

To the astonishment of the whole court, the woman points to Vizier One and explains that he spent time with her and owes her money. When the man denies the allegation, the woman reveals that she is the wife of the disgraced Vizier Four and the very woman in the portraits in the king’s possession.

The truth is now revealed. The whole court discovers that the wife is indeed as pious and accomplished as Vizier Four had claimed. Vizier One is then speedily executed and the imprisoned Vizier Four released and reinstated to his former title. But a sudden, tragic twist takes place, involving some principal characters, a dagger and plenty of remorse.

The overarching message the qissa delivers is that harbouring jealousy and hatred never does any good. It was malice in his heart that motivated Vizier One to set out and prove Vizier Four wrong and failure to accomplish his ignoble objectives resulted in karmic justice.

The tale also sheds light on the importance of being humble, of being submissive before God and banishing pride and arrogance from the heart as they eventually bring about humiliation. Representing this is Vizier Four; he boasted of his wife’s qualities, but was imprisoned when the evidence presented by Vizier One seemingly contradicted the former’s claims about his wife’s piety.

Yet another lesson to be drawn is to not make important decisions hastily, without first acquiring all details pertaining to the matter. Vizier Four, overcome with despair and abject humiliation, decides to divorce his wife without demanding an explanation or hearing her side of the story. When it is revealed that his wife is innocent, he cannot take back what he did.

One question left unanswered, however, is why a key character would be compelled to take their own life after all was said and done.

A possible argument could be that this character had fallen in their own eyes. Note that the wife had played no part in the initial debate. She had been at home, doing her own thing while the men bickered at court. Even though she had successfully proved her innocence and dispelled the scandalous allegations against her, the public had now seen and heard her, so she no longer considered herself to be the modest, chaste woman she’d been before.

An innocent soul had been victimised for the transgressions of others. Perhaps this was too much for the self-stabbing character to bear.

Or perhaps this character was heartbroken at witnessing mistrust between a husband and wife, that Vizier Four would not listen to his spouse’s version of events before divorcing her.

Undoubtedly, the tale is a tragic one. One can anticipate that the ending will be dramatic and that is indeed the case, as the story culminates in a scene that is bound to move any reader.

It is also deeply engaging, with life lessons that — despite the qissa’s 19th century origins — remain relevant to this day and age. Combining an intriguing plot with fascinating characters and a tragic conclusion, The Victim of Malice is an excellent read that manages to convey plenty of profound wisdom.

The reviewer studies at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 1st, 2022

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