The Mughal Sultanate and the Bhishti: A parable of power, history and humanism by the legendary Kunwar Narain.
Hindi poet Kunwar Narain’s writing, even his prose, is like a living organism, each sentence, each turn of phrase offering new meaning, new perspective. The story, ‘The Mughal Sultanate and the Bhishti’, is one such example, a parable of power, history, and humanism — a discourse between individual and the state, and the truths history wouldn’t tell us.
Shifting from Humayun's sword, dagger, armour, and other paraphernalia, my gaze suddenly fell upon a man who'd been attentively looking at these objects for a long time. Something about his persona perhaps felt much more historic to me that all of the historical items in the museum. He certainly did not seem to belong to this time. To find out which age he belonged to, I abruptly posed to him a question as curved as Humayun's sword.
'I can hardly believe that this big and heavy sword belonged to the same man with such a small suit of armour. For a man with armour of that size, he shouldn't have been able to lift that sword, let alone wield it properly.'
In a heavy yet steady voice, he replied, 'It's obvious you know nothing of imperial swords. The badshahs always kept two separate kinds of swords with them: a small sword to fight, and a big sword to show. One swung from the emperor's waist, and the other from the waist of his horse. The one you've set your eyes on now was Badshah Salamat's sword for show. His fighting sword got lost somewhere...'
The ease with which he shared this information doubled my curiosity. I felt like I could gain from this man what I couldn't after wandering hundreds of years in all the museums of the world!
'Who are you?' I asked. 'Where do you come from?'
'I am a resident of Kabul. My name is Shamsuddin. My journeys brought me to this land... and I also came to this place.'
'How are you so knowledgeable about history?'
'I have some interest in the Mughals.'
He fell silent, so I provoked him onward, 'They say that in Humayun's time, a bhishti...'
'Yes, yes, it's true he became - a bhishti became - an emperor... This is what you wanted to ask, right?' As if composing himself to the extent he could, he continued, 'Who doesn't know that tale! Every little child first learns the story of the water carrier "Nizam Saqqa", and the story of Humayun only later... And perhaps hardly anyone at all would know that story of how...?' And suddenly, his voice completely paled.
Seeing my eager expression, he continued -
There is mention of that day, when Nizam Saqqa arrived in Agra in search of the throne. Whose head wouldn't spin at the thought of becoming badshah? Well, Saqqa was Saqqa. He had trouble even walking in a straight line. Putting a piece of leather, as a tip, in the hands of the man standing in front of a magisterial building, he said, 'Deliver the news inside that We have arrived...'
The hajib, like a true gatekeeper of the court, inspected the scrap of leather, flipping it over on both sides, and growled, 'Who the hell are you?'
'And what is this?'
'What do you mean?'
'Like a coin, it'll now have currency.'
The hajib gawked at him, taken aback. Then he snapped, 'Silence, you fool! Remember your status when you speak, otherwise I'll beat your skull in with my shoes! Then your jokes will vanish into thin air.'
'Jokes?' Saqqa said, lifting his head imperiously. 'We do not joke. Our job now is to rule...'
The hajib couldn't believe his ears. If this man wasn't completely mad, he was showing outrageous courage.
'Rule? Like hell! If you want your safety, scram from here; otherwise I'll bring all madness down on your head. Brainless son of an owl.'
'No. Say Badshah.'
The hajib advanced towards him, but the bhishti raised his hand with such regal flair for him to desist that the hajib's rage immediately dissipated into a fit of laughter.
The bhishti went on to say, 'If you know what's good for you, go in and tell the amir hajib that We wish to meet with him.'
The chaoosh, standing nearby and getting his fill of enjoyment from the spectacle, said to the hajib, ‘Forget it - he's drunk. Give him twenty lashings, and he'll forget all this ruling nonsense that's gone to his head.'
The hajib seemed to like this suggestion.
'You'll regret it,' the bhishti said, guessing the hajib's plan. Then, thrusting a coin of leather at the chaoosh, he said, 'Here, you too take one, and...'
