Irreverent Reveries

Iranians in Mughal Politics and Society, 1606-1658, by Dr Abolghasem Dadvar


This friend came all the way from New Delhi. I don’t normally review books on Goodreads but seeing that it had never been reviewed there before, I took it as my duty to write a few words about it, which I’m sharing here. Read the book, even if you don’t like my review.

 Iranians in Mughal Politics and Society, 1606-1658

“Migration from homeland to an alien country in anticipation of economic betterment and congenial socio-political environment has been practice of humans ever since the ancient times. Religious persecution has often compelled people to leave their motherland for better opportunities. In this sense, India has been heaven for the fortune seekers from the adjoining countries, especially Persia and Central Asia.”

This book by Dr Abolghasem Dadvar is a study on the migration of a large number (461) of Iranians to Mughal India during the first half of the seventeenth century. We are told that nearly 70% of the nobility in the court of Humayun (d. 1556) was composed of the Iranian element, which had accompanied him from his sojourn in Iran, and that Iranis and Turanis (Turkic) were the two main components of the Mughal nobility in the court of Akbar (d. 1605). Hence, by the accession of Jahangir on the Mughal throne (1605), Iranian nobility had already founded a social nucleus, which facilitated more Iranians to migrate to India. The book mainly covers these migrations in the reigns of Jahangir and Shahjahan (1605-1666).

Mostly relying on the contemporary sources, Dr Dadvar also analyses the reasons and contexts of these migrations. The main reasons of this movement were a) to avoid religious persecution from the Safavid rulers, b) to escape Uzbek and Ottoman attacks on Iran, or c) to gain opportunities in India. “It must be underlined that although the Mughal emperors were Sunnis, they welcomed Iranian Shia immigrants. The Mughal Empire was certainly much more liberal pragmatic than the Ottoman Empire and Uzbek regime as far as religion was concerned”. The book quotes Emperor Jahangir as noting that, “While Sunnis had no place in Iran and Shias in Turan [Turkic-speaking lands i.e. Central Asia], in India Shias and Sunnis prayed together in a single mosque just as Christians and Jews prayed together in one church”. In addition, the fact that Persian was the official language of Mughal India naturally attracted Iranian nobility to move there rather than to the Ottoman or Uzbek lands.

An overwhelming majority of these migrants (201) consisted of poets (including such famous poets as Orfi, Qodsi, Naziri, Saeb, Kalim Hamadani and Taleb Amoli, with the last two gaining the status of Poets Laureate in the Mughal court). “Persian poetry blossomed in India rather than in its birthplace in Iran and Central Asia” in the seventeenth century. In fact, the poetical style of this era has been named Sabk-e Hindi (Indian style), which is famous for its complexity and rich language. Dadvar analyses the reasons of this influx to be predominantly economic rather than solely religious (as posited by Edward G. Browne). “The facts of the matter seem to be that the India of Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan was richer than was Iran from Tahmasp to Abbas II, and that the Safavid resources of patronage of poets were inadequate compared to the resources of the Mughals”.

The one flaw of the book in my opinion is the amount of mistakes, which could have easily been rectified with the help of a good editorial team. I’d recommend this book to every student and scholar of Mughal and Safavid history.


Rex in Peace


The first time I visited Rex cinema was when I was fifteen, in the company or rather protection – I was the youngest in the group – of a few friends from Suffah College. It was a rather naughty treat for surviving a long droughty period of exams. The film was Mummy set in the pre-1952 revolution Egypt starring Rachel Weisz, whom I fell for instantly, and some other characters, whom I did not care for much. The fact that some of these other nondescripts spoke with an American accent was completely lost on me for the film had been dubbed in Hindi.

In those days (early noughties), Indian films were not allowed to be shown in Pakistani cinemas. However, this rule did not seem to be applied to the Hollywood films, which had been dubbed in India (or most likely cinema owners had managed to bribe the right people to obtain the permission – after all, Hindi being akin to Urdu attracted more customers). Hindi dubbing was not the only Bollywood contribution to Mummy. Four Hindi songs, absolutely unrelated to the film, selected specifically for their sensual setting and for some unknown reason known as ‘item songs’ in the Bollywood jargon, were played before the film started. My friend, V., took a Camel cigarette, which he called by its vernacular Lahnda name, Dachi, out of his pocket with a lofty gesture, insisting he only smoked in cinema. “Cinema has its own rules, you see,” he added. “Here you can stretch your legs, take your shoes and socks off, even put your feet at the back of the chair before you.” He offered me an instructional demonstration before sheepishly taking his feet down after being shouted at by the angry man in the front.

In short, Rex had all the elements of forbidden for me. Naturally, I became addicted and started visiting it frequently, although I never disclosed this to my parents. In fact, when my brother found out my secret one day, for which I had to blame my own big mouth, I invited him to the opening of the latest James Bond film, to make him a partner in crime.

