Bazm-i Aakhir, translated as The Last Gathering, with an added subtitle, A Vivid Portrait of Life in the Red Fort, is a short but useful book written by Munshi Faizuddin who lived in Delhi’s Red Fort and was able to observe the court of Akbar Shah II and Bahadur Shah Zafar from close quarters. Originally written in Urdu, this book has gone through multiple editions.

The difficult, somewhat awkward, Urdu prose has been ably and faithfully translated by well-known translator Ather Farouqui, who also provides an interesting editing history of the book. First published in 1885, though written earlier, it has also been subsequently published in 1920, 1945 and 1986. Farouqui has used the 1885 and 1920 editions of the book in his translation.

He praises the efforts of Syed Yusuf Bukhari in his 1945 edition for preparing a comprehensive glossary, and of Ashraf Subuhi for writing a foreword, though he is not sure which edition was consulted by Subuhi. He is critical of Kamil Quraishi’s version of 1986, which he says has hardly been edited, and of what he calls a “vague and very ordinary” 31-page Preface.

The Last Gathering also includes Farouqui’s translation of a Preface to this text written by Munshi Agha Mirza, who, Farouqui guesses, was the manager of the Armughan-i Delhi Press that first published the book in 1885.

Beginning with a poetic tribute to the king and his times, the book describes the everyday routine of the last two Mughal emperors, Akbar Shah II (1760-1837) and Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775-1862). It is not a book about the declining power of the later Mughal emperors, or their politics vis-a-vis the British and other Indian rulers. Rather, it is a record of various protocols followed in the Red Fort, the style of living of the last two emperors, the variety of dishes cooked in the royal kitchen, the clothes worn by the princes and princesses, the jewellery preferred in the royal household and sundry other everyday matters. It is the kind of book which can provide useful inputs to a filmmaker to produce a period film on the last Mughal emperors, or to playwrights and novelists devoted to verisimilitude in their works.

The book presents a world where a storyteller is busy telling stories, a physician is in attendance at the court, female soldiers of different racial groups keep guard inside the palace, the royal cannon announces the dawn of the day, and the royal carriage, an open-top palanquin used by the king, has a retinue of male and female soldiers, eunuchs, and female ushers.

Foods, fabric and jewellery

Cooking, serving and partaking of food was a very elaborate affair in the Red Fort. Various kinds of breads, rice dishes, snacks, pickles and desserts were served with elegance. Maids used to spread a large piece of leather covered by a white cloth for serving food. A wooden table was then placed on it, also again covered with a white cloth, for only the king to eat. The seating arrangement at the dinner cloth also followed a protocol, with only the king being served at the table.

An interesting aspect mentioned by Faizuddin is the use of a flynet to keep the flies away at the time of eating. Special cool water from the river Ganges was served by the water superintendent.

Delhi is famous for its Mughal cuisine, which has imparted a richness to India’s food traditions. A list of foods prepared in the royal kitchen can be used, and has often been used, to prepare cookbooks. Sample the different varieties of pulao mentioned by Faizuddin: yakhni pulao, moti pulao, Noor-mehli pulao, nukti pulao, kishmishi pulao, nargisi pulao, zumurrudi pulao, laal pulao, muzafar pulao, faalsai pulao, aabi pulao, murgh pulao, baize pulao, annannas pulao, kofta pulao, biryani pulao, chulaao, saare bakre ka pulao, bont pulao, shoal pulao. A similar variety is showcased when it comes to breads, snacks, and sweetmeats.

The anniversary of the king’s coronation was a very important occasion, celebrated for forty days. Preparations included distribution of food, special dresses made with various fabrics, ornate embroidery on garments, the selection of jewellery and footwear, and the entertaining of guests. The types of fabric included “kareeb (a shiny silk fabric), gulshan (a net-like fabric which does not have flowers), babarlet (a net-like cloth), aab-i-ravan (a thin muslin cloth), zarbaft and kamkhwab (kinds of brocade), gulbadon (a striped or flowery silk fabric), mashrou, goornat (a silk and cotton mixed fabric), chevli (a thick, shiny silk fabric), and atlas (a shiny silk and cotton fabric)”.