But before he could finish his sentence, the chaoosh grabbed Saqqa's throat tightly and gave him an earful: 'You brat, come to your senses right now or I'll take off your head like a turban. Take this coin of yours and tie it like an amulet on your boy's arm... so that emperors don't give him the evil eye. Else, he'll be orphaned.'
The amir hajib went into a whirl. He alerted the durbash in the badshah's entourage. 'He sounds like a lunatic.' 'He's a pir,' said someone. 'He's a cook,' said another. 'He's an ass,' said a third. 'He's a bhishti...' the hajib confirmed.
'Name?' the amir hajib asked.
'You oaf, then go and fill water someplace!' A farrash couldn't resist. 'What are you doing here?'
'On the emperor!' Everyone's eyes turned to the naqib, who'd come out ahead as herald. The naqib said nothing, just grabbed the bhishti's beard. The chaoosh got the conversation started.
'You, bastard son of the emperor, watch your tongue. Otherwise, I'll rip it out, flay off your skin, and turn you from a water-carrying bhishti into a water-skin mashaq!'
But the amir hajib was thinking about something else. The matter wasn't so simple... otherwise, a bhishti wouldn't dare to show such gall! These were delicate times. Empires were wobbly. Every other day, badshahs, reduced to poverty, became bhishtis. One never knows: could some bhishti...? The amir hajib's head started to spin. Caution was needed. He needed to get to the heart of things.
He tossed the piece of leather into the air like a coin, and then asked Saqqa politely, 'What secret are you hiding? Tell me the truth,' and flung a gold dinar towards him.
'A dinar!’ Saqqa laughed. Placing it under the leather scrap and measuring it, he said, 'It all begins with that night, when Humayun ate defeat at the hands of Sher Khan, and fled in the direction of the Ganges River—but on finding the bridge broken, plunged into the river, still atop his horse, to wade across it like a swimming crocodile! But, by a stroke of bad luck, the current swept away his horse from under his haunches, and he was left bobbing up and down in deep water. Right at that instant, I, a Saqqa, emerged as the messiah in his path, and with the help of my mashaq, pulled him out of those hellish vortexes and delivered him to the heaven of the shore. Hazrat Jahanbani, amidst all this, asked me, "What is your name?" And when I said "Nizam," he said, "Nizam Auliya," and showing me great kindness, vowed, "when I regain my sultanate, I shall make you the badshah for half a day".'
Hearing this, everyone was stunned. None could believe their ears. The amir hajib, head bowed, stared down at his own shoes - all he could say was, 'Please... pardon...'
'Pardoned,' the bhishti said with ease and pride. ‘I'm not only a badshah, but a bhishti too. I know what leather is worth. To me, all leather is equal - whether the leather of my mashaq, or of a slave's shoe, or of a person's head. Discriminating between leather and leather is a sin against humanity! And this is what I intend to prove by becoming a badshah. Even a small, lowly scrap of leather can put your gold dinar to shame.' The bhishti's face had a rare glow.
'If you don't mind, may I offer you one suggestion?' petitioned the amir hajib, weighing his words with care. (He grew anxious that Badshah Salamat might actually sit this lout on the throne. It would be disastrous. The nobility would be the worst affected. To think, the Timurid throne of Hindustan on which great emperors like Babur had sat... occupied by a bhishti... Oh God! His mind raced: why don't I kill him right here? Then, thinking again: better to first get the opinions of Mirza Kamran and Mirza Askari. There was still some time before Hazrat Jahanbani arrived.)
'Sure,' the bhishti said without trouble.
'Mashallah, you should kiss His Majesty's feet for bestowing such a high honour on you, and respectfully inform him that just this intention of His is sufficient for you. Dreaming of the throne may prove dangerous...'
'For badshahs, maybe, but not for bhishtis,' the water carrier replied. 'The risk is for one who's a ruler by birth and is good for nothing except ruling. As for me, I'm a bhishti by birth...'