Rex remained my favourite cinema since my first visit. It remained so despite the uncomfortable chairs with hard wood backs and torn plush seats, despite the snoring spectators who would buy a twenty-rupee ticket only to sleep in the airconditioned halls for a couple of hours and despite the low quality of the samosa chaat sold by child labourers during the interval. Every Friday I would bunk off from my tutorial class to attend the matinee, immaterial of the film, which ended just in time for the congregational Friday prayers. The cinema front displayed enormous posters showing latest releases whilst specific electricity poles throughout the city were adorned with the dwarfish varieties of the same films. The parts of a poster showing a woman’s thighs or navel were always smeared with black paint, more customarily in the case of films with softcore themes. Such films typically had two titles – an original and an Urdu title joined by an ‘urf‘ or aka, Shikma aka Two Lusty Monkeys being one of such titles that is still stuck in my memory.

Rex remained my most cherished cinema even after I moved to Lahore and started visiting local cinemas there. The ticket prices were six times higher in the great city, films were not dubbed in Hindi and there were no contraband item songs played before the show but the seats were more comfortable and popcorn was available in the cinema stalls along with ice-cream. Every time I visited Lahnda, I made it a point to make a customary pilgrimage to Rex and noticed that fewer and fewer people snored during the show and the quality of the samosa chaat had improved. Perhaps through these signs, I had a feeling that the ending was imminent. A few years ago, during a visit back to the East, I was told that Rex had been renovated and converted into a wedding hall. Sic transit gloria mundi!

Bridget Jones’s Infidelity


For many years now, we’ve had a Christmas tradition and that is to watch the film Bridget Jones’s Diary during the week before the Big Day (as it is known in old-fashioned Urdu, despite being a very short day in the most literal sense). I’m admitting this out loud as I’ve found out that some of you have similar addictions too (which you, like me, prefer to call traditions). Don’t worry, this is not a review of that film, adapted from a book by Helen Fielding of the same name, which in its turn is based on Pride and Prejudice.

The film stars Renée Zellweger in the title role, Colin Firth as Mr D’Arse-y and Salman Rushdie as someone seeming like the best guide to direct you to the closest lavatory. Also featuring Jeffrey Archer as a writer of books, which are “not bad”, B J’s Diary is full of evident and obscure literary references. One of these obscure references has been artfully hidden in the name of a Kurdish freedom-fighter, Kafir Aghani. Aghani, you see, means ‘songs’ in Arabic and Kitab al-Aghani or Book of Songs is a 10th century collection of Arabic songs and poems compiled by the historian Abu al-Faraj Isfahani for the caliph Harun al-Rashid (Aghani Aghani, it turns out, is also the name of a Lebanese music channel). Nonetheless, and despite this subtle cultural reference, I’ve always found the first half of Mr Aghani’s name strangely amusing. Kafir (not to be confused with kaffir, which is a type of lime) is an Arabic word commonly used for an ‘infidel’ or ‘unbeliever’ and, as a very strong term in Islamic societies, it would be a highly implausible choice for a real person’s name. Kafir Aghani’s name, therefore, curiously translates as ‘Infidel Songs’. I am sure that Ms Fielding chose the name being fully aware of the irony.

And while we’re at ironic names, if you allow me one more digression, let me finish this piece with a word on the ‘Begums’, the name of a Bangladeshi family in Zadie Smith’s brilliant White Teeth. Begum is the female equivalent of bey/beg (Mr, sir) in Turkic languages, and means lady. In cultures where the concept of a name shared by an entire family is not as common as in the west, it is not unusual for a woman to have a surname like ‘begum‘. Thus the Begum or the Lady family would be a very implausible name for an entire clan. But again, I’m sure, Ms Smith must have thought all this before she picked the name.

God’s Secret Name


There is a secret name for God, known as ‘Esm-e Azam‘. It holds miraculous properties, according to many adherents of Sufism, but is only known by an elite few. Attar of Nishapur, a great thirteenth-century Persian Sufi poet, narrates a fable on this secret name in Mosibat-nameh or The Book of Strife:

‘Someone asked a madman, “Do you know the most powerful name of God?”

“The most powerful divine name is bread,” he replied. “But you are not allowed to say that.”

“Shame on you, o fool! How can God be named bread!”

“I wandered around for forty days and nights during the drought in Nishabur,” he said. “I did not see a single mosque open in all that time. Nor did I hear the call to prayer. There were only shouts for bread. Thence I understood that the most powerful name of God is bread.’

Elsewhere Attar writes in The Conference of Birds:

‘Egypt was hit by a severe drought. People were dying of hunger. The few left with a little life had been forced to eat the dead. A madman, who witnessed all this, looked up at the sky and shouted, “O Lord of the world! Why did you create so many when you could not provide for them?”’

Clearly Attar is hinting that you need to embrace your mad side in order to be privy to the divine secrets (although let’s not overburden the NHS mental health services).

The Valley’s Vanishing Vultures


Like most people I have heard my share of conspiracy theories. Some of them try to explain the origin of our species or the flatness of our globe. Some others attempt to refute Armstrong’s big leap on the moon or claim that Israel is behind the propagation of pesky poisonous vaccines. Admittedly, not all of them emanate from unscientific or irrational mind but some are more outlandish than others. I found the one I am relating here particularly bizarre. Its inventor attempts to explain the extinction of vultures in the Indus valley.