Some of the popular items of jewellery included jhoomar, nath, baalian, bale and hale (small earrings), kiran (gold or silver tassels), phool, jhumke, chaand (a crescent-shaped ornament for the neck), guluband (choker), jugni, kanthi, teep, dulhugadhugi (ornaments for neck), and paazeb.

Muslim and Hindu festivals

Faizuddin also provides details of the observance of various rituals in the Red Fort on the occasion of important Muslim and Hindu festivals. On Persian New Year (Nau Roz) clothes of specific colours prescribed by pundits and astrologers were stitched for the king, queen, princes and princesses. There was always something or the other going on during all the 12 months of the Islamic calendar.

During Muharram, the month of mourning, the king paid his respects to the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandsons Hasan and Husain in different ways by becoming their beggar, and the water carrier of Abbas, who is revered for his devotion to Husain. On Ashura, the tenth day of mourning, he offered namaz in Moti Masjid and then distributed food to others.

The other months of the calendar were also celebrated with all their elaborate rituals. During Ramzan the sound of cannon fire announced the time to break fast. While Islam does not give any special privilege to kings and nobles at the place of worship, the display of power and privilege is described by Faizuddin in a matter of fact manner in his description of the prayers on Alvida, the last Friday of Ramzan: “ Look, the emperor has at last taken his place just behind the Imam! To his left, on the prayer mat, is the crown prince, while to the right sit the other princes. Imam sahib gets the imperial nod to begin reading his sermons.”

One special occasion was the festival of Saloni, which commemorated the love and loyalty of a Hindu woman to a Mughal emperor who had been killed because of the conspiracy of his vazir. Emperor Shah Alam adopted her as his sister and she used to fix a rakhi to his wrist. Later Mughal emperors Akbar Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar also followed the tradition with the woman’s progeny. Dussehra, Diwali and Holi were celebrated with a lot of fanfare, with the king holding a durbar on Dussehra.

Ladies’ quarters and royal funerals

The ladies’ quarter was a place not only for the display of clothes and jewellery, but also for fun and banter. “Cuss words are common in this no-holds-barred melee, but anybody daring to cross the line will earn the wrath of the elderly.” Older women were often the target of jokes for their heavy make-up.

Faizuddin mentions some of the expressions of ridicule, like “taat ki angiya munjh ka bakhiiya” (a brassiere of sack cloth stitched with grass), or “sar gala moonh baala” (talking like a child in old age), directed at them. In the same way there was a class angle to this banter. “Bondwomen bearing exotic names such as Gulbahaar, Champa, Chameli, Gulchaman and Nargis are soft targets for invectives and abuse.”

The announcement of the death of the ruler was always a very delicate affair. All rituals relating to the death of the king were a secret and quiet affair. The death followed a flower ceremony on the second or the third day, prayers on the 9th and the 19th day, and a major ceremony on the 40th day. Faizuddin mentions a strange custom which is not followed in India now and would have been rare even then:

“There is also the tradition of getting together the utensils and other belongings of the departed soul at the place of death. The articles of daily use are put by the side of the grave. These include a tray of eatables, clothes, a pashmina shawl, a prayer carpet, miswaak, shoes, slippers, copper utensils, saucers, drinking glass, boiler, sieve, spoons and ladle. Apart from this, two red and green lamps with one and a quarter muns of fat are lit.”

A translator’s book

Faizuddin, not an accomplished writer, writes in the simple present or progressive tense which, when rendered by Farouqui in English, gives a feel of a running commentary by a participant. Readers are usually accustomed to reading discursive and narrative prose, not an entire book in the form of a running commentary on protocols and processes.

Descriptions of objects and things, if sustained over a whole book, a common enough style of writing in novels, require a pictorial imagination to conjure up and convey the physicality of food, fabrics and other things. Descriptions of the emperor’s wearing certain clothes, tasting the dishes and riding his elephant brings a sense of immediacy and rhythm to the prose used Faizuddin, who otherwise lacks the skills of a novelist. It is at these moments when Farouqi’s instinct for the text and his command of both Urdu and English makes this work unmistakably a translator’s book.

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is Professor in the Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University.

The Last Gathering, Munshi Faizuddin, translated from the Urdu by Ather Farouqui, Roli Books.