The amir hajib seethed inside. Such backtalk from a bhishti! But he somehow managed to bring himself under control, and again made one last-ditch effort to explain: 'And what good would half a day of ruling do for you, except to make you useless for any other work in the future? I acknowledge that you're intelligent; and even after a spell as badshah, you'd be able to contain yourself. But spare some thought for those thousands of lumpen, illiterate bhishtis who, after your reign, will forever start fancying themselves as the badshah's heirs and will be unnecessarily ruined for it. That's why on behalf of all the bhishtis of Hindustan, I again request you to shun this useless title, and not inappropriately meddle with the rightful status of the bhishtis.'
Having spoken thus, the amir hajib stood with his bowed head in front of Bhishti Nizamuddin (not Auliya).
'Don't worry about the bhishtis. Save your concerns for your badshah, and pray to your God that when a good and honest emperor like Hazrat Jahanbani is handed defeat by a dastardly villain like Sher Khan, and is sinking in a whirlpool, heaven will smile upon him and present him with a bhishti messiah like me!'
Enough, this was the limit; it was impossible for the amir hajib to hold himself back any longer. He screamed: 'Bastard son of a bhishti, you have the gall of talking this way to me! Your talk of the badshah comes after; first, a humble subject of His is going to teach you a lesson or two about ruling...!'
But before he could make a move, the bhishti rushed and fell down at the amir hajib's feet and said, 'Just like you, I am also a humble subject of the Sultanate. But today, I ask to be excused from my subjecthood; because today, to the misfortune of you all, I am the badshah! It would be in your best interests, and even the best interests of His Highness, to spare me your precious lessons and for some time, with a dispassionate mind, open your eyes to time's true lesson, which a bhishti can hand down to even emperors!'
The amir hajib carefully looked at the bhishti once, then turned his eyes up towards the sky, and silently taking off his turban, placed it at the bhishti's feet.
At the time when the amir hajib, still bare-headed, took Nizam Bhishti along and appeared before Mirza Askari, the badshah's half-brother was lost in the sweet intoxication of opium, savouring some beautiful courtesan. The amir hajib stated with utmost respect, 'Huzoor, this is that bhishti I spoke of, who saved Hazrat Jahanbani from drowning in the river after being defeated by Sher Khan...'
'Splendid! Send a camel laden with dry fruits to his home!' Speaking thusly, Mirza Askari again sunk into his pleasures.
The amir hajib had gone to say much more, but at seeing what Babur's dynasty had come to, what more could be said! It dawned on him that it was inevitable the bhishti would sit on the Mughal throne...
Kunwar Narain (1927-2017), an iconic figure in Indian literature, is regarded as one of the finest writers and thinkers of modern time. He read widely, across literature and disciplines, and blended an international sensibility with a grounding in Indian history and thought. He has written in diverse genres of poetry and prose, including three epics recognised as classics of Indian literature, poems across eight collections, translations of poets like Cavafy, Borges, Herbert and Rózewicz, two short story collections, criticism, essays, memoirs, and writings on world cinema, ideas and the arts. His oeuvre of seven decades, since his first book in 1956, has evolved continuously and embodies, above all, a unique interplay of the simple and the complex. After over five decades in Lucknow, where a major part of his writing was done, he moved to Delhi. Widely translated, his honours include the Sahitya Akademi Award; Kabir Samman; Warsaw University's honorary medal; Italy's Premio Feronia for distinguished world author; India's civilian honour Padma Bhushan; the Senior Fellowship of India's Academy of Letters; and the Jnanpith, India's highest literary award.
Apurva Narain is Kunwar Narain's son and translator into English. His first book of translations, No Other World, was published from India and the UK. A new volume of poetry translations is due this year. His work has appeared in several literary journals. Educated in India and at the University of Cambridge, he also consults in the international development area and has had interests in ecology, public health, and ethics. He writes in English.
John Vater holds an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. He lived in India while researching Hindi literature as a Fulbright-Nehru student scholar, and in 2018 was selected as an emerging translator from the US to attend the Banff International Literary Translation Centre residency in Canada. His translations have appeared in Ploughshares, the Asia Literary Review, Words without Borders and Exchanges. He currently works as a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.
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