But before that I’d like to recount my first close encounter with the formidable giant bird, in fact, with a full horde of them. I was about eight years of age. My brother and I were on our way back from the Quran school when we noticed the gigantic shadows above us. A neighbouring family had dumped a dead donkey in the desolate wasteland behind their house, which had attracted the army of vultures hovering above our heads. We ran home shouting war-cries we had learnt from Conan the Adventurer. A couple of hours later, when we ventured out again, our hearts pounding with excitement and fright, the gluttonous gypses had already turned the carcass into a skeleton.

Fast forward to twenty years later and you would be lucky to find a single vulture in the entire country. Some people say that it is due to the toxic weed-killers applied on large scale on crops, which affected the meat of the local fauna to such a degree that the entire species of vultures, those natural cleaners of environment, was gradually wiped out. I cannot remember whether it was a wedding ceremony or a funeral in my neighbourhood, but certainly an awkward social gathering, where K. Khan, who happened to be seated on my table, queried me suddenly whether I had noticed that all the vultures had vanished from the skies.

“You know why it is?” he enquired.

“I’m not too sure…Erm.”

“Well, it’s Israel, innit?”

“What? Israel?”

“Of course. They’ve sold all the vultures to Israel.”
“And what does Israel need them for?”

“To train them to crash into fighter planes, in case they have a war against Iran,” he explained patiently.

“Wow, that’s pretty whacky even by the standards of conspiracy theories,” I thought. It did not, however, surprise me how like many other anti-semitic conspiracy theories, I’d heard before, the road always led back to Israel.

Swear like a Poet

Diwan-e-Ghalib_Muraq-e-Chugtai,_1927Are you a great man or woman who likes to throw aphorisms and quotable quotes around? If so, do you ever get annoyed or upset or angry when someone attributes a saying to you that you didn’t utter yourself, especially when such a saying is banal or vulgar or perhaps just not in your style? Do you think Abraham Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi or Confucius would get irked if they were informed about the amount of atrocious banalities being attributed to them today on the democratic internet? It seems that Ghalib, one of the best Urdu poets, did when people (never as talented as he) wrote poems in his name and somehow smuggled them into his Divan (a book of poetic works). I have a letter by Ghalib open before me from March 1858, which offers an unusual glimpse into the poet’s life – it is Ghalib swearing. However, it is still Ghalib, the epitome of the Mughal refinement and culture, and thus even the profanities sound poetic. In Ghalib’s own words:

Kitne shirin hein tere lab ke raqib

Galian kha ke bemaza na hua

(How sweet are your lips that

My rival did not even taste bitterness in your obscenities)

Here I am transliterating and translating some interesting bits of this unusual letter:

Ye ash’ar jo tum ne bheje hein kis walad-uz-zina ne dakhil kar diye hein?…. Khulasa ye hei ke jis mufsid ke ye sh’er hein us ke baap aur dada aur pardada par la’nat aur vo haftad pusht tak walad-ul-haram. Is ke siva aur kya likhoon?

“Which child of extra-marital congress has added the verses [to my Divan] that you have sent me? … In short, curses on the father and the grandfather and the great-grandfather of whosoever the corrupted man was who fabricated these verses and he is a child of illicit relations for soixante-dix [Ghalib uses the Persian word here, which may aptly be translated in French] generations. What else can I write?”

On another instance, Ghalib seems to show a rare insight into the conventions of cursing. The story goes that Ghalib once received a letter by an opponent, which was full of swearwords. Instead of exploding in a rage, he told a student who was present there that the writer lacked the etiquette of swearing. “The owl [idiot] does not even know how to swear. One does not dishonour a 72-year-old man’s mother. If you want to upset a child, swear about his mother, if you want to vex a young man, swear about his wife and if you have to offend an old man, swear about his daughter.”

The Gate to Paradise

paradise-gate-640x480Pakpattan (Sacred River-Bank) is a city in Punjab, famous for the shrine of a 12th century Sufi, Baba Farid, more commonly known as Ganj-e Shakar (Treasure of Sugar). The legend goes that a merchant once passed through Baba’s city with a caravan of camels laden with sugar. When Baba asked the merchant what his camels were carrying, he mockingly replied, “salt,” and upon reaching his destination, discovered that the sugar on his camels had turned into salt. The merchant hurried back, the legend continues, to apologise to Baba, who magnanimously turned the salt back into sugar.

Baba’s shrine has two large gates, Nuri Darvaza or Gate of Light and Bihishti Darvaza or Paradise Gate. There is a common belief among the faithful that whoever passes through the latter will have their sins (however grave they may be) washed away, thus ensuring an entry to paradise. There is a caveat (like in most patriarchal cultures): no woman is allowed to pass through the gate, or even enter the shrine. The rule was changed, however, to allow the late prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in the shrine. As elsewhere, it is generally one rule for one and another for the rest.

The gate remains closed for most of the year and is only open during the death anniversary of the Saint. This narrow opening to the paradise attracts throngs of believers to the fabled threshold. In 2011, 27 men died and over a hundred were injured during a stampede at the door to paradise. At least they died with the consolation of a blissful afterlife.